The young woman closed her eyes on the night just prior to her wedding and found herself being addressed by Mary, the Mother of God. The young woman was promised a wedding in a red dress. She dutifully and tearfully left her fiancé and embarked upon a life of prayer in search of the answer to the riddle posed by Mary. Her prayer led to a wedding: She became a bride of Christ as a Nazarene Nun in the Catholic Church. She was one of twelve Nuns sent to breathe life into the Catholic community in a small Polish village called Novogrod.
The Church which was brought under the care of the Nazarene Nuns had been devastated by Napoleon’s march on Moscow. The French revolutionaries used it as a storage facility and left it in disrepair until the nuns undertook its renovation and also built a school in the village. On September 1, 1939, Poland was invaded by Germany and ceased to exist. Under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Novogrod became part of the Soviet Republic of Belarus. In light of these events, the Church was closed; the nuns scattered. Their school was converted from a Catholic school into a Soviet school. In 1941, the German army routed the Soviets and established itself in the village. In 1943, over one hundred men in the village were arrested by the Germans and sentenced to death. These were fathers and sons, brothers and husbands.
The twelve nuns prayed that if the good Lord desired a sacrifice in blood, let it be their blood. The Germans released the men and took eleven of the twelve nuns into custody. The first attempt to shoot them failed, and the nuns were put into a cellar where they prayed all night. The next day, the Germans marched the nuns into a forest and shot all of them. A young boy, either an accidental witness or more likely forced to dig their grave, was also shot and buried with them.
The twelfth nun who had escaped death by sheer accident was mercifully hidden by a German doctor who forged her identity. Under the pretext of picking mushrooms in the forest, the twelfth nun looked for the burial site of her sisters and found it. Alas, as the bodies were removed from the ground, the riddle of Mary’s prophecy was solved.
The young nun who was told she would have a wedding in a red dress was unearthed kneeling by her dead sisters. The Germans wounded her and buried her alive as she prayed, causing her blood to turn her wardrobe red. It is unclear whether she bled to death or died from suffocation. Pope John Paul II, however, beatified the nuns and Novogrod remembers their martyrdom.
Welcome to Belarus.
The Great Patriotic War: Three Views of Slavic History
Westerners have a hard time understanding the former Soviet Union. One point of confusion is the omnipresence of communist- era monuments and paraphernalia littering the former Soviet republics. Westerners like to see them as holdovers or relics of Soviet times which persist due to unenlightened attitudes or illiberal propaganda. In light of this, Belarus is a good place to begin to understand their true meaning. In Belarus, almost every prominent Soviet monument is placed abreast an even more prominent Christian structure.
In the heart of the Belarusian capital, Minsk, a large statue of Lenin stands prominently outside of the house of government. One immediately notes that Lenin is gazing upwards directly at Mary the Mother of God ascending into Heaven: the official symbol of the city of Minsk. Immediately to the left of Lenin is a beautiful Catholic Church with a prominent statue of Saint John Paul II and a large picture of the old Polish Pope and Pope Francis. Even more striking is the newly rebuilt Russian Orthodox Church in Ivieniec, which towers over a well-kept and honored memorial of the Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War, only a few meters away.
This is not a contradiction. This is not propaganda. This is simply the history of Belarus. The Great Patriotic War is honored here because it was a war fought for the survival of the people inhabiting this land. The population of Belarus was so severely decimated by the German invasion that pre-war population levels were only regained in the late 1970s. In order to liberate Minsk against superior German tanks, Soviet T-34s had to ram German tanks head on to stop them in their tracks so that Soviet tank destroyers could shoot them at point-blank range. Losses from this kind of combat were staggering. It is a small recompense that German prisoners rebuilt Minsk after the war.
The many memorials and statues commemorating the Great Patriotic War are not celebrations of communism. Instead, they are a testimony to the suffering of impoverished and exploited people whose misery was exacerbated beyond anything humanly imaginable, and who managed to fight back, survive, and even recover their ancient faith.
To expect Belarusians to tear down the memorials to the Great Patriotic War is to expect them to forget their heritage. Belarus has clearly chosen to embrace that heritage in full. Orthodox and Catholic Churches blossom with life while Soviet-era memorials are perfectly well-kept and honored. To forget the Soviet memorials would be to spit on the dead who fought against the German onslaught. A sin no smaller than the communist endeavor to close, wall off, and mask the Churches in the past.
The Belarusian policy whereby historical sites are nurtured and preserved in full—leaving us to see history in its totality and better ponder its meaning—is probably the best policy of the slavic nation states between Germany and Russia. It is jarring, shocking, and counterintuitive but also the closest to truth and honesty, and it is the only policy uniting citizens in contemplation rather than sowing discord. Belarus seems to understand that the word “memorial” implies a claim on memory, not celebration or acclaim.
