The early days of Mikhail S. Gorbachev's perestroika in Belorussia were highlighted by two major events: the Chornobyl' disaster of April 26, 1986 (the Belorussian SSR absorbed 70 percent of the radioactive contaminants spewed out by the reactor), and a December 1986 petition sent by twenty-eight intellectuals to Gorbachev expressing the Belorussian people's fundamental grievances in the field of culture ("a cultural Chornobyl'").
Whereas the full impact of the physical effects of Chornobyl' was kept secret for more than three years, the "cultural Chornobyl'" became a subject of hot discussion and an inspiration for considerable political activity. The petition pleaded with Gorbachev to prevent the "spiritual extinction" of the Belorussian nation and laid out measures for the introduction of Belorussian as a working language in party, state, and local government bodies and at all levels of education, publishing, mass media, and other fields.
The document embodied the aspirations of a considerable part of the national intelligentsia, who, having received no positive answer from the CPSU leadership either in Moscow or in Minsk, took to the streets. A number of independent youth groups sprang up, many of which embraced the national cause. In July 1988, the Organizational Committee of the Confederation of Belorussian Youth Associations called for "support of the radical restructuring of Belorussia."
In June 1988, mass graves, allegedly with up to 250,000 of Stalin's victims, were found near Minsk at Kurapaty. This sensational discovery fueled denunciations of the old regime and brought demands for reforms. An October demonstration, attended by about 10,000 people and dispersed by riot police, commemorated these victims as well as expressing support for the Belarusian Popular Front (BPF), which had been formed earlier in the month in hopes of encouraging reform.
The group of activists who called for reform was relatively small; most people, although angry about the graves, remained both attached to Soviet ways and politically apathetic, believing that all these public activities would make no difference in the long run. The March 4, 1990, elections to the republic's Supreme Soviet illustrated the extent of political apathy and ideological inertia. Of the 360 seats in the legislature, fifteen were unfilled (at least eleven remained so more than a year later); of those elected, 86 percent belonged to the Communist Party of Belorussia (CPB). This conservative majority was not alone in slowing the pace of reforms. A majority of the republic's population, 83 percent, also voted conservatively in the March 17 all-union referendum on the preservation of the Soviet Union, even though the Supreme Soviet of the Belorussian SSR adopted the Declaration of State Sovereignty of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic on June 27, 1990 (following the Russian example of some two weeks earlier).
A series of strikes in April 1991 put an end to the Belorussian SSR's reputation as the quietest of the European Soviet republics. The demands were mainly economic (higher wages and cancellation of a new sales tax), but some were also political (resignation of the Belorussian government and depoliticization of republic institutions). Certain economic demands were met, but the political ones were not. However, increasing dissent within the party led to thirty-three CPB deputies joining the opposition as the Communists for Democracy faction one month later.
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