Better than under Rákosi, worse than under Jaruzelski: What can repressions in Belarus be compared to?

Since the summer of 2020, the most massive repressions in the recent history of Belarus have taken place. compares the scale of terror of 2020-2021 with the repressive campaigns of some dictatorial regimes in Europe in the 20th century.

Illustrative photo: AH/Belsat

State terror in Belarus 2020–2021:

  • more than 35,000 people administratively detained, thousands tortured;
  • more than 5 thousand criminal cases opened;
  • 4 to 20 people died.

Poland at the time of martial law

In the midst of a deep political crisis, on December 13, 1981, the head of the communist Polish People’s Republic, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, declared martial law. Tanks and armoured vehicles appeared on the streets of Polish cities. Mass arrests of people associated with the independent trade union Solidarity have begun. In total, during the martial law in 1981-1983, about 10,000 people were interned (that is, temporarily imprisoned without a court decision). More than 13,000 citizens were tried for political reasons.

The scale of repressions in Belarus in 2020-2021 has already surpassed the scale of repressions in Poland during the martial law. Since August 2020, more than 35,000 people have been administratively detained in 14 months: even in absolute numbers it is much more than in Poland in 1981-1983. If we talk about criminal cases, in terms of population (about 36 million people lived in Poland in 1981), the intensity of criminal prosecution of dissidents in Belarus is almost twice the intensity of criminal prosecution during the martial law in Poland.

Our heroes and innocent victims: 10 harshest sentences in political trials

The severity of punishments for opposition leaders also differs. For example, the leader of Solidarity and the future president of Poland Lech Wałęsa spent 11 months in detention; not in a regular prison, but in conditions close to house arrest. The current leaders of the Belarusian opposition have been in jail for more than a year. Pavel Sevyarynets was sentenced to 7 years in prison, Maksim Znak to 10 years, Maryia Kalesnikava to 11 years, and Viktar Babaryka to 14 years. Mikalai Statkevich and Syarhei Tsikhanouski face long terms of imprisonment.

But it should be noted that in Poland in 1981-1983 there were more human casualties. According to various estimates, 40 to more than 100 people died then. In Belarus in 2020-2021, 5 to 20 people became victims of the state terror policy.

Czechoslovakia after the Prague Spring

In 1968, the events took place in Czechoslovakia, which went down in history as the Prague Spring, a period of democratic reform and the expansion of citizens’ rights and freedoms. The Prague Spring was suppressed by the Soviet Union, which brought troops into Czechoslovakia and forcibly changed the country’s government to a more convenient one.

Point of no return: Year passes since start of biggest-ever protests in Belarus

After the defeat of the Prague Spring, the leadership of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, led by Gustáv Husák, set a course for political repression and increased control over all spheres of life. This course was called “normalization”. Thousands of people were arrested or lost their jobs.

American historian Kevin McDermott gives the following figure: from 1969 to 1974, 3,078 people were convicted for political reasons. That is, an average of about 615 political sentences were handed down each year. More than 1,000 people have been convicted in political cases in Belarus since October 2020.

Anti-Soviet texts on the walls of buildings in Prague in 1968. Photo: Mondadori Collection / Universal Images Group / Forum

Thus, if we take only the verdicts in criminal cases, so far in absolute terms the scale of repression in Belarus exceeds the scale of repression in Czechoslovakia in the first five years of “normalization” by 40%. But given the population (14.3 million people lived in Czechoslovakia in 1970), the difference is even more impressive. In Czechoslovakia, the average annual level of repression was 4.3 politically motivated sentences per 100,000 population, and in Belarus – 10.6 (almost 2.5 times more). And these figures will only get worse, as a total of more than 5,000 criminal cases related to politics have been initiated in Belarus since August 2020. If they all go to court, the rates of Czechoslovak repression will be exceeded many times over.

Ten inspirational quotes from political prisoners

The regime of “black colonels” in Greece

In April 1967, a military coup led by George Papadopoulos came to power in Greece. The Greek military dictatorship went down in history as the “black colonels” regime, as the main role in the coup was played by the military in the rank of colonels who wore black uniforms.

On the day of the coup, “black colonels” took armoured vehicles out on the streets; mass arrests of opposition members, public figures and dissidents began across the country. In total, more than 10,000 people were arrested in a few days. The detainees were first held at the city racetrack in Athens, some of them were killed there. Prisoners were then sent to camps, and thousands of political prisoners were tortured.

Demonstration against the regime of “black colonels”. Greece, November 19, 1973. Photo: AGIP / Rue des Archives / Forum

The population of Greece in 1967 was 8.68 million people, it’s 700 thousand less than in Belarus today. Therefore, in terms of the intensity of terror, the “black colonels” surpassed the Lukashenka regime in the first month after the coup. But then the rate of repression in Greece dropped significantly. In Belarus, only the intensity of administrative prosecution has slowed down (due to the suppression of mass protests), but the scale of criminal prosecution, on the contrary, has grown: for example, if last year 1.7 thousand politically motivated cases were opened, this year their number grew to about 3.3 thousand.

