Split Identity and a Tug-of-War for Belarus’s Memory

Executive Summary

World War II continues to be at the center of Belarusians’ collective memory. However, Belarus is a country with two historical narratives that have been at odds with each other since the inception of the Belarusian national movement. While the neo-Soviet/Russo-centric narrative has captured the imagination of the majority of Belarusians, the Westernizing narrative has gradually but steadily been making headway, particularly following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Some kind of symbiosis of the two narratives is underway. As this process unfolds, however, policymakers focused on Belarus ought to evince patience and draw lessons from the strategic blunders and the Achilles heels of the Belarusian Westernizers, such as the whitewashing of local Nazi collaborators during World War II. 


Belarusian national identity is still crystallizing despite Belarus’s 28-year history of existence as an independent state. The continued absence of a clear-cut identity is a function of several variables. These include the belated emergence (at the start of the 20th century) of a national movement; location between two older and well-established national cores, that of Poles and Russians, linguistic cousins, each of which is closer to Belarusians than to each other; and the pervasive influence of Russia over the course of the last 200 years. One of the implications of this influence is that today, the overwhelming majority of Belarusians communicate primarily or exclusively in Russian, the language of a nominally different ethnic group. While all fifteen Soviet republics became independent states as a result of the Soviet Union’s breakup, in Belarus, there was no separatist movement, so it gained its independence without fighting for it. That sets Belarus apart from two of its neighbors, Lithuania and Latvia, as well as from the western part of Ukraine. Though Poland, Belarus’s western neighbor, has never been part of the Soviet Union, escaping Russia’s sphere of influence had been one of the refrains of Polish nationalism since the uprising of 1794.

In contrast to Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and western Ukraine, anti-Russian sentiment never developed in Belarus. Rather, Belarusian attachment to culturally close Russia and Russians has always run the risk of diluting any sense of difference from them. In his 2018 book, Yury Shevtsov, born and raised in the westernmost part of Belarus, referred to Belarusian culture as a territorial (regional) version of Russian culture.[1] While this may be a radical formulation, likely to be rejected by many Belarusians, the number of those effectively siding with it is nonetheless quite significant. The impediments to the development of a cohesive Belarusian identity were analyzed in detail in this author’s earlier publications, especially in his 2008 book.[2] The book by Per Rudling[3] contains the best analysis of the early years of Belarusian nationalism. The works by Nina Mechkovskaya, Valer Bulgakov and Yulia Chernyavskaya, as well as articles and interviews of Valyantsin Akudovich represent genuinely Belarusian sources that informed this author’s views on Belarusian identity. Some of these works are quoted below.

Two Opposing Collective Memories

The historical memory of every community is a flip side of its identity.[4] As such, the collective memory of Belarusians cannot help but bear an imprint of Belarusian identity’s birthmarks and tribulations. To this day, Belarusians do not have a cohesive historical memory. Instead, it comes in two pronounced versions, though there have been some selectively successful attempts at consolidating them. What follows are the results of a national survey devoted to Belarusian national memory as well as closer analysis of its two opposing versions.

Results of 2016 Survey on National Memory

The survey in question was conducted in 2016 by the Institute of History of the National Academy of Sciences.[5] It revealed that only about one-tenth of respondents see events from Belarus’s early history—that is, when the territory of contemporary Belarus was integral to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL), Rzeczpospolita (Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) and the Russian Empire—as formative for the country today. Among younger Belarusians, i.e., those between the ages of 18 and 35, as many as 19 percent attach importance to the GDL; whereas among the older group (56+), only 11 percent do.

Overall, the most important historical event in Belarusians’ collective perception turns out to be the Soviet Union’s victory in the Great Patriotic War (1941–1945)—the name given to World War II (following Nazi Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union) in Russia and Belarus. Out of the older generation, 74 percent marked this event as important, more than any other event. Out of those between 36 and 55 years old, 70.5 percent did, and so did 64.5 percent of the youngest polled group. The survey revealed that the second-most important historical event to Belarus, based on the frequency with which it was invoked by the respondents, was the breakup of the Soviet Union. Out of the aforementioned age groups (listed in descending order of age), 59.2, 50.3, and 49.8 percent, respectively, attached importance to it. The third most important event was the Chernobyl catastrophe: 49.6, 45.6 and 43 percent, respectively, called it important. Neither the 1917 Communist Revolution nor the unification of Belarus in 1939 appear to be as crucial as those three events, although 32 percent of 56-year-olds and up did find the revolution significant. It is remarkable that the acquisition of Belarusian statehood appeared less important than the breakup of the Soviet Union, although both events are two sides of the same coin. Still, only 43.7, 40.0 and 37 percent, respectively, of the respondents attached importance to Belarus’s becoming an independent state. However indirectly, this upholds the idea that the Soviet Union was the entity that Belarusians deemed their homeland and within which they began to perceive themselves as a community.

The authors of the survey concluded that in Belarusian society, perception of the past is relatively homogenous and that differences between the generations are not overly significant. These assertions require one qualification, however. Most, if not the overwhelming number, of Belarusians adhere to the neo-Soviet/Russo-centric view of Belarusian history, so it is not surprising that the national survey showed no polarization. But even a superficial familiarity with Belarusian media—state-run, opposition-minded and those outlets broadcasting from abroad, including online media[6]—as well as communication with average Belarusians confirm that their historical memory is not as homogenous as would appear from the aforementioned survey. Along with the neo-Soviet version, the Westernizing one, sometimes called national-democratic, is prevalent, as well. Moreover, it is represented and articulated in the media at least as strongly as the neo-Soviet variety, and its online presence is even more abundant than that of the former.

Collective Memory of Belarusians: The Neo-Soviet/Russo-Centric Version

The neo-Soviet strain of collective memory is often criticized for being a product of indoctrination and for the precious little attention it pays to pre-Soviet history—as if Belarus did not exist prior to 1917. Both criticisms have some validity. The element of indoctrination is real, as secondary schooling in history is subject to government control. But just as in Russia, where liberal ideas disseminated during the Boris Yeltsin period were not absorbed by mass consciousness as readily as national-patriotic concepts, likewise in Belarus there is more harmony between the watchful eye of the state and public demands for certain “truths” about history.[7] Indeed, that overlap is more extensive than liberal and nationalist critics of the neo-Soviet “memorial cult” are ready to admit. No less important is the fact that Belarus’s pre-Soviet history is not easy to imagine and canonize because ethnic-Belarusian self-awareness itself is a product of the 20th century. Even the self-name—Belarusians—was internalized en masse during the Soviet period. Therefore, if that time frame is recognized as formative by most members of the national community, this recognition matches their actual experience and that of their ancestors. This is all the more true since the neo-Soviet strain of national memory does not reject the pre-Soviet history in principle. Rather, it downplays early history, which is what the aforementioned survey revealed. In that sense, the physical transfer of the Francis Skarynatoponym offered a powerful metaphor.

Francis Skaryna (1470–1550) was an educator, pioneer printer, and Bible translator. Born in Polotsk and educated in Kraków, his first printed edition of the Bible, “The Psalter,” was released on August 6, 1517, in Old Ruthenian. The culmination of his life’s work was printing a translation of the Bible in twenty-three books, between 1517 and 1519. Belarusian historiography first laid claim to Skaryna in 1922 and then again in 1948.

In 1991, the main street in Minsk was named Skaryna Avenue, but in 2005, Skaryna was exiled as it were to the city’s northern periphery, where a significant but secondary street was named after him; whereas, the main street was renamed Independence Avenue. This reshuffling of street names effectively signified the political establishment’s continued desire to pay respect to Skaryna, but with a new sense of proportion. The acquisition of independence, the Great Patriotic War, and the October 1917 Revolution, the names of whose major actors are still prominently borne by streets in downtown Minsk (along with Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels)—all those assets of collective memory are seen as more important.

