While it was tempting to label national consolidation in Belarus a growing trend (see EDM, April 4), the events of early April 2019 collectively suggest this qualification could have been premature. “It sometimes seems to me that our society is overcome by a slow-moving civil war,” wrote Yulia Cherniavskaya, a culture studies specialist and author of the book Belarusians: From Tuteishia (Locals) to Nation devoted to Belarusian nation-building. “As befits a civil war, there will be no winners. Everybody loses in a civil war. Someone, Sisyphus-like, will be implanting new crosses. Someone will be pulling them out of the ground, flinging them as if they were trash, and calling this […] landscaping” (Tut.by, April 6).
Cherniavskaya’s words were in reference what happened on the morning of April 4, when associates of the local forestry administration demolished 70 massive (five-meter-tall) wooden crosses that Zmitser Dashkevich, one of the most defiant opposition activists of Belarus, installed back in July 2018, along the perimeter of the Kuropaty forest. Situated in the northernmost part of Minsk, Kuropaty is the site of late-1930s mass executions by Stalinist secret police (see EDM, June 20, 2018). Only Dashkevich’s crosses were removed; multiple other crosses standing within the forest patch itself were not touched (Tut.by, April 4).
The crosses were driven away by a tractor with its license plates obscured, wrapped in a rag. The same had been done to the license plates of several police vehicles that accompanied the personnel charged with taking down the memorial crosses. Members of the Belarusian opposition, including parliamentary member Anna Kanapatskaya, promptly appeared on the site, but they could not immediately verify who was behind the cross-removal operation. The head of the forestry administration, meanwhile, declined to speak with journalists and forwarded them to his own higher-ups in the Ministry of Forestry.
The newspaper Nasha Niva, a mouthpiece of Belarusian Westernizing nationalists, contacted President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s press secretary, Natalia Eismont for comments about the incident. In reply, Eismont referred to the televised “big-time conversation” of March 1 (see EDM, March 7), during which Lukashenka promised to put things in order in Kuropaty, where the authorities had installed a memorial monument in November 2018. She also pledged that “the burial place where our people lie would look decent, in concert with our traditions and with no politics involved” (Tut.by, April 4).
An avalanche of emotions in the media and social networks immediately followed the event: outrage on one side and censure of provocateurs on the other. Abundantly accompanying the pronouncements on both sides were “we told you so” type sentiments. “It’s as if Satan came to Kuropaty. No Christian in the world raises a hand against a holy cross! All, ALL those who committed this blasphemy today will bring misfortune on themselves,” wrote Kanopatskaya on her Facebook page (BBC, April 4). “If the powers that be, had indeed been certain that the removal of crosses was the right idea, they would not have organized the whole thing in such a thievish fashion, under the cover of secrecy and guarded by police with disguised license plates. No question, they understood this was an unrighteous cause,” wrote Yury Zisser, the founder and owner of the news portal Tut.by (Zisser, April 4). “In Kurapaty we saw that Lukashenka does not seek unity with the people even at the critical moment,” opined Svetlana Aleksievich, a Nobel Prize laureate (Svaboda.org, April 4). And Tadeusz Kondrusewicz, the head of Belarusian Catholics, spoke against the removal of the crosses from a hospital bed abroad (Tut.by, April 4).
Less stringent criticism emanated from the Orthodox Church (at least 80 percent of Belarusians have a Christian Orthodox background). “I support the president by all means: Kuropaty should be put in order,” wrote Sergei Lepin, the head of the Synod Information Department of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, “but the method used by the local bullies I cannot support” (Svaboda.org, April 5). Feodor Povny, the rector of the Minsk Cathedral of All Saints, called Kuropaty a “metaphorical human Golgotha,” but added, “whereas a cross is holy in and of itself, the whole alleys of crosses are more like overindulgences than signs of reverent veneration… There is a fine line between protecting a cross and condemning the authorities that everybody strives to label inhuman… As for Kuropaty, they began from a standoff and […] from exaggerating the number of victims and distortions of facts that later were disguised by those crosses. Let us confess to ourselves that each time, this place of mourning is recalled in public, it is either because of a scandal or of a provocation” (Nasha Niva, April 5). The provocation motive is invoked online, on social networks, for example on the Facebook page of entrepreneur Yury Terekh. He compared the episode to a hapless man methodically driving a sleeping bear from its den—first by dancing around, then by yelling, and then with a stick. But once the bear wakes up and assaults that man, the latter evinces surprise (Terekh, April 5).
The range of Belarusian opinions on the Kuropaty incident has clustered along polarized extremes, and there are few intermediate responses. Together these reactions seem to undermine notions of ongoing national consolidation in Belarus. Yes, the country’s political regime is authoritarian, and it could hardly be otherwise under its present social and geopolitical circumstances. As recently as 2003, 57 percent of Belarusians were ready to vote for unification with Russia (Tut.by, June 27, 2010), whereas today, only about 2.7 percent would do so (Svaboda.org, January 28). In the late 1990s, prone to righteous indignation, the Belarusian doctor Dmitry Shchigelsky insisted Lukashenka suffered from a psychiatric condition. Yet, in 2017, upon visiting his home country following a 17-year absence, the same doctor confessed, “I am not sure Belarus would have retained independence without Lukashenka” (Svaboda.org, October 3, 2017). Apparently, Belarusian reality is more ambiguous and far less prone to the fundamentalism often directed at it.