Belarus, as part of the Russian Empire, was directly involved in the First World War. The war left deep marks on Belarus; its territory was divided between the belligerent armies. Belarusians were mobilized for the Russian Imperial Army, and about 1.4 million residents had to seek refuge in the Russian interior and other places. In the 20th century, the memory of the First World War faded from Belarusian memory, for the same reasons as in other neighboring states in Eastern Europe. The narrative of this war in Soviet Belarus became part of the events, military conflicts, and political and social disturbances that followed, such as the Russian Civil War, German and Polish occupations in 1918-1919, Polish-Soviet War in 1920, forced collectivization and repression under Joseph Stalin (1878-1953), hostilities of the Second World War, the Chernobyl disaster and collapse of the Soviet Union. In Belarus as in other Soviet republics, World War I was regarded, in official discourse, as an imperialist global conflict. In national Belarusian memory, it was known as “Nikolai’s war” (with reference to the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II), and overshadowed by other terrible events of the tragic 20th century. In independent Belarus, the state started to pay more tribute to the memory of World War I. In early 1991, the Belarusian Republican Public Organizing Committee was established to preserve the memory of “defenders of the fatherland” who died in the First World War. On 21 December 1992, the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Belarus adopted the decree “On perpetuating the memory of defenders of the fatherland and victims of wars”. In 1994, 2001 and 2016 this act was supplemented by the presidential decrees on the “Improvement of activities to perpetuate the memory of defenders of the fatherland and victims of wars”.
In June 2013, at the round table “The First World War. The Memory in Belarus”, representatives of state institutions, ministries, the diplomatic corps, and mass media agreed that the republic needed its own museum of the First World War, with national status. On 21 March 2014, the first meeting of the Belarusian First World War Centennial Committee was held in Minsk under the direction of the Council of Ministers of Belarus. Various state institutions engaged in the preparation of events dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, among them the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Education, the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus, the Ministry of Transport, the Ministry of Defense, the regional executive committees, the Minsk City Executive Committee and other organizations. On 4 June 2014, the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Belarus approved the “State program for 2015-2020 on the perpetuation of the memory of defenders of the fatherland and the preservation of memory of victims of wars”. For the centenary, the plan stipulated the reconstruction of several war burial sites and graves and publication of a volume in honor of the anniversary of the end of World War I in 2018. In August 2014, there were at least thirty small monuments and memorials on World War I battle and military burial sites. Most of them were located in the western regions of the republic, where the main battles in 1915-1917 took place. In recent years, as mentioned below, new monuments have been erected in the town of Smorgon. In August 2017, a memorial plaque by the local sculptor Andrei Vorobiev in honor of the headquarters of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Russian army, Nicholas II, Emperor of Russia (1868-1918) was installed at the Plošča Slavy (Square of Glory) in the city of Mogilev. Vorobiev is well-known in Belarus due to the number of his urban sculptures and plaques, established in many areas of the republic. On the marble base are bronze images of buildings and a bell with a portrait of the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II. The inscription is in both Belarusian and Russian: “On this square during the First World War the headquarters of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Army was stationed”.
Military Cemeteries, Burial Sites and Graves↑
Most of the surviving graves and burial sites are located in Western Belarus, particularly in the present-day Grodno region. This region was part of Poland until 1939, where the Polish authorities and the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge (VDK, German War Graves Commission) took care of military graves. After the Second World War, memorials to the heroes of the resistance and victims of fascism were erected on a massive scale, in practically all settlements in Soviet Belarus. Meanwhile, First World War cemeteries, burial sites and graves in Soviet Belarus were neglected or even removed. The vast majority of military cemeteries and graves in the rear zone of the Russian Imperial Army were irretrievably lost in the 20th century. Since 1992, the Direction for the perpetuation of the memory of defenders of the fatherland and victims of wars under the Command of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Belarus has carried out work on the restoration and arrangement of military graves. Significant work has been done collaboratively with the VDK. Journalists have attracted public attention to the problem of the destruction of World War I cemeteries and graves in Belarus, especially the issues of vandalism and grave robbing. In 2010, a catalogue of First World War military graves in the country was published by Belarusian historians. On 14 August 2011, a memorial in the Minsk Fraternal Cemetery, where soldiers of the Russian Imperial Army are buried, was officially opened. Military cemeteries functioned as places for the commemoration of the fallen during the centenary of the global conflict. Today, there are 248 World War I burial sites under state protection in Belarus (127 German and Austrian, sixty-nine Russian and fifty-two miscellaneous).
