Letters From Minsk: the Stalin Lines

A church in the rural village of Zaslawye, Belarus, outside the capital of Minsk, near what was once called the Stalin Line, a protective barrier in World War II of Maginot proportions (and delusions).

This is the twelfth in a series about train and bicycle rides from Switzerland to Belarus, in those carefree days before pandemic lockdowns.

Once I got the hang of riding my bicycle on the sidewalks in Minsk, I found the city pleasant, even in late winter, as the sidewalks are wide and there were few people on foot, except during rush hours. And I was there before tens of thousands took to the streets in opposition to the strong-man band of President Aleksandr Lukashenko.

On most days I set off with a checklist of things to see—Oswald’s apartment, Central Square, the art museum, etc.—and so long as I stayed out of the streets no one minded the intrusion of a bicycle in the capital, although I only saw a handful of other riders during my stay.

The National Art Museum

Since the art museum was just around the corner from my hotel and was sometimes open in the evenings, I often found myself stopping there. It had a bicycle rack (well, a solid iron railing) out front, and inside I could buy postcards and wander among the paintings, many of which reminded me of the farmland through which I had biked to get to the Berezina Crossing.

In particular, I found myself drawn to the landscape paintings of Alexey and Sergey Tkachev, brothers and artists who survived the Great Patriotic War (World War II) and whose paintings can be found in Russia and, to my surprise, here in Belarus.

The village where they were born is now close to the border between Russia and Belarus (then it was just western Russia), and their paintings evoke the rural simplicity that is still prevalent across much of Russia and Belarus.

One painting in the museum shows the women of a village—obviously during the war as all the men are absent—walking to a riverside church, their hair covered with headscarves. Another painting is of a simple wooden house—it could well be in Studienka, on the Berezina—where a woman is tending a flock of ducks.

Yet another painting shows a war widow posing—if not begging for food?—with her husband’s war medals that have been pinned to a suit jacket that he once owned. The jacket is on a hangar and hanging on a city wall. Her expression is both apprehensive and stoical. In my mind I gave the painting the name, “Can I Live on Glory?”

A portrait of a war veteran posing in the 1980s, in his suit and with his combat medals, shows a man with glasses and grey hair. Perhaps he is a thoughtful university professor? He’s at ease with himself, but also somehow detached from the present, as if lost in thoughts about the horrors of the war that he witnessed and survived.

The Great Patriotic War

To learn more about war in Belarus, I spent a morning at the Great Patriotic War Museum, which, during the more recent street demonstrations, is where the protesters often end their marches.

The modernist building, beside a lake in Minsk, sits on a small hilltop that is capped with Minsk’s “Hero City” obelisk (Stalin awarded it). It has a gold star on top. Nor far from the museum is the residence of Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko, of recent crackdown notoriety.

All around the museum there are steps and grass, and in good weather and bad it’s a logical place for an anti-government rally to end—perhaps to make the point that it’s patriotic duty to oppose an autocratic president.

To understand the current relationship between Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Lukashenko’s Belarus, the Great Patriotic War Museum is not a bad place to start, as it makes little distinction between the “two Russias,” and from the museum it would be easy to come away with the impression that the Soviet Union (at least between Belarus and Russia) is alive and well.

The Buffer State of Belarus

Most of the exhibits in the museum are life-sized dioramas with tanks, barbed wire, swooping planes, artillery, machine guns, advancing infantry at Stalingrad, and burned store fronts in Moscow, all of which tell the (Soviet) story of the war, which means leaving out the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact or Stalin’s liquidation of hundreds of professional military officers just before the war (leaving Russia at the mercy of a German attack).

As the legatee of the now defunct Soviet Union, Russian President Vladimir Putin sees Belarus as the lynchpin in his country’s forward line of defense against the heirs of Napoleon’s France and Nazi Germany, both of which took cracks at Moscow (in 1812 and 1941).

With NATO in the Baltic states to the north and knocking on the door in Ukraine to the south, Putin thinks of Belarus as a wedge (a huge Pripet Marsh?) in Russia’s forward defenses, something to be defended at all costs.

The people of Belarus might despise Lukashenko, who takes direction from the Kremlin (as if the last Soviet satellite in Eastern Europe), but Putin will never concede a post-Soviet Belarus to the Western sphere of influence.

To do that would be to withdraw Russia’s line of defense to the flatlands just west of Smolensk, which is 250 miles from Moscow.

The people of Belarus, quite rightly, would love to imagine that they are having their Solidarity moment (with tens of thousands rallying on Sundays in Minsk), but the most likely outcome will be that of the 1956 Hungarian revolt, which ended with Russian tanks in Budapest.

