Belarus reveres historical memory. What does Lukashenko say about it?
In April 2021 the Prosecutor General's Office opened a criminal case to investigate the genocide of Belarus' population during the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 and in the post-war period. One might wonder why the country would need it since heroic deeds of every soldier, who died during that dreadful war, are already honored. School students are told about this period during history lessons. Belarus celebrates Victory Day every year. Tales of the heroism of the grandfathers and forefathers are passed on from generation to generation. But where did extremists and neo-Nazis appear from on Belarusian streets in August 2020? Fake news made people go crazy so much that the country stood on the brink of chaos.
Social networks and instant messaging apps were all the rage. Good and evil suddenly switched places. Nazism and fascism reared their ugly heads and someone decided to cast doubts on the sacred victory of the Soviet people during the Great Patriotic War. The criminal case into the genocide of the Belarusian nation is supposed to not only restore historical justice and address unexplored facts of history. It is also supposed to enhance the constitutional system and national security. In the new episode of the project After the Fact: Lukashenko's Decisions we will discuss what dreadful pages the Year of Historical Memory unveiled, what speaks about Nazi atrocities louder than words, and why Belarus will continue striving to preserve the memory about the Great Patriotic War in the international scene despite anything.
How many Belarusian population centers did the Nazi destroy during the Great Patriotic War?
According to Valery Tolkachev, Head of the Particularly Important Criminal Investigations Oversight Office of the Prosecutor General's Office of the Republic of Belarus, last year tens of excavations were organized in places of mass slaughter of civilians. Remains were extracted. Experts concluded these people had suffered violent deaths. These remains were reburied with all the ritual solemnities.
Valery Tolkachev said: “As a breakthrough in investigating the criminal case little by little we identified previously unknown settlements, which were destroyed in the years of occupation. The official figure was 9,200 in the past. Today we can boldly speak about more than 10,500 population centers. They were mainly destroyed together with civilians. The people were burned alive. This year we intend to carry out at least 30 excavations in places of mass slaughter of the population.”
Every day ordinary Belarusians help “dig up” the terrible truth in every sense of the word. Representatives of the Prosecutor General's Office have already questioned over 15,000 witnesses and victims. The video is publicly available for the entire world to see and hear the truth. Such inhumane crimes cannot have a statute of limitations. The entire Belarus was on this merciless and deadly fire. Fascists burned houses and people to ashes. But the blood-soaked pages of history cannot be erased from memory. Even decades later. Every red dot on the map of burned-down villages stands for a real population center. There are a total of over 10,000 of them. The Nazi destroyed half of them together with their residents. If you have been to the WW2 memorial complex Khatyn or to any other memorial complex at least once, you surely remember this dead silence that penetrates your conscience so deeply.
“How did they fail to see in our old people, women, and babies at least some semblance of their own kindred? They killed people slowly and methodically. They even skewered babies with bayonets in order to save bullets… It sounds wild and terrible but we cannot afford choosing the words that don't hurt as we recall the atrocities that happened in Belarusian land during the Great Patriotic War. We cannot because the forgotten emotions represent the first step towards forgetting the events that caused them. Today we pay a tribute to the memory of the dead residents of the village of Borki and nearby towns. That terrible day when children's voices in this land were silenced in 1942 will never be forgotten. And this monument is a witness and guarantor of that,” said Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko in 2020 during the ceremony to open a memorial complex in remembrance of the burned-down villages of Mogilev Oblast.
Who truly stands behind the destruction of Soviet monuments in Baltic states?
A modern war is much more intricate than combat operations in 1941. Economic blockade, information warfare, ideological blackmail. And shameless rewriting of history. Late December 2022. Monuments to the Russian empress Catherine the Great and the military commander Aleksandr Suvorov were demolished in Odessa. It seems the local city council forgot who founded this city. After all, more than two centuries have passed. Meanwhile, the Vilnius city hall said they don't have to explain their demolishing of Soviet monuments to the United Nations Organization. In summer the city administration decided to demolish steles in the Antakalnis Cemetery memorial. Over 3,000 Red Army soldiers rest there. The UN Human Rights Committee disagreed with the decision but neither Lithuanians nor Latvians particularly care about it. Latvia has passed a law, according to which all the monuments of the Soviet age had to be demolished by 15 November. The deadline was missed. It turns out that battle against the monuments is no blitzkrieg.
It may not seem like much but it is not the first war against the monuments. Efforts to desecrate memory about the heroic deed of the Soviet soldiers, who liberated Europe from fascism, began in the 1990s. Began with decommunization to continue with Russophobia. Meanwhile, an entire generation unable to differentiate black from white grew up. What will they teach to their kids, who are ready to spray a sacred place with paint and even relieve themselves in exchange for likes?
“Descendants of the military personnel, who participated in the burning, including of Belarusian villages, have risen to power in Latvia today. They were raised in the West. They seized power with assistance of Europe. They were afraid of acting in the open in the first few years. They have started demolishing monuments openly after events in Ukraine, after the military operation began in Ukraine. They do it without shame now,” believes Vyacheslav Selemenev, leading research worker of the National Archive of the Republic of Belarus, Candidate of History.
Belarus will not allow the rehabilitation of Nazism. It is part of the legislation, including the Constitution. Slogans of SS troops and neo-fascists will not be shouted in our streets. And even though monuments may be demolished somewhere, they are created and restored in our country. 9 May. 3 July. The calendar has another significant date now – 22 June, the Day of Nationwide Remembrance of Victims of the Great Patriotic War and the Genocide of the Belarusian People.
