A Partisan Reality Show

by Vitali Silitski
11 May 2005

The greatest challenge to Lukashenka's almost Stalinist version of World War II may lie in simply representing Belarusians as ordinary people desperate for peace.

If anyone thought Russia's celebration of the World War II victory anniversary was an ideological showcase, they should look at Belarus. Red flags everywhere. Pompous military parades so numerous that that easily outscore those from the Soviet era. Giant billboards with cut-outs of military decorations on all main buildings. Veterans from all over the former the former empire. Speeches and proclamations reciting the slogans of 1941 verbatim. Celebrations of Victory Day in Belarus are often described as the best indicator of how far the former Soviet republic is returning to the past. The reality is that it never really left the past.


Without World War II - the Great Patriotic War, as Belarusians know it - it is utterly impossible to understand Belarus, the mentality of its people, and the politics of the state. There are numbers that will never evaporate from the collective memory. More than 2.5 million Belarusians perished in this war - every fourth Belarusian. Some estimates even suggest every third resident died. This is more than French, British, and American casualties combined. Six hundred villages were burned, together with their residents; life never returned to 200 of them. An entire country - that is, every single major city - was left in ruins. The population returned to its pre-war level only in the mid-1970s. This horror of war transformed and created 'the Belarusian mentality' as it is known today: ingrained in the collective psyche is a deep, subconscious fear not just of war but of any conflict. "At least, there is no war" is a typical reaction of a typical Belarusian to a typical day-to-day hardship. "As long as everything remains quiet" is a typical thought about the future.

But the public memory stores and succors figures not just of death and destruction. Over 300,000 guerillas, known as partisans, who took to the forests to fight Nazis. Two-thirds of Belarusian territory under guerilla control for most of the war. Heavier German casualties than on the entire western front (at least, that is what official historians claim). And innumerable names of defiant heroes immortalized ever since, names such as: Kanstancin Zaslonau, organizer of the 'railway war' that cost the Germans a gigantic amount of ammunition and manpower; Marat Kazei, a 13-year-old who blown himself up with a grenade rather than be captured by the enemy; and Minaj Shvyrou, 'Father Minaj', commander of partisan units, whose four children were taken hostage and executed after their father refused to turn himself in. Innumerable poems and novels studied at high school, movies and documentaries watched on TV, obelisks in every town and village - all these tributes to the war are kept alive not only the memory of fear, but also pride.

This fear and pride has become crucial in forming what some historians and political scientists refer to as the "Soviet Belarusian nation." For a multitude of historical reasons, Belarusians, unlike most of their neighbors, never succeeded in developing a strong sense of national identity. Domination by external powers, centuries-old policies first of Polonization, then of Russification, left the collective memory without a sense of the past. The Soviet regime filled that gap with its own ideology, mixing the communist doctrine with the heroics of the guerilla resistance during World War II. According to one scholar of Belarus, Kathleen Mikhalisko, "resistance fighters and Red Army liberators filled the role of the missing popular heroes of Belarusian history, and that, in turn, abetted the process of forging a strong national identity at the mass level."

Seen from the official point of view, the communist regime gave Belarusians everything. It created their state in 1919, in the form of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Belarus. It unified Belarus in 1939. It saved the nation from annihilation by the Nazis. And it rebuilt the republic afterwards into the most prosperous part of the Soviet Union, giving Belarusian their golden age in 1965-80, under the rule of party leader Piotr Masherov.

Masherov was an immensely popular and charismatic personality, a man who himself had been a guerilla and was awarded the star of a Hero of the Soviet Union at the age of 26. He is still revered by Belarusians for Belarus' unprecedented prosperity during the Brezhnev era. It was Masherov who transformed the partisan war into a national myth and made it a trademark by which Belarus is still identified - at least in the former Soviet Union. It was during his rule that some of the most gigantic World War II monuments emerged. These include an almost 200 foot high spear-headed man-made Mount of Glory on the outskirts of Minsk; an immense concrete monolith to commemorate the defense of the Brest Fortress; and perhaps the most human war memorial of all - a breathtaking architectural tribute to the villagers of Khatyn burned by the Nazis with their residents inside a barn. In the center of the memorial, there is a symbol of shocking simplicity and laconism: three birch trees, with an eternal fire instead of a fourth tree - a tribute to the one in every four Belarusians who died at war. (Human it may have been, but the memorial was also deeply political: this site to commemorate all the villages that perished in the inferno was chosen to be easily confused with Katyn, the site near Smolensk where Stalin's secret police, the NKVD, executed many thousands of Polish officers.)