The neo-Soviet/Russo-centric strain of that memory assigns the role of Belarus’s precursor to the Polotsk Principality, integral to Kievan Rus. The descendants of the Krivichi tribe, key to the formation of Belarusians, are described as a bone of contention between the culturally close Russians and the more culturally remote Poles. The 1596 Union of Brest, which marked the transfer of local Orthodox Christians to the patronage of the Roman Catholic Pope and the formation of the so-called Uniate (Greek Catholic) Church, is viewed as resulting from Polish ploys. “Having understood that one cannot convert the Orthodox into Catholics in a straightforward way, the Vatican and ruling circles of Poland concocted a new plan of unification of Catholic and Orthodox churches under the auspices of the Vatican. The leading Orthodox clerics in Belarus and Ukraine supported this plan… Leery of losing their land estates, they were ready for betrayal,”[8] reads a popular college-level textbook of Belarusian history. As such, the mass conversion of the Uniates back into Orthodoxy, in 1839, is construed as their rightful return to the bosom of the native church. The anti-Russian uprisings of 1794, 1830–1831, and 1863–1864 on Belarusian lands are perceived as Polish, with the Belarusian peasantry taking the side of Russia.

After World War II, the personality of Kastus (Konstanty) Kalinovsky, referred to as a fighter for the class interests of Belarusian peasants, appeared in official history textbooks. The fact that he published the newspaper Muzhytskaya Prauda (Peasant’s Truth) was acknowledged—but not the fact that he called upon the local peasantry to consolidate under the patronage of Poland in order to fight Russia. In the town of Kobrin, Brest Oblast, there is a military-history museum named after Alexander Suvorov. To a significant extent it is devoted to Suvorov’s crackdown on the 1794 uprising led by Belarus-born Tadeusz Kościuszko. There is little doubt this museum is part and parcel of a Russo-centric pantheon of Belarusian historical memory. “When Belarus joined Russia, the Belarusian people were liberated from nasty [sic] national and religious oppression”[9]—this thesis is integral to the refrain of the Russo-centric view, as far as pre-Soviet history is concerned.

The 1917 Revolution is held in high regard by the Neo-Soviet strain of historical memory. Moreover, in Belarus, where November 7 (considered the start of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917) is still a national holiday, this event is higher in status than in Russia itself. Speaking on November 7, 2018, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka underscored that the Revolution laid the foundation for national revival and self-determination of many peoples.[10] The fact that Belarusians en masse did not fight for self-determination either in the aftermath of the Revolution or seven decades years later finds a peculiar interpretation in the popular course of history. “When Soviet power was taking shape and nation-building experience was absent, the working class of Belarus treated any detachment whatsoever from Soviet Russia with suspicion.”[11] Hence the more-than-skeptical attitude toward the Belarusian People’s Republic. Proclaimed on March 25, 1918, this would-be state languished for the remaining nine months of German military occupation and failed to convince anybody, including the occupiers themselves, of the fact of its existence, although it did solicit protection from the Kaiser. In contrast, the Soviet quasi-statehood bestowed upon Belarus on January 1, 1919, in Smolensk, at the congress of the Bolshevik Party’s western section, is regarded as the legitimate and sole forerunner of fully-fledged statehood that Belarus gained 72 years later, in 1991, in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. The cultural anthropologist Yulia Chernyvskaya underscored that the Communist ideal of equality matched the ethos of a peasant community and, therefore, was favored by Belarusians.[12]

Still, according to the majority perception, even the 1917 Revolution pales in comparison to the professed importance of the Great Patriotic War. During the Soviet period, the persistently repeated thesis was that every fourth resident of Belarus had perished in that conflict. Today, it is believed that every third did. The pivotal element of this national memory is the Belarusian underground partisan movement, largely organized and steered from Moscow. Somehow, the memory of the war eclipsed even the unification of Belarus on September 17, 1939, when, as a result of the implementation of the Soviet-German non-aggression pact, Poland was divided between the two invading signatories. As a result of this Polish partition between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, western Belarusian lands that had been appended to Poland in 1921 were suddenly reunited with the rest of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic.

The enormity of the casualties, the cruelty of the occupiers, and a wide and efficient network of partisan detachments, especially in the eastern part of Belarus, form the centerpieces of wartime memories. Such historical landmarks as the Brest Fortress, Khatyn, the sprawling and informative Museum of the Great Patriotic War, and the recently (2018) opened memorial at Trostenets (the fourth-largest Nazi death camp in Europe), sustain these memories. It may be somewhat more difficult to grasp why the memory of the war is not just a tribute to its casualties and to the eventual victory in that titanic conflict but also a symbol of its formative influence on Belarusians as a national community. To wit, July 3, when the Soviet Army liberated Minsk from the Germans in 1944, is now commemorated as Independence Day in Belarus. From 1992 to 1996, independence was celebrated on July 27, the anniversary of the declaration of state sovereignty adopted in 1990. But at the November 1996 referendum, 88 percent of Belarusians endorsed the transfer of this national holiday from July 27 to July 3. “This decision reflects the historical memory of Belarusians and the continuity of generations,” Lukashenka declared during the Independence Day celebration in 2017. “In the hearts of Belarusians, independence is connected with liberation from fascism.”[13] In such a way, not detachment from Russia but expulsion of the German Nazi occupiers is perceived as a step toward independence.

This can seem confounding to outside observers. It is, after all, impossible to deny that Belarus’s independence was a direct result of the breakup of the Soviet Union, the entity once created by Russia, which also played the key role in that union. Perhaps three circumstances can clarify this confusion. One of them is the failure of ethnic nationalism to consolidate the Slavic-speaking population of the region around genuinely Belarusian symbols. This has been reaffirmed by several researchers, including Yulia Chernyavskaya.[14] The Polish Belarus watcher Ryszard Radzik once remarked that “not all distinctions between groups of people bear a national character” and that this formula matches contemporary differences between Russians and Belarusians: while differences do exist, it is hard to say if they rise to the national level.[15] The second circumstance is that a pervasive and effective underground partisan movement in the formerly overwhelmingly peasant Belarusian community is perceived as the first ever expression of its collective will. “During the Second World War,” writes Yury Shevtsov, “there was a powerful outburst of Belarusian national feeling. Belarusians generally opposed the Nazis and, as a rule, supported the Soviet partisans. The Nazis tried to rely on the non-Soviet interpretation of Belarusian nationalism, and a notable portion of Belarusians supported the Nazis. In Belarus, the war against the Nazis turned into a war of two types of national identity… During the defeat of Nazism, supporters of the non-Soviet version of Belarusian identity were for the most part killed or fled the country… The hatred of the victorious version of the Belarusian culture for the Nazi collaborators is, as a rule, automatically transferred to the historical Belarusian symbols used by them and to everything connected with the non-Soviet version of Belarusian identity and ideology.”[16]

After the war, Belarusians became a majority in their urban areas for the first time in history; previously, Jews, Russians and Poles dominated nominally Belarusian cities and towns. This is the third circumstance highlighting the formative influence of the war on Belarusian nation building. A joke made the rounds during the 1960s and 1970s that the principal battle won by the partisans was the battle for the post-war corridors of power. The period when the regional administration was led by outsiders had eventually come to an end. Before the war, only one person with local roots, Vassily Sharangovich, ascended to the helm of power in Minsk, and merely for three months. An entirely different era began with the appointment of Kirill Mazurov (1956–1965) and then of Piotr Masherov (1965–1980) as first secretaries of Belarus’s Communist Party. During the war, both led partisan detachments. Along with them, many former partisans obtained leadership positions. Moreover, the so-called “lieutenant prose” of Vasyl Bykov (Bykaŭ) enriched the self-knowledge of Belarusians. Perhaps the most prominent Belarusian writer of all times, Bykov took part in the war as a petty officer, from summer 1942 to the end of hostilities, and sustained several wounds.

Three occurrences of post-war history dominate Belarusian national memory. These are the industrial growth of the 1960s–1980s, the implementation of a massive program to drain the Polessye swamps, and the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The accelerated development of the industrial sector in Belarus led to modernization and quality-of-life improvements that were historically unprecedented for the area. This helps explain part of the reason why Belarusians en masse are so attached to their Soviet past. What actually transpired in Belarus was hyper-industrialization, whereby state-run enterprises with more than 500 employees collectively came to account for more than half of the entire labor force. Elderly and middle-aged Belarusians retain warm feelings toward the last 20 years under Soviet rule. In contrast to big-city Russia, in Belarus, these sentiments do not conflict with those of Soviet-era dissidents; in Belarus, there were precious few, if any, dissidents at all. Exceptionally genial memories are retained of Piotr Masherov. These positive recollections first of all relate to the industrial success stories of the late 1960s and 1970s that occurred under his rule, when Belarusian cities were growing fast and, for the first time in their lives, many people moved out of communal apartments or wooden huts with brick stoves into modern, single-family apartments.[17]

As for the drainage of wetlands in Polessye during the 1960s and 1970s, it added much-needed and reasonably fertile arable land—allowing for future success stories in Belarusian agribusiness. Also, like in ancient Egypt, where life depended on the quality of the irrigation system and its control from a single center, so here, in Polessye, life came to depend on the quality of drainage and its centralized control.[18]

In its turn, the Chernobyl disaster led to the emergence of a large group of people who could not imagine their existence without the ever-present care of the state. In a country that gained independence unexpectedly just five years after Chernobyl, this gave an additional boost to a nostalgic sentiment about the Soviet Union and to the most persistent opposition to privatization and other aspects of market reform.

