Version classiqueVersion mobile
OpenEdition Books

Struggle over Identity

 | 
Nelly Bekus

Part II. The Rise and Development of the Belarusian National Idea

Chapter 6. Byelorussian Republic within the Soviet State

Texte intégral

  • 1 Vakar, Belorussia, 139.
  • 2 Carrère D’Encausse, The Great Challenge: Nationalities and the Bolshevik State, 1917–1939, 86.
  • 3 Arlou and Saganovich, Dzesiats’ viakou belaruskai gistoryi 862–1918, 220.
  • 4 Eugeniusz Mironowicz, “Białorusini wobec państwa polskiego w latach 1918–1925,” Biało ruskie Zeszy (...)
  • 5 Usievalad Ihnatouski, Karotki narys gistoryi Belarusi (Minsk: Belarus’, 1991), 178.
  • 6 One of the leaders of the 1917 October Revolution in Minsk, first Chairman of the Belarusian Centr (...)
  • 7 Chairman of the Belarusian Central Executive Committee between 1920–1937.
  • 8 Nikolai Zenkovich, Ch’ia Belarus’ (Mockva: MK-Periodika, 2002), 58–59.

1Many researchers of the period following 1917 concur in their appraisal of the course of events as a tactical and largely forced decision by the Bolsheviks. N. Vakar states that the founding of the Belorussian Republic served a double purpose: (1) to attract into and maintain within the Soviet system those elements of the population to which the communist idea might not otherwise appeal, and (2) to integrate their nationalism with the world revolutionary forces.1 Hélène Carrère D’Encausse gives another explanation for the Bolshevik decision. In her view, Bolshevik leaders were ignorant of the realities of Belarus. The decision about its independence was a result of hasty and uninformed decisions rather than a rational policy choice. Moreover, the independence and subsequent Union with Lithuania in early February 1919 served Lenin’s purposes to both appease and divide non-Russian ethnic groups, and resulted in a state unit where the majority of the population favored Russia.2 The Belarusian historians Uladzimir Arlou and Genadz Saganovich believe that the decision to grant Belarusians independent status—whatever that meant at the time—was adopted under the influence of the attempt to create the BPR (Belaruskaia Narodnaia Respublika, Belarusian People’s Republic) ventured by Be la rusian nationalists.3 The BPR became the first independent state unit of Belarusians, proclaimed under the German occupation. It existed for only a short period between March 1918 and January 1919. The Polish historian Eugeniusz Mironowicz describes the Belarusian People’s Republic “as an idea that was sooner expected to be incarnated in reality than a real political phenomenon. However, owing to its concept of sovereign state existence related to a certain territory and populated by an ethnically de fined community started to function in the consciousness of the Belarusian political elite.”4 Although its existence was short, the BPR did make the Belarusian national aspirations visible to others, and the Bolsheviks preferred not to ignore it out of tactical considerations. The Belarusian historian Usievalad Ihnatouski assumed that behind the sudden change of heart among top Bolsheviks in favor of Belarusian statehood there was a desire to “Bolshevize the Belarusian masses.”5 The Russian historian (of Belarusian origin) Nikolai Zenkovich discusses that as some newly-open ed to public historical documents prove, most of those that were officially presented as “founders” of the Byelorussian Soviet statehood were in fact opposed to the idea of the Byelorussian Republic. A. F Miasnikov6 considered that the Belarusian oblast within the Russian state would be enough and in Cherviakov’s7 opinion Belarusians would be glad to have autonomy within the Russian Federation. At that historical moment it was Lenin who insisted on the creation of the Byelorusian Soviet Republic. As Zenkovich writes, the reason behind this is that the Russian state needed a “buffer” and that was the role the Byelorussian Republic was assigned to play according to the Russian leaders’ scenario.8

  • 9 Vakar, Belorussia, 138.
  • 10 Ivan. S. Lubachko, Belorussia under Soviet Rule (1917–1957) (Lexington: University Press of Kentuc (...)

