Re-Writing History in Belarus
The official interpretation of history in Belarus has experienced a dramatic evolution since the USSR's collapse. At the first stage a Belarusian nationalist-oriented approach dominated in historiography. After Lukashenka came to power in 1994, a reversal to a Soviet driven narrative took place, which, however, included a number of additional elements.
On the one hand, Lukashenka’s narrative reconciled the national version of history in the pre-Soviet period. They both agree that Belarusian statehood has a long tradition of independent existence and holds value for all Belarusians. On the other hand, many aspects of the Soviet period remain a taboo or cannot be criticised. The period of independence (since early 1990s) remains the most ideologically charged and distorted, as it involves the rule of Lukashenka himself.
The Rise of National Narrative
After the collapse of the USSR and before Lukashenka’s first term in power, a nationally-oriented elite offered an interpretation of the past that was typical for transitional countries of that period. This version of history showed Soviet period as mostly negative, highlighting the horrors of Stalin’s terror, the destruction of national identity of Belarusians and life as experienced in a totalitarian society.
Instead, a new version of Belarusian history started not from the Soviet era, as Muscovite historians often like to portray, but rather from the Middle Ages. The forefathers of the new Belarus sought origins of national statehood in the period of Polack Princedom and later the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as the peak of sovereign development for the Belarusian nation.
World War II, which became the core element of the present official ideology, received its proper name and replaced the Sovietized name of the “Great Patriotic War”. Former Soviet heroes of the war often became simply victims of occupations by the communists and fascists.
Also, the new narrative presented a rather anti-Russian picture of history. It glorified battles against Russia throughout history and condemned periods of Russian occupation during the eras rule by the Russian Empire or Soviet.
Back to the USSR
As with any political authority, Lukashenka's regime tries to use history to legitimise and support his policies as well as to form a particular world view amongst the citizenry. As a result, present day historical education has become overly ideological and lacks a balanced view of Belarus' past.
But unlike the Soviet version of the Belarusian history, which involved class struggle and Russia-centrism in every period of Belarusian history, Lukashenka’s narrative does not care much for the class-based approach nor discussion of early relations with Moscow.
Belarusian Identity - The Impact Of Lukashenka's Rule Lukashenka’s narrative managed to reconcile the nationalist version of history of the pre-Soviet period with its own modern conception of Belarusian history. Read more
On the contrary, official ideologists accept the importance of early feudal princedoms like Polack and Turaŭ, and later the Great Duchy of Lithuania, in the genesis of Belarusian statehood. They speak, although very carefully, about numerous wars with Moscow and uprisings by Belarusians against the Russian Empire.
But the picture changes completely after we come to the collapse of the Russian Empire, and the socialist revolution which was followed by the creation of the Soviet Union. Authorities recognise the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic as the first real Belarusian state and the whole existence within USSR remains sort of sacred, and its criticism of it is taboo.
Take for instance a history textbook for schools that was published in 2006. The book covers the period from 1945-2005, the postwar period for the USSR and independent Belarus. One will not find a word about the Stalinist terror after World War II nor the anti-Soviet activities that took place within the country. Instead, it describes how the Belarusian people heroically overcame hardships during the post-war period and helped the leadership to implement industrialisation. The authors do not criticise the Soviet political regime.
Likewise, when it comes to Perestroika, schoolchildren will not find any information on the Belarusian Popular Front or other anti-soviet national associations that emerged during the period of liberalisation in the 1980s. All this despite the fact that they played a key role in gaining Belarusian independence. Likewise, the book does not mention the Kurapaty burial grounds, discovered by Zianon Paźniak, the place where thousands of Belarusians were executed during Stalin's terror. But the most distorted period in the current textbooks remains the period when Lukashenka has ruled Belarus.
The Era of Lukashenka
The story of independence in the textbook starts like this: “To overcome the crisis caused by the USSR's collapse, Belarus needed a strong authority and the political will of the leadership. The establishment of the post of president in 1994 started a new stage in the development of our country”.
So, the idea of the exclusive role of Aliaksandr Lukashenka serves has been planted as the main element of the official narrative. It portrays his every major political step as something extremely important and desired by the common people. Meanwhile, the book remains silent on the very active period of party politics in the first half of 1990s or methods of consolidation of power which Lukashenka exercised and which involved violence and even the physical elimination of opponents.
Schoolchildren can hardly find the names of the some prominent figures that contributed greatly to attaining independence, like the Belarusian Popular Front leader Zianon Paźniak or Stanislaŭ Šuškievič, the official Head of State of Belarus in 1991-1994. Reading the book ones get the impression that the opposition never existed, neither does Belarusian civil society. There are just two main actors: the president and the Belarusian people, who totally support him.
State Identity instead of National Identity
Although the ideology of the regime reconciled more or less with the national narrative on pre-soviet Belarusian past, it does not actively use it for strengthening national unity and identity. Hence, a new generation of people, unlike their elder colleagues from 1990s, have no interest in national history whatsoever.
If asked, young people can hardly produce any coherent knowledge about the past of their country, apart from a few ideological clichés. Rather than accepting their national identity and speaking about historical and cultural heritage, most Belarusians identify themselves with the state.
Lukashenka likes to repeat that he cannot stand any cult of personality, yet the official ideology and historical education is building just that. The influence of ideology on youth is pretty obvious, especially in small towns and villages, but the picture remains inherently unstable.
The new generation of Belarusians do not exist in informational isolation and hardly believes everything that the state tries to preach. Internet has spread massively during recent years and alternative versions of history are available to all interested. After all, there is no need to worry about Belarusians: they are accustomed to the constant changing of rulers and ideas, and it is hard to make them take something too seriously.
