Preserving the Past in Lukashenko’s Belarus

By Laurel Myers

In the year since Russia launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine the eyes of the world have largely remained on this war. A third actor— the neighboring nation of Belarus— has played an integral role in the invasion and continues to provide support for Russian military efforts. After all, it was self-proclaimed dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s backing of Russia that allowed the latter nation to launch their Ukrainian invasion from Belarusian soil. 

The people of Belarus, however, are fighting their own battle outside of the war raging just across their borders. In the face of culturally repressive policies that jeopardize the historical memory and identity of their country, the Belarusian people are engaged in a decades-long fight against both Russia and their own authoritarian regime to protect their culture from erasure.

Cultural heritage preservation was the topic of discussion during a February 7, 2023 visit of Belarusian museum officials to the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies. The delegation, consisting of Iryna Semianiuk, Ida Shenderovich, Stsiapan Stureika, and Natallia Zadziarkouskaya, sat down with Miami University faculty and students to talk about the different ways in which they have interacted with cultural heritage preservation efforts throughout their careers. Each member of the delegation eloquently testified to their role in the fight for preserving the spirit of Belarus through its culture.

From L to R: Emily Rose, International Programs Lead,
World Affairs Council of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky; Stephen Norris, Director of the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies; Iryna Semianiuk, Director of the Kossovsky Palace and Park Complex; Laura Stewart, Collections Manager for Miami University Art Museum; Stsiapan Stureika, Chair of the International Committee on Monuments and Sites in Belarus; Laurel Myers, History Major; ; Jack Green, Director of Miami University Art Museum.

Ida Shenderovich, Program Manager with the Mahilyou Jewish Community, knows this fight well. Jewish history has long been under attack in Belarus— in addition to the atrocities committed against Belarusian Jews during the Holocaust, with well over half of its Jewish population systematically murdered by Einsatzgruppen death squads, the Nazi occupation of Belarus also initiated the destruction of a vast number of Jewish cultural artifacts. Further neglect of these objects and sites during the Soviet era, coupled with modern readoption of Russification policies, have resulted in an overwhelming archival silence surrounding the history and collective memory of Belarusian Jews. Shenderovich seeks to redress this historical neglect, working to protect and preserve the remaining Jewish cemeteries and tombstones in Mahilyou. She has participated in efforts to reconstruct and restore many of the cemeteries that have fallen into disrepair, which remain under threat of destruction by local laws targeting gravestones deemed beyond repair. Her work also involves making information on these cultural objects more widely accessible. She and her team have digitized many of the materials, including Jewish burial records, and published them online for public use.

Volunteers working at the Mahilyou [Mogilev] Jewish Cemetery, Belarus

Other cultural heritage preservation efforts speak to the importance of democracy to the Belarusian people— something that has been sorely lacking in recent years as their elections have been globally condemned for not being free and fair since Lukashenko entered office in 1994. Iryna Semianiuk, Director of the Kossovsky Palace and Park Complex, spoke of renowned Polish military leader Tadeusz Kościuszko, whose estate now operates as a museum within the complex. Heralded as a champion of democracy for his role in both the American Revolution and the anti-Russian Kościuszko Uprising, Kościuszko is revered as a national hero in Poland, Belarus, and the United States alike. Monuments bearing his likeness are located in the capitals of all three nations, reflecting his status as a democratic figure standing in opposition to tyranny and oppression. 

Kossovsky Palace, Belarus
Statue to Tadeusz Kościuszko at Mieračoŭščyna Manor, Belarus.

Natallia Zadziarkouskaya, Manager of Socio-Cultural Projects at the People’s Anti-Crisis Management, is also in the business of challenging tyranny and oppression. Formerly the Head of the Department of Culture and Folk Art in the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Belarus, Zadziarkouskaya now lives as a refugee in Poland, where she and her colleagues stand in direct resistance to Lukashenko’s regime. The “shadow government” organization she works for applies sanctions to allies of the administration, dispels regime propaganda, and supports anti-Lukashenko protests and strikes, all in an effort to see a peaceful transition of power following a democratic election in Belarus. More specifically, Zadziarkouskaya’s role as Manager of Socio-Cultural Projects involves developing projects and programs designed to promote Belarusian culture. She also works to provide resources to cultural figures— artists, writers, and actors— and other individuals who have been exiled for using their platform to voice criticism against Lukashenko. 

The goals of the People’s Anti-Crisis Management (NAU).

Her work is dangerous, but Zadziarkouskaya is steadfast in her fight to preserve the cultural heritage of her people and to ensure their voices are heard. All four museum professionals shared this desire to preserve Belarus’s past.

Laurel Myers is a senior majoring in history with a minor in museum studies

This entry was posted in Essays. Bookmark the permalink.