On June 16, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenka opened the new National Library in Minsk. Formerly located across the street from the president’s residence, the new building, which resembles a space capsule, is located east of the city on the main road to Moscow and the international airport (SB Belarus Segodnya, June 17). Lukashenka spoke at the ceremony, declaring that the fundamental value of the current and future state is the people, and that the library — “the fount of people’s knowledge” — is a symbol of contemporary Belarus. He also used the occasion to demand a new textbook on Belarusian history that will provide new and “more accurate” interpretations of the roles of Lenin and Stalin in Belarusian history.
The ceremonial opening of the library thus provided an opportunity for the president to address the historical record and the relationship of the Soviet state to modern Belarus. It is a theme to which he has returned frequently, but hitherto the government has not interfered noticeably in the content of history textbooks. It seems that is about to change. By and large the extant histories of Belarus published in the post-Soviet era are quite critical of Stalin’s rule, particularly the purges and the errors he made in the early years of the German-Soviet war. Tatsyana Pratka, the chairperson of the much-harassed Belarusian Helsinki Committee, also published a major work on the purges in Belarus in 2002, although much of her research was undertaken prior to the Lukashenka era.
According to Lukashenka, “We should not forget these leaders [Lenin and Stalin] and turn them into idiots.” Instead, he demanded a “truthful” version of the Soviet past that “elevates our people” (Interfax-Ukraine, June 16). In other words, there should be an official version of history that equates contemporary Belarus with the Stalin regime. Hitherto, the president has been content with symbolic references to the past as well as ceremonial occasions to mark the anniversaries of the Soviet victory in World War II. However, analysts in the country have noted the increasing prevalence of positive documentaries on Belarusian television about Stalin, a leader with which Lukashenka has now explicitly begun to compare himself.
There have been recent indicators of this deepening of the link with the early Soviet period in Belarus. Over the past two years, two new memorials have been created for the founder of the Soviet secret police (the Cheka). Felix Dzerzhinsky, a native Pole, was born in a village that is now part of the Belarusian state and which has been renamed Dzerzhinava. The first commemoration, in October 2004, was a monument in this same village, at which time Lukashenka attended the ceremony and referred to Dzerzhinsky as a “great man” (MosNews, October 7, 2004).
The second occasion was the unveiling in May 2006 of a new monument in Minsk, more than 10 feet high and an exact replica of the one that was torn down in Moscow after the failure of the 1991 putsch. Lukashenka and the chairman of the Belarusian KGB, Stepan Sukharenka attended the ceremony (Charter 97, May 26; AP, May 26). Minsk already has a small monument to Dzerzhinsky opposite KGB headquarters. Some two miles east along Independence (Skaryna) Avenue stands a statue of Mikhail Kalinin, Stalin’s former chairman of the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet. The central square is still dominated by a towering statue of Lenin. Soviet symbols remain and ominously they are being supplemented by new ones courtesy of the country’s own dictatorial ruler.
Conversely, attempts to commemorate the victims of Stalin are impeded at every turn. The most poignant example is the Kurapaty Forest just north of Minsk, where in the late 1980s the archeologist and future founder of the Belarusian Popular Front, Zyanon Paznyak, rediscovered the mass graves of thousands of victims of the NKVD. A government inquiry followed but was inconclusive, and the Lukashenka government’s initial interpretation after 1994 was that the Nazis had carried out the massacres. More recently the official line is that the bodies are those of 7,000 Belarusian Jews massacred by the Nazis during the wartime occupation (ILHR, May 2002). The president abolished the compensation fund for victims and families of Stalinist repression. In late 2005, vandals desecrated memorials erected at Kurapaty, and despite mass protests, particularly of youth groups, the authorities have long had plans to remove the forest in order to construct an underpass beneath the city of Minsk (Charter 97, January 9, 2002).
Lukashenka’s first career was as a history teacher in the Mahileu region. Today he perceives close parallels between the careers of Soviet leaders and his own rule and is making an overt attempt to identify his own regime exclusively with a Soviet legacy. For the first time he is proposing to rewrite history textbooks so that Belarusian educators are obliged to follow suit. Although such policies in the context of the 21st century — and the newly opened library — seem absurd, the president is seeking to justify his authoritarian regime by venerating figures responsible for the mass elimination of the Belarusian intellectual elite in the 1930s while supplanting a national culture with a new version more firmly rooted in the Soviet past.