Whether Putin personally likes Lukashenko or not (I think he does, otherwise he might not have dumped $1.5 billion into the Belarusian economy recently, to prop up the beleaguered president), the fact remains that the Russian president sees his own fate tied to that of his counterpart in Minsk.

Remember, too, the lesson of Yalta—the Russians believe in buffer states, while the West puts more faith in spheres of influence.

The Bloodlands

Before and during World War II, Belarus was part of what Yale historian Timothy Snyder calls the “Bloodlands” (comprising Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic states, western Russia, and part of Romania), in which not only Jews but many other groups and races suffered genocidal losses when caught for years between Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany.

In listing the crimes that took place here, Snyder writes about the victims of the Soviet famines in neighboring Ukraine (in the 1930s), various purges in western Russia, the partition of Poland after 1939, and the holocaust of the Jews, which in all claimed more than 10 million lives.

In World War II, Belarus lost about a quarter of its pre-war population—to war, starvation, death camps, etc.—and most of its cities were destroyed. Many pictures in the museum show Minsk reduced to rubble. Some 10,000 villages were destroyed across the country. In Belarus, World War II was a home game.

Walking around the museum I spent a lot of time studying the maps of the so-called Stalin Line that prior to 1941 stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and was supposed to protect the Soviet Union from a western invasion. The line failed to hold.

It was a static line of World War I conception, with barbed wire and bunkers, but was swept aside by the German blitzkrieg, which is why from 1941-44 Belarus was under German occupation.

The Stalin Line

In several locations around Minsk, there are preserved sections of the Stalin Line which can be visited—a day out of town to visit rusting artillery and tanks.

One afternoon I took my bicycle on a commuter train and traveled out to the town of Zaslawye, about 15 miles from the city, to search for the remnants.

The ride took about 45 minutes—it stopped often—and the train dropped me near the historic remains of a medieval village, which once had a castle, a Calvinist church, and various small wooden structures.

It felt somewhat like the Belarus equivalent of colonial Williamsburg, although when the Germans took the town they rounded up the 248 Jews living there in a ghetto and killed them.

I asked directions to the Jewish cemetery in town—I had read that it had recently been discovered and preserved—but no one I spoke with had any idea where it was. It might well have been over the horizon of a flat earth.

Zaslawye

The Stalin Line at Zaslawye isn’t just a few bunkers and trenches with barbed wire, but a full Soviet military park, with tanks, artillery, missiles, rockets, and, of course, a sculpture of Stalin himself.

There are walking tours, firing ranges, radar trucks, spotter planes, helicopters, AK-47s, “Stalin organs”, and watch towers, all of which can be inspected, driven, or fired off. But the trucks on the busy thoroughfare north from Zaslawye spooked me on to side roads, and by the time I got to the park’s entrance, it was toward the end of the afternoon, and I decided against trying out a tank on the proving grounds. Besides, I didn’t think the park would have an exhibit entitled, “Why the Stalin Line failed.”

Later, when I got home, I looked up the answer in Alan Clark’s Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict 1941-1945, which I first read on a big red train ride from Moscow to Ulan Bator in 2008.

Clark writes that in places, especially around cities, the Stalin Line was extremely formidable, and he quotes one intelligence report that said it was “a dangerous combination of concrete, field works and natural obstacles, tank traps, mines, marshy belts and forts, artificial lakes enclosing defiles, cornfields cut according to the trajectory of machine gun fire. Its whole extent right up to the positions of the defenders was camouflaged with a consummate art…” He adds, however, that “the fortified districts were not linked…and the term ‘line,’ although it may have denoted an ultimate goal, was, in 1941, no more than a geographical illusion founded on the presence of a sequence of fortified districts all in roughly the same longitude.”

Finally, and most critically, after Russia partitioned Poland with Germany in 1939, it moved its “line” from near Minsk well west into Poland (in the flatlands between Warsaw and Brest), which meant that when the Germans attacked in 1941, the Russians were newly established at their forward bases to the west and easily swept aside.

Had Stalin not felt the need to yet again partition Poland, this time with Adolf Hitler, he might well have been spared the sieges around Leningrad and Moscow.

Only after I left Belarus did I come across a copy of Peter Mezhiritsky’s On the Precipice: Stalin, the Red Army Leadership and the Road to Stalingrad, 1931-1942, which is a slightly odd, but rewarding, book (some fiction, some non-fiction, and much stream of consciousness) about the reasons Russia was so vulnerable to a German invasion; he blames Stalin’s purges of the senior officers in the Red Army. He adds: “Of course, had there been no purges… matters might have never reached the need for a defense of Stalingrad.”

Next: Lukashenko’s Belarus. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, and The Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent book, about traveling in France and the Franco-Prussian wars, is entitled Biking with Bismarck.
 

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