For the last 15 years or so, Belarus has lived in agony. It has been called “the last dictatorship in Europe”; its ruler, Aleksandr Lukashenko, has been called “the last dictator in Europe.” Since December 19, life in Belarus has become much, much worse. On that day, Lukashenko stole his latest election. Citizens rose up to protest en masse. Lukashenko cracked down on them, hard: breaking bones and filling up his cells.
Anna Gerasimova is a Belarusian human-rights advocate living in Lithuania. She says, “What is happening there, it’s hard to believe, even for a Belarusian.” She further says, “We believe we are reliving 1937.” This was a period of Stalinist terror. The very mention of the year 1937 sends a chill through many Belarusians.
I have a piece about that country in the current National Review. Over the next few days, I’d like to say more here at National Review Online.
Belarus is at the eastern edge of Europe, surrounded by Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, and Ukraine. It has a population of 9.6 million. Russian and Belarusian are the official languages; Polish and Ukrainian are also heard in the country.
In English, there are several ways to refer to this land: Belarus, Belorussia, Byelorussia. One may refer to Belarusians, Belarussians, Belorussians, Byelorussians. Formerly, one spoke of “White Russia” and “White Russians.”
Belarus was once part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Kosciuszko, who gained fame in the American Revolution, was born there. Belarus was absorbed by the Russian empire at the end of the 18th century; it stayed there until 1918, when it had a short season of independence. Then it was swallowed by the Bolsheviks, made a “Soviet socialist republic.”
The terror killed many thousands of people. I quote from a speech by the Belarusian human-rights leader Aleksandr Bialiatski, given at the Oslo Freedom Forum in 2009. He said, “People remember well this swishing of black ravens in the night, the special cars that took away enemies of the people, the mass shootings in the suburban woods” — of intellectuals, artists, peasants, religious activists, members of ethnic minorities. Indeed, “anyone who was perceived as a potential threat to the ruling Communist ideology.”
When the war came, the Nazis, of course, committed their own atrocities.
Belarus won its independence in 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved. One of the key figures in this dissolution was Stanislau Shushkevich, a physicist and mathematician who became the first president of the new Belarus.
Readers may remember a piece I did last year, based on an interview I had with Lech Walesa, at the 2010 Oslo Freedom Forum. (For that piece, go here.) Walesa, as you know, was the first president of a free Poland. In 1983, he had won the Nobel peace prize for his leadership of the Solidarity movement. I asked him, “Who else, over the years, should have, or might have, won the peace prize, but did not?” He gave just one name: Shushkevich’s.
As president, Shushkevich set a course of democracy and liberalism. Light was dawning over Belarus. The next president, Lukashenko, soon extinguished it.
He won a free and fair election in 1994. You know the deal: He then saw to it that he never again would have to participate in such an election.