18 July 2023

What Will Be Written in a Future Belarus History Textbook

Argues Yauhen Krasulin, PhD in History, witness and participant in the events of recent times

© Anna Krasulina

For three years in Belarus those who disagree with the totalitarian policies have been subjected to reprisals. The Soviet-style propaganda has been pouring from everywhere. The world has been speaking of our country as an accomplice of the aggressor. Belarusians have been leaving their homes and fleeing abroad… At the same time there are some politicians and experts who are, against all odds, confident that the 2020 Belarusian revolution not only did not fail but was the beginning of a victory. One of these experts is PhD in History Yauhen Krasulin.

OWM asked him to draft a future Belarusian history textbook as though it were written after democracy won.

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A Little Methodology

On the one hand, the idea to write a textbook from a future perspective may not be entirely hopeless. A broad familiarity with the world’s history in different epochs and in different regions allows us to see history as a set of a certain number of patterns of human society (both on micro and macro levels). They are repeated periodically over time differing in details while being the same in principle which allows us (as long as we have enough knowledge) to predict where the society will be if it fits a certain pattern.

However, it was not without a reason that Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra bestowed only the Superman with the ability to understand the meaning of the recurrence of events over time, because the common man would not be capable of it. Otherwise, we common men would have long ago deciphered the laws of history and would have carefully avoided the traps history sets up for us. Of course history is not to blame here but humane impulses, fears, biases, envy... Still the traps are always there, just as is the human unwillingness to recognise their presence.

Therefore, we can presently discuss the future on a very basic, fundamental level. I think nobody questions Belarus currently being in a state of dictatorship. As historical experience shows, no dictatorship is permanent. Hence, no question about it, democracy in our country will prevail in the end. But a history textbook written on the principle ‘our country was initially a dictatorship (point A), from which it evolved into a democracy (point B),’ may not be very informative, useful, and interesting.

The logic of a historical path from point A to point B will necessarily include a third component, C. This component can, paradoxically, be A or B, or neither, and all of these at the same time. Events may have a meaning entirely different from what we see or what others tell us about them. One and the same event may have the most diverse meanings and messages. Or it may not have them at all, or have both at the same time.

A historical path from point A to point B does not go along a straight line or even around a circle. Its trajectory, incredible in its intricacy, may pass the same points a few times, cross itself, change direction, repeatedly go to a wrong place and get stuck in it. Upon reaching the goal, you may suddenly discover that it is not B but A, that all the time you have been circling around the starting point. Homer’s Odyssey can probably be regarded as the most brilliant description of the course of history. The historical path of the Belarusians is in many respects similar to it, and not only in the past.

Paragraph 1. The Traumas and Choices of the 90s

Here, the first C awaits us in the future history textbook. Because, on the one hand, that was the era of democracy when the ‘administrative resource’ did not have such opportunities to influence the people’s choice as it would later acquire. The problem rather was the choice itself. The Belarusians were suffering from the traumas of the decades of “democratic centralism” and centuries of the superiority of “Russian culture”, “Russian language”, “Russian people” over the “poor and miserable Byelorussian muzhik.”

The former induced in the people a need not for self-realisation, but for a strong central government which, like in the times of the USSR, ”will give us all we need”. The latter hindered the formation of a secure Belarusian identity. The Belarusians were frozen in confusion at the fact that every peoples seeking to break away from ‘Great Russia’ with its great culture, language, and gas pipe, were labelled ‘Nazis’, ‘Fascists’, or ‘idiots’ and at the constant talk about fraternal feelings, equality, and friendship among peoples as being signs of “no matter what language it is as long as it is Russian”.

This double trauma led to the choice the Belarusians made in 1994. Some say that if they had chosen differently everything could have gone the other way. That if instead of pro-Russian Lukashenka the Belarusians had elected nationalist Pazniak, everything would have been different. I would be inclined to disagree with this assertion in my future history textbook. The fact is that the trajectory of a historical path depends not only on the people who follow it. There are other centres exerting a gravitational influence on it, sometimes quite a strong one.

We had such a powerful centre of gravity, Russia (it is still there but in the textbook it would be more appropriate to use the past tense). And the intentions of this centre were (of course, from a future historian’s point of view) quite obvious: to restore the Russian Empire.

The dominance of the Communist Party nomenclature was destroyed together with the USSR by the new Russian leadership. The 1917 October Coup gave to the peoples who were part of the Russian Empire the opportunity to form their own nation states, the collapse of the USSR did likewise. However, the Bolsheviks soon began to ‘gather Russian lands,’ and the ‘new and democratic’ Russia began to do it using the same methods. Where nationalist (positive connotation) regimes came to power, military coups took place. This happened in Azerbaijan, Georgia, Tajikistan, etc. As a result, power was taken by reliable, time-tested Moscow’s partners. Belarus would have undoubtedly suffered the same fate if the majority had voted for Pazniak. A military rebellion would have broken out, fuelled by indignation over, for example, “oppression of the Russian-speaking population.” And everything would have followed the familiar trajectory.

