The Politics of Memory in Belarus: Narratives and Institutions

Aliaksiej Lastoŭski

Notebook and Pencil

A distinctive feature of the Belarusian case is an exceptional stability of the political situation in post-communist transformations (August 2020, however, casts doubt on this thesis). Since a relatively short transit period of 1991–1994, the country’s presidential office de facto still belongs to Aliaksandr Lukashenka. This leads to an excessive and even exaggerated degree of state control over the politics of memory. The main institutions for the production of historical knowledge are subordinate to the state which appoints loyal rectors and directors who implement occasional ideological cleansings among ordinary employees.

 

In 1991, the independent Republic of Belarus inherited the main institutions of science and education from the Soviet Union. The research work was organized through the centralized system of the Academy of Sciences of the BSSR (which later became the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus) divided into specialized institutes with the Institute of History being responsible for historical knowledge. The control over secondary and higher education is performed by the Ministry of Education. In the 1990s, private universities (though subject to state licensing) were created as an alternative, and many state universities also achieved a certain degree of autonomy. But along with the centralization of power driven by Lukashenko, this sphere was regulated too, primarily through the establishment of a procedure for rectors’ appointment by the president, which significantly narrowed the possibilities for universities’ autonomy.

The introduction of administrative control was largely caused by a ’struggle for historical truth.’ Belarusian historical science of the early 1990s was defined by a national narrative distinctive to Central and Eastern Europe with glorification of the heroic medieval past (first of all, the period of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania), followed by a long period of national oppression. The priority shifted towards the search for Belarusian statehood and ethnicity in history, creation of a long genealogic line of the national state as a foundation for the formation of national identity. The emphasis on the European character of Belarusian history also meant an ultimate distancing from Russia (which implicitly received the status of an Asian state). The national narrative highlighted constant wars with the Russian state which was associated with barbarism and slavery, while the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was seen as a tolerant state governed by the rule of law, a part of the European cultural and political space.  In fact, an anti-colonial revision of the past took place. But elected in 1994 country’s President Aliaksandr Lukashenka (who remains in this status to this day) set the priorities of historical policy as follows: orientation towards integration with Russia and a positive image of the Soviet past as a tool for mobilizing political support among the masses. At the same time, for the state version of history, the cultural unity of the Russian Orthodox civilization which was subjected to oppression and forced Polonization in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, was more important.

For the national narrative, the rebirth of national statehood resulted from the activities of national revival representatives who created the Belarusian People’s Republic in 1918, which ceased to exist after a short while under the pressure of the Soviet and Polish states. The BNR was not recognized by other states, but the attempt to create its own state was of great symbolic significance. The Soviet period is associated in the first place with mass repressions against virtually the entire national democratic intelligentsia. The state narrative, however, views the Soviet period exclusively in a positive vein, with greatest importance attributed to the Great Patriotic War as an exceptional event where Belarusians suffered heavy losses but demonstrated supreme heroism. In this paradigm, the independent Belarusian state is declared the legal successor of the Soviet period, the heritor of the social justice and military heroism traditions. The Belarusian people’s act of bravery in the Great Patriotic War is becoming the main source of legitimacy for the president as the main keeper of the memory while his political opponents are consistently associated with collaborators and adherents of Nazism.

As already noted, the most important feature of the entire period of Lukashenka’s rule is the establishment of ideological control over the sphere of historical knowledge production. School history textbooks’ rewriting was performed in the first place in 1996, followed by university textbooks’ revision. The next wave was the ‘cleansing’ of state institutions from politically unreliable teachers and researchers. Historians who dared to publicly criticize the ruling regime were dismissed with a ‘ban from profession,’ meaning lack of possibility to get a job in public research institutes and universities. Most were forced to emigrate or leave the scientific and research sphere.

‘Inconvenient’ research topics which – in the opinion of the officials dealing with history – should not be dealt with, have also been outlined. These are the Stalinist repressions and the aspects of the Great Patriotic War that do not fit into the heroic and sacrificial pattern (any criticism of the partisan movement is taken extremely painfully). 

 

A set of restrictive and repressive measures have led to the establishment of an ideological division in the historical environment into ‘national and court historians,’ according to Rainer Lindner’s apt definition. In fact, in many respects this division remains, although the situation was not and is not black and white. Despite all the cleansings and disciplinary measures, creation of historical institutions ideologically loyal to Lukashenko was a failure. The authorities are forced to rely on loyal officials, while ordinary historians most of the time openly support the national narrative.

 

However, leaving state institutions is a heavy blow for historians since resources in the independent field are extremely limited. This resulted in a sharp decline in research and publication activity when independent historical journals either disappeared or drastically reduced their periodicity.

