In Belarus, past is marked by Soviet heroes and a forest of 250,000 dead

January 30, 1994|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Staff Writer

MINSK, Belarus -- The past is a treacherous place, shifting, yielding, disloyal. It belongs to the imagination. It belongs to the present. And it is different here now from what it once was.

Two visions of the past, one light and one dark:

The older one belongs to Ivan Misko, laureate of the State Prize of the Soviet Union, Honored Art Worker of the Republic of Belarus, sculptor. He devoted his long career to memorializing the most genuine of Soviet heroes, the cosmonauts, the pioneers of a new age.

The newer vision belongs to Zyanon Paznyak, a bitter and obsessed man, unencumbered by prizes. He is an archaeologist, and he has made one important find in his life -- the killing field of Kurapaty, where Stalinist police cut down a quarter of a million people.

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Mr. Misko, at 61, is a tolerant and easy-going man, even though no one wants his cosmonauts anymore. He spends his time at his studio, on International Street. It has become a gathering place for dancers, opera singers, photographers, psychics, the occasional bureaucrat.

All around are dozens and dozens of Mr. Misko's busts, small and large, of novelists, musicians, assorted heroes of the former Soviet Union -- but most of all, of cosmonauts.

Here are Yuri Gagarin and all the others, strong men, of clay, in their perfectly spherical helmets.

As an artist, Mr. Misko is hard to pigeonhole. He never did any of those awful socialist monuments of factory workers marching into the future, or fierce revolutionaries toting guns. His busts are representational, lifelike, recognizable, unworried.

His first cosmonaut was Gagarin himself, though they never met.

lTC It was March 1968, and one night Mr. Misko heard on the radio that the first man ever to go into space had died, killed in a plane crash. All the next day the radio played nothing but funeral music. The nation was plunged into mourning.

Mr. Misko, inspired, surrounded himself with photos of Gagarin and completed his bust late that same night.

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Mr. Paznyak's obsession was a matter of national shame rather than pride.

The secret police began taking people out to Kurapaty in 1937, and for four years they kept up their work. Kurapaty lies in the pine forest, about a 20-minute drive from Minsk. In January the brilliant white snow lies thick on the branches of the trees.

It has that solemn, protected quiet of the woods in winter. There are no prying winds beneath the cover of the pines.

Time of purges

Except for the police, nobody knew what happened here. It was the time of purges in the Soviet Union. Across the country, millions were disappearing, but it was safer not to know, not to ask.

It was only in 1988 that Mr. Paznyak dug up the first graves. Glasnost, or openness, was sweeping the Soviet Union then. He says the Communist leadership in Minsk tried to conceal his discovery, but it was too late, and soon everyone knew about Kurapaty.

Mr. Paznyak calculates that 250,000 people were killed at Kurapaty. Necessarily, they came from all over Belarus, and probably beyond: The 1939 census showed just 239,000 people in the city of Minsk.

Kurapaty, in other words, was a city of the dead larger than the republic's capital, just down the road.

The skeletons were found in pairs. Apparently, to save bullets, the police had lined their victims up back to back, so they could kill two people with one shot.

The killing at Kurapaty ended only in 1941. It ended because the Nazis came and sent the Soviet secret police fleeing to the east.

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Mr. Misko loved sculpting the cosmonauts because he loved the cosmonauts themselves.

"I simply loved this theme, loved these people," he said. "They were such smart, interesting, beautiful people. Stupid people didn't become cosmonauts."

After his Gagarin bust, the other cosmonauts began sitting for him. He spent long days at Star City, their base outside Moscow.

"I practically think of it now as my hometown," he said.

He not only sculpted Russian cosmonauts, but Romanian, Cuban, Syrian, French, Polish and German cosmonauts as well.

He says he's proud to be a Belarussian. "But I can't consider myself a nationalist. My theme is the cosmos. And I can't just throw that away. It's history."

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Mr. Paznyak is, on the other hand, a committed nationalist, head of the small People's Front delegation in the Belarus Parliament.

He doesn't want to throw away history, either. He hates all that Moscow has done to his country.

He's a nationalist, yet he's attacked for making too much of the deaths of others. His detractors in Minsk will point out that there really weren't so many Belarussians killed at Kurapaty. A great many victims were Lithuanians, or Poles, or Jews, they will say, as if that somehow isn't so bad.

When President Clinton came to Minsk earlier this month, he wanted to lay a wreath at Kurapaty. Belarus' Communist-dominated government tried to keep it off his schedule, but the White House insisted.

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