Iryna Videnava on Historical Taboos

What’s your national taboo? Or, if you prefer, what’s the most striking European taboo?

In my country, we are all taught that every fourth Belarusian died during World War II. The death and destruction on our territory is viewed as our greatest national tragedy. The Great Patriotic War – this is how World War II is still officially called in Belarus and other post-Soviet states – remains the cornerstone of our country’s historical narrative, explaining its past and justifying its present. In school, we learn about the cruelty of fascist occupiers, mass killings of Belarusian civilians, and the heroic Soviet resistance movement. But while promoting the Soviet partisan myth, our official historians, school curricula and the state media remain silent about one of the most terrible tragedies of the 20th century – the Holocaust in Belarus.  

Jews had lived side by side with Belarusians since the Middle Ages. Before the war, about 14 per cent of the total population and almost 40 per cent of the urban population on Belarusian territories (then part of the Russian Empire) were Jewish. We had one of Europe’s densest populations of Jews. Our history and culture is impossible to understand without its Jewish element and Belarusian Jews such as Marc Chagall and Chaim Soutine are part of European and world culture. Belarus’s Jewish partisans even played a role in defeating the Nazis, a story told in the recent Hollywood film “Defiance” staring the English actor Danial Craig. 

So why do we remember the loss of Belarusians but ignore the killing of between 500,000 and 800,000 Jews – 90 per cent of those living on the territory of Belarus? Why is there a huge “Great Patriotic War Museum” in downtown Minsk but only a modest memorial called “Yama” (The Pit) marking the Minsk ghetto? The reason lies in our Soviet past and post-Soviet present. Like his European counterparts, Stalin and his successors cared little about the fate of the Jews. Virtually all of Belarus’s war memorials, even those where primarily Jews were killed, speak only of the crimes committed against “Soviet citizens.” After our independence in 1991, those “Soviet citizens” became “Belarusian citizens.” But more importantly, Stalin had a vested interest in not singling out any one particular nation as a victim. Among his many crimes, he had ordered his own atrocities against those living in Belarus during and after the “Great Purges” – with the result being between 600,000 and 1,600,000 dead. In his superb but sobering book Bloodlands, the US historian Timothy Snyder links both sides of this sad story: “In Belarus, more than anywhere else, the Nazi and Soviet systems overlapped and interacted.”

Today, our President depends on Russian support to prop up our economy and keep him in power, and an external enemy to the West to justify and popularize his authoritarian rule. So the Soviet-era taboos continue. Snyder states that half the population of Belarus was either killed or moved during the war – a fate unequalled by any other European country. This terrible history cannot and should not be told without including the Jews. But there is no Holocaust museum in Belarus. Jewish history is not taught in schools. Archives containing documents on the Jewish genocide are still classified. Belarusian historians are discouraged from researching this topic. In an unfree country, maintaining a taboo is easier than reconciling it with a hard and controversial past. 

How can this taboo be overcome?

The Holocaust is part of European history and part of Belarus’s history. Just as Belarus’s past cannot really be known without understanding its Jews, Snyder’s book makes it clear that the Holocaust of Europe’s Jews cannot be understood without knowing something about what happened in Belarus. Our European neighbours have their own taboos regarding the Holocaust. Few know or care that my country was “the epicentre of European killing” from 1933-45; that more Jews resisted Hitler in Belarus than anywhere else; and that the parallels between the Nazi and Soviet regimes are not only interesting history but important contemporary issues in Belarus. For us, it is crucial that this book be translated and published in Belarus. It is equally important that Europeans read it, as well as a few more books about my country.

Things must also change in Belarus. Without opening the archives, removing unwritten bans on researching sensitive issues, creating favourable conditions for domestic and foreign scholars, encouraging honest debate on the crimes of Stalinism and the Holocaust, revising textbooks, understanding the nature of both the Nazi and Soviet systems, Belarusians will not be able to reconcile with the past and move forward. Artificially created, heroic myths about a great victory will remain empty words for generations who have no opportunity to understand their history.