Then everything happens according to the established historical patterns. If power is taken by a demagogue with no empathy and respect for the people, who seeks solely to gain and preserve power, then his actions can simply be copied from old history textbooks. First he dissolves the parliament and creates a puppet parliament filling it instead with ‘authoritative’ appointees. Then he rewrites the Constitution to his benefit robbing other people of their lawful powers. Then comes another ‘optimisation’ of the Constitution with all clauses limiting re-election removed. So did, for example, Porfirio Diaz in Mexico and Yuan Shikai in the Republic of China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The icing on the cake is a constitutional procedure to appoint a successor. But if abiding by the law is not a top priority, this procedure can be skipped.

And what about the people? Were they silent as usual? The future history textbook will feature a special paragraph about the topic of the people under Lukashenka’s dictatorship. This paragraph will be written using the latest research methods: mass psychology, social consequences of dictatorship, choice of a behavioural model, etc. Some attention will certainly be given to the disregard of the Supreme Soviet deputies’ call to stand up against the coup d’état in 1996 (which can be explained by the weakness of political culture).

Special attention will be given to the events around the formation of the so-called ‘Union State of Russia and Lukashenka. Yes, it was Lukashenka, not Belarus because at the time Belarus revolted against this ‘State’. I remember those April days of 1996. I was then far from Belarus and was watching our independence being cynically destroyed, with vodka glasses smashed on the Kremlin floor and Lukashenka’s head spinning at the closeness of the Moscow throne. The reality disgusted me. I wanted to wake up.

It was the people who brought appeal and sense back to the reality. The Belarusians reacted to the ‘integration initiatives’ with the ‘Minsk Spring’: militiamen with their shields and batons were running away from angry citizens. The formation of the ‘Union State’ was shoved deep into the pockets of hope of both Russian ‘gatherers of Russian lands’ and Belarusian dreamers of the Russian throne.

The authors of a future history textbook will be able to critically analyze the thesis of the ‘massive support’ to the regime by the Belarusians in the late 90s. I personally did not know anyone who supported the regime then. At best, people were indifferent, “What do I care?” But many criticised it.

Paragraph 2. The Regime and the People. On a Social Contract, or The Stability of the 2000s

Yes, the authorities were criticised everywhere, even in Belarusian villages which city dwellers regarded as Lukashenka’s strongholds. Once in an unknown village, complete strangers asked me, “Have you heard what this clown said on TV last night?” During the 2006 and 2010 election campaigns on picket lines, at meetings with voters, I saw at best a couple of people who expressed their support to Lukashenka. (By the way, prior to writing a future history textbook one will have to analyze sociological surveys taken in the country at that time for validity of the research methods used and their relevance to the objective.)

So how did the regime solve the problem of its unpopularity? First of all, through the good old social contract, of course. You feed us, we tolerate you. And through political demobilisation. Any authoritarian regime (and Lukashenka’s regime before 2020 will undoubtedly be defined as authoritarian) seeks to exclude citizens from political life, exclusive rights to which it reserved. Business, culture, social sphere, folk dances, amateur ornithology, you can do anything you like. But stay out of politics!

Politics, they explained to the people, is a dirty business. And it is only suitable for persons with a corresponding reputation, “Just look at those ‘oppositionists’. They’ll sell their mother for Western grants! Look, they can’t even unite!” The absurdity of such accusations was obvious. Everyone received foreign grants: scientists, sportsmen, media, public organisations, and even “law enforcement” agencies. But for politicians, this type of financing was not allowed by the law.

And the famous mantra related to politicians, “When on earth will they all unite?” Nowhere and never in history has it been that everyone acted as one monolithic whole, even in the Stalinist USSR and North Korea. Discussions and debate are normal. They help advance development. For instance, in 2006 the efficiency of the opposition’s election campaign was only enhanced by the participation of the two candidates, Milinkievič and Kazulin. Each of them had his own style and arguments which were well received by the citizens. The same happened in 2010 when the opposition nominated nine candidates. Nine election teams campaigned. Do you want one candidate? There you are: the opposition candidate who advances to the second round will be the “one”. However, that would have taken place had the country had real elections. Without them, unifying does not play a significant role.

The regime managed to instill in the Belarusians a considerable distrust of the opposition leaders. Here, another ‘plausible C’ played its part. The problem is that although the Belarusians aspired to democracy, at the helm of it they anticipated not an official elected by the people but a strong leader who would come and easily solve all their problems. This is the trauma of every nation with the experience of dictatorship. People simply cannot understand that under democracy they themselves must take responsibility for their fate and the fate of their country, whereas the government’s task is to create favourable conditions for that. In this game they see themselves as children who are supposed to be fed, clothed, and not punished too severely by the adults, that is, the authorities. People find it hard to believe that it is they who are the adults.

Another point to be made in the textbook and documented in the manuals of all authoritarian regimes: Belarusian dissenters were persuaded that they were in a minority. In the 2000s, people would often say, “Here’s you and me against the regime. And the rest are in favour.”