2Belarusian nationalists, after a short period of hesitation, accepted the creation of the BSSR. Many of them held leading posts in the national government (like Zhylunovich, formerly an active member of the Nasha Niva group, who became president of the Byelorussian Soviet government). As N. Vakar notes, “the country might have a wrong system of government, but it was now a state equal in right, dignity, and honor with Russia itself.”9 In 1925 the government of the BPR in exile decided to disband and to pass on its symbolic power to the government of the BSSR. Thus, the creation of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic was supported by representatives of the national movement, because in a way their aspirations attained their end in this republic. As the American–Ukrainian historian Ivan Lubachko wrote, Belarusians “idealized the new state, believing that in the Soviet Union the class of workers and the class of peasants represented a united power which stood above that of the state, and that every nation of the Soviet Union identified itself with this power of the people as a whole.”10

  • 11 Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 160.

3However, there was another actor in these historical developments— the Belarusian people. As many researchers observe, the creation of the Belarusian Republic was far from universally accepted by the popular masses. Moreover, as Terry Martin writes, many Belarusian peasants were bitterly opposed to the formation of the Byelorussian Republic.11

  • 12 Vadim Krutalevich, Rozhdenie Belorusskoi Sovetskoi Respubliki, Razvertyvanie natsion alno-gosudars (...)

4Vadim Krutalevich describes various “local” reactions to the proclamation of the Byelorussian Republic. He exemplifies positive enthusiasm with some archive evidence: “We greet our formerly suffering and now liberated beloved Belarus and hope that the concerted efforts of workers and peasants will result in the erection of a beautiful building of the BSSR on the principle of social justice and brotherly community of the working people of the whole world. (Protocol of the Bykhov country convention of Soviets).”12

  • 13 Krutalevich, Rozhdenie Belorusskoi Sovetskoi Respubliki, 171–72.
  • 14 Krutalevich, Rozhdenie Belorusskoi Sovetskoi Respubliki, 173.

5However, he also gives numerous examples of a negative attitude to the creation of the Byelorussian Republic. One of the main arguments of those against it was the fact that Belarusians allegedly did not present a self-sustained nation with all the necessary attributes. “It is ridiculous to inoculate the population with some Belarusian language, which no Belarusian knows. Self-determination of Byelorussia will be playing into the hands of the local intelligentsia that ‘invents Byelorussia,’ no workers or peasants of the so-called Byelorussia consider themselves a Byelorussian, but from time immemorial know, they are Russians. Nobody speaks any Byelorussian, it is not a language, but a jargon, that is why self-determination of Byelorussia is out of the question. (Proceedings of Vitebsk Province Soviet, January 16, 1919).”13 Similar opinions were registered in Mogilev. The newspaper Sokha i Molot wrote that the Byelorussian language “had died for the Byelorussian people allegedly centuries ago and we, Byelorussians, have long forgotten it and now don’t understand it” (February 8, 1919).14

  • 15 Krutalevich, Rozhdenie Belorusskoi Sovetskoi Respubliki, 147.

6Krutalevich also refers to the statement by V. G. Knoryn, the chief historiographer of the BSSR and the leader of the October rising in Belarus at the Western Front; in the 1920s he was a secretary of the Central Bureau of the Communist Party of Byelorussia. In Knoryn’s words, “The idea of the national being and independent existence was so alien to Byelorussian masses, had so few roots in the popular consciousness that the party or, more exactly, its guiding organs, were hardly able to convince the Province Committee in the necessary self-determination of Belarus, and the Province Committee. Later renamed into the Central Bureau of the Communist Party of Byelorussia, it had to strain even more effort to convince representatives of working Belorussia in this necessity at the First Congress of its Soviets.”15

7These examples show that the national agitation and propaganda initiated by Belarusian nationalists did not approach the phase when the ideas of national revival penetrated the masses. Nationalism remained the matter of a small circle of people. One can assume that it was just a question of time for nationalist ideas to get a broad response and become part of Belarusian people’s conviction. But history did not allot enough time for that and the process of nationalization of Belarusians was carried on by the Soviet state with all its inherent peculiarities. Here the task of the cultural Enlightenment, education, and formation of the national consciousness was being solved with the help of the state, based on its institutions and often tied to the socialist ideology, the way it was understood by the consequent Soviet leaders.

