Public protests as authorities destroy people’s memorial in Kurapaty

On the morning of 4 April tractors began digging up 70 wooden crosses at the Kurapaty memorial site on the outskirts of Minsk. Police detained 15 activists that came out in protest. Later the same day around 200 people gathered in the Kurapaty forest to commemorate the victims of Stalin’s mass execution at the site, where over 150,000 people perished during the purges.

Today, more than 30 years after the discovery of the mass graves, Kurapaty still symbolises the most outrageous atrocities of the Soviet regime. Kurapaty has unleashed the potential social capital residing in Belarusian civil society and mobilised citizens to erect a people’s memorial, which civil society has preserved despite the hostility of the authorities.

Many Belarusians worry about the future of the memorial site and the recent dismantling of the crosses because it relates to the ‘sacred’ sphere of commemorating the dead, something which many view as apolitical and something ostensibly beyond the control of the state.

‘Let’s go and eat’ in Kurapaty?

Source: svaboda.org (RFE/RL)

After two archaeologists, Zyanon Paznyak and Yavhan Shmulakov, discovered remains of executed victims in 1987, Kurapaty soon found infamy for the mass execution of hundreds of thousands of people in 1937-41. The discovery proved that Soviet authorities committed serious crimes against their own citizens and this, along with the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe, later contributed to the national awakening of Belarusians in the late 1980s.

Although, since 2004, the Ministry of Culture included Kurapaty in the national register of cultural properties of Belarus, the state has not done much to commemorate it for some time. In 2017 a private investor upset many by purchasing a plot of land adjacent to the memorial and opening a restaurant 50 metres from it.

As a result, various civil society groups including the Young Front, the Belarusian Christian-Democratic Party, as well as ordinary individuals vocally opposed the restaurant. Some activists kept protesting in Kurapaty, as well as picketing the entrance to the restaurant, hoping to make it less popular and unprofitable. Zmicier Dashkievich, a leader of the Young Front, joined several activists and began erecting crosses to mark the memorial site too.

Several public figures openly expressed their disapproval, including the Noble Prize Winner in Literature Sviatlana Alekseyevich. Recently, Archbishop Tadeuš Kandrusievich, the head of the Belarusian Catholic Church, has called for a dialogue between the authorities and representatives of civil society groups. He called for greater respect towards the religious feelings of believers while resolving the conflict over Kurapaty: “I think that it is necessary to organise a public discussion about putting things in order in Kurapaty, with the participation of representatives of various faiths.”

Siarhej Liepin, the press-secretary of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, also disapproved of the methods used

Source: Novy čas

by the local authorities. He wrote in his blog: “Remember. The Devils are very afraid of the sign of the Cross of the Lord, for in it the Saviour has exposed and put them to shame.”

Who owns Kurapaty: citizens or state?

In February 2017 the Belarusian authorities became more active in relation to Kurapaty. The state-run daily Belarus Segodnya organised a round table on its future. The participants of the discussion argued that the lack of commemoration activities has led to a vacuum which was filled by political forces. Also, they recommended establishing a National Mourning Memorial in Kurapaty, which could be supported by all Belarusians. This would, in their view, prevent society from being divided. In fact, in June 2018, the Ministry of Culture announced that they had raised over 11,000 Belarusian roubles for the new monument and a special jury chose the best design.

The violent removal of crosses surprised many in Belarus. On 4 April Sviatlana Alekseyevich commented to the daily Naša Niva that Kurapaty remains a “symbol of national self-reliance, national memory. And the state does not want to accept it […].” She aptly notes the uniqueness of a national monument spontaneously raised by Belarusians.

However, the press secretary of President Aliaksandr Lukashenka, Natallia Ejsmant, has told the media that the head of the state is certain that “things should be put in order” in Kurapaty. In her words, he will do it “in accordance with the customs and religious tradition” of Belarusians. No details have emerged on how and when this will be done.

Unexpected mobilisation of Belarusians?

