At first glance, this picture shows primarily nothing, or at least nothing seemingly out of the ordinary: a cobble-stone street leading into a flat landscape, a barn on the left, in a semi-state of decay, and, barely visible, two people walking on the left side of the road. The barn, one imagines, perhaps marks the boundaries of an otherwise lively village, located in the back of the photographer, and the two people are walking home, returning to their community.
The impression that the images leaves – or can potentially leave – on the observer changes radically once crucial textual information is added. Pictured above are the remains of a village in Soviet Belorussia (located in today’s Belarus) that the German forces and their allies burned to the ground during the Second World War. Such scorched-earth policies were part of reprisal actions against villages whose inhabitants were accused of supporting or helping partisans or resistance fighters. In Soviet Belorussia, an estimated 9,200 villages suffered this fate, of which more than 5,000 were annihilated including some or almost all of their inhabitants. The Germans employed a similar strategy in western Russia, northern Ukraine, Greece and other occupied regions where partisan warfare was strong.
With that information in mind, the seemingly peaceful scenery now begins to conjure images of war and violence, death and destruction. For the historian working with photographs as primary sources, it raises the question of absences and silences. Knowing of the village’s fate during the Second World War, the ghosts of war – the villagers who were murdered by the Germans – are immediately present, hovering over the image, but they cannot be recovered through the photograph itself. Depending on one’s perspective, in other words, an image alone tells us little, or potentially everything. It depends on textual context to avoid misinterpretation, or rather: foreclose other, potentially misleading interpretations.
What also cannot be recovered through the image is another layer of violence in the history of the Soviet countryside, namely the violence that came with the collectivization of agriculture in the 1930s. Collectivization not only fundamentally changed the economic and social structures of village communities, it also led to mass famine in the Soviet Union’s main grain-producing areas, in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and the northern Caucasus. While Belorussia was spared widespread famine, here as well, any resistance to collectivization, real or imagined, was met harshly by the Soviet authorities. This layer of Soviet violence, though, remains hidden in the post-Soviet Belarusian countryside, a silence of a different kind – invisible but to those who know of its history.