It was at an exhibition in Prague where I learned that thousands of Jews from Europe had been deported to die in Belarus and that the first gas chambers were tested in Minsk. I wish such exhibitions were organised in my country, so that more Belarusians could hear the voices of the few survivors, learn about a hidden history of suffering, courage and solidarity, and realize that even distant parts of Europe are connected in strange ways. Similar research projects, exchange programs, publications, study visits and summer schools, carried out jointly with EU countries, could help Belarusians to better understand their own history and become less isolated from the rest of Europe. We Europeans are each and all responsible for our joint past, present and future, both the good and bad. We must all get past our taboos if we want to live in a united and free Europe. 

If we could overcome the national taboo you identified ..... how would that impact the country?

Belarus is a very homogeneous state today. Nevertheless, it has always been a borderland country, located between East and West, Catholic and Orthodox, Europe and Eurasia. A better job must be done in educating citizens about the Holocaust on its territory, the forced expulsion of Poles, Soviet repression against Belarusians and the history of other ethnic groups, both positive and negative. This type of education would highlight the country’s multiethnic, multiconfessional and multicultural past, and help to make citizens more tolerant. More importantly, it would help to instill European values and help promote a more democratic mindset in Belarus. Today, there are two concepts of the history of Belarus that compete for the public’s attention. Belarusian democrats look to the country’s European past, which includes the centuries of being part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This European concept includes a multicultural Belarus where many ethnic groups and religions lived in peace, as well as democratic elements such as rule of law, elections and self-government. The competing vision, offered by the regime and the Kremlin, is that Belarus has always been part of an Orthodox, autocratic, Russian empire. In this vision, there is no room for a multicultural, democratic or European Belarus. In the early 1990s, some reforms were implemented in Belarus that led to more teaching and knowledge about Belarus’ European past. But these were thrown out by a regime which glorifies the Soviet past, brotherhood with Russia today, and a Eurasian future. Today, only civil society keeps alive the idea of a past and future European Belarus. Through political and cultural programs, including alternative education, civic campaigns and international exchanges, it is trying to overcome the taboos of the past and promote a more western mindset in Belarusians. Today the country is divided and polarized, with about half looking to Europe and half to Russia. It will take time, but I believe the western view will prevail.

What was Europe’s biggest learning moment? What should we do with what was learned?

I believe that Europe’s greatest learning moment was after World War II, when its leaders began to understand that there was no future for individual nation-states competing for hegemony of the continent. Instead, Europe’s leaders realized that reconstruction and reconciliation could best be achieved by working together for a better present and future. The creation of NATO and the EU led to greater safety, democracy and prosperity. After the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989-91, the prospects of many former communist countries were improved through Euro-Atlantic integration. But for others, including Belarus, joining a “Europe whole, free and at peace” seems like a distant prospect. Our democrats and many of our people believe in the values of the EU. We have some memory of a similar union in our history, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, in which Belarussians, Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Jews and others lived in a proto-democratic republic that included the elected kings and parliaments, rights guaranteed by constitutions, religious toleration, rule of law, and independent self governing cities. But this Commonwealth was destroyed by the autocratic rulers of Russia, Prussia and Austria. In contrast to Europe, Belarus took another path after 1945, one that was opposed to Euro-Atlantic values and embraced conflict and a Cold War with the West. 1991 demonstrated that this path was a dead end. We thought that our leaders understood this too, but the current regime seems more interested in a Eurasian Union than a European one. We also worry that, for Brussels and Strasbourg, further integration to the east has stalled. Europe should remember again that decisive learning moment after 1945 and continue the process of implementing that lesson. We understand that this process is not only in Europe’s hands but that we Belarusians must also earn this process. The current regime has little interest in moving closer to Europe or embracing its values. But there are many in my country that remain committed to the Europe of our past and the Europe of our future.