Around 200 people gathered at Kurapaty. This shows that, aside from fairly organised civil society groups, ordinary apolitical Belarusians care about the matter too. After all, the topic does not relate to politics but is a highly sensitive one since it relates to a social taboo – death and the commemoration of those who died. Many Belarusians continue to practice Radounica, visiting graves of relatives, a tradition which stems from the Orthodox Church and Greek Catholic Church’s ritual.

By removing the crosses, the authorities have also touched upon a sensitive religious symbol – the cross. The removal of crosses was also happening during Lent and appears highly disrespectful to many Christians in the country.  This contrasts with the many official public statements in which the authorities strive to emphasise the importance of Orthodox values in Belarusian society.

Dialogue instead of pressure

The nervous and unexpected reaction of the Belarusian authorities looks rather confusing. Officially, they want exactly the same what various different civil society groups aim for – a respectful commemoration of the victims of Soviet repression. But at the same time, they strongly demonstrate their exclusive right to present their own narrative on Kurapaty and shape all public manifestations of it.

The issue of Kurapaty seems apolitical because it concerns the commemoration of a couple of hundred thousand victims of Soviet repression. Yet, the people’s mobilisation with regard to the memorial site, including marking it with the crosses, the defence of the crosses, and, finally, yesterday and today’s prayers there, came as a shock to many in Belarus and abroad.




Kurapaty restaurant divides business, state and civil society activists

Since 31 May protesters have blocked the entrance to a recently opened restaurant outside Minsk. Built in Kurapaty, 50 metres from a memorial to victims of Stalin’s repressions during 1937-1940, the ‘Poedem, Poedim’ restaurant has caused heated debates.

Conflict quickly erupted between business interests and the values of certain sections of civil society, while the state’s position remains unclear. The owners received permission from officials to build a restaurant near the Kurapaty forest, yet civil society representatives view the construction as morally unjustifiable and strive to preserve the sanctity of the Kurapaty memorial.

The case of the restaurant illustrates a pattern of communication between business, state and civil society in Belarus. As has already happened with the nuclear power plant (NPP) project in Astravec and the reconstruction of the historical Asmalouka district in Minsk, civil society largely remains excluded from the discussion.

Protecting the Kurapaty memorial

The public learned about Kurapaty in the late 1980s, when excavations discovered evidence of a burial site for Stalin’s repressions victims. Zianon Pazniak, then the head of the Belarusian National Front political party, led the push for the installation of a memorial and fought for the right to publicly recognise Kurapaty as a mass execution site. The memorial in Kurapaty, which takes the form of wooden crosses, has become a traditional place for honouring ancestors, especially among the Belarusian opposition.

Several times Kurapaty has come to public attention because of construction projects. The first scandal occurred in the early 2000s when authorities approved the construction of a ring road on the territory of the memorial. Dozens of activists camped out in tents so as to prevent access for construction machines to Kurapaty.

The restaurant "Poedem, Poedim" by the memorial Kurapaty. Source: TUT.BY

The restaurant ‘Poedem, Poedim’ by the memorial in Kurapaty. Source: TUT.BY

A few years ago, the construction of an entertainment centre, ‘Bulbash Hall’, commenced beside the memorial. Activists protested against the ‘inappropriate’ name and lobbied for a change of the centre’s name as well as a ban for its construction. The protests reached the prosecutor’s office and construction on the site ruled as illegal. However, in 2012, the Minsk city executive committee diminished the protection zone in Kurapaty and construction of the entertainment centre became legal but under a new name –  ‘Poedem, Poedim’.

On 5 June the restaurant ‘Poedem, Poedim’ appeared close by to the Kurapaty memorial. Even before the opening it provoked a strong reaction among politically-active Belarusians. Since 31 May opposition activists have organised a series of protests. A dozen or so protesters blocked the entrance to the restaurant for visitors and chanted against the restaurant’s opening due to its location, 50 metres from the memorial Kurapaty.

