For the Sake of a Brighter Future, Belarusians Argue about the Past

Grigory Ioffe
29 Aug 2019

A consolidation of Belarusians around military leader Tadeusz Kosciuszko as seen by both the official and unofficial national banners on display.

In Belarus, disputes about national memory have intensified dramatically since 2014. Pundits argue passionately about who was and who was not a genuine Belarusian hero. While most Belarusians stay largely uninvolved, such arguments are always confined to national elites whereas “ordinary” people—and by no means just in Belarusrather deal with their outcomes embedded in discursive norms and practices of mainstream journalism and history textbooks.

The problem is no elite consensus about the pantheon of heroes and other aspects of national identity has ever existed in Belarus. From the very dawn of the national movement in the late 1800s, two national platforms have been around. One, known as West-Rusism, has recognized Belarusian specificity only within the confines of the Russian world and leaned toward Russia. In contrast, the Westernizing platform has invoked the legacy of the Great Duchy of Lithuania and has been hostile to Russia.

"Situated between Poland and Russia both geographically and linguistically, the promoters of the Belarusian national cause identified themselves in opposition to either one or the other of Belarus’s expansionist neighbors."

Situated between Poland and Russia both geographically and linguistically, the promoters of the Belarusian national cause identified themselves in opposition to either one or the other of Belarus’s expansionist neighbors. Today, for politicized Belarusians leaning toward the West, the bogeyman to disassociate oneself from is Russia, but historically Russia and Poland were used in that capacity intermittently, as springboards of sorts. In fact, Poland was to play this role first because the Belarusian national idea originally developed amidst Polish-speaking intellectuals who began to define themselves in opposition to that country. In their opposition, however, they stood a chance of falling into the embraces of Russia. Similarly, rebounding from Russia at a different point, Belarusian nationalist thinkers were to be on the lookout lest they become too Polisha peculiar pendulum effect.

The pendulum analogy is irresistible; it is ensconced in the spontaneous imagery of the language used to describe the early stages of Belarusian nationalism. Thus, according to the historian Zakhar Shybeko, the outcome of the 1839 conversion of the Uniates (Greek Catholics) to the Orthodox Church means that Belarusians were “pulled away as it were from the Catholic Poles but drawn dangerously close to the Orthodox Russians.” The philosopher Vladimir Abushenko expressed his irritation over the fact that “all archetypes of Belarusian nationalist thinking are fixated on spatiality, more specifically on some space between somebody else’s preset niches.” The sociolinguist Nina Mechkovskaya writes that in Belarus, in the late 1800s to early 1900s, “anything that was elevated above the illiterate peasant existence, be that church, school, or officialdom, automatically became either ‘Russian’ (and Orthodox) or ‘Polish’ (and Catholic).”

The circumstances of Belarusian history between the last Polish uprising of 1863-64 and Russian Revolutions of 1917 and particularly after World War II, provided that ties between Belarus and Poland have weakened whereas ties with Russia dramatically intensified. It was, however, only in the wake of World War II that ethnic Belarusians became a numerical majority in the cities where they lived. By that time, however, the urban communicational norm had become solidly Russian. Two waves of emigration of educated Poles, in the late 1940s and then in the late 1950s and early 1960s under Khrushchev, and also a complete disappearance of Yiddish in the wake of the Holocaust contributed to this outcome.

"The Westernizing segment of the Belarusian-language elite sustained three blows from which they never quite recovered."

Moreover, the Westernizing segment of the Belarusian-language elite sustained three blows from which they never quite recovered. The abortive termination of the Communist Party’s early 1920s policy of indigenization and the ensuing repressions against Belarusian writers, who only recently had been promoted as the vanguard of nascent Belarusian proletariat, constituted the first blow. The second one was dealt by the Soviet Army and the partisan movement that did away with Belarusian collaborationists. The latter did maintain a network of Belarusian-language schools, although it was only in 1943, one year before their retreat from Minsk, that the German occupiers decided to stake on Belarusian nationalism and allowed several Belarusian organizations under Nazi supervision (Belarusian Westernizers were by no means destined to become Nazi collaborators. But they operated within the framework of externally imposed circumstances so at least some of them may have hoped, as their spiritual heirs persistently claim, that following the Soviet-era purges of the 1930s, help was indeed coming to them from the West).

The third blow was dealt following the 1994 enthronement of President Alexander Lukashenka who ran on restoring ties with Russia and saddled the wave of public discontent regarding haphazard Belarusianization of the early 1990s.

On the one hand, three momentous retreats in the 20th century left Belarusian Westernizers weakened. Yet, on the other hand, those embracing the Russo-Centric national memory, i.e., the intellectual heirs of West-Rusism, have always run the risk of diluting any sense of difference from Russians, the overwhelming dominance of the Russian language being just one of aspects of that risk. Its other manifestations have been Belarusian popular attitudes toward their own history and toward international events, including Russia’s conflicts with Georgia and Ukraine. The latter largely coincide with Russian domestic attitudes, which is not surprising considering the stronghold of Russian information channels in Belarus. In his 2018 book, Yury Shevtsov, a prominent historian and political commentator, born and raised in the westernmost part of Belarus, referred to Belarusian culture as a territorial (regional) version of Russian culture.