Architectural symbolism was augmented by the mass production of cultural testimonies. Belarusfilm, the local movie-making company, was known in the former Soviet Union as Partisanfilm because of its endless output of war-related canvasses. War was the central theme of most literary production in the post-war republic. And the song of the best-known Belarusian folk-rock group, Pesnyary, created the image that instantly conjured up the republic in the minds of Soviet compatriots:
My youth - Byelorussia,
The songs of partisans - pine trees and fog.


When the Soviet Union collapsed, it was for many Sovietized Belarusians as if they had been expelled from Eden. The Masherov-era prosperity and security collapsed all of a sudden, along with the entire world of meaning that cemented it. For many, the new life, with its turbulent politics and collapsing economy, could only be understood by what it was not: it was not what they were used to. It was simply inevitable that someone would exploit this confusion and anxiety to reap political benefits. That someone happened to be a 39-year-old head of a collective farm, a man known for the past decade as President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Campaigning for power in his anti-corruption crusade, Lukashenka carried a simple and understandable message to the electorate: things went wrong because the Soviet Union was destroyed, and with it went the foundations of a good, simple, safe, and prosperous life.

Not only did Lukashenka play on the nostalgia for tranquility and security. To distinguish himself from his opponents, he exploited public memory and the only frame of self-understanding that ordinary Belarusians had to distinguish between what was good and bad. And so he initiated, in February 1995, his first referendum, to establish Russian as the second official language and to restore the Soviet-era flag and coat of arms as the country's official symbols. The independence-era symbols, the white-red-white flag and the Chase (Pahonya) coat of arms from the era of the Great Duchy of Lithuania were found guilty as charged: they were used by Nazi collaborators during the war. Ipso facto the opposition, which returned these symbols, was nothing but a collection of Nazi sympathizers. The referendum was held on 14 May, almost coinciding with the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the victory in World War II. Set against that favorable ideological backdrop, the proposal duly passed with ease, with 75% of those participating voting yes. Speaking about that occasion one year later, Lukashenka declared to his most loyal voters - war veterans - that "we have returned to you the flag of the country for which you fought. We have returned to you both memory and a sense of human pride."

In November 1996, Lukashenka repeated the trick when he tried to push through a referendum to disband the defiant parliament and institutionalize unlimited presidential rule. He added to that ballot a proposal to establish 3 July, the date on which Minsk was liberated from the Nazis in 1944, as the Belarusian Independence Day. The new official holiday replaced the Independence Day of post-communist Belarus, which was observed on 27 July to commemorate the adoption of the Declaration of Sovereignty in 1990. The new official view was that 27 July was another leftover from the 'fascist' and 'nationalist' rule in 1991-93: it was, so the claim goes, deliberately chosen as the date for the Declaration of Sovereignty to coincide with the date in 1942 on which the Nazi governor of Belarus allowed the white-red-white flag and the Chase coat of arms to be used together with Nazi insignia. That was an outright lie: that decree was signed on 27 June. Still, Lukashenka had found another way to claim that the spiritual descendants of the Nazi collaborators put Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union on the same level.

Lukashenka recreated for Belarusians the symbolic and ideological atmosphere of the Marsherov era - adding to it a big-fingered pinch of Stalinism. The new independence holiday was celebrated with giant street fairs and gigantic military parades, which, in contrast with the late Soviet period but in keeping with Stalin's, included air shows and sportsmen's displays. (Later, he added one more element: a leader arriving in a generalissimo-style uniform, a uniform with no military rank attached but with regalia richer than that of any general.) 'Partisanfilm' was revived and once again ordered to produce war-related movies. Remarkably, the company's first product in post-Soviet era was the movie The Moment of Truth, which extolled the activities of the NKVD, Stalin's secret police, on recaptured Belarusian territory in 1944. A course entitled 'The Role of the Belarusian People in the Great Patriotic War' eventually became compulsory in the state curricula. Independence-era history textbooks were banned from schools and universities, and the 'correct' Soviet view on history was once again imposed by veteran ideologues who returned to prominence under Lukashenka's wing. Thinking about Belarus outside the confines of the Soviet version (and now Lukashenka's version) became a sign of sympathy towards Nazis.