Instead of ‘Poedem, Poedim’, defenders of Kurapaty suggest erecting a museum to the victims of Stalin’s purges. On 29 June oppositional activist Zmitser Dashkevich initiated the installation of new wooden crosses but was detained together with two other activists. The situation continues to develop: oppositional activists protest every day. The restaurant owners insist they have bought the territory and own it, but also suggest they could sell the restaurant for construction of a museum as demanded by protesters. The authorities still avoid particular interference in the picket, although they have fined some participants for the blocking the road and detained activists for the planned installation of crosses.  

Divided opinions about the restaurant

Apart from those physically protesting against the restaurant, the opening has provoked strong public criticism from some famous Belarusians. According to the Nobel laureate, Sviatlana Aleksievich, in any other European country hundreds of people would defend a comparable historical site; only Belarusians prove unwilling to take a proactive position. On 24 June, during a lecture in Brooklyn, Zianon Pazniak, the oppositional leader who in the 80s initiated the installation of the current memorial, claimed that the situation might have a Russian trace.

Some have expressed the opinion that the restaurant has little chance to survive economically. Viktar Prakapenia, a famous Belarusian IT entrepreneur, in an interview with dev.by, said that each member of society has a responsibility to avoid visiting the restaurant. Moreover, he believes that the restaurant should be closed by the owners themselves on moral grounds. Jury Zisier, the owner of one of the biggest independent media in Belarus, TUT.by, claims that the restaurant has little chance to survive due to its location close to the only memorial of Stalin’s mass executions in the country.

At the same time, some experts believe the restaurant should continue working. A lawyer, Yury Ziankovich, who wrote about the situation in Kurapaty believes the restaurant owners, state and citizens should compromise and come to a solution on how the restaurant and memorial can be linked together. Ziankovich told Radio Liberty that the restaurant owners bought the territory and preserve the right of ownership and so to turn it into a museum, as protesters demand, someone should buy the property from them.

Business, protesters, state: positions on the restaurant

Despite wide discussion about the restaurant, the authorities hesitate to take a clear position although do demonstrate readiness to negotiate. According to the official response of the general prosecutor’s office, the restaurant did not violate any rules during its construction. However, the prosecutor’s office would review the documents on construction if a visible public concern exists according to Sputnik.by, which cites the prosecutor’s office.

The group of protesters in Kurapaty. Source: svaboda.org

The group of protesters in Kurapaty. Source: svaboda.org

Additionally, on 20 June, Pavel Seviarynets, the leader of the Belarusian Christian Democracy party, negotiated with the Ministry of Culture. According to the activists, officials referring to the legal documents seem confused and still have no clear solution to the situation. Although the negotiations have barely simplified the situation, the talks between the opposition and the state on the issue show that authorities recognise an alternative point of view exists.

Similar situations have already emerged in Belarus. The Astravets NPP project led to mass public discussion due to the absence of proper negotiations between state, business and civil society stakeholders. In yet another example, since 2014 the plan to reconstruct the historical Asmalouka district  of Minsk resulted in protests because of the lack of public hearings.

The situation with the restaurant in Kurapaty shows how civil society, business and the state interact in Belarus. On the one hand, the owners have received a right to construct a restaurant on the territory. On the other hand, the construction by the important historical site has never been discussed in public hearings. That raises the question of decision making in similar situations in the future. Excluding the civil society from the business-state communications, the Belarusian government will continue to face backlashes similar to the one in Kurapaty.




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?

April 2017 in Hajsy woods. Source: svaboda.org

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.

Jan Diaržaucau. Source: svaboda.org

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.




Honouring translators, protecting the Soviet version of history – Belarus Foreign Policy Digest

In May, Minsk continued its policy of following in Moscow’s footsteps by exploiting World War II for political purposes. On Victory Day, Belarusian diplomats made statements about alleged ‘attempts to falsify history’. Foreign minister Vladimir Makei invited diplomats posted in Minsk to a controversial historical site featuring a monument to Joseph Stalin.

The United Nations supported a Belarusian initiative to honour professional translators and interpreters. This move may also have practical benefits for the country, which has a strong academic tradition in training professional translators. The medical documents translation services can also prove to be helpful for other translation needs.

Belarusian diplomats held largely mid-level discussions on trade and political relations with their counterparts from a dozen countries. The only scheduled top-level visit to Minsk failed to materialise when Estonia’s foreign minister postponed his trip indefinitely.