Afghanistan Veterans in Belarus: Soldiers of Forgotten War
Few people from the West know that tens of thousands of Belarusians fought in Afghanistan.
The war has long been over, but its legacy remains. The Afghan war brought not only death, physical disabilities and material losses. It also made drug addiction a widespread occurrence in the former USSR.
On 15 February, the Belarusian warrior-internationalists celebrated their professional holiday. 24 years ago, on 15 February 1989, the Soviet troops left Afghanistan for good.
During 10 years of the war, the Belarusian military enlistment offices sent nearly 30,000 people to Afghanistan. Two-thirds of them still live in Belarus. In everyday life, these people are called Afgantsy, a Russian word for those who participated in the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.
The Afgantsy in Belarus have strained relations with the authorities. Although the Belarusian government has deprived the veterans of almost all benefits, some remain loyal to the authorities. Others openly oppose the regime, for example, political prisoner Mikalaj Autukhovich and human rights defender Aleh Vouchak.
Belarusian society never looks back on those events that transpired, and any moral estimations of that war are rare in the public sphere. Only the independent community’s representatives openly speak about the shame of particpating in the war for Belarus.
Afgantsy in Belarus
The war in Afghanistan still causes pain in Belarusians' memories. This war remains the last in which they took part in and in which the Belarusian military involvement was very prominent. According to the number of human losses, Belarus is fourth after Russia, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.
The Afghan Memory Foundation provides information that the Soviet authorities sent 28,832 Belarusians to Afghanistan during the war. 732 of them died, nearly as much were maimed and are now disabled. 12 Belarusians are still missing, three received the title of Hero of the Soviet Union, two of them – posthumously. On average, the Afgantsy did not live long after the war – making it only to their 45th birthdays. More than half of the military casualties were under 20.
According to Radio Liberty about 21,000 participants of the Afghan war live in Belarus today. Approximately half of the Belarusian Afgantsy became members of the Belarusian Union of Afghan war veterans. A more specialised organisation – Association of People Disabled in the Afghan War is helping these warrior-internationalists. These kinds of organisations exist all over the former USSR.
There are certain separations in the relations between the Belarusian Afghan veterans. First of all, between those soldiers who were located at a base, the political ideologists and those who played the part of “cannon fodder” during the Soviet invasion. Children of high-ranking communist officials did not go to war, while the military actions were conducted at the expense of young soldiers from ordinary families.
The current discussion in the Afghan soldiers’ circles often comes to defining who are the real Afgantsy. Moreover, the veterans also are become divided by their attitude to the current Belarusian regime.
Why Do the Afgantsy Have Bad Relations with the Regime?
People who witnessed deaths of their 18-year-old friends have less fear towards the present authorities than ordinary Belarusians. However, not many Afghans are interested in the fight for their rights.
The Belarusian authorities’ attitude to the Afgantsy grows colder and colder. The regime deprived them of benefits, leaving only an opportunity to apply for “targeted aid”. Some Afgantsy never applied for help. They think it will be a strike against their dignity.
In 2009, the Afghan war veterans human rights defender Aleh Vouchak, retired Lieutenant Colonel Alyaksandr Kamarouski and political prisoner Mikalaj Autukhovich sent a letter to Lukashenka, in which they declined to accept their awards dedicated to the 20th anniversary of withdrawal of the Soviet troops from the territory of Afghanistan. Many veterans supported their initiative and handed in their medals for participation in that war.
In addition, Vouchak and Kamarouski managed to defend free travel in the public transport for the veterans. Kamarouski says that the former soldiers “have nothing else”, except this meager benefit.
The Belarusian authorities dislike the most active Afgantsy for the support they have rendered to one of the persons who signed that famous letter – Mikalaj Autukhovich. The Supreme Court sentenced Autukhovich to five years and two months of imprisonment for the illegal storage of gun cartridges. Belarusian and foreign human rights defenders considered Autukhovich a political prisoner.
Many Afghan veterans think that all accusations against Autukhovich were nothing more than “empty words”, and his arrest looked like an attempt to discredit the whole movement of the Afghan war veterans.
Previously, the Belarusian Afgantsy had several small businesses, and they forwarded their incomes to the activity of the organisation and to support for their fellow veterans who are unemployed, disabled, or even for their funerals. Retired Lieutenant Colonel Kamarouski said, "there soon started claims being filed for no reason, and as a result three directors ran off, and the businesses became bankrupt”.
What Was the War for Belarus?
The war in Afghanistan brought not only numerous deaths and disabilities to Belarusians, but after the beginning of the war in Afghanistan in 1979 drug addiction in the Soviet Union grew enormously. Soviet soldiers en masse became drug addicts — and they brought this habit back home with them.
Although drugs were produced in some Asian republics of the Soviet Union, like Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, the mass addiction came to Belarus and other former USSR countries from Afghanistan. Afghanistan still remains to this day the biggest illicit drug exporter to Europe.
For many people, that Soviet invasion was a point of shame and disgrace. Many former soldiers refused to accept medals as they consider the war to be alien to Belarus as a nation.
Famous Belarusian artist Ales Pushkin, who served a year and a half in Afghanistan, says that “they forced Belarus to send its sons to defend the imperial interests of the Soviet Union, and we should never forget – we were occupiers there”.
Many of the Afgantsy agree with these words, but the members of the veteran organisations still do not speak up whether the war was just. The Soviet war in Afghanistan is rarely discussed in public. The freezing of all civil and political processes in the country may partially explain this. However, even the Afgantsy themselves do not care about remembering the war itself or bringing it into the public spotlight. For them helping their former comrades-in-arms is more important that thinking about the reasons that the war happened.