The former Soviet Union accounts for at least one-third of the total death toll of over 60 million in World War II. Thus, particularly for the numerous families who lost their loved ones in that colossal conflict, Victory Day (marked on May 9, based on the Russian calendar) has a deeply special significance. It officially became a day off starting in 1965, on the 20th anniversary of the victorious end of World War II. Today, it is celebrated in most successor states of the Soviet Union, but most solemnly in Russia and Belarus. The estimates of loss of human life on Belarusian territory during the war range from 2,357,000 to 3,074,000; whereas, on the eve of war, the population within Belarus’s current borders was 9,183,000. No other country lost as many of its people relative to its pre-war population (see EDM, January 15, 2015; May 22, 2015).
However, the sheer magnitude of the human tragedy, the moral high ground proudly felt by those on the side that collectively defeated Nazism, as well ceremonies honoring the few remaining war veterans have, in recent years, increasingly become enmeshed in the politics of the present. And in Belarus, this has again sparked inordinate anxieties that engulfed local media and online social networks.
A particularly salient issue has been the “Immortal Regiment” (IR) procession, which began in 2011 as a grassroots initiative in the Russian city of Tomsk during that year’s Victory Day celebrations. In an IR procession, people march bearing the pictures of their relatives, dead or alive, who fought in the Great Patriotic War, a Russian moniker for World War II. They also wear ribbons of Saint George—symbols of Russian military glory. This initiative quickly spread to other Russian cities and to foreign countries with significant Russian and Russian-speaking communities. Twenty cities in the United States now hold IR marches, with the most massive held in New York City (RIA Novosti, May 5). In Belarus, IR commemorations have been taking place since 2012, and they have attracted increasing numbers of participants every year.
But beginning in 2015, Russian authorities decided to assume more direct control over these marches. Owing to the besieged fortress mentality in Russia, boosted in the wake of the West’s response to the annexation of Crimea and war in Donbas, the IR initiative thus acquired a pronounced streak of aggressive militarism. It pointedly expressed itself in the popular slogan heard during the IR processions, “We can repeat it,” implying that should pressure exerted by the West continue, it would trigger a Russian response analogous to the Soviet Red Army’s drive to Berlin (Tut.by, May 10). Moreover, increasing numbers of people have marched with pictures of wartime Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. The Belarusian authorities have been watching these changes with growing unease. It is difficult to say whether that apprehension is due to the increasing infiltration of militaristic propaganda into the initially innocuous IR marches, or whether the concern has more to do with another country shaping Belarus’s historical memory, even while the latter has been working harder on fomenting its own identity in recent years. In any case, in his May 9, 2018, speech at the wreath-laying ceremony in Minsk, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka spoke against what he called the “privatization of our Victory” (Tut.by, May 9).
In past years, Belarusian authorities had attempted to replace Saint George ribbons with Belarusian symbols reflecting either the colors of the national flag or apple tree flowers. But this time, the authorities in Minsk, Mogilev and Vitebsk initially tried to deny requests to conduct the IR marches under the pretext that identical marches had already been approved under the slogan “Belarus Remembers.” Many users of social networks as well as some media outlets responded with indignation. At the last moment, in Minsk, the city authorities permitted the IR march, quite conscious that it would have almost certainly occurred anyway. After all, had it been left unsanctioned, the march would have attracted unwanted attention. (Tut.by, Sputnik.by, May 7; Naviny, May 8; Tut.by, May 9). Eventually Lukashenka himself declared that “in Belarus, nobody ever banned what is sacred” (Tut.by, May 9).
One arguably negative outcome of the entire controversy is that it works against Belarus’s national consolidation, overexposing what has been its Achilles’ heel all along. Social networks and some publications make this outcome plainly evident. Each group in Belarus’s relatively atomized society has tried to use what happened to boost its own symbolic capital at the expense of the other groups. Thus, Nasha Niva, the well-known media outlet of Westernizing nationalists, declared that “a community of those who love Russia more than Lukashenka does, organizationally speaking, has taken shape” (Nasha Niva, May 10). At the other extreme, ardently pro-Russian activists averred that “a state of war has been declared against the Slavic people now residing within the borders of several states. This is a war of a new type, a psycho-historical one. They are literally trying to wrestle the Victory away from us… First, for some unknown reason, we were asked to repent for Communism, then they equated Stalin-the-Victor with Hitler-the-Fascist, and now they want to replace the joy of victory with a sense of tragedy” (Vitbich, May 10).
According to Alexander Bely, a historian and the author of a popular Belarusian cookbook, the most disturbing outcome of the current situation has been an obsessive peddling of false choices (Facebook.com/wereszczaka, May 9). “It seems like an artificial discord: Either you honor the memory of those fallen in the war or you are in favor of Belarus’s independence,” he writes on his Facebook page, continuing, “If you honor those fallen, you are on the side of Stalin and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, and if you are for independence, you are on the side of [Mihal] Vitushka and [Usevalad] Rodzka,” that is, Belarusian Nazi collaborators whose legacy is currently being reexamined (1863.com, May 10). Bely suggests that, in fact, there are many who are both willing to honor the Red Army soldiers, the partisans, and the millions of casualties of Nazi terror, but who, at the same time, will not surrender their symbolic voices to Stalin and Putin. Those appealing for Belarusian unity must certainly hope that Bely is right.