Protecting the Soviet interpretation of history

In the first half of May, Belarusian diplomats focused on events commemorating the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany during the Great Patriotic War (as World War II is commonly known in the post-Soviet space). To this day, Victory Day celebrations are the Belarusian diplomatic service’s largest public relations campaign.

Belarusian diplomatic missions participated in wreath-laying ceremonies, commemorative meetings, concerts, exhibitions, and other events in forty countries alongside their counterparts from Russia and certain other CIS countries as well as local officials.

On 5 May, the permanent missions of Belarus and Russia to the United Nations organised a commemorative ceremony in New York dedicated to the 72nd anniversary of the Great Patriotic War. Tellingly, diplomats from Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine refused to join other post-Soviet countries in the ceremony. They object to the use of the historical event as a tool for achieving modern political goals.

A day earlier, the delegation of Belarus to the OSCE made a statement dedicated to Victory Day on behalf of Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

The statement spoke strongly but vaguely against ‘attempts to falsify the history of the war and erase the tragic lessons of history from our memories’. Thus, Belarus once against sided with Russia, which uses such accusations to carry out political attacks against its neighbours, including Ukraine and the Baltic States.

On 8 May, Vladimir Makei invited the heads of diplomatic missions posted to Belarus to accompany him for a visit to Stalin’s Line. However, this ‘historical and cultural complex’ just outside Minsk has virtually no relation to the struggle of Belarusians against Nazi occupation.

Makei’s choice of venue is dubious. Belarus has many genuine historical sites and WWII memorials worth visiting for remembrance. However, Stalin’s Line features a monument to Stalin – the butcher responsible for the death and repression of hundreds of thousands of people in Belarus, including most of the country’s elite.

Belarus’s implicit support for the Soviet interpretation of the historical events of the mid 20th century will hardly serve to strengthen its ties with its non-Russian neighbours or improve relations with the Western world.

An uncontroversial initiative succeeds

On 24 May, Belarus’s permanent mission to the United Nations brought to fruition a new multilateral initiative on honouring professional translation ‘as a trade and an art’. The UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on the role of professional translation in connecting nations and fostering peace, understanding, and development.

Twenty-seven nations co-sponsored the document, which Belarus initiated and drafted together with Azerbaijan. The resolution declared 30 September International Translation Day.

Unlike certain other Belarusian initiatives, such as on protecting the traditional family, this idea met with no resistance from other members of the UN. The particular attention Belarus pays to this profession is no coincidence. Many senior Belarusian diplomats, including the country’s ambassador to the UN Andrei Dapkiunas, who introduced the resolution, hold their first and sometimes only academic degree in professional translation.

Many Belarusians work as translators or interpreters in the Russian section of the UN translation service. The Belarusian State Linguistic University signed a memorandum of understanding with the United Nations on training candidates for competitive language examinations.

Belarus intends to further develop this idea by initiating an international instrument that would enhance the legal protection of translators and interpreters in situations of armed conflict and post-conflict peace-building.

A multi-directional approach to boosting trade

As the summer holidays approach, the Belarusian foreign ministry is intensifying its political and trade consultations with countries from different regions of the world. However, the only top-level foreign dignitary to visit Belarus in May was the outgoing Serbian president.

Belarusian officials received officials from Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Egypt in Minsk on 10, 18, and 25 May respectively for meetings of bilateral trade and economic commissions. They also met in the same format with Czech officials in Prague on 16-17 May.

Belarusian exports to the Czech Republic, Tajikistan, and Egypt dropped dramatically in 2016 compared to 2015. However, this trend was partially reversed in January-March 2017, when Belarus’s deliveries to Egypt and Tajikistan increased manifold (4.2 and 2.4 times against the same period of 2016). Exports to the Czech Republic have continued to decline.

In relations with Turkmenistan, the Belarusian government is sticking to its declared goal of a $500m turnover, encouraged by a modest recovery in 2016 (up to $120.6m). Belarus is now pitching diesel trains, railway cars, and lifts to Turkmenistan. While the two countries have problems with currency conversion in reciprocal payments, Belarus is considering buying cotton under barter arrangements.

