Accessibility links

Breaking News

Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: May 3, 2005

3 May 2005, Volume 7, Number 17
BELARUS IN WORLD WAR II: COLLABORATIONISTS AND PARTISANS. Within the framework of its "Belarus at War" series of programs before the 60th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, RFE/RL's Belarus Service on 28 March 2005 broadcast an interview with Valyantsin Taras and Jan Zaprudnik.

Valyantsin Taras (born in 1930) was an adolescent participant of the Soviet guerilla movement in Nazi-occupied Belarus in 1941-44, which has been glorified in Soviet historiography as a major contributor to the overall Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. Taras, who graduated from the Belarusian State University in 1955, is a Belarusian writer and translator (he published in both Belarusian and Russian) and lives in Minsk.

Jan Zaprudnik (born in 1926) attended two high schools opened under Nazi patronage in Belarus. Zaprudnik left Belarus in 1944, graduated from the Catholic University of Louvain (Belgium) in 1954, and obtained a doctorate in history from New York University in 1969. Zaprudnik wrote extensively on Belarus and spent 37 years with RFE/RL's Belarus Service as a correspondent, producer, and editor. His major publications include "Belarus: At a Crossroads in History" (1993) and "Historical Dictionary of Belarus" (1998). He lives in the United States.

The interview, which provides an insightful, nonstandard view of Belarus under the Nazi occupation, was conducted by RFE/RL's Belarus Service journalist Yury Drakakhrust. Below are translated excerpts from this program. (Jan Maksymiuk)

RFE/RL: Mr. Zaprudnik, some of those who collaborated with the Nazis have explained that by saying that they fought for Belarus's independence by taking advantage of the possibilities offered by the occupational administration to conduct Belarus-oriented work, no matter how modest those possibilities were. But because of that collaboration, didn't those people share responsibility for the Nazi terror, the Holocaust, the extermination of partisans, and punitive operations against civil population?

Zaprudnik: It's a very complex question. Speaking about the moral responsibility for collaboration with the Nazis, we need to take into account the entire historical context. Simultaneously we need to recall an axiom -- a man is morally responsible for his actions only if he has free choice. When we speak about life under the German occupation, I think that moral responsibility rests primarily with those who initiated the war -- with Hitler in the first place. But let us also recall that Stalin was Hitler's de facto ally in 1939-40.

The category of collaborationists needs clarifications. A man was told during the German occupation: "Harness your horse up, you'll take [German] soldiers for a raid against [Soviet] partisans." Was there any real choice for him if he had only the two alternatives -- either to obey or to get a bullet in his head? Only a few can choose a voluntary death. So the man harnessed his horse up and set off driving -- and there you had a collaborationist.

There were thousands of such collaborationists. After the Soviets returned to Belarus, they drove all of them into the Gulag, including not only village heads and office clerks, but also cooks who earned bread for their families working at German kitchens. After the end of the war, the people who had been compulsorily moved to Germany were transferred to Siberia without a stopover [in Belarus]. My wife's sister-in-law, Khima, who had been taken to Germany as a girl, was sent to Siberia for 10 years without a stop in Belarus when she was returning home after the victory.

Speaking about collaboration, let us not forget about the sentiments of people who still had fresh memories of dispossession of the kulaks, the Stalinist terror of the 1930s, and deportations to Siberia from western Belarus in 1940-41. The issue of moral responsibility for people's actions under the German occupation is closely related to the issue of moral responsibility of Stalinist collaborationists for their actions under the Bolshevik rule.

I want to draw your attention to one more aspect -- the moral responsibility of an older generation of Belarusians for bringing up the youth. It was unadvisable for Belarusian national activists to do nothing and wait for the Soviets' return. It was necessary to organize schools, prepare appropriate schoolbooks, open cultural institutions. The Soviet propaganda labeled all this as collaborationism with the Nazis (the Belarusian propaganda has been doing so until the present day). But teachers from my junior high school and commercial school in Baranavichy, who taught me math, the Belarusian language, and merchandising, were they collaborationists? My teachers in the junior high schools were two brothers, Anton and Yurka Lutskevich. The Bolsheviks starved their father, Anton Lutskevich, to death in prison. Had they to join the Soviet partisans or to look for some other way out during the military conflict between the Bolshevik dictatorship and the German fascism? They made a choice -- they put their stake on Belarus, which they wanted to see free and independent. This, too, was a moral choice, which cost each of them 15 years of slavery in Siberia.

All what I said does not discard the issue of responsibility for actions under the German occupation. Moral responsibility lies with those who killed innocent people, contributed to the Holocaust, burned villages, provoked the Germans into burning villages, moved civilians to compulsory work in Germany, robbed civilians, and acted as informers.

RFE/RL: The same question to you, Mr. Taras. Those people who collaborated with the Nazis for possibly higher purposes, for Belarus's independence -- to what extent were they responsible for what was going on in Belarus?

