A Potent Mix

A Potent Mix

Veranika Laputska

At first glance, this might look like progress in the fight against anti-Semitism: at the end of February, three people from Mahiliou, a city in eastern Belarus, were sentenced to up to two and a half years in prison for the desecration of the city’s monument to Holocaust victims. The young Belarusians, aged 16 to 19, were found guilty of pouring black paint on the monument last November.

Yet the possible ringleader, according to the families of those convicted, was let free as the authorities decided to close the case quickly. And even more telling, the police classified the attack as mere “hooliganism.” That has been a common practice in Belarus for years, reserving more serious charges such as “promoting racial hatred” to, for example, pro-Russian activists

Despite regular reports from the U.S. State Department and others that list a series of anti-Semitic acts committed each year in various places around Belarus, the authorities have typically initiated no criminal cases, holding no one accountable. In 2012, for example, vandals poured yellow paint on the same monument in Mahiliou, but at that time Belarusian authorities said it was an accident committed by a homeless person, and didn’t investigate it more closely. The recent convictions, some say, couldn’t be avoided this time because the Belarusian media paid much more attention to the anti-Semitic incidents in 2016.   

The evident reluctance to investigate such cases more aggressively may stem from a lack of compassion at the top of the country’s power structure. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka famously said back in 2007 that “Babrujsk is a dirty city” during a press conferences in October 2007. That comment implied, many thought, that the eastern Belarusian city was sullied after being predominantly populated by Jews before World War II. The Israeli embassy released a protest note, and the Israeli media widely condemned the president’s remarks, which came amid a rash of vandalism in many Belarusian cities, towns, and villages. Old Jewish cemeteries and Holocaust monuments were destroyed and desecrated. While authorities initiated approximately 30 cases to investigate such instances of “hooliganism,” most incidents did not have any follow-up.

White Power

Indications are that those arrested for the Mahiliou incident were not simply a bunch of misbehaving teenagers. The authorities say they are connected to the local branch of a neo-Nazi organization promoting the “values” of a racially clean “White Russia.” The Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs disseminated pictures of the alleged leader of the group wearing clothes decorated with the image of an Orthodox Church and an inscription imitating the old Eastern Slavic alphabet. Other pictures included posters about racial purity and the Russian Liberation Army, which fought under Nazi command during World War II.

The Mahiliou incident also does not appear to be an exception, but part of a neo-Nazi trend, whose spread in a country that suffered enormously during World War II might seem at least strange. Things do, however, start to fall into place once we look into the biographies of some of the main characters on the scene, which offer, in some instances, an uncanny mix of Orthodoxism, neo-Nazism, and competitive weightlifting.  

Take, for example, Kanstancin Burykin, the subject of a lengthy investigation by the Belarusian oppositional newspaper Nasa Niva in November 2016. Burykin, a priest, had worked at a Russian Orthodox Church in Hatava, in the Minsk region, and simultaneously as deputy head of the Belarusian powerlifting federation. Several shocking photos were published together with the article, showing Burykin’s swastika tattoo, and his friendship with the former leaders of a Belarusian nationalist organization called Russian National Unity (RNU). Just as controversial was his fascination with other Nazi symbols, which he even used to decorate the interior of his apartment. He was arrested for illegal ammunition possession in November 2016.

Similar accusations of neo-Nazi sympathies have also been raised during the trial of Stanislau Hancarou, a Belarusian who fought against Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.   The trial started in the city of Viciebsk last December, but the accusations had little to do with Hancarou’s activities in Donbas. Instead they stemmed from his activities before 2014, when he and his football fan friends allegedly decided to ridicule a group of 13-year-old boys. The group are accused of asking the boys to deny their involvement in an anti-fascist movement, while simultaneously asking them to use the Nazi salute. This was filmed and shared on the internet.

After detaining Hancarou in April 2016, the Belarusian police shared photos of his tattoos, which included various Nazi symbols such as 88 (a symbol for “Heil Hitler,” the Nazi salute), the coat of arms of Nazi SS battalions, and some others. Before moving to Ukraine to fight in the Azov battalion, which many consider far-right and even neo-Nazi, Hancarou had allegedly been a leader of a local football fan group, and had encouraged his friends to humiliate and beat people with non-Slavic appearances.

Links to Russia

The RNU is an organization launched in 1990 that claims the Russian state and the Russian people have a unique mission unifying territories “lost during the 20th century”and promotes Russian Orthodox nationalism. Though never officially registered in Russia, the RNU exists both there and in Belarus and controls regional organizations. Burykin’s story revealed that some former RNU leaders  in Belarus remain quite active, and participate in public activities.

One of the most powerful neo-Nazi initiatives in Russiais Sorok sorokov – translated as “forty times forty,” an old Slavic expression with an unclear origin, sometimes seen as referring to the total number of churches in Moscow. Supported by the Russian Orthodox Church, the organization emerged with the support of Patriarch Kirill in July 2013 as a sort of fight club. Sorok Sorokov unites not only numerous sportsmen but also former neo-Nazi and skinhead leaders. Members of the movement often post photos with swastika symbols on social media, while somehow managing to combine these views with pan-Slavic ideology, and adherence to the Russian Orthodox Church. At the moment they are also actively offering humanitarian aid to the members of “Novorossiya army”in Ukraine’s Donbas region.

Nasa Niva found out last May that similar fight clubs, supported by the Russian Orthodox Church, involved Belarusian children from the Viciebsk region. In this case, a number of Russian Orthodox priests enlisted Belarusian children for participation in so-called “military-patriotic youth gatherings” headed by people fighting in Donbas. These people were, at the same time, supporting neo-Nazism, and promoting the idea that Belarusians, Ukrainians, and Russians are one people, and, as such, they should unite.

Such theories, accompanied by distorted views on Jews and the Holocaust, find fertile ground among many Belarusians, what with the unclear official position – including the president’s occasional anti-Semitic statements – the prominence of Russian media, and the clout of the Russian Orthodox Church among Belarusian Orthodox believers.

Additionally, the Holocaust remains a predominantly taboo topic among most Belarusians, including among officials. This is partly because of the country’s history of being occupied by both Nazi Germany, and then the Soviet Union for more than half a century, which made it nearly impossible to have an objective view of the country’s history throughout the 20th century. That has further been complicated by the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has provoked a revival of neo-Nazi ideology in some quarters, both in Ukraine and neighboring countries.

Throughout the growth of such sentiments the Belarusian authorities have preferred to play a passive role, ignoring the possibility that in the long run, such an approach could backfire and lead to trouble at home. This January, the police in Brest, next to the Polish border, discovered two Belarusians had been collecting weapons old and new, with the alleged intention to sell it to anti-separatist forces in Donbas. Once apprehended, these young men expressed a “grab bag of various radical ideologies,” according to Belarus Digest. That included “Slavic paganism, hatred towards Russia and Donbass, and support for far-right organizations.”