Also in May, Belarus held consultations on the deputy-foreign-minister level with Pakistan and Turkmenistan in Minsk, Croatia in Zagreb, and Greece in Athens. Working-level contacts took place in Minsk with Finnish and Australian diplomats. The negotiating partners focused on trade and investment issues as well as cooperation in international organisations.

The Belarusian foreign ministry had also announced a working visit to Minsk by Sven Mikser, Estonia’s foreign minister, on 23 May. The Estonian diplomat was due to meet with his Belarusian counterpart as well as unnamed ‘leaders of the government and the parliament of the Republic of Belarus’.

However, the visit was postponed indefinitely without much fuss. The press service of Estonia’s foreign ministry explained the cancellation by blaming ‘schedule changes in Belarus’. Interestingly, Vladimir Makei was in Minsk on 23 May.

In the summer months, Belarus is expected to focus more on multilateral diplomacy as it prepares to host a Minsk meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and the Central European Initiative.




Kurapaty memorial in danger: business versus historical memory

On 24 February 2017, Siarhej Palčeuski chained himself to a truck to protest the construction of a business centre in the vicinity of Kurapaty – a commemoration site for the victims of the 1930s Soviet repressions. Palčeuski's great-grandfather was among the thousands of Belarusians who disappeared in 1937.

In 2014, the Belarusian authorities re-drew the boundaries of the protected area surrounding Kurapaty to accommodate several construction projects. Belarusian civil society and oppositional activists argue that the state is thinking only of profit, disregarding transparency, public discussion, and proper historical research.

When the construction of a business centre in the contested area began in February 2017, protests flared up immediately. Local residents and civil society activists confronted workers on the site, setting up a 24/7 watch to protect the memorial.

The modern history of Kurapaty

Kurapaty is the site of NKVD-led mass shootings in a forest on the outskirts of Minsk, where thousands of Belarusians perished as a result of the Stalinist purges in the 1930s. Belarusian society learned the truth only in 1988, after Zianon Pazniak and Yauhen Šmyhaliou published the article 'Kurapaty – the Road of Death.' It sparked the first anti-Soviet mass demonstration in Belarusian modern history.

Kurapaty continue to feature prominently in Belarusian national discourse – every year the traditional Dziady demonstrations head there to commemorate the victims. However, Belarus has yet to recognise the true scope of the Soviet-era crimes.

Even though the authorities of independent Belarus granted the status of memorial site to Kurapaty as early as 1993, its history remains under-researched. The current political regime is reluctant to discuss Stalinist repressions. The school curriculum does not focus on the Great Terror at all, while historians are still denied full access to relevant archives to reveal the whole truth of the Kurapaty tragedy.

Thus, the exact number of victims remains unknown. Historians estimate that anywhere between 40,000 and 250,000 were killed there. Due to the lack of proper archaeological excavations, it is equally hard to determine the boundaries of the mass shooting and burial site.

Construction vs. memory

The current construction controversy surrounding Kurapaty is not the first of this kind: 15 years ago, opposition activists held a 24/7 watch of Kurapaty in a tent camp for 8 months. From September 2001 to June 2002, they protested against the ring road project, which was to cut right through the memorial site. They erected wooden crosses to mark the site and eventually managed to divert the highway away from Kurapaty.

The site continues to suffer from vandalism, while the authorities remain indifferent, consistently trying to extract profit by selling adjacent land plots. For instance, in 2012, Minsk city authorities approved the construction of an entertainment centre bearing an insulting name, “Bulbash-Hall” ("Bulbash" is an epithet for Belarusians), in the protected area of the memorial site.

As the controversy over the inappropriate project was intensifying, the Ministry of Culture started re-drawing the boundaries of the protected area around Kurapaty, cutting it down from 100 to 50 metres. It ignored criticism from historians and civil society and proceeded with the construction of the entertainment centre. However, even though the project was completed in 2015, it remains closed.

