Several Belarusian newspapers have noted that August 9, 2017, is the 115th anniversary of the birth of Panteleimon Ponomarenko (1902-84, a native of Krasnodar, Russia), the party leader of Belarus during the Stalinist repressions and war years. Ponomarenko has a mixed reputation but there seems to be a consensus that he was always not the hard-hearted stone-faced Stalinist of lore, but a man with the interests of Belarus at heart.
Some accounts focus on the alleged plans of Stalin to appoint Ponomarenko as his successor, or alternatively as the head of the Soviet government. Whether or not such plans were serious—the two men certainly appear to have had few differences—there was little chance of success because of widespread opposition from Khrushchev, Beria, Malenkov, and others. Moreover, Stalin added Ponomarenko to the ruling Politburo only in October 1952, just five months before the former’s death.
Another facet of the period when Ponomarenko was prominent was a proposal after the war to attach the Kaliningrad region to the Belorussian SSR. Evidently Stalin showed some sympathy for this proposal, which would have to some extent compensated for the loss of the Vilnius (Wilna) region to Lithuania in 1939 and subsequently in the postwar resettlement. Interestingly current Belarusian president Aliaksandr Lukashenka evidently raised the same idea in a conversation with Vladimir Putin, who also appeared to give the notion some serious scrutiny. Quite how they proposed to circumvent Lithuania is a moot point.
After 1953, Ponomarenko’s career went slowly downhill until he received the most lowly rank of party leaders not quite considered outcasts: that of Soviet ambassador. Ponomarenko’s time as the USSR’s chief representative abroad ended in sensational fashion in the Netherlands in 1962, when he was deported after getting into a fist fight with Dutch police (at the age of 60!) when they prevented the Soviet authorities from arresting scientist Aleksey Golub after he and his wife had sought political asylum.
Any assessment of Ponomarenko’s career, however, must begin with his role in the annexation of ‘Western Belarus’ in September 1939 under the terms of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Ponomarenko’s photograph was a familiar sight in Soviet newspapers in Bialystok, then the local ‘capital’. Even more notable was his term as First Party Secretary in Belarus from June 1938 to March 1947, encompassing two events of great importance: his role in the purges in the republic and his leadership of the Soviet partisan movement. In 1944-48 he also held the position of head of the BSSR government.
Though Ponomarenko was not at the helm during the peak of the purges in 1937, his name is prominent on execution orders in the National Archives of Belarus, written in clearly coloured crayon. Possibly he may have saved some on the list—he claimed, wrongly, to have rescued such cultural leaders as Yanka Kupaa and Yakub Kolas from the purges (see https://news.tut.by/culture/554984.html )—but there is no doubt that he followed Stalin’s orders faithfully, most likely because he was a genuine follower of the Soviet dictator.
Though he formally headed the Central Headquarters of the Partisan movement from 1942, he took over from the local Belarusian activists from his headquarters in Moscow. The earliest anti-Nazi resistance took place on a voluntary basis from October 1941. Ponomarenko, who had fled Minsk as the Nazis forces advanced, tried to impose order from the outside, an almost impossible task despite the credit he often receives today in official school textbooks.
The result of the earlier actions against the invaders was an innate suspicion in Moscow of local forces and also of the Minsk underground, accused of collaboration with the enemy. Later, a plan for the liberation of Minsk by partisans was dropped. Instead the regular Soviet army recaptured the remains of the city, which had been bombed from the air by the Soviet air force.
Historian Igor Melnikov begins his recent article on Ponomarenko in Istoricheskaya Pravda with the epithets ‘Gatherer of Belarusian lands’, ‘ardent Stalinist’, ‘successful apparatchik’, and ‘successor of the leader of the Soviet people’ (http://www.istpravda.ru/opinions/72/). Belarusians need to remember him because he was leader of the republic in a traumatic period of upheaval and loss. But whether they should feel any affection for him is debatable.
Ponomarenko was exactly what Stalin wanted in a republican leader: devoted, subservient, and ruthless. He lacked the charisma of Piotr Masherau who led the republic in more peaceful times (1965-80), and he played little part in the affairs of the republic during the last three decades of his life before he passed away in Moscow in January