Communist Dictatorship in Belarus (1918-1991)
Historically, Belarus has never enjoyed statehood. The territories of modern-day Belarus used to belong to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and later to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. At the end of the 18th century, they came under the Russian Empire as a result of Partitions of Poland. Before the First World War, Belarus was an undeveloped country with a weak economy and modest education levels.
During the First World War, the frontline ran through Belarus for almost four years (from August 1915 to February 1918). A large part of the population (over two million people) fled to the depths of Russia to escape the war. The nationalist elite used the favourable conditions during the German occupation in Western Belarus to pursue their national agenda. The situation to the east of the frontline was considerably more difficult. Russian imperial forces had consolidated their military might in the central and eastern parts of Belarus.
The local population was subjected to intensive propaganda, claiming that Belarusians were actually part of the Russian nation. The fact that many soldiers were supporting the revolution in the eastern part of the country played a key role in imposing the Bolshevik rule in Belarus.
At first, the Belarusian nationalists only saw two options: restoration of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania or autonomy within Russia. But after the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917, they started considering independence as a real possibility for Belarusian lands by following the example of their neighbouring countries.
In December 1917, the First All-Belarusian Congress came together in Minsk and elected the Central Executive Committee. However, the Bolsheviks violently dispersed the Congress. After the German forces had taken Minsk, the Central Executive Committee of the All-Belarusian Congress proclaimed the Belarusian People’s Republic in March 1918. The German occupying forces, proceeding from the Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty, deemed the territory of Belarus as part of Soviet Russia and did not recognise the Belarusian People’s Republic as an independent state, but as a mere national representative body.
In order to escape the advancing Red Army in November 1918, the Rada (executive government) of the Belarusian People’s Republic went into exile.
On 1 January 1919, the Bolsheviks proclaimed the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (hereinafter Byelorussian SSR) on almost the same territory as the Belarusian People’s Republic, thus creating a buffer zone between Poland and Russia. Historians maintain that the Byelorussian SSR would not have been created without the Belarusian People’s Republic as it can be assumed that the Bolsheviks would have annexed the areas of Belarus and made them part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.
In February 1919, the Byelorussian SSR merged with the hastily established Lithuanian SSR. The resulting entity was called the Lithuanian-Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (LitBel). Its capital was Vilnius, and it covered the Vilna and Minsk Governorates, as well as parts of the Kovno (Kaunas) and Grodno Governorates (with Russia taking control of the remaining areas). However, the July 1919 offensive by Poland brought an end to the republic's existence. After the Soviet-Polish border was reinstated in July 1920, the Byelorussian SSR was proclaimed once again.
In March 1921, the Peace of Riga was signed, and as a result, the territories of Belarus were officially partitioned between Poland, Byelorussian SSR and Soviet Russia. The newly proclaimed Byelorussian SSR left with nothing more than the city of Minsk and its surrounding counties.
In 1922 the Byelorussian SSR was one of the four founders of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). In 1924 and 1926, Russia returned several areas to Belarus, yielding to the pressure of the so-called Belarusian national communists. As a result, the territory of the republic increased 2.5 times to 125,000 km2 and the population three times to approximately 5 million. Poland received about the same amount of land.
Under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Western Belarus and Western Ukraine remained within the Soviet sphere of influence. As a result of the pact, the population doubled in size to 223,000 km2, and its population increased to 10.2 million.
From 1941 to 1944, Belarus was under German occupation. After the war, part of the territory gained in 1939 was returned to Poland (more than 30,000 km2).
Radical changes were carried out in reunited Western Belarus, following the social model that existed in the eastern part of the country.
After the war, Belarus became one of the founding members of the United Nations, even if it did not enjoy sovereignty. As for internal politics, the republic’s authorities were just following the orders coming from Moscow. By the time the USSR collapsed, Belarus had become one of the most militarised and Russified areas of the Soviet Union.
On 27 July 1990, the Declaration of Sovereignty of the Byelorussian SSR was adopted. In 1991 the USSR was dissolved. The Byelorussian SSR became the Republic of Belarus.
