What we (don’t) know about Belarus – The Land Taken Away

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“Вораг польскі і рускі
Шчыра множыў курганы, –
Не было Беларусі,
Толькі быў “Край забраны”*

(From “Chronicles” by Yanka Kupala, Belarusian poet, writer and playwrighter, 1928)

This map shows how the German Empire envisioned reshaping Europe after the victory in the First World War: as you can see, it includes at least half of the Belarusian territory.

*The english version sounds like: “The enemy is Polish and Russian / Sincerely multiplied the mounds / There was no Belarus / Only the Land taken away.” Here “sincerely” must be translated as “light-hearted“, “without remorse“. Thanks to Yulia for helping me understand the meaning that the expression has in the Slavic language.

Welcome back to Unpredictablepast.com,

This week I would like to briefly introduce a topic to which I am very attached due to my studies on the development of the countries forming part of the Soviet Union, after its dissolution in 1991. In this article we will take advantage of recent events to introduce a more general topic, from perhaps develop in a special section.

During these weeks we have been literally submerged with news about Belarus, due to its “opaque” elections, to put it mildly, the protests that rose up and the repression that followed. Since Italy has a moderate community of immigrants from that country, I have often been asked about what was happening, by people who saw worried colleagues and friends without fully understanding the reasons: from here maybe they can get an idea.

For ease, we will start from a precise historical period and end in another one: the first is the one that goes from December 3rd, 1918 to December 10th of the same year, the other goes from July 27th, 1990 to June 25th, 1991.

In those days, after the defeat in the First World War, Germany abandoned the projects and interests it had in the Baltic area, part of the larger “Mitteleuropa Project” (to be precise, not the one theorized in 1915 by Friedrich Naumann in his essay of the same name, but its “chauvinist” version, as well explained here by Professor Maciej Gorny).

After withdrawing its occupation force on the 3rd, the germans create a power vacuum, in which the Red Army entered with its troops: the 10th the sovietic soldiers occupied Minsk and, under orders of the Supreme Soviet, exiled the Rada (the Council) of what was known since then as the Belarusian People’s Republic.

On January 2nd, 1919 the provisional Soviet Socialist Republic of Belarus was created, only to be dismantled on February 17th of the same year: partly was incorporated into the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR, i.e. the state entity that had supplanted the old Russian Empire and was now under the control of the Bolsheviks) and partly united with the Soviet Socialist Republic of Lithuania (created on December 16th, 1918) to form the LitBel, or the Lithuanian-Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic, with its capital enstablished in Vilnius.

But during that chaotic post-war period, state entities in eastern Europa arose and fall very quickly: it was Lenin himself who dissolved the LitBet when, at the beginning of the Polish – Soviet War (14 February 1919 – 18 October 1920), Polish troops entered Belarus and captured first Vilnius and then Minsk, provisionally elected capital of the sovietic puppet-state during the war.

But the matter was certainly not over.

The new Polish state, drived by the victory and now allied with the Ukrainian People’s Republic, tried to go a step further: with the so-called Kiev Offensive, which aimed to retake the Ukrainian territories that had come under Soviet control. However, the armies of the two countries were not prepared to face such a war, and in June 1920 the counterattack of the Red Army overwhelmed the Ukrainian-Polish forces, pushing them back to the gates of Warsaw, taking back both Kiev and Minsk.

On July 31th, 1920 the Soviet Socialist Republic of Belarus was again constituted, and on March 15th, 1923, the League of Nations recognized the Soviet and Polish borders established by the 1921 Treaty of Riga.

