Press Club Belarus

1941: manipulation of history in state media

Belarusian State Media frequently tries to justify the current regime's actions with contrived historical analogies to 1941-45. The legacy of World War II in the collective consciousness of the people means that identifying opponents with Nazis or their accomplices is a crude but effective means of dehumanising them and justifying repression.

The View from the East

To understand how this works, one must remember that it is not just "the West" that stops at the Belarusian border: history stops as well. In the rest of the world, everyone knows that World War II began in 1939 when allied Nazi and Soviet forces invaded and partitioned Poland.

By 1941, Nazi forces had invaded nine* European countries, and Soviet forces had invaded six**. Everyone else was either defeated, neutral or reduced to partisan actions. Only Great Britain, uniquely fortunate in being an island and having the most powerful navy in the world at that time, was still resisting at the nation-state level but in no position to launch a counter-attack in continental Europe.

Therefore, in June 1941, when Hitler tore up the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, and Nazi forces attacked the Soviet Union, the only real surprise was that it had not happened sooner. Hitler made it quite clear fourteen years earlier in "Mein Kampf" that the Soviet Union was his real target. Everything else was just setting the stage.

East of Brest, things look quite different. The post-war Soviet narrative, perpetuated to this day, is that Belarus was spontaneously "reunified" in September 1939 (by means that are usually glossed over). Then nothing much happened until fascist monsters from the West launched an unforeseeable assault on the peaceful, blameless Soviet Union in June 1941. This is the sort of revisionism that enables Lukashenka to commemorate the day Soviet and Nazi troops met and shook hands in Poland as "National Unity Day." 

Of course, both the factual history and the post-Soviet version concur about the horror of Nazi Germany, the losses the Soviet Union suffered, and the pivotal contribution of the Red Army to Hitler's final defeat. 

However, when people disagree about how a story starts, they may interpret the middle and the end quite differently. If you take an already revisionist narrative and coat it with self-serving agitprop, you end up loitering somewhere between bizarre and surreal.

In the trenches

Andrei Mukovozchik, a veteran state media journalist writing for "Belarus Today", recently took issue with historian Natalia Golubeva's article "Drama ofthe Belarusian capital" about the advent of war in Belarus in 1941: 

"The tragedy of [the Belarusian] people should be described in a balanced way. And just as important, [the author should] be in the same trench with [the people], not hovering above the melee as an observer. When your people are under attack [by an enemy] who only wants to destroy and seize 'Lebensraum', mobilising and striking without warning, there can be no such position, and there was none then."

Mukovozchik objects to objectivity. Even though Stalin's repression in the 1930s and the consequent loss of experience and competence in the Red Army officer corps was a significant factor in initial military disasters, Mukovozchik believes that criticising the actions of the civil and military leadership of the USSR is offensive. The focus should be exclusively on the unjustness of the attack, the heroism of the Belarusian people, and the unwavering leadership that led them to eventual victory. 

The intent is obvious: Belarus today is the BSSR of 1941, and the policies of Lukashenka should be followed without question, just as Stalin's actions in 1941 are beyond criticism. Presumably, he hopes his audience will not consider the broader implications of conflating Lukashenka and Stalin in this way.

Belarus Today returns to the same theme in the analysis of an article in Rural Newspaper where Soviet terror is again hailed as a crucial factor in the victory over Nazism:

"Is it possible to accuse the government of inhumane cruelty of the measures applied?! What if it were the other way around? If the war had been lost?"

The author then proceeds to caution readers against becoming "dependent on any kind of reasoning", attempting to manipulate the audience with non-sequiturs, "whataboutism", and amorphous fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD). The implication is that any other course of action at any point would have resulted in the direst of dire consequences. 

Again, the intended parallels and implications for the present day are painfully transparent: follow and obey Lukashenka.

"Bad" Neighbors

Selective history also provides a rich resource for demonising neighbours who support the Belarusian national-democratic movement. Conveniently, the "us" (regime supporters: primarily Russia) and "them" (Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Latvians, Poles) mostly align today as they did in 1941, so state media can capitalise on historical conflicts and crimes to create guilt by association.

To this end, the newspapers Republic, Rural Newspaper, Belarus Today, and Banner of Youth have been busy publishing articles about German reprisals burning ofthe village ofRuchano, the Holocaust, the Polish Home Army resisting the Communists, and the actions ofUkrainian nationalists.

The request of the Belarus Prosecutor General's Office to the Republic of Lithuania to investigate former President Valdas Adamkus regarding crimes of genocide follows the same pattern. The widely covered press release implicitly associates Adamkus with the actions of Lithuanian Police Battalion No. 12, even though Adamkus never served in this unit and was not present in Belarus during the war (he was publishing an underground anti-Nazi newspaper).

In contrast, crimes against the Belarusian people perpetrated by the armies and security forces of the USSR, the Russian Empire, and the state of Muscovy in the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries are never mentioned.

The overarching intent is to frame "the West" as a perpetually hostile alien civilisation with a taste for genocide and then extend this to Belarusian protesters, allegedly operating under (malign) "foreign influence." As Boris Lepeshko writes in his article "genocide asanextreme manifestation ofcivilisational intolerance":

"We never [before] experienced a war of such cruelty and disregard for humanity. This raises the natural question: why? From where? Did ideology turn brains into garbage? Mass psychosis? The relativity of conscience that can arise when someone really wants to pursue quite pragmatic interests? Goebbels is to blame, various Rosenbergs or Himmlers? This is not true, but I am inclined to believe that there is an underlying theme. There is a parallel with the events of 2020: then we also heard calls and saw acts that were difficult to imagine in our country. Hatred is not born out of nowhere, and neither is indifference. In some cases, we are talking about different systems of values, different attitudes to life, a different understanding of the role and meaning of society."