Taras: I agree on many points with Mr. Zaprudnik. I agree that many ordinary people -- beginning with cleaning women and ending with school teachers -- were categorized [by the Soviet authorities] as collaborationists. My aunt was such a "collaborationist" -- she washed plates and bowls in a German canteen. My grandma, Hela, was such a "collaborationist" -- she worked as a nurse's aid in a German hospital. Painter Mikalay Huseu, my father's close friend, was also such a "collaborationist." During the occupation Huseu lived on his profession -- he painted portraits of German officers and fed his family with this job. After the war he got four years.

But we should not forget that there was ideological collaborationism as well. One thing was to command a police detachment while quite another was to teach in school under the occupation.

RFE/RL: Mr. Taras, we spoke about the responsibility of collaborationists, now I want to approach the issue from the other side. During the Nuremberg trials [Nazi ideologist and politician] Alfred Rosenberg said that partisans killed 500 village heads in Belarus in 1942. A lot of facts have been made known about how partisans killed those who collaborated with the Germans or those who were just suspected of such collaboration, how they killed teachers and confiscated food and livestock from peasants. There were murders and violence from one side, as well as murders and violence from the other side. So, why was one side better than the other? Can we speak about the responsibility for such actions of those who fought on the side of partisans?

Taras: I won't deny that partisans committed violence -- they killed village heads, I personally witnessed such an execution in the village of Nyalyuby in Valozhyn Raion. But we need to remember one thing. The point is not in determining which regime, Stalinist or Nazi, was a lesser evil; there were no principal difference between them, both of them were the stones of the same mill that ground our people. At that time, however, the deep-laid character of war on occupied territories was determined not by Stalinism but by the people's resistance to the alien invasion, the people's struggle for their historical and physical survival.

Yes, partisans shot people to death, sometimes without any good reason, just because of suspicions. But not all partisans were responsible for that.

As regards food provision by partisans, I'll tell you one simple thing. Partisans were not a regular army, they were not provided with necessities under some centralized system. When your boots wore out, where could you get new ones? In a village, from a peasant. Partisans confiscated horses, cows, and pigs from peasants. In the eyes of an ordinary peasant, armed people who came at night to take his trousers, a pig, or a loaf of bread he kept for his kids, were nothing more than bandits.

Incidentally, there is a myth that has survived until the present day: So to say, there were partisans who derailed trains and fought Germans, and there were bandits who robbed peasants at night. They were the very same people. Bread did not grow for us on trees, and we could take new shoes only from peasants.

Zaprudnik: The problem of responsibility of ordinary people, such as Mr. Taras or I or our parents, is not appropriate [in this context]. We can speak about responsibility for atrocities, when [Belarusian] policemen killed Jews or resorted to violence. We need to take a broader historical and political context to look for those responsible. [Radaslau] Astrouski [head of the Belarusian Central Council, a self-governing body that collaborated with the Nazis in Belarus] can be regarded as responsible [for collaborationism]. However, Belarusian collaborationism did not have a theoretical foundation, like collaborationism in Petain's France. Petain's France put its stake on Germany as a future European empire and tried to secure a place for itself in the so-called "new Europe."

The Belarusian intelligentsia under the German occupation took care of the patriotic -- one can say, nationalist -- upbringing of the youth. We were nationalists in the positive sense of the word, we wanted freedom and independence for Belarus. It is possible to deny this argument by saying that there were no realistic prospects for such a desire to be fulfilled under the German occupation, but the desire was exactly like this -- we wanted to see Belarus as an independent, self-ruling country.

Taras: I don't fully agree with Mr. Zaprudnik that many [representatives of the Belarusian intelligentsia under the Nazi occupation] were just nationalists. Healthy nationalism is a natural thing, I have nothing to say against it. In my opinion, many of them were simply Nazis. What they wrote [in Belarusian publications allowed by the Nazis] was Nazi propaganda, in the totally Hitlerite spirit.

There is a myth saying that had it not been for partisans, the Germans would not have touched us and would not have burned our villages. It is untrue. I remember how the Germans entered Minsk on 28 June 1941 and three days later herded several tens of thousands of people in a big camp on Shyroka Street and kept them there for 10 days without food and water. It was a particular selection, they wanted to shock people in order to suppress any thought of resistance in advance. I saw that with my own eyes.

RFE/RL: Mr. Zaprudnik, do you agree wit Mr. Taras's assessments? And a more specific question: In your opinion, to what extent was the partisan movement in Belarus inspired and organized by Moscow, and to what extent was the Nazi terror provoked by Soviet partisans?

Zaprudnik: The German terror had a theoretical foundation asserting that the Slavs were an inferior race, let alone the Jews, for whom the Germans developed a meticulous plan of their extermination.