While this may be a radical formulation likely to be rejected by many Belarusians, the number of those effectively siding with it is quite significant, too.

Following the 2014 annexation of Crimea, apprehensions on the part of Belarusian ruling class and other politicized Belarusians that the same fate may befall Belarus have generated the demand for yet another ascendance of the Westernizing movement. It is in this context that the most recent escalation of historical arguments ought to be viewed.

Pedestrians are exposed to different influences in downtown Minsk, Belarus.

Conflicting National Allegiances

"Located at a crossroads of national allegiances, Belarus has been sharing some of its national heroes with its neighbors, primarily with Lithuanians."

Located at a crossroads of national allegiances, Belarus has been sharing some of its national heroes with its neighbors, primarily with Lithuanians whose national movement was also a latecomer much like that of Belarusians. With Russians and Poles such sharing has been more problematic since their pantheons of national heroes have long been established. Still, respective examples do exist, especially when the protagonists themselves give a pretext. Thus, in his vita as a member of the Politburo, Andrei Gromyko, definitely a person with Belarusian roots, identified himself as a Russian and in his autobiography of 1988, he called the region of Gomel, not far from where he was born, the genuinely original Russian land.

At times, the offspring of one and the same family pledged allegiance to different national homes as was the case (first described by Jerzy Turonek) with the family of Leonard Iwanowski (1845-1919), a man with a Polish identity, a chemical engineer and organizer of large distilleries in the Black Earth Region and in Siberia. The three sons of Iwanowski, whose estate was located near the city of Lida in today’s Belarus, obtained three different identities. The eldest son Jerzy (1878-1965) inherited a Polish identity and became a prominent statesman of the revived Poland. The middle son, Waclaw (Vatslau) (1880-1943) became an activist in the Belarusian national movement. In 1907, he published a newspaper in St. Petersburg in the Belarusian language. In 1918 he was Minister of Education in the Government of the Belarusian People’s Republic. In March 1920, Vatslav Iwanowski was appointed rector of the Minsk Pedagogical Institute; from 1922 to 1939, he was a professor at the Warsaw Polytechnic Institute. After the accession of Western Belarus to the USSR in 1939, Vatslav moved to Vilnius, and during the Nazi occupation, he became the burgomaster of Minsk and was killed in 1943 by an agent of the Soviet secret police. Finally, the youngest son of Leonard Iwanowski, Tadeusz, became Tadas Ivanauskas (1882-1970), a patriotic Lithuanian, a member of the Academy of Sciences of the Lithuanian SSR at the Department of Biology.

Kosciuszko, Kalinovsky, etc.

Two historical personalities have been at the center of most recent debates: Tadeusz Kosciuszko and Kastus Kalinovsky. The latter was one of the leaders of the 1863-64 uprisings on Belarusian lands. As a Belarusian activist, he was first identified by Vatslav Lastouski, the author of the first systematic book on Belarusian history written from the Westernizing standpoint. In the late 1930s, Kalinovsky became a fixture in secondary school textbooks as a champion of Belarusian peasantry. The Kosciuszko story is different. Until the early 1990s, hardly anybody questioned his exclusively Polish background, although his birthplace within contemporary Belarus was no mystery to anyone. The first claims of Kosciuszko’s “Belarusian origin” go back to 1994, when 200th anniversary of the 1794 uprising that he led against Russia was marked. A street in Brest was named after Kosciuszko, and a Belarusian postal stamp with his portrait was issued. The Kosciuszko foundation emerged to which in 2004 the US State Department transferred $28,000 to rebuild a wooden house on the original stone foundations. This put Merechevshcyna, the place of Kosciuszko’s birth, and the nearby town of Kossava, Brest Oblast, on a tourist map. The attempts at Belarusianization of Kosciuszko intensified after 2014.

"In October 2017, a minor international scandal was sparked, when a group of Belarusians living in Switzerland erected a monument to Kosciuszko."

In October 2017, a minor international scandal was sparked, when a group of Belarusians living in Switzerland erected a monument to Kosciuszko. “To a distinguished son of Belarus from grateful compatriots” was inscribed on the pedestal in Belarusian. At the request of Polish diplomats, this inscription had to be eliminated.

In May 2018, the first monument to Kosciuszko in the Republic of Belarus was erected in Merechevshchyna. Funds for the monument were collected through crowdfunding. In one of the speeches at the monument’s inauguration, it was proclaimed that “Kosciuszko unites all Belarusians.” Apparently, the statement was premature as the upcoming public debate was about to demonstrate. In spring 2019, a group of 100 activists wrote a letter to Minsk city authorities suggesting they name one of Minsk streets in honor of Kosciuszko. The opinion of the Academy of Sciences was solicited. According to the latter’s verdict, Koscuiszko was: 

“a participant in the struggle for the independence of the North American colonies from Great Britain, as well as for the restoration of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth within the 1772 borders, the country that Tadeusz Kosciuszko considered a Polish state . . . Moreover, Tadeusz Kosciuszko openly advocated the Polonization of the nationalities of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, including Belarusians. The statement that he fought for the interests and independence of the Belarusian people contradicts historical facts. In his activity, Tadeusz Kosciuszko defended the interests of Poland and the United States, not of Belarus. Therefore, calling him a national hero of Belarus is outright wrong.”

