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Struggle over Identity

Nelly Bekus


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1In his essay Nasha Zdrada (“Our Betrayal”), the Belarusian writer Pyatro Vasyuchenka writes about the strange phenomenon of “betrayal” in the existence of the Belarusian people:

  • 1 Pyatro Vasyuchenka, “Nasha zdrada,” Fragmenty, nos. 1–2 (2000): 208.

An elderly lady asks me:
“Pyatro, why were there so many traitors among your Belarusians during the war?”
A young lady says categorically about Vasil Bykau:
“He has left […] betrayed us.”
Mr. Khazbulatov, after the suppression of the August 1991 putsch
states with dismay:
“Belarus has betrayed us.”
I know what to tell these ladies and gentlemen. […] I can say that
[…] we have betrayed Bykau, Bykau has not betrayed us.”1

2During the past fifteen years in Belarus, a situation has emerged in which one part of society has the impression that the other part has betrayed it, while this other part considers the first part as traitors. Both consider themselves true Belarusians, both are certain that the other has betrayed Belarus and the Belarusian idea. In a way, both have reason for their positions. Sup porters of the current Belarusian authorities, indeed, “betray” the proponents of opposition ideas of Belarusian development. At the same time, one can see definite truth in the fact that those who fight for “European” Belarus “betray” the official notion of the Belarusian nation. Simul ta ne ously, however, each party remains faithful to itself and to the idea of the Belarusian nation that has shaped their self-perception: their Belarusian identity.

  • 2 “Okonchatelnye itogi prezidetskikh vyborov,” Arkhiv analitiki Independent Institute of Socioeconom (...)

3According to the results of opinion polls carried out by the Independent Institute of Socioeconomic and Political Studies (IISEPS),2 during the 2006 presidential elections, about 54 percent of the electorate voted for the current president (83 percent according to Central Election Committee data). In other words, due to manipulation during the elections the support of the authorities was overstated, but not entirely falsified. Hence the question: why resort to manipulation, if the current authorities would have attained the majority of votes without it? What is the meaning of the difference between 58 percent—estimated real support for the president— and 83 percent—officially declared support? A possible answer is that while the difference in the figures does not affect the final election results, it significantly changes the political map of Belarusian society. The figure of 83 percent allows the authorities to speak in favor of the monolithic state of Belarusian society—that it is almost entirely “on this side” of the political divide. Such an impressive percentage may testify to the complete and unconditional adequacy of the Belarusianness ideology formulated by the authorities. At the same time, the figure of 58 percent, though testifying to numerical superiority, also manifests a political split in society. It points to a substantial segment of society that falls outside of the sphere of influence of official ideology and seeks alternative ways of political and cultural self-definition.

  • 3 “Belarusianness” is understood here as a set of axiological criteria, historical ideas, and geopol (...)

4The present work aims to reveal post-communist Belarus as a public and cultural space in which a “struggle over identity” between official and opposition discourses takes place and in which both discourses claim their right to be the only voice of genuine Belarusianness.3

5Two concepts of the Belarusian nation are the source of a profound division in Belarusian society. It is not only split along the lines of political values and socioeconomic development strategies, but this split also influences the system of collective self-determination of “Belarusians as Belarusians.” Each Belarusian idea, both official and alternative, is articulated and manifested in the public space according to a definite logic of nation building. Each resorts to historical discourse to create the foundation of Belarusian tradition. This tradition, in turn, establishes a historical alibi for a given strategy of formulating a modern image of Belarusianness, the selection of geopolitical guidelines, and the system of socio-cultural values. Thus, behind the screen of the political struggle between the official authorities and the op position lies a struggle for Belarusian identity, for the right to set up its civilizational parameters and to establish the trajectory of its further development. “We are fighting not so much for power, as for the future,” said Alaksandar Milinkevich, leader of the united democratic forces of Belarus during the 2006 presidential campaign.

6First, I am interested in presenting an ideological design of the two concepts of Belarusianness in political discourse; second, their substantiation via the tradition raised by the corresponding historical narratives; and finally, the logic of their public and cultural manifestations. These points dictate the specific character of this work, with reference to various levels of Belarusianness: political, historical, and cultural.

  • 4 Miroslav Hroch, Social Preconditions of National Revival in Europe. A Comparative Analysis of the (...)

7The work consists of six parts. Part I focuses on the methodological basis of the study with respect to contemporary theories of nations. Considering the numerous works on this topic, it has proved impossible to present a meticulous analysis of existing definitions of nations in the context of this research. I thus confine the study to a designation of those approaches that appear to be the most methodologically significant in the context of Belarusian studies. An analysis of the phenomenon of coexisting dual concepts of Belarusianness can hardly be built on a separate model of nation study. Instead, I aim to apply aspects of both the ethnocultural and modernist schools, and also the theory of nationalism of small nations by M. Hroch,4 to investigate their explanatory value for the rese arch. Part I contains discussions of such issues as the ontological status of a nation in different theories of nation, the relationship between nation and state, and the specific characteristics of nationalism within post-socialist ideological frameworks. The ultimate task of the research is to show the operation of various strategies of articulation and manifestation of a national idea in the case of official and alternative Belarusianness.