Kurapaty 2017: the fight continues

The current conflict in Kurapaty originates in 2013, when Minsk authorities auctioned the land plot in question. At that time, it was still located within the boundaries of the protected area of the memorial site. Any construction required consultations with the Ministry of Culture, as well as the public, but this did not take place.

The person in charge of the construction company, Ihar Aniščanka, is one of the most successful Belarusian real estate moguls. In a comment to Radio Svaboda, he claimed that his company was acting according to the laws and permits granted by city authorities.

Construction commenced on 17 February. When local residents raised the alarm after seeing the workers, leader of the Young Front Zmicier Daškevič launched a campaign to protect Kurapaty from a new incursion. However, on the night of 23 February, a group of 15 masked individuals attacked the tent camp, harming one of the activists, Ales Kirkevič. Tensions resumed again on 24 February, when another group dressed in black provoked a fight with the activists.

So far, the Young Front activists enjoy support from local residents, civil society groups, the Belarusian Christian Democrats, the United Civil Party, and the movement For Freedom. A leader of Tell the Truth, Andrej Dzmitryeu, supported the campaign for Kurapaty, yet hesitated to confirm his party's active participation. Belarusian social-democrats remained aloof, claiming they were not invited.

Confrontation or dialogue?

The head of the Belarusian Voluntary Society for the Protection of Historical and Cultural Monuments, Anton Astapovič, noted that business centre construction violates the law 'On the Protection of Historical and Cultural Heritage.' Astapovič has already sent complaints to the KGB and the Main Construction Expertise Agency. He questioned the legitimacy of the current project, suspecting corruption.

The Roman-Catholic archbishop Tadevuš Kandrusevič also made a statement on the current conflict over Kurapaty, commenting that the roots of the controversy lie in the lack of sufficient research and a clear delineation of the burial boundaries. He called for an open dialogue between officials, local residents, and civil society to avoid further escalation.

Independent researchers and civil society activists have been leading the way for greater public awareness of Kurapaty. On 22 February 2017, in the midst of the newest construction conflict near the memorial, the civil society initiative Experts for the Protection of Kurapaty opened an exhibition entitled 'The Truth About Kurapaty' in Minsk. A follow-up to the first such exhibition in 2015, it showcases rare oral history testimonies and focuses on identifying victims and perpetrators.

It is up to the authorities to de-escalate the unfolding tensions surrounding Kurapaty. Incidentally, on 24 February, the major official newspaper Belarus Segodnia held a round-table discussion on the need to turn it into a national memorial, dedicated to the victims of Soviet repressions. The outcome of the current construction controversy will prove whether these debates represent serious intentions or yet more empty promises.




Belarusian Writers and the Soviet Past

Last week two demonstrations in Minsk commemorated the victims of Stalinism. On 29 October, “The Chain of Remembrance” drew attention to the execution of more than 100 Belarusian cultural leaders on this same date in 1937.

On 1 November, the Conservative Christian Party of Belarus held a street rally in central Minsk to commemorate the dead, Dziady, authorised by the Minsk city and regional governments.

The events focus on aspects of the Soviet past that the Belarusian leadership has largely ignored or concealed. Not only have Stalin’s crimes been glossed over, but so have recent tragedies in Belarus such as the consequences of the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant. Writers who have tried to draw attention to these events have faced profound difficulties.

This article cites the examples of three prominent Belarusian writers, one writing before the presidency of Aliaksandr Lukashenka and two during his tenure in office. They illustrate that the leaders of Belarus have failed manifestly to address the crimes of Stalin and other consequences of Soviet rule.

These three Belarusian writers demonstrate the dilemmas of probing into such controversial topics in current-day Belarus whereas its southern neighbour Ukraine is attempting to eradicate all traces of its Communist past. All became alienated from the modern state.

Vasyl Bykau: “The Dead Feel No Pain”

Vasily Bykau (1924-2003) was Belarus’ best known writer, largely as a result of his accounts of the war years, which he experienced in the ranks of the Red Army in the Second and Third Ukrainian Fronts as the Red Army advanced through Eastern Europe.