Smorgon as a Site of Memory↑
The town of Smorgon (Smarhoń) was not chosen by chance as a site of memory with a memorial complex and the location of centennial ceremonies in memory of the First World War. The city was between the front lines from September 1915 to February 1918; tens of thousands of soldiers and officers died there. During the fighting, the city was completely destroyed and was known as a “dead” city. In 2006, the special republican council for monumental art evaluated proposed projects for a memorial complex, and the sculptor Anatol’ Artsimovič’s project was approved. Artsimovič is a well-known Belarusian sculptor and artist, and a professor at the Belarusian State Academy of Arts. From 2009, construction was supported by donations from the Union State of Russia and Belarus funds and regional budget. The complex commemorating First World War victims in Smorgon was unveiled on 1 August 2014. The opening ceremony was one of the most significant events dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War in Belarus. The composition of three monuments was the focus: Winged Genius of Military Glory, Soldiers of the First World War and Refugees, depicting a group of women. The memorial complex also includes a small chapel with a bell; the so-called Stone of Memory, with several phrases in Russian and German addressed to descendants; and the so-called Memory and Grief zone, with a bronze military map installation depicting the military actions of 1915-1917 and two memorial urns with soil taken from the burial places of Russian and German soldiers. It was planned that the Victory Park with sculptural groups and a museum of the First World War would be completed by 2018. In September 2015, a solemn ceremony was dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the series of battles in the region. Representatives of Belarusian local authorities and Russian delegates gathered at the memorial to pay tribute to the memory of the victims of the First World War. In 2016, the construction of the memorial complex faced financial difficulties. Historians, activists and opposition mass media have criticized the significant investment in the project. They hold that the better decision would be not to complete that large uncompleted construction project but instead to restore the many smaller burial sites of soldiers who died in the war. However, small grants received by local enthusiasts have substantially improved the situation. In 2016-2017, the local public association “Front-line Smorgon” reconstructed the “Golden Hill” (Zolotaya Gorka), a former defensive line in the northern part of Smorgon, where German artillery positions were stationed. Russian imperial soldiers dug a tunnel in order to get closer to the enemy. As a result of the explosions which eliminated the German positions, several giant funnels are still preserved. On this site, the enthusiasts erected two crosses – Catholic and Orthodox. A tourist route (called “A War’s Path”) established in 2017-2018 connects the memorial complex in Smorgon with the “Golden Hill” tourist site, Smorgon historical museum and unique fortifications in the village of Khodaki. On the eve of the celebration of the centenary of the end of the First World War, Smorgon experienced an influx of tourists. In general, more and more people have come to these places since 2014, when the memorial complex was opened. Many Russian tourists come to visit the sites where the Women's Battalion of Death fought in summer 1917 under Maria Bochkarova (1889-1920).