Nikolai Shchekin treads the same path, again in Belarus Today:

"By creating an anti-Russian and anti-orthodox project directed at Belarus, the United States, Poland and Lithuania do not just seek financial advantage, but as the political hyenas of the Western world, prone to social cannibalism, they aim to sacrifice the Belarusian people to replenish their resource base"

He does not elaborate on the nature of the resources possessed by Belarus that are supposedly of such value to the United States and others.

"Good" neighbours

In reality, this heading should be singular since there is only one "good neighbour": Russia. The shared post-Soviet mythology regarding the events and causes of the Second World war, invocations of "brothers in arms", and a joint mission to "fight the falsification of history" are all repeatedly emphasised.

It is taken as self-evident that not only are the Soviet and Nazi regimes incomparable, the moral fibre of Soviet (Russian or Belarusian) citizens individually is fundamentally different from everyone else. As Boris Lepeshko notes

"Human rights are not fundamental at all. Primary moral values and choices such as: do not kill, do not steal, and so on. That's where the problem comes in. A Belarusian or Russian soldier cannot throw a baby into a well," 

Of course, such statements are fundamentally at odds with historical reality. Soviet forces and partisans participated in many well-documented atrocities. For example, on May 8, 1943, Soviet troops massacred 128 people, including women, teenagers and a 10-year-old boy, in the West Belarusian village of Ndibok, while in Eastern Belarus, Soviet forces murdered civilians and burned villages such as Vydrica and Talkovka in the Mahilou region. These events are documented in official state archives (specifically: National Archives of the Republic of Belarus, f.1450, op.1. d.887, l.268.). State media has mastered the art of being able to "hold simultaneously two opinions which cancel out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them."

The hallmark of both a "good citizen" and a "good neighbour" is an identity fundamentally rooted in a particular conception of a shared history. State news agencies widely covered Russian Ambassador Yevgeny Lukanov's view that:

"We do not forget our history. Because the people who have forgotten their history will have no future. The progress of our [Belarusian/Russian] inter-ethnic and human relations is inevitable because of our common history. Not just our victories and defeats, from which we draw conclusions. This is fundamentally the history of our fraternal peoples, united by a mutual understanding of values and the meaning of existence. That is why such aggressive attempts to divide us and oppose each other are employed. Because together we are strong, but individually we are weaker,"

On Russia Day, June 12, Belarus Today published a story about a religious ceremony to translate earth from the resting places of Belarusian soldiers of the Russian army, who died in the Crimean War of 1853-1856. Fyodor Kovny, an influential supporter of Lukashenka within the Belarusian Orthodox Church, commented that:

"This holiday is a testament to our close spiritual unity while also emphasising the sovereignty of each nation and the right to self-determination. In many ways, the result of the Eastern War [Crimean War] was due to the diplomatic isolation of the Russian Empire. And today, I see signs of this again: when Russia and Belarus are again being isolated, it is essential to stand together - to strengthen and expand the union."

In reality, the Russian Empire was isolated in 1853 because it aimed to defeat the Ottoman Empire, bring the Orthodox World from the Balkans through to modern Turkey under Russian hegemony, and thus seize control of the Eastern Mediterranean, directly threatening the interests of both Great Britain and France. However, when the history of only 70 years ago can be rewritten, it is even easier with an extra century intervening.

History Repeats

Naturally, things do not stop with the events of 2020. Regime representatives waste no time in casting the international sanctions imposed in 2021 in Second World War analogies.
Some illustrative examples include Igor Gedic, a member of the Council of the Republic and director of the Hrodna Regional Dramatic Theatre, commenting to BELTA:

"Unfortunately, what we are hearing today from the countries of the collective West in calls for the introduction of new sanctions extending to the oil refining and potash fertilisers industries, to protect some democratic values, in fact, has nothing to do with democracy... In the 1940s of the last century, they also tried to bring us to our knees, to make us silent slaves and to destroy us as a nation. But then there was Stalingrad, Kursk, and Operation Bagration,"

Sviatoslav Drabtsov, chair of the Shapechin village council of the Vitebsk district:

"Our country survived the war, rose from its knees after the collapse of the USSR - and we will not now allow anyone to bring Belarus to its knees. Those who impose sanctions should not forget that boomerangs come back."

Roman Melnik, deputy of the Brest Regional Council of Deputies and chair of the Kobryn NGO Belaya Rus:

"I have only one question: how do "gentlemen of the opposition", differ from the agents of the Abwehr [WWII German Intelligence Agency], from the Banderas, from other voluntary accomplices of the Wehrmacht, who in the same way tried to weaken the Soviet Union before the German invasion? They are the same, and no-one should be surprised by the severity of the punishment when these modern collaborators are held to account for their criminal acts."

There is no ambiguity here: the National Democratic Opposition is equated with Nazi collaborators and fifth columnists, justifying equivalent levels of persecution.

The representation of history in the State Media is controlled by Lukashenka and continually reframed in terms of interpretation and emphasis based on the immediate political priorities of the present. 

History is used for emotional impact, dehumanisation of opponents, justification of modern repression, and render any criticism of state policy beyond the pale while buttressing the psychological stability of regime supporters using the prop of allied relations with Moscow.

*Poland (September 1939), Denmark (April 1940), Norway (April 1940), Belgium (May 1940), the Netherlands (May 1940), Luxembourg (May 1940), France (May 1940), Yugoslavia (April 1941), and Greece (April 1941).

**Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania – all 1939.