Poland and Ukraine offer two alternative politics of history, both inferior to Belarusian policy, both a testimony to the three alternative understandings of the Great Patriotic War that divides Slavic people.
For Poles, World War II began in 1939 with the joint German-Soviet invasion. Poland does not acknowledge the Soviet Union as a member of the Allied war effort, nor does Poland really acknowledge the fall of Berlin on May 9, 1945, as the end of the war. Modern Poland follows a politics of history according to which German occupation was followed by Soviet occupation and World War II ended in 1989 when Poland regained full independence.
Meanwhile, Ukraine goes even further, celebrating the German invasion of Poland in 1939, and of the Soviet Union in 1941, as the beginning of Ukrainian national liberation. For Ukraine, Hitler’s Germany was a force for good, and the Allied victory was a tragedy that brought with it the triumph of communism.
Belarus shares elements of the Ukrainian and Polish experience but rather than choosing to elevate one aspect of history over another, Belarus seems to aim for honest objectivity and allows the people to make up their own minds when pondering difficult and tragic matters. It is not an objectivity easily attained. The Belarusian consensus is a choice that recognizes that while truth may be a laudable goal, the nature of the path towards truth is likewise important and cannot be divisive.
The Belarusian Identity: A Model for Poland & Russia
What is a Belarusian? Many old Belarusians in the eastern part of the country call themselves Lithuanians, by which they do not mean to identify with the European Union member state called Lithuania; rather it is a sign of identification with the Grand Dutchy of Lithuania and the union of Poland and Lithuania. But the roots of Belarus go further back, as well. The people were once part of Kievian Rus. They are called Belorussian, as opposed to the Minor-Russians who became modern Ukrainians, because they were Christianized (thus made pure and white) prior to “black Russia,” which generally denotes the Pagan Russians before the light of Christianity.
Following the collapse of the Russian Empire and the beginning of the Polish-Soviet war over the Kresy lands, German foreign policy sought to create quasi-loyal buffer states meant to isolate and weaken Russia. To this end, Germans sent Piłsudzki to Poland and Lenin to Moscow. Their acolytes, likewise, proclaimed a free and independent Belarus and Ukraine which was immediately opposed by Belarusian communists. The only foreign diplomatic mission established by this non-Soviet Belarus was in Berlin.
In both cases, Germany was too weak to follow through on its plans, and Poland came to terms with the Soviet Union dividing modern Ukraine and Belarus between themselves. Many Poles sought to recreate the old Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth while the Soviet Union saw its mission as the emancipation of farmers and workers, and the liquidation of old national-religious identities in favor of a new Soviet identity. Yet this new Soviet identity, likewise, foresaw the creation of distinctly non-Polish Belarusian and Ukrainian identities.
Language has likewise always been one of several political tools utilized by partisans to forge identity in Belarus. The Belarusian language is quite comprehensible to Poles, less so to the Russians. However, because Belarusian is now written in the cyrillic alphabet used by Russians it is more legible to the Russian eye than to the Polish eye which utilizes the Latin alphabet. In practice, Belarusian is not spoken by the majority of Belarusians who prefer to simply speak Russian. Official state business is conducted in Russian and the only place one can sometimes hear Belarusian is in Polish Catholic Churches. In short: Belarusians in Belarus speak Russian, while Poles in Belarus speak Belarusian.
The roots of this curious circumstance are manifold. The Belarusian language was once written in the Latin alphabet and spoken by the peasantry. Under Polish-Lithuanian dominion, Belarusian was at times outlawed in order to Polonize the population. When Belarus came under Russian rule, subsequent Russian Tsars likewise outlawed Belarusian as part of their Russification efforts. In Soviet times efforts were made to institute Russian as a common language amongst all slavic Soviet Republics in order to hasten the development of communism.
Belorussian has, at times, been stigmatized as a peasant dialect, unfit for cultured and educated peoples. Naturally, a cross-section of excellent Belarusian literature and poetry testifies otherwise. There have always been Belarusian intellectuals who have cultivated their language and resisted its stigmatization.
Still, for practical purposes, Belarusians learn to speak Russian because Russia is their largest political and economic partner, and they speak German because Germany is the ruling political authority of the European Union which borders Belarus to the west.
The Belarusian identity is necessarily tied to the Soviet era because, only through the Soviet Union, Belarus came to be Belarus. While Belarusian history is Polish-Lithuanian and Russian, the history of a distinctly Belarusian political identity is Soviet.
With the demise of the Soviet Union, Belarus is now on a journey in search of its own identity outside of communist philosophy. This journey consists of unearthing its history as well as forging a national present. It is a delicate journey because Belarus is composed of ethnic groups whose origins are often diametrically at odds. Yet there is one common thread that runs through all of Belarusian history, whether Polish-Lithuanian, Kievian Rus, Russian, or Soviet: That common thread is Christianity, specifically Roman-Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy.