In this iconic photo taken in 1920, Vladimir Lenin, Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars (Prime Minister) of the Russian SFSR, delivers the speech to motivate the troops to fight on the Soviet-Polish war.
The territorial situation in 1920, before the Treaty of Riga.
This 1921 caricature shows the division of Belarus between Poland and the Soviet Union

Although the new Belarus had become part of the “Founding Republics” of the USSR, which gave rise to a certain cultural awakening (as per Stalin’s idea, but it will be good to write separately about this very complex subject), that involves poets like Jakub Kolas and Yanka Kupala, together with a revitalization of the country’s cultural minorities (which during the war had formed a sort of “Fifth Column” in favor of the Soviets),

The country was not spared by the Great Terror (Большой террор), or the infamous “Purges” carried out by Moscow against internal dissidents: most of the Belarusian intelligentsia were killed or deported to the Asian regions, while the Poles who remained in the Soviet territories were exterminated by the NKVD (Нароядный комиссариаят внуятренних дел, People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) labeled as counter-revolutionary “spies” or “agents”, as established in NKVD Order No. 00485. The same treatment was reserved for the Russian-speaking population who found themselves part of the new Polish state.

In spite of this treatment, when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, a strong resistance movement arose immediately in Belarus that fought the Germans by all means, becoming one of the thorns in the side of the invaders, who tried in every way to infiltrate it or weaken its strength through mass killings.

The atrocities against civilians were innumerable: in the village of Katyn, near Minsk, 147 people, including 75 children, were burned alive and finished with machine guns (the place has become emblematic of the violence against the civilian population of the Belarusian villages); The Jewish population living in Belarus was wiped out by the Holocaust, and never recovered. During the war Belarus lost a quarter of its population, with more than 9000 villages set on fire and 1.2 million homes and buildings destroyed, including those of the two major cities, Minsk and Vitsebsk, which lost 80% of their homes and infrastructure.

The post-war reconstruction period was particularly difficult, given the total destruction of the country’s economy. The Soviet Union undertook the task to put it back on its feet and in a few years Belarus became one of the main manufacturing centers of the Eastern Bloc. But all this had a cost: the control of the Central Government over the region became practically absolute, and the massive forced immigration of the Russian population (with the relative “Russification” of the language and culture) towards those territories led to the end of the traditional Belarusian society, based mainly on the agriculture, and in fact made the country an appendage of Russia, rather than a republic in its own right.

It is therefore not surprising that the only noteworthy event in the years of the Cold War was another tragedy: the disaster caused by the explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on April 26, 1986. Despite those tragic events being associated , not without reason, with Ukraine, the Central was located near what is now the border within that country and Belarus, which was fully invested by the consequences of the explosion. It is estimated that 60% of the radioactive fallout hit the Belarusian territory, which suffered the contamination of 50,000 square km (a quarter of the total territory) and of 2.2 million people (a fifth of the population of the time) who still require a continuous radiation monitoring. The occurrence of thyroid cancer in children increased fifteen times in the four years following the accident.

Mass protests in Minsk against policies by the central Soviet authorities in April 1991

Four years later, as the Soviet Union began to implode, Belarus was one of the first countries to take advantage of the weakness of the Central Government for take back its independence: on July 27th, 1990, the authorities declared their national sovereignty, and Stanislav Shushkevich became the Secretary of the Belarusian Supreme Soviet. On August 25, 1991, after the failed Soviet coup in Moscow, Belarus declared itself completely independent from USSR, and on December 8 of that same year Shushkevich, together with Leonid Kravchuk representing Ukraine and Boris Yeltsin representing Russia, signed the “Belovezhskaya Pushcha Treaty” which sanctioned the end of the USSR and the birth of the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States).

But history often takes strange paths and, having escaped from the dictatorship of the CPSU, the Belarusians, in the first free elections held in 1994, elected as president a figure of the old Soviet nomenklatura, who, thanks to his attitude as an ex-military, have to take charge of wiping out the rampant corruption of the country, the last poisoned legacy of the Soviet period.

His name was Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko.

And this is where our story ends and begins. We will resume next week with what happened from ’94 onwards, and that will take us to the present day and to what is happening. I will try, as far as possible, to clarify another very important issue, not specific to Belarus but widespread in almost all the former republics of the Soviet Union: the relationship between the population, the state, and the (authoritarian) figure of the ” President “.

I hope you have a general idea of ​​the context we are dealing with, as it is not easy to express the complexity of some situations with a brief summary: if you have any questions or doubts, I am at your disposal to answer, do not hesitate to contact me.

Nay, come, let’s go together.

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