This year, just before the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the victory in World War II, Lukashenka once again confirmed the centrality of the war in his ideology by bizarrely renaming the central streets in Minsk. The central avenue shed the name of Francysk Skaryna (printer of the first books in Belarusian, in the 16th century), and was renamed Independence Avenue (read: independence from Nazi occupants). Lukashenka even turned the avenue named after Masherov into Victor's Avenue, relegating Masherov to a new avenue formed from three old streets. (This decision seems particularly bizarre, since Masherov is firmly associated with the Soviet Belarus. It seems to be an attempt to downgrade his rival for public affection and a move that may have something to do with the emergence of Masherov's daughter as an outspoken opponent of Lukashenka's.)


Lukashenka's 'think tank', the Institute of Social and Political Studies of the Presidential Administration, justifies this endless World War II worship as a political fight: "The real history of the all-people fight of the Belarusian nation with the Nazi occupants not only unmasks the 'lies' of pro-Western scholars about the guerilla warfare but also shows the anti-people character of their programs of 'democratization' and 'Europeanization' of the modern Belarus. : The so-called 'opposition' tries to impose on Belarusian people the very same politics of 'Europeanization' and 'civilization' that the German occupants tried to carry out with the help of their collaborators."

Exploiting the symbolism, history, and mythology of World War II certainly has a practical political significance for Lukashenka. First, it helps squeeze the opposition from the moral, political, and physical high ground. Cracking down on 'non-Soviet' Belarusians is a continuation of the glorious guerilla warfare and liberation struggle. Here is another quotation from a memo by the presidential 'think tank': "In the philosophical-ideological and spiritual-moral aspect, so to say, the 'Battle for Belarus' still persists, because theoreticians and historians of 'new formations' still somehow emerge; they are ready to rewrite history in their own way, to revise moral values so that they can be portrayed as anti-values, to interpret the major victories in the people's fight with the aggressors as losses; moreover, they search for 'enemies of the Belarusian people' among the leaders of the country, from whom they want to 'liberate Belarus.'"

Lukashenka's authoritarian rule is vindicated by claiming a special place for himself not only as a defender of Belarus' glorious past against the Nazis, but also as the sole guardian of the tradition of the Great Victory anywhere in the post-Soviet space. Hence attacking Lukashenka means encroaching on the sacrosanct: the heroic sacrifice of the Belarusian, and entire Soviet people, during the war.

Whenever possible, Lukashenka himself invokes memories of the war to denounce his critics. For him, the whole of Belarus is the Brest Fortress (a site that an NKVD garrison defended for 26 days against German attack). Attacking Belarusian autocracy simply shows a lack of gratitude; or may even be an act of revenge for a war lost. Denouncing Western criticism of the 2001 presidential elections, Lukashenka lashed out at his inauguration ceremony: "One cannot disrespect the great Belarusian people, who have made their choice - and who, not long ago, just half a century ago, presented the world, together with Russian soldiers and other compatriots from the former Soviet Union, with the Great Victory."

Likewise, when Russia briefly cut off supplies of natural gas to Belarus over non-payment of arrears, Lukashenka swiftly deployed war rhetoric: "Gazprom is reducing the supply of natural gas by 50 percent. They say they do not have enough to supply Germany, Italy, etc. This issue is, of course, an emotional one. I believe it was we who rotted in the trenches alongside Russians in the Great Patriotic War, not the Germans and others:"

And, preparing for last year's referendum that granted him the right run for office ad infinitum, Lukashenka attacked his foreign critics, claiming they were the heirs to the ignominious deeds of their grandfathers. "And now, inside the European Union, the most democratic union of all, they, the SS veterans, parade and remember their 'valiant past.' And their children and grandchildren like to dictate what order should be imposed in Belarus."

