Kremlin’s shadow in the Belarusian politics of memory

Kremlin’s shadow in the Belarusian politics of memory

Kiryl Kascian

Recent discussion about the so-called “Litvinism” caused a lot of emotions among both Lithuanians and Belarusians. A significant number of texts are devoted to this topic and, most likely, there will be new reasons for further publications. The situation around the so-called “Litvinism” showed that history and its interpretations continue to be very important for post-communist societies. Moreover, this demonstrates that history can be a weapon of hybrid warfare for rogue political actors. This is what this text is about.

Today’s Lithuanians and Belarusians are united by a century-old common history. It is not surprising that both societies often appeal to the same historical events and share common national heroes. To prove this, it is sufficient to recall the solemn endeavors of November 2019 around the reburial of the leaders and participants of the January Uprising (1863–64). This example emphasizes that, in many ways,history unites Lithuanians and Belarusians, and its different interpretations comply with the general European trend.

However, there is another problem. Democratic Lithuania, with its changing government, has a well-established interpretation of its historical events. This applies not only to their interpretation in various legal documents, including the country’s constitution, but also to memory politics in general. It is worth remembering the tweet made by Gitanas Nausėda, Lithuania’s president, in October 2022 when he visited the Francis Skaryna monument in Hradčany in Prague. This story caused a range of emotions in the Belarusian segment of the Internet, which can be generally seen as an illustration of Lithuania’s inclusive approach, when not only ethnic Lithuanians but also prominent figures of the country’s national minorities are integrated in the historical narrative of today’s Lithuania.

In turn, the authoritarian Belarus, with its unchangeable administration and ever-increasing dependence on Moscow, is an opposite example. An illustration of this could be the liquidation of schools and public organizations of the Lithuanian national minority in the country. However, this trend is even more evident in the historical narratives transmitted by the Lukashenka regime and its propaganda. This poses a danger not only for the relations between Belarusian and Lithuanian societies, but also for Belarusian society itself.

The Grand Duchy of Lithuania through the eyes of Belarusians and Kremlin’s shadow

The narrative of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL) as one of the forms of historical Belarusian statehood is not new. The preamble of the Belarusian Constitution, adopted in March 1994, states that modern Belarus is based on “the centuries-old history of development of the Belarusian statehood.” At the same time, this formulation survived all manipulations done with the Belarusian Constitution as a result of numerous Lukashenka’s “referendums.” At first glance, it seems that this phrase does not contain any reference to GDL. However, even a cursory glance at Belarusian history in the context of the notion of “centuries-old” suggests that modern Belarus sees the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as a form of Belarusian statehood that existed in the past. In addition, the draft version of the Constitution mentioned the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Belarusian People’s Republic (BPR), and Belarusian SSR. However, the increase in pro-Russian sentiments among a significant part of the MPs in the Belarusian parliament resulted in the removal of references to these state formations from the final version of the document. This story of the final version of the preamble to the Constitution reveals two aspects.

First, similar references to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as a form of Belarusian statehood can be found in the BNR’s Constituent Charters. They are also not mentioned directly, but text analysis and simple mathematics in connection with events in Belarusian history clearly indicate this. In other words, this attitude towards the Grand Duchy of Lithuania has a fairly long historical tradition and is unlikely to pose any threat to the official Lithuanian narrative. Rather, both interpretations are complementary.

Second, references to pro-Russian sentiments among Belarusian MPs in the 1990s generally demonstrate the problem of Belarusian political elites, who are accustomed to looking at Moscow’s opinion on issues pertinent to national identity and their reflection in state policies. Recently, Pavel Latushka recalled an episode when his idea to make a film based on the work “The Ear of Rye Under Thy Sickle” (Belarusian: Kalasy pad siarpom tvaim) by the Belarusian classic Uladzimir Karatkievič was rejected by Uladzimir Makei, the then head of the Lukashenka Administration and later Belarus’s Foreign Minister. Makei’s argument was that the film would be negatively perceived in Moscow as anti-Russian, although, as Latushka rightly emphasizes, “almost all Belarusian classics are historically and nationally oriented.” Belarusian officials at the middle and lower levels often transmitted similar messages at that time. This eternal eye on Moscow among the bureaucrats of the Lukashenka regime has always been the Achilles heel of Belarusian historical policy, as it provided the Kremlin with almost unlimited potential for manipulation in the realm of memory politics in Belarus.

Moscow in mind or what changed after August 2020

After the fraudulent presidential election of August 2020, the apparent vulnerability of the Belarusian official narrative vis-à-vis Kremlin’s vision of history became even more evident. One can hardly imagine a situation similar to the aforementioned reburial of the January Uprising rebels. We are not talking about the large number of Belarusians who came to Lithuania to honor the memory of the heroes, but about the formal participation of representatives of the Belarusian authorities in a similar event.

