But in recent months, something strange has happened, as Lukashenko faces furious and sustained protests against his stay in power and launched a brutal crackdown. The war story that his regime has done so much to promote still resonates among the population, but with a twist: now its authorities have become the Nazis.
It has become normal that people speak of the authorities as “fascists” and “occupiers” who only remain in power thanks to their military and police power.
Given some of the footage from the August crackdown, it’s not hard to see why: Thousands of Belarusians have been beaten and abused by black-clad security officers wearing balaclavas; military vehicles patrol the streets; and anyone who supports the opposition movement can be arraigned for questioning at any time.
“We were brought up on endless films and books about the fight against the fascists, and then, when you look at the uniforms, the style, the methods used by the authorities, it is not difficult to see why these memories have. resonated, ”said Yulia Chernyavskaya, a Belarusian cultural anthropologist.
Under Lukashenko, war was the centerpiece of history teaching in schools and the focus of hundreds of monuments and museums. The country’s Independence Day is celebrated on the day Minsk was liberated from the Nazis in 1944, not the day Belarus actually gained independence from the Soviet Union.
“We will expand this space to nurture new patriots capable of defending not only themselves, their families and children, but also their country,” Lukashenko said during a visit earlier this year to the Stalin Line, a museum complex outside Minsk where visitors can see bunkers from a defensive line built by the Soviet Union in the 1930s, ride tanks and get tours from guides in Red Army uniforms.
In 2014, Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin reopened the main WWII museum in Minsk, updated for the 21st century. Putin also used the victory of the war as the basis for a new Russian identity. Belarus, unlike most of the Soviet Union, spent the majority of the war under occupation, and here the memories and reverence of the local partisan movement, which fought against the Nazi occupiers and local collaborators , are strong.
An example of protesters taking advantage of this legacy in the fight against Lukashenko is Vozhyk, a one-page A4 pamphlet of anti-regime cartoons and satirical articles. Vozhyk was a partisan war leaflet originally called “Crush Fascist Vermin”; now it is being broadcast digitally on an encrypted Telegram channel, and comes with the following message to potential distributors: “Supporters! Download the PDF, print it and paste it in the entrance of your apartment… We are in the majority and together we will win!
One of the editors of Vozhyk, who wished to remain anonymous, said she had chosen the name because of the resonance with the war period: “The authorities are monsters and fit the definition of fascism. During the August violence, the way people survived was amazing: they got out, came home, slept quickly and left. The partisan gene is alive in all of us. ”
It is true that almost overnight tens of thousands of Belarusians acquired their own white-red-white flag, which had been effectively banned for the past two decades. Groups on the Telegram app have sprung up to organize the protest in individual towns, streets or apartment buildings, with participants often using conspiratorial methods to protect their identities from each other, so that if someone gets caught by the authorities, they will not be able to give others. In short: a modern partisan movement has emerged in a few weeks.
Lukashenko supporters say they cannot see the parallels. “Lukashenko has helped a lot of people, the people here have a good life and they cry over the fascists. Which fascists? said Alexander Metla, who runs the Stalin Line complex. Tens of thousands of students and other visitors each year watch military reenactments and relive a heroic version of the war effort at the complex, which features a bust of Stalin and a large photograph of Lukashenko in military uniform at the ‘Entrance.
For their part, the authorities tried to show that it was the demonstrators who were descendants of the Nazis, pointing out that the white-red-white flag was used by Nazi collaborators (but ignoring its longer history). During weekly Sunday protests, the military guards the WWII museum with barbed wire and a line of armed troops. Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin said rallies using the white-red-white flag in these “sacred places” would be resolutely dealt with by the military.
Such rhetoric worked well in Ukraine in 2014, when the Kremlin described Maidan’s revolution in Kiev as a “fascist coup” and supported a separatist movement in the east of the country that rallied to symbolism. Soviet Union of World War II. However, using the same manual did not have the same effect in Belarus. Partly because far-right nationalists simply do not exist in Belarus, and partly because of the brutality of Lukashenko’s crackdown and the courage of those who continue to oppose it.
“We always laughed at this stereotype of Belarusians as supporters as if it was nonsense, but it was really quite surprising how people suddenly acquired these tactics as if they knew from birth” said Chernyavskaya.