Needless to say, Lukashenka is idolized by the war veterans. One of them, when receiving a medal from his hands on 8 May this year, called the Belarusian leader "the last outpost in the fight against evil."

In order to be able to connect himself to the Soviet past and present his opponents as followers of the Nazis, Lukashenka and his propaganda machine needs to carefully control what version of World War II is presented to every audience, particularly to the younger generations. That is why textbooks, dissertations, fiction, and movie productions about the war are all strictly censored. Lukashenka's ideologues have attacked the entire nationalist version of Belarus' past, but they have attacked with special gusto on issues relating to the Great Patriotic War. Lukashenka's propaganda machine is particularly adamant about not even admitting there is any debate on two issues.

The first is the righteousness of Stalin's regime and of the Father of the People himself. Any discussion about the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, for example, is denounced as a sacrilegious attempt to divide the blame for starting the war between the Soviet 'motherland' and Nazi Germany. Moreover, Stalin's crimes are routinely justified, amounting to a creeping rehabilitation of Stalin. Just a few months after Lukashenka finally consolidated absolute authority in his hands through last year's referendum, a group of Stalinists organized into Historical Knowledge society (unsuccessfully) called for a revision of the mass executions in the Kurapaty gorge near Minsk. This site of NKVD executions has become, since it was uncovered in 1988, a powerful symbol of Soviet atrocities against its people. The Historical Knowledge society claims the victims were Nazis.

The second issue that is beyond doubt and beyond discussion are the causes and impact of the guerilla war. In reality, from the tales recounted by their parents and grandparents many Belarusians are aware of the forest war and its complexities: the partisans were no angels. Peaceful residents unengaged in warfare had to withstand pressure and harassment from both sides, being forced to supply food for both Soviet and German antagonists and facing execution if one side discovered they had previously 'given' food to the other. Reappraisals of the partisan warfare picked up after independence in 1991, with new publications and analyses, many discovering unflattering truths about looting, the private lives of some guerilla commanders, and even about the retribution teams that the NKVD sent to tame some most outrageous harassment of locals by their alleged defenders. Critics also wonder if the guerillas deliberately pulled ordinary people into the maelstrom by their hit-and-run attacks tactics, which, while often causing little damage to the enemy, provoked acts of extreme retribution. The Nazis could execute hundreds and thousands of civilians after one partisan attack. The Nazi policy was to kill dozens of locals for every slain Nazi, a policy the partisans were well aware of. Of course, Lukashenka's ideologues suffocate any reassessment of the partisan warfare.


To attempt to see the war and its impact from a different corner, a vantage point beyond the strict ideological confines of the Soviet-Lukashenka discourse, amounts to nothing less than an act of political defiance. 'De-Sovietizing' the war is an intrusion on a powerful discourse whose aim is to legitimate authority; it is also an attempt to reclaim the Belarusian identity from totalitarianism. No wonder that the propaganda machine resists such attempts as fervently as it did two or three decades ago. The challenge to the official doctrine mostly came through scholarship - and only rarely through art. The Soviet ideologization of the topic made it increasingly unattractive for 'alternative' artists and writers - which, paradoxically, eased the job for Lukashenka and his palace "historians." The first breakthroughs were made by the foremost Belarusian writers in the late Soviet period, Ales Adamovich and Vasil Bykau (perhaps better known to some as Vasil Bykov, a russification of his surname) - and it was almost 20 years before, in 2003, another work of art, an almost amateurish movie production, made a splash.

