Victory Day: Between Remembrance and Militant Memory
9 May 2016 in Minsk started with a procession “Belarus Remembers,” which marched through the heart of the city, carrying pictures of the veterans.
Too frail to walk over longer distances, they joined the procession at the Victory Square for the official part. Festivities continued with president Lukashenka laying wreaths at the Monument of the Victory.
Belarusian Victory Day looked more modest and appropriate in contrast to the lavish Russian military parade, which took place in the same morning in Moscow. On the other hand, celebrations of the victory over the Nazi Germany in Minsk differ from the European commemorative practices. Belarusian authorities still pay tribute to the military aspect and focus on the Great Patriotic War, instead of the entire WWII.
The actual commemoration of the victims and coming to terms with the war remains in the background of the patriotic state-sponsoured celebrations, although in 2016, quite symbolically, the Victory Day fell on the eve of Radaunica. It is the ancient Ancestors Remembrance Day, the ninth day after the Orthodox Easter, when people traditionally travel across country to visit the cemeteries and remember their loved ones.
Victory Day: connecting past and present
Along with the Victory Square, major festivities on 9 May take place near the war monument of the Minsk Hero City, by the museum of the Great Patriotic War, which re-opened in the new location in 2014. In many ways this museum reflects official memory of the war and approaches to the Victory Day in Belarus. Its 22-meter glass dome reminds of the German Reichstag. Lukashenka pointed out this reference specifically, emphasising Belarusian contributions to the victory in the war.
On 9 May 2016, president addressed the crucial role of the Belarusian people in the Great Patriotic War in the same vein. He noted that “we will not allow to distort the truth about this victory, falsify it or take it away from our children and grandchildren.”
Such rhetoric along with the traditions of grand celebrations of the Victory Day date back to Soviet times. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, its successor states reinvented commemoration of the victory in different ways, yet glorification of the victory remains the universally positive reference point.
Drawing on the images of the partisan republic, the Great Patriotic War, and heroism, current Belarusian regime benefits from the Soviet-inspired approach with minimal adjustments. Modern memory culture still centers around the Great Patriotic War during 1941 – 1945. By contrast, legacies of the WWII and fates of Belarusian veterans, who fought on its fronts since 1939, remain in the background.
Patterns of remembrance
Family histories of almost every Belarusian feature tragic stories of fighting, self-sacrifice, and privations during the war. The number of WWII Belarusian casualties makes up about 2.2 million people: soldiers, civilians, and victims of the Holocaust.
More than 1.3 million Belarusians fought in WWII, yet the time takes its toll on the veterans. On the eve of the 71th anniversary of the victory over the Nazi Germany, only 13,700 former soldiers and partisans were the major protagonists in the celebrations of the Victory Day. Its unequivocally positive message will likely define collective memory patterns for years to come.
Recognising this immense mobilising potential, Belarusian authorities use the memory of the war to legitimise current political regime. Yet the side-effect is that the actual history moves to the background, while the commemorative practises encourage the cult of the war.
The Great Patriotic War is an undisputed part of the school curriculum in Belarus, while some schools diligently enforce the “military-patriotic” theme for their students in a more straightforward manner.
Along with humanities or sciences, high-school students have an option to choose this specialisation for their last two years in school. If they do, they get to wear military-style uniforms and can study military-related subjects.
Militarised memory: war myths and cults
The theme of Belarusian contributions to the victory and crucial role of partisan movement create a certain counter-narrative to the memory politics in contemporary Russia. The latter is actively developing its own version of the sacred Great Patriotic War, prioritising exclusively Soviet/Russian role in the defeat of the Nazi Germany.
Appropriation of the victory in the war became especially important with the start of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict in 2014, as Russia started to assert its dominance in the post-Soviet region. One of the recent images of Russian war cult are the black-orange striped St. George's ribbons, which replaced the red flags as major war-related symbols.
The ribbons appeared in 2005 in reaction to the Orange revolution in Ukraine and firmly took hold in the public sphere during the recent Russian-Ukrainian confrontation. Along with the portraits of Stalin, military posters, and anti-German car stickers these ribbons became more prominent in public and virtual space as tools of aggressive memory construction.
This merchandise gradually appears to find its way to Belarus, yet the state attempts to counteract the trend. Both Belarus and Kazakhstan developed their own versions of a special ribbon for the Victory Day. Babrujsk municipality recently prohibited to use St. George's ribbons and Russian flags during the Victory Day themed car rally.
In contrast to Belarus, the war cult in Russia assumes more assertive forms. In one of the recent incidents, people wearing WWII uniforms and St. George's ribbons threw raw eggs and disinfectant at the high school participants of the annual research contest “The Individual in History. Russia in the 20th Century,” organised by the human rights group Memorial. Protesters accused it of falsifying history, labelling students as “fascists” and “traitors.” Among the victims of this attack was the Russian writer Liudmila Ulitskaia.
By comparison, Belarusian version of war memory is less aggressive, as the state is not actively involved in any ongoing military conflicts. Yet Victory Day commemorations in Belarus show how war cults in essence prevent coming to terms with the war trauma, especially when the state deliberately upholds military-oriented patriotic education, inspired by Soviet approaches.
In this respect, Victory Day celebrations might better fulfil their purpose, if they genuinely focus on the message of peace and encourage historical reflection, rather than military grandeur. The main challenge is to shape collective memory in a less artificial way, avoiding trivialisation of the immense human sacrifice, that Belarusians paid during the war.