The Communist Party (Bolsheviks) of Byelorussia was founded on 30 December 1918 at the Sixth Regional Conference of the North-Western District of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks). The newly established party was part of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks). The conference elected the Central Bureau of the Communist Party (Bolsheviks) of Byelorussia and decided to establish the Byelorussian SSR.
At the beginning of the 1920s, the Socialist Revolutionary Party (the Esers), Bund, and other similar parties were liquidated. The central authorities were competent to decide all matters of state relevance. All the most important people’s commissariats (finance, transport, war affairs, etc.) were subordinated to Moscow. The top positions were taken by communist party officials. The membership of the village, region, city, and other councils (soviets) was decided and controlled by the respective communist party committees.
The Communist Party (Bolsheviks) of Byelorussia had 1,500 members in 1921 and 6,600 in 1925. Party members were scrutinised on a regular basis, and periodic cleansings were carried out within their ranks. For example, on 1 January 1933, the Communist Party had 65,040 members, but by 1934 the membership had dropped to 37,909 and by 1937 to 31,603. The numbers started to grow again in 1938, and by 1 January 1941, the Communist Party (Bolsheviks) of Byelorussia had 72,177 members.
In 1927 and 1937, constitutions were adopted, which, in general terms copied the constitution of the USSR.
After the formation of the Soviet Union in December 1922, all foreign policy functions were transferred to the central authorities in Moscow. To ensure a seat for Byelorussian SSR in United Nations, the Byelorussian People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs was established on 24 March 1944 as a union-republican body. However, it could not pursue any independent policies and it was created purely for decorative purposes.
During the years following the war, communist cadres from Russia and other Soviet republics were sent to Belarus. Various administrative, cultural and economic specialists, teachers and thousands of members of the Young Communist League (Komsomol) were also sent to create a model of Soviet society. Thousands of NKVD workers, Red Army soldiers and militiamen, were also among those who came.
Repressions and forced collectivisation started in the newly acquired areas. Few Belarusian people held positions in the regional or city bodies in the western part of the country. It took decades before the situation changed.
On 3 June 1988, an article was published in the newspaper Literature and Art by Z. Paźnjak and E. Smigalov about Kurapaty (i.e., a site in the outskirts of Minsk, where mass executions were carried out during the Stalin era). It sent shock waves through Soviet society. On 19 October, democratic forces came together and established Martyrology of Belarus (an organisation similar to Memorial Society in Russia) and elected members to the organising committee of the Belarusian Popular Front „Renewal” („Адраджэньне”). On 30 October, thousands gathered in Kurapaty to remember the dead, but the authorities used force against the people, and 72 arrests were made.
However, the opposition in Belarus was mostly limited to elitist circles and was aimed at modernising the communist rule.
The founding congress of the Belarusian Popular Front (BPF) was held in Vilnius in June 1989. It became the first non-communist party in Belarus. The BPF sought the revival of the Belarusian national culture and granting the Belarusian language status of the official language. It was the Popular Front that organised various opposition rallies, including the traditional Chernobyl Protest March.
On 25 August 1991, a few days after the August Coup, the Communist Party of Belarus and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union were temporarily suspended, and the party leadership was abolished on all levels of power. However, the constitutive congress of the Party of Belarusian Communists was held in the same year. In February 1993, the decision to suspend the activities of the Communist Party of Belarus was annulled. In 1996 the party split into two: the Party of Belarusian Communists and the Communist Party of Belarus.
According to an opinion poll organised in 1992, almost half the population of Belarus supported the restoration of the USSR. The post-communist Belarusian Popular Movement also emerged in 1992, uniting 15 parties and organisations, including the Slavic Assembly „White Russia”. The Young Communist League still exists in Belarus, even if under a different name: the Belarusian Republican Youth Union.