The first striking challenge to the official version of the war and guerilla warfare came in 1985, at the beginning of Gorbachev's perestroika. That year, Belarusfilm filmed Come and See, a movie scripted by Ales Adamovich, a prominent publicist and novelist who himself had been a partisan at the age of 15. Adamovich was also famous for his incessant clashes with Minsk's orthodox officialdom, who forced him into exile - to Moscow - in the late 1980s. The movie was seemingly a textbook example of Soviet cinematography. Its story followed a day in the life of a tiny Belarusian village as seen through the eyes of a young resident. The day, though, happened to be the village's last day: the village was that day torched by the Nazis. There is little dialogue and little said; all there is is the horror of scenes so graphic that Stephen Spielberg's cinematography seems mere melodrama. The psychological impact of the scenes seemingly followed the official line, serving as a condemnation of Nazism. Yet war veterans and communist ideologues attacked Adamovich relentlessly. Why? Because he showed the horrors of war, any kind of war, in the process effectively dissociating himself from the propaganda of Soviet patriotism and class warfare to which all art of that time had to be dedicated. More than that, the movie featured an NKVD operative who immediately suspects the young survivor of the inferno of defecting to the Nazis when the youngster eventually manages to make his way to a partisan base in the woods. Adamovich was charged with pacifism and humanism, high crimes in the eyes of Belarusian guardians of party orthodoxy. He eventually had to move to Moscow, where he became one of the most visible intellectuals of the perestroika era.

If World War II formed Belarusians as they are known and know themselves, it is not surprising that its foremost contemporary author dedicated most of his writing to the subject. Vasil Bykau, a World War II soldier whose name was once mistakenly engraved on the tombstone in central Ukraine, was called by his contemporaries the conscience of the Belarusian nation. Yet, unlike the vast majority of Soviet war writers, Bykau avoided all things grandiose and avoided the stereotypes of Soviet heroes. He focused rather on the psychology of individual characters, on mixed motives, and on the grim reality of war. Nor was he afraid to contrast the stoicism and heroism of individual soldiers with the brutality of the Stalinist regime. In his war prose, the conflict between good and evil did not follow the frontlines on war charts: instead, it cut through human minds and souls. The choice between good and evil was not reduced to 'fighting for' or 'betraying' the Soviet motherland. The choice was how to show and maintain basic human dignity in extraordinary circumstances. The line between good and evil divided a comrade who betrayed a comrade in a scouting mission; an NKVD operative busy framing and incriminating soldiers who miraculously escaped death on the frontline; and a school teacher who surrenders to the Germans to liberate pupils who have been taken hostage. To put it simply, in Bykau's prose being Soviet did not automatically mean being righteous.

Bykau was not a dissident writer in the Soviet period; in fact, he avoided taking on anything except for the war until perestroika was in full swing. But although he received all possible Soviet state decorations (first-rank titles like the Hero of Socialist Labor and the Lenin Prize included), these did not save him from accusations of defaming the Soviet system. They did not stave off the attentions of the Soviet censors, who demanded often pettifogging changes to ensure political correctness. In the Lukashenka era, the attacks by the Stalinist orthodoxy resumed with increased power (and now, they had Bykau's anti-Stalinist prose to backlash against because, from perestroika until his death, most of his fiction was dedicated to Stalinist genocide). State publishers refused to print his books. He was branded a "literary policeman" by the chief ideologue of the Presidential Administration. This literary policeman of Lukashenka's also called upon literary magazines not to publish Bykau (as well as several other "renegade" writers, such as Ryhor Baradulin and Nil Hilievich, both of whom were laureates - people's poets - of Belarus). He lived most of his last six years in exile, first in Finland and Germany, and the in the Czech Republic. A documentary Vasil Bykau: The Comeback was banned on the grounds that it features a short clip of Hitler, and that could "offend the feelings of the veterans." (Naturally, no Soviet-produced movie that had had a scene with Hitler in his bunker was ever banned.)

Bykau confronted Stalinist orthodoxy all his life - and even in death. He passed away in 2003 on 22 June - the exact date on which the German onslaught against the Soviet Union became. His funeral drew a crowd of 30,000 mourners (an indication that the defamation campaign had fundamentally failed) - and a sea of banned white-red-white flags. On that day at least, the riot police did not dare to confiscate them. Bykau's family rejected an official honor guard that would have borne the Lukashenka-era red and green flag; his sons personally covered his body with the independence-era flag. A national icon recognized and respected by most Belarusians regardless of their political hue, and a Soviet war veteran whose coffin was draped in a white-red-white flag: this was one rare ideological defeat for Lukashenka's propaganda machine. It could not forgive that. Next day, the official media presented the funeral as if Bykau's body had nearly been hijacked by nationalists in his family clan and forcibly covered with the 'Nazi' flag.


