Searching for Ancestors in Belarus
Louis Mayer, one of the founders of the Hollywood studio Metro-Golden-Mayer and the ‘inventor’ of the Oscar award was born in Minsk.
Isaac Asimov, Marc Chagall and Leon Bakst were born and grew up in Belarus. Fifteen Nobel Prize laureates, Jacques Cousteau and and many other notable personalities have Belarusian ancestry.
At the same time, the Guggenheim museum lists Chagall as a painter from “Vitebsk, Russia.” While many outstanding people have Belarusian ancestry, Belarus remains a kind of terra-incognita, overlooked in most biographical notes in museums, books and Wikipedia.
Toponyms such as White Russia, Russia and Poland are used in place of Belarus and mislead those in search of their family history.
The complexity of the contemporary situation in Belarus does not make matters any easier. However, the country could potentially capitalise on the increasing interest in genealogy; private businesses are already taking their first steps in the field of ancestry research.
Shifting Borders, Shifting Identities
The shifting borders between Belarus, Soviet Russia and Poland in the beginning of the 20th century can easily lead to geographical confusion. The complex position of Belarus between the Russian Empire and Poland made it the middle ground in several wars.
The borders of Belarus shifted more than 15 times in 23 years between 1917-1940. Together with the borders, the identities of local inhabittants shifted as well. Locals could define themselves as Russian, Polish, Belarusian, Lithuanian, Jewish, Litvin and Slav and commonly spoke several languages within one family.
These identity uncertainties were complicated when immigrants arrived, for example, to Ellis Island and listed themselves according to the basic options provided, most often opting for “russians.” As one of the ancestry researchers on the blog mynativebelarus notes: “My grandparents listed themselves [in the US census] as Russian, spoke Polish and now I find they were actually from Belarus.”
Thus, contemporary toponymic confusions are not only the result of a lack of geographical knowledge, but are a direct consequence of the shifting identity of immigrants from Belarus.
The Pale of Settlement
in 1791 Catherine the Great forced all Jews living in Russia to migrate to the territory of contemporary Belarus, Lithuania, eastern Poland and Ukraine Read more
The Pale of Settlement is another key concept in the history of emigration from the territory of Belarus. The Pale of Settlement defined a region in the western Russian Empire where most of the Jewish population lived. Catherine the Great demarcated a border in 1791, forcing all Jews living in Russia to migrate to the territory of contemporary Belarus, Lithuania, eastern Poland and Ukraine.
The Jewish population comprised up to 50% of Belarusian city-dwellers in 1918. Yiddish was one of the four official languages used in the Belarusian Soviet Republic. Some of the western regions, including Navahrudak, Pinsk and Slutsk were up to 80% Jewish.
Many Jews from Belarus emigrated to Europe at the end of the 19th century due to economic hardships, while others moved east into Russia during WWII. Before and during WWII some managed to escape and moved to the US, but 1989-1991 whitnessed the peak of emmigration. More than 227,000 Jews from Belarus moved to Israel and the US.
Thus, if your family is of Jewish heritage and originally comes from the region of “Western Russia”, most likely this really means the territory of contemporary Belarus, Eastern Poland or Northern Ukraine.
According to BelStat, around 276,000 tourists visited Belarus last year. 88% of tourists come from Russia, since Russians perceive Belarus to be a cheap ‘European’ place to visit.
While Belarus is not exactly a go-to tourist destination, there is a much potential for “nostalgic tourism.” It seems that to some, Belarus is a unique living museum of the Soviet past. Certain initiatives, such as FSP (Freaky summer party), which takes place in Minsk every July, have started offering complimentary tours of Minsk, branded “so soviet, so sexy.”
However, it is not only the soviet past which attracts western tourists. Many are also coming to discover their family history and learn about their ancestors’ past. A thread related to Belarus on the family history website ancestry.com has over 3000 messages, suggesting that the demand for heritage tourism is high.\
people of Jewish ancestry are currently the group most actively conducting genealogical research in Belarus Read more
Since a large proportion of Belarusian emigration was Jewish, people of Jewish ancestry are currently the group most actively conducting genealogical research in Belarus. Today, around 55,000 people identifying as Jewish live in Belarus; half of whom live in Minsk. This population is far smaller than at the beginning of the 20th century, when around 800,000 Jews lived in Belarus.
There are quite a few Jewish cultural and social organisations in Belarus, particularly in Minsk. Many of them offer help in researching ancestry and Jewish heritage, as well as providing databases of Jewish toponyms, names and the like. Profits mainly go to the preservation and rebuilding of Jewish heritage sites.
Historic cemeteries are another useful tool in researching one’s heritage as well as an unconventional tourist destination. The indexing project Graves.by aims to document historical cemeteries, gravestones and the like and make them accessible to a wider audience. Currently, they have 21 documented cemeteries and one can pin a request for specific gravestones. In addition, there is an index of Jewish cemeteries that accounts for more that 90 entries.
While there is some activity in the field of genealogical research, similarly to other private businesses in Belarus most initiatives are short-lived. While Belarusians have not yet managed to fully capitalise upon foreigners searching for ancestors in Belarus, the demand is high and some steps have been taken.
Breaking the mould
Accounts of those visiting Belarus in search of their ancestors are often grim, grey and even haunting. A Belarusian visa costs from 35$ to 140$ and requires a few days wait-time, and registration of place of residence can put off many eager ancestry researchers.
embarking on a heritage tour to Belarus can bring fruitful results and unconventional local experiences Read more
At the same time, embarking on a heritage tour to Belarus can bring fruitful results and unconventional local experiences. Some examples of positive experiences include those of Princeton University alumnus Stanislaw Maliszewski researching his family property Zastaria in Western Belarus, or the account of one Professor Krohn from America, in search of his family history near Minsk.
