Features Minsk. Kurapaty. Khatyn.

Kurapaty and Khatyn: two places along the same road, the number three highway from Minsk to Vitebsk. Two places that are about history. But also about how history is used.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Pages 42-42, Vol 1 2011
Published on balticworlds.com on April 8, 2011

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“They were lined up in front of the pit two by two. Every one of them had a rag stuffed in his mouth, tied with a gag so they couldn’t spit it out. The executioners wore NKVD uniforms. They shot from the side so that one bullet went through the heads of two people. As soon as the shot was fired, two people fell in the pit. Quite simply, they wanted to save ammunition.”

Stalin’s assembly-line murders in a wooded area on the outskirts of Minsk went on from the summer of 1937 to the summer of 1941. No one knows how many bodies are in the mass graves, lying as they fell. According to archeologist and Belarusian opposition politician Zianon Pazniak, at least 102,000 people were murdered here.

It was Pazniak and his colleague Eugeni Smigilau who carried out the first excavations in 1988, a year when the dissolution of the Soviet Union had already begun. They had been interviewing surviving witnesses for several years. One of them was Michola Vasilyevich Karpovich, a soldier from a nearby village who had seen how the executions were carried out.

“Once a group had been executed, they scattered a little sand over the layer of bodies, and then flattened the sand with shovels so that the ground down in the pit was evened out before they lined up the next group for execution. As soon as they had executed enough that the pit was almost filled, they poured sand over the bodies and smoothed out the ground.”

“It was amazing how consistently the conclusions of my analysis of the results of the excavations agreed with what all the eyewitnesses had previously told me”, Pazniak later noted in a new paper.

On average, there were two hundred bodies in every grave — all of these people executed with a bullet through the head.

“If we start from these 200 bodies and multiply the figure by 510, which is the number of mass graves identified so far, we arrive at a figure of at least 102,000 executed people”, Pazniak concluded.

He believes the real number of people executed at Kurapaty may be twice that number, for two reasons. Several mass graves are considerably longer than the ten-meter long graves that have been excavated, and as many as a hundred mass graves may have been destroyed when a ring road was built in the 1950s and when a gas pipeline was laid in the 1980s.

The first wooden cross was erected in 1989 in the woods alongside the highway to Vitebsk, and with Belarusian independence in 1991, Kurapaty became — fleetingly — an official symbol of the Stalin era and communism. Three years later, Alyaksandr Luka-shenka came to power and the openness that had characterized the late 1980s and early 1990s was soon lost. Following a re-examination of the material, Oleg Bozhelko, prosecutor general of Belarus, determined in October 1998 that it was impossible to come to any certain conclusions about who committed the murders in Kurapaty. It might have been the Germans, as the communist old guard persisted in claiming.

“All political sides in the dispute interpret the evidence in their own way”, Bozhelko explained. “It is impossible to confirm or dismiss any of these versions”, he asserted. And thus had Alyaksandr Luka-shenka turned back the hands of time. The truth about the murders at Kurapaty did not fit into his worldview and does not accord with the “state ideology” currently being propagated in Belarus.

Admitting the truth about the murders at Kurapaty, making this place into a public memorial, as President Viktor Yushchenko did with the similiar site on the outskirts of Kiev, would contribute to the creation of a new historical memory, a memory that would serve only the democratic opposition. Alyaksandr Luka-shenka has chosen another path. And Zianon Pazniak, the man who brought the murders at Kurapaty to light, has now been a political refugee for years.

From Minsk,   one takes the number three highway northwest towards the city of Vitebsk. Kurapaty is a wooded area whose name was in the mists of time derived from the local word for the wood anemones that carpeted the forest floor early in the spring.

Alongside the road, on the other side of the barrier, there stands a small sign noting that Kurapaty lies inside the woods. There are no directions for getting there, no indication of where one should turn off the main road. And so Kurapaty is visible and yet hidden.

