Kuropaty, a patch of forest adjacent to the Minsk beltway, has been the venue of daily public protests against a newly commissioned restaurant since May 31. The land was the site of executions of innocent civilians by the Soviet secret police from 1937 to 1941. Assessments of the number of those slaughtered in Kuropaty range from as high as 250,000 to as low as 7,000–9,000. Conservative estimates appear to be meticulously documented (Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn, 2017), while the larger cited figures—less so. Nonetheless, there is little doubt Kuropaty stands as a powerful symbol of Stalinist repressions in Belarus. That said, the question of whether a restaurant located next to it is a sacrilege has not been straightforward for locals.
According to Anton Astapovich, who chairs the National Council of the Belarusian Landmark Preservation Society, the restaurant bearing the lively name Poyedem-Poyedim (Let’s Go Eat) does not violate any zoning ordinances (procured back in 2013), even though it is located just 50 meters from the site. He mentioned that nobody protests the availability of public catering outlets next to, say, the Yama (Pit), a Holocaust memorial in downtown Minsk, or the Brest Fortress (Novy Chas, June 11).
The demonstrators against Poyedem-Poyedim—including Paval Seviarynets and Zmitser Dashkevich, men whose disobedience to the authorities can only be rivaled by that of opposition leader Mikalai Statkevich—managed to prevent the opening of this new dining establishment on June 1. But on June 5, the facility did open. As a result, several brawls broke out between the picketers and delivery personnel and customers.
Astapovich does not see any dignified way out of the conundrum. “Kuropaty is that particular spot where somebody is bound to earn political capital [by trying to take a stand one way or another],” he observed. “I intensely dislike it when the government speculates on the topic of World War II, but I see how the government’s opponents do the same in regard to the topic of [Stalinist repressions]. This is much like monopolizing and selling memory.” He argued that this restaurant is not likely to succeed anyway because of its location—i.e., next to a freeway most motorists use for shorter trips, not next to a highway like Minsk–Moscow. In fact, by attracting all this attention, the protesters may actually extend the facility’s life span, Astapovich opined (Novy Chas, June 11).
The burial site in Kuropaty was unearthed in 1988 by a team of archaeologists headed by Zianon Pazniak, the founder of the Belarusian Popular Front. The government of Soviet Belarus decided to build a memorial there, but it never materialized. Instead, several modest shrines were erected by individuals and non-governmental organizations (NGO). In 2001, the capital beltway was planned to cut right across Kuropaty. Several months of protests by young activists forced the authorities to compromise, so the site was saved.
In early 2017, construction of a business center began, 300 meters from the Kuropaty shrines. However, persistent demonstrations and even clashes with construction workers forced the authorities to abandon the project. Since then, the government has decided to seize the initiative and eventually create a monument commemorating the victims. On June 11, on the basis of a competition between 32 submitted projects, three were shortlisted (Belta, June 11).
Meanwhile, the Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty (BSRL) stirred up the largely indifferent general public by emphasizing the image of sacrilegious feasting next to the burial site of Stalin’s victims. Notably, it interviewed Belarusian-born astronaut Vladimir Kovalenok (Svaboda.org, June 12), the chairperson of the official Writers Union, Mikalai Charginets (Svaboda.org, June 12), former prime minister Viachaslau Kebich (Svaboda.org, June 13), and IT entrepreneur Yury Gursky (Svaboda.org, June 13). All expressed their disapproval of the Poyedem-Poyedim restaurant in Kuropaty and pledged to never attend it personally. Even the chair of the Central Electoral Commission, Lidia Ermoshina, observed that though the entire case is politically inflated, she would not celebrate her birthday at that restaurant.
Adding to the showdown in Kuropaty has been the purposeful dissemination of information about the restaurant owners’ ethno-religious backgrounds. It appears that both the major stakeholder, Leonid Zaides, a Belarusian entrepreneur, and Boris Suris, his partner residing in St. Petersburg, Russia, are Jewish; and Suris also has Israeli citizenship (Nasha Niva, June 13). Marat Garavy, a member of the civic initiative Experts in Defense of Kurapaty, who is also Jewish, expressed concern that the situation around the restaurant is prone to boost anti-Semitic attitudes in Belarus. With this in mind, he authored an appeal “to fellow Jews and Belarusians.” Specifically, he acknowledged how ashamed he was that some fellow Jews became involved in this irreverent endeavor and suggested the building ought to be vacated and used as a museum, not an eatery (Svaboda.org, June 9). Whether or not Garavy’s concerned appeal was overblown, according to the Anti-Defamation League’s recent bulletin, 38 percent of adult Belarusians do harbor anti-Semitic feelings (Adl.org, 2018), thus leaving ample room for speculation.
As of this writing, the situation has not been resolved. Though it has done more than any other media outlet to publicize the protests, the BSRL also reported that only 10–15 activists show up daily. Opposition leader Statkevich confessed he would gladly participate, too, should the protest expand or move to downtown Minsk (Svaboda.org, June 8). Statkevich’s conspicuous absence in the ongoing rallies and Astapovich’s judgment about the restaurant’s unlikely success, thus, boil down to the same explanatory variable: location, location, and location, as real estate agents and geographers both like to stress.
More critically, the ongoing Kuropaty forest protests highlight an atomized Belarusian society with a dearth of grassroots solidarity, yet with excessive hunger for PR furor on the part of some groups long deprived of public attention. Little wonder the usually intrusive government agencies have not yet intervened to cut the Gordian knot. More PR-savvy than ever before, the Belarusian authorities do not want to be branded Stalinist. Not now. Especially when there is no shortage of those willing to affix that label.