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Struggle over Identity

Nelly Bekus


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1In this work I intended to give an alternative interpretation to the theme of the Belarusian national idea and nationalism in the context of the systemic transformation of Belarusian society. The thesis of the weak and un developed character of the Belarusian nation has occupied a definite place in the work of Belarusian alternative analysts and Western researchers alike. The emergence of the authoritarian regime and the failure of democratization of Belarusian society are traditionally viewed as both the symptom of a lack of Belarusian identity and the result of weak Belarusian nationalism, which are usually seen as closely interrelated phenomena. Since the first years of Belarusian independence, the disposition of political forces in the country has resulted in the complete merging of “democratization” and “nationalization” rhetoric in the programs of Belarusian parties, whose political failure was assessed as a weakness of the Belarusian nation. The “Belarusian nation” in this context is the nation for which Belarusian nationalists and the Belarusian Popular Front are appealing, a nation of Belarusians opposed to the Soviet experience of Belarusianness. The defeat of political nationalism in the early 1990s made it logical to conclude that there was a deficiency of national identity in the minds of the Belarusian people. At the same time, the Republic of Belarus has a durable status as an antinational state formation. In this context, Belarusian society appears to be divided into two parts: the nationless majority supporting the regime and the Belarusian nation opposing the state. A number of associated factors are usually considered as additional indicators of the Belarusian national identity’s deficiency, such as the idea of building a union state with Russia, linguistic Russification, and, on the whole, the lack of anti-Russian and anti-Soviet sentiments in society. However, as was shown in Part IV, “Arguments and Paradoxes of Weak Belarusian Identity,” these factors are far from simplistically interrelated. For example, hypothetical consent to a political union with Russia in practice does not signify that Belarusians are prepared to give up their state independence. Linguistic Russification, on the one hand, does not lead to political pro-Russianness; on the contrary, the Belarusian-speaking population manifests greater readiness to integrate with Russia. This can be explained by the fact that alongside with the “conscious” Belarusian-speaking Belarusians in big cities there is also a large number of pro-Russian Belarusian-speaking villagers supporting regime. At the same time, Russian-speaking Belarusians call the Belarusian language their native mother tongue. Many Belarusians do not always distinguish themselves from Russians in terms of cultural identity (they are taught the common history, common traditions and roots of the Belarusian and Russian people). At the same time, they manifest a high “index of pride” in their Belarusianness. Moreover, precisely the part of society that comprises “the denationalized majority” (as the supporters of the current power are usually presented) demonstrates their Belarusian identity as an object of pride and as the main principle of their self-determination. Active consideration of these paradoxes indicates the existence of two different and, in many aspects, contradictory concepts of Belarusianness in present Belarusian political and cultural life.

2The research proceeds from the premise that the official Belarusian authorities, despite the openly authoritarian mode of rule and the numerous repressive mechanisms used to suppress dissidence in society, implement their own national project in social and political practice. The official political discourse, the ideology of the Belarusian state, is in fact a specific version of the Belarusian idea. It coexists and competes with the Belarusianness articulated in the nationalist discourse. Approximately half of Belarusian voters support the Belarusian regime, as is revealed in the results of referenda and elections conducted by the Belarusian authorities (independent exit-poll data) and independent opinion polls that assess trust in the Belarusian authorities and the official course of political and economic development, and confidence in official information sources. As a matter of fact, these data enable us to estimate the degree to which the ideas and basic formulations of the official concept of Belarusianness reflect the self-perceptions prevalent in Belarusian society.

3In this situation, a justified question arises: is the given phenomenon of confidence in official policy and the ideas of Belarusian development articulated by the authorities a consequence of official policy in the sphere of “ideology of identity” of Belarusians or, on the contrary, do Belarusians support the authorities’ policy namely because the ideas and values that the authorities articulate correspond to their own ideas and values? In Belarusian society a situation has formed, in which, for many Belarusians, the idea of Belarusianness, formulated in the official discourse, is familiar and relevant, in the same manner that the ideas of the opposition political discourse appear to be familiar and appropriate for others.

