Belarusian History and the Politics of Memory

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 159

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (Source: EPA/Tatyana Zenkovich)

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s October 20 interview, in which he referred to three wars that raged in Belarus as “not our wars,” continues to reverberate in both Russian and Belarusian media and social networks. A reprimand to Lukashenka issued by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (see EDM, November 6) was immediately rebutted by Natalia Eismont, Lukashenka’s press secretary. Having stated that Lukashenka’s words were taken out of context, she observed that if “somebody disowned something during the post-Soviet period,” it was somebody in Russia—and on more than one occasion. She added, “It is even more strange [to wit, Medvedev referred to Lukashenka’s words as ‘strange’] to hear this coming from the Russian prime minister, as, after so many ordeals experienced together, our countries are mired in endless negotiations on oil, natural gas and even food… The main question that arises in connection with this discussion is, who benefits from [it]? Our attitude to history is known to everyone. If you want to see how they honor the memory of the defenders of the Fatherland, visit Belarus! […] Or maybe you just need to find a new reason to snap at us?” (Belarus Segodnya, November 4).

The rebuttal then proceeded on two channels of Belarusian state TV. On one of them, ONT, the anchor Dmitry Semchenko even poked fun at Medvedev for having professed “surprise that Belarusians do not like being a bargaining chip.” Semchenko then proceeded with “eliminating the gaps in the historical knowledge of the Russian government.” Thus, he asserted that “had it not been for the Belarusian 700-kilometer-long live shield,” German tanks would have reached Moscow in 1941 even before the leaves started to turn yellow. “It is good that Alyaksandr Lukashenka is an opinion leader for the Russian audience, but it is bad that his messages are misconstrued,” declared the other channel’s (STV) presenter (, November 6).

Alexander Klaskovsky, a doyen of opposition-minded journalism in Belarus and invariably critical of Lukashenka, in this case identified the Belarusian president’s pronouncement to have been “entirely normal and logical for a leader of a peace-loving and independent country for which it is of vital importance not to become a battlefield for large and aggressive powers anymore.” Klaskovsky also ridiculed Medvedev’s charge that Lukashenka was disowning the Great Patriotic War—nonsensical criticism from the Russian prime minister that tellingly fell on November 4, the date Russia celebrates its Day of National Unity. “After all,” Klaskovsky observed, “it is on that day in 1612 that Russia was rescued from the aggressors. […] Had Medvedev known his history better, he would not have invoked such a dubious example. That is because, back then, the ancestors of Russians and Belarusians lived in different states that fought against each other.” Moreover, “there were many natives of present-day Belarusian lands among the 1612 ‘aggressors,’ ” he added (, November 5).

The Russian side did not keep quiet either: in a lengthy essay in the online “patriotic” newspaper Vzglyad, columnist Anton Krylov suggests that Lukashenka’s words could not possibly be taken out of context. That is because in the same interview, the Belarusian leader took multiple swipes at Russia. Krylov acknowledges that while Lukashenka had not directly encroached on the memory of the war, which is indeed sacred to his fellow countrymen, he effectively alluded that Russia would have to negotiate with Minsk should a new military conflict occur. This is the gist of Minsk’s reproach to Russia—i.e., its lack of willingness to negotiate, “more specifically, to fulfill demands of the Belarusian side.” However, a mutual integration of smaller and larger economies, Krylov believes, cannot in principle be perfectly equitable. “In contrast to [United States President] Donald Trump,” observed Krylov, “Lukashenka has never been a serious entrepreneur. And yet, their negotiation techniques are similar: first, aggravation of the situation to the extreme, and then direct bilateral negotiations of the leaders, during which the most favorable conditions are wrangled out.” Krylov expresses hope that, since Belarus has no alternative to integration with Russia, Lukashenka will stop short of truly irrevocable statements, let alone actions (Vzglyad, November 5).

As if to tease his Russian critics, Lukashenka made a new statement regarding the Communist Revolution of 1917, whose anniversary Belarus still celebrates as a national holiday (whereas Russia no longer does). Specifically, he declared that the revolution laid the foundation for the first Belarusian state and that Belarus has retained all the positive achievements of the Soviet period (, November 8).

One aspect of the overall intense debate about Lukashenka’s original war-related utterance has to do with the so-called politics of memory. Unlike history itself, politics of memory is exceedingly a domain of politicians willing to exploit history for the sake of achieving their current goals. Thus, according to Klaskovsky, Lukashenka’s worldview used to track the Soviet version of Belarusian history, but has since experienced a certain evolution. As a result, he has begun to invoke ancient Belarusian statehood, the source of which is seen in the Polotsk principality, and to cast Belarusians as hostages of major geopolitical actors. With this in mind, he distanced himself from the Russian “Immortal Regiment” movement (see EDM, May 15), seen as a tool of Russia’s soft power (, November 5).

Yury Drakokhrust, of Radio Liberty and, is more cautious, suggesting that any shifts in the historical narrative emanating from the helm of power are risky as far as Belarusian memory of World War II is concerned. So central is that war to Belarusians’ perception of their own history that, instead of weakening the impact of Russian propaganda, such shifts may actually strengthen it. “Under either dictatorship or democracy […] playing with key elements of national identity in order to match the prevailing political winds is not recommended.” In the Belarusian case, it would even be strategically shortsighted. “Not too many things unite Belarusians into a community to destroy what actually does,” Drakokhrust believes (, November 5).

It therefore appears that a seemingly casual utterance by the Belarusian leader has not only caused a political storm but also promoted nontrivial thinking about the fundamentals of national identity.