Since little to no information is available online, doing some family history research in Belarus can be an alternative to more conventional tourist destinations. At the same time, the Belarusian tourist industry could capitalise on the history of Belarusian emigration, and provide specific tours for those interested in researching their ancestry.
Belarusian Partisan with Love: In Memory of Pavel Sheremet
On 20 July 2016 at 7:45 am a bomb went off in a car in Kiev. The explosion killed Pavel Sheremet, a prominent Belarusian journalist working in Ukraine.
Pavel was 44 years old and was killed in a car of his partner Olena Prytula. Ms Prytula owns Ukrayinska Pravda, an influential online newspaper in Ukraine, one of the media outlets where Mr Sheremet worked.
The Ukraine President, Petro Poroshenko, called the journalist’s death “a terrible tragedy”, and ordered a thorough investigation. Mr Sheremet was driving his partner’s car on his way to work at the time of the tragedy. Security has been dispatched to protect Ms Prytula.
Mr Sheremet is not the first partner and colleague whom Ms Prytula has tragically lost. Georgiy Gongadze, an investigative journalist and founder of the Ukrayinska Pravda, was murdered 16 years ago. His body was found decapitated in the forest outside of Kiev. Mr Sheremet’s murder is yet another name on the list of a whole generation of journalists in the former USSR who have lost their lives due to their work.
Belarusian, Russian, and Ukrainian periods
Mr Sheremet began his career as a television journalist in his native Minsk. He came to journalism from banking, starting out in 1992 by consulting Belarusian television on economic matters. In 1996 he became the editor-in-chief of Belarusskaya Delovaya Gazeta, a major Belarusian business newspaper.
In 1997 Belarusian authorities arrested him and sentenced him to two years for allegedly crossing the Belarus-Lithuania border. However, he served only three months in Belarusian prison thanks to the intervention of former Russian President Yeltsin.
Sheremet produced a documentary together with his colleague Dzmitry Zavadski (who later went missing) about the ease of crossing the Belarusian-Lithuanian border. The documentary enraged the Belarusian authorities, and shortly after Sheremet chose to leave Belarus under pressure and went to work in Moscow.
After a few years of working for a major Russian TV channel in Moscow, Mr Sheremet yet again found himself in opposition to the government. He continued to work in journalism as long as he could. He befriended prominent opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was also murdered in Moscow last year.
Pavel Sheremet helped Boris Nemtsov write his autobiography and produced a documentary about him. He also paid his last tribute and led Nemtsov’s memorial service in Moscow.
In 2010 Mr Sheremet was stripped of his Belarusian citizenship, which he found out from an official letter sent through the Belarusian Embassy in Moscow. He had to move again, this time to Ukraine, having now been denied the right to freely practise his profession in two countries.
There he was once again successful, participating actively in Ukraine’s social and political life and opening a new journalism school. His colleagues remember him as a highly professional and very personable man. “Ukraine has changed and will continue to change,” Pavel Sheremet wrote in one of his last Facebook posts.
Legacy in Belarus and beyond
Even in exile from Belarus Pavel Sheremet remained active and wrote about events in Belarus. He founded and worked for Belarusian Partisan, an oppositional online newspaper. He liked to call people on the phone and introduce himself by saying: “Hello, this is Pavel Sheremet, Belarusian partisan. I’ve got a question.”
When Mr Sheremet chose to come back to Belarus in 2006 for the opposition march during the presidential election in Belarus, he was once again badly beaten and arrested. Nevertheless, he always stayed true to his pro-European ideas and supported democratic forces in Belarus.
In his own words, given to Radio Liberty in March 2016: “I may not be objective, since I grew stiff in my opinion about Lukashenka, but I think that his fear to lose the grip on power in Belarus is so strong, that he will not let even ten opposition representatives into the Parliament.”
Mr Sheremet's reporting earned him the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in 1998. When authorities in Belarus denied permission for Mr Sheremet to travel to New York for the awards ceremony, the Committee to Protect Journalists held a special award ceremony for him in Minsk.
In 2002, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) awarded Mr Sheremet its Prize for Journalism and Democracy in recognition of his human rights reporting in the Balkans and Afghanistan.
Emotional tributes and official silence
Mr Sheremet’s death prompted an immediate shock and triggered an outpouring of grief from his colleagues in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. Ms Sviatlana Kalinkina, managing editor of Narodnaja Volya, an oppositional newspaper, who co-authored a book about Lukashanka with Sheremet, said:
He was the first to have an analytical programme on Belarusian television. "Prospekt" was critical of the authorities; he showed us this was possible and even necessary. This is such a tragedy. Thank you, Pasha, for being with us. And forgive us.
Michael McFaul, a former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, called Sheremet “one of the best” journalists and said: “Pavel was such a decent man. So sad." Global rights watchdogs Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) called Sheremet's killing a "reprehensible act that has sent a shockwave for freedom of expression in Ukraine."
Svetlana Aleksievich, the Belarusian Nobel Prize Winner, reports to BBC:
About six months ago I visited Ukraine, and we had a meeting with Pavel. And I would like his wife, Ms. Olena Prytula, a person he really loved, to know about this conversation. When he found out I was writing a book about love, he said “You know, I travelled to Ukraine for love. And big love, trust me!
This contrasts sharply with the tacit reactions from the official government news outlets in Belarus. Some sources, including Belarusian state television where he started his career as a journalist in 1990s, chose to remain silent. Others either omitted that Pavel Sheremet had anything to do with Belarus, or reminded its readers about Sheremet’s ‘criminal’ past.
Pavel Sheremet’s body will be returned to Minsk, according to his mother. He is survived by his mother who continues to live in Belarus. On behalf of Belarus Digest we would like to extend our deepest condolences to Mr Sheremet’s family and friends.