  • 16 Carrère D’Encausse, The Great Challenge, 87.
  • 17 Carrère D’Encausse, The Great Challenge, 85.

8In this context, quite explicable there appear the conclusions of Hélène Carrère D’Encausse, when she writes that in 1919 “it was the Bolsheviks who wanted independence, which was only half-heartedly demanded by the Byelorussians.”16 In her opinion, “in 1917 a true Byelorussian nation did not exist. Ethnographic map attests to the fact that in the nineteenth century it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to identify a Byelorussian nation because of a great number of Poles, Lithuanians, and Jews who lived among Byelorussians. The Byelorussian Bolsheviks, in their desire to short-circuit both separatism and the orientation toward Poland, argued that Byelorussia should be granted the status as a nation, even if masses felt utterly indifferent. They easily succeeded in convincing the Bolsheviks in Moscow to respect the wishes of what in fact was a rather meager elite.”17

  • 18 Osnovnye itogi raboty pravitelstva Soiuza SSR; K perevyboram sovetov 1928–1929 gg. Moscow, 1928.
  • 19 Mironowicz, “Kształtowanie się struktury narodowościowej w BSSR (1921–1939),” Białoruskie Zeszyty (...)
  • 20 Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire, 160, 264.

9Meantime, the Byelorussian government declared a hardline in realization of nationalization of the public life: the Byelorussian nationality was declared predominant and Belarusian became the official language. The network of obligatory Belarusian courses was created and the return of Belarusian nationalists was encouraged. The BSSR reported to the USSR Soviet of Nationalities in 1925 that in the central agencies of the republic only 26.9 percent of the employees spoke Belarusian. In 1926 the number had risen to 54 percent, and to 80 percent by 1928. Moreover, by the beginning of 1928, in general, Byelorussification was entirely completed in the central, province, and district institutions.18 The press became almost exclusively Belarusian. As the Polish historian Eugeniusz Mironowicz writes, “The attitude to the Byelorussian language and culture changed considerably. Byelorussian was no longer a language of peasants but a language of the state. For practical reasons knowledge of Byelorussian became compulsory.”19 By 1929 there was only one exclusively Russian language newspaper and no Russian-language journals. In the education system there were 28.4 percent Byelorussian language schools in 1924–25 and 93.8 percent in 1929–1930. At that time, “Kupala’s portrait was hung alongside Lenin’s in every Byelorussian school.”20

  • 21 Vakar, Belorussia, 145.
  • 22 Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire, 261.
  • 23 Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire, 15.

10The Institute of Byelorussian Culture was founded in Minsk in 1921 and transformed in 1928 into the Byelorussian Academy of Sciences with seven departments and eight committees on research in archeology, history, ethnography, folklore, music, fine arts, language, and natural resources. Then came the State University, the State Publishing Office (Dom Knihi), the National Theatre, the Agricultural Academy, the School of Medicine, the Veterinarian Institute, several teachers’ colleges, museums, centers for adult education, and other institutions. “In these days,” Vakar writes, “the Belorussian culture, though Socialist in form, was unqualifiedly nationalist in content—all Belorussian writers, even those most outspokenly anti-Soviet, agree on this.”21 As Terry Martin notes, the result of the first period of Belarusian nation-building within the Soviet state was “the remarkable success of Byelorussization.”22 He also notes that Hroch’s model of three phases of national movement among stateless nations of Eastern Europe ignored the existing multiethnic state, automatically assuming it would oppose these developments. The national policy of the first decade of Soviet history revealed a different picture. “The Soviet state instead literally seized leadership over all the three phases: the articulation of national culture, the formation of national elites, and the propagation of mass national consciousness. It went still further and initiated even ‘phase D’ (my term now [TM]– not Hroch’s) measures typical of newly formed nation-states, establishing a new language of state and a new governing elite. To use more familiar Bolshevik terminology, the party became the vanguard of non-Russian nationalism.”23

  • 24 Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780, 166.
  • 25 Eugeniusz Mironowicz, Białoruś. Historia państw świata w XX wieku (Warsaw: TRIO, 1999), 8.
  • 26 Eugeniusz Mironowicz, “Białorusini wobec państwa polskiego w latach 1918–1925,” Bia ło ruskie Zesz (...)
  • 27 Vakar, Belorussia, 219.
  • 28 Zaprudnik, Belarus at a Crossroads in History, 77.
  • 29 Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire, 267.

