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22 March 2023, 09:22

How Khatyn became a symbol of sorrow and why Lukashenko has a special attitude to such iconic places

Aleksandr Lukashenko inspects the progress in the project to overhaul the Khatyn memorial complex, September 2022
Aleksandr Lukashenko inspects the progress in the project to overhaul the Khatyn memorial complex, September 2022

In 2004 the presidents of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine came to Khatyn to honor the memory of the war victims. Who would have thought that the unifying victory over fascism would lose its force, that the brown plague would raise its head again and that we would have to stand up for the historical truth. In the new episode of the project "After the Fact: Lukashenko's Decisions” we will recall the tragic date in our history – 22 March 1943. We will tell you about the symbol of sorrow and those devastating years that became part of the Belarusian DNA.

“At a time when this memorial complex was built, it was believed that Belarus lost one in four during the war. Today we know that the number of civilian casualties is higher. Belarus lost its every third citizen. Every third died in that terrible war. The Nazis planned to exterminate our people, to clear living space for themselves in our land. Our people, including peaceful residents of Khatyn, got in the way of the Nazis frustrating their plans to steal our future and the future of generations to come. On behalf of the Belarusian people, I would like to thank you, Vladimir Vladimirovich, and you, dear Leonid Danilovich, for being with us today as we are preparing to celebrate Independence Day, the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Belarus from fascism. We appreciate that you came to Belarus to be with the silver-haired veterans, our heroes, with residents of our country,” the Belarusian head of states said addressing the Russian and Ukrainian counterparts at a ceremony in Khatyn in 2004.

Khatyn Memorial story

"Khatyn" is the epitome of all Belarusian villages burned down during the Great Patriotic War. The memorial complex has a symbolic cemetery commemorating 185 villages that were burned down and never revived. Khatyn was the 186th. The "Symbolic Trees of Life" memorialize 433 villages that were burned down by the Nazis together with the inhabitants and that were restored back in the post-war period. Could the authors of the complex imagine that decades on these figures would be revised upward several times? According to the latest data of the Prosecutor General's Office, the preliminary investigation established more than a thousand new settlements partially or completely destroyed during the Great Patriotic War. Among them more than 30 shared the fate of Khatyn. Initially, three crosses were installed at the burial site of the remains of the Khatyn residents killed in the massacre. Later a modest concrete obelisk with a star was built. It stood until 1964. Then came The Grieving Mother.

rtur Zelsky, Director of the Khatyn Memorial Complex, recalled that the uncertainty over the status of the site was justified at the time. The Soviet Union budget did not provide for expenditure to build a large-scale complex. Such project would require the approval in Moscow. Apparently, there were concerns that it would not get the green-light at the union level. So everything was brushed over. The republican press in the BSSR covered the construction. They made no secret of it but downplayed its scale presenting it just as a monument on the site of the burned village.

Applications for the memorial project contest were announced open in March 1967. The winning team were architects Gradov, Zankovich and Levin, sculptor, People's Artist of the BSSR Selikhanov. It was they who came up with the idea of rims of log houses in the place of former houses, obelisks in the form of chimneys and the painful sound of bells.

“The memorial complex was really non-typical for the Soviet time. It was absolutely humble, devoid of pomp, just like a small Belarus is. Probably, at that time it was the only memorial, not a monument, in the USSR honoring war civilian casualties. It was a 100% Belarusian project. Indeed, granite was brought from Ukraine, marble from Russia, but everything was financed from the republican budget,” Artur Zelsky said.

Memories shared by the only surviving witness of the Khatyn tragedy

The Khatyn memorial complex officially opened on 5 July 1969. A torch was lit from the Eternal Flame in Minsk and brought to Khatyn on an armored personnel carrier.

Thousands of people joined the rally to hear this heartbreaking story firsthand.

“Every time I think of Khatyn, my heart starts bleeding. In the middle of the day on 22 March, they came to Khatyn, surrounded the village, started shooting, they drove people to the barn, locked the door, and set houses on fire. And then the barn. They set the straw roof on fire. Fire was coming from above. People slammed the door trying to get out. They were met with gun fire. People were scrambling to get out, but they could not. They were banging on the door. I was pulling my son, I was trying to help him get out. He was screaming for help. I bent down to help him. He died in my arms. They were shooting at me, the bullet hit my shoulder,” reminisced Iosif Kaminsky, the only adult surviver of the Khatyn massacre. His reminiscences were voiced at the opening of the Khatyn Memorial Complex. Perhaps he was destined to survive to tell the whole world the truth about that terrible day. He passed away in 2020. But the memory of him and all victims of fascism is alive.

“Our nation will always bear the scars of those tragic years. And today, at the Eternal Flame, we again feel the fierce power of the struggle and the bitterness of loss. We feel the unbreakable spirit of the fighters of the Brest Fortress garrison and those who took part in the Battle of the Dnieper, the resilience of the heroes of the Ushachi breakthrough and the Minsk underground, the pain of the burned children of Khatyn, thousands of prisoners of ghettos and death camps. We remember the rejoicing of Minsk residents as they greeted Soviet soldiers in July 1944. So let's remember those momentous things. Let's recall the dead, quietly, as Slavic people do. Eternal glory to the heroes who liberated the Motherland, and endless shame to the aggressors and traitors who tried to destroy our people!” said Aleksandr Lukashenko as he laid a wreath at the Victory Monument on 9 May 2012.

