„Dissent and diversity will remedy our historiography from the legacy of the authoritarianism“

Interview by Tatsiana Astrouskaya

“The historical science had to go through the centralization, the elected leaders were substituted by the appointed ones and not an academic qualification, but loyalty to the state became the main criterion for the successful carrier advancement.”

“The democratization of alls spheres of the society, academic freedom, the diversity of research topics, scholarly discussion and the pluralism of opinions – we are in a desperate need of all this.”

Tatsiana Astrouskaya (TA): Professor Sahanovich, thank you for agreeing to answer my questions. As it seems it has never happened earlier that the news about Belarus appears on the front pages of the leading German (and European) newspapers and journals. All this occurs at the time of the upheaval across the globe, not to mention the Covid-19 pandemic. Though there are plenty of „hot themes“ to discuss, recent events in Belarus fascinate and draw attention. The actual happening, as it seems, has been documented meticulously, in particular in the capital, Minsk. The newest digital technologies and social media, especially Telegram, make this possible. Simultaneously, the ongoing revolution is remarkable not only in its contemporaneity but also, when we look at it through the prism of the whole period of transformation.

On Historians and Power

You were an active participant of the Belarusian national movement of the late 1980–early 1990s. In 2005 you lost your position at the Institute of History of the Belarusian Academy of Sciences, for not yielding to the demands to, literally, re-write the history of Belarus, which the newly established (1994) regime of Aliaksandar Lukashenka had been making.    

Therefore, my first question, which appeals to your individual experience as a professional historian: how did the relationship between historians and power in Belarus change during the last three decades? What does it mean to be a historian, to conduct historical research in an authoritarian state, which limitations if any you had to encounter? Furthermore, where do you see the place of a historian, at the moment when a significant change happens in society when citizens raise to protect their fundamental rights and freedoms?

Henadz‘ Sahanovich (HS): Quite right, I had a chance to observe (and to come through) the several revolutionary changes in Belarus. This experience allows for drawing comparisons. In the first half of the 1990s, when the Belarusian sovereignty was just proclaimed absolute freedom of research reigned, it was perhaps the best time for historians.  The academic life rested on the principles of democracy; we could elect the leaders on all levels of the academic hierarchy; the availability and openness of every academic institution had become the norm. Vivid discussions, networking, and international cooperation flourished. Solely the financial limitations and the lack of material resources, if anything, could restrict the freedom of a historian and historical research.

Almost immediately after Aliaksandar Lukashenka has come to power, the constraints became palpable. The regime re-established the censorship in state publishing houses, classified the KGB (Committee for State Security) Archive and, finally, indoctrinated the history education to seize control over the society. The latter should have turned back to the old [Soviet] interpretation schemes, which offered Russian-centered view on the Belarusian history and venerated the Soviet past. Nonetheless, the academic historiography and the Institute of History of the Belarusian Academy of Sciences remained a bastion of academic freedom up to the late 1990s. However, even then, the anti-Western position of the authorities discouraged networking and international cooperation.

The attempts to subject the historical research to the needs of state ideology gained momentum in the early 2000s. The transformation had been modelled on state administration. Historical science had to go through the centralization, the elected leaders were substituted by the appointed ones and not an academic qualification, but loyalty to the state became the main criterion for the successful carrier advancement. Historiography yielded to the state ideology; from now on it ought to evoke „the patriotic feeling“ and back up the authority of President Lukashenka.

The epoch of discussions about the past was over. Research themes polarized into allowed and undesirable. Dissertations were assessed on the basis of their conformity with the state politics, and the professional advancement depended on the loyalty of aspiring historian and the will of the state functionaries. International cooperation ceased, and thus the isolation and parochialism of the Belarusian historiography deepened.    

Even more damaging were „the ideological purges“. Highly qualified historians lost their jobs because of alternative views or research visits abroad. The regime did everything to eliminate them from the public sphere, minimalizing the chances to conduct research and to get published. Such condition pushed many high qualified historians out of the country; they had to search for the possibility to work and make their living abroad.

There were those who due to the different reasons, accepted the limitation and could keep  jobs at the state institution. The fear to end up on the street prevented them from criticizing the system or to stand-off against it. Accordingly, historians found themselves in two rival camps.

It is not a coincidence, of course, that currently [September 2020] so many historians are protesting against the regime. I am not sure whether historians play a unique role in these events, or not. Right now, we are all citizens in the first place; the profession occupations is not decisive. Yet perhaps, since they are dealing with the past, historians comprehend very well that a chance like that should not be missed.

Simultaneously, as historians we feel our responsibility for the future of Belarus, here I refer to the ethical dimension of history, accentuated also in works of historian Jörn Rüsen. Currently, giving lectures in the Minsk yards, I talk about the happenings of the past that demonstrate, that the conscious choice of values and the persistent civic activity of small groups can be principal for the future development of the society. [1] 

On Young People, History Education and Memory Politics

TA: You specialize in Medieval and Modern history, but you have also published extensively on Soviet and Post-Soviet memory politics and history education. As you have already explained above the latter was one of the pillars of the regime, backed up by vast recourses. At the initiative and under the protection of the state new study literature had been produced, newfangled (semi-)academic disciplines such as the „ideology of Belarusian state“ arose, and the youth association (the Belarusian Republican Youth Union) was created. For some time, as it seemed, this investment proved beneficial. However, as recent events demonstrate, precisely the young people, who were risen and educated to support the status quo, are standing up against the regime, not only expressing the discontent verbally but being ready to resist and disobey. How would you explain such a shift? Why did the memory politics imposed by the regime of Lukashenka fail? Could there be found a warning to the other populist governments, a moral that to re-write history, centralize historical education would not work nowadays and could yield the opposite results?

