Today, November 2, members of the European diplomatic corps, including ambassadors and their families, will visit the mass burial site of Kurapaty, recalling the 70th anniversary of executions conducted by the Stalin regime in Belarus. This event follows closely upon the commemoration on October 28—the eve of the Day of Remembrance of Ancestors (Dzyady) in Belarus—when demonstrators visited the Kurapaty site and restored the “Cross of Martyrs” and a plaque given by the Americans during President Bill Clinton’s visit to Belarus on January 15, 1994. The Day of Remembrance (October 29) is an annual event, held since 1988 when the mass graves were discovered by archeologist and political activist, Zyanon Paznyak, who went on to create the Martyralioh association and, subsequently, the Belarusian Popular Front.
The gathering at Kurapaty received authorization from the Minsk Oblast Executive Committee on October 22, although permission for an initial rally near the center of Minsk was delayed until shortly before the event. The main organizers were members of Paznyak’s political party, the Conservative Christian Party of the Belarusian Popular Front (CCP BPF), with support from the Party of the Belarusian Popular Front (PBPF) led by Vintsuk Vyachorka. An art exhibit about the mass repressions under Stalin was also on display at the headquarters of the PBPF in Minsk. At the commencement of the rally, the marchers assembled on Independence Avenue near the Luch watch factory at 10:30 am and walked to the Kurapaty Forest, which is located some four kilometers north of the Malinauka district of Minsk, near the former settlement of Zialony Luh. According to a report by Syarhey Pulsha on the Charter-97 website, the number of demonstrators had swelled to 1,500 by the time they reached the gravesite at 2:30 pm.
Once there, the secretary of the CCP BPF, Valery Buyval, read a speech from the exiled Paznyak, which emphasized the importance of educating a new generation of Belarusians, commenting that achievements would be limited until a new and free Belarusian person emerged, with the same liberties accorded the national language and culture. A number of wooden crosses were installed at Kurapaty and the Cross of Suffering was restored, as was “Clinton’s bench,” a granite monument bearing the inscription “To Belarusians from the American people.” Restoration was necessary because both have been repeatedly vandalized by unknown hooligans, including an attack on the Cross in the fall of 2005.
Commemoration of the victims of Stalinism has always been a difficult process in Belarus. On June 3, 1988, Paznyak and writer Yauhien Smyhalou published an article entitled “Kurapaty: The Road of Death” in the newspaper Litaratura i mastatstva. The article revealed the discovery of mass graves containing between 30,000 and 150,000 victims, evidently of NKVD executions in the period from 1937 to the summer of 1941. The article led to a mass protest at the site on October 30, 1988. A government commission established to investigate the graves failed to reach any firm conclusions. The Communist regime also tried to ban the Martyralioh association and refused permission for the Popular Front to hold its founding congress in the republic. The Lukashenka government, which came into power in the summer of 1994, has repeatedly supported the claim of the former Soviet regime that responsibility for the executions lies with the German occupiers, signifying that the massacres took place after the end of June 1941.
Paznyak, however, noted that there were numerous eyewitness accounts of mass shootings in this area from 1937 onward. The bullets were fired by 7.5 mm “Nagan” Soviet rifles, and footwear worn by some victims bore the manufacturing date of 1937. The Belarusian government, however, does not consider Kurapaty to be a national historical site. In 2001 the area was threatened by a planned expansion of the Minsk ring road and only saved by a “tent city” of protesters, including members of the PBPF and Zubr. In October 2004 the Jewish community of Belarus erected a monument to Jews and other groups murdered in the forest. It is believed that the victims included native Belarusians, Jews, as well as residents of former territories of Poland incorporated into Soviet Belarus after September 1939.
The organizing committee for the demonstration is planning a second march on Sunday, November 4, to another massacre site at Lashytsa Park. It has appealed to the Belarusian authorities to protect the Kurapaty burial site of victims of political repressions and to find and prosecute those who have vandalized the memorials. It demands the inclusion of Kurapaty on the register of historical-cultural treasures of Belarus. President Alexander Lukashenka has paid homage to memorials of the German-Soviet war, which are lavishly maintained. In 2001 and 2003 he visited the Brest Fortress complex unveiled in 1971; and in July 2006 he and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez toured the non-government Liniya Stalina open-air museum west of Minsk, which opened in June 2005.
To date, however, his government has rarely paid attention to victims of the Stalin period and the NKVD in particular. Documentaries shown on Belarusian television frequently extol Stalin and his achievements. The president openly laments the end of the Soviet Union. But massacres on such a scale, which encompassed the elimination of the country’s cultural elite, cannot be ignored indefinitely by a regime that purports to be constructing a Belarusian state.
(Belorusy i rynok, October 29-November 5; Belorusskie novosti, Belorusskaya delovaya gazeta, November 1; www.charter97.org, October 17, 28; Interfax, RIA-Novosti, October 28)