Defying prosecution, Belarus’ democratic opposition commemorates the repression of Stalinist victims.
The European Union has extended, once again, sanctions against Belarus for the lack of respect for human rights. The sanctions, applied for the first time in 2006, affect 232 people and 25 entities linked to the regime of Aleksander Lukashenko, in power since 1994. The decision was made public on the same day that 22 people were arrested for participating in a ceremony in memory of the victims of Stalin’s repression era.
"Lukashenko is believed to be the successor to the Soviet regime" explains Hanna Shaputsko, one of the detainees, to ARA journal. The activist regretted that Belarus is the only country of the former USSR that does not commemorate, officially, the so-called Stalinist purges. The democratic opposition does it every October 29. That day in 1937, the cultural elite of the country, hundreds of figures, was executed. In their honour, they organize a march by several places where there were mass executions. The flagship is the Kurapaty forest. On Sunday, the opposition will return there to celebrate "Dziady", day of the dead.
Kurapaty is situated on the outskirts of Minsk. Between 1937 and 1941 an undetermined number of people were executed by agents of the Soviet secret police. The bodies are buried in several mass graves. This fact was revealed by historian Zianon Pazniak in 1988, although he had been gathering evidence from the early 70s. "If I had revealed this before, I believe they could have destroyed the graves," said to ARA from Warsaw, where he lives in exile. Pazniak directed the first excavations in the woods and maintains that 200,000 people are buried there. Other studies lowered the figure to 7,000 while the British historian Norman Davies says Pazniak’s calculations fall short.
The forest became a symbol of the struggle for independence. The first march in memory of "Dziady" was dispersed by police. Today no one expects fighting but Shaputsko doesn´t rule out "an arrest prior to the march."
Several organizations are responsible for maintaining the forest as a popular memorial. More than a hundred crosses (an average height of two meters) have been erected in memory of the disappeared. There is also a plaque that was given in 1994, by the-then U.S. president, Bill Clinton. This is one of the favourite objects for vandals who, occasionally, cause damage in the memorial, with no consequences in terms of police prosecution.
The authoritarian regime of Lukashenko denies authorship of the Soviet killings and has rarely mentioned this issue in public. The administration has put up obstacles to independent research. The archives can only be accessed by family members, after passing through a maddening bureaucratic process.
"The Lukashenko regime is the result of the KGB and will do everything possible to destroy this place" says Pazniak. In 2001, the expansion of a highway threatened the integrity of the forest but a popular movement, which camped for months, prevented this. Now it is a leisure complex that threatens the integrity of this "sacred place". Located at the edge of the forest, stands a restaurant for 400 people, and a play area for children. The authorities must ensure that no graves are desecrated during the excavations. Shaputsko explains that "the authorities have more plans to end this protected area but it will be prevented by society."
(Originally published in Spanish in ARA journal)