This is really a very efficient method to keep society under control: to convince dissenters that they are the only ones who place themselves in a position different to that of all the others who support the authorities. And that confronting the majority is not worth the risk.

© Yauhen Krasulin
Paragraph 3. 2020: a Victory or a Defeat?

There is a problem though: this method does not work for long. The unpopular regime, while fighting the opposition, raised the Belarusians’ expectations of change. Moreover, it unintentionally formed the image of a new leader, modern, democratic, successful. And once such a figure appeared on the horizon, the Belarusians recognised it. Viktar Babarika met precisely their expectations.

It will be written in a future history textbook that we can’t say the Belarusians ‘woke up’ in 2020. They were not sleeping. They were just waiting for a ‘real’ contender who would finally oust Lukashenka. Upon seeing the leader, the Belarusians stepped up and took to the streets. The desire to see their dreams become reality was so strong that protest sentiment only built up after the top man for the role of Lukashenka’s rival contender was barred from the elections.

Remembering my conversations with people in those times, I can say that the Belarusians were not prepared to switch their affection immediately from banker Babarika to housewife Tsikhanouskaya. The key factor at play was Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign message, “I’m running in the election not for power, I’m running to organise free and fair elections.” This message fully satisfied everyone and gave the Belarusians a new hope in the person of Tsikhanouskaya. I think this fact will be duly reflected in a future textbook.

Were the 2020 events a victory for the Belarusians? This question will hardly be asked in a future history textbook. But the present-day debate around it will certainly be given attention.

Because this is a war of nerves now. The winner will be the one who lasts longer. If one of the rivals admits defeat, it will be a victory of the other. And if the regime makes the Belarusians believe that they lost in 2020, it will have a good chance to continue its existence. And the regime will take advantage of every opportunity to do so.

The complex trajectory of the historical process in its intricate twists can really give the impression that good has no chance and that evil has won. But the illustration and the lesson here might perhaps be the fate of Stefan Zweig who committed suicide together with his wife in February 1942. By that time the Nazis had taken control of almost all of Europe, and the situation on the Eastern front was not conductive to optimism with regard to the future of the USSR in the confrontation with Hitler. The Japanese had conquered almost the entire Pacific Ocean, their aircraft were seen in the sky over Australia. Zweig regarded it unequivocally. It was obvious for him that evil was winning and there would be no more good, or freedom, or European civilisation... Zweig did not want to live in such a world and took poison.

But Britain did not believe that it was all over. Neither did the USA, neither did the USSR. And neither did even the French, at least some of them. And they all won, even the French. Because you are not defeated unless you admit defeat. How can you say you’ve lost when the fight isn’t over yet? This is why there is no textbook in which it would be written that Britain, or the USA, or the USSR lost the war in 1941. And neither did they in 1942, or in 1943, or in 1944.

Zweig’s case shows that there are people with high expectations, people who think that if there is no victory now there will be no victory ever. Yes, now the enemy is advancing, but this doesn’t mean that we have been defeated.

In 2020 the Belarusians defeated Lukashenka’s regime, the dictator clearly heard the loud call, “Go away!” His life will never be so carefree again. He understands all too well that the Belarusians did not turn the page, no matter who said otherwise.

Control Task: Do Not Go Back to the Old Ways

The evil confronted by the Belarusians turned out to be bigger than it seemed. It is the evil that hopes to restore the Empire and is busily engaged in “gathering of the lands”. In 2020, when the regime teetered on the edge, the evil announced that it would send to Belarus its National Guard and even regular troops to protect Lukashenka from being overthrown by the people. When Belarusian propagandists saw the power of people’s anger and trembled, the evil sent Russia Today information paratroopers to Lukashenka’s aid. There is no doubt that it would have sent in the tanks too.

Now we can see what this evil’s plans were. And we understand that effort of one nation, even a highly motivated nation, is not enough to stop it. Now the entire democratic world is fighting this evil, and everyone has a job to do, including maintaining a belief in victory.

A future textbook, of course, will contain descriptions of all the methods employed by the evil. In 2020, the evil was stunned for a while by the unity, solidarity, mutual benevolence, courage, and resilience of the Belarusians. Even the habitual mantras of “apathetic and cowardly”, “grant hunters”, and “when will they unite?” have disappeared from the media. But the regime gradually came to its senses. And went into the same old song and dance readily caught up by independent media, “The new opposition is turning into the old one.” No, it is not the new opposition undergoing transformation. It is you falling into old traps.

The primary objective of such slander is to destroy the only political centre which currently is a big advantage of the Belarusians. For without a political centre it is very easy to deprive our nation of subjectivity. Once there is no political centre, there will be no one to raise the Belarusian issue with national governments and international organisations.

And then the vacuum can be filled with a ‘man with a gun’, someone who believes that “political power comes from the barrel of a gun.” If such people are to decide the fate of Belarus, the trajectory of the historical path they define will lead us far from freedom and democracy, the ends for which the Belarusians united in 2020. And then there would indeed be grave doubt as to whether future history textbooks will include Belarusian ones.

Translated from Russian by Alexander Stoliarchuk