Terror started immediately on the first days of the Soviet regime. Special institutions were created to fight any opposition to the new rule. At different times they were known under the various names: Cheka, OGPU, UGB-NKVD, MGB, MVD, and KGB. From the end of the 1920s, their focus was on staging trials on fabricated charges against members of the cultural, artistic, scientific, and technical elites, participating in forced collectivisation and carrying out mass repressions.
Between 1929 to 1939, one wave of terror after another hit Belarus: collectivisation and liquidation of kulaks (prosperous peasants) in 1929-1932 were followed by the Great Purge of 1937-1938. However, repressions were not carried out as campaigns only, but they formed a permanent background to the life in republic.
In the course of the process of liquidating the kulaks („liquidation of the kulaks as a class”), thousands of peasants from Belarus were deported to Siberia, the northern regions of Russia, Central-Asia and other sparsely populated areas of the USSR. Thousands perished as a result of the deportations and harsh conditions in the new settlements.
The Byelorussian SSR was a border republic, and therefore special measures were used to fortify the westernmost outpost of the USSR. One of such measures was to deport „politically uncertain elements” from the border regions and cities to more distant USSR regions. Several thousand people suffered this fate.
The Great Purge was the time when the most extensive operations were undertaken by the NKVD. From July 1937 to mid-November 1938, at least 54,845 persons were arrested in Belarus, with no less than 27,391 of them were shot to death.
Religious institutions were closed; clergymen, but also ordinary believers were persecuted. In 1938 only two Orthodox churches were operating in the whole of the Byelorussian SSR. Churches, chapels and synagogues were converted into warehouses, cultural centres, NKVD offices, workshops, barracks, or prisons.
Altogether 250,000 persons were convicted for political reasons in the Byelorussian SSR between November 1917 and April 1953 by the judiciary and extrajudicial bodies (troikas, dvoikas, special commissions), and more than 35,000 were shot. The deportations of kulaks were the most extensive repressions carried out at the beginning of the 1930s. Four operations were conducted to deport the about 120,000 „undesirable persons” from the annexed Western Belarus regions. This number does not include the more than 14,000 Polish officers kept in prisoner-of-war camps or those who had been arrested and sentenced before the mass deportations started.
In 1952 close to 50,000 peasants were deported from Western Belarus in the effort to root out opposition to collectivisation among the prosperous peasants.
After the liberation of Belarus from Nazi forces, scores started to be settled with anyone who could be blamed for collaboration with the occupants, or more precisely, with those who did not display sufficient allegiance to the Soviet homeland. Collaborators included policemen and officials, but also teachers and even pupils who went to school from 1941 to 1944, and obviously those who were taken to the German forced labour camps or returned from POW camps.
From 1945 to 1955, a huge number of people were deported from Belarus in the name of combatting collaborationism and nationalism. Practically everyone who had lived or stayed in occupied Belarus and had not fought the Germans with a weapon in hand came under suspicion.
After the war, the Ministry of Internal Affairs declared the activities of many youth organisations in Western Belarus anti-Soviet. All their members were subjected to repressions and had to spend years in Gulags.
It is difficult to estimate the precise number of people who suffered from repressions in the Byelorussian SSR because researchers have no access to the KGB archives. For a long time, the generally accepted number has been more than 600,000, but some other figures have been proposed as well.
The post-Stalin era repressions were more targeted, predominantly against dissidents, i.e. those who did not conform to the Soviet ideology and spoke out against it. They were persecuted, sacked from work, imprisoned, exiled, or kept in psychiatric hospitals. Physical repressions were replaced with moral ones. Dissidents became social outcasts, with all doors closed for them.
The process of rehabilitation has yet to be completed in Belarus. It is extremely difficult to estimate the number of victims during the Stalinist period and those who were subjected to coercive psychiatric treatment, as well as the number of people still waiting to be rehabilitated because the KGB archives remain closed and these issues are not scrutinised.
As soon as the Bolsheviks took power, they imposed their own economic policy, known as War Communism. The policy was characterised by the general nationalisation of all industries, strict discipline for workers, the requisition of agricultural „surplus” in villages to feed the workers and soldiers. Terror was widely used.
