Stalin’s victims in Belarus: to remain unburied and nameless?
On 6 February 2018, the Viciebsk district court fined Jan Diaržaucau for the unauthorized burial of Stalinist terror victims’ remains in the forest near the village of Hajsy. Even though the initial discovery of human remains at Hajsy dates back to 2014, the authorities have been winding down the official investigation, leaving the bones and skulls on the surface.
Jan Diaržaucau and the public initiative “Hajsy – Viciebsk Kurapaty” keep petitioning the local authorities to give the site protected memorial status. Yet three years after the discovery, only the 37 crosses of the ‘people’s memorial’ marked the area of the shooting grounds.
As the Belarusian KGB refuses to grant free access to the archives on the Stalinist repressions, it remains unknown where and how many similar burial sites linked to Stalinist terror still exist. Unlike in neighbouring countries, the modern Belarusian heirs of the NKVD have ensured that all data will remain classified until the late 21st century.
Hajsy discoveries: who are the victims?
In November 2014, Jan Diaržaucau and his fellow activists from the Conservative Christian Party BPF informed the authorities about large burial grounds near the village of Hajsy, in the vicinity of Viciebsk. The discovery happened after local residents saw pits and scattered human bones in the nearby woods. The appearance of the pits suggested that so-called “black diggers” had recently unearthed the mass graves in search of valuables.
Local senior residents still have memories of the 1930s NKVD shootings in these woods. After the civil society activists insisted on a proper investigation, the authorities dispatched the 52nd Search Battalion that discovered remains of at least 172 persons in the autumn of 2015. The Investigative Committee in Viciebsk took some of the remains for examination, yet the experts were unable to determine the exact year of death. The remains were quickly marked as “war victims” and buried as such in common graves.
Another burial site was discovered at Hajsy in spring 2017, after grave looters made new excavations in the woods, once again leaving behind human bones, footwear and clothing. Even though all artefacts dated back to 1938 or earlier, the authorities still hesitated to admit that the discovered remains of 245 people belonged to victims of the NKVD mass shootings.
Ignored and unburied: why the authorities don’t care about the victims?
Jan Dziaržaucau, along with civil society activists, installed the first crosses at Hajsy in the autumn of 2014, marking the creation of a “people’s memorial”. Three and a half years later, they expanded the memorial by adding 34 crosses and new information signs, while the authorities ignored the memorialisation of the killing grounds, in line with its usual policy.
More than that, in February 2018, the authorities tried Diaržaucau for the unauthorized burial of human remains that the 52nd Search Battalion left behind after completing its excavations.
Diaržaucau, who since 2015 coordinates the public initiative “Hajsy – Viciebsk Kurapaty” did not deny that he had buried the bones. At the same time, he pointed out to the court that he did not have any other choice due to the inaction of the local authorities in this issue.
Although Belarusian laws contain a number of norms on rehabilitation of the Great Terror victims, none concerns the re-burial procedures for the people who were shot by the NKVD. Neither does current legislation contain any regulations on the creation of burial sites for their remains.
According to Belarusian advocate Halina Parkhimchyk who represented Jan Dziaržaucau in court proceedings, Belarusian legislation has rules on burying the remnants of those who were killed during the wars but not as a result of political repressions. However, according to her, moral rules dictate that the victims of the Stalinist terror should also be buried with respect.
Along with the ongoing glorification of the Soviet past, this was probably one of the reasons why the authorities preferred to treat the human remains from the 2015 site as “victims of the Great Patriotic War”. The formal explanation relied on the claim that soldiers from the 52nd Search Battalion had found a piece of cloth identical to those used in German uniforms.
However, archaeologists Mikalaj Kryvalcevič and Valiancina Viargej, who examined the site in 2015, noted that execution weapons were typical for the NKVD, not the Nazis. The scientists also pointed out a lot of similarities between burials in Hajsy and Kurapaty – a forest on the outskirts of Minsk, where the NKVD executed thousands of Belarusians during the Great Terror.