4The official and alternative projects of the Belarusian nation differ not only in content but also in their realization of different strategies of nation-representation (nation-articulation and nation-reification). Partly for this reason it has proved impossible to study Belarusianness from the standpoint of a separate theory of nation. The alternative project of Belarusianness is formulated in terms of ethnocultural unity, in which context the Belarusian nation is embedded in medieval history, its symbolic capital founded on the Golden Age of the seventeenth century, and the legacy of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The idea of European Belarus, or the image of Belarus as a civilizational intermediary between Russia and Europe, makes it possible for supporters of alternative Belarusianness to remove Belarus from the sphere of Russia’s civilizational attraction, and, consequently, to formulate its future strategy, which in principle differs from that proposed in the current official discourse. An application of this scale of Belarusianness to the history of the twentieth century caused the justifiable (from this perspective) negation of any significance of Soviet history in the formation of Belarusianness. Historical mythology serves as a symbolical foundation for alternative Belarusianness; it is based on the purposeful reorientation of Belarusianness to the “West” and “the return” of the Belarusian nation to Europe.

5This work is an attempt to show that the problems of legitimation of alternative Belarusianness in the perception of Belarusian society are related, first of all, to the underestimation of the constructive role played by the Soviet state, its institutions, and social practices in the formation of Belarusianness. In talking about the “return,” the adherents of European Belarusianness actually mean a complete reformatting of the Belarusian nation that has been shaped in a different civilizational context and on different sociosystemic bases. Nations within the Soviet state appeared, on the one hand, to be a result of the institutionalization of ethnic communities, and on the other hand, a result of the processes of their modernization and industrialization, although in a non-Western way. The Belarusian nation of the Soviet era resulted from numerous processes of social engineering and institutional reification (standardization, education, correction of history, inclusion of the national formula in the self-description of Soviet people, etc.) against the background of society’s modernization. Not accidentally, this constructive aspect of Soviet national policy and the role of the Soviet state in the legalization, institutionalization, and actual creation of the Belarusian nation and other post-Soviet nations is often emphasized by adherents of the modernist approach to nation study. Meanwhile, the framework of the socialist system and ideology has left its imprints on the content of Belarusianness. Representatives of the Belarusian national movement of the late twentieth century preferred to ignore it, instead of applying their efforts to a detailed reshaping of some aspects of Soviet Belarusianness in the public awareness with which they were confronted during the first years of independence. They selected a principally new counter-formula of Belarusianness formulated analogously with other East European national ideas on the basis of non-Soviet history of Belarusians.

  • 1 Naviny, “A. Milinkevich: Ne stabilnost’ zastoia, a stabilnost’ razvitia,” February 23, 2006, http: (...)

6The official national project, the national idea articulated by the Belarusian authorities, was built on an appeal to Soviet experience, which enabled them to use the mobilizational resource of national awareness connected with the Soviet era that involved a multitude of symbolic ties. The official discourse of Belarusianness finds support for its legitimacy in the Soviet legacy in content as well as in technical means. In order to promote official Belarusianness, the authorities resort to the tools of social reification borrowed from Soviet practice. The Belarusian idea in the official interpretation comprises basic truths of socialist ideology. For example, collectivism and social equality are interpreted here as “features of the national Belarusian character.” As was shown in Part II, “The Rise and Development of the Belarusian National idea,” the combination of national and socialist ideas in the symbolic matrix of Belarusianness was stipulated not so much by the Soviet era as by the preceding period of the emergence of the Belarusian national movement in the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. These ideas were later developed in the practices of Soviet statehood. Accordingly, the Soviet period of Belarusian history is interpreted in the official discourse of Belarusianness as one of nation building. At the same time, in the sphere of alternative discourse, the concepts of “Sovietness” and “Belarusianness” appear within the rigid dichotomy “either […] or.” A. Milinkevich, the democratic opposition candidate for president in the 2006 elections, built his television appeal on the distinction between his identity and that of the incumbent president: “he is a Soviet man, and I am a Belarusian.”1 However, independent opinion polls show that a considerable number of Belarusians include “Sovietness” in their self-description, easily combining it with “Belarusianness.”