For years, Bykau was the sole artistic challenge to Lukashenka's presentation of history. Then, in 2003, an obscure movie release resounded like a thunderclap. This was not even the full-fledged production, just a collection of three short essays united by one topic - the partisan war, shown as Belarusians were never supposed to see it. No wonder it was immediately banned in Belarus - only to go on to make splashes at several film festivals, including one in Moscow (a source of especial displeasure to ideologues in Minsk). Occupation: Mysterium, which was directed by Andrei Kudinenko, challenged the entire Soviet mythology about the partisan war. It did not turn the picture upside down, as the critics claimed; this was not a "Germans are good, Soviets are bad" picture. Instead, the movie tells the stories of Belarusians, people who are neither Soviets nor Germans; stories of all sorts of Belarusians - those in the partisan brigades, those trying to get on with their lives amid the war, and those serving the Germans in the police corps.

The movie opens with a scene of two young local villagers serving in the German police. One of them sings Soviet songs from the pre-war propaganda movies and expresses his dream of making movies after the war. 'Which ones?" his colleague asks. "German? Soviet?" "No," responds the dreamer. "Ours, Belarusian ones." "You are a fool! There is no Belarus, and there will be no Belarusian movies."

The first part of the movie shows a Belarusian teenager named Adam who is taken into the partisans' camp by a Russian guerilla delegated from Moscow to 'organize' the war. His first assignment: to assist in the execution of another villager who defected from the partisans to live a quiet life with a Polish mistress. Unable to stand by and see a fellow villager killed, Adam finally kills the Russian. In the second part, a mother whose child was run over by a German motorcycle treats a wounded Nazi, feeding him with milk from her own breast. She eventually goes insane and burns herself in her own house.

The third section is the most dramatic. A small kid pines for his father, who was taken into the Red Army. His mother, meanwhile, has an affair with a policeman. Suddenly, a "dad" comes back. He is in fact a partisan, who claims to be the little boy's father in order to glean information that could help the partisans in their plan to kill the policeman. A few days later, the reprisal squad arrives. Alongside "dad" are three other partisans: a Russian, a Tatar, and Jakub, a local boy who takes special pride in the fact that his grandfather fought alongside Kastus Kalinouski, a leader of the 1863 uprising on Belarusian soil against the Russians. When the house is captured with the help of the gullible kid, the policeman is killed and the Tatar slits the throat of his mistress - only to die on the spot at Jakub's hands. "My grandfather did not fight alongside Kalinouski so that some Tatar could slit the throats of our women," Jakub explains to his two 'comrades.'

The movie's message is astounding and not simply anti-Soviet. Its heroes want a return to a normal life, to dream great, sometimes lofty dreams. They join the combatant parties - whether Soviets or Germans -simply because they believe that in circumstances such as they are this choice will help them to fulfill this basic human desire. They are still Belarusians - not Russians, not Germans, not Poles; they are local people trapped in tragic circumstances and forced to make choices.


History is written and identity formed by the victors. The Soviet understanding of World War II will frame the self-understanding of yet another generation of Belarusians: Soviet-style textbooks and official TV will take care of that. Whether one likes it or not, the mythology of the Great Patriotic War has made an indelible impact on the Belarusian character.

So perhaps the greatest threat to the power of the Soviet-Lukashenka version of the war is not the danger of the war being forgotten, but the of the war's most powerful symbol, the "partisans," being reinterpreted as quiet, peaceful locals, who, once driven to the edge, take up arms and take to the woods. Perhaps, that is why one of the most interesting underground art magazines in today's Belarus is called pARTizan. And it is this that the leading Belarusian language rock group NRM (who, since they are banned from radio, are now technically partisans themselves) sings about in one of its songs:

We are the partisans, the forest brothers;
We are the partisans, we know how to fight;
We are the partisans, we love our land;
We will clear our land of hostile packs.

The meaning is transparent - and it is not what Lukashenka likes.

Vitali Silitski, a longtime contributor to TOL from Belarus, is currently a Reagan-Fascell democracy fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy in the United States.