Belarusian authorities fighting historical past for their own future?

On November 22, hundreds of Belarusians traveled to Vilnius to participate in the ceremomy solemn reburial of Kastus Kalinouski and other participants of the uprising of 1863-1864. On that day, Belarusians raised historical white-red-white flags that symbolize the freedom and independence of the nation. In turn, Belarusian authorities and pro-governmental media ignored the event and avoided highlighting an unexpectedly significant number of ‘opposition flags’.

Story of forbidden hero

The 24-year-old Kastus Kalinouski was one of the leaders of the anti-Tsar uprising of 1863-1864. Together with Felix Razhanski and Valery Urubleuski, he founded the first-ever newspaper in the Belarusian language Mużyckaja Prauda (Peasants’ Truth). For several years, they had been publishing articles of patriotic and anti-Tsarist nature; the peasants being the main target group. The leaders supported the idea of rekindling the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth which the present-day territory of Belarus was part of. In 1795, the Commonwealth was finally divided by the Russian Empire, Prussia, and Austria. In total, about 70,000 persons were involved in the uprising. The Tsarist regime brutally put down the protests.

Kastus Kalinouski.

Kalinouski was caught and sentenced to death. He prepared the last edition of Mużyckaja Prauda when waiting for the execution. In the series of articles, he addressed the Belarusian people touching upon the issues of freedom, justice, and the future of his homeland. On 22 March 1864, Kalinouski was hanged in the Lukiškės Square in Vilnius. As the expert investigation showed later, his associates were shot down.

However, the current-day regime has never been favourable upon Kastus Kalinouski. He is barely present in the education literature in schools and universities; there are just some streets named after the executed patriot in the whole country. Nevertheless, his legend survived the Soviet rule and remained a symbol of the Belarusians’ fight for freedom.

Historian Alyaksandr Krautsevich explains why even during the Soviet times, the story of Kalinouski was not subjected to absolute censorship:

“He fought the Tsarist regime, and in Soviet times, the Bolsheviks accepted those heroes who made a stand against the [Tsarist] government. The anti-Russian side of the uprising was silenced.”

According to the expert, Kalinouski was not a forbidden figure in the Soviet time, which was used by Belarusian intellectuals and cultural figures. Artists created a series of paintings devoted to him; writers presented several works, the most famous of which is Spikes Under Your Sickle by Uladzimir Karatkevich.

Reburial ceremony in Vilnius

The remains of Kastus Kalinouski and 19 participants in the uprising were found on the Gediminas Hill in 2017; a year before, Lithuanian archeologists started excavations after a rock slide. It took them almost two years to identify the remains. But in the spring of 2019, archeologists from the National Museum of History said that they were 95% sure that those of Kalinouski were among the findings. Getting the insurgent fighters buried, the Russian Empire did not care about graves or tombstones; moreover, some bodies had their hands tied, others were pitted facedown. Were it not for the rock slide in 2016, the place of their burial could still be a riddle wrapped up in an enigma.

The chapel at Rasos cemetery in Vilnius – the resting place of the remains, phot. Hanna Rusinava

After the discussions about the place of reburial, the ceremony was appointed to be held in Vilnius. Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda and his Polish counterpart Andrzej Duda took part in the event, but Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka failed to appear. Instead, he sent Deputy Prime Minister Ihar Pyatryshenka.

Those who came to Vilnius with white-red-white flags did secure the visible presence of the Belarusian nation at the reburial. State-run TV сhannels were reluctant to broadcast the event; they selectively aired the fragments of ceremony being condicted in the church in order to prevent the picture of Belarusians’ waving ‘alternative’ flags and mobilizing around the idea of the national hero from being brought into limelight. The nation’s face was also saved by Belarusian Roman Catholic Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz who stressed in his speech:

“Kanstantsin Kalinouski saw Belarus as a free nation that has the right to self-determination. In him and his companions, we see altruism, selflessness”.

In contrast, minister Pyatryshenka suggested that the memory of Kalinouski and his counterparts should not be politicized:

“Each country has its image of Kastus Kalinouski. But he should not become the historical figure that is used in political goals”.

In response, the Belarusian participants in the ceremony started whistling and chanting “Shame!”

This is just one example of how the authorities aim to recognize historical heritage but keep the Belarusian national idea separated from the opposition and those possessing alternative political views. Accepting Kalinouski as a symbol of Belarus’ freedom and independence would imply supporting the opposition movement.

Kurapaty and Chernobyl disaster: inconvenient memory

A similar tendency of admitting but disregarding historical heritage can be traced through examples of Kurapaty and Chernobyl.

The forest of Kurapaty appears as one more forgotten heritage case for many Belarusians. The story of Kurapaty where the Stalin secret police NKVD shot (by various estimates) around 30,000-250,000 innocent people in 1937-1941 started to be publicly discussed at the end of the 80s. Then, Zyanon Paznyak, an opposition leader of the 90s, made the results of his investigation public and ontributing to staging the first commemoration event. In 1993, Belarus recognized Kurapaty as the country’s cultural heritage place. However, as a successor of the Soviet political tradition, Alyaksandr Lukashenka denies either the number of victims or the NKVD’s fault.

In memory of executed by Stalinists: Rally on All Souls’ Day in Kurapaty (photos)

In 2018, Belarusian activists found out that a restaurant might be opened literally on the bones of the executed in Kurapaty. This caused a wave of protests and brought the independent media’s attention to the problem. At the same time, state-owned media keep turning a blind eye to Kurapaty. Until now, the so-called Kurapaty defenders have been distributing the brochures about the mass executions site at the entrance of the Let’s Go and Eat restaurant.

The Chernobyl disaster and its consequences were similarly tabooed by officials. After Belarus started to build a nuclear power plant in Astravets, national media significantly decreased the coverage of it. In that way, state-owned media legitimized the construction of the would-be NPP. The annual Chernobyl Path rally that has been held since the 1990s disappeared from the official agenda or was referred to as the protest of marginals. Even the news about the much-talked-about HBO series Chernobyl has been presented with presented with suspicion or completely ignored. The 2015 Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich, who wrote a book about the Chernobyl tragedy got removed entirely from the regime’s agenda. As she is critical of the past and current authorities, she is never invited or praised by the government of Belarus.

Kalinouski, Kurapaty, Chernobyl as dissident symbols

Kalinouski is a symbol of the struggle against the Russian occupation in the context of active negotiations on Belarus-Russia further integration, which may cause Moscow’s anger. Kurapaty symbolizes the memory of the innocent victims of the Stalinist regime. Various actions and publications on this topic are also irritating Minsk which builds its own ideology on the Soviet heritage, constantly declaring that it was the era of the true friendship of peoples and social justice.

It is the economic interest that lies in the foundation of silencing the tragedy of Chernobyl. President Lukashenka had to allocate enormous resources in order to assure Belarusians that the construction of the Astravets NPP is a cost-effective and safe project. Therefore, any mention of Chernobyl (even in the world-known series) causes a negative reaction of the authorities.

The turn of the 80s-90s was the beginning of the national revival; Kurapaty, Kalinouski and many other figures are associated with it. Instead of praising the rich history and Belarusian independence symbols, the regime either ignores or criticizes a number of major landmarks of the country’s past.

Alesia Rudnik,