Friday, January 20, 2017

CIA’s Russia Hands in 1950s Doubted Existence of Distinct Belarusian Identity, Newly Released Document Suggests

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 20 – Among the important documents recently declassified by the US Central Intelligence Agency is one that has particular importance for an understanding of what Washington knew and thought about Belarus and Belarusians in the 1950s and about other non-Russian groups in the then Soviet Union.

            It is an appreciation prepared by CIA officer Peter Kapitsa, a Ukrainian American from North Dakota, dated July 16, 1956,concerning the possibility that agency support for Belarusian programs would not continue or be expanded because of doubts among some at the agency about Belarusians, their national consciousness and their significance to Moscow and to the West; translated into Russian in part at

            The key passages of this appreciation include the following:

“Doubt has been expressed in SR as to what extent the Byelorussians … they feel themselves to be a distinct entity. The existence of a nationalist sentiment in Byelorussia is mentioned daily by the Soviet Byelorussian press, a press which is not reviewed by any known element of CIA Headquarters or the Department of State. Noteworthily the Soviet government prints some 80 daily, weekly and monthly periodicals in Byelorussian plus various books and classics which are distributed in the tens of thousands in order to satisfy the requirements of and to placate the third largest language group in the USSR.

“Even among case officers who are willing to admit that a modicum of nationalist feeling probably exists, doubt persists as to the significance of Byelorussian nationalism. The question of nationalism in Byelorussia is no less important, and possibly considerably more
important because of the strategic location of the BSSR, than is the same question in each of the other nationality areas in the USSR including, of course, the RSFSR. Considering
that 8 to 10 million inhabitants in a relatively rural area speak the same language and have had a long and close association with freedom-loving Poles and Lithuanians, it would be abnormal indeed if no Nationalism existed in Byelorussia.

“It must be remembered when evaluating the future significance of this project that twice during this century Byelorussian nationalist uprisings have unexpectedly played an important role during armed conflicts: during the first World War, the Byelorussians,dissociated themselves from Russia, formed an independent republic which was then recognized internationally and became a force which had to be coped with by Soviet armed forces; during the second World War the Byelorussians organized sixty armed anti-Soviet battalions which offered armed resistance to the Soviet Red Army.

“After World War II open partisan warfare and opposition to the regime continued in Byelorussia through the late forties and into the early fifties. The importance Moscow attaches to Byelorussian nationalism gauged by the time and space devoted by press and radio to that topic.

“Finally, doubt has been expressed about the role played by the Byelorussian emigre group, the BNR organization [and its small Spain-based radio station], in influencing Soviet policies in the Byelorussian SSR or in exerting a real influence upon the Byelorussians in the USSR. [Regarding] other emigre groups, official acknowledgements or attacks bathe Soviet government press are usually taken as valid indications of an émigré group effectiveness inside…the Soviets have been unable to avoid all mention of a group because it has successfully publicized its existence to the Byelorussian population

“It should be noted that there are no other Byelorussian nationalist broadcasts in the
Byelorussian language in existence. (NOTE: The Byelorussian broadcasts over Radio Liberation are not nationalist in content and are strictly controlled to accord with a non-offensive policy toward the nationality issue.)”

            The responses on the routing slip to Kapitsa’s report suggest that his arguments made an impact on his colleagues and superiors, although this document by itself, although important as a measure of how the US intelligence service viewed Belarusians and other non-Russians, does not speak to what was done in response to his arguments.

            But there is one outgrowth of Kapitsa’s observations that is a matter of public record and deserves to be remembered.  Twenty-three years later, in November 1982, Peter Kapitsa’s brother Al, became the first special assistant for Soviet nationalities at the US Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

            As anyone who ready the series, Soviet Nationalities Survey, which Al Kapusta launched and which the author of these lines helped prepare, there was never any question that the Belarusians were not a fully self-conscious nation and one whose geographic location made them strategically significant.

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