8Analysis of the conflict of USSR national policy interpretations among the schools of Sovietology in the context of the above theories of nationalism has revealed an intriguing rule: a positive evaluation of the soviet nati on-building experience tends to be natural for followers of the modernist approach in nation study. From this point of view, for all of the decades of Soviet history, the USSR actually played its usual role—creating “national constructions” with educational systems, media, civil rituals, and so on at its disposal. The creation of a Soviet community was thus analogous to other nation-making projects, with the exception that the Soviet state did not attempt to build a unified nation similar to other big nations, but was en grossed in institutionalization of the numerous nations on its territory, a phenomenon that Ian Bremmer calls “matrioshka nationalism.” This constructivist approach to nation building within the Soviet state is significant for a complete understanding of post-Soviet Belarusian development.

9At the same time, to understand how different aspects of the national idea have become injected into the concept of Belarusianness, and in what way they are used in contemporary nationalistic discourse and official ideology, it is necessary to examine the historical foundation of the national idea in the early twentieth century as well as the specific characteristics of its articulation in view of the features of the historical period. The Belarusian national idea (i.e., the laying of foundations for the symbolic matrix that Belarusians still apply today) was born at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. This historical period saw the expansion of the socialist and social-democratic movements that left ideas of class struggle at the forefront of the European political arena. Thus, the Belarusian national movement was attached to a social movement from the very beginning. The progressive ideas of social existence, such as social “equalization” and other elements of socialist ideology, were inscribed into the cultural model of “Belarusianness” as such. Part II of this study is devoted to all of these issues related to the history of development of the Belarusian nation before and after the October Revolution of 1917. It reveals the beginnings of Belarusian nationalism in the Russian empire and the nation’s existence within the Soviet Union.

10Today, adherents of the opposition idea of the Belarusian nation insist that the process of nation building, initiated by the first Belarusian nationalists, was interrupted by the 1917 October Revolution and the Soviet state. They view the Soviet period of Belarusian history as a period of colonial submission, and contemporary Belarus as a post-colonial formation. Within the framework of the official ideology, though, the Soviet period is regarded as a period of intensive nation building carried out by the Soviet state and its institutions.

  • 5 E. J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780. Programme, Myth, Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge (...)
  • 6 Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire. Nations and Nationalisms in the Soviet Union 1923–193 (...)
  • 7 Rogers Brubaker, Nationalism Reframed. Nationhood and the Nationalism Question in the New Europe ( (...)

11These conflicting interpretations of the Soviet past and its significance in the process of Belarusian nation building in the official and alternative discourses of Belarusianness have actually led to the difference of opinions on the interpretation of the Soviet state and its national policy that would later be found in Western Sovietology. The tradition of interpreting the USSR as a colonial empire (the onset of which was manifested by Richard Pipes’s book The Formation of the Soviet Union: Communism and Natio nalism 1917–1923) was in contrast to theories that saw the Soviet state as “almost all effectively multinational.”5 In these theories, authors view the Soviet state as a quite positive experience in settling national problems behind the veil of the totalitarian political system, and the Soviet Union is perceived here as an “affirmative action empire” (Terry Martin’s notion). Their conclusions are based on a thorough analysis of Soviet modernization as an analogue, and at the same time as an alternative, to Western modernization (Suny and Martin),6 and analysis of the process of institutionalization of national units that once belonged to the USSR (Brubaker).7 The supposition that Soviet national policy led to the formation of a definite format of national identity (but not to its obliteration and annihilation) allows us to evaluate the status and positions of both the official and alternative models of the Belarusian nation in modern society very differently.

12Part III is devoted to a description of Belarusian post-communism as a new epoch of national and state development. It formulates a general notion of ongoing sociopolitical and economic processes in the country over the past fifteen years. It includes references to the work of Belarusian authors, data obtained through independent polls, and a wealth of articles by Western and Belarusian researchers on the Belarusian issue. The na ture of the Belarusian experience in its triple transition, the prerequisites of democratization and authoritarianism (numerous authors cover the presence of both in Belarusian society), the role of the Soviet legacy, and the responsibility of the political elite are the topics that have enabled me to outline the systemic changes in Belarusian society that resulted in the establishment of an authoritarian regime in the independent Republic of Belarus. In Part III, I also present various approaches to the condition of society that already appear in extant literature on Belarus.