In 2017, the experts from the Belarusian Academy of Sciences confirmed these findings. Execution style, cartridge cases, coins, footwear and personal belongings all indicate that the Hajsy burial site was a shooting ground of the Stalinist period. Despite these additional data, the authorities still refer to the need for further investigation and research to be able to grant Hajsy the status of a memorial.
The KGB monopoly over the archives
The extent of the Stalinist repressions cannot be evaluated without access to the KGB archives. Yet these are closed to the public and researchers. Therefore, the number of Great Terror victims can only be estimated, with suggested figures for those who suffered between 1917 and 1953 ranging from 600 thousand to 1.5 million people. Currently, only relatives of victims can request information from the KGB. Yet even they do not receive the complete cases of their repressed family members.
The Belarusian KGB managed to bend the laws in its favour, restricting public access to the files on the Stalinist repressions. Due to privacy reasons, the archives generally release the documents after the term of 75 years. The KGB invented a new interpretation of this norm, counting the 75 year embargo not from the time of the file’s creation, but from the moment of person’s rehabilitation. This means that files of those rehabilitated in the 1990s would remain classified for decades to follow.
Many Belarusians are still not aware that in Minsk alone there are at least seven more places where the NKVD shot innocent people. Maly Trascianec, a Nazi death camp during WW2 was among them. Soviet authorities skilfully hid these crimes, claiming that all victims died at hands of the Nazis. As the Hajsy story demonstrates, current Belarusian regime eagerly follows the Soviets’ lead.
Stalinist repressions touched nearly every Belarusian family, just as the war did. Yet due to the lack of a critical evaluation of the Stalinist past, currently civil society initiatives alone remind Belarusians of its cruel realities and bring to light the NKVD’s crimes.
Is Belarus waging an information war against Russia?
On 6 February, Alexander Lukashenka dismissed the heads of several major state media outlets. The president also said that Belarus should avoid the methods used by Russian TV channels.
In an interview with Rzeczpospolita, Pavel Yakubovich, the former head of the most influential state-owned daily SB Belarus Segodnya, said that he had been fighting “with the narrative of Russian channels, which has been used in relation to Belarus. We conducted an information war with such figures as Vladimir Soloviev and Dmitry Kiselyov.”
Much of today’s Russian TV conveys anti-Western and anti-Ukrainian messages. Belarusian state media outlets also maintain a clear anti-Western rhetoric, but their main task has always been the struggle against the “internal enemy” – the political opposition, as well as presenting a positive image of Lukashenka.
The Russian propaganda that Lukashenka aims to avoid
On 6 February, Lukashenka replaced the heads of the main media outlets. He dismissed the leaders of the country’s main state TV channels, BT (Belarusian Television) and STV (Capital Television), as well as the head of the largest state-run newspaper SB Belarus Segodnya (Belarus Today). Hienadz Davydzka, Yury Kaziyatka and Pavel Yakubovich had headed the organisations for 7, 12 and 22 years respectively.
Several factors could explain the reshuffle in the major state-run media. This might represent an attempt to modernise television or adapt it to the trends of Belarusisation. More importantly, many Belarusians watch Russian rather than Belarusian TV channels. When replacing Davydzka, Yakubovich and Kaziyatka, Lukashenka emphasised the importance of focusing on Western media henceforward, “but we need to never slide on the positions and those forms of work that currently exist on the Russian channels.”
Most likely, by the undesired forms of work, Lukashenka means anti-Western and anti-Ukrainian propaganda. Until now, one of the main vehicles for Russian propaganda remains its focus on Ukraine.
As early as 2013, Russian media outlets such as RIA News, LifeNews, Perviy Kanal and Komsomolskaya Pravda began to actively distort facts, aiming to influence public opinion on the protests in Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine. Until now, Ukraine remains one of the most important targets of the Russian propaganda.
The United States also appears as a frequent target. This became especially significant after both countries engaged in the civil war in Syria. The most recent fake appeared on the web-page of the Russian Ministry of Defence. On 14 November 2017, the ministry published a screenshot from the computer game Gunship Simulator: Special Ops Squadron and presented it as a proof of “US cooperation with the ISIS” in Syria.
