The average Belarusian: who is he? Actually, it’s she
On 25th January 2018, top Belarusian media outlet TUT.BY compiled a portrait of the average Belarusian citizen. The media outlet used a combination of recent data from the National Statistical Committee of Belarus, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations. Apparently, the average Belarusian citizen is a 42-and-a-half-year old woman with higher education. She speaks Russian, votes for Lukashenka, and consumes 64 kg of potatoes per year.
At the same time, the recent statistical data on the Belarusian population raises a number of concerns. Belarus comprises an ageing nation with astonishing gender imbalances. While Belarusian women face difficulties in finding a marriage partner, Belarusian men fervently consume alcohol. The diet of Belarusian citizens still lacks fruit and vegetables, and their salary ranks among the least competitive in the region. Permanent stress eventually take its toll in the form of heart disease.
Who is the average Belarusian woman?
She is 42-and-a-half years old, and her name is most probably Alena, Maryna, Natallia, Sviatlana, or Tatsiana. She lives in Minsk and possesses higher education. She works in services, education, or healthcare. By October 2017, the average Belarusian woman earned $426. This represents the second lowest salary in the region; only Ukrainians earned less – $274.
The average Belarusian woman speaks Russian on a daily basis. She formally belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church and in the last Belarusian presidential elections, she voted for Alexander Lukashenka.
Her family life starts at 26, and her first child appears at roughly the same age. Her family budget is quite tight though – the largest share of it (39%) goes on food expenses. The National Statistical Committee of Belarus proudly confirmed that the average Belarusian citizen consumed 64 kg of potatoes, 65 kg of fruit, 88 kg of vegetables, 76 kg of meat, and 274 kg of dairy products in 2017.
Yet the consumption of fruit, vegetables and dairy products still fails to meet the WHO recommendations. In many ways, small salaries force Belarusian families to forsake more expensive imported fruit and vegetables. This appears particularly disturbing in the wake of health consequences of the Chernobyl disaster.
Who is the average Belarusian man?
An average Belarusian man is 37 years old. His name is most probably Alexander, Andrey, Siarhei, Uladzimir, or Viktar. He also lives in Minsk and predominantly works in agriculture, construction, industry, or transport. Unlike his female colleagues, he does not necessarily possess a higher education diploma. As for his salary, the National Statistical Committee of Belarus has not recorded a pay gap between men and women. Hence an average Belarusian man receives the same $426 per month – an insufficient amount to support a family.
He also speaks Russian and formally belongs to the Russian Orthodox church. Together with his female colleagues, he voted for Alexander Lukashenka in the last presidential elections. As regards the family budget, he might save a few Belarusian rubles by buying the cheapest petrol in Europe, but his daily bills will most probably include alcohol.
According to the WHO (2017), the average Belarusian man consumes 16.4 litres of alcohol per year. This represents the second highest alcohol consumption in the world: only Lithuanians drink slightly more. Belarusian psychiatrists cite hidden aggression and permanent depression as the root causes for such tremendous alcoholic addiction among men. The economic instability in Belarus has a lot to do with it as well.
At the same time, excessive alcohol consumption represents a common trend among the European part of the former Soviet Union. Moldova, Russia, and Ukraine also topped the latest chart of alcohol consumption per capita. Hence, this data clearly reflects a decrease in regional economic prosperity.
The land of strong and lonely women
Ladies dominate the gender ratio with 53 % of Belarusians being women and 47 % men. The gender discrepancy between men and women reflects a common demographic trend among Belarus’s neighbours; Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine. Much of the gender imbalance stems from tragic historical circumstances. The Russian Revolution, the “Great Terror” of the 1930s, and World War II had a devastating effect on the male population of the Soviet Union.
The gap in life expectancy between men and women represents another remarkable demographic trend. Belarusian women have a life expectancy at birth of 79 years, while Belarusian men can expect just 69 years. This can be partly attributed to the increase in early mortality among men after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. A sharp decline in financial prospects led to numerous psychological traumas, which prompted excessive alcohol and drug abuse.
A similar demographic trend prevails in the European part of the former Soviet Union. According to the WHO (2015), Belarus, along with Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Russia, and Ukraine, dominate the list of 10 countries with the largest life expectancy gap between men and women. War-torn Syria, post-genocide Rwanda, and post-war Vietnam also make the list. At the same time, both Belarusian men and women most frequently die from heart diseases. Economic instability and urban life, it would seem, take their toll on Belarusians of both genders.
To conclude, Belarusians represent an ageing yet educated nation with a range of demographic and health issues. The poor economic situation negatively affects the Belarusian diet and provokes depression and stress. This leads to excessive alcohol consumption and early mortality among men. Belarusian women face difficulties finding marriage partners and many die from heart diseases. These demographic trends largely prevail in the European part of the former Soviet Union, which endured a series of tragic historical circumstances in the 20th century.
What do Belarusians remember about the Holocaust?
