Belarus’s Ministry of Culture has allowed the airing of Armando Iannucci’s comedic movie The Death of Stalin (Tut.by, February 5), earlier banned in Russia. Predictably, Russian ultra-patriots called this decision “ideological sabotage” (Russkaya Narodnaya Liniya, February 6). According to some Belarusian interpretations, the discrepancy between Russian and Belarusian official attitudes to the movie is not substantive but derives entirely from Minsk’s willingness to troll the Kremlin (Naviny, February 7).
This may or may not be true. As Andrei Arkhangelsky, a popular Russian journalist has shown, it was not due to veneration of Joseph Stalin per se that the film in question was banned in Russia. After all, criticism of Stalin is no taboo. Rather, the movie was seen as an abomination because it ridicules the entire apparatus of power, thus removing the aura of sacredness from it. In other words, criticism is appropriate, but laughter is toxic (Republic.ru, January 21). This, however, reflects a typical great power attitude, whereby there is an imperial line of succession transcending changes in the political system and even in the makeup of the state. If anything, this veneration of imperial power itself is shared only by Belarusians who have not yet detached themselves mentally from Mother Russia. While their voices are represented across online social networks, the majority of Belarusians have developed a different worldview, more attuned to their country’s independent existence.
One of the “regime’s” stalwarts, who has contributed to the respective change in the worldview and in fact shaped it, is Pavel Yakubovich. For the past 24 years, he edited the main government daily, Sovetskaya Belorussia, which did not fully abandon its legacy Soviet-era title even after obtaining a new one, Belarus Segodnya. In fact, one can see both titles, at peace with each other, on the daily’s website, www.sb.by. By most accounts, Yakubovich’s role in the corridors of power in Minsk by far exceeds that of a “normal” newspaper editor. Nevertheless, on February 6, Yakubovich, who is 72 and in poor health, was replaced by Dmitry Zhuk, who used to head Belta, the official news agency (Tut.by, February 6). Three important TV bosses were replaced at the same time, but none has made an imprint as indelible on the powers that be as Yakubovich.
It is not by accident that Regnum, a “patriotic” Russian news outlet, calls Yakubovich one of the architects of Belarus’s alleged shift to the West—the second “culprit” being Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei. One of Regnum’s editors, Yury Baranchik, acknowledged this attitude in his interview to the Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty (BSRL). Baranchik, was formerly linked with Belarus’s government structures, including the Presidential Administration and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. On March 15, 2017, he was apprehended in Moscow at the request of Belarusian law enforcement authorities, who were investigating the case of three Belarusian authors of Regnum accused of fomenting inter-ethnic animosity by denying the legitimacy of Belarusian statehood and language (see EDM, February 5). However, a district court in Moscow denied the extradition request and released him. Baranchik has vehemently criticized the conviction of his paper’s three journalists, who, in his judgment, did not denigrate Belarusians but rather furthered the cause of Belarusian-Russian integration that the “regime” in Minsk allegedly wants to sideline (Svaboda.org, February 5). Baranchik also militates against the Russian ambassador to Belarus, Alexander Sourikov, who not only dared to say he would watch The Death of Stalin in Minsk (By24, February 7) but also disavowed the three aforementioned convicts (Regnum, February 7). Earlier, Regnum published a disrespectful letter to Ambassador Sourikov, suggesting, among other things, that the 77-year-old Russian diplomat is too old and ought to retire (Regnum, January 24).
While Baranchik’s stance may be considered extreme and pursuing a vendetta against Belarusian authorities who fired him 11 years ago, it is important to realize that, first, his attitude enjoys some support in Belarus itself, and second, it establishes one of the margins for Belarus’s foreign policy and even to some extent identity. Baranchik’s view is a mirror reflection of the stance taken by Pavel Usov, a Belarusian political commentator living in Warsaw. According to Usov, who seems to be marking out the opposite ideological margin, any participation in Belarusian elections is a betrayal of the cause of freedom, and there is no point in communicating with Belarusian authorities at all (BelPartizan, January 27). Both Baranchik and Usov represent a “take no prisoners” approach. For the former, any inkling of Belarus’s disagreement with Russia is treason; while for the latter, anything short of removing President Alyaksandr Lukashenka from power is unacceptable.
In contrast, Pavel Yakubovich’s philosophy and modus operandi have tended to be realistic and pragmatic: a policy of small steps, attaining whatever was attainable and reinforcing Belarus’s independent voice. He advised the Belarusian president himself, sometimes fulfilling his delicate assignments abroad. In his interview with BSRL, Yakubovich acknowledged that he is proud of three achievements that came about in part thanks to his efforts. One is the official recognition of Maria Bruskina, a Jewish member of the Minsk Resistance during World War II, hanged by the Nazis on October 26, 1941, along with two other resistance fighters. Yakubovich’s second achievement, according to him, was the commemoration of Edward Woynilowicz, the founder and patron of the Catholic Church of Saints Simon and Helena or the so-called krasnyi kostyol, one of the most significant landmarks in Minsk. In 2017, following a lengthy bureaucratic and national-memory battle, Woynilowicz’s name was given to a little square behind this landmark. The third major achievement, according to Yakubovich, was the government’s reversal on Kuropaty, a place of execution and burial of victims of Stalinist purges of the late 1930s, currently in the northern outskirts of Minsk. From an object cared for exclusively by the opposition, it has become an officially recognized place of mourning where a memorial is going to be built. “I am an anti-Stalinist,” acknowledges Yakubovich. Illustratively, on the eve of the 1996 presidential elections in Russia, with Boris Yeltsin facing the Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, Yakubovich published a full-page newspaper article, “Zyuganov Is a Mirror of Political Prostitution” (Svaboda.org, February 6).
While ideological zealots have their legitimate niches in history and may at times be honored, it is realists who arguably tend to get things done. Today’s Belarus may be one of the most convincing proofs of this theory.