David R. Marples. "Our Glorious Past": Lukashenka's Belarus and the Great Patriotic War. Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society Series. Stuttgart: ibidem Press, 2014. 400 pp. $79.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-8382-0675-2; $54.00 (paper), ISBN 978-3-8382-0674-5.
Reviewed by Aleksandra Pomiecko (University of Toronto)
Published on H-War (July, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
In “Our Glorious Past”: Lukashenka’s Belarus and the Great Patriotic War, David R. Marples investigates president Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s utilization of the war for the construction of the Belarusian state and identity. Marples examines the leader’s control of the media and the proliferation of war narratives. He specifically focuses on the 1941 defensive operations, role of partisans, immortalization of Belarusian heroes, and circumstances of “victory.” The later chapters evaluate the effectiveness of the state’s molding of historical memory in relation to the public and the international community. Additionally, the work also addresses the ways in which state officials interpret and deal with alternative historical interpretations, or “historical revisionism.” Marples focuses specifically on topics promoted and addressed by the state (the Holocaust, for example, not being one of them). To illustrate these issues, he analyzes state-approved school textbooks, media articles from both regional and national outlets, and domestic and non-Belarusian scholarly work published between 2008 and 2011. Marples argues that this process of Belarusian state creation was carried out and propagated by a “paternalistic monarch,” or Lukashenka (p. 7). The state’s goal, both during the time period of study and potentially beyond, was to elevate the war years, and Belarus’s participation in the war, as a formative experience, which directly relates and contributes to contemporary Belarusian society’s identity.
Preceding the analytical portion of the work is an informative introductory chapter, which briefly outlines Lukashenka’s rise to power and the continuity of his leadership position, through the control of state institutions and constitutional alterations. According to Marples, Lukashenka has tried to sustain a particular narrative of the war to legitimize his position. To do this, he has recreated a new identity that is a direct continuation of the war and that permeates current society. The war, as Marples highlights, is used to legitimatize Lukashenka’s position as a bats’ka, or father figure, who guides the population toward a new or recreated Soviet identity. In return, the public cedes power to the president. This authority given to Lukashenka, balanced between a relationship with the public and an international body, remains sustainable through control of the constitution, media, referenda, and security forces. While the Great Patriotic War is part of this rhetoric, Marples accurately notes that the process of war commemoration preceded Lukashenka, beginning with Kirill Mazurov (1956-65) and Piotr Masherov (1965-80). The continuation of the war narrative following the collapse of the Soviet Union and into contemporary times comes with certain difficulties, one being Joseph Stalin or the Stalin years in the 1920s and 1930s, during which Belarusians were victims of mass deportations, executions, and repression. Official rhetoric omits a discussion of the Stalin years; it neither elevates nor vilifies Stalin. This intentional ambiguity demonstrates a nuanced and important delineation from previous leaders, who were either sympathetic or critical of Stalin. The introductory chapter concludes with a discussion of the state’s selective manipulation and inflation of victim casualties during the war, which it does by including Jewish victims as part of the larger Belarusian loss, yet avoiding a discussion of the Holocaust separately from Belarus’s involvement in the war.
Each chapter roughly begins with a historical background of the topic, followed by a description and assessment of school textbooks and official statements pertaining to the subject at hand. Marples’s first point of discussion centers on two specific moments during the war: September 1939 and June 1941. After providing a brief narrative of the significance of these dates in Belarusian history, the first marking the official unification of the eastern and western territories of Belarus and the second marking Belarus’s official entrance into the Great Patriotic War, he goes through some textbook interpretations of these dates. This summary is complemented by individuals’ narratives published and presented to the public by the state. Although not identical in their rhetoric over the last few years, in general, these sources propagate a story of both a heroic and a tragic beginning for Belarusian involvement in the war, one marked by bravery of its men who fought to stall invading German forces and also by heavy losses. Some regional media, as Marples acknowledges, covers the Soviet occupation or reunification of Belarus between 1939 and 1941. Although regional media is not outwardly critical of Soviet rule, it does differentiate the Belarusian and Soviet narratives. The Soviet regime does not acknowledge this period as an instrumental part of the war. Central state organs tend to praise this earlier period as one in which Belarusians were liberated from harsh Polish rule (the western territories were part of the Polish Second Republic during the interwar period). Here we can see the difference of interpretation between the peripheral and central news sources.
The second chapter focuses on the German occupational regime and looks at the way authorities, historians, and the media have treated the period between 1941 and 1944. This section covers a brief history of German rule, concentration camps on Belarusian territory, collaboration between locals and occupiers, and the Holocaust. The textbook representation of this period, as Marples notes, has been relatively consistent in the last fifteen years and has presented a narrative that demonstrates harsh rule by the occupiers and victimization of Belarusians. One of the points that, again, shows the nuance between the Belarusian and Soviet narratives of the war is that while the former acknowledges some anti-Soviet resistance on Belarusian territory, the latter perspective does not. Marples also describes some of the concentration camps in existence during the war, namely, Maly Traścianec, the 5th Regiment KL-313-SD, Azaryčy, and Kaldyčava. However, commemorative and memorial remembrance of the Holocaust exists in Belarus largely because of donations by foreign organizations and states.