11Descriptions of the nation-building of that era fit the scheme of nation formation that was conducted by the state through the practices of standardization, with the help of the education system and other attributes of modernizing practices, albeit in the socialist mode. Hobsbawm and other modernists with reason write about the constructive influence of the Soviet state on the nations that were part of it. “It was the communist regime which deliberately set out to create ethno-linguistic territorial ‘national administrative units,’ i.e. ‘nations’ in the modern sense, where none had previously existed or been thought of (among them were also Byelorussians).”24 In the Soviet state there was the process of modernization of the whole society with a simultaneous design of a national form of social and cultural life. As Eugeniusz Mironowicz writes, “several years of liberal Bolshevik rule in the 1920s were conducive to a creation of an almost national Belarusian state on the territory of Soviet Belorussia. Belarusian activists, with the agreement of Soviet authorities were able to realize the most courageous ideas they had dreamed about at the First All-Belarusian Assembly in December 1917. Their achievements in the sphere of Belarusization were not demolished in the 1930s.”25 At the same time, national development of the Belarusians living on the territory of the Polish state was somewhat different. Belarusians faced the “aspirations of the Polish political elite to create their own state organization that would incorporate part or the whole territory of Belarus,”26 which could lead to an inevitable conflict between the Polish and the Belarusian stances. Against this background, the started mechanism of nationalization of public and cultural life in the Soviet Byelorussia looked fruitful enough. “The systematic studies of national geography, natural resources, history, and literature, albeit in Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist terms, and the existence of normal attributes of statehood, have strengthened the feeling of separate Byelorussian identity.”27 It was no accident, as Jan Zaprudnik writes, that Belarusian nationalists in the 1990s dreamed about “the repetition of Belarusization, a cultural phenomenon of the 1920s.”28 The intensive nationalization of the 1920s was replaced by a new epoch. In 1929, Zwiazda newspaper published an article declaring that Byelorussian nationalism was now the greatest danger in Byelorussia.29 The new constitution of the USSR of the mid-1930s was known by the ubiquitous metaphor of “the Friendship of the Peoples.” One of the major features of the Friendship of the Peoples was rehabilitation of the traditional Russian culture and Russian nationalism as a source for Soviet unity. Change of politics had a definite impact on the rate of articulation of Belarusianness, while russification and bilingualism influenced the cultural status and image of Belarusianness. At the same time, they by no means abolished the result of the prior epoch, i.e. the formation of the Belarusian nation.

  • 30 Zaprudnik, Belarus at a Crossroads in History, 87.
  • 31 Zaprudnik, Belarus at a Crossroads in History 87.
  • 32 Vakar, Belorussia, 150.
  • 33 Vakar, Belorussia, 146.

12All the leaders of the pre-Soviet nationalism in Belarus were exterminated. The subsequent Great Terror of the 1930s had a catastrophic impact on Belarusian culture. Zaprudnik describes the extent of the devastation by giving a picture of the losses suffered by literature: “In 1937 after 128 writers had been arrested, only one literature organization remained: the Writers’ Union of Belarus, with 39 members, only 14 of whom wrote in Belarusan.”30 The institute of Byelorussian Culture, later the Byelorussian Academy of Sciences lost nearly “ninety percent of its members; the vast majority of them were shot.”31 At the same time the specific mode of nation building had its continuation. In this respect, the position of Belarusians as Belarusians in the Soviet state was different from those living in Poland. Unlike the Poles, Vakar writes, “the Soviets had been up against men, and not against symbols of Belorussianism.”32 “Stalinization of nationalism,” in Vakar’s words, meant that “the national framework of the Republic had been wisely left intact. […] It had only to be furnished with new personnel, and Belorussian life and culture oriented in a new direction. The direction was given by Stalin’s own words: ‘Nationalist in form, Socialist in content’.”33

13At the same time, the “nationalist form” of the state in itself had considerable effect on creating the national imaginary. The Soviet state, which was undergoing the process of intense modernization, fostered new means in creation of its nations’ visibility. The procedural landscape of the modern nation-state contributed to the creation of the “scientific construct” of the nations in addition to the institutional and cultural ones. These constructs, in Jim Mac Laughlin’s words, being a product of census collection, cartography, land surveying, and so on were mapping the nations in both literal and metaphorical senses. The Soviet state via the structure of national republics equipped nations-subjects with the means whereby they could “imagine” their nations.

