Belarus’s Politics of Memory Swing Back Toward Russo-Centrism

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 7

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko speaking at the Holy Spirit Cathedral in Minsk to celebrate Orthodox Christmas on 7 January, 2017 (Source: BelTA)

On January 5, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka signed into law a decree on “Genocide of the Belarusian People During the Great Patriotic War of 1941–1945”; it envisages criminal responsibility for public denial of those horrific events and their specific characterization (, January 5). The following day, Lukashenka convened a high-level meeting devoted to “historical politics” (“istoricheskaya politika”) of Belarus (, January 6). While the word combination istoricheskaya politika is by no means new—it goes back to the German term Geschichtspolitik, coined in the 1980s (Pro et Contra, May 2009: 6–24)—in Belarus, it has not been used before, at least according to Lukashenka’s January 6 statement. To be sure, the corresponding English term is “politics of memory,” implying an organization of collective memory by political agents.

Collective memory is a flipside of group identity. But Belarusians seemingly do not form a cohesive community on that issue: two pronounced varieties of national memory exist in that country. The Russo-centric interpretation sees Belarus as one prong in the three-pronged supranational East Slavic community; it pays crucial attention to the experiences of World War II, when Belarusians were engaged in a massive collective effort to repel the occupiers, as well as to other experiences of the Soviet period during which, by all indications, Belarusian self-awareness outwardly came into being for the first time. The other, Westernizing, version of national memory emphasizes the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL) as the proto-Belarusian state, which waged wars with Russia; and it stresses the need to overcome Belarus’s colonial dependency on the latter (see EDM, December 20, 2019).

The Westernizing form of collective Belarusian memory sustained two major upsets during the Soviet period and two more thereafter. The first post-Soviet blow was dealt after Lukashenka’s first, 1994 electoral victory to the presidency. Namely, it manifested itself in the 1995 referendum, when 83.3 percent of Belarusians voted for the return of Russian as the second official state language and 75.1 percent voted to replace the white-red-white national flag and coat of arms, which memorialized the GDL, with the red-green flag and a coat of arms reminiscent of Soviet Belarus’s insignia.

Nonetheless, the Westernizing version of national memory turned out to be resilient. What is more, the political regime itself decided to prop it up, especially from 2014 on, when it realized that the degree of Belarusian dependency on Russia jeopardized Belarus’s statehood. Illustratively, in 2018, the authorities gave permission to publicly celebrate the centennial of the short-lived Belarusian People’s Republic (see EDM, April 12, 2018); and in May of that year, a monument to Tadeusz Kościuszko (1746–1817) was revealed in his native place, in Ivatsevichy (Belta, May 12, 2018).

Now, the pendulum is swinging in the opposite direction, dealing the latest blow to the Westernizing version of the national memory. For example, at the January 6 meeting, Lukashenka stated that “some neighbors of Belarus […] adjusted their concept of historical events to very specific political goals… For some, Belarus is a springboard for an attack on Russia. Others suffer from phantom pains, as they look for their historical lands here. Both the former and the latter do not need sovereign Belarus.” The head of state noted that considerable funds were allocated for these purposes: “It was back in the 1990s when the period of frenzied politicization of history began. History was turned upside down. The society was split. We were one step away from losing our national statehood.” One particular example given by the Belarusian president is that “in the opinion of a part of the youth, Napoleon [Bonaparte], who promised to restore the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, is a “liberator.” Lukashenka added, “Little wonder because there have been more portraits of the Lithuanian and Polish nobility throughout the country than of heroes of the Great Patriotic War or our modern history.” And he concluded, “We observed the fruits of such a ‘patriotic’ [caustic irony] education in 2020. But every cloud has a silver lining. Thanks to these events, now everyone knows the true story of the occupation of the native land and of the betrayal of the Belarusian people.” Lukashenka’s speech contained calls for practical solutions; for example: “In history textbooks and in castle and museum expositions, let us call the period of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth the occupation of the Belarusian land by the Poles and the ethnocide of Belarusians” (, January 5).

In order to stimulate the “correct” reading of history to Belarusian youths, 2022 was proclaimed the Year of Historical Memory, and the government-linked Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISI) published a post detailing what ostensibly needs to be done to normalize the situation (, January 20). The respective narrative makes the point that the inclusion of a new date in the calendar of public holidays—National Unity Day, on September 17—is timed to coincide with the liberation campaign of the Red Army troops in Western Belarus, which began on September 17, 1939. This new holiday, which effectively marks the start of the Soviet invasion of the Second Republic of Poland, naturally elicited a negative reaction from the Polish side.

In their turn, zealous adherents to historiographic purity from Russia’s media outlet Regnum, reminded Belarusians that, contrary to Lukashenka’s statement, the phrase “historical politics” was in fact used back in 2019. Namely, an article published that year by the journal Belaruskaya Dumka identified 14 so-called “distortions of history.” The description of the sixth alleged distortion on that list specifically rebuked the “interpretation of the uprisings of 1794, 1830–1831 and 1863–1864 as a liberation movement of the Belarusian people because their true goal was to recreate the Commonwealth, primarily as a Polish state within the borders of 1772” (Regnum, January 9). And yet, as Regnum says, this distortion was immediately ignored by the authorities when, in November 2019, the Belarusian government sent a delegation to Vilnius to participate in the reburial of Konstanty Kalinowski’s remains. To wit, Kalinowski was one of the leaders of the 1863 uprising.

A new “correction of history” is clearly underway again in Belarus. But it remains to be seen if and when the necessity to revert to what used to be called a multi-vector foreign policy will force the pendulum to swing back again.