The spirit of Soviet times? Look no further than the main Belarusian national celebration – Independence Day of the Republic of Belarus.
The celebration falls on the 3rd of July due to the liberation of Minsk in 1944 from Fascist invaders. Why this date? In 1996 a referendum was conducted by the Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, which was based on the conflict between the Parliament and Mr Lukashenka. In that referendum were raised questions such as the date change of Independence Day, some editions in the Constitution that were supposed to expand the President’s authority, the question of legalizing execution and so on. The majority voted in favour of those suggested questions, and that is why we now celebrate our Independence Day, on the 3d of July.
Originally, the date fell on the 27th of July and the cause for that was the adoption of the Declaration of Sovereignty of Belarus in 1991. But our people made their choice. Belarus became the only former Soviet country whose Independence Day doesn’t have anything to do with the dissolution of USSR.
But one must go back in time, to understand the most important historical events connected with this date. Due to one of the crucial Red Army’s operations called Bagration, the operation to liberate Minsk was carried out on 29th June of 1944 when the troops of the 1st and 3rd Belarusian fronts converged on the city to attack. Next, in cooperation with the 2nd front, the encirclement was completed. On the 3rd of July, the Soviet tankmen broke into the capital and soon the core forces of the 4th German army were captured, about 100 thousand people. There were also those who distinguished themselves during the operation. In the fights near Minsk, senior lieutenant Fedorov’s tank was hit. The tank driver sergeant Bessony’s legs were injured. The situation was such that they couldn’t receive help. Taking their chance, a group of Nazis tried to come up to the tank but Fedorov opened fire, and they all ran back. Then the Nazis dragged a large gun into place and with several shots wedged the turret. Fedorov let the German machine gunner come closer and threw grenades at him, the same way he prevented other attempts to capture the tank. With the onset of darkness, he took the wounded driver out of the machine and managed to escape unnoticed.
Winston Churchill sent his congratulations to do with this event, and others, to the Soviet army. This great event, the liberation of the Belarusian capital Minsk in 1944, is captured in the painting by Belarusian artist Volkov.
But what activities happen during the celebration? Traditionally, the government holds a big parade and an impressive air show is held in the capital. All usually starts in the morning with the President’s speech and with a minute of silence to pay tribute to heroes. Thousands of people, hundreds of machines, parade with the Belarusian army. The Russian army also takes part, which may be a surprise for foreigners.
All around you can see plenty of spectators and most of them are young. Thousands of children from schools are made to come out on that day to fill the streets. In 2017 the spectacle cost Belarus about 2.35 million dollars. Is it worth it? Breathing with the smoke of death machines and watching, you could have an overwhelming feeling inside. The atmosphere itself actually inspires your fear, especially if it is your first time It might look like North Korea or something of that kind but it must be understood that the last war caused severe damage to the Belarusian people; One in four people died in the war which was
a catastrophic disaster for the country and had a large influence on the people’s mindset, culture, literature and art. It gets you thinking of the past and what it brought to our lives. In Belarus this cannot be forgotten so we have been trying to show the world the price of peace and how it is important to stay in peace when it seems that the whole world goes insane. I assure you it costs too much.
After the great morning spectacle, some secular events are held. People of all kinds walk around the centre: families, youngsters, servicemen and drunks. Families usually go to the parks; some might go for a picnic. In every corner there is entertainment. Everything may appear strange to a foreigner because it has a specific atmosphere made by Belarusian culture. Music and singing, the food smell and laughter is everywhere: Minsk centre is full of people like never on any other day of the year.
In late evening there will be a place for another spectacle that is extremely popular as well: an impressive fireworks display. In Minsk they sometimes let them off from different points around the city. Many more Minsk citizens come running to the centre to see the beautiful display.
But for most Belarusians, it is no more than just a free day from work and celebration. Some who come out into the streets to celebrate couldn’t answer you what it is all about and what the story behind the celebration is. Everyone is divided on that day and has different thoughts of their own about it. It seems that Belarus desperately holds on to the past and the road further is unclear, but what unites us most is our silent hopes and prayers for our own young country.
Text by Anatoli Dzerhachou
Photos by Aleksei Gerasimenko