Belarus: the state built by the Second World War

This year has been declared the Year of Historical Memory in the Republic of Belarus, a territory of just over nine million people. What does this signify and why has its leader, Aliaksandr Lukashenka, managed to remain in power for 28 years?

Khatyn Memorial Complex.
Khatyn Memorial Complex. Credit: Ryan Gemmola / Alamy Stock Photo.

In February 2022, when Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it began from the territory of Belarus. Though Belarusian troops have not taken an active part in the war, the republic has provided bases, hospitals, and launch pads for Russian missiles.

Two years ago, a controversial election saw the defeat of the republic’s leader, Aliaksandr Lukashenka, by a neophyte popular opposition figure, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaia, who replaced her husband Siarhei, when he was jailed early in the election campaign. But Lukashenka declared himself the winner and used security forces to carry out brutal repressions against mass demonstrations. Over 35,000 civilians have been arrested to date.

Lukashenka ultimately remained in office, organising his own inauguration through the auspices of his ally Putin. Russia has provided him with loans, media personnel, and the threat of force should the opposition attempt regime change. There is very little of substance to distinguish the Lukashenka regime from other dictatorships — other than his version of national identity. For Lukashenka’s Belarus is a state founded on memory and legends of the Second World War — known locally and in Soviet times as the Great Patriotic War.

Building on monuments and memories that sprung up during the leadership of Leonid Brezhnev in the 1960s, Belarus has built its modern identity on the wartime partisan movement, victory over the Nazi occupation regime, and Belarusian suffering. In the 1960s, the Communist Party leader Piotr Masherau, a former partisan leader, declared that the republic had lost one in four citizens during the war.

As a result, every city and town in the republic contains a war memorial, and many have additional memorial sites. The central focus is the destroyed village of Khatyn, 50 kilometers from Minsk, which represents more than 9,200 settlements destroyed during the German occupation. At the entrance its only survivors, an elderly man carrying a child, are depicted. 

To the west is the Brest Hero Fortress, allegedly the first major obstacle to the Germans in the summer of 1941, though it did not delay their advance through the republic. Near Minsk is the Stalin Line outdoor museum, constructed on the original line of fortifications built by the Soviet leader, replete with a large bust of Stalin at its entrance.

Three points should be noted about such commemorations.

The first is that Belarus truly experienced a time of terror between 1941-45. Every family can still remember relatives and friends lost in the war. Though we are now four or five generations on, the memory, without doubt, lingers.

The second is that the memory has become distorted. Lukashenka has elevated the losses to one in three of the population. War losses in the territories that make up the current republic have risen accordingly in the official narrative from 1.8 million, a figure widely accepted for decades, to three million.

And thirdly, there is the startling omission of the Jewish Holocaust from the official propaganda. I visited the former death camp at Maly Trasianiec, east of Minsk, three years ago. It has been transformed into two memorial sites divided by the highway to the eastern city of Mahilou. The announcement at the entrance states that 206,500 people died here. It does not mention Jews.

Prior to the war, Jews made up a plurality of the population in most cities, as part of the Pale of Settlement territories within the Russian Empire: Hrodna, Minsk, Pinsk, Brest, and other cities were noted for their Jewish life. Of the original 1.8 million war losses, about one-third were Jews, victims of the Holocaust and the first target of Hitler’s regime.

The largest partisan unit was Jewish too, the renowned Bielski brigade. At Maly Trascianiec, families of European Jews killed there have tied paper ribbons bearing the names of their ancestors to trees. The newest memorial was funded by the Austrian, German, Polish and other governments, not by Belarus.

Lukashenka has taken the war theme to new heights. In 2022, he announced research into the ‘genocide of Belarusians,’ which he declared to be a topic ignored until recently. Headed by the Prosecutor-General of Belarus, Andrei Shved, a campaign has begun to track down the perpetrators of atrocities against Belarusians, and 400 names have allegedly been discovered.

In this way, not only is the war memory kept afloat at a time when Lukashenka is struggling for survival, it also further undermines the memory of the Jewish Holocaust, already largely ignored officially. The victims are now exclusively Belarusians.

The list of perpetrators will no doubt include Belarusian nationalists who will be linked to contemporary opposition movements. But the war is a safe topic for the much-maligned regime, and as legend supersedes legend, new versions of the past are constantly created.

The Year of Historical Memory should be seen for what it is: a propaganda exercise to legitimise a brutal regime, one that relies on force and terror to remain in power.


David R. Marples