KOSAVA, Belarus — Thomas Jefferson hailed him as the “purest son of liberty I have ever known.” New York named a bridge, a street and swimming pool after him to celebrate his role in the American War of Independence. Poland reveres him as the leader of a late-18th-century revolt against the Russian empire.
So what is Andrej Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a lifelong foe of autocracy, doing at the center of a state-run memorial complex in Belarus — a close ally of Russia that has been ruled for 25 years by the same autocratic leader?
The simple answer is that Kosciuszko — known in Belarus as Kastiushka — was born and raised in the bucolic countryside around Kosava, a small Belarusian town 125 miles southwest of the capital, Minsk.
Tired of being dismissed as an appendage of Russia, denounced as “Europe’s last dictatorship” or, worse still, simply ignored, Belarus is now exalting its most famous local hero.
“He is an American national hero and a Polish national hero, but he is our hero, too,” said Irina Semenyuk, the deputy director of the memorial complex. “Thanks to him, people know about us.”
That may be overstating things a bit, particularly his status in contemporary America. But Kosciuszko (pronounced “kosh-CHUSH-ko,” not as New Yorkers would have it) was far ahead of most of his European contemporaries in fighting for democracy and human rights.
After architecture and art studies in Poland and France, he traveled to America in 1776, fleeing a doomed love. In Philadelphia, he helped design fortifications to protect the Continental Congress and joined forces fighting the British along the Hudson River.
He then spent two years fortifying West Point, where he was made chief of engineering in 1780. He ended the War of Independence as a brigadier general in the United States Army and a citizen of the new republic.
Back in Europe in the 1780s, he supported liberal reforms in what was then the western fringe of an expanding Russian empire. In 1794, he led an uprising against Russian rule and achieved his greatest military success by defending Warsaw against besieging Russian and Prussian forces for months.
His opposition to serfdom, however, made some, especially nobles, wary of supporting him and the revolt was finally defeated.
Jailed for a time in St. Petersburg at Peter Paul Fortress, Kosciuszko was released after the death of Catherine the Great in 1796, and allowed to leave Russia.
The original wooden house where Kosciuszko was born in 1746 burned down in 1944 when Soviet guerrilla fighters, in pursuit of retreating Nazi soldiers, set fire to a nearby palace that had been used by the Germans.
At the time of Kosciuszko’s birth, this land belonged not to Belarus — which first came into existence in 1918 — but to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which at its height controlled territory from the Baltics to the Black Sea.
Many other towns in what is now Belarus have their own claims to fame, like Mir, the birthplace of Louis B. Mayer, the film producer and co-founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer or Novahrudak, the ancestral home of President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
But none can beat Kosava for the global celebrity of its own native son, after whom Australia named one of its highest peaks and who stands atop a pedestal at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
In Poland, nearly every town has a street or square commemorating his struggle against tyranny, particularly the Russian variety. France named him an honorary citizen.
Ruled from Moscow as part of the Soviet Union until 1991, Belarus for decades showed no interest in celebrating Kosciuszko.
Soviet rulers never liked him much and removed an early statue put up in his honor by Poles in western Belarus. For years, the only statue in his honor was a bust on the grounds of the American Embassy in Minsk.
The post-Soviet Belarus state, too, initially kept him at arm’s length, said Leonid Nesterchuk, a Belarus historian who heads the Kosciuszko Foundation, which has been lobbying since the 1990s for official recognition of Kosciuszko as a Belarus hero.
In recent years, however, the authorities, prodded by Kosciuszko fans, have started viewing him as a useful source of national pride. He entered school textbooks as a local-born giant on the world stage and got a new street named in his honor in Brest, near the border with Poland.
Mr. Nesterchuk said that when he first appealed to the government for money to reconstruct Kosciuszko’s house in the 1990s, he was rebuffed.
But, despite testy relations between Minsk and Washington, it did not object when the State Department in 2004 gave his foundation $28,000 to build a wooden house on the original stone foundations. The United States last year gave an additional $12,000 for repairs to the thatched roof.
Also last year, a statue of Kosciuszko, the country’s first such public tribute, was put up outside the replica of the house. The cost of the statue, around $12,000, was raised through a crowdfunding campaign.
A plaque on its base declares the world-renowned champion of freedom “a great son of Belarus land.”
The authorities in Minsk pay for the upkeep of Kosciuszko’s birthplace and the salaries of guides. They are also funding the lavish renovation of the nearby palace, a jewel of neo-Gothic architecture, and plan to turn the whole area into a national historical site.
The mayor of Kosava, Leonid Yuditz, a loyal acolyte of Belarus’s authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, said he saw no problem in celebrating an 18th-century champion of democracy, so long as this helps puts his town and country on the map.
“Because of him people now come here and leave their money,” he said, noting that foreign tourists, particularly Kosciuszko enthusiasts from neighboring Poland, have been pouring into town and seen what Belarus has to offer — pristine nature, clean air and unusually tidy streets.
The mayor, like all officials in Belarus, is particularly proud of his country’s cleanliness, a stark contrast with the filth and disarray that blights many towns and villages in neighboring Russia.
More than 35,000 people last year visited the Belarus shrine to the memory of the man who helped George Washington beat the British and then returned home to rally a potent, but ultimately unsuccessful, uprising against the Russian czarina.
Belarus’s belated enthusiasm for Kosciuszko has irked some people in neighboring Poland, which views him as a Polish national treasure.
“Belarus did not even exist when he was born,” said Veslav Wychodzki, a retiree from Poland who traveled to Kosava recently to pay tribute to Kosciuszko. “This was Polish land. They only put up a statue to him last year and never really talked about him before.”
Mr. Nesterchuk, the Belarus historian, said: “The Poles say he belongs to them. The Lithuanians, the Ukrainians say the same thing. The Americans, too.”
“But I always say that Kosciuszko does not belong to anyone,” Mr. Nesterchuk added. “He belongs to the whole world as a true democrat and a fighter for freedom.”
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