May 9 Celebration in Belarus a Setback to Nationalization of Historical Memory

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 72

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (Center) lays flowers during a ceremony marking the 77th anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War in Minsk, Belarus, May 9, 2022

The ninth online poll of 823 urban-based and internet-using Belarusians, conducted by Chatham House during April 8–18 (, May 6), showed that roughly one-third of respondents support Russia’s war and about the same fraction is against it, whereas 57 percent are afraid Belarus may be pulled into that conflict. More respondents prefer some sort of union with Russia over integration into the European Union: 60 percent versus 40 percent (New Belarus, May 13). By and large, the outcome of this survey coincides with more broad-based (not just urban and internet-active) polling conducted by phone (see EDM, May 4).

Societal divisions uncovered by such polls reflect national identity and its flip side, collective memory. Some analysts believe that in Belarus, neither has been sufficiently “nationalized.” “Belarusian democrats cannot get around the fact that the society is strongly Sovietized,” observed independent analyst Artyom Shraibman. “People cling to Soviet mythology; they do not want to demolish monuments and rename streets. People still divide history into “before” and “after the war” [meaning the “Great Patriotic War” of 1941–1945]. This is a fixation that is very difficult to change by a forceful decision… A society like Belarusian is hard to find elsewhere. All of Belarus’s neighbors—Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Russia—do better with national memory. In Belarus, it is very easy to lose one’s footing on this topic,” Shraibman concluded (Gazetaby, May 9).

Acknowledging that Belarusians have two versions of national memory (see EDM, December 20, 2019), just like Ukrainians used to, is an arguably more accurate way to categorize the situation. Russia has effectively done a great deal to unite Ukrainians around the Westernizing symbols by way of invading Ukraine on February 24, 2022. As early as March 2014, the Kyiv-based Russian-language author Andrei Kurkov first noted that “[Russian President Vladimir] Putin consolidated Ukrainians” (, March 11, 2014). By now, this negative (i.e., through instilling the notion of a common enemy) consolidation has significantly advanced.

Belarus has not been subjected to overt invasion, so its internal division remains intact. Moreover, symbols of Soviet vintage remain pervasive. When Lithuanian TV organized a three-party discussion on the Soviet tradition of celebrating Victory Day on May 9, Alvydas Nikžentaitis, a Lithuanian historian, supported switching to the European convention of commemorating the end of the war on May 8; the Ukrainian historian Georgy Kasyanov conceded that, in the future, the same may occur in Ukraine (presently, both days are official holidays in Ukraine); whereas the Belarusian sociologist Alexei Lastovsky opted for retaining May 9 because the date is sacred for a large proportion of Belarusians (Delfi, May 6).

Minsk’s official attitude toward the so-called Immortal Regiment (IR) rallies on May 9 is a case in point, but it is also related to the inescapable desire of post-Soviet national authorities to nationalize their respective war-time memories. The IR tradition, whereby on May 9 participants of the rally carry a picture of their relative who fought in the war, was born in 2012 in the Siberian city of Tomsk, but it was then appropriated by the Kremlin as a national ritual. To distance themselves from it, most former Soviet republics introduced their own versions. In Kazakhstan, the ritual acquired the name “Let Us Bow to the Heroes” (RIA Novosti, May 22), whereas in Belarus it has come to be known as “Belarus Remembers.” Nevertheless, some Belarusians prefer to demonstrate under the IR label and with a St. George ribbon, a symbol of Russian military glory. The recent history of Belarusian authorities allowing (as in 2019 after a long vacillation, and now, without vacillation) and disallowing (as in 2018 and 2020) IR rallies reflects changes in Minsk’s relationship vis-à-vis Moscow. Back in 2019, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said he was opposed to the separate IR rally in Minsk simply because Belarus has its own tradition (Lenta, March 1, 2019). Today, closeness to Russia has no alternative, so the IR rally took place and gathered 2,000 participants in Minsk (Regnum, May 9).

In his May 9 speech, Lukashenka lashed out at the West with fury rarely seen in the past. His speech, interspersed with such words as “hypocrites,” “bastards” and “toadies,” was framed as a missive to the people of the West, who are surrounded by a “fog of lies and deception” emanating from their governments. He reminded listeners that the second (western) front of World War II was opened only in June 1944, when the outcome of the war had already been predetermined by Soviet victories in the east. It is, therefore, clear who liberated “you” from the Nazis, Lukashenka thundered. He decried the new “bondage of globalism” and observed that “everyone is tired of the American stranglehold.” He declared that “already 50 countries rally against Russia alone,” but Belarus will forever stick with its main ally. He alleged that Western strategists have already partitioned Ukraine, and he lamented that the West “does not take into account that we are not at war.” He also decried the absence of Western ambassadors at his solemn May 9 gathering, the ambassadors who on that day are expected to repent. And he accused the Poles of building an environmentally damaging fence across the ancient Belavezha forest (YouTube, May 9).

Why did Lukashenka resort to such fiery rhetoric? Yury Drakakhrust of Radio Liberty suggested the Belarusian leader may have been responding to the G7 statement on the necessity of bringing Lukashenka (and not just Putin) to justice. Or perhaps it was prompted by Russian censure of Minsk’s reconciliation gestures to the West, like the April 6 letter by Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei (Gazetaby, May 10).

Whatever the reasons, political change in Belarus is not in the offing. This impression does not arise from Lukashenka’s speech alone but also from what Pavel Matsukevich of the Center for New Ideas called “a chasm between democratic forces in exile and society at home”—on the basis of the last Chatham House survey (New Belarus, May 13). Having defied a cookie-cutter democracy promotion approach in the past, Belarus will continue to do so in the foreseeable future.