Belarus : the three martyrs of a nation

Tribute to the martyr nation © Collage PP

What is our perception of Belarus? The undoubtedly quite blurred image of a country that only emerges in times of tragedy, turmoil or political violence? Do we not above all retain the word “Russia” that makes up its name, thus leading us to systematically maintain reserve and even harshly criticise it instead of the large neighbour that we would not dare to reprove in such a direct manner?

Such an attitude on our part stems from objective reasons. To take the most recent period into account, the contested re-election of Alexander Lukashenko in 2020 as the country’s leader – a post he acceded to more than twenty-five years ago – has fuelled a continuous cycle of demonstrations and various forms of repression. Europeans, and Western countries in general, intervened in the debate, as for example, President Macron openly declared that “Lukashenko must go”. The opposition figures receiving the most international media coverage, today mostly women, have not managed to sideline the often grotesque style of the regime and chiefly of its supreme leader, and such was surely not their aim. Incidentally, Lukashenko is alleged to maintain complicated relations with the head of the Russian State, if only due to trade disagreements on the price of gas. The Belarusian sky and Minsk airport have just become the theatre of an act of air piracy, which consisted in hijacking a civil passenger plane in order to arrest an opponent who had taken refuge in neighbouring Lithuania. This has once again darkened the overall picture and reinforced any peremptory judgements.

While it is nevertheless now clear that in this country there simmers a “volcano under the ice”, to paraphrase a Hitchcockian concept, this assertion should not just be understood to mean a revolutionary-style simmering but also something positive. Belarus does indeed have an often-tragic history and an identity, even in relation to its powerful neighbour. Its level of education and culture are deserving of the consideration of all, and especially of Europeans.

Few countries have been the expiatory victims of history in the way Belarus has. Out of this almost uninterrupted procession of martyrs, three key moments stand out. Beyond the current political trials and tribulations and the still-felt effects of the tragedy of Chernobyl, history and geography have combined to make the war being endured the greatest of Belarusian tragedies.

The haunting war © PP

As the preferred route of invaders and also sometimes that of their chaotic retreat, which also coincided with unspeakable suffering for the local populations, we need only mention the year 1812, the year in which Napoleon’s Russian campaign ended. This occurred when the Great Army broke up, as it were, when crossing the Berezina river, only to be then plagued by the surrounding bleak and icy plains.

It was the theatre of heavy fighting during World War I and it can be said in the real sense of the expression that Belarus “set the scene”. It was in Brest-Litovsk that the peace treaty was signed between the German Empire and Soviet Russia in 1918. On 22 June 1941, on the first day of Operation Barbarossa, the Brest Fortress was attacked by the German army. The country was the scene of unspeakable atrocities and of the massive extermination of the Jewish community. It is estimated that almost all heritage and historic monuments were destroyed during the Second World War, and the trauma remains considerable. In the capital, Minsk, the memory of the war remains haunting, and both local cinemas and nearby squares bear the title “Second World War”.

The myth of the Tall House, 1952 © Collage PP

Whether we like it or not, the Stalinist era is synonymous with reconstruction – just like the tall house, the ultimate reference as described by Katherine Zubovich in Moscow Monumental: Soviet Skyscrapers and Urban Life in Stalin’s Capital – and of the massive industrialisation that revived the country. While giving due weight to propaganda, the realistic depiction of this period, as in Russia, shows modern environments and happy faces heretofore unknown. The European Socialist “camp” also experienced a sort of golden age, mainly due to the finally renewed peace, just like the America of the 1950s, relatively speaking. Paradoxically, it was in Minsk on 8 December 1991, that the first act marking the end of the USSR was performed, in an enduring neo-Stalinist climate. This was through the agreements bearing the name of the Belarusian capital, signed by Ukraine and Russia on the altar of Boris Yeltsin’s ambitions, who was above all determined to eliminate his rival, Mikhail Gorbachev.

The second torment of Belarus lingers out of sight, in the flesh of its victims. On 26 April 1986, the reactor of the nuclear power plant exploded in Chernobyl, Ukraine.

The geographic proximity and the direction of the wind meant that 70% of the fallout from this explosion affected a country that itself had not developed any civil nuclear industry. According to the statistics, 2 million people (NB: out of 9.5 million) were contaminated, 500,000 of whom were children. In the early 1990s, at the Novodevichy Convent in Moscow, I often saw groups of children from these contaminated regions and from the regions of Ukraine, being led by a religious order to “Sunday School”, which in reality was just a “breath of fresh air”. But we must face reality: southern Belarus, and particularly the eastern part of the historic region of Polesia, straddling four countries (Ukraine, Poland, Russia and Belarus) and evoking forests of birch trees, marshes shrouded in fog and smoky thatched cottages, remains difficult to access and contaminated by radiation from the 1986 explosion.

20 Soviet Square © PP

Svetlana Alexievich, Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015, whose work was qualified as “a monument to suffering and courage” when awarded this eminent distinction, is the expression of this tragic history and by drawing from personal accounts collected over long periods, she returns to the themes of war (see The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II, 1985) including in Afghanistan, Soviet Vietnam, and the Chernobyl catastrophe (see Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster). The real takes on a dimension that even surpasses fiction by far.

Belarus, thrice tormented and the last time being brutalized under its current political regime, perhaps provides us with some key lessons, unbeknownst to itself. It is possible to build and rebuild after total destruction; it is possible to preserve an identity after having lost all ones architectural and historic heritage; it is possible to preserve a culture under a regime that claimed a tabula rasa.

Belarus, our neighbour, of whom we know so little, needs our attention, it needs better understanding, recognition of its dignity, its industrious spirit and its own culture to engage and succeed in its transformation. This change cannot take place on a route that once again leads to disintegration and dilapidation, at least in the moral sense, which it is being dragged into by an obsolete regime that probably does not deserve it. A European Nation, if only for having shared and exchanged populations and territories with its neighbours, it will only fully become so on a date that cannot be precisely determined in an entity created with a geostrategic vision in mind.

Sally Stafford, Bluebell Light, private collection © PP

It is then that the low-lying and landmark-free landscapes, just as in the film by Andreï Tarkovsky, whose only milestones are those of tragic memories and bitter experiences, will take on new salience and life will resume in the forests of Polesia.

Afin de vous faire profiter de la meilleure expérience utilisateur, notre site Internet utilise des cookies. Cliquez sur "J'accepte" pour poursuivre votre navigation.