What Did Lukashenka’s Open History Lesson Demonstrate?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 138

(Source: Pravda)

Oleg Manaev, a seasoned Belarusian sociologist, whose polling firm conducted quarterly national surveys of Belarusians from the early 1990s until 2016, when it was shut down by the Minsk authorities, made a robustly substantiated statement that is at loggerheads with what Belarusian opposition has been stating since 2020. According to the opposition’s position, the pattern of political division in Belarus is characterized by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and his law enforcement personnel siding against Belarusian society at large. According to Manaev, however, “Lukashenka and his machinery of violence and state power as a whole … have a basis of support in society,” and therefore, we are rather dealing with a societal split per se. For example, in a January 2021 poll conducted by Ryhor Astapenia (Chatham House Belarus Initiative), in response to the question, “Who, in your opinion, would be worthy of becoming the president of Belarus?,” Lukashenka was named by 27.4 percent of respondents and Viktar Babaryka by 28.8 percent. Thirty-nine percent of respondents agreed that “Tikhanovskaya and her office do not reflect the interests of people like me,” and almost the same number disagreed (IdeasBank, September 5). Manaev’s earlier statement along the same lines (Dw.com/ru, October 4, 2020) was harshly criticized by his former comrades-in-arms in the opposition (see EDM, October 14, 2020).

Recently, Lukashenka uncharacteristically confirmed the presence of societal divisions himself. Speaking at a September 6 meeting with some of his top-ranking officials, he broached the idea of limited amnesty for those who fell victim to prosecution after the fall 2020 protests (President.gov.by, September 6).

The interpretation of this idea that became popular in social networks (“the regime ran out of money”) is unlikely to be accurate, writes Yury Drakakhrust of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “First of all, they are not yet broke, and neither is Russia, the sponsor of the Belarusian regime. Secondly, the West is unlikely to weaken sanctions in exchange for a limited amnesty. … So, it looks like the motivation is internal after all.” And Lukashenka voiced this at the meeting: “Sometimes our supporters go overboard when it comes to splish-splashing [i.e., bringing to heel], imprisoning everyone and so on. You know, it never added unity to society. But nevertheless, it will not be possible to simply walk away from this issue and not listen to these people [i.e., opposition-minded].” Drakakhrust concludes, with these words, the Belarusian leader effectively confirmed a deep division in Belarusian society, reflected in numerous surveys (Svaboda, September 6).

It could well be that the idea of amnesty, however limited, did occur to Lukashenka during the so-called “open history lesson,” which he conducted with a couple hundred youth ranging from 18 to 20 years old in attendance, as well as a few adults, including Igor Marzalyuk, Lukashenka’s major ideologue, and Father Fyodor, an Orthodox priest (YouTube, September 1). A secondary-school history teacher by training, Lukashenka “taught” students for three and a half hours on the first day of school, September 1. The lesson’s title was “Historical Memory as the Path to the Future.” The lesson had several refrains, but by far, the major one was to ensure and solidify the dominance of a certain version of Belarusians’ collective memory, the Russia-centric one, dealing yet another blow to the Westernizing version (see EDM, December 20, 2019).

Lukashenka sees the early days of Belarusian polity beginning with the Polotsk Principality that detached itself from Kievan Rus’ in the 11th century. He insists on the “Belarusian-ness” of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania that persisted despite Polish ploys and on Belarusians becoming one branch of the tripartite Slavic community (Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians), which played the formative role for the Russian Empire. He insisted on the anti-Polish sentiments of the Belarusian peasantry, who, in the Patriotic War of 1812, fought not on the side of Polish nobilities that sided with the French but on the Russian side. The Belarusian president dismissed the role of the Belarusian People’s Republic that was proclaimed in 1918 under German military occupation and that continues to be the first attempt at modern Belarusian statehood in the eyes of the Westernizing opposition. He once again deviated from the cornerstone of Russia’s collective memory in that World War II was not “our” war, but we had to fight in it and displayed the least treasonous sentiment toward the Soviet Motherland. Marzalyuk also drew upon the fact that Belarusian collaborators of the Nazis represented a group vastly smaller in size than similar groups in Ukraine and the Baltic states. Once again, Lukashenka emphasized the perfidious role of Poland in instigating the public protests that broke out following the August 2020 elections.

Lukashenka’s anti-Polish thrust closely mirrored multiple attempts by Russian historian Aleksandr Dyukov devoted to discrediting the Belarusian patriotic credentials of Konstanty Kalinowski, the leader of what Russian and Belarusian officialdom believe was a Polish 1863–1864 uprising in the northwestern region of Russia (Lt.sputnik, August 29). For the opposition, Kalinowski was a national hero, whereas for Dyukov, he was merely a Polish colonizer of Belarus. In June 2022, the authorities in Minsk closed the Kalinowski pub, a place frequented by many Belarusian youth (Nasha Niva, June 5).

It just so happened that amid the multiple pronouncements and questions that the attending Belarusian youth had prepared for Lukashenka, two did not quite match the lesson’s tune. First, Zakhar Auchinnikau, a young cadet, speaking in Belarusian (practically the entire lesson was conducted in Russian), acknowledged that he is proud of his fellow countryman, Henryk Dmoсhowski, who participated in two uprisings against Tsarist Russia in 1830 and 1863. Another youth, Denis Znak, a student of the school of biology at Belarusian State University, asked Lukashenka what he thought about the fact that many in Belarus do not trust official sources of information. In this way, both Belarusian youth effectively confirmed that Belarusians are afflicted by a deep societal division that should be characterized as Belarus’s major formative problem. Apparently, Oleg Manaev was right.