Experts confirm it was former Interior Minister Karayeu’s voice demanding ‘purge’

Hungary before and after the 1956 uprising

In 1956, mass protests broke out in Hungary, which escalated into an armed anti-communist uprising. It was suppressed by the Soviet army. About 3,000 Hungarians were killed and 13,000 wounded. After the street confrontation, the communist regime led by János Kádár began mass political repressions. Within a few years, about 26,000 citizens were repressed, of whom 13,000 were sentenced to various prison terms and about 350 were executed. At the same time, the population of Hungary was only 9.88 million people – not much more than in today’s Belarus.

But the repression after the 1956 uprising still does not compare to the state terror that Hungarians experienced in the first half of the 1950s. During the rule of communist leader Mátyás Rákosi (he was called “Stalin’s best student”), a million people were included in the list of unreliable people, 650,000 were investigated, almost 400,000 were sentenced to prison and concentration camps (every 23rd resident of the country was imprisoned). The terror of Rákosi’s time was the most widespread in all of post-war Europe. The scale of Hungarian repressions, even in absolute numbers, is 16 times higher than the scale of repressions in Belarus in 2020-2021.

8.5 years in jail for Minsker Stsyapan Latypau who attempted suicide in court as sign of protest

Pre-war Hitler’s Germany

After Adolf Hitler came to power on January 30, 1933, 200,000 people were detained in Germany for 11 months for political reasons (Nicholas Wachsmann, “History of Nazi Concentration Camps”). That is an average of 18,181 monthly detentions.

A group of randomly arrested people arrives at the newly built Dachau concentration camp in the spring of 1933. Photo: SZ Photo / SZ-Photo / Forum

People were detained as a precautionary measure, i.e. without criminal cases and court decisions, but they remained in prison not for years, but only for months. The experience of prisoners could be very different. In places of detention, where old German guards worked, conditions were acceptable, and physical violence was almost non-existent. In the camps run by the Nazi SS and SA officers, the detainees were tortured. Some political prisoners died as a result, but there was no talk of mass extermination in Germany in 1933: “death camps” would appear only during the war.

From August to December 2020, 33,000 people were detained in Belarus. That is an average of 6.6 thousand per month. The population of Belarus is 9.4 million, the population of Germany in 1933 was 66 million. Thus, in Hitler’s Germany the average monthly level of repression was 27.5 detentions per 100,000 population, and in Lukashenka’s Belarus – 70 detentions per 100,000. That is, the rate of terror in Belarus in 2020 was 2.5 times higher than the rate of terror in Germany in 1933.

Punitive psychiatry on agenda in Belarus again. How it was used by tzar, Nazis and communists

It is important to note that 1933 was the peak of repression in pre-war Germany, and in the next few years the scale of terror decreased significantly. For example, in the summer of 1934, about 2,400 people remained in concentration camps. Genocide and millions of prisoners are a reality of World War II, when the Nazi regime unleashed terror in the occupied territories.

Stalin’s repressions

The “great terror” of 1937-1938 is considered to be the peak of Stalin’s repressions. According to official data, a total of 1.55 million people were arrested in the USSR in 15 months (August 1937 – November 1938). Of these, 1.34 million were convicted, including 681,692 people shot. If we take only criminal prosecution, its intensity in terms of population in 1937-1938 exceeds the current figures in Belarus by 16.5 times. But, of course, even these figures do not reflect the real picture, because during the “great terror” more than half of the convicts were shot, and sent to the camp en masse for 10 years.

Nikolai Yezhov with Joseph Stalin and Vyacheslav Molotov on the embankment of the Moscow-Volga canal. Photo: State Museum of the Political History of Russia / Fine Art. Images / Forum

Even if we take the less bloody actions of the Stalinist regime, they are larger than the current repressions. For example, 5437 people were arrested in the BSSR alone from February to May 1930; the OGPU “troika” led by F. Rappoport executed 912 people, sent 1,723 people to the camps (256 of them were sentenced to 10 years), and sent 2,237 people in exile (T. Protko, “Formation of the Soviet totalitarian system in Belarus”).

5437 people were arrested in 4 months, which is even more in absolute numbers than was prosecuted in 14 months of 2020-2021. If we take into account that the population of the BSSR then was only 5 million people, it turns out that the average monthly level of terror in the early 1930s was 7 times the intensity of terror now. At that, a significant proportion of sentences (14.6%) were executions.

In 1936 (the repression intensified then, but was still far from the scale of the “great terror”) in the BSSR, the “troika” of the OGPU and the Supreme Court convicted a total of 8423 people – again, more than were prosecuted in Belarus in absolute figures, as well as in terms of population. Russian special services assisted Belarusian counterparts in torturing protesters in 2020