By Paul Goble
Zianon Pazniak, who 28 years ago published an article exposing the Soviet killing fields at Kuropaty, a wooded area near the Belarusian capital of Minsk, that helped power the rebirth of Belarusian national identity, has called on the international community not to forget this Soviet act of genocide against his people.
In June 1988, Pazniak and Yevgeny Shmygalyev published an article entitled “Kuropaty – the Road of Death.” Two weeks later, Belarusians assembled at that site but were dispersed by Soviet militia. Yesterday, speaking in New York – Pazniak has had political asylum in the US since 1996 – he called for the world not to forget Kuropaty (belaruspartisan.org/politic/348055/).
Pazniak told a meeting at New York’s Belarusian cathedral that the current government in his homeland is “carrying out a policy directed at understating the facts of history and the destruction of the self-identification of the Belarusians as a nation” and to that end has played down the horrors of Kuropaty.
Estimates of how many Belarusians and others were buried in mass graves at Kuropaty vary widely, from a low of 30,000 offered by Soviet officials before 1991 to more than 250,000 according to Polish and Western historians. But there is no dispute that such mass murders were carried out by the Soviet secret police and intended to destroy the Belarusian nation.
Pazniak, a medieval historian, became leader of the Belarusian Popular Front after publishing his article on Kuropaty, an article that shocked many in Moscow and the West with its details about Soviet cruelty and helped mobilized the Belarusian people against the Soviet system and for independence.
In the past, Kuropaty has attracted a great deal of international attention. US President Bill Clinton, for example, visited the site in 1994 and installed a small memorial “To Belarusians from the American people.” That remarkable monument has been damaged several times by vandals whom the Lukashenka regime has not chosen to track down.
But over time, the international community has devoted ever less attention to this crime against humanity, perhaps because Alyaksandr Lukashenka and his officials rarely mention Kuropaty and thus contribute to the notion that this was something “far away and long ago” and thus not relevant to the future.
But as Pazniak noted yesterday, Belarusians have not forgotten. Every year, hundreds of them go to the site on All Saints Day to honor the dead. And they have taken more dramatic actions as well. In 2004, the country’s Jewish community put up a monument there in memory of all Jews, Christians and Muslims [who were] victims of Stalinism.”
And in 2001, when the Belarusian government threatened to pave over the site in the course of building a new ring road about Minsk, young Belarusians organized a camp city on the site and remained there over winter until the Belarusian government bowed to the wishes of the people and changed the route.
(For a discussion of the Kuropaty case, see David R. Marples’ useful article, “Kuropaty: The Investigation of a Stalinist Historical Controversy,” Slavic Review 53:2 (1994): 513-523 at researchgate.net/publication/270407608_Kuropaty_The_Investigation_of_a_Stalinist_Historical_Controversy.)