Svetlana Boginskaya was an iconic Soviet/Belarusian gymnast who competed at three Olympics. She has the distinction of competing in all three Olympics under a different flag. In 1988 she competed under the Soviet flag, in 1992 the Olympic flag, and in 1996 she wore the flag of Belarus. But she competed under more flags than that.
At the 1992 World Championships Boginskaya competed under a political organization known as “CIS” which is similar in structure to the European Union. At the 1992 European Championships she competed under the flag of Belarus, but it wasn’t the same Belarusian flag she wore in Atlanta. This is the forgotten flag Boginskaya competed under.
Viewers with a keen eye might have noticed the Belarusian flag change which in the grand scheme of things occurring at a major gymnastics competition, was a trivial detail. This article isn’t going to talk much about the sport of gymnastics, but the decision behind the change which symbolized so much about the direction the country was heading. It is the story of what happened to the country that gave us Olga Korbut, Svetlana Baitova, and of course, Svetlana Boginskaya.
When the Soviet Union broke apart in the early 1990s, for most of the newly independent ex-Soviet countries in Europe, they didn’t create new flags on the spot. Instead they adopted flags that in some cases, had existed for centuries. Nearly every one of these flags had been used as national flags during their short-lived eras of independence in the aftermath of World War I.
As the Soviets acquired these territories, often by force, they quickly suppressed these flags. These flags not only represented a country that was once independent, but an acknowledgement that there were ethnic groups that were distinctly non-Soviet. For decades the flags were banned, but not forgotten. When they appeared at protests in the late 1980s, it was at that point many realized the Soviet Union had seen its day.
The Red-White-Red Belarusian flag follows the same style of most post-Soviet nations in Eastern Europe. They are either a bicolor or tricolor with stripes that are horizontal or vertical. Note: Moldova is ethnically Romanian. They copied the flag of Romania and added a coat of arms to it.
It is a flag style that is found all across Europe. For much of European history, the rise of these flags in popularity coincided with the fall of autocratic monarchies and the rejection of foreign rule. Flags have meaning and for this particular flag style, it has evolved to symbolize Western democratic values, membership to the European community, and the reaffirmation of their own ethnic heritage.
So why would Belarus get rid of a flag that had such connotations associated with it? The flag change was pioneered by Alexander Lukashenko who has been frequently referred to as the last dictator of Europe. (1) And the flag he choose was the following:
Many enjoy this flag due to its originality and style, but they might think differently when they see the next flag:
The current flag of Belarus is virtually identical to the flag of Belarus back when it was a Republic within the USSR. The sidebar has had its colors reversed while the communist imagery has been removed. Of the 15 countries that emerged as newly independent countries during the breakup of the Soviet Union, Belarus is the only one that has Soviet influences in its flag.
Lukashenko not only removed from the Belarusian flag its symbol as a unique identity, he replaced it with a Soviet era symbol. Symbols that deemphasized Belarus as a unique identity, but an identity cohesive with Moscow. In the aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet Union Belarus emerged with Belarusian as its lone official language. At the same time Belarus was changing its flag, it also granted the Russian language equal status with Belarusian. That “equal” status is now merely a token symbol as Russian is heavily favored in government and education. Presently, the majority spoken language in Belarus is Russian.
It all comes down to the proverb “A language is a dialect with an army.” The quip that describes the arbitrary difference between the two. Some languages can be vastly different from each other, others can be quite similar. Russia and Belarus have a longstanding timeline of cultural overlap and shared history. The perceived etymology of Ukraine has often been “the borderland.” For Belarus the perception is “White Russia.”
Disclaimer: I’m only pointing out the perception people have as to where these etymologies come from, not whether they are right or wrong.
In the aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet Union, Belarus appeared to be working towards differentiating itself from Russia. Lukashenko reversed that trend and that policy is what the 1995 flag change has come to represent. The old White-Red-White flag has since become an opposition symbol and can be seen at demonstration rallies.
Belarus is a country under two different flags. At one point, Boginskaya herself competed under two different flags. Shortly after the flag change Boginskaya appeared at the 1995 Pre-Olympics. Her warmups had the new flag on it, but she wore a White-Red-White flag on the shoulder of her leotard.
I wouldn’t put too much thought into why she wore it. It is very likely that Boginskaya didn’t want to damage her leotard by ripping off the old flag, or hadn’t had the time to find a new flag and stitch it on. Her teammate Elena Piskun was at this same competition and wore the new flag.
During her time as a gymnast Boginskaya competed under a wide range of flags. In the 1980s she she competed under the flag of the Soviet Union in international competition. In domestic competition she was represented by the flag of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. After the breakup of the USSR she competed at the 1992 European Championships under the first flag of Belarus. At the 1992 World Championships she competed under the CIS designation. (2) Then there was the 1992 Olympics where she competed under the Olympic flag. And finally on her return to the Olympics it was the second flag of Belarus. (3)
As for Belarus, the country has a longstanding history of paying the highest price when trouble comes to Eastern Europe. The country lost 25% of its population during World War II. It was by far the highest percentage of deaths amongst any country in the war. For comparison the Soviet average was 13.7%. Four decades later during the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, 70% of the radioactive fallout landed on Belarus.
In the aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet Union Belarus once again appeared to get the short end of the stick. This time by not enjoying the same pivot to democracy that has occurred in so many post-Soviet nations.
Belarus still maintains the Soviet era KGB and unlike Russia, didn’t even try to disassociate from such a name. Lukashenko reacted to COVID-19 exactly how one would expect. First saying “There are no viruses here” and later suggesting it could be fended off by drinking vodka and going to the sauna. He has largely resisted enacting social distancing measures.
In August of 2020 Lukashenko won his sixth term in another election that was widely perceived as fraudulent. The Belarusian people reacted with mass protests that have already seen the death of one demonstrator. The situation is tense not just for Belarus, but is something citizens of every country should be watching closely as Lukashenko’s foreign policy is that of a Russian ally.
In 2014 the pro-Russian government of Ukraine was toppled by the Ukrainian people and replaced with a government seeking to realign itself with the West. Russia responded with the illegal annexation of Crimea and further incursions in Eastern Ukraine. If the people of Belarus were to topple Lukashenko, it is most likely Russia would respond in similar fashion. While the West would be forced to respond with the harshest rounds of diplomatic responses seen so far to avoid the perception of appeasement as Russia would be a repeat violator of national sovereignty.
But that is the powder keg that hasn’t yet ignited. As for now countries are supporting the people of Belarus by lighting up their landmarks in the colors of the Belarusian flag.
A stripe of red and white.
(1) The term originated out of comments made by Condoleezza Rice. She said “the last remaining true dictatorship in the heart of Europe.” It is a calculated political statement that leaves open the possibility of labeling other countries as dictatorships due to the vagueness of the phrases “true dictatorships” and “heart of Europe.” The phrase has stuck every since. The quote itself comes from the early 2000s and did not age well after the rise of Erdogan, Putin, and Orban. It should also be stressed that this statement originated out of the Bush administration in retaliation for Lukashenko’s support of Saddam Hussein.
(2) In 1992 the newly created CIS had a provisional flag with the letters “C.I.S.” on it. Gymnasts at the 1992 World Championships competed under the CIS designation but an FIG flag was raised when they won a medal. I used the non-provisional CIS flag in the graphic.
(3) It should be noted that Belarus again changed its flag in 2012, but these were only minor changes.