No matter where one turns, it is clear that the Christian faith was a positive and universalist humanist force for good in Belarusian history. Christianity is the glue which holds this otherwise highly diversified society together. Belarusian hospitality reflects this Christian culture in accordance with the Biblical edict “a guest in the home is God in the home.” Belarusian traditions also demonstrate a wonderful sense of humor. A toast by women on behalf of men goes: “To men! Our Tsars! Our gods! May they always kneel at our feet!”
Of course, there were times when Christianity was a mere façade for political dominion. Religious affiliation, like language, was a mark of political loyalty. Orthodoxy meant fidelity to the Tsar. Catholicism meant fidelity to Poland. Atheism meant fidelity to the Soviet ideal. Thankfully, the present state of Catholic and Orthodox faith in Belarus means fidelity to a loving Christ.
Belarusian religious practice is authentic Christianity and it is made all the more noble thanks to the wise policy of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches which are now in an advanced stage of partial communion tending towards full communion. A wonderful illustration can be found a short distance outside of Ivieniec: a statue of Mary, the Mother of God. To one side stands an Orthodox Cross, to the other a Catholic cross. The inscription on the statue quotes John 17:21: “Let them all be one.”
The Daily Bread of Belarusian Culture
Belarusian culture is a model for the region as a whole. All the ethnic and religious components which formed old Polish and Belarusian culture over the centuries have been reborn. Only the Belarusian Jews have truly been erased from the land by Germany. Traces of the German policy of extermination against the Jews are everywhere. The memorials themselves fail to tell the story of the depths of German crimes. Outside of Ivieniec, a village which boasted a Synagogue, Catholic and Orthodox Church before the war, a memorial commemorates hundreds of Jews murdered in the forest by German forces. The men were shot, but due to a lack of bullets, Germans took hundreds of children by their feet and swung them against trees until their skulls cracked open.
Almost the entire Jewish population of the village has perished. Upon a visit to the old Jewish cemetery in Ivieniec, a small stone rests upon one of the Jewish graves: a sure sign that the Jewish faith has not vanished from this village altogether. Unlike Christians who clean their graves and place flowers on them, Jews leave them untended save for the placement of small rocks on grave stones.
Ivieniec’s Catholic population, likewise, suffered at German hands. The local Church boasts two Franciscan saints: Herman and Achilles. These Polish martyrs were informed by Germans that their entire parish was to be murdered and told to leave. They stayed with their flock, were taken to a forest outside of the village, and both were shot in the back of the head. Today, a roofless Church stands where they were shot.
Following the war, the “White” Catholic Church in Ivieniec was turned into a tractor factory, and the Russian Orthodox Church did not survive at all. Now, the “White” Catholic Church is once again open and tended by an enthusiastic and active Franciscan priest from Poland, who has organized an entire community center around the Church. There is a boy scouts and girl scouts association, a gym, a football field, a music workshop where youngsters learn how to play everything from jazz to African American gospel music, a Franciscan café, a playground, and a theater group—all organized by the parish priest. Belarussian authorities, thankfully, extended the priest’s visa so he can continue to serve the village of Ivieniec.
The Russian Orthodox Church has been rebuilt and flocks of worshippers converge in the center of the city before separating: some going to Catholic Mass while others make way for the Orthodox Church. The village also boasts a candy factory and a museum in what was once my wife’s family estate. The house was confiscated by Soviet authorities in 1939 and served after the war as the Felix Dzierżynski museum, celebrating the infamous Communist revolutionary; it has since been converted into a museum exhibiting the history of Ivieniec. Rather than speaking of Felix Dzierżynski, the museum tells tells the story of Felix’s brother, a far less controversial figure who gave assistance to anti-German Belarusian partisans and was murdered by the German occupiers.
The museum also showcases charming aspects of traditional Belarusian culture. For instance, young girls were taught how to sew linen and were given a large box where they could put everything that they had sewn over the years. Tradition held that when the box was full, the girl was a grown woman and could marry. The most moving bit of folk culture on display at the museum is the “inseparable” folk doll: It is a representation of a man and woman just married; one of their arms is made in unison, and thus the dolls are inseparable—a symbol of the marriage sacrament. Traditional Belarusian dolls in Ivieniec have no faces: Legend has it that the Devil is apt to possess dolls with faces.
Ivieniec is not the only place in Belarus to boast such a rich and authentically diverse culture. One small village is a stark contrast to a trip to Belgian or French cities where ethnic and religious divisions are destroying social order. In this Belarusian village, a Muslim Tartar population co-exists in peace with Jews, Catholics, and Russian Orthodox citizens. The city center boasts a four-pronged monument to law and order featuring the Star of David, the Muslim Crescent, a Russian Orthodox Icon, and a small statue of Saint Pope John Paul II.