As regards the nationwide resistance [to the Nazi occupation in Belarus], I would put a question mark over this issue. The memory of Bolshevik atrocities, deportations, the extermination of Belarusian national democrats, and forcible collectivization in the 1930s, were fresh during the occupation, and this memory partly motivated people for taking revenge during the war. So, the whole picture was much more complex.

TELEVISION CHANNEL DEFENDS CONTROVERSIAL LICENSE. The Ukrainian Supreme Economic Court on 28 April rejected a complaint by the Prosecutor-General's Office against an earlier decision of the Kyiv Appellate Economic Court to approve the expansion of the broadcasting license of the NTN television channel to a nationwide network. Vitaliy Shevchenko, head of the National Council for Television and Radio Broadcasting (NRPTR), an eight-member constitutional body empowered to issue broadcasting licenses in Ukraine, said the same day that the broadcast council will appeal against the Supreme Economic Court decision.

The legal clash between the authorities and NTN over its license expansion has struck a raw nerve in the media sector in Ukraine, where many broadcasters are widely regarded to have obtained licenses under dubious circumstances. Since NTN is partly owned by Donetsk-based oligarch Eduard Prutnyk, who was once an adviser to ex-Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, the case also has political undertones.

"The NTN channel believes that the actions of the Prosecutor-General's Office [against NTN] show signs of the witch hunt in the Ukrainian media sector," NTN said in a statement in early April. NTN journalist Volodymyr Kartashkov openly accused President Viktor Yushchenko's administration -- which came to power following the country's recent Orange Revolution -- of resorting to "politically motivated retribution" against his political opponents. NTN journalists organized a series of pickets in front of the presidential administration and the Prosecutor-General's Office in Kyiv in April to protest what they perceived as an official intention to close down their channel.

A closer look at the controversy over the NTN license suggests that NTN's allegations of "politically motivated retribution" by the authorities are difficult to substantiate. On the other hand, the authorities' actions with respect to the channel also appear to be motivated by more than simply an intention to restore justice and lawfulness in the media sector.

NTN began its broadcasting on 1 November 2004 under a license issued in April of the same year. In early 2004, NTN -- then known under the name Telestudio Information Service and authorized to broadcast only in Kyiv and Simferopol -- applied to the broadcast council for an expanded license under the new name to beam its programs over 24 frequencies throughout Ukraine.

Under Ukraine's law on broadcasting, new frequencies are allotted to broadcasters by the council under a bidding procedure. NTN, which was eager to begin broadcasting before the 2004 presidential election (presumably to support Yanukovych's presidential bid), did not wait until the broadcast council had launched such a tender but turned to the courts to get its license expanded. The Kyiv Economic Court and subsequently the Kyiv Appellate Economic Court ordered the broadcast council to amend NTN's license to allow for its expansion. The broadcast watchdog refused to do so, but NTN began nevertheless to broadcast on the basis of the court rulings. In the meantime, it turned out that the courts had ruled that NTN be allowed to broadcast over 75 frequencies in a number of Ukrainian cities.

The broadcast council, whose composition was recently changed to include four Yushchenko nominees (the other four are appointed by the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian legislature), believes that it is the sole authority for allotting new frequencies and that NTN's license expansion was not an amendment of the old license but rather a totally new license. Therefore, the broadcast council argues, NTN must undergo a standard bidding procedure if it wants to broadcast legally on a nationwide scale.

However, the problem is that NTN is not the only broadcaster in Ukraine whose license has effectively been issued by a court. Such broadcasters include the TET and KRT television channels as well as, according to the "Zerkalo nedeli" weekly, the pro-Yushchenko Channel 5, which was generally credited for its substantial contribution to the victory of the opposition-fueled Orange Revolution.

If it is so, some say, then why has the Prosecutor-General's Office singled out NTN in its attempt to restore justice in the media sector and failed to take into account other broadcasters with similarly questionable licenses? Because, NTN answers, the current authorities want a redistribution of broadcasting frequencies to award broadcasters who are sympathetic to the current government.

Whatever the outcome of the current dispute between NTN on one side, and the Prosecutor-General's Office and the broadcast council on the other, one thing is of great importance for the Yushchenko government's image, both at home and abroad: Yushchenko, who claimed to be on the media's side in the battle for freedom during the Orange Revolution, must avoid even the impression that such freedom does not extend to media outlets run by his opponents now that he is in power.

So there are two credible paths to a resolution of the licensing issue. As some Ukrainian observers have suggested, if certain broadcasting licenses are to be questioned, the authorities must apply similar criteria to all potential transgressors and avoid focusing only on those that are uncomfortable to the government. Or, as others have proposed, the revamped broadcast council should simply forget what happened with broadcasting licenses in the past and launch a completely new chapter in their allocation. (Jan Maksymiuk)

"Lukashenka is not the worst misfortune for our country. The worst misfortune is the unwillingness to live better." -- Belarusian opposition politician Andrey Klimau; quoted by RFE/RL's Belarus Service on 22 April.