The issue most visibly memorialized and popularized in Belarus is the role of the partisans, which Marples discusses in his third chapter. Although state-sanctioned historical writing and official rhetoric are ridden with praise and accolades for the partisans, the issue is not as uniform as the state portrays it to be. There are several points of contention regarding this topic, including control over the partisans; the roles of the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs), NKGB (People’s Commissariat for State Security), and Communist Party; and the relationship between the partisans and local communities. Marples also appropriately separates the underground from the partisans; both groups were viewed with suspicion by the Soviets for fear that they would defect or were actually German agents. The official Belarusian perspective differentiates these two groups, elevating the partisans to a hero status, while carefully avoiding a discussion of the underground. The official line generally sees Soviet institutions and politics as having had a positive influence on partisans.
After the discussion on the partisans, Marples examines the current government’s exaltation of veteran heroes. This part of his work, as well as large parts of other sections, is filled with anecdotes, both official and unofficial, of individuals’ experiences during the war. While these personal stories are interesting, they are sometimes repetitive and take away from his analysis. The pattern seems to be the same: the state stretches the label of “hero” to incorporate both Belarusians and non-Belarusians, as long as they played some role in the “victory” or fight for Belarus. Marples also includes a brief discussion on female veterans and their role during the war and subsequent commemoration. Furthermore, education plays an instrumental role in the propagation of the state narrative, not only through its use of sanctioned textbooks but also by establishing links between youth and the partisans still living today. This pedagogical process involves both remembering the war through written history and creating dialogue between current and past generations.
Marples interprets the official narrative around liberation and victory as one that includes and omits certain historical issues that might counter the official state perspective. The latter stage of the war—the participation of Belarusians in Operation Bagration or the Red Army push westward toward Berlin in 1944—is elevated in importance. The role of Belarus in this operation is manifested through the partisans that, according to official doctrine, cleared the way for the Red Army to advance to Berlin. In official textbooks, Operation Bagration is equated with Stalingrad. Furthermore, according to such texts, Belarusians played a significant role in the taking of the German Reichstag as well as in the liberation of Poland.
The later parts of the work focus on specific historical sites and memorials, including Khatyn, the Brest Hero Fortress, and the Liniya Stalina (Stalin Line). Marples provides information on the composition and official discourse surrounding these sites and critically looks at the myths in order to deconstruct the inflated importance that the state gives them. He also exposes the lack of archival evidence incorporated in the narratives and memorialization. With each site come official commemorations and displays that climax during particular anniversary celebrations. Marples focuses on two such dates: the sixty-fifth anniversary of liberation (July 3, 1944) and the sixty-fifth anniversary of victory (May 9, 1945). Commemorative patterns and performances include books, memoirs, films, and documentaries, all of which attempt to reemphasize Belarus’s significant role in the war.
The work concludes with a discussion of what the state perceives to be “historical revisionism” and the dangers it evokes. Marples discusses some of the previously mentioned contentious topics, including the role of the NKVD and the relationship between partisans and locals. He stresses the lack and repression of scholarship that attempts to counter the official state narrative. One particular document, the 2009 Vilnius Declaration, which views the Soviet Union and Germany as equally responsible for the outbreak of the war, has been heavily criticized by the state.
One of the most important parts of the work is Marples’s incorporation of a study that assesses the reception of the state’s narrative by the public. A June 2008 survey by the Independent Institute of Social-Economic and Political Research, titled “Echo of War,” suggests that the public, youth specifically, does not particularly absorb or believe much of the exalted Belarusian narrative that the state presents. For such a state-driven narrative to be successfully propagated, there needs to be an audience that engages with it. If not enthusiastically supportive, then at the very least the audience or public may be indifferent or willing to put up with it. Because his work is essentially a study of performance and representation, ideally an analysis into the audience or reception of state doctrine would have contributed to his discussion. Unfortunately, verifiable information regarding public support and realistic views of state efforts are difficult to acquire in an official and scientific capacity.
While Marples uses an extensive amount of source material, the work tends to focus mainly on one regional paper, Vechernyi Brest, to illustrate alternative interpretations of the war. Inclusion of other regional papers would have served to further bolster Marples’s point and, more importantly, to shed some light into regional differences in perspective within Belarus. Is there only a central versus peripheral difference or is there also a geographical divide in interpretation? Do the eastern Belarusian territories, such as Mahileŭ and Vitebsk, demonstrate differences or similarities in media and interpretation with such regions as Hrodno or Brest?
Overall, Marples is closely engaged in the investigation through his analysis of large amounts of material, as well as his personal visits to historical sites. The most constructive contribution is his careful, but appropriate, delineation of the Belarusian official state narrative from the Soviet one, or essentially how the state “belarussifies” the war narrative. As Marples explains, there is a need for a Belarusian narrative that separates itself from both the West and Russia, which at times have been both supportive and disapproving of Lukashenka. He succinctly notes that “the first, partial casualty in Lukashenka’s myth creation was the Soviet version of the war” (p. 23). The disassociation with the Soviet past is a delicate and complicated process, and as Marples demonstrates, this comes with the selection and omission of certain historical events, or murky statistical and archival sources. More interestingly, it leads to more questions about the development of Belarusian identity in the post-Soviet period, which is often superficially seen as a mere continuation of its Soviet past. As the number of partisans and participants of the Great Patriotic War dwindles, the fate of such a narrative continuing and being utilized in the future is unknown.
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Aleksandra Pomiecko. Review of Marples, David R., "Our Glorious Past": Lukashenka's Belarus and the Great Patriotic War.
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