Reporter’s Notebook: Memories of Talking to Belarus’ Stanislav Shushkevich

Former Belarusian leader Stanislav Shushkevich died this week at the age of 87. He took a part of the Soviet Union’s history with him. 

Shrewd and wise, he was the one who put the last nail in the Soviet Union’s coffin. Together with Ukrainian and Russian leaders Leonid Kravchuk and Boris Yeltsin, in the cold winter of 1991 in Belarus’ Belavezha forest, he signed the document that became the death certificate for the USSR.

A physicist by profession, soft-spoken and accompanied everywhere by his wife, Shushkevich never regretted the collapse of the USSR, and he called the signing of historical documents in Belavezha a “glorious deed.” His family had been politically repressed by the Soviet Union and his grandmother, a Catholic, had made him learn to speak Polish.

He spent his last days at his dacha in Belarus witnessing the brutality of the regime led by Alexander Lukashenko, to whom he lost power in 1994. It is hard to imagine how he felt about the future of his country, which adopted the white and red-striped flag, which has become a symbol of protest against Lukashenko, on the day of his own election in 1991.

What we know for sure is that he did not believe that all-out assault on Ukraine, staged by President Vladimir Putin during the last days of Shushkevich’ life, was possible. He told me about it during a long interview in 2016 in Washington. We spoke our different native languages, he in Belarusian and me in Ukrainian, and we totally understood each other.

Shushkevich considered former Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s decision to appoint Putin as his successor to have been a critical mistake.

“I think it was Yeltsin’s mistake to appoint Putin. But it was very well prepared by KGB professionals who know how to manipulate people. Putin was portrayed as a person on [former St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly] Sobchak’s team, as an educated lawyer, as a person who has demonstrated that he can manage the KGB well….”

“But this organization quickly lost its professionalism as a structure that cares about state security, and quickly acquired corruption as a structure that cares about the well-being of its leaders and cares for these leaders’ politicians,” he told me during the interview.

Asked how the war in eastern Ukraine, which had been going on for a two years at the time, could be stopped, Shushkevich said the war would last a long time and could not be stopped while Putin remains in power.

“Putin is in such a position that he cannot retreat now. All his popularity is based on the fact that he continues the work of Stalin, Peter the Great, and Lenin. These are all emperors after all. And Russia likes to be an empire, and many Russian intellectuals like it.”

And on the issue of Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, he said that it had no legitimate grounds to do so.

“It is absolute nonsense that Crimea is truly Russian, has always been Russian, and they retook what was theirs. This speaks of the dense political ignorance of the Russian population. And this dense political ignorance seeks to preserve the current Russian government,” he said.

The world should not forget his wisdom.

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