Nevertheless, there is an important exception in terms of external support. It refers to the long-term and purposeful humanitarian policy of Poland that organizes various scholarhip programs for young and professional historians and other humanities scholars. Unlike the case with scholarship programs in other countries, historians have always enjoyed an unconditional priority here. This resulted in a situation where most of the active Belarusian historians participated in one or another Polish scholarship program (the virtual absence of a language barrier further facilitates this). This was one of the important factors promoting a positive change in the Belarusian national narrative towards the period of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In the early 1920s, Poles, along with Russians, were perceived as the main enemies of the Belarusian statehood, and the reaction to the Polonization of local elites in the sixteenth-eighteenth centuries was especially sharp. However, the established contacts with Polish historians and acquaintance with Polish historiography significantly softened these hostile intonations. 

For a certain time, the European Humanities University became one of the main centers for independent historians. During the first period of the university’s existence, history was not among the priorities of this educational institution. After the university’s closure in Belarus for political reasons and its forced migration to Lithuania in 2005 however, a department of history was opened there. The EHU managed to bring together prominent Belarusian historians who were dismissed from state institutions. But gradually the university starts being torn apart by internal conflicts between staff and the administration, problems arise with the recruitment of students to the department of history and as a result, this center of independent historical life is gradually fading away.

In general, Belarusian historical science remains extremely isolated from the international academy. This is influenced by a combination of factors: a deliberately isolationist policy of the institutions’ administration, lack of international exchange, and poor knowledge of foreign languages (except for Polish). In most cases, Belarusian historians attend conferences only in the neighboring countries, and their publications are hardly known outside the region.

Thus, the resources for an independent historical field are extremely limited. When it comes to academic research, it virtually doesn’t exist. At the same time, a transition takes place towards the work with a mass audience. 

The creation of Our History (Наша Гісторыя) magazine, the first issue of which was published in 2018, evidenced the beginning of a new era. It was a completely new format for Belarus, a monthly magazine published on glossy paper, well-designed and aimed at a wide audience (with the circulation of about 5000 copies). Professional historians are attracted to work with the publication and while articles are written in a popular style, the principles of scientificity are preserved. The magazine remains committed to the national historical narrative with a notable shift into the history of the twentieth century which is of higher interest to the audience. At the same time, there is a rejection of the harsh anti-Soviet patterns distinctive of the early 1990s. 

Meanwhile, important changes took place in the state historical policy too. In the early 2000s, Lukashenko switched from unconditional loyalties to Russia towards attempts to create a Belarusian state ideology committed to sovereignty and internal legitimacy building. This culminated in an important change in the state historical narrative, which by inertia was not noticed by all experts. Prior to this shift, the periods of Kievan Rus and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were considered through the paradigm of unity of East Slavic peoples. This approach however has been replaced by a ‘long-term genealogy’ which views the past through a consistent formation of the Belarusian statehood. Within such model, the Principality of Polatsk acquires the features of an independent state, and predominance of the ethnic Belarusian element in the history of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania is emphasized.

It cannot be stated that the Belarusian authorities simply adapted the national narrative of the early 1990s, although the appeal to medieval statehood is its most important element. The fundamental difference is that the national narrative is built around the concept of nation, which drastically increases the significance of such components as revival of the native language, the cult of national leaders (prominent enlightenment figures), a sharp contrast to and separation from hostile neighbors, in opposition to whom the national identity is built. Belarusian official historical narrative is based on the etatist version in which territory and state institutions continuity is of the greatest importance. The question of language then becomes secondary, enlighteners are replaced by public officials (from princes to the leadership of the Belarusian Communist Party), greatly noticeable becomes the desire to erase and retouch the conflicting pages of historical relations with neighbors.

This narrative shift took place due to the combination of two groups of factors. Firstly, after the ‘Crimean spring’ of 2014, tensions in Belarus–Russia relations have been growing and the authorities started paying much more attention to the symbolic space and the humanitarian sphere. Thus, the ‘ribbon of Saint George’ was virtually banned, the ‘Immortal Regiment’ initiative was marginalized – that is, the symbolic measures to commemorate the Great Patriotic War initiated in Russia are negatively perceived by the Belarusian authorities as a means of soft power to create a common cultural and political space. What was once perceived as appropriate is now becoming suspicious. At the same time, there appears a need for a stronger version of national identity compared to the one constructed before, and this requires an integrative historical narrative. The previous version of historical memory based exclusively on the Victory in the Great Patriotic War no longer meets the new requirements since it anchors Belarus in the post-Soviet space, in the zone of immediate Russian influence. References to the early Middle Ages borrowed from the national narrative look like a fair compromise option that would not irritate Russia and at the same time possesses the potential for building a historical memory that would distinguish Belarusians from their eastern neighbors.

To conclude. A distinctive feature of Belarus among the countries of the region is the enormous degree of state control over the production of historical knowledge, which is achieved through the preservation of Soviet institutional forms (the Institute of History, state universities). This makes it possible to easily produce and disseminate the type of historical knowledge tailored to Lukashenko’s political interests. Critical voices are being pushed out of the state-controlled field into a space where resources are extremely limited. An important trend of the recent years is the growth of self-organization in the Belarusian society, which makes it possible to create new forms of production of historical knowledge where the national narrative is reborn into new commercial and popular forms.