“In Russia, at the centennial of the 1917 revolution, they talk so little about it that some people abroad developed a sneaking suspicion this jubilee is kept out of sight of the citizenry because officials do not know what to say about it,” Alexander Baunov, one of Russia’s most popular journalists, wrote recently (Carnegie.ru, November 6). In Belarus, the situation can hardly be more different. Not a single media outlet neglected to publish an article (or multiple articles) devoted to the event.
Indeed, Belarus is the only successor state of the Soviet Union where November 7 is still a day off. Not only that, the Soviet street names and some 400 monuments to Vladimir Lenin and dozens to Felix Dzerzhinsky—a Sovietized offspring of Polish nobility, born in Belarus—are still around. Thus, the combined length of all the streets named after Lenin in Belarus’s cities and towns is 440 kilometers; and that of October Streets—named after the revolution that, according to the Julian calendar (active in Russia prior to 1918), occurred on October 25—is 382 km (BBC, Russian Service, November 7). Note that the north-south dimension of the entire country of Belarus is only 560 km.
The simplest interpretation of such continued veneration of Soviet symbols is that the current political regime of Belarus is a direct successor of the Soviet one. This line of reasoning long dominated the media outlets of the Belarusian opposition. By now, however, even pundits not supportive of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka have recognized that Belarus would have hardly ever become an independent state without becoming a Soviet republic first. Thus, Nasha Niva, a mouthpiece of Westernizing Belaurisan nationalists, criticizes its first post-Soviet editor, Siarhei Dubavets, for his blanket denial of significance of the October Revolution for Belarusian nation-building and statehood. Moreover, Dubavets’ opinion (Svaboda.org, November 4) is characterized as an indication of Belarusian nationalism’s intellectual stagnation (Nasha Niva, November 8).
At the same time, the country’s government-linked publications suggest that atonement for crimes of the former Communist regime ought to be applied sparingly. Atonement is deeply personal, explains the philosopher Boris Lepyoshko, a frequent author of Belarus’s principal government daily. So if one feels like it, Lepyoshko argues, a person should donate his or her own money for the upcoming monument at Kuropaty, a spot in northernmost Minsk where Stalinist thugs executed people in 1937 (Belarus Segodnya, November 7). “There were Belarusians in tsarist Russia, but there was no Belarus,” explains yet another official publication.” Ninety percent of Belarusians were peasants. And if Belarus had indeed become a formally independent state, say, in 1919, it is unlikely that it would have retained its independence. So limited sovereignty, in the capacity of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic, may have been what was needed first (Selskaya Gazeta, November 4).
Indeed, the role of the Soviet period in Belarusians’ historical memory reflects an undeniable reality: the society en masse had not acquired a collective identity prior to the 1920s. In the words of Valer Karbalevich, “[W]hereas, at the end of the 19th century, most Belarusians spoke Belarusian but referred to themselves as tuteishiya [locals], at the end of the Soviet Union’s life span, most Belarusians spoke Russian but knew for sure they were Belarusians” (Svaboda.org, November 6). Siarhei Bogdan, Karbalevich’s interlocutor on Radio Liberty, suggests that Soviet symbols in Belarus are tenacious because there is nothing to replace them with. In Russia proper, the Communist revolution was followed by civil war, so today many Russians would like to replay it by imagining themselves on the other side of the barricades. But there was no civil war within the community of Belarusians, so there is nothing to replay. As Igor Marzalyuk, a prominent member of Belarus’s House of Representatives, observes, all nascent political movements of Belarusians were of socialist orientation at that time. Repressions in the Soviet Union, believes Marzalyuk, had a class nature, and nobody wanted to eliminate entire national communities. “To throw out the Soviet period from Belarusian history,” believes Marzalyuk, “is the same as to betray ourselves.” Marzalyuk sees the minuscule number of Belarusian collaborators during World War II as an expression of Belarusians’ sincere adoption of the ideals of Soviet internationalism. “We did not have enough home-grown police officers [Polizists], so they had to import those from other countries,” like Ukraine (EurasiaExpert, November 6). Some of Marzalyuk’s musings track remarkably closely with the main thrust of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s thaw of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Thus, he excoriates Joseph Stalin but builds up Lenin for his farsightedness and flexibility in promoting non-Russian nation building within the former Russian Empire.
However, two extensive interviews of Yury Borisenok, an associate professor of history at Moscow State University (EurasiaExpert, November 1; Imhoclub.by, November 3), put things in a different perspective. Stalin who from 1917 to 1923 headed the People’s Commissariat for Nationalities, not only rendered critical support to the creation of the Belarusian union republic, he also initiated the indigenization (korenizatsiya) policy to boost the status of the Belarusian language. The crucial reason, according to Borisenok, was Stalin’s opinion that the “western borders of the country were vulnerable.” Subsequent invitations for Belarusian intellectuals to move to Minsk from Poland was a step in propping up Belarus as an ethnic community. That most of these people were subsequently executed is not seen as a contradiction. First, they had never been perceived as loyal to the authorities. Second, indigenization was conducted to nurture the loyalty of the peasantry, not of intellectuals. And the policy ultimately worked. For example, three prominent Belarusians, Kirill Mazurov and Piotr Masherov, both of whom headed Soviet Belarus, in 1956–1965 and 1966–1980, respectively, and Mikhail Zimyanin, in 1976–1987 a secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, were all of peasant background and finished Belarusian schools during the period of indigenization.
In summary, if history is something to learn from, it does not always offer lessons that are straightforward and immediately instructive. Belarus and the Communist Revolution of 1917 is an intricate and complex theme, hardly conducive to propaganda of any strand whatsoever.