How Freedom House Got Media Freedom in Belarus Wrong
American human rights watchdog Freedom House in its most recent global report has ranked Belarus in the bottom ten countries in the world in terms of media freedom. Scoring more poorly than some of the world's worst dictatorships in this survey seems unjust and harms the country’s already poor image.
Indeed, Belarus provides complicated conditions for journalists’ work, but journalism in Belarus remains a far less dangerous job than in many of the countries ranked more favourably in the report.
Unlike many Asian and African dictatorships, the Belarusian authorities refrain from regular physical harassment or criminal persecution of journalists, outright censorship, punishment for criticism or political dissent. Despite some legal and political restrictions, many printed and online independent media outlets continue their work Belarus.
Belarusian Experts Disagree
In the 2016 Freedom House report, Belarus's ranking improved from 194th to 192nd place compared to 2015, but remained in the “worst of the worst” category. Only five countries scored worse: North Korea, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Crimea (singled out) and Eritrea. Authors ranked Cuba and Equatorial Guinea the same as Belarus.
According to Freedom House, Belarusian journalists enjoy less freedom than their colleagues in countries such as China, Syria, Zimbabwe, Iran, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan.
Meanwhile, the same survey indicated multiple cases of reporters and bloggers in these countries being imprisoned, physically harassed, forced to apologise on air, punished by lashes for criticising religion, shot, hacked and beaten to death. Governments in many of these and other states harshly censure the internet and other media.
Ranking Belarus lower than such autocracies seemed dubious to Belarusian independent media experts.
The Head of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (uniting reporters from non-governmental media) Andrei Bastunets admitted there were many problems with press freedom in the country, but still disagreed with Freedom House ranking Belarus as low as it did.
Aliaksandr Klaskouski, prominent journalist at Belapan news agency and an outspoken critic of the government, expressed the same doubts. He contrasted press freedom in Belarus to that of Kazakhstan. “There, even in independent media you can hardly criticise the leader of the country as harshly as we do in Belarus”, –- Klaskouski argued.
The owner of the most popular Belarusian independent web portal TUT.BY Jury Zisser said Belarus should not be ranked worse than other post-Soviet autocracies like Russia or Azerbaijan. “We have nothing to be proud of, but such reports make us look like North Korea to foreigners”, – he commented on Facebook.
How Free is Belarusian Media?
The situation with media freedom in Belarus remains complex, but it can hardly qualify as the “worst of the worst” in the world.
Free TV or FM radio stations do not operate in the country. The government denies registration to Belsat – an independent TV channel established in Poland and forced to operate from there. Its reporters in Belarus, together with their colleagues from other “foreign” media have trouble acquiring accreditation. Working without it occasionally leads to being fined. Still, most of them work in the country without suffering persecution.
Several oppositional and independent print newspapers like Nasha Niva and Narodnaya Volya are regularly published. People legally obtain these papers throughout the country, but they face circulation limits and, sometimes, administrative obstacles with distribution. Legal procedures for closing down the newspaper and, especially, blocking the website remain easy for the authorities.
Getting information from the government is difficult. Some topics – like corruption among top officials, the arms trade or the personal life of Lukashenka and his family – sometimes appear risky to investigate.
nobody is banned from or punished for criticising the government or Lukashenka on almost any issue Read more
However, nobody is banned from or punished for criticising the government or Lukashenka on almost any issue: mistakes in managing the economy, foreign and domestic policy, electoral fraud etc. The media remain free to cover opposition activities and political prisoners, when we have them.
Reporter Dmitry Zavadski was kidnapped in 2000 and the government has not properly investigated his case. Nothing of this kind has happened since then. Journalists have been imprisoned in exceptional cases only in Belarusian contemporary history.
In January 2016 police officers beat up Pavel Dabravolski from TUT.BY portal after he used his smartphone to shoot them arresting protesters in the court building. Still, it would be fair to note that such cases happen rarely. The authorities try not to get embroiled in scandals with journalists to avoid unnecessary fuss.
Occasionally the authorities block some independent websites. It happens once every several years, most recently in December 2014 during the panic on the currency market. Usually it lasts from a couple of hours to several days. Except for that, the Internet remains relatively free. Six out of the 9.5 million Belarusians in the country use the Internet, where they can access uncensored news and pluralistic opinions.
Generally speaking, the government refrains from interfering in the work of independent media in the overwhelming majority of instances. Freedom of press in Belarus remains limited, but not absent. Journalism is challenging, but not existentially a dangerous job.
Methodology Changes Needed
The preparation of Freedom House reports starts with a journalist who is a resident of the country drafting the first version. Then the report goes through peer review by Freedom House internal and external experts. This approach requires improvement.
Obviously, a journalist who has, for example, suffered from an authoritarian regime, might not assess the wider situation in the country objectively or accurately. Freedom House could add a second national expert as a reviewer. That would help to avoid subjectivity from the author of the initial draft and to counter-balance his or her potential bias.
Other problems concern the scoring process. The more points the country receives in the three realms of press freedom – political, legal and economic – the worse. Belarus, for instance, scored 91 out of 100. Each of three areas splits into tens of detailed questions for the report author.
Most of them are of the following type: “does the country have problem A?”, “do journalists suffer from problem B?”. However, many aspects of media freedom – existence of self-censorship among journalists or plurality of opinions in state outlets – cannot be properly assessed in binary yes-or-no style. The degree of every problem differs from country to country. In many specific questions, the Freedom House methodology seems not to consider this.
Engaging more Belarusian experts and revising the questionnaire will help Freedom House fight stereotypes rather than spread them.