War Communism met with widespread opposition and ended up in an economic crisis. The Bolsheviks had to switch to the so-called New Economic Policy or NEP. They had to go back on their original plan of complete nationalisation and allow private property and private enterprise to a certain degree.
At the end of the 1920s, the Soviet Union established a command economy and started preparing and implementing the five-year plans.
Agricultural policies were based on centralised management and forced labour of the peasants who had to give up their lands. Collective farm (kolkhoz) members had to pay a special tax on everything they had in their household (which was already limited to a bare minimum). The aim of such measures was to force the peasants to spend all their time and energy on working in the fields and farms of the kolkhoz, thus making them completely dependent on the authorities.
The collectivisation of agriculture was forcibly carried out from 1929 to 1932, causing mass resistance among the peasants. During the first three months of 1930, about 520 mass protests were registered in Belarus, in the first six months of 1931, the number of such protests was at least 1,169, and they also continued in 1932.
As a result of using the cruellest methods, 93.4% of the Eastern Belarus farms had joined the kolkhozes by the beginning of the Second World War. According to different sources from 19,200 peasant families (90,000 persons) to up to 64,000 peasant families (368,000 persons) were deported from Belarus during the period of collectivisation.
The same methods were used in the western territories that became part of Belarus at the beginning of the war; there collectivisation was accomplished by 1952.
The Byelorussian SSR suffered from the Great Famine of 1932-1933. Hardest hit was the Polesie region. Tens of thousands had to go hungry, with thousands dying. More than 10,000 starving peasants were given long prison sentences for they had dared take some food from the kolkhoz fields or warehouses.
The Soviet authorities had banned the construction of large industrial enterprises in the border regions, therefore light and food industries (fuel and timber, paper and leather, foods) were first developed in the Byelorussian SSR. More than one thousand new enterprises were established in the republic during the decade of 1930-1940, of which about 400 operated for the benefit of the Soviet military-industrial.
The economy of Belarus suffered greatly in the Second World War. More than a quarter of the population was lost. 270 cities, 209 regional centres and 9,200 villages were either destroyed or looted. The agricultural and industrial sectors were ruined. Most of the factories and their workers that had been evacuated in 1941 remained in Russia. It was primarily the enterprises whose production was needed by the military that returned.
The authorities avoided major investments in the western part of the Byelorussian SSR.
During the years following the war, the focus shifted from consumer goods to means of production. All-Union enterprises were established in the early 1950s. A large part of the industrial production was used to satisfy the needs of the Soviet Army. The Byelorussian SSR made efforts to build up machinery industries.
The industries in Byelorussia were developed in accordance with the all-Union planned economy. 80-90% of the power and raw materials needed in the Byelorussian SSR came from Russia. The industrial investments and production were not even meant to meet the needs of Belarus. The republic essentially operated as an assembly line for the Soviet Union.
The main industries developed in the 1950s were the chemical industry, mechanical engineering, metallurgy and textile industry. Thousands of people were brought from other Soviet republics, whereas those from Belarus worked at industrial sites elsewhere in the Soviet Union.
The Belarusian population reached the pre-war level only by 1971. Huge structures were erected, new organisations and scientific institutes were opened in the country, but the average monthly wages still remained below the Soviet average.
After the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant accident, the rain heading towards Moscow came down in Belarus. More than two-thirds of radioactive waste fell on Belarus, the fallout covering almost one-third of the country. Over two million people lived in the contaminated area. The Polesian Lowlands, the most developed agricultural region of the country, suffered the most. However, agricultural production was not stopped anywhere. Recovery required a lot of resources, which the republic could not raise alone, but no help came from Moscow.
Like the other Soviet republics Belarus suffered from an economic crisis at the beginning of the 1990s. Both the spring of 1991 and 1992 saw mass demonstrations in the capital, with workers protesting against the catastrophically worsening living standards.