Anti-Belarusian propaganda on Russian TV
In addition to Ukraine and the United States, Russian propaganda attacked Lukashenka himself. In 2010, the Russian television channel NTV aired a series, Krestniy Batska (The Godfather), which criticised Lukashenka asserting that he “only holds power thanks to Russia” and “praises Hitler” among other things.
In recent years, the Belarusian authorities have started to use vyshyvanka shirts and white and red ornaments previously associated with forbidden symbols (associated with the pre-Lukashenka era). Since then Russian channels such as Perviy Kanal have broadcast shows devoted to Belarus. Life News or Vesti.ru often present Lukashenka as a traitor who intentionally approaches the European Union and pushes away from Russia. In late 2016 Russian TV channels focused on the alternative interpretation of history supported by the Belarusian authorities.
Recent sentences against authors writing for the nationalist Russian portal Regnum provoked a wave of articles in Russian media claiming that “Belarus is on the Ukrainian path.” Consequently, since late 2017, the main Russian channels invoke the ‘threat of nationalism” and “the violation of Russian-speakers’ rights” in respect of Belarus. Those arguments proved central to Russian propaganda against Ukraine and, according to Russian propagandists, they represent factors which could lead to a “Ukrainian situation.”
Is Belarusian propaganda similar to Russian?
After 1994 Russian and Belarusian TV differed significantly. During the 1990s, when Boris Yeltsin served as president in Russia, the Russian media space lived according to market laws, free from censorship and political pressure. Incisive journalistic programs with different perspectives and criticism of the central government often appeared on Russian TV. The Belarusian government sometimes restricted Russian TV-shows that included criticism towards President Lukashenka.
The Russian situation started to change dramatically after Putin came to power in 2000. Russian oligarchs like Boris Berezovsky, who had a strong influence on the media market, were forced to flee Russia. In Belarus, soon after Lukashenka became president in 1994, alternative viewpoints gradually disappeared from state media and the state restricted freedom of speech.
The Belarusian government understands that the Russian media strongly influence the worldview of Belarusian citizens. At a conference with the Russian media as early as July 2017, Lukashenka noted that the media itself unleashed the information war between Russia and Ukraine and that this affected Belarus. Aiming to confront Russian propaganda towards Belarus, state TV channels including BT, STV and the SB Belarus Segodnya newspaper continue to be the key providers of central state ideology. These media create a positive image of the government and foster a negative reputation of the opposition.
Belarusian state media has broadcast the loudest propaganda films and articles aimed at discrediting political opposition. For example, in 2011, BT released a propaganda movie about the 2010 electoral protests, “Iron on the Glass.” Later, Belarusian television released a short movie during protests against the social parasites decree. SB Belarus Segodnya newspaper aired a series of reports to discredit the Belarusian opposition and public protests. The authorities recently abandoned one of the latest focal points for its propaganda, the widely-reported criminal case of the “White Legion”.
The Russian government also employs media to discredit Russian opposition and blocks the web-pages of activists such as Aleksey Navalny. However, the Russian media typically prioritise the creation of a negative image of geopolitical news. For instance, on 15 February in the news broadcast on Russia’s Perviy Kanal twice accused Ukrainian citizens, allegedly members of the nationalist organisation “Right Sector”, of anti-Russian vandalism. In the same programme, the channel, without providing a clear source of information, reported on British spy planes on Russia’s Western border.
To sum up, Russian TV mostly highlights geopolitical topics, consolidating the image of a hostile environment to strengthen Putin’s regime. Belarusian state media primarily focus on the activities of Lukashenka and failures of the internal opposition.
Lukashenka’s decision to reshuffle the main Belarusian propagandists can hardly be interpreted as preparation for a full informational war against Russian propaganda. However, it may indicate that Lukashenka’s regime gets ready to more actively confront unfavourable propaganda from Russia.