As pro-democracy activists inside and outside of Belarus increasingly find themselves targeted by Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s repressive machinery, British historian Norman Davies suggests that, in a way, things could have been worse: The country might not have come into existence as an independent state.
“When I started out in deep communist times -- in the 1960s, 1970s -- I would have thought that…Byelorussia was one of the nations slated for extinction,” Davies told RFE/RL in a Skype interview, referring to the country by the Russianized name that it held as a republic of the Soviet Union.
“They seemed to be sort of losers on all fronts. The Soviet Union seemed to be eternal and was relentlessly pumping its ideas into the minds of the people,” Davies said.
The Belarusians are, in some ways, several generations behind other nationalities in Eastern Europe because of this appalling history."
That may be cold comfort to the more than 30,000 people who have gone through detention or the hundreds either awaiting or on trial in Belarus since a disputed election a year ago sparked an unprecedented wave of protests amid allegations the vote was fixed to hand Lukashenka, in power since 1994, a sixth straight term.
But Lukashenka’s severe clampdown on his pro-democracy foes is the latest chapter in over a century of often dark and deeply troubled times in Belarus.
In 1918, an attempt to establish a free and independent Belarus -- the Belarus National Republic -- was quickly snuffed out by the Bolsheviks.
In the 1930s, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s purges killed up to 60 percent of the country’s intelligentsia, Davies said.
During World War II and the Holocaust, Belarus lost a staggering one-quarter of its entire population. Minsk was largely reduced to rubble; no country in Europe suffered more.
After the war, ethnic cleansing continued and Soviet efforts to rebuild were slow to start as Marshall Plan aid was rejected.
More recently, in 1986, Belarus was the country worst hit by radioactive fallout from the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in neighboring Ukraine.
“The poor Belarusian people have been subjected to pressures that few others in Europe have experienced,” Davies, who is revered in Poland for his many books about the country, told RFE/RL in the interview on August 2.
Despite being in the global headlines over the past year, Belarus remains a mystery for many in the West, Davies said, its history largely clouded by Russia, its Soviet-era overlord and a country that still holds influence -- and seems to be seeking more amid the turmoil.
“There are some specialists in the West who know about Poland or know about Lithuania. But, generally speaking, Western historians follow the Russian line on these things uncritically. And it's an uphill struggle to explain what is what,” Davies asserted.
The Belarusians have rarely if ever been masters in their own lands, Davies said.
"Successive rulers have tried to impose an artificial identity on them. You know, originally in the tsarist empire, the Russians invented the name…White Russians, not White Ruthenians, as they would call themselves,” he told RFE/RL.
“Then, or course, between the wars of the 20th century, half of Belarus was in Poland. And the Poles had their own campaigns of Polonization. Most Belarusians in the Republic of Poland went to Polish schools, where they had a very different outlook than across the border in Soviet Belarus, where they were allowed to speak Belarusian for the first time but not essentially to express anything important about it [and] about themselves,” Davies said. “And they, of course, had this Soviet identity imposed on them.”
Given that past, Belarusians are trying now to catch up, he suggested.
“The Belarusians are, in some ways, several generations behind other nationalities in Eastern Europe because of this appalling history. But just as in the 19th century, [when] you began to get Czechs and Poles and all the others having a national awakening, this seems to be coming with great delay in Belarus itself.”
For younger Belarusians, Davies said, it’s all about figuring out their place in Europe.
“They want to be themselves; they want to learn about their culture and their history and their relationship to other people. And under Lukashenka, they don't get [to do] it,” he said.
Centuries ago, fate appeared kinder to Belarus. From the 14th to the 18th centuries, Belarus was part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which, together with Poland, formed one of Europe’s most influential regional powers.
“What we called Byelorussia was the largest element of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Orthodox Byelorussians were much more numerous than the originally pagan Lithuanians, and they became, as it were, the dominant element, the official language,” explained Davies, referring to Ruthenian, the language that was later to develop into modern Belarusian.
I went to Minsk in the last month of Soviet rule in 1991, when essentially Soviet rule had collapsed and before the Lukashenka dictatorship was established, and I was taken...to see a number of amazing sights."
However, that all largely came to an end in the late 18th century with the three partitions of Poland -- which also included Lithuania -- between Prussia, the Habsburg Empire, and Russia.
In 1840, Russian Tsar Nicholas I banned the use in official documents of the designation of the Belarusian and Lithuanian provinces, designating them instead the North-Western Region, one of many attempts to Russify the people of Belarus, as well as Lithuania.
Despite such efforts to erase the past, Davies witnessed firsthand how some Belarusians had preserved the country’s heritage.
“I went to Minsk in the last month of Soviet rule in 1991, when essentially Soviet rule had collapsed and before the Lukashenka dictatorship was established, and I was taken by local people to see a number of amazing sights,” recounted Davies.
“One was a museum, a sort of informal private Museum of Greek Catholic Church art, icons and religious pictures, which had been buried in 1773 -- can you imagine? -- during the first partition of Poland because the incoming Russians insisted that all the Orthodox churches become Russian Orthodox; [that] they adopt Muscovite icons; [that] they add Muscovite Saints; [that] they adapt all these sort of Muscovite stories. And these Greek Catholic icons had been hidden from 1773 to 1991, when they saw the first light of day.”
Things changed shortly after Lukashenka came to power in 1994. Among other things, he scrapped the white-and red striped flag of the 1918 republic and replaced it with a nearly identical version of the Soviet-era republic flag.
“Three or four years after that, in comes Lukashenka, the whole thing closed down again, and where we are again at this present time,” Davies said.
However, he remains optimistic that Belarusians striving to assert their nationhood will be successful over the long-term.
“But you know, all is not yet lost.... If you go back 100 years, to the end of World War I, the great majority of Belarusians were uneducated in any language. Most of them only started going to school in Polish times and later -- in a big, big way -- in Soviet times.
"And in the interwar period, for example, Polish anthropologists would go from Warsaw into...the Polesye Marshes, a well-known feature of the Belarusian landscape, and asked these people [that] they [found], ‘Who are you?’ And the answer was always, ‘Tuteyshy.’ We’re from here, people from here. And that’s all they knew, all they thought about,” Davies said.
Looking back four or five generations, he said, “Belarusians have made huge progress.”