The World War I Museum in Zabrodye↑
The idea of establishing the official museum of the First World War in Smorgon was discussed. However, a small but rather interesting “unofficial” museum already exists in this part of the republic. The small village of Zabrodye could be seen as an alternative center of commemoration in Belarus. This case demonstrates how one Belarusian family managed to preserve the memory of the First World War not only on the local, but also on the republican level. During the First World War, a front line passed through Zabrodye. In this settlement and nearby were the headquarters of a Russian division and the field hospital of the 29th Russian Infantry Division. Located in a wooden chapel, it is the first and only “unofficial” World War I museum in Belarus. The artist Boris Tsitovič was the initiator and creator of the memorial complex, which also includes other objects of tourist attraction. Tsitovič’s family moved to the village in the 1970s. On his own initiative, he restored neglected graves; later, he erected a memorable several-meter high, four-ton concrete white cross on the road to Smorgon near the village of Russkoe Selo. Tsitovič also attempted to collect information on fallen soldiers of the Russian Imperial Army in the area and restore their lost names. The core of the museum complex is a wooden Sts. Boris and Gleb chapel-monument erected in 2004 in honor of soldiers who died in the war. A state grant “For Spiritual Revival” helped to cover construction costs. The museum holds more than 2,000 objects. An unrealized idea to establish a cultural and educational center of memory of World War I was approved and supported by the regional administration in 2014. As there is not enough space in the chapel for all the artefacts, Tsitovič’s team has been working since 2016 on a “museum on wheels”. The idea is to place different exhibitions in five military train wagons. A military staff wagon hosts an exhibition devoted to military operations in the region, enriched with maps and photographs of distinguished soldiers and officers. An exhibition in a hospital wagon informs visitors about battlefield medicine. A soldiers' wagon demonstrates weapons and equipment, etc. Both regional organizations and private persons contributed to the project. “Kroki” (in Belarusian “Steps”), a charitable cultural historical fund for the memory of the First World War, was established in 2012 to support the museum and its activities.
Exhibitions, Research and Documentary Films↑
It is mainly regional museums in the western part of Belarus that pay tribute to World War I. The centenary raised interest in the events of the First World War. Several exhibitions were organized by Belarusian institutions (museums, archives) to attract attention to the history of Belarus during the global conflict. In August 2014, an exhibition “Belarus in the years of the First World War” was hosted by the local historical museum in Smorgon. The artifacts were provided by state museums and private collections. The event ran until the end of September 2014, and then moved to the National Historical Museum in Minsk. One can see how Belarusian museums actively contributed to the presentation of this tragic period in Belarusian history abroad. Some projects were carried out collaboratively with foreign museums. On 23 October 2013, the exhibition “Belarus during the First World War” was opened at the Kaliningrad Regional Historical and Art Museum. It was organized as part of an international conference held by the Belarusian authorities. On 26 May 2015, the National Historical Museum of the Republic of Belarus exhibited World War I photographs in the Swedish Army Museum (Armémuseum) in Stockholm. On 26 February 2017, an exhibition of German postcards of Belarusian sites and subjects from the war period was organized in the Vitebsk regional museum named after Minay Filippovich Shmyryov (1891-1964). On 29 June 2017, the National Historical Museum in Minsk organized the exhibition “Artists at war. Belarus in the drawings of the German participants in the First World War (1915-1918)” based on more than 200 artefacts from the private collection of Vladimir Bogdanov. The Belarusian journalist and photographer actively works on topics related to the First World War in Belarus, the preservation of war cemeteries and military graves, and so on. This exhibition attracted attention in Belarus and in Russia, as some Russian mass media reported on it.
Collections of documents and studies on the various problems of World War I history were published during the centenary. The Belarusian state archives organized online exhibitions of documents related to various aspects of First World War history in Belarus. The National Historical Archives of Belarus also published documents from their holdings on different aspects of the war (Tsarist policy in the region, social problems, refugees, the German occupation of Western Belarus, etc.). In addition, Belarusian historians researched related topics, mainly on the impact of the war on Belarus. One of the topics of interest was the history of the Belarusian People’s Republic. The presentation of books on the establishment of this republic met with significant interest. Another topic was the memory of the war. A map of military graves was published in Russian and German. In spite of certain achievements of Belarusian historians in recent years, the international cooperation in the field of the First World War Studies remains not strong enough.