Prof. Dr. Sahanovich giving the Yard Lecture in Minsk
Prof. Dr Sahanovich giving the Yard Lecture in Minsk

HS: I could tell a lot about the failures of the memory politics held by the regime of Lukashenka. Most importantly, perhaps, this work with the past was neither well-considered, nor consistent enough. Moreover, I would say that on the contrary, the history did not get the attention it deserved, the work with the past could have been done in a more reasonable way, which could have contributed to the consolidation of the political community. The events and heroes of the distant history were denied of their significance; instead, the recent Soviet epoch was glorified.  The mythos of the Great Patriotic War and Soviet patriotism dominated, the younger generation, did not show interest in it so much. Such historical memory lacked deepness; it appealed to the war veterans (and older people) for the most part and proved to be not so attractive to the youth.

I can agree that current developments in Belarus can, to a certain degree, serve as a warning for the other populist and personalist regime. They demonstrate that the voluntarist attitudes to the history, the suppression of one part of memory and the manipulation with the other do not guarantee the regime’s stability, but on the contrary, pose a threat to its existence.

Moreover, the regime of Lukashenka rests on lies and vulgarity, it has never looked for the dialogue with the society, it has never aimed at societal consensus. It is outdated, nonflexible, and colourless. Therefore young people have never accepted it entirely. To be sure, some part of them did enter the Belarusian Republican Youth Union, yet mostly because of the pragmatic reasons, they never believed in it. Today young people became the main driving force of the peaceful protest in Minsk and other cities in Belarus.

TA: As a scholar, you have been internationally recognized: you cooperated with academic institutions in different countries of Eastern and Central Europe, you have habilitated in Poland, and have had a visiting professorship and the University of Giessen (Germany). Yet from the broader point of view, the Belarusian historiography still has not been integrated into the European historical science, there is not much cooperation going on (though some steps have been done recently, as the establishment of Belarusian-German Historical Commission (Belarusisch-Deutsche Geschichtskommission)

In your view, is there a potential for the change? What can be done to ensure that the interest tо Belarus and its history I was referring to above will last?  

Tatsiana Astrouskaya presenting Sahanovich's book
Tatsiana Astrouskaya with Sahanovich’s book Vojska Vjalikaha knjastva Litoŭskaha ŭ XVI – XVII stst. [The Troops of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the Sixsteens and Seventeens Century] (Minsk, 1994) in front of Herder Institutes research library

On international cooperation and historical research on Belarus

HS: To say that Belarusian historiography is not fully integrated into the European scholarship is to say nothing. I am convinced that the level of integration has dropped significantly since the 1990s. For, if there was progress and successful projects during the last two and half decades, then this was done without any support from the state and against its will. Such unfavourable conditions hindered the development significantly, and we, to put it straightforwardly, often find ourselves far behind even compared to our colleagues in the neighbouring countries. To be sure, there have been examples of successful cooperation; there are highly qualified scholars, also those who studied abroad, but the state has nothing to do it with it. Moreover, there is no place for historians with foreign diplomas in the state institutions, and the possibilities of professional development are minimal there.

A radical political transformation is required to ensure the positive change in the Belarusian historiography, to stimulate international (not only Belarusian-Russian) cooperation. The democratization of alls spheres of the society, academic freedom, the diversity of research topics, scholarly discussion and the pluralism of opinions – we are in a desperate need of all this. Dissent and diversity will remedy our historiography from the legacy of the authoritarianism. After that, we hope we will be able to speak the same language as the whole world does and use the up-to-date conceptual and methodological apparatus.

In my opinion, there is still a lack of information about Belarus on the West. For instance, a contemporary synthetic study on the history of Belarus in the English language has not been published yet. It comes to anecdotes, as with the reprinting (in a format of e-book) of Nikolas Vakar’s study „Belorussia. The Making of a Nation“ by the Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA, 2014). Initially, it appeared in the heat of the Cold War and, apparently, it requires a careful revision.

TA: Thank you so very much once again!

Prof. Dr. Sahanovich giving the Yard Lecture in Minsk
Prof. Dr. Sahanovich giving the Yard Lecture in Minsk

About the person:
Henadz‘ Sahanovich (b. 1961) is an Adjunct Professor of History at the Center of East European Studies, University of Warsaw, and publisher. He obtained his PhD in History (Kandidat Nauk) in 1989 in Minsk and habilitated in 2018 at the University of Warsaw. Sahanovich is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Belarusian Historic Review, the first (and only to the moment) independent historical journal in Belarus, founded in 1994. His research interests include the history of Belarusian historiography and history politics in Eastern Europe.

Marburg-Minsk, September 2020

The interview was recorded in the Belarusian language, translation by Tatsiana Astrouskaya

[1] Recently, a format of “yard lectures” has become popular in Belarus, since the meetings in the public places are persecuted, smaller communities gather in their yards; they invite musicians, writers, historians to join with performances, readings and lectures.

2 Gedanken zu „„Dissent and diversity will remedy our historiography from the legacy of the authoritarianism“

  • Januar 18, 2021 um 11:21 pm Uhr

    Many thanks for sharing. Very useful interview.

  • November 5, 2020 um 6:00 am Uhr

    Thank you, for such a concise interview.


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