When Putin published his article “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” in July 2021, many noted that he mentioned the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Putin claims that “[t]he southern and western Russian lands largely became part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which – most significantly – was referred to in historical records as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Russia.” Here, one sees an obvious historical manipulation around the concept of “Russian.” For Belarusians, this interpretation means that the Kremlin leader denies them their own identity. For Lithuanians, this is belittling or rather ignoring the importance of the Baltic component in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. For both nations, Putin’s interpretation of history refers to Kremlin’s claims of their historical heritage. While Belarusians and Lithuanians argue among themselves about who owns this or that piece of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania’s heritage and to what extent, the Kremlin declares its claim to the entire historical heritage of this historical entity.

Let us return to Belarus. On July 3, 2021, Lukashenka gave a landmark speech in terms of the changes in the memory politics of the Minsk regime. He stated that the silence of the Belarusian authorities was due to the reluctance to “affect feelings of friendly nations, who should not be held accountable for sins of war criminals such as Lithuanian forest brothers, Banderites, Armia Krajowa bandits, other murderers of Belarusian civilians.”

As for Lithuania’s context, Lukashenka’s rhetoric towards Lithuanian partisans is generally consistent with a long-term campaign to denigrate them, behind which stood the Soviet and subsequently the Russian authorities. Coincidentally, in the summer of 2021, the first signs of the subsequent liquidation of Lithuanian (and Polish) schools in Belarus appeared. The Belarusian authorities then decided to cancel the mandatory final exams in the Lithuanian language for students in the 9th and 11th grades of the schools with the Lithuanian language of instruction.

As for Belarus’s context, this speech highlighted another dangerous trend, which Lukashenka called “the delayed effect of collaborationism in today’s reality.” Describing his opponents during and after the 2020 elections, he compared them with those Belarusian elites who, during the Russian-French War of 1812, took the side of Napoleon, and during the First and Second World Wars “swore an oath of allegiance to the German army.” However, this narrative is absolutely pro-Russian and Russia-centric, since all these cases portray people who fought for the independence of Belarus from Moscow. Here, one observes an obvious example of double consciousness, since being tied to Moscow and promoting its narratives and interests seem more important for him than the desire to understand the complex history of his own nation and find reconciliation within his native society.

One also observes this bifurcation in the context of GDL heritage. No, Lukashenka’s regime does not refuse to turn into the legacy of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. However, accents are also very important. On the one hand, they are Belarus-centric. For example, in July 2022, Lukashenka called the GDL the first Belarusian state and underlined that “the Belarusian ethnos was the backbone of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a unique state association for its time.” He described it as “the defensive alliance with the Baltic tribes, where the Slavs taught them how to read, introduced them to the philosophy of Christianity.”  Some Lithuanians might attribute this construct to the so-called “Litvinism”. However,  this does not deny the presence of the Baltic (read: Lithuanian) element in the genesis of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. This includes the phrase that Vilnius is also a Belarusian city, as well as  the lands around it, as stated by Lukashenka in September 2021.

On the other hand, his rhetoric includes a verbal balancing act around the notion of “Russian” [i.e. russkiy]. For example, in March 2023, Lukashenka stated that the GDL was also “Russian [literally: russkoe], which means East Slavic, that is, ours.” He added that those who have concerns about the “Russian world” and “who tremble when Russians are mentioned”, he would say that “ Russian [literally: russkoe] is not only that of Russia [literally: rossiyskoe], but also ours.” Again, some might claim the presence of the patterns of the so-called “Litvinism”, since the Baltic component of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania is ignored. This approach is largely intertwined with Putin’s rhetoric. However, despite Lukashenka’s admonitions that Russian is not only that of Russia, it is obvious that the Kremlin will not tolerate any division of the conventional historical pie and will want to appropriate everything for itself.

The example of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as an element of state identity and room for historical dialogue between the societies of Lithuania and Belarus is hypothetically a normal process typical of many European neighbors. Despite disagreements between them, these approaches are generally complementary. They are self-centric, because they are primarily aimed at domestic consumption. At the same time, they are pro-European in a cultural and civilizational context and anti-Russian, as wars with Moscow were a significant part of the foreign policy of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. However, this is  only hypothetical in this case, and the point here is not a lack of dialogue between Vilnius and the current administration in Minsk. The main threat is that Lukashenka’s administration constantly looks at Moscow and incorporates Russian narratives into the domestic historical context, because the Kremlin will not want to share history with anyone, no matter how absurd its arguments may sound.

Note: This text was originally published by DELFI.LT

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