In the middle of the 1990s, the transition from state ownership, which had been the only permitted form of ownership until then, to private ownership began. Other new forms were cooperative and mixed ownership.
Society and culture
For the most part, the Soviet national policy of the 1920s (Belarussification) was characterised by fairly favourable conditions for achieving the principal objectives of the nationalists: establishing Belarusian organisations and institutions, including the Academy of Sciences and State University; all offices used the Belarusian language. The nationalism of the Belarusian people was used by the Bolsheviks to serve their own purposes.
However, the late 1920s saw the beginning of the fight against „bourgeois nationalism” in Belarus. Belarusian scientists, writers, artists, and even employees of the People’s Commissariats were persecuted.
All activists of the Belarusian nationalist movement from 1917-1924 who had remained or returned to the Soviet Union were repressed. NKVD staged a court case against the so-called Union for the Liberation of Belarus. As a result, 108 representatives of the Belarusian intelligentsia were given prison sentences of various lengths or expelled from the Soviet Union. A mass purge among the party members was started in order to get rid of the so-called national deviationists, which meant an end to the Belarussification and elimination of the national cadres.
In 1933 fabricated charges were brought against more than 200 members of the Belarusian intelligentsia, including representatives of the national liberation movement of Western Belarus who had escaped to the Byelorussian SSR because of persecution in Poland. Practically all those who had survived the court cases of the early 1930s were subjected to further repressions in 1937-1941 and were shot or sent to Gulags. Some survivors were arrested for the third time in 1949-1952 and were then deported to Siberia for life.
Now the policy of Russification started in the country. The development of the Belarusian national culture was strictly limited to national customs and classical literature. The language of tuition was Belarusian only in village schools; students in practically all city schools, vocational schools and universities were taught in Russian. Russian was also the language of administration in all government bodies.
In the 1960s, publications in the Belarusian language made up about 50% of all publications, but their share had shrunk to a bare 20% by the early 1970s. During the 1970 national census roughly a quarter of Belarusian urban dwellers did not consider the Belarusian language their mother tongue. The Byelorussian SSR was the most Russified republic in the Soviet Union.
In the early 1970s, a campaign was launched to expose Ukrainian and Belarusian nationalists. In 1973, after „uncovering” the so-called Group of Academicians, many nationally-minded persons were sacked from the Academy of Sciences. A „blacklist” of nationalists was created. In the 1980s, secret services dealt a heavy blow to the nationalist movement of the artists.
Decades of applying ideological pressure, complete censorship, isolation from world culture and research, and particularly the humanities, did not help develop a critical attitude towards the Soviet realities.
In 1990 the Belarusian language was made the official language of the country, but from 1995 there are again two official languages – Russian and Belarusian. Given the weak position of the latter, this step meant that the country reverted to the path of Russification.
In 1918 the High Command of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army established the Minsk Military District, which in the same year was renamed as the Western Military District, and in 1926 it became the Belarusian Military District.
The Byelorussian SSR did not have their own military. The units located in Belarus were made up of many different nationalities and Russian was the language of communication. Most of the Belarusians drafted to the military served outside their home republic.
The Belarusian Military District had to cover the most important strategic area (the western border) of the Soviet Union, acting as a buffer against the possible attack by NATO. This made it a kind of a testing ground for trying out the newest weapons and machines. Nuclear weapons were present in the territory of the republic. Airfields were built, and 23 out of 44 missile bases were located on the territory of the Byelorussian SSR.
Young men from Belarus were dispatched to all theatres of war where the Soviet Union was operating. Thus, 723 Belarusians lost their lives during the ten years of fighting in Afghanistan.
The reorganisation of the armed forces started at the end of 1992. The plans included cutting down military personnel from 130,000 to 60,000 persons, giving up nuclear weapons and declaring Belarus a neutral country. In 1992 the Belarusian Military District was abolished, and the units and personnel were used to create the Belarusian armed forces. 1993-1996 saw cuts or reorganisations in 250 military units. During the same period, Belarus transferred all the nuclear warheads to Russia.
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