One of the most significant milestones in the forging of Belarus’ national identity, the Slutsk Uprising, began on 27th November 1920 when the Belarusian insurgents commenced battle with the Red Army. Yet the Belarusian population know little about the event.
The Uprising started two years after the end of World War One. A post October-revolution Russia and Imperial Germany made peace in 1918. The German army subsequently occupied this area and when Germany collapsed following an armistice with Britain and France, the German army left. This created a vacuum that was filled by a further struggle between the newly re-created Poland and Bolshevik Russia. The two sides negotiated a peace in Riga, Latvia, culminating in its signing in 1921. As part of that peace, Polish troops left the area of Slutsk in November 1920 as it was to be to be occupied by Red Army troops. The Red Army troops had not yet arrived so the Poles handed control to the Belarusian National Committee which decided to hold elections.
On the 14th November, a congress was held (Congress of Słuččyna -Slutsk region) during which they proclaimed a government of an independent Belarusian National Republic. They declared:
The First Belarusian Congress of Słuččyna, formed of 107 persons, salutes the Upper Rada (parliament) of the Belarusian Democratic Republic and declares that it will give all its powers for the revival of our Fatherland and categorically protests against the occupation of our Fatherland by foreign and impostor Soviet powers. Long live the independent National Belarusian Republic in its ethnographic borders!
This came at a time when national minorities were creating their own states. In the ashes of the Old Austro-Hungarian empire, Austria and Hungary became separate countries and around them spawned new ones, Czechoslovakia and the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenians. From Russia in post revolution disorder, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia broke free. Poland was formed from the lands occupied by Imperial Germany, Imperial Russia and Austro Hungary. Independence movements appeared in Ukraine, eventually being supressed.
Likewise, the Red Army moved in to supress the uprising in Slutsk. They were initially unsuccessful in the face of the rebels’ determination, the strategic abilities of such military leaders as Bulak-Balachowicz and the fact that a part of the Red Army defected to the rebels.
Eventually, by the end of the year, the Soviet forces prevailed, having brought in Chinese and Latvian reinforcements. The insurgents, while united in their desire for political independence, were themselves split between those with pro-Polish sympathies, those who desired to reach an accommodation with the Soviet Union and those who wanted a truly independent Belarus without allegiances to either.
Having been defeated, the insurgents and their leaders either fled to Poland or remained in the Soviet Union. Some were executed immediately, and others eventually fell victim to Stalin’s purges in the second half of the 1930’s. However, some continued to fight against Soviet rule as partisans and this continued for up to ten years.
Unsurprisingly, in the years of the USSR, the uprising was largely ignored by the Soviet authorities as little mention was made to resistance national resistance movements against Soviet power. Where such movements were difficult to ignore, for example where there was a large national diaspora, such as Ukrainians or Lithuanians, the memory of resistance lived on. For these, the Soviet authorities could not ignore them, so they classed the insurgents as ‘bandits’ or ‘fascists’ and the events themselves given the catch-all title of ‘anti-Soviet activity’.
In the case of Belarus, where the diaspora was not significant, the event was largely concealed and eventually passed out of the populations’ – and the worlds’ – consciousness. However, the policy of Glasnost or ‘openess’ in the Soviet Union in the late 1980’s allowed historians to examine areas of history but information about the Slutsk Uprising was still generally unknown.
It was not until Belarus’ independence 1991 that there was a reassessment of Belarus’ history and the event started to appear in history books and university curriculae. During this time, books appeared appraising Belarus’ history, including the Slutsk Uprising. However, much of the output was in the Belarusian language and therefore not mainstream reading. In 2002, President Lukashenko introduced ‘National Ideology’ into the curriculum and since then, the Slutsk uprising has largely been ignored and the Belarusian authorities, including those in the town of Slutsk, have not held any official commemorations. They did allow unofficial celebrations by individuals and opposition groups. This stopped this year along with a general crackdown on any demonstrations.
Nowadays the authorities are sensitive to any type of commemoration which is not expressly allowed or officially organised. On the 100th anniversary, there is little mention of the Slutsk uprising in the official Belarusian media.
Thus, it is hardly surprising that this event, which some say heralded the dawn of a modern Belarus (albeit short lived), is not particularly well-known in Belarus. It is perhaps the reason why Tikhanovskaya or the people around her in exile, did not mention this event on the anniversary. It is left for a few people and organisations inside and outside the country to raise the flag of remembrance.
Of course, currently, popular uprisings are not so popular in government circles and to celebrate one such 100 years ago while systematically supressing another, would clearly send confusing signals. Moreover, the current authorities in Belarus seem to have always found it hard to shed old Soviet habits which include impatience with those who disagree with their point of view, a stranglehold on the media and the perpetuation of the Soviet historical narrative, even in Post-Soviet times. Additionally, it may quite possibly be an attempt to curry favour with the Russian authorities, where ignoring uncomfortable truths of the Soviet past is par for the course. Included in this is the burying of symbols and events of Belarusian statehood so as not to upset ‘brotherly’ relations.
However, as ordinary Belarusians are actively trying to make their voices heard and their national identity highlighted, it could be argued that such events are key to national consciousness. Consequently, we can expect to hear more of such historical events despite the attempts of the authorities to supress them. The battle for Belarus’s past may well be becoming part of Belarus’ battle for its future