  • 34 V. Bulgakau, Gistoria belaruskaga natsiianalizmu (Vilnius: Instytut Belarusistyki), 314.

14Certainly, it was not the nation imagined by Belarusian nationalists before the revolution, nor was it the nation whose building was initiated in the first years of the Soviet rule. Nevertheless, the entire period of the Soviet rule can be considered to be a specific process of designing of a Belarusian nation that was incorporated into the ideological framework of the Soviet regime. A rare case of recognition of nation-building accomplishments within the Soviet Union by a Belarusian author from opposition circles is Valer Bulgakau. He admits a positive impact of Soviet national infrastructure on future nationalists, though, he does not consider the Soviet period as the period of the Belarusian nation-building. In his view, the Soviet national policy had created a milieu that contributed to a rise of nationalist intentions. Due to this, during Gorbachev’s policy of perestroika, “categories of nationality and national republics as ethnic motherland were successfully politicized by the revived national movements. It was no longer difficult to consider Belarus as a national state.”34

15Meanwhile, Belarusian nation was affected by the developments that Belarusians experienced within the Soviet Union: the communist genocide of the 1930s, participation in the common victory in World War II, the years of post-war reconstruction realized by joint efforts and resources of different Soviet Republics.

  • 35 D. Marples refers to Slavamir Antanovich, “Piotr Masherov: riadom s Brezhnevym,” Respublika, Septe (...)
  • 36 I. Smirnov and A. Lebedev, “Vsia zizn’—sluzhenie narodu,” Sovetskaia Belorussia, February 13, 1988 (...)
  • 37 Marples, “History and Politics in Post-Soviet Belarus,” 24, 25.

16Belarusians were severely affected by World War II. During the war, one quarter of the entire population of Belarus perished. Out of 270 towns and regional centers, 209 were destroyed, including the capital city Minsk. When the Soviet Army liberated Minsk in 1943, 95 percent of the city lay in ruins. David Marples believes that the “golden age” (i.e., the key point in history perceived by most Belarusians as having major symbolic, positive value) is connected to the post-war reconstruction period. The Re public then not only restored its losses, but occupied the leading place among other Soviet Union republics as to the level of its industrial development and to the standard of population’s living. This was the period of Piotr Masherau’s government (1965–80) who became for Belarusians personally linked to those “successes.” At the same time, Masherau was reputed for his lack of corruption and closeness to the people. Some historians depicted Masherau as a person opposed to the center, who defended the interests of Belarus in Moscow.35 Others presented him as a true Bolshevik who resisted the distortion of Leninist principles that had appeared in the practice of the Soviet regime.36 This kind of rhetoric implied that Belarus had achieved its success in the restoration and development of its economy not due to unorthodox experiments but due to its leader’s faithfulness to Leninist principles. A “positive character” of the Soviet time, such as Masherau, enhanced the positive status of the Soviet experience in general. As Marples observes, “The supporters of an independent state or those seeking to promote state-building processes have always had to deal with Masherau factor, an era that is often regarded as a kind of ‘golden age’ of economic and cultural development […] And the myth of Masherau, […] like the partly mythical exploits of the partisans, largely defines the limitations of political change in post-Soviet republic.”37

Notes

1 Vakar, Belorussia, 139.

2 Carrère D’Encausse, The Great Challenge: Nationalities and the Bolshevik State, 1917–1939, 86.

3 Arlou and Saganovich, Dzesiats’ viakou belaruskai gistoryi 862–1918, 220.

4 Eugeniusz Mironowicz, “Białorusini wobec państwa polskiego w latach 1918–1925,” Biało ruskie Zeszyty Historyczne 1 (1994), http://kamunikat.org/bzh.html?