This response elicited a broad resonance. The Belarusian Service of Radio Liberty (BSRL) conducted a debate between the representatives of Westernizers and their Russo-centric opponents. The online newspaper Nasha Niva, a mouthpiece of Belarusian Westernizers, published an interview with the author of the Academy’s response. The Belarusian author Victor Martsinovich penned an amazingly misleading but mocking piece parodizing the Academy’s opinion (an excerpt: “Joyce was not an Irish novelist, as Ulysses was first published in the American journal The Little Review, a full version of Ulysses was published for the first time outside of Ireland, in France. Joyce, obviously, was an agent of American intelligence implanting the American cult everywhere in the world. An Irishman worthy of his adopted homeland, must have published only in Dublin!”). The most stunning part of the entire debate is that in the end the Academy of Sciences apologized for a mistake. As the second-in-command Belarusian Academician stated:

"Of course, it was not quite correct for us to state that Kosciuszko is not a national hero of Belarus. Tadeusz Kosciuszko is a famous politician of Poland, the United States, and Belarus. We cannot fall out of this list. He lived and worked on the territory of our country. As for naming the street after Kosciuszko, historians will still argue a bit and I think they will come to normal conclusions. I cannot exclude that a street named after Kosciuszko may once appear in Minsk and in other cities of Belarus."

A less vocal debate took place in conjunction with Kalinovsky. Thus, in December 2018, Nasha Niva criticized the textbook of Russian literature for the eighth grade, in which the 1863 uprising on Belarusian lands was referred to as Polish. The BSRL echoed Nasha Niva by publishing the article titled “In Belarusian schools, they claim the Kalinovsky uprising was Polish.” Actually, in pretty much every course of world and/or regional history taught outside Belarus, the uprising of 1863 is labelled Polish. Responding to Nasha Niva, the Ministry of Education refuted the “list of standard theses with which the Belarusian nationalists operate in order to present what they want to ring true.” First, the issue of Kalinovsky’s ethnicity is debatable. He called upon the locals to stab the rotten Moskali (Russians) and at the same time wrote, “we live on Polish soil.” Second, the uprising was crushed with full assistance of the Belarusian peasantry. Third, there is not a slightest guarantee that, if this uprising had been victorious, Belarus would have materialized at all as a national project. Fourth, Kalinovsky and his associates perceived the local vernaculars as dialects of the Polish language. "Only after the uprising was suppressed, did some of its participants become aware of themselves as Belarusians.” Nevertheless, Kalinovsky’s name is still cherished by Belarusian Westernizers. Moreover, in 2019, the Kalinovsky Cafe was opened in downtown Minsk.

Similar, though less ostentatious debates are underway in regard to poet Adam Mickiewicz and composers Michał Kleofas Ogiński and Stanisław Moniuszko. As for the shrinking Polish minority within Belarus, the most popular opinion is that they are just Polonized Belarusians. After all, they happen to reside within the confines of what is now the Republic of Belarus.

"Disputes over collective memory reflect a tug of war for symbolic capital between politicized social groups in order to promote a certain normative image of the future as well as the present."

A historical memory of a national community is a flip side of its identity. Disputes over collective memory reflect a tug of war for symbolic capital between politicized social groups (or groups of influence) in order to promote a certain normative image of the future as well as the present. Thus, historical memory is historical only in the nominal sense of the word. Being a memory, it is about the past. But its purpose is to manipulate public consciousness for the sake of the looked-for future. However unusual one may find this, a significant role in the changing historical memory of Belarus is played by its foreign policy. While recognizing the diversity and vital importance of ties with Russia this policy is gently but consistently distancing itself from what is perceived by many in Europe as the Russian imperial syndrome. As a result, the official historical policy is slowly, but steadily absorbing the elements of the Westernizing discourse, heretofore alien to it. Not only the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, but also the Belarusian People’s Republic, the coat of arms Pahonia (Chase), and knightly tournaments are becoming more acceptable than ever before. In such a way, the convergence of two veins of historical memory occurs under the receding dominance of the Russo-centric vein. This convergence is one of the driving forces of modern Belarusian nationalism that the Russian philosopher Maxim Goryunov recently called “the last nationalism of Europe.”

In the future, much will depend on a combination of factors, including economic development, interstate relations with Russia, the circumstances of the inevitable (sooner or later) change at the helm of power in Minsk, as well as the civic maturity of Belarusian Westernizers. Little by little Belarus is bridging the gap between two veins of its national memory and is becoming more and more Belarusian as a result.


Grigory Ioffe has been affiliated with Radford University, Virginia, since 1990. He regularly publishes essays on Belarus for the Jamestown Foundation's Eurasia Daily Monitor and has authored three books on Belarus published in the United States and United Kingdom.


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