Belarus is all the more amazing with respect to cultural diversity because it is an authentic and living culture. The Churches are always packed full of worshippers and each ethnic and religious group is not merely a relict of the past but of its living continuation. Because of this, these groups co-exist in peace. Unlike Western Muslims and Christians who are often rootless and have simply ceased to nurture their cultural heritages, Belarusian religious groups are too busy in their traditions to engage in spurious conflict and division. The Belarusian government facilitates this culture by helping to restore old Churches and other religious sites ravaged by the war or made derelict under Soviet times—all of this while likewise nurturing Belarusian identity and the memory of the Great Patriotic War, which arose as positive traditions under the Soviet Union. This policy of choosing accord over conflict and preservation of the entirety of national heritage over partisanship and division is truly amazing.
Under the present geopolitical realities, Poland, Ukraine, and Russia would all do well to look towards the example of Belarus. Poles who yearns for a “restoration” of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth can stop yearning and start supporting closer and friendlier ties to Belarus because Belarus as it is now is the closest living embodiment of everything that was positive about Old Poland. Russians seeking a balance between their traditions and the West can look to Belarus which has chosen not to integrate with the European Union politically but maintains vibrant cultural and economic ties to the West. Ukraine would do well to forego its horrible policy of glorifying Nazi Germany and stoking ethnic tensions in favor of the Belarusian model which embraces its complex history in the spirit of law and order.
Western Democracy & Belarus
The right to vote in free and fair elections is not the sole component of self-government, nor is universal suffrage the definition of political justice. All political judgments regarding universal standards of justice must always be undertaken only after a careful consideration of context. Law, order, local self-government, neighborly and familial bonds are virtues of equal importance to democratic voting.
Western countries that pass judgements on others seem to hold a very narrow view of what constitutes political justice. This narrow view often contradicts the essence of Western history itself wherein political justice has a broad definition that cannot be limited to democratic suffrage alone.
The prejudice in the European Union has long been that Belarus is the “last dictatorship of Europe.” This stereotype, which is predominant amongst Western Europeans, is not only inaccurate and ignorant, it is actually disgustingly immoral. The disgusting immorality of this Western European prejudice becomes immediately apparent to the conscientious visitor to Belarus. Belarus was one of the greatest victims of German aggression during the second world war. The sickening testimony to German atrocities is a horrifying scar stretching the length and breadth of the country.
It is preposterous and immoral to consider modern Germany as the center of European civilization just because Germans have managed a few free elections following 1945, while treating Belarus as if it were a dictatorship solely on account of its democratic standards not mirroring Western standards.
Voting and democratic procedures are not the definition of civilization. Belarus is orderly and peaceful and local communities demonstrate a higher degree of direct self-government than mass Western representative democracies.
While there is a high level of bureaucracy reminiscent of what one finds in tragic Russian literature from Tsarist times, the bureaucracy is no worse in Belarus than in Belgium where it magically becomes “enlightened Francophone administration.” Western Europe—particularly Germany—has no moral or political right to lecture Belarus on democracy or justice. If modern Germany is truly concerned with human rights, it would spend the next thousand years making generous payments to Belarus and begging forgiveness for the crimes of the Thousand Year Reich.
That any German would dare today to stand up in the European Union parliament and lecture the Belorussian government on human rights is preposterous. The fact is that modern Europe is now embroiled in a terrible war, the focus of which is Ukraine, and only Belarus stands as a realistic political alternative that offers peace, order, and hope in the region.
Those Westerners intent on criticizing the present Belarusian President would do well to note that even those segments of Belarusian society once most weary of the current government and open to a greater degree of Western influence have now become skeptical of the West because they are direct witnesses of the true effects of “Western democracy:” war and death.
The debacle in Ukraine perpetrated by Western democratizers has set back the cause of authentically positive and humane Western influence in Belarus for at least a generation because Western promises are no longer perceived by the people there as dreams of a better life, but rather as the reality of war and economic collapse in Ukraine.
In fact, as France and Belgium disintegrate due to homegrown radical islamic terrorism and Western nihilism, it is impossible for an honest observer who has seen and internalized both the Francophone world and Belarus not to conclude that it is not the European Union that should teach Belarus democracy, but Belarus that should teach the French and Germans about law, order, and authentic multiculturalism.
As soon as Belarusians shake off their inferiority complex and join their Russian and Polish friends in a united political effort, the fate of Europe will change for the better as the chaos and stagnation of Paris-Brussels-Berlin gives way to the order and community spirit of Warsaw-Minsk-Moscow. Belarus may be outside of the European Union, but it is more European today than Paris and Berlin, and it holds the key to Europe’s future.
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