In the Polish town Oświęcim, on the eve of the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the district court passed sentence. The case concerned a nude performance last spring near the memorial to the Nazi death camp. Twelve people in their 20s, among them five Belarusian citizens, had slaughtered a lamb, stripped and chained themselves to the gates of the former camp where more than one million innocent people perished during World War 2.
Although intended as a pacifist protest, the performance made little sense to spectators. The unfortunate choice of location cancelled out the anti-war message, bringing on the protesters charges of desecration.
Though of a different nature, a distinct lack of reflection over the largest tragedy of the 20th century marks the mainstream perceptions of the Holocaust in contemporary Belarus. Here, the Holocaust serves as a background for narratives of wartime heroism. The commemoration often depends on individual initiatives and support from abroad.
The lost world of Jewish Belarus
On the eve of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Jewish population was the third largest ethnic group on Belarusian territories, often making up about 50 per cent of the urban population. Ancestors of Isaac Asimov, Kirk Douglas, Shimon Peres, Menachem Begin and many others were born on Belarusian soil.
Yet most Belarusian Jews perished in the Holocaust. Historians estimate that over 800,000 Jewish people died in Belarus during WWII, among them about 90,000 European Jews deported from Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Hungary, France and Poland. In contrast, today only about 30,000 Jews call Belarus their home.
One of 240 ghettoes on Belarusian territory, the Minsk ghetto was also one of the largest in Eastern Europe. American historian Barbara Epstein says that the strong ties between the ghetto, the underground, and partisan movement became a unique feature of Minsk during wartime. Connections to the partisans helped many Belarusian Jews to survive.
The prisoners of the Navahrudak ghetto succeeded in digging a 220-metre long tunnel through which 250 people fled into the forest. Jared Kushner’s ancestors, who later emigrated to the United States, numbered among the survivors of that daring escape. Now, the Kushner family provides financial support for the tunnel memorial in Navahrudak, currently under construction.
Since 2007, Navahrudak also houses a small Museum of the Jewish Resistance. Financial support for the museum comes from Jack Kagan; a former prisoner in the ghetto and later a partisan in the famous Bielski Brothers’ unit.
The challenges of Holocaust education
Many Belarusians do not know this history since Belarusian school textbooks still lack comprehensive coverage of the Holocaust. The current political regime eagerly uses the themes of the Great Patriotic War and the partisan movement to construct a specific state ideology, which is based on positive references to wartime heroism.
In this context, independent initiatives expose deficiencies of history education in Belarus. The case of a history teacher from Asipovičy, Neanila Cyhanok, provides an illustration. In an attempt to expand Holocaust history’s place in the school curriculum, she spent the last ten years of her life collecting oral history materials on Jews and their saviours. Yet Cyhanok also admitted that she encountered antisemitic stereotypes in reaction to her involvement with the memory of the Holocaust and extra-curricular activities.
Holocaust memorial sites often appear through individual initiatives or with the support of Jews from abroad. Last year, businessman Siarhei Koval from Navahrudak supported the creation of a monument to the children who perished during the Holocaust. The monument depicts a Jewish girl from Navahrudak, Mihle Sasnouskaja, who managed to escape from the ghetto, only for the Nazis to shoot her later.
Since 2003, the Simon Mark Lazarus Foundation in cooperation with Belarusian Jewish organisations has erected 110 memorials in an effort to commemorate over 500 massacre sites across the country.
Belarusian society: coming to terms with the Holocaust
The focus on the partisan struggle and developing a cult of the last war leaves little space for the Holocaust in official memory politics. For instance, the rebuilt Museum of the Great Patriotic War in Minsk hardly focuses on the extent of Jewish suffering during WWII, referring to victims as merely civilians in its main exhibits.
The museum’s description of artefacts from the Maly Trascianec death camp states that it was the 4th largest Nazi death camp, after Auschwitz, Majdanek, and Treblinka. Yet the museum visitors only learn that ‘in three years, more than 200,000 citizens from the Soviet Union and occupied countries of Western Europe were killed there.’
Nevertheless, in recent years the official Holocaust memory politics showed signs of positive changes. In 2015, President Lukashenka unveiled a new memorial on the territories of the former death camp Maly Trascianec. Until recently this remained a forgotten site in the vicinity of the Belarusian capital. Historians note that Stalinist executions took place at Trascianec from the late 1930s through to the summer of 1941, which might explain its oblivion.
From March 2017, the joint German-Belarusian exhibition ‘Death Camp Trascianec: History and Memory’ tours both Belarus and Germany, telling the stories of Maly Trascianec’s victims. In January 2018, it opened in Mir Castle – a famous tourist landmark that used to be a Jewish ghetto during the WWII.
So far, no sociological data exists to evaluate either public knowledge or perceptions of the Holocaust within Belarusian society. The brutality of the war and the extermination of the entire ethnic groups, such as the Jews or Roma, still awaits a proper commemoration. In this respect, a comprehensive discussion of the Holocaust as part of the school curriculum might pave the way towards a better understanding of the past.