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When Trees Take Care of Crosses

Artist Blog by Masha Svyatogor

Last month I went to Kurapaty. This wooded area on the outskirts of Minsk is a special and extremely important place in the history of Belarus. Not only in the history of the past but also in the present.

Until 1988, people who came to Kurapaty to relax with their family and friends, make a barbecue, and sing songs with a guitar by the fire, had no idea that it was a place of mass graves of Belarusians executed by the Soviet authorities.

For the first time, Zianon Pazniak and Jauhen Shmyhaliou wrote about mass murders and burials in Kurapaty in the article “Kurapaty - the Road of Death”, published in 1988. Their publication was of great importance, as it initiated archaeological excavations and a criminal investigation, during which it was proved that the mass shootings of Belarusian civilians were actually committed by the NKVD (Soviet secret police) from 1937 to 1941.

It is curious that during the investigation, some groups attempted to prove that the crimes were committed not by the NKVD, but by the German Nazis during World War II, but these attempts were unsuccessful.

The total number of victims is unknown for sure. According to some estimates, it may exceed 250,000 people. To this day, the Belarusian regime still does not open access to archival documents of the NKVD, which could shed light on the crimes, the number of victims of Stalin's repressions, and their names.

Moreover, the Belarusian authorities have always prevented the continuation of research on burials in Kurapaty, trying in every way to depoliticize this place. A striking example is the demolition in April 2019 of more than 70 crosses installed by Belarusian activists in 2018 as a memorial to the victims. The authorities explained the demolition of the crosses by their desire to “improve” Kurapaty “without any politics”. According to them, the demolished crosses were installed illegally.

Belarusian activists did everything possible to preserve this place. Along with the Belarusian politician, activist, and current political prisoner Zmicier Dashkevich, they have long defended Kurapaty from the construction of a business center there.

As I have already mentioned, most of the victims killed in Kurapaty have not been identified, we do not know their names, how old they were, and what they did. Therefore, most of the wooden crosses are nameless.

But some names are well-known. Presumably in Kurapaty on the night of 29-30 October 1937, the Soviet authorities shot more than a hundred Belarusian cultural workers and scientists. Since 2017, the annual event “Night of Executed Poets” has been held in Kurapaty in memory of the murdered people. Currently, it is not possible to organize this memorial event in Kurapaty, and in general in any public space in Belarus.

Now it's quiet here and smells of mushrooms; the soil is very soft in places, so that the sole almost falls in there; crosses cast shadows on the ground, and some parts of the pines in the thick of the forest are illuminated by the setting sun.

A large number of wooden crosses are in terrible condition - they are broken and torn out of the ground, and it is clear that people did it. By the way, crosses in Kurapaty have been objects of vandalism for a long time.

Among the torn-out crosses, there are also those that are slightly supported by nearby pine trees. It seems that crosses find in these trees the only protection from falling. It seems to be the only support and care they have at the moment.

Violence in Belarus still continues every day at all levels.

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