Policy of historical memory as an instrument of Russian influence in Belarus


Historical science plays a crucial role in the formation of national consciousness of the people. In this sense, Belarus is in a very dangerous situation. In Soviet times, the Belarusian history was treated from the Marxist-Leninist positions. After Belarus gained its independence in 1991, there was a short period of objective consideration of the country’s history.

After 1994, the Belarusian historical science again began to spread Soviet approaches to address key aspects of the Belarusian history. This situation continues today, which is actively used by the eastern neighbour of Belarus. Russian ideologues (most of whom are certified historians), using the weakness of the Belarusian state ideology, are trying to manipulate historical facts and use them to influence the Belarusian society, which, basically, knows little about national history. One of the centers of Russian influence in the historical sphere in Belarus is the “Historical Memory” foundation, the head of which is the Russian historian Alexander Dyukov. The organization exists since 2008 and from this time is actively intervening in the process of the formation of the Belarusian historiography. Declaring support for “the study of actual pages of Russian and East European history” the Russian foundation supports the publication of books and holding conferences, advocating for development of Belarusian historical science, profitable for Kremlin. It especially concerns the publication of collections of archival documents “Killers of Khatyn: 118 Security Police Battalion in Belarus” (2018) or “The NKVD in Western Belarus” (2019). The first one focuses on the fact that the Belarusian village was burned by … Ukrainians. This was done, of course, taking into account the Russian-Ukrainian conflict in the Donbass, where Belarus is trying to maintain a neutral position. What about the Belarusian society? There is a field for maneauvre for the Russian propagandists here. “Bandera men burned down peaceful Belarusian peasants” — this postulate is actively being forced in the Russian media since 2014. This idea sometimes appears in historical works that are positioned as purely archival ones.

In the year of the 80th anniversary since the beginning of the Second World War, Russia began to actively concentrate on the topics of “liberation campaign of the Red Army in Western Belarus and Ukraine”. In June, 2019 the website of the “Historical Memory” published the original copy of the Soviet Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, signed in August 1939. Publications fact must demonstrate “openness” of the Russian historical science, which says “Now, we do not hide the truth”. But it is not so simple. Kremlin is actively using the topic of “17 September 1939”, when the Soviet Union, after twenty interwar years, began to “restore the “historical borders”. In this context, an important role is played by the old Soviet postulate of the “salvation of the Belarusian and Ukrainian brothers”, which, according to Russia is relevant today as well. The authors of “The NKVD in Western Belarus” state that they are “trying to show a unified picture of the NKVD at all levels in the context of the social and political problems that the secret service was ordered to resolve by the highest political leaders of the USSR and BSSR”. The main conclusion of the book is the postulate that “the NKVD officers ensured the safety of functioning of local government, secured the most important economic facilities, industries and institutions, prevented manifestations of mischief, robbery and looting, created the conditions for the holding of elections and work of the People’s Assembly of Western Belarus in Bialystok”. Thus, the focus from the repressive policies of the Bolshevik system in Western Belarus is shifting to “purely administrative work and the fulfillment of the orders”. The situation could be changed for the better by the publication in such books of personal files of the the so-called “Polish contingent” representatives, who were arrested in 1939-1940 in the former north-eastern provinces Second Polish Republic. However, these facts demonstrate the real “work” of the NKVD, and therefore their opening to the public is not in favour of the modern Russian propaganda.

Different kind of “historical” posts on social media and websites, appearing on the eve of important historical dates, play a special role in promoting the “Russian view” on the history of Belarus. In connection with the refusal of the Poland to invite Russian President Vladimir Putin to Warsaw for the festivities associated with the 80th anniversary since the beginning of World War II, most Russian Internet resources started to actively accuse prewar Poland in starting the Second World War. On the eve of the 80th anniversary since the beginning of “Polish march of Soviet army to Western Belarus and Ukraine” the website of the Russian Ministry of Defense published secret documents of the General Staff of the Red Army. Among them one can find the representation of the Chief of the General Staff, the commander of the 1st rank Boris Shaposhnikov on March 24, 1938, in which the Soviet military leader analyzed the possibility of combat operations against the Soviet neighbours in Europe and the Far East. In this case, the document stated that “Poland is in the orbit of the fascist (Germany and Italy) block, trying to preserve the appearance of independence of its foreign policy”. Shaposhnikov seriously considered the German-Polish military alliance against the Soviet Union. From today’s perspective, after the analysis of a considerable amount of archival material, we can confidently assert that the Second Polish Republic was not going to act against the USSR on the side of the Third Reich. At the same time, from the first day of the Second World War thousands of Belarusians and natives of Western Belarus fought against the Nazis as part of the Polish Army. However, the Soviet view of the events of World War II reigns in today’s Belarus and the publication of such documents without historical commentary made in accordance with Belarusian national positions can lead to distortion of historical reality of the 1930s.

It should be stressed that the authorities of Belarus once again “very calmly” responded to the 80th anniversary of the accession of Western Belarus to BSSR. At the same time in Russia many media actively commented on this topic. Some Russian media are promoting the idea of ​​giving the day of September 17 the national holiday status. It is clear that they do not seek to protect the historic heritage and the Belarusian statehood. The main point is to oppose Minsk to Warsaw and create a new “hot spot” in the already strained Polish-Belarusian intergovernmental relations.

In addition to the events of the twentieth century Russia actively uses the topic of “Polish hero Tadeusz Kosciuszko”, the Union of Lublin, which was aimed against Moscow (so, according to Russians, this is a negative chapter in the history of Belarus) and other important parts of Belarusian history. Given the lack of a sufficient amount of this kind of objective Belarusian historical research such publications by the Russians play a negative role in the formation of the historical view of the Belarusian society.

Russian influence in the field of history of Belarus is quite strong and therefore poses a risk to the formation of the national concept of the history of Belarus, as well as to the process of formation of the historical consciousness of modern Belarusian society. In this regard, an important role is played by the independent Belarusian historians and researchers who work directly with the various social movements and increase the level of historical knowledge of the Belarusians.

Ihar Melnikau, PhD in History, specially for Belarus Security Blog