A series of TV programs were produced by state-owned mass media and foreign media aimed at Belarus such as Belsat TV in Poland. The goal was to convey information about the history and legacy of the war in Belarus. The majority of the programs focused on the role of the Russian Empire in the global conflict, the situation in Belarus in that period, etc. State television reported on the Museum of the First World War in Zabrodye. The role of Belarusian compatriots in the war was also discussed. In October 2015, the documentary film “Belarusians in Australia” was screened on a state-run TV channel in honor of immigrants from Belarus who joined ANZAC. The Embassy of the Republic of Belarus in Australia supported the project.
As in Russia, the Orthodox Church played a notable role in all commemorative events in Belarus (mourning liturgies, the unveiling of monuments). On 19 June 2014, the Moscow Patriarchate introduced the remembrance of World War I victims in prayer from 1 August 2014. On that day, funeral services in honor of soldiers and civil victims who died in the war were held in all the temples of the Belarusian Orthodox Church. In recent years, new chapels have been constructed to pay tribute to fallen soldiers. With the Belarusian Orthodox Church’s blessing, a chapel-monument was constructed at the entrance to Vileyka city cemetery. Orthodox priests and believers contributed greatly to centennial events, paying tribute to the memory of fallen soldiers. On 6 August 2014, a funeral service was held on the site of a former hospital cemetery near Zabrodye. Afterwards, about 200 participants joined a procession with the cross to the Sts. Boris and Gleb chapel-monument, where a prayer service was held. The Belarusian Catholic Church and its believers also pay tribute to the memory of the fallen from 1914-1918. On 8 February 2018, a liturgy was conducted in the Catholic (so-called “Polish”) cemetery in Mogilev in honor of the 100th anniversary of the martyrdom of the priest Eugene Svyatopolk-Mirsky (1876-1918), killed by the Bolsheviks. The Muslim community in the town of Slonim preserves the memory of fellow believers who died in the war. In the local Muslim cemetery, there are graves of Muslim soldiers who were buried there in 1914-1915, before the German troops captured the town. The community volunteered to take on patronage for the graves. The head of a local mosque, Suleiman Bayraševski, attempted to find the relatives of fallen Muslim soldiers, whose names are carved on the monuments.
The Centenary and Political Issues↑
The publicity of centennial events in Belarus was under the control of the Russian mass media. In recent years, the Russian Federation has financed many activities related to the memory of World War I in neighboring countries, in an attempt to protect a “common historical past”, revive memory of “the forgotten war”, and glorify the “self-sacrifice” of the Russian Imperial Army. However, the Belarusian view of the tragic past differs from the Russian one. Official and non-official commemorations promote the idea that Belarus was one of the areas that suffered the most as a result of the war, and that it was a victim of the belligerent parties, not part of one of them. The Belarusian state pays tribute to the memory, but not as actively as Russia does, and attempts to invest more from Russian sources, as was the case in Smorgon. The centenary gave the authoritarian regime the opportunity to demonstrate how Belarus, as a former battlefield zone, is restoring its memory of the war (the cancelled visit of President Alexander Lukashenko to the centennial events in the USA in 2016).
Present-day Belarus is the only post-Soviet state where 7 November, the day of the Great October Revolution, previously a sacred Soviet holiday, is still officially celebrated. In contrast, the opposition appeals to the history of the last period of the Great War, when the Belarusian People’s Republic (BNR) was established in Minsk during the German occupation in 1918. The independent media and opposition glorify this temporary establishment of Belarusian statehood. While the anniversary of the BNR was ignored by Belarusian authorities and the Belarusian Orthodox Church, the Belarusian Catholic Church and Belarusian diaspora worldwide actively commemorated the 100th anniversary of the proclamation of the republic. On 25 March 2018, a march in Minsk to commemorate the BNR’s proclamation was banned and several leaders of the Belarusian opposition were brutally arrested by police and the secret services of the Lukashenko regime. A meeting in a park was allowed. Russian nationalistic media portrayed the BNR commemorations as “unfriendly acts by Belarusian nationalists”. Certain circles in Belarus and Russia fear that Belarusians prefer a “European” variety of World War I commemoration over one actively promoted by the Russian Federation.