“We will not surrender our native land, independence, and sovereignty to anyone. We will persevere in any case! I simply would like to do it humanely, as always, in a Slavonic way. The world today is not limited to the European Union. There are enough responsible countries and entire regions on the planet with which we will continue to work closely. We speak the truth and we are the heirs of a great generation that gave us life, freedom, and independence. Remember, Belarusians! Not only what we say, but even what we think. They see it from there, from heaven, and hear it. Remember this! Today I say this to you, realizing that they hear us. They need to understand that they did not die in vain. This holy army still helps us protect our dear Belarus today. It helps, first of all, with an example of unbending tenacity, courage and selflessness demonstrated during the years of the Great Patriotic War. Today we glorify the heroic deed of our nation, honor the veterans and mourn the dead, bow our heads before heroes and innocent victims of the war. Remember: this memory is sacred and unshakable, and as long as we have it, we will live, we will always live with dignity, not on our knees. So it is, so it should be, and so it will always be!” Aleksandr Lukashenko said during a wreath-laying ceremony in the memorial complex Brest Hero City on 22 June 2022.
What countries cooperate with Belarus on the investigation of the Belarusian people genocide?
World War Two was the largest and bloodiest armed conflict in world history. But the same events are interpreted differently for some reason. Belarus sent dozens of requests for legal assistance to different countries. The answers of individual foreign colleagues are not exactly surprising, they are striking in their cynicism. For example, the Latvian side explained its refusal by the political bias of the Belarusian request.
Valery Tolkachev of the Prosecutor General's Office said: “We emphasize once again that the criminal case does not pursue political goals. It is meant to ascertain all the facts, secure an objective and comprehensive investigation into crimes against humanity and peace. The crimes that happened in the 1940s. Of course, when we get responses that they cannot give answers to our questions, we are bewildered. But we don't stop cooperating. Naturally, the Russian Federation has responded. Work has been established with countries of Latin America. We are corresponding. Regretfully, Baltic states, Poland, Ukraine are disinclined to establish productive cooperation to investigate this crime.”
Historians admit that many Great Patriotic War facts were ascertained a long time ago but the public was not made aware of them for a reason. Tolerant and peace-loving Belarusians did not want to stir up the past in order to avoid offending neighbors, friends, and partners. But they should have…
“Khatyn was burned down by the 118th battalion, which consisted of Ukrainians. We prepared a compilation of documents, announced a presentation, our boss wondered what we were doing. ‘We have such good relations with Ukraine. But you had to go and arrange something'. So we have what we have today,” recalled Vyacheslav Selemenev.
Little-known documents are at the heart of the publication Genocide of the Belarusian People. Unique materials from archives of Belarus, Russia, Germany, and the USA have been used for another compilation “Without statute of limitations. Belarus”. For instance, Russian colleagues shared trophy documents of the German army.
Talking about progress in investigating the Belarusian people genocide case, Valery Tolkachev said: “In 2022 a joint investigation team of the Prosecutor General's Office and the Investigative Committee of Russia was set up as well as a working group of the prosecutor general's offices of Belarus and Russia. It produces results. We communicate and share information every day. It is a big deal. It is kind of a breakthrough in relations between law enforcement agencies of the two countries. Surely, the Republic of Belarus will continue defending the position and will continue striving for the publicity of genocide facts. The general public will be informed about the previously unknown facts that we will identify in 2023.”
What work do historians do as they look into the Holocaust in Belarus?
Over 20 compilations of documents referring to Great Patriotic War events have been published since the 1990s. There are no problems with access to the materials. All the documents concerning that period have long been declassified. Archivists, historians, and scientists are ready to continue adding to the heroic chronicle.
Vyacheslav Selemenev said: “A presentation of a compilation of Holocaust documents is supposed to take place in January. The compilation has already been forwarded to the publishing house. It should be published very soon. A lot has been published about the Holocaust already. We've summarized everything we'd had. Its new chapter is dedicated to the memorialization of the Holocaust in Belarus. We are rebuked that Belarus does little. In particular, they say our president ignores this topic. But in our compilation we prove that thanks to Lukashenko a memorial complex has been created in Trostenets. It is his initiative and accomplishment. Such a memorial would not exist without his initiative. A lot has been done in the WW2 memorial Khatyn upon Lukashenko's initiative, too. For instance, the restoration.”
How many Belarusians died and how many were enslaved and taken to Germany during the Great Patriotic War?
Belarus will never allow the history to be rewritten and the memory of the winners to be betrayed. This decision by Lukashenko provokes feelings in hearts of Belarusians. Descendants of the winners will not allow the heroic deeds of their ancestors to be devalued. The wound is so deep that even time cannot heal it.
In his speech in Svetlogorsk District in 2020 Aleksandr Lukashenko said: “We certainly understand that years later it will be harder and harder for every new generation to recognize the hardships and trials their ancestors endured. It will be hard to imagine the cruelty and the ease the Nazi demonstrated as they took lives of the elderly, women, and babies. It will be hard to believe in the genuine readiness of people to die for their country. But all these things happened. Khatyn, Krasny Bereg, Trostenets, the Pit, Borki, Ola, communal graves, and every square meter of our land present silent testimony of the Nazi crimes. They keep the truth. It is our sacred duty to preserve it and pass it on to the future generations. As long as we keep coming here, bringing our daughters and sons here, Belarus will never forget how kids were dying in their parents' arms, how helpless old people were set ablaze. While someone in the world prefers forgetting dreadful pages of World War Two, while someone tries to shift focus in matters of responsibility of the countries, Belarus keeps the true history in stone.”
During the Nazi occupation in 1941-1944 over 3 million civilians and prisoners of war were killed in Belarus. Over 377,000 people were enslaved and driven to Germany under the pain of death. Many of them died due to hardships and torture. As many as 209 cities and towns were destroyed and burned down. Over 9,200 villages were destroyed and burned down, including 5,295 population centers, which the Nazi destroyed with all or some of their residents.