In today’s Belarus, an already sizeable proportion of the population (about 27 percent) has lived its entire life under a single political leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Initially, attitudes toward Lukashenka polarized Belarusians. Gradually, that polarization weakened but never disappeared entirely. Thus, Minsk-based intellectuals continue to roll their eyes and pass ironic judgments whenever Lukashenka is mentioned. The nub of the matter is not just his exceptional longevity at the helm of power but also his state farm (sovkhoz) origins and authoritarian tendencies. Most middle-aged and elderly Belarusians, however, remember well what they voted for in the 1995 and 1996 referendums, held during the early years of Lukashenka’s presidency. Thus, in 1995, they overwhelmingly opted for the restoration of the official status of the Russian language (in a predominantly Russian-speaking country) and also for the return of Soviet-era national insignia. These replaced the short-lived (1992–1995) white-red-white flag and coat of arms featuring the Pahonia (Chase), which were rooted in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania tradition but failed to endear themselves to most contemporary Belarusians. In 1996, they voted for giving exceptional prerogatives to the then–widely popular head of state, at the expense of the unpopular parliament. The national legislature was perceived as an imitational structure, whose genuine importance to this day has not been internalized by Belarusians or (as it seems) by Russians or Ukrainians either.

Collective Memory of Belarusians: The Westernizing Version

Since the late 1980s, the neo-Soviet strain of national memory has coexisted with the Westernizing one. The latter, however, is no younger than the neo-Soviet version. The first indigenously produced survey of Belarusian history was published in 1910; and by its author’s, Vatslav Lastouski’s, own assertion, the work was meant to help liberate Belarusians from the Russian yoke.[19] Later on, however, Westernizing narratives of Belarusian history were hard hit on two occasions and never fully recovered.

The initial blow came in the 1930s, when close to 300 Belarusian-speaking writers and college professors fell victim to mass Stalinist repressions. Subsequently, the Westernizing version of Belarusian history espoused by many of these purged academics was adopted by collaborationist structures under German occupation in World War II, which were then defeated by the partisan movement and the Soviet Army.

The third resurgence of the Westernizing historical discourse came about during Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika and is firmly associated with Zenon Poznyak (Zianon Pazniak), an archaeologist and discoverer of the mass graves of the victims of mass executions in the Kuropaty forest tract in the late 1930s. Having emigrated from Belarus in 1996 because of the danger allegedly hanging over his life, Poznyak excluded himself from domestic political life. He is now remembered by many—including those who give him credit as the founder of “true” Belarus—as a dreamer, a tribune, a demagogue, a conspiracy theorist and an utterly impractical politician.

Resurrected thanks to the efforts of some of Poznyak’s associates who were originally united in the Belarusian Popular Front, the Westernizing movement today has a solid presence online. It is sustained by the Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty (BSRL), the newspaper Nasha Niva[20] as well as by some other less significant outlets. The contribution of the BSRL to sustaining national memory is incomparably greater than that of any other service of Radio Liberty in respective countries. This is because in Belarus, there is no equal (or commensurate to BSRL) source of news, analysis and promotion of an alternative view of history in the national language. It seems doubtful, however, that the Westernizing strain of national memory dominates the consciousness of more than 8–10 percent of Belarusians.

Although this percentage is noticeably higher among younger people and among residents of Minsk, Oleg Manaev, the founder and head of Belarus’s most reputable polling firm, IISEPS, has long noticed that the transition to older age groups is accompanied by a transition to more Russo-centric and neo-Soviet beliefs. Apparently, as Belarusian age, the latter viewpoints increasingly appear to them as more organic and suitable for everyday life in Belarus; so they face a dilemma—“either adapt to them or leave the country.”[21]

The main building blocks of the Westernizing version of Belarusian historical memory are as follows:

  1. Relations between Belarus and Russia are those between a colony and the metropolis; by all means, it is necessary to break the umbilical cord, which still connects Belarus with Russia.
  2. Belarus is a European community that should return to Europe.
  3. During the Second World War, two equally alien forces fought each other on the territory of Belarus—Nazism and Stalinism—and Belarusians fell victim to this clash.
  4. Post-war material progress tied Belarus to Russia even more. Meanwhile, Belarusians should shake off the layers of Soviet history and recall their European roots.

One of the canonical texts propagating this specification of historical memory regarding the pre-Soviet period is Ten Centuries of Belarusian History: 862–1918, by Vladimir Orlov and Gennady Saganovich (2003). Just as in the Russo-centric version, the Polotsk Pricipality is believed to be the forerunner of Belarus. But in contrast to the Russo-centric narrative, the Westernizing strand of historical memory questions the alleged subordination of Polotsk to Kiev: as the Westernizing historians point out, Kievan Prince Vladimir assassinated the local Polotsk ruler Rogvolod and took his daughter Rogneda by force. Under this telling, Rogneda thus turns into a symbol of Belarusian desire for independence and opposition to invaders. Westernizers routinely stress that governance in Polotsk was more democratic than anywhere to the east of it—i.e., in what was to become Muscovy. As Orlov and Saganovich argue in their Ten Centuries of Belarusian History, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL), which had captured Polotsk and other parts of modern-day Belarus, was indeed “privatized” by ethnic Lithuanians; but then life in it took on “Belarusian national forms.” Unlike the Russo-centric tendency to refer to “Belarusian lands” inside the GDL and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (which incorporated the GDL in 1569), the Westernizing tradition specifically refers to the latter two larger entities as “our country” or “our state.” Hence, Orlov and Saganovich write, “To fight Olgerd [GDL’s ruler], the [Russian] voivode Dmitry Minin headed the advance regiment, which was formed from Muscovites and residents of nearby cities. In the battle of Volok Lamsky… our [sic] banners utterly defeated this army and proceeded straight to Moscow.”[22]

Here is how Ten Centuries of Belarusian History describes the 1368–1372 war of Grand Duke Olgerd against Moscow:

In Belarus [sic], the grand dukes issued Magdeburg Rights Certificates… Vilnia received the first such certificate in 1387, then did Brest (1390), a year later—Grodno, in 1441—Slutsk, in 1498—Polotsk, and in 1499—Minsk… In Muscovy, and then in the Russian Empire, where rough feudal order reigned supreme, Magdeburg Rights, under which European cities lived, never existed. Not surprisingly, after capturing Belarus at the end of the 18th century, Empress Catherine II immediately issued special decrees on the abolition of self-government and of all urban liberties.[23]

Perhaps the most prominent assertions made in the Westernizing historical narrative is that Russia had not fought anybody as much as it has Belarusians. Although it is clear that Russia was fighting not “Belarus,” which simply did not exist, it still fought “our country.” In 2018, the BSRL published a table from which it follows that the “Russian-Belarusian wars” lasted a total of 72 years. Accordingly, these wars took place in 1368–1372, 1406–1408, 1445–1449, 1492–1494, 1500–1503, 1507–1508, 1512–1522, 1534–1537, 1563–1582, 1609–1618, 1632–1634 and 1654–1667.[24]

During one of these cycles of war, on September 8, 1514, GDL forces commanded by Konstantin Ostrozhsky defeated Muscovy troops at the Battle of Orsha. “The brilliant victory of our swordsmen gave the initiative to the Grand Duchy… In December 1514, the great hetman [military leader] Konstantin Ostrozhsky triumphantly entered the capital of our state, Vilnia,” Orlov and Saganovich write in their history of Belarus told from the Westernizing perspective.[25] “In 1992, on the anniversary of the Battle of Orsha, the Belarusian military took the oath of allegiance to its people on Independence Square in Minsk.”[26] That particular 16th century conflict was the last of the wars from the aforementioned list that turned out particularly bloody. And during this conflict, not only did many Orthodox priests openly collaborated with the Muscovite occupiers, but most of the Belarusian artisans were additionally exiled to Moscow. Thus, Orlov and Saganovich argue, “ordinary” Belarusians were essentially victimized twice by being forcibly deprived of their elite. “Belarus, exhausted by the war, no longer resisted Polonization.”[27] Indeed, from time to time, the idea of ​​Russian-Polish treacherous cooperation against Belarus comes up in the Westernizers’ discourse. For example, when the army of Ivan the Terrible captured Polotsk in 1563, only “Polish knights” avoided being taken into captivity, as promised to them.[28] Many years later, after the defeat of the Kościuszko uprising, when the final partition of Poland took place, “the language of instruction in the absolute majority of Belarusian schools and colleges was Polish. This may seem strange, as it shows that the Polonization of Belarus achieved great success within the Russian Empire. In St. Petersburg, it was believed that in the occupied lands it was better to deal with the Poles.”[29] That narrative is meant to explain—rather illogically—why the Belarusian language (first codified in 1918) failed to be introduced in schools and colleges as early as 1795.