Commemorative Events in Autumn 2018↑
Belarus was invited to participate in the international ceremony on the centenary of the 1918 armistice in Paris on 11 November 2018. President Lukashenko did not join the official Belarusian delegation. The country was represented by Belarusian officials such as the Ambassador to France Pavel Latuška and the Speaker of the Parliament of the Republic Mikhail Myasnikovič. In Belarus, commemorative ceremonies and events dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War were held in October and November 2018, mainly in the capital of the republic and in Smorgon, as a city with well-developed World War I commemorative infrastructure.
On 25-26 October 2018, the conference “Belarus in the Flames First World War”, organized by the Belarusian National Academy of Sciences, took place in both of these cities. The commemorative program in Smorgon included a conference hosted in a local gymnasium and memorial service (a requiem meeting) in honor of the victims of the First World War in the memorial complex and on the reconstructed “Golden Hill”. However, the construction of the Memorial Park is not yet finished, although it was intended that all works be complete by November 2018. The reason is a lack of financial resources. Visitors were also able to attend two exhibitions dedicated to 1914-1918 events in Smorgon Regional Museum: a collection of war photographs entitled “Stiff Moments of the War” by historian Vladimir Bogdanov, and children's drawings entitled “Heroes of the First World War. The View of Descendants after Centuries”.
On the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the First World War, celebrated on 11 November 2018, the Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassadors of Germany, Serbia, Armenia, and Ukraine, military attaches of embassies accredited in Belarus, and representatives of religious and public associations were invited to take part in a commemorative liturgy in the crypt of the Memorial Church of All Saints in Minsk. After the funeral liturgy, a capsule with soil from the burial sites of Russian Imperial Army soldiers in Smorgon and the area was placed in an onyx niche in the crypt. This Belarusian Orthodox Church temple will host a memorial museum dedicated to the memory of the fallen in wars, including the 1914-1918 period. It is anticipated that Belarusian museums and collectors will transfer some historical artefacts to this museum. These commemorative events were also organized by the Belarusian Cultural Center for Spiritual Renaissance. A photo exhibition “The Air Force of the First World War”, and the presentation of a book by Belarusian historians on military obelisks were organized in the temple. The exhibition “Belarus in the Great War of 1914-1918” was organized at the Museum of Books of the National Library of Belarus. This exhibition presents unique objects (posters, newspapers, prints, etc.). On 14 November 2018, the exhibition “1918. The Birth of a New World” was opened in the National Historical Museum in Minsk. A Belarusian video game company, “Wargaming”, provided exclusive multimedia materials devoted to armored vehicles of the First World War for the temporary exhibition, including 3D projections.
As is typical for Eastern European countries, the history of the First World War is not discussed and remembered as widely as the history of the Second World War in Belarus. The brutalities and disturbances of the 20th century displaced and overshadowed the memory of the tragic years of World War I. Belarus did not observe such pompous centennial events as its eastern neighbor. The key events happened in the Smorgon memorial complex devoted to the memory of the First World War. In recent years, several monuments and plaques were erected. There is an attempt to preserve memory not only of fallen Russian, but also of German soldiers. The remembering of the war and commemorative events are based mostly on local initiatives. Thanks to the efforts of local activists and historians, projects such as the private museum in Zabrodye appeared. Tourist groups and individuals from Belarus and abroad visit the aforementioned sites. However, there is no publically available statistic on the number of visitors. The state supports local initiatives for tourism development (for example “Golden Hill” in Smorgon and Zabrodye). The idea of establishing a fully-fledged museum dedicated to the First World War in Belarus was actively discussed prior to and at the beginning of centennial events, but has not yet been realized due to a lack of resources. The commemorative events in autumn 2018 demonstrated that the Belarusian state gave the Belarusian Orthodox Church the opportunity “to take care of the memory of fallen soldiers”, establishing a new memorial museum in the Temple of All Saints in Minsk. In this case, religious commemoration plays a more active role than official, secular commemoration.
Andrei Zamoiski, Independent Scholar
Section Editor: Michal Kšiňan
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