13Part IV shows the role of Belarusian nationalism in analysis of the Belarusian post-communist scenario. Many authors believe that nationalism as a state of society’s self-consciousness, as a political ideology, and, finally, as the groundwork of a political movement is one of the key factors of Belarusian post-communist development. The absolute majority of authors quoted build their perception of Belarusian reality based on the thesis of weakness of the Belarusian idea and the absence of national identity among the majority of Belarusians. I dwell on the arguments and paradoxes of such a diagnosis of Belarusian identity in Chapters 12–14 of this Part. Rejecting the cliché thesis of “weak identity and underdeveloped nationalism” this research is based on an alternative thesis of the coexistence of two parallel concepts of Belarusianness, which I believe more accurately mirrors the current state of the Belarusian people and allows a different interpretation of the interconnection between the democratization and nationalization of Belarusian society.

14Part V is devoted to the description of various forms of representation of official and alternative Belarusianness and their competition for the minds of Belarusians. It also describes the specific features of the Belarusian public sphere, or rather two “public spheres,” divided by the invisible ideological wall. Each sphere functions on the basis of its own sources of information, its own social organizations, and two different cultural spheres. It shows the informational background against which appears the struggle over national identity between official and oppositional political discourses. The image of “Belarusianness” on which an appropriate political ideology is built was obtained from official Belarusian ideology, on the one hand, and oppositional political ideologies, on the other hand. In selecting texts for comparative analysis, the main criterion was the presence of the “national idea” as a political issue. The selected texts deal with defining the Belarusian nation, describing the national idea, designating Belarus’s civilizational orientation, and so on. In the official political dis-course, such material includes public speeches by the Belarusian president, publications in Sovietskaia Belorussia (the daily mouthpiece of Belarusian state ideology) by leading ideologists, and university textbooks on state ideology. Articles by political leaders and political scientists from the opposition camp and manifestos of the main opposition political parties form the main source material for the political concept of alternative Belarusianness.

15Official and alternative political discourses rest upon their own versions of Belarusian historical tradition. For the purposes of this research, it was important to compare the strategies of the creation of a definite image of the Belarusian nation with the help of a definite interpretation of Bela rusian history. Furthermore, it was significant to contrast the instrumental possibilities of the official and alternative versions of history, in the first place, and their presence in the educational system. Common “Histories of Belarus:” university textbooks (in the case of official history) and books aimed toward a wide readership and openly educational (in the case of alternative history) were used as the material for comparison to provide a picture of two visions of the Belarusian past by historians working in different cultural and political camps. However, the main interest for the present research is not so much details of historical interpretations of the Belarusian past as generalizations and conclusions, which contain the most valuable reference points of different versions of the Belarusian national idea. One of the main problems in this comparison was the varying availability of educational historical literature covering the “official” and “alternative” histories: while numerous publications exist on official history, publications on alternative common history for a wide readership are rather limited.

16The language of political declarations of the national idea alongside its historic grounds has nothing to say concerning the way a certain format of Belarusianness is transformed into a “cultural nation” and becomes a constituent part of a self-description, an element of identity. The space of identity is filled with civil rituals and public cultural manifestations during which an idea acquires symbolic “flesh and blood” and becomes part of the mass social consciousness, invading the territory of self-images and selfrepresentation. Part VI of the book is devoted to a description of the way some image of Belarusianness is manifested in the public and cultural life of Belarusian society. The comparative analysis of public cultural representations was complicated by the fact that, as this research reveals, the two concepts of Belarusianness represent different approaches to nationdefinition. A nation as a constructed entity (in the official discourse) and a nation as a cultural unity (the alternative project) imply corresponding different strategies of national identity formation. In the first case, one can speak of a social reification strategy, designed to establish a close correlation between the state and people via the “nation,” and making use of the institutional system, education, various civil rituals, and social practices to build a national construct for Belarus. In the second case, it is rather a wide area of cultural representations through which memories and myths from the past become part of the mass consciousness, penetrating into the space of self-images and self-representations.

17As a case study of the cultural manifestation of alternative Belarusianness, several examples were chosen. They represent the most significant cultural happenings in the sphere of symbolic representation of the alternative Belarusian idea for the past decade. The examples include: a feature film, Misterium Occupation, devoted to a reinterpretation of the events of World War II; a youth movement of historical reenactments, which represents a network of reenactor groups that recollect and “revive” Belarusian medieval history; the Free Theater, where performances deal with the actual issues of Belarusian present-day reality; and finally independent rock music as a most influential and effective method of political protest and manifestation of the alternative idea of Belarus.

18The strategy of public manifestation of official Belarusianness looks different from that of the articulation of alternative Belarusianness. Never theless, there are examples of cultural happenings in the context of representing the official national idea: the annual festival “Slavonic Bazaar,” the national historic “blockbuster” film Anastasia Slutskaia (2003), and the stage play by the Belarusian National Theater Sny ab Belarusi (Dreams about Belarus). However, as this study aims to prove, they do not carry out the main functions. Official Belarusianness is reified in numerous social practices on the micro and macro levels of everyday life in which the state is involved directly and indirectly.