What role Aleksandr Lukashenko played in restoring the Khatyn Memorial Complex

Time spares nothing, including monuments. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the memorial began to fall into disrepair. So the president took a decision to completely overhaul the memorial complex by the 60th anniversary of Belarus' liberation from the Nazi invaders. Belarusians joined efforts to restore this important monument. Later on the presidents of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine symbolically met on the Khatyn land to mark this memorable date. It is not for us to judge how other countries handle historical facts. Alas, not all Slavs cherish the truth. It is gratifying that Belarusians and Russians remain on the same page regarding historical memory.

“The Rzhev Memorial to the Soviet Soldier will always be a symbol of unbreakable friendship between Russia and Belarus, a place of overwhelming pride and admiration for heroism of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers. We will not let anyone belittle the significance of the Great Victory, distort the truth about the events of that time and rehabilitate Nazism. Otherwise, a tragedy like this may occur again. Belarus and Russia lost millions of lives in order to win back peace, so the two countries remain steadfast in their position,” Aleksandr Lukashenko said at the ceremony to unveil the Rzhev Memorial in June 2020.

Another large-scale reconstruction effort is underway in the run-up to the 80th anniversary of the Khatyn tragedy. It is important to retain the original appearance and keep everything simple and humble. That was Aleksandr Lukashenko's idea. Following his decision, a nationwide reconstruction project was launched at the memorial complex. It brought together the youth, families and labor collectives from all over the country.

“More than 500 young people from Minsk came here every weekend. Young people participated as volunteers and as part of a student work brigade. A team consisting of 10 students of Belarusian National Technical University was the first to embark on this truly people's project declared by the president. Young workers from MTZ, MAZ helped in their free time, they did landscaping works. Historical memory plays an important role in shaping people's character when they are going through their formative years. Every person's life journey begins with a family and everyone has great-grandparents who tell them the truth about the past. Relying on family history young people are building their future,” said Roman Bondaruk, First Secretary of the Minsk City Committee of the BRSM Youth Union.

Why the museum at the site of the burned Khatyn is a special historical place for Belarusians

The museum in Khatyn is anything but ordinary. It is a special place of memory. “It is designed to produce a direct impact on both the minds and feelings of people. While touring the museum people should understand the scale of the ordeal that put the nation on the brink of extinction. Every third Belarusian died in World War II. We need to grasp the scale of this huge humanitarian tragedy. And once again we must remind everyone: Belarusians want only one thing which is peace!” Artur Zelsky, Director of the Khatyn Memorial Complex, said.

“If we do not do it now, no one will.” The director of the memorial complex still remembers these words said by the Belarusian president during the national voluntary work day. Today, unfortunately, Artur Zelsky is seriously ill. Yet, he continues to work to ensure that descendants know as much as possible about that war. His book about Khatyn was published by the anniversary of the tragedy. The book contains new facts. What happened in Khatyn is well established and the evidence is more than enough. For example, local historian Aleksandr Pavlyukovich shared this audio recording with our editorial board. On the tape is the voice of a resident of the village of Mokrad. The woman tells about the first victim of Khatyn.

“Once we heard shooting in Khatyn, we started running out of the village. It was in the afternoon. The shooting in Khatyn started around four in the afternoon. The mother dressed us and we ran to the factory. She was carrying water. We were running and saw a bullet hit her. She dropped the buckets with water and fell down. We approached her. Her mother was there, she saw everything. We tell her: “Your Nina has fallen down”. When they were burying her, they saw that the bullet hit her heart. The shooting was heavy,” Nina Yemelyanova, a resident of the village of Mokrad, recalls that horrible day.

Aleksandr Lukashenko supports the initiative to build a memorial complex in the village of Ola

149 young trees, by the number of killed residents, were planted at the Khatyn Memorial Complex on the national voluntary work day. The head of state took part in the planting of these trees that were later arranged as a park of historical memory. The president has a special attitude towards such iconic places. Several years ago, at one of the meetings with Aleksandr Lukashenko, a student asked him to support the initiative to build a memorial complex in the village of Ola. The president supported the idea, because, as he would later say at the opening of the memorial, communal graves keep the truth. Our sacred duty is to preserve it and pass it on to the next generations.

“Here, in the village of Ola, which became the last refuge for the residents of the surrounding villages, almost 2,000 people were burned. More than half of them were children. That makes up 12 Khatyn villages together. Belarus will never allow the rebirth of Nazism ideas in its land. Belarus will never allow the history to be rewritten and the memory of the winners, who saved the world from butchers, to be betrayed. There can be no forgiveness for atrocities,” Aleksandr Lukashenko stressed as he spoke at the opening of the memorial complex in the village of Ola, Svetlogorsk District, in June 2020.

“For what the Khatyn bells toll”. All Belarusian schools will hold a lesson under this title. Another lesson will be dedicated to the 78th anniversary of Victory in the Great Patriotic War. The patriotic drawing contest Khatyn Through the Eyes of Children has united thousands of young Belarusians. This is how children depicted the historical truth. The main thing for them is to learn this lesson for life.

Митрополит Минский и Заславский Вениамин, Патриарший Экзарх всея Беларуси во время церемонии освящения храма Рождества Пресвятой Богородицы в Хатыни
Митрополит Минский и Заславский Вениамин, Патриарший Экзарх всея Беларуси во время церемонии освящения храма Рождества Пресвятой Богородицы в Хатыни

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