Though recognised for his talents, his starkly realistic accounts contrasted with most Soviet writing on the ‘Great Patriotic War’. He provided an antidote to the ritualistic pantheon of great victories and heroism, particularly his book “The Dead Feel No Pain” (1965). Bykau achieved fame in the USSR through Russian translations of his works, which he wrote in Belarusian.

Bykau and Lukashenka proved incompatible compatriots and in December 2002, the former Secretary of the Hrodna section of the Belarusian Union of Writers emigrated to the Czech Republic with the support of the Czech Chancellor and playwright Vaclav Havel, thereafter visiting his homeland only a few times. Shortly before his death he returned to Belarus where he died of stomach cancer in a Minsk hospital. Over 50,000 attended his funeral, which was notable for the absence of government officials, including the president.

Ales Adamovich: the Partisan Writer

Adamovich, born in 1927, was too young to be called up to the Red Army but served in a partisan unit during the war. From the 1950s to the early 1990s he wrote several books about the war that brought him fame, most notably Khatynskaya Povest’ (The Khatyn Story, 1972), about the massacre of residents of the village some 30 miles from Minsk, which now holds the well known heritage site.

Like Bykau his genius lay in capturing the true nature of the war, portrayed with searing honesty in his screenplay written with Elem Klimov Idi i Smotri (Come and See, 1985), which was released on the eve of Glasnost, allowing for wide dissemination of the movie about a teenaged boy during the German occupation of Belarus.

Like Bykau, Adamovich, who held a doctorate in philology, emigrated from Belarus—this time to Moscow. In the declining years of the USSR, Adamovich supported the formation of the Belarusian Popular Front and tried to draw popular and official attention to the problems engendered by the 1986 Chernobyl accident.

Adamovich wrote in both Russian and Belarusian, and had a wide influence over Belarusian writers of the following generations, not least Sviatlana Aliakseevich, who emulates his model of conveying realities through literary fiction, often based on actual events or popular memories. Adamovich died on January 26, 1996, ironically the same day that Stanislav Shushkevich was ousted from power in Belarus as a result of charges brought by a parliamentary committee on corruption chaired by Lukashenka.

Sviatlana Aliakseevich: the “Cultural and Mental Backwardness of Our People”

Aliakseevich, born in May 1948 in Ivano-Frankivsk to Belarusian father and Ukrainian mother, was raised in Belarus and has written on the Second World War, the Soviet war in Afghanistan and Chernobyl. On the former, she wrote about the experiences of women and children, and like her mentors, she added provided realistic accounts.

Most of the works of Aliakseevich were published outside Belarus and she lamented Belarusian society under Lukashenka. In an interview Yulia Shymko and I held with her in April 1998, she stated: “Certainly it would be preferable to have Vaclav Havel as president, someone who permits society to progress without provoking its worst features. But, on the other hand, Lukashenka simply reflects the cultural and mental backwardness of our people.”

In 2000 she moved abroad, living in France, Sweden, and Germany, but returned in 2011. On 8 October 2015 when she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Belarusian president could hardly ignore her and offered grudging praise, but shortly afterward the two resumed hostilities: the president accused her (October 25) of throwing “a bucket of dirt” on Belarus. She retorted that her critiques targeted “the regime, not its people.”

These three writers represent the conscience of Belarus. They laboured under complex conditions that were not eased by the collapse of the Soviet state. The state tried to uphold many ideals of the USSR, not least its interpretation and memory of the war.

Lukashenka personally concealed the inquiry into the mass shootings at Kurapaty, just as he did the effects of Chernobyl by declaring that the catastrophe had been overcome—symbolised by the construction of Belarus’ first nuclear power station on the border with Lithuania.

Even these featured writers rarely highlighted the destruction of virtually the entire Belarusian cultural elite in 1937-38, which has sparked the recent demonstrations. Yet it is thanks to their writings that an alternative perspective of the Soviet past remains.

David Marples

David Marples is Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta and author of 'Our Glorious Past: Lukashenka's Belarus and the Great Patriotic War (ibidem-Verlag​, 2014).