In the woods, the wooden crosses stand in close ranks. Today, only a single skier has passed this way, along the forest road that leads up to the place where the three large crosses were erected in 1991. The crosses are still crusted with hoarfrost and frozen snow. A frozen carnation. An inscription. A portrait. An endless silence over snow-covered ground that is waiting for the spring and the carpet of flowers. For a truth to reach out across the country and for the people who still don’t know. They are many. Even in Belarus.

The story of Khatyn is different.  One continues down highway number three towards Vitebsk. One is informed well in advance that one is approaching Khatyn, and the sign showing where to turn off the main road is obvious. The monument is gigantic. The snow that fell during the night has been carefully removed from the road up to the memorial and from the grounds of the monument.

It was here on the 22nd of March that the German occupiers, in reprisal for an attack by Belarusian partisans on a German convoy in which a German officer had been killed, razed the village to the ground and burned the villagers alive in one of the village barns: 149 people were murdered, including 75 children.

Khatyn is the English transcription of the name of the village. Although it should be spelled “Chatyn” in Swedish, the English “Khatyn” was used in the original Swedish version of this article because it is this transcription which explains why this place was appointed in the late 1960s for transformation into one of the largest World War II memorials in the entire Soviet Union.

Before then, the history of what happened in Khatyn during the war was rarely mentioned in the history books. However, in the 1960s, the truth about Stalin’s murder of Polish officers in an entirely different Katyn, the Katyn outside Smolensk in Russia, began to come to light in Western Europe. A British historian published a book about Katyn, the BBC made a documentary, and Polish immigrants in London and Stockholm erected monuments in remembrance of Stalin’s murders in Katyn. The politicians in Moscow were irate. Brezhnev and his colleagues made demands to the British and Swedish governments to put the lid on the matter and to forbid the spread of “malicious” propaganda about Stalin in Western countries. The truth about Stalin’s brutal murder of 25,000 Polish officers and non-commissioned officers was among the most secret of the officially secret truths during the entire 70 years of the Soviet Union’s existence. The truth about this Katyn did not fly across the world until the Polish President died in a plane crash in April of last year while on his way to Katyn outside Smolensk in Russia.

The monument in Khatyn in Belarus was an official sleight of hand.

No other country in Europe suffered such grave losses during World War II as the Soviet Union. The Soviet Republic of Belarus was perhaps the hardest hit of all. Millions of people lost their lives. More than five thousand villages were obliterated by the German occupiers. One of them was called Khatyn. A name deceptively similar to Stalin’s Katyn outside Smolensk.

That is why it was here, and nowhere else in Belarus, that Leonid Brezhnev and the Soviet politburo ordered their colleagues in Minsk to transform the then rather modest memorial in Khatyn into a gigantic monument commemorating all the devastation in Belarus during World War II.

The result is   impressive. Heartrending. Every house in the village stands as a bricked-up ruin with its chimney pointing to the sky where the smoke from the burnt bodies wafted. On every chimney are inscribed the names of the people who once lived in that very house. Twice a minute, bells ring somewhere in the broad expanse, to remind visitors that every thirty seconds during the years 1941–1945, a Belarusian citizen gave his life to the war. No one can visit Khatyn without being touched. No one can leave Khatyn unmoved. Part of the explanation of the history of
Belarus since 1945 is also given here.

But in Khatyn, the truth about the past, the truth about the German occupation and the Nazi murders, is inexorably intertwined with the lies about the history of the Soviet Union, with the lie of Stalin’s innocence of the equally horrific murders in Katyn ­— the reason the memorial was built in 1969. It was to Khatyn that Western heads of state were taken starting in the early 1970s. Fidel Castro of Cuba and Raul
Gandhi of India were brought here ­— and so was Richard Nixon of the United States.

Kurapaty and Khatyn: two places along the same road, the number three highway from Minsk to Vitebsk. Two places that are about history. But also about how history is used. And in Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s Belarus, about the history being enacted today. ≈

  • by Peter Johnsson

    Peter Johnsson is a foreign correspondent. Working for Nordic media and based in Warsaw he has covered the countries in East-Central Europe since 1980. He is the author of several books on Poland and polish history.

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