7Another aspect of the struggle for Belarusian identity in Belarusian society concerns the strategic issues of its public manifestation and symbolic reification. The major problem of alternative Belarusianness is its opposition to the independent state of Belarus. On the one hand, this means a lack of access to the institutional resources of the state, which, as modernist nation theorists affirm and as Soviet experience demonstrated, has great nation-building resources as a tool of social reification of the nation at the micro and macro levels of social life. On the other hand, it also means a loss of symbolic identification with the signs of official Belarusian statehood that highlight Belarus within the country as well as internationally. Official Belarusianness (quite often independent of ideology) is reified in numerous social practices and civil rituals that run through the life of every state. In current conditions, any events that traditionally contribute to the formation of the individual’s bond with the national community—such as numerous international, children’s, and sports competitions, Olympic games, Eurovision, the Miss World contest, and so on—work toward the establishment and support of official Belarusianness.

  • 2 Natividad Gutiérrez, “The Study of National Identity,” in Modern Roots. Studies of National Identi (...)
  • 3 Ibid.

8The main difference between the national identity and other forms of collective identity (e.g., city squatters, ecological movements, feminist groups, human rights activists, etc.) is that “these latter are built in the op position to the state.”2 Meanwhile, national identity cannot be formed in such op position. It does not arise spontaneously or locally, “it has to be learned and acquired, and that is why a comprehensive institutional support (schools, educational companies, mass media) is important for its formation.”3

9Alternative Belarusianness is represented by different political and cultural manifestations, while its status in the public space is reduced to that of a counterculture. Rock concerts, the alternative (actually underground) cinema, youth clubs, and the independent press (often supplanted from the official media space by the authorities) are the territories in which alternative Belarusianness exists and “realizes itself.” Understandably, this strategy has insufficient resources to win the unequal struggle for Belarusian identity in the mass consciousness within the process of national identity construction. Alternative Belarusianness as a foundation for national self-determination appears to be embedded in political opposition to the Belarusian regime. It becomes a result of the conscious political choice of every person, while official Belarusianness proves to be embedded in the consciousness of those seemingly not involved in politics, for whom it suffices to watch news programs, music contests, or sports events, supporting the national team to “slide” to the side of official Belarusianness. Paradoxically, the ideas of alternative Belarusianness, which are far less politicized in essence (with the underlying concept of the nation as a cultural and historical unit) can exist in Belarusian society only as part of a specific oppositional political doctrine. At the same time, in contemporary Belarusian conditions, official Belarusianness, based on the foundation of utterly ideologized Soviet legacy, is easily extrapolated to the consciousness of those who, at first glance, live outside politics and ideology.

10A specific feature of the struggle for identity is its perpetuity—identity is a process that is never completed. It enables us to believe that the disposition of forces in the official versus alternative Belarusianness opposition, as it currently exists, is not final. Future developments in the country, for instance, a probable shift of emphasis in the official political discourse or new strategies in the sphere of alternative Belarusianness, can cause changes on the “map” of Belarusian identities.

11The struggle for Belarusian identity has become closely interrelated with the struggle against the authoritarian regime. “National awakening” is considered by Belarusian opposition leaders to be the main precondition for the democratization of the country. Consequently, the rhetoric of national revival in the Belarusian public sphere functions as a major instrument for attracting people to the struggle against authoritarianism. Belarusian democratic and nationalist forces, however, lack the necessary institutional resources to facilitate putting their idea of a Belarusian nation into social practice. At the same time, the Belarusian regime, unlike the political and cultural opposition, has enormous institutional resources at its disposal, so it is easily able to promulgate its idea of Belarusianness. From this perspective, it appears highly unlikely that a democratization of the Belarusian political system and a liberalization of society will ever result from the effective “nationalization” of Belarusians’ own consciousness in the meaning implied by nationalists.


1 Naviny, “A. Milinkevich: Ne stabilnost’ zastoia, a stabilnost’ razvitia,” February 23, 2006,

2 Natividad Gutiérrez, “The Study of National Identity,” in Modern Roots. Studies of National Identity,” ed. Alain Dieckhoff and Natividad Gutiérrez (Burlington, VT and Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2001), 8–9.

3 Ibid.

© Central European University Press, 2010

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