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?
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
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.