19The intent of this part of the study is to compare the strategies and techniques of public manifestation of official and alternative Belarusian ness as a specific tool providing access for them to identity-formative processes in society. Such concepts of Belarusianness influence general political and social processes as the exact basis of a social self-image in Belarusian society.

20Various sources are used to estimate the adequacy of official Belarusianness in the perception of Belarusians, that is, to what degree its basic formulations reflect the self-perceptions prevalent in Belarusian society. These include the indirect evidence of results of referenda and elections conducted by the Belarusian authorities (although independent exit poll data, not the official data were taken into consideration), and also the results of independent opinion polls assessing trust in Belarusian authorities and the official course of political and economic development. Another indirect evidence of support for Belarusian authorities in society is confidence in official information sources. The official media in Belarus are a supplement to the authorities and a propaganda device; they serve not only to articulate the ideological message and to present the vision of Belarusian life reflected in the state ideological “mirror” but also to promote the official concept of Belarusianness in general. Yet, as the 2005 IISEPS opinion poll shows, it is state media in which the Belarusian people place their confidence. Answers to the question “Which media do you trust most?” are distributed as follows: of those questioned, 58.2 percent trust the Belarusian state media; 35.2 percent—the Russian media; and 12 percent—the Belarusian independent media. (Other answer options were: 10.2 percent—European and other Western media; and 8 percent— Internet.)8 These data affirm the fact that approximately half of Be la rusian voters support the Belarusian regime.

21The Belarusian national idea and Belarusian nationalism are the subjects of analysis in the works of several Belarusian authors, including S. Du bavets, I. Babkou, and V. Bulgakau. Their central preoccupation is the historical aspect of the Belarusian national idea, its design and its formation as the ideology of the Belarusian national movement at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. Many foreign researchers quoted in Part IV view Belarusian identity as a factor in the failure of the democratization of Belarusian society. Books and articles by Jan Zaprudnik, David Marples, Grigory Ioffe, and others investigate Belarusian identity in the context of ongoing sociopolitical processes in inde-pendent Belarus. In most of the works mentioned above, Belarusian identity stands in opposition to the state, leaving out those aspects of the Belarusian national idea exploited and promoted by the official discourse of Belarusianness. This research provides an alternative interpretation of the Belarusian idea as one that has developed in two different political and cultural contexts and has become the basis of two different national projects.

22This work contains a description of the instrumental aspect of the injection of a different content of Belarusianness into the social consciousness, an aspect that has not yet been investigated. The comparison of strategies of public manifestation and cultural representations of official and alternative Belarusianness provides not only an understanding of the logic of dominating self-description models, but also the ability to evaluate the chances that alternative Belarusianness will win this unequal struggle over identity.

23The attempt to embrace in one work several dimensions of Belarusianness—its political, historical, and cultural representations—is the main objective of this study, which demonstrates the trajectory of the social and cultural reification of the Belarusian nation. However, it also determines the inevitable sketchiness of the work, since each of the problems of articulation and representation in question is in itself a complete topic for separate research. This work can thus be viewed as the starting point for further inquiry into the problem of Belarusian society as a battlefield of two ideas of Belarusianness, which can potentially bring forth a more adequate evaluation of events in the country.

24The name “Belarus” appears in the text in several spellings: during Soviet times, “Byelorussia” was used most often as the name of the Soviet republic, although some authors prefer the spelling “Belorussia” (for example, N. Vakar found it more adequate). After the country became independent, the name “Belarus” was adopted as officially recognized (Беларусь in both Belarusian and Russian). In quotations of different authors the spelling of the name was preserved as used by the authors.


1 Pyatro Vasyuchenka, “Nasha zdrada,” Fragmenty, nos. 1–2 (2000): 208.

2 “Okonchatelnye itogi prezidetskikh vyborov,” Arkhiv analitiki Independent Institute of Socioeconomic and Political Studies (IISEPS), April 2006,

3 “Belarusianness” is understood here as a set of axiological criteria, historical ideas, and geopolitical orientations that sum up the essence of the Belarusian nation in a definite political and cultural conception.

4 Miroslav Hroch, Social Preconditions of National Revival in Europe. A Comparative Analysis of the Social Composition of Patriotic Groups among the Smaller European Nations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

5 E. J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780. Programme, Myth, Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 168.

6 Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire. Nations and Nationalisms in the Soviet Union 1923–1939 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2001); Ronald G Suny, The Revenge of the Past (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).

7 Rogers Brubaker, Nationalism Reframed. Nationhood and the Nationalism Question in the New Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

8 “Doverie k SMI,” Arkhiv analitiki IISEPS, September 2005,

© Central European University Press, 2010

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