For decades, the most important historical period for Belarusians was the Soviet Union. Because Belarus suffered more during the war than any other region in the USSR, and for that matter more than any other place on Earth, the official cult of the war was very resonant. The Soviet Union used the victory over Nazi Germany as its major legitimator in the 1970s, at a time when no one really believed in Marxist ideology any longer, and when Leonid Brezhnev was no longer promising his people a future communist utopia.
This atmosphere of the 1970s was formative for Vladimir Putin in Russia as well as for Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus. In Belarus, a renewed cult of the war, now for the great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren of the soldiers and survivors, has been the ideological basis of Lukashenko's rule. We are special because we suffered; the danger lurks in the West; rescue arrives from the East.
Last year, Lukashenko lost control of the Belarusian story. He had failed his country during the covid epidemic. His claims that it could be cured by drinking vodka and riding tractors were laughable abroad, but deadly at home. Belarusians who were forced to take care of themselves lost their respect for the regime and its leader. All of this unfolded during a presidential election campaign. Lukashenko, as usual, prevented rival candidates from running, or had them locked up. He chose to run against Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who put herself forward in July after Lukashenko imprisoned her husband. (I am transliterating her name from Russian here, since that is how it is known from the media; I will just point out that her name in Belarusian, which just might be the most beautiful European language to the ear, is "Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.")
Tikhanovskaya campaigned together with others who supported other candidates who were prevented from running, creating a fresh impression of unity. It appears that she won handily. In August, the Belarusian regime was forced to fake the results. Belarusians went to the streets to protest in the hundreds of thousands, and for months. Tens of thousands were detained, and many were tortured.
Right at the beginning, the historians came out to protest the lie. The person who heads the Belarusian Academy of Sciences takes the view that "the role of research is on the side of power." Its historians were supposed to be at work fashioning and refashioning national memory in such a way as to serve the present purposes of those with power. Instead, five days after the fraudulent election, several historians stood in front of their institute in Minsk to protest. They were all fired, and several of their colleagues resigned in protest.
The founder of a museum of Jewish resistance in another Belarusian city, Navahrudak also lost her job. She was giving tours of the city in which she explained the activities of Jewish resistors. The Bielski brothers, the Jewish partisans portrayed in the film Defiance, were from this region. These Jewish partisans fought the Germans and rescued hundreds of their fellow Jews from death in the Holocaust. They are remembered in Israel and the United States, and in the history of the Second World War. But they do not fit the post-Soviet version of history favored by the Lukashenko regime. She lost her job on 1 April. At around the same time, the regime began to target the leaders of all independent cultural organizations in Belarus.
Repression involves lying at different levels. The Lukashenko regime repressed reporters, because the truth about the present was intolerable. It could not endure the basic reality of the lost election of last August and the mass protests. People had to be beaten and detained. And those who tried to record the events became special targets. About five hundred journalists were detained last year. When a protestor was killed in November, this drew the special attention of the regime. The official story was that he was drunk and responsible for his own death. The journalist who reported the story as it was, that he was a protestor killed by assailants who fled, was sentenced to prison. The doctor who treated the man before his death testified that the victim has not in fact been drinking. He too was sentenced to prison.
Lies about the present have to be defended with immediate force. Stories about the past have to be defended by control of institutions. To keep the past contained within one official story is to master a deeper level of lying. (This has been one of the great subjects of Svetlana Alexievich, Belarus's Nobel-prize winner.) If there is one permitted flow of time, then there simply are no other possibilities in life, this regime is all that is possible, change cannot come. It is that lie, bigger in scale and ambition, that demands that cultural institutions be closed, because culture is about unpredictable possibility. It demands that historians be silenced.
Belarus has been one of my subjects as a historian, and one of my favorite ones. For a historian of Belarus, a change in popular memory is one of the most interesting and telling consequences of the protests. The Second World War and the Belarusian partisan movement will no doubt remain central to Belarusian memory for quite a long time. But opinion polls suggest that the twentieth century, the entire Soviet period, is giving way to more distant reference. Belarusians now say, in rather clear proportions, that the most important period of their history is that of a medieval and early modern state, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
Its history is unfamiliar to most people beyond eastern Europe, but it was a great power in its time, the largest country in Europe. If you have been to Central Park in New York and seen the statue memorializing the Battle of Grunwald, you have seen Jagiełło: the Lithuanian Grand Duke (and Polish king) who defeated the crusading Teutonic Knights. Lithuania was joined in a personal union with Poland in the late fourteenth century, and extended southward through what is today Belarus and into what is today Ukraine. A language similar to Belarusian was used in courts and in state records. Although the rulers such as Jagiełło were from Lithuania proper, many of the important families were from what is today Belarus. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania was joined in a constitutional union with Poland in 1569, forming the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. (My book about this period, and its relationship to modern national ideas, is The Reconstruction of Nations).
This statue of Jagiello was originally part of the Polish pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens. It stands today in Central Park.
The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was partitioned out of existence in the late eighteenth century, with all of the territories of today's Belarus falling under the rule of the Russian Empire. The connection between Belarus and Russia is, in historical terms, rather recent. In the nineteenth century, Belarusian activists naturally defined the future of the nation in terms of its Lithuanian past. This tradition of reference has once again become important in the Belarus of the twenty-first century.
The point is not that one story should simply replace another, or that one is entirely right and the other entirely wrong. The point is that a single enforced memory is a sign and a tool of authoritarianism. Belarusians who speak of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania are recalling many things: glory in the past, a state that was not allied with Russia, a prominent culture, an association with Vilnius and Warsaw, a connection with the mainstream of European history. But most of all, they are identifying with a tradition that has not been forced upon them. What they make of their more distant past, and of their experience of twentieth century, should be up to them. The broader our references to the past, the more alternatives we have in the future.
Timothy Snyder is the Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale University and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.
First published on Timothy Snyder’s Substack “Thinking About...”