On Sunday in Minsk, around 400 people participated in an annual march to remember the victims of Stalinist repressions. The event is organized by the democratic opposition to the authoritarian regime of Aleksander Lukashenko. Belarus is the only country of the former USSR that does not officially commemorate the political repression of the 30s and 40s, the so-called Stalinist purges. Even with the authorities’ permission, the protesters were escorted by a considerable number of police officers using, in some cases, video filming equipment. A man was arrested for wearing a shirt that said "Lukashenko go home".
The march ended, as every year, in Kurapati forest. Located on the outskirts of Minsk, it is considered to be the main stage for the massacres perpetrated by the NKVD (the Soviet secret police, precursor of the KGB). But the death toll has not been determined, due to the authorities’ reluctance to investigate. The system does not recognize the authorship of Soviet crimes and only allows family members access to certain information. And only then in cases when they have been ‘directly affected’. On one of the few occasions that Lukashenko mentioned this in public, in 2002, he promised to erect a monument in memory of victims "who were shot by the Germans or anyone else". As yet, he has not fulfilled the promise. Nor has he visited the place.
Memory against forgetting, opposition against the regime
Kurapati’s existence was not revealed until 1988. The historian Zianon Pazniak had been investigating and gathering evidence since the early 70s but kept his work secret "because the communists could destroy the graves", as he explains from his exile in Poland. Immediately, the place became a symbol for Belarusian nationalism and the scene of the first major rally for independence.
Pazniak directed the first excavations in the late 80s. He argues that between 200,000 and 250,000 people are buried there. Other studies mention figures of 7,000, 30,000, 100,000, and sometimes over 250,000 victims. Since Lukashenko came to power in 1994, the government has not made any efforts to maintain the forest. Kurapati has become a popular memorial which includes more than a hundred wooden crosses (around 2 metres high) planted along the route. The forest sporadically suffers acts of vandalism that the government has never investigated.
Given the lack of interest in government, organizations such as ‘Malady Front’ [The Young Front] and the Belarusian Christian Democrats are responsible for ensuring that the site is not destroyed. Last week, the latter planted eight new crosses, this time made from metal. The novelty is that they did this on the other side of the freeway, right next to the forest. "We did this to remind people that this part of the forest is also part of the memorial" said the spokesman, Viktorya Radziyeuskaya. It is believed that the construction of the highway, during the 60s, brought about the disappearance of an unknown number of graves. The existence of mass graves in the design layout was known perfectly well by the Soviet authorities.
However there is no evidence to certify this theory, and in 2001, a project to expand the highway once again threatened the integrity of this "sacred place." Opponents camped for months to get the government to rethink. It was one of the few victories over the government. "This regime is the direct heir of the KGB - NKVD and will do everything possible to remove this place and distort reality", Pazniak complains.
From Malady Front, the vice-president Tatiana Shaputsko is in agreement. “We hardly study these periods of history in school. The Soviet times are praised on an official level”. All the media are, more or less, controlled by the government so most people don’t even know that the place exists. "In the summer, you can find people picnicking beside the graves" says Shaputsko. Roman, a cultural activist, says Kurapati is a good metaphor for their country "The people who are buried here were executed for their ability to think critically" and adds, with a pessimistic tone "and many do not know, probably do not care".
Power and victims, a list of interest
Activists complain that the government is running a new project - an entertainment complex located 100 metres from the memorial - that threatens to destroy the integrity of Kurapati. "It’s a shame and a crime of ethics to build a restaurant so close to the scene of mass executions," says Radziyeuskaya. The government alleges that people often live next to cemeteries and, that during construction, they ensured no tomb was destroyed.
The relationship between the Belarusian regime and Kurapati is shocking in a city where historical memory plays a very important role. Giant monuments to the victims of the World Wars have been erected, and there are memorials all over the city centre where you can read the names of the dead soldiers. There is even an island in the river that cuts through the city, dedicated to those who died during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Invidious comparisons do not end there. At sixty kilometres from Kurapati there is a village called Khatyn. There, the Soviets erected a memorial monument to Belarusians killed at the hands of Nazis. Khatyn is one of many villages where the Germans committed atrocities. The Soviets chose it for its resemblance to Katyn, the place where Russian NKVD executed 20,000 Polish soldiers. A crime that wasn´t condemned by Russia until 2010.
In Katyn a bell rings out every thirty seconds. Historians say that this is the frequency with which Belarusians died during the Second World War. In Kurapati, on an average day, all you can hear is silence.