In the Westernizing version of national memory, the weak national consciousness of proto-Belarusians is wholly attributed to the intrigues of external forces. And though that may sound reasonable on its surface, the totality of that attribution is questionable. After all, it was only “in the 1890s [that] in Belarus, the voice of the first truly national poet, who was later named the spiritual father of Belarusian national revival, Frantsyshak Bogushevich, a participant of the 1863 uprising, was heard for the first time… Addressing [his] compatriots, the poet convinced them that they were Belarusians […] because their language is Belarusian and the land is called Belarus.”[30] Something similar is known about such progenitors of the Belarusian revival as the brothers Ivan and Anton Lutskevich, publishers of the early-20th-century Nasha Niva newspaper and members of the Wilno/Vilnya-based masonic lodge. “It was a meeting with the devoted Renaissance writer and artist Karus Kaganets (Kazimir Kastrovitsky) that finally convinced the Lutskevich brothers that they were indeed Belarusians.”[31] To wit, this happened at the very beginning of the 20th century. Meanwhile, the Westernizing version of national memory denies the exclusively Polish character of the uprisings of 1794, 1830–1831 and 1863–1864. The point is made that the “Belarusian gentry” and even peasants participated in them, although the Russian “authorities succeeded […] in deceiving a significant part of the peasantry, who came to believe that the landlords [Pany] were fighting for the return of serfdom.”[32] Moreover, Tadeusz Kościuszko, Adam Mickiewicz, and Stanisław Moniuszko, who were born and lived on the territory of modern-day Belarus, not to mention Kastus Kalinovsky, are included in the pantheon of Belarusian national memory, albeit with some reservations. Naturally, the Russian commander Suvorov, who squelched the 1794 uprising, is labeled the worst enemy of the Belarusian people.

In October 2017, a minor international scandal was sparked, when a group of Belarusians living in Switzerland erected a monument to Kościuszko. The pedestal’s inscription read, “To a distinguished son of Belarus from grateful compatriots.” At the request of Polish diplomats, this inscription had to be eliminated. Yet, in an accommodating spirit, the Foreign Ministry of Poland stated, in its official commentary, that Tadeusz Kościuszko is a hero of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and the United States, a universal hero of humanity, and not just a “son of Belarus” or a “Polish general.” According to Warsaw, it was unacceptable for the Polish side that there was no mention of Kościuszko’s relations with Poland on the nameplate.

To be sure, the major national holiday of Belarus, from the point of view of the Westernizing version of Belarusian historical memory, is the anniversary of the Belarusian People’s Republic (BPR), proclaimed on March 25, 1918. This event is interpreted as the beginning of genuine Belarusian statehood. Though an ephemeral and unrecognized entity existing for only a few months, the BPR symbolized the first attempt to achieve independence. The BPR existed under the conditions of German military occupation and became a government in exile when this occupation ended. But clearly, for Belarusian Westernizers, the patronage of Kaiser Germany is preferred to the patronage of Russia. The first celebration of Freedom Day, as the Belarusian opposition took to calling this event, took place on March 25, 1990. Since 2000, annual demonstrations on this day repeatedly resulted in clashes with police and arrests. But starting in 2018, this violent tradition was interrupted, which will be discussed below.

The Westernizing interpretation of World War II diverges sharply from the neo-Soviet version. Herein, Belarusian Westernizers replicate other national movements of Central and Eastern Europe, especially Lithuanians and Latvians. The corresponding attitude may be expressed as follows: Belarusians were caught between two fires or, more precisely, between two mutually hostile totalitarian regimes. Partisans committed no fewer atrocities than the Germans. And for the most part, Belarusian collaborators defended the Belarusian path to independence.

That viewpoint on the war obtained a second wind in the early 1990s, when Belarus-based Westernizers reestablished contacts with aging but still active 1944 Belarusian emigrants in North America. As a result, acclamatory judgments about Wilhelm Kube, the commissioner-general of the Belorussia General District in 1941–1943, now appear with amazing regularity in the Westernizing discourse. Kube was assassinated at his Minsk residence by Elena Mazannik, who was acting on behalf of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, and was awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union for her accomplishment. The authors of eulogistic articles about Kube claim that he appreciated Belarusian culture. Indeed, there is a lot of information, first summarized by the recently deceased Belarusian-Polish historian Jerzy Turonek (Yury Turonak), showing that Kube contributed to the Belarusianization of schools and sought to rely on Belarusian cadres. Yet, the Belorussia General District commissioner-general pursued pragmatic goals. Without at least minimal support from the local population, it was next to impossible to administer a region with an underground partisan movement. So Kube had to treat local cadres differently from what had been suggested by Herman Goering in his pre-war directive. “In Belarus,” this directive read, “it will probably be difficult to find a stratum of leaders loyal toward us, since Belarusians have a lower intellectual level than local Russians, Jews and Poles.”[33] Based on extensive and fresh, as of then, data, Nickolas Vakar noted in 1956 that “leveraging Belarusian nationalism has never been considered” by the occupying administration “as seriously” as “some Belarusian sources” want to present.[34] At the end of August 1942, that is, a year before his death, the same Kube wrote in Deutsche Zeitung im Osten that “Belarus is […] no more than a vague geographical term.”[35]

The above-mentioned Turonek (1929–2019), who was born near Wilno/Vilnius and spent all his life in Poland, wrote that “the attitude of the German civil administration to the Belarusian issue was better than the attitude of the Soviet government. The fact that Belarusian schools [that is, ones whose language of instruction was Belarusian] only functioned in the occupied Belarusian capital, and in the same city liberated from occupation [schools became] almost exclusively Russian, is quite symbolic and does not require commentary. The fact of the Nazi genocide does not alter this assessment, since the number of victims of the NKVD in Kurapaty alone near Minsk does not yield to the scale of the SS-related atrocities during all punitive actions in Belarus.”[36]

Although the latter assertion is dubious in the extreme, there is no denying that Stalinist purges in Belarus and elsewhere require careful analysis, including the count of casualties. What is baffling in the aforementioned quote from Turonek, however, is how top-down or deductive his judgment is of Stalin’s terror—which he considers far greater than Hitler’s terror—and how detached it is from what Belarusians themselves might have thought about it during the war as well as after. Turonek’s most important work, Białoruś pod Okupacją Niemiecką (Belarus Under German Occupation) undermines any potential charges of his systematic bias since in it he presents the leading Belarusian Nazi collaborators in a not very attractive light. Rather, herein, his genuine point of view is revealed. Some call it “crypto-fascist” (as a prominent contemporary Belarusian historian did in a private communication with this author), but the validity of such labeling is debatable, too. Yet, it is hard not to recognize Turonek’s point of view as the Achilles heel of the Westernizing version of Belarusian historical memory, at least when it comes to the likelihood of its inclusion into the collective consciousness of contemporary Belarusians. Similarly, the idea of ​​Belarus as a Russian colony is almost equally dubious because it runs counter to the perception of several generations of Belarusians.

A recent (2018) attempt at “deconstructing” the collective memory of the Belarusians, undertaken by the British scholar Simon Lewis, has, oddly enough, more to do with philosophy and some quasi-scientific strain of literary criticism than with Belarus itself. Lewis suggests that prior to his research work, literary critics saw in World War II partisan writer Vasil Bykov’s “lieutenant prose” a description of universal human suffering, but passed over its Belarusian particulars. To Lewis, this is unacceptable. “Analysis shows,” he writes, “that Bykov’s literary experience is both deconstructive and constructive; in other words, he is destroying the monolithic image of the partisan republic and winning back an alternative space for Belarusian identity.”[37]According to Lewis, Bykov achieves this effect by showing that the suffering of Belarusian peasants during the World War II stemmed not only from Nazi atrocities but also from the cruelties of the pre-war Stalinist collectivization. Thus, “Nazism and Stalinism were structurally similar.”[38] To Lewis, this observation is at the heart of Bykov’s novellas The Dead Doesn’t Hurt, and The Sign of Misfortune, from which he, likewise, draws the conclusion that falling victim to Stalinist crimes often nudged people to subsequently participate in collaborationist formations.

Unfortunately, such “revelations” can appear eye-opening only to someone not quite immersed in the Soviet context. Throughout his research, Lewis discovers this context for himself and shares his discovery with his English-speaking readers, spicing them up with constructivist vocabulary and quotations from Polish poet, philosopher and expert on Soviet totalitarianism Czesław Miłosz. The elephant in the room, however, is sorely neglected. What, indeed, is more important, the connection between Stalin’s crimes and collaborationism—a causal link, characteristic of the entire occupied Soviet territory—or the fact that in the Belarus Lewis is writing about, this very link was weaker than in other places? If the focus of one’s inquiry is the collective memory of Belarusians, the answer is obvious. Indeed, the very scale of collaborationism in Belarus was significantly smaller than in the three neighboring countries: Ukraine, Latvia and Lithuania. And this is despite the fact that in the latter two, Stalinism—this putative driver of collaborationism—was absent in the 1930s, when the bloodiest crimes were committed in the name of Stalin and under his direct supervision. In Belarus, however, many people who suffered from the Soviet system still actively and deliberately resisted the Germans, as the late Belarusian writer and former partisan Valentin Taras revealed in his discussion with Yanka Zaprudnik, who left Belarus in 1944 with the retreating Wehrmacht units.[39]

No less important for national memory is that creative work (e.g., writing fiction), on the one hand, and historical policy of the state, on the other, are two areas that are not intimately connected. Yes, in some particularly expressive forms and/or during some critical times, one of them can offset the other. But as a rule, they are like non-intersecting planes. Attention to an individual human destiny (in fiction) and glorification of patriotic behavior (as an element of the propaganda efforts of the state) take place separately from one another. Consequently, Bykov’s widely known and appreciated prose has not, by any means, undermined the partisan myth or the Russo-centric narrative of the Great Patriotic War in general. Yes, some party bosses, incidentally based in Minsk, were routinely outraged by Bykov’s prose; but Bykov invariably found protection in the face of other bosses—for the most part in Moscow.

One of the main reasons why the centerpiece of the Westernizing version of Belarusian national memory—its anti-colonial narrative—is not accepted by the majority of Belarusians, may be the self-isolation of its advocates from the majority of the population, that is, their voluntary internal emigration. This idea was best expressed by the Minsk-based oppositionist Valantsyn Akudovich, in his essay “Without Us,”[40] written in 2001 but retaining much of its relevance today. The very title of the essay written by someone residing in Minsk, not in exile, is a powerful metaphor suggesting that Belarusian Westernizers—at least until recently—were much like internal emigrants. Akudovich wrote:

The country of Belarus lives without us. Homes, roads and bridges are built without us, cars, trains and airplane fly without us, factories, plants, and banks operate without us… And if it were not a few political broadcasts on state-run radio and TV, today few would know (except for ourselves) that there is still some “true” Belarus […] and “true” Belarusians, that is, us. […]

All of the above is hardly pleasant but is not new. Moreover, we learned by heart who caused all this trouble separating us from the Belarusian people: Polish messianism (Polonization), Russian imperialism (colonization and Russification), Communism (Sovietization), KGB (FSB), Lukashenka (Kremlin), but first of all […] the nationally unconscious […] Belarusian people…

Our conceptual break with the “Belarusian people” stems not so much from a different attitude to language, history, ideology, but from an attitude to the place where Belarusians have lived for the last two hundred years. We […] believe that  […] our grandfathers and great-grandfathers were slaves of Russia, and we, the descendants of these slaves, have obtained freedom and independence—thanks to the constant resistance of the very best of our ancestors (and in part contemporaries). The Belarusian people (perhaps ninety percent of the entire population of Belarus) think very differently. Unlike us, they did not gain freedom, but lost a great power, with which the whole world had to reckon, and for those residing in that great country it was possible not to worry about the rest of the world. […] Belarus occupied one of the most important places in the empire, was industrially modernized and enjoyed almost the highest level of wellbeing (only short of Moscow itself). At the same time, oddly enough, one cannot say that the Belarusian people are resolutely opposed to independence. No, but they do not want to give up their great history as part of the Russian Empire. Especially since we offered them to exchange the role of a great warrior and creator […] into the role of a colonial slave that has not even managed to free oneself from that slavery.

A masochistic streak runs through Akudovich’s essay: almost like Sholem Aleichem’s character Motl, who used to say “I’m fine, I’m an orphan.”

Meeting Halfway Amid a Brawl

Despite the seemingly negative prospects for the Westernizing version of Belarusian historical memory, upon closer examination it appears to have a reasonably good outlook. That said, this is not because the Westernizing version more fully bears out popular perceptions or is more organic for Belarusians—rather, it is because it is oriented toward the West. A tenacious Western lean has been etched into the minds of most educated East Europeans. It is, indeed, as stable as the East-West spatial trend or gradient of social wellbeing sustained for at least six hundred years within geographical Europe. For centuries, Europe’s East has looked up to the West, and this is not going to change in the foreseeable future, regardless of what Russian strategists may think. But the Westernizing version has one more tangible reason for cautious optimism: Whenever relations between Russia and Belarus deteriorate, the latter’s inherently Russo-centric historical policy turns to Belarusian Westernizers and borrows some of their ideas and images of the past. This borrowing is not an outcome of some insidious Western indoctrination. Rather, it is a reaction to pervasive Russification. Indeed, the Russian language, Russian channels of information, Russian investment and a Russian-like outlook have diluted Belarusians’ sense of being a community apart from Russia so much that the pendulum has finally begun to move in the opposite direction. It continues to do so despite official statements to the contrary, like a recent (autumn 2019) article about Belarus’s historical policy in Belaruskaya Dumka, the journal of the Presidential Administration.[41] For Belarusians to adopt a collective identity of themselves, an accepted sense of detachment and/or difference from Russia and Russians is a necessary prerequisite. That does not necessarily spell hostility, but it does, by its very nature, reflect some degree of alienation.

By now, the GDL and even the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania (Rzeczpospolita) have already been integrated into the official historical discourse—not yet in the capacity of “our country,” to be sure, but no longer in the role of invading forces either. Notably, here is how Vladimir Konoplev, the chairperson of the Belarusian Handball Federation, described the three-partite Belarus-Lithuania-Poland application for the venue of the 2026 European handball cup: “To win, you have to go a long way and try hard,” said Konoplev. “We, as representatives of the formerly united power, the Commonwealth, decided to try and see what we could do against the background of other European countries.”[42] In 1996–2004, Konoplev was the speaker of the Belarusian House of Representatives. Still earlier, he was a police officer from Lukashenka’s native corner of Belarus and a member of the election headquarters that brought Lukashenka to power.

In June 2019, the opening ceremony of the European Games in Minsk included a theatrical performance with scenes from Belarusian history that had previously not been glorified by the official (neo-Soviet) historical narrative. These included Léon Bakst’s costumes; paintings by Mark Chagall; as well as a showcase of Vitovt, also known as Vytautas the Great (1350–1430), the ruler of the GDL, and his knights. The performance was accompanied by the recitation of poems written by Yanka Kupala, Maxim Bogdanovich, and Adam Mickiewicz, who was born in what is today modern-day Belarus. Moreover, the Institute of History of the National Academy of Sciences has already released the first of its five-volume History of the Belarusian State. The narrative presented in this work broadly reflects that of Vatslav Lastovsky’s, the author of the first Westernizing course of Belarusian history (1910), which itself was then popularized and expanded by Orlov and Saganovich in their 2003 work cited above. Thus, the Polotsk principality is treated as equivalent to Novgorod and Kiev in a political sense—a hint at three ancestral homelands of three independent East Slavic states. The GDL and Rzeczpospolita take the baton of Belarusian statehood over from Polotsk. “We consider statehood,” proclaim the authors “as an internal potential [sic] ability of the ethnonational community and its elite, ensuring the right and possibility of a long independent historical existence and development.”[43] That is, the history of Belarusians is, by definition, the history of their statehood.

In addition, knightly tournaments are now regularly reenacted in Belarus, recreating the atmosphere of the medieval GDL. Although the display of the white-red-white flag is still taboo outside the officially authorized gatherings of the opposition, the coat of arms featuring the Pahonia has a wide circulation, appearing on souvenirs, caps and T-shirts. The restoration and renovation of the well-visited Nesvizh Castle and a number of Catholic churches across the country has Westernized the cultural landscape of western Belarus, which had already stood apart from that of nearby central Russia. Perhaps the clearest sign of the regime’s growing tolerance toward the Westernizing version of national memory was the officially permitted concert in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Belarusian People’s Republic, held on March 25, 2018, next to the Opera House, in downtown Minsk. It was a public event with thousands of spectators. Moreover, in November 2018, a commemorative monument approved by the Ministry of Culture was finally installed in Kurapaty, a site of executions during the Stalinist purges.

Other lines of convergence also exist between the two versions of national memory. Thus, the historian Alexey Bratochkin drew attention to the possibility of a “conservative consensus” based on a general rejection of “liberal values,” including migrants from other cultures and same-sex marriages. “Those who control the interpretation of history in the ideological apparatus of the Lukashenka regime and those who are formally representative of the other camp (especially the conservatives among the opposition politicians) may have more in common than there are differences between them,” observes Bratochkin.[44] He also notes that both strains of collective memory have sidelined the Holocaust. To be sure, in today’s Belarus, the Holocaust is not hushed up, as it was throughout the Soviet period: there is an impressive monument in Minsk (“The Pit”) and, since 2018, also in Trostenets. In July 2019, a memorial wall was added to the local Museum of Jewish Resistance, in Novogrudok, commemorating the September 1943 escape of dozens of people from the Novogrudok ghetto.[45]

However, the Holocaust of Belarusian Jews, of which at least 600,000 perished during the war, is poorly integrated into both versions of national memory, remaining a “history of the other.” Incidentally, even Vladimir Makei, Belarus’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, who attended the opening of the memorial in Novogrudok—together with the relatives of Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner (whose grandfather was among those who fled the ghetto back in 1943)—acknowledged that he himself learned about the Jewish resistance only as a grown man. In an interview with the BSRL, the Israeli historian Leonid Smilovitsky, who grew up in Belarus, noted that in the National Historical Museum of Belarus, the Jewish theme is not reflected at all. “If Jews accounted for 40 percent of the urban population and 80 percent of the intelligentsia, when they made up 10 percent of the total population back in 1941, roughly a million people, do you need this to be somehow reflected in the state historical museum?” Smilovitsky rhetorically asked. The new Museum of the Great Patriotic War (opened in 2014) has no Holocaust Hall, although the original plans envisioned it.[46]

Yet, paradoxically, some degree of convergence of the two versions of national memory is taking place against the background of their ongoing mutual confrontation. For instance, in December 2018, Nasha Niva, a mouthpiece of Belarusian Westernizers, published an article about an eighth-grade textbook of Russian literature, in which the 1863 uprising on Belarusian lands was referred to as Polish.[47] The BSRL supported Nasha Niva by publishing the article titled, “In Belarusian Schools, They Claim the Kalinovsky Uprising Was Polish.”[48] The Nasha Niva article’s tone is indignant; but essentially every world and/or regional history course taught outside Belarus refers to the 1863 Uprising as “Polish.”

Responding to the newspaper’s charges, the Ministry of Education refuted the “list of standard theses with which the Belarusian nationalists operate in order to present what they want to ring true.” First, the issue of local uprising leader Kastus Kalinovsky’s ethnicity is debatable. He called upon the locals to stab the rotten Moskali (Russians) and, at the same time, wrote, “[W]e live on Polish soil.” Second, the uprising was, in fact, crushed with the significant assistance of the Belarusian peasantry. Third, there is no guarantee that, had the uprising actually been victorious, Belarus would have materialized at all as a national project. Fourth, Kalinovsky and his associates perceived local vernaculars as dialects of the Polish language. Only after the uprising was suppressed, did some of its participants become aware of themselves as Belarusians. Particularly expressive is the repudiation of such an argument as “in the BSSR [Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic], Kalinovsky was introduced into the pantheon of Belarusian national heroes.” “Indeed, when it benefits nationalists,” reads the ministry’s response, “they recall the theses of Soviet historiography, while the rest of the time they write exclusively about a ‘genocide of the Belarusian nation,’ ‘embellishment of repression,’ ‘hidden NKVD archives,’ and so on.” Meanwhile, the ministry claims, it was not only the Soviets who used Kalinovsky for propaganda purposes. German SS commander Franz Kushel did that, too, in his newspaper Belarus na Varte, published in 1943–1944, in Nazi-occupied Minsk.[49]

The Westernizers’ objections to the Ministry’s response are not particularly convincing. The main argument of the historian Alexander Pashkevich is that the “overarching academic treatise” Social and Political Life in Belarus, 1772–1917, published under the auspices of the Institute of History of the National Academy of Sciences, qualifies the 1863 Uprising differently—i.e., not as exclusively Polish—thus, making the Ministry of Education’s point of view unacceptable. Meanwhile, the central claim by the historian Vasily Gerasimchik, cited by the BSRL, is even less convincing and boils down to the assertion that since the Polish character of the uprising is not recognized as such in Belarusian eighth-grade history courses, the education ministry is effectively undermining the unity of the educational process.[50]

Amidst this internal Belarusian debate on national memory, an article by Lev Krishtapovich about the aforementioned first volume of the History of Belarusian Statehood represents an illustrative example of a strong polemical attack on the Westernizers themselves.[51] Seven years ago, Krishtapovich was one of the main ideologues of the power vertical, and now he is sharply criticizing an influential publication, trumpeted as the new word in Belarusian historical science. According to him, the scholarly work’s definition of the history of statehood is flawed (see above) and because of what he calls “schoolboy” logic—i.e., the inherent proposition that, if the state exists today, it should by definition possess ancient history. As the Belarusian essayist Kirill Ozimko quipped on his Facebook page, the History of Belarusian Statehood is merely the beginning, “the next stage is going to be the history of the ancient Belars who helped the ancient Ukrs to dig the Black Sea.”[52] But whereas two critical arrows, launched by Krishtapovich, hit the target, the third—criticism of the geopolitical bias of the “new” view on history—is not compelling at all because the pro-Russian leanings of Krishtapovich himself are too radical even for the majority of Belarusians with their Russo-centric worldview. The radicalism of Krishtapovich’s opinions can be observed in his point of view that “the framework of overarching Russian history and the Russian World [Russkiy Mir]” is supposedly the only means of “shaping and expressing Belarusians’ collective will.” Also, defaming the Soviets’ Belarusianization of the 1920s as “anti-Belarusian activity” and the BPR as an “anti-Belarusian project,” as Krishtapovich does, go beyond common sense; likewise his likening of Tatar-Mongol oppression in “northeastern Russia” to “Polish-Lithuanian domination” in “western Russia” is artificial. According to Krishtapovich, the latter was purportedly crueler and more difficult to overcome “because of its totality,” while the Tatar oppression “did not affect the national and spiritual-cultural life.”[53]

One proven public way of confronting the “wrong” version of history is to profess bewilderment when faced with it. Thus, on June 23, 2019, the opposition-minded newspaper Belorusskie Novosti published the article “Gorki’s Authorities Want to Open a Memorial Plaque Honoring the Emperor of the Occupying Army.”[54] Gorki is a county (raion) seat in Mogilev Oblast. In 1708, Russian Tsar Peter I visited the town. The authors of the above article take pains to explain there is no reason to celebrate that visit, as it took place during the Great Northern War, and Tsar Peter actually ordered Mogilev’s destruction without any particular strategic need. The problem, however, lies in the fact that the locals in Gorki, which lies along the Russian border, do not detach themselves from Russians, and so they also see Peter as their one-time leader. One day earlier, Elmira Mirsalimova, a resident of Vitebsk and an ardent promoter of the Russian World, paid a family visit to the Brest Fortress to honor its defenders in conjunction with the anniversary of the Great Patriotic War’s beginning. En route, the family stopped at Kossovo, Brest Oblast, where an impressive monument to Tadeusz Kościuszko (who was born in that town), was erected in 2018. “It was hard to explain to my daughters,” acknowledges Mirsalimova, “why monuments to Polish heroes exist on our soil.”[55] In both cases, explanations are redundant and the bewilderment is phony, yet it serves as a means of distancing oneself from the “wrong” historical memory.


A community’s historical memory is the flip side of its identity. Disputes over collective memory reflect a tug of war for symbolic capital between politicized social groups (or groups of influence) in order to promote a certain normative image of the future. Thus, historical memory is historical only in the nominal sense of the word. Being a memory, it is about the past. But its purpose is to manipulate public consciousness for the sake of the looked-for future.

While the opportunities for such manipulation do exist, they are not boundless. One may criticize the Belarusian authorities for authoritarianism, but their fundamentally Russo-centric view of Belarusian history is not invented by them but rather finds itself within the realm of the possible. The dimensions of that realm are set by the actual experience Belarusians acquired over the last 150 years, if not more. At the very beginning of the 20th century, Belarusians still possessed the identity of inhabitants of a no-man’s land, equidistant from Russians and Poles—a situation accurately and vividly described by Yanka Kupala in his 1922 play “Tuteishia” (“Locals”). Among the peasantry, which made up the overwhelming majority of the population of the Belarusian lands, there was no critical mass of supporters of their own collective identity. In order to obtain it, they first had to gain self-consciousness; and to accomplish that, they had to break the umbilical cords connecting them with Russians and Poles.

Ultimately, this task was solved only in relation to the Poles. A long stay within Russo-centric state formations, first in the Russian Empire and then in the Soviet Union, did not result in Belarusians coming to view Russians as the “Other.” This was the case for several reasons. Not just their proximity to the Russian heartland, but a proximity magnified by a common language of communication, common religion, and a long absence of high-culture producers among Belarusians—all these circumstances Russified Belarusian identity and did the same to their historical memory. This Russified collective consciousness did not replace any other. Rather, it filled a void. In contrast, attempts to incorporate into the historical memory of the Belarusians ideas about their old-time affiliation with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth did not overcome the gravitational pull of Russian culture.

A couple of years ago, the Belarusian art critic Vyacheslav Rakitsky expressed concern about how emotionally the Belarusian creative intelligentsia perceived the arrest of the Russian theater director Kirill Serebryannikov. Rakitsky could not recall another past event as actively discussed by them. In his estimation, this upsurge of feelings stemmed from the fact that “people of art and those who are close to them still exist in the theatrical context of the neighboring country, whereby they perceive everything Russian as their own, whereby all their aesthetic guidelines are shaped in Moscow or St. Petersburg.”[56] But in reality, the same observation would equally aptly apply to Belarusian athletes, economists, journalists, political scientists, educators, specialists in other areas of knowledge, as well as those “who are close to them.”

The main attempts at laying a Westernizing foundation for Belarusian historical memory were undertaken in the 1920s, during World War II, and in 1990–1994. But in all three cases, the Belarusian Westernizers were ultimately confronted by the apparatus of a powerful state and, during the war, also by its army and partisan formations. Every ethnic nationalism in Central and Eastern Europe overcame difficult and, as it seemed at times, insurmountable obstacles. However, in the Belarusian case, these obstacles were not overcome, thus hampering the development of a titular ethnic nation on Belarusian lands. Be that as it may, the independent existence of the Republic of Belarus inevitably nurtures a civic nationalism among Belarusians.

Although the memory of the Great Patriotic War and other events shared with Russians play a crucial role in the historical policy of the modern-day Belarusian state, that latter consciously seeks a Belarusian specificity within that common history. Through the efforts of the political elite and of many educated Belarusians, the corresponding ideas are being popularized among the wider population. For example, the so-called Immortal Regiment movement—which the Russian Wikipedia entry defines as an “international [sic] public civic-patriotic movement to preserve the personal memories of the generation of the Great Patriotic War”—was notably rebuffed in Belarus. As Lukashenka stated, “the very idea of ​​such actions originated in Belarus, and Russia just plagiarized this idea… ‘Belarus Remembers’—that was how our initiative was labeled from the beginning. When I became president, this was my first action, and the veterans asked me to march from the central department store to Victory Square, and we always laid wreaths. Some were carrying portraits.  […] Why should we abandon our Belarus Remembers [tradition] and grab the Immortal Regiment?”[57]

However strange it may seem, the foreign policy of Belarus also plays a significant role in the Belarusianization of history. While recognizing the diversity and vital importance of ties with Russia, this policy is gently but consistently distancing itself from what is perceived by many in Europe as the Russian imperial syndrome. In addition, the historical memory of the Belarusians is slowly but steadily absorbing elements of the Westernizing discourse, heretofore alien to it. And not only the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, but also the Belarusian People’s Republic, the Pahonia coat of arms, knightly tournaments, and Belarusian ornaments. The convergence of two versions of historical memory are occurring under the receding dominance of the Russo-centric version. This convergence is one of the driving forces of civic nationalism of the Belarusians.

The August 2019 national survey by the Belarusian Analytical Workroom, headed by Andrei Vardamatsky, revealed that the share of Belarusians who would favor union with Russia over accession to the European Union, 54.5 percent, was 9 percentage points lower than just one year ago, whereas the share of those leaning toward the European Union (25 percent) increased. While it is unclear whether or not this is a steady trend—fluctuations of both indicators have occurred before—one specific outcome of the this survey bodes well for the Westernizers. Specifically, pro-European attitudes had previously dominated only the youngest (18–24 years of age) group; but this time, the same preference was for the first time uncovered for the majority of 25–34 year olds, too. According to Vardamatsky, the most significant factor behind those changes appears to be a tonal shift in the Belarusian state media regarding Russia’s policy toward Belarus. As these domestic media narratives grow more critical, the pull of Russia on Belarusian society seems to be weakening.[58]

In the future, much will depend on a combination of factors, including economic development, interstate relations with Russia, circumstances surrounding the inevitable (sooner or later) change at the helm of power, as well as the civic maturity of Belarusian Westernizers themselves. At present, the latter leaves much to be desired; but the availability of such thinkers as Valantsyn Akudovich in their ranks may help temper unrealistic expectations and encourage them to proceed with advanced knowledge and patience. Belarus is becoming more and more Belarusian as a result. This process is in full swing.


[1] Yury Shevtsov, Voina na Ukraine: Transformatsiya Evropy, Moscow: RGGU 2018, 148.

[2] Grigory Ioffe, Understanding Belarus and How Western Foreign Policy Misses the Mark, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield 2008.

[3] Per Ander Rudling, The Rise and Fall of Belarusian Nationalism, Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg Press 2014.

[4] International Encyclopedia of Political Science, Edited by: Bertrand Badie, Dirk Berg-Schlosser & Leonardo Morlino, Sage Publishing: Newbury Park 2011.

[5] N.F. Denisova and N. M. Brovchuk, “Istoricheskaya pamyat’ belorusov: sotsiologicheskii analiz,” Vestsi Natsiyanalnai Akademii Navuk Belarusi, Seriya Gumanitarnykh Navuk, 2018, Vol. 63, #1: 21-32.

[6] More than 70 percent of Belarusian adults regularly use the Internet. See “Belorusskaya internet auditoriya v 2017 godu,” Informpolicy.biz, July 14, 2017, http://www.infopolicy.biz/?p=9776.

[7] At a panel on Belarus, during the November 2019 annual convention of the Association for the advancement of Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies, in San Francisco, scholar Samuel Charap of the Rand Corporation asked this author, “Is propaganda solely on the supply side or is it also on the demand side?” Charap’s question notably stemmed from apparently a similar perception of the aforementioned harmony between the state’s and society’s understandings of Belarusian history.

[8] I. I. Kovkel and E. S. Yarmusik, Istoriya Belarusi s Drevneishikh Vremyon do Nashikh Dnei, Minsk: Aversev 2000, 41.

[9] Ibid., 59

[10] “Lukashenko: Oktyabrskaya revolutsiya zalozhila osnovy dlya natsionalnogo vozrozhdeniya mnogikh narodov,” Belta, November 7, 2018, https://www.belta.by/president/view/lukashenko-oktjabrskaja-revoljutsija-zalozhila-osnovy-dlja-natsionalnogo-vozrozhdenija-mnogih-narodov-324601-2018/?utm_source=belta&utm_medium=news&utm_campaign=accent.

[11] Ibid.,.340

[12] Yu. V. Cherniavskaya, Belorusy: Ot tuteishikh r Natsii, Minsk: FUAInform 2010: 451.

[13] “Lukashenko obyasnil, pochemu Den Nezavisimosti Belarus prazdnuyet 3 iyulya,” Sputnik.by, July 3, 2017, https://sputnik.by/politics/20170703/1029588443/lukashenko-obyasnil-pochemu-den-nezavisimosti-belarus-prazdnuet-3-iyulya.html.

[14] Yu. V. Chernyavskaya, Op. cit., 68; 87–90.

[15] Ryszard Radzik, Kim są Białorusini? Toruń: Adam Marszałek 2004, 84.

[16] Yury Shevtsov, Obyedinionnaya Natsiya: Fenomen Belarusi, Moscow: Europa 2005, 75.

[17] Two additional Masherov myths also persist. One has to do with suspicion that his death in a car crash was not accidental but engineered by some Moscow-based authority in order eliminate a leader who was genuinely close to ordinary people. The second myth has to do with Masherov’s putative French origin. Reportedly, Masherov’s great-grandfather—Macheraut—was a soldier in Napoleon’s army who stayed in eastern Belarus after the French military’s 1812 retreat, converted to the Orthodoxy, and married a peasant woman.

[18] Yury Shevtsov, Op.Cit., 129.

[19] Vatslav Lastouski, Karotkaya Gistoryya Belarusi, Vilnya: Drukarnia Marcina Kukhty 1910; Reprinted: Minsk: Univesytetskaye 1993.

[20] Nasha Niva inherited its name from a remote predecessor newspaper, published in 1906–1915, in Vilnia (Vilnius).

[21] Oleg Manaev (Ed.), “Molodiozh i Grazhdanskoye Obshchestvo v Belarusi,” Saint Petersburg: Nevsky Prostor 2011: 15–18. Manaev reiterated the same observation at the November 2019 convention of the Association for the Advancement of Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies, in San Francisco, while responding to a question by George Krol, the US ambassador to Belarus in 2003–2006.

[22] Vladimir Orlov and Gennady Saganovich, Desyat Vekov Belorusskoi Istorii: 862– 1918, Vilnius 2003, 66.

[23] Ibid, 70–71.

[24] The table published in the BSRL referenced Vadim Deruzhinsky, Tainy Belorusskoi Istorii, Minsk: FUAInform 2011.

[25]  Vladimir Orlov and Gennady Saganovich, Desyat Vekov Belorusskoi Istorii: 862– 1918, Vilnius 2003, 88.

[26] Ibid, 89.

[27] Ibid, 111.

[28] Ibid, 102.

[29] Ibid, 160.

[30] Ibid, 167.

[31] Ibid, 194.

[32] Ibid, 192. Incidentally, Yulia Chernyavskaya affirmed, in her seminal 2010 book, that the “only 100 percent negative character of Belarusian folklore, including fairy tales, is a Pan,” i.e., a landlord (Chernyavskaya, op. cit., 42). Up until the beginning of the 20th century, most landlords in Belarus had a Polish identity.

[33] Yury Turonak, Madernaya Gishtoriya Belarusi, Vilnius: Instytut Belarusystyki 2006, 540. [Belarusian translation of Jerzy Turonek’s 1990 Polish-language book Białoruś pod okupacją niemiecką, Warszawa: Książka i Wiedza 1993].

[34] Nicholas Vakar, Belorussia: The Making of a Nation, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1956, 177.

[35] Ibid, 263, footnote 28.

[36] Yury Turonak, Madernaya Gishtoriya Belarusi, Vilnius: Instytut Belarusystyki 2006, 241.

[37] Ibid., 85.

[38] Ibid., 103.

[39] “Partizanka i kalyabaratsyya u Belarusi,” Prague Accent, Talk Show of the Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty, Svaboda, March 28, 2005, https://www.svaboda.org/a/793911.html.

[40] Valantsyn Akudovich, “Bez nas,” Nasha Niva, June 4, 2001, https://nn.by/?c=ar&i=95570; Also available at http://knihi.com/storage/frahmenty/post-ackudovicz.htm.

[41] Alexander Kovalenya, et. al., “K voprosu ob istoricheskoi politike,” Belaruskaya Dumka, No. 8, 2019.

[42] “Kanapleu: ‘My . . . pradstauniki byloi adzinai dziarzhavy, Rechy Paspalitai,’ ” Narodnaya Volya, February 19, 2019, https://www.nv-online.info/2019/02/19/kanaplyou-my-pradstauniki-byloj-adzinaj-dzyarzhavy-rechy-paspalitaj.html.

[43] O. N. Levko and V. F. Golubev (Eds) Istoriya Belorusskoi Gosudarstvennosti v Pyati Tomakh, Volume 1: Belorusskaya Gosudarstvennost: Ot Istokov do Kontsa 18-go Veka, Minsk: Belaruskaya Navuka 2018, 6.

[44] Alexei Bratochkin, “Kultura pamyati v Belarusi (1988–2016): Ot raskola k konservativnomu kontsenzusu?” Gefter, November 25, 2016, gefter.ru/archive/20174.

[45] “Vladimir Makei i predstaviteli zyatia Trampa priyekhali v Novogrudok nf otkrytiye memoriala bezhavshim iz getto,” Tut.by, July 8, 2019, https://news.tut.by/society/644677.htmlhttps://news.tut.by/society/644677.html.

[46] Syarhei Shupa, “Prafesar Smilovitsky: Galakost – neotyemlemaya chast istorii usei Belarusi,” Svaboda, November 24, 2018, https://www.svaboda.org/a/29611153.html.

[47] “Minobrazovaniya vstupilo v polemiku s belorusskimi istorikami, dokazyvayet, chto vosstaniye 1863 goda bylo polskim,” Nasha Niva, December 16, 2018, https://nn.by/?c=ar&i=222276&lang=ru.

[48] Dzmitry Gurnevich, “U belaruskikh shkolakh uchat, chto vosstanie Kalinovskago bylo polskim,” Svaboda, December 5, 2018, https://www.svaboda.org/a/29638534.html.

[49] “Minobrazovaniya na zashchite ‘russkogo mira’: vosstanie Kalinovskogo – polskoye,” Belorusskii Partizan, December 17, 2018, https://belaruspartisan.by/life/448437/.

[50] Dzmitry Gurnevich, op. cit.

[51] Lev Krishtapovich, “Kvaziistoriya pod vidom istorii belorusskoi gosudarstvennosti,” IMHOclub. March 2, 2019, https://imhoclub.by/ru/material/kvaziistorija_pod_vidom_istorii_belorusskoj_gosudarstvennosti?comment=

[52] Kirill Ozimko’s Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/ozimko.

[53] Lev Krishatopvich, op. cit.

[54] “Vlasti Gorok khotyat otkryt pamyatnik imperatoru-okkupantu,” Belorusskie Novosti, June 23, 2019, https://naviny.by/new/20190623/1561280760-vlasti-gorok-hotyat-otkryt-pamyatnyy-znak-imperatoru-okkupantu.

[55] Elmira Mirsalimova, Facebook, June 23, 2019б https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100020986359715.

[56] Viachaslau Rakitsky, “Chamu arysht raseiskaga rezhysera uskhvalyavau belaruskuyu teatralnuyu supolnasts,” Svaboda, August 28, 2017, https://www.svaboda.org/a/chamu-arysht-rasejskaha-rezhysera-uskhvaliavau-belaruskuju-teatralnuju-supolnasc/28701238.html.

[57] “Bolshoi razgovor s prezidentom,” Tut.by, March 1, 2019, https://news.tut.by/economics/628163.html.

[58] Yury Drakakhrust, Interview with Andrei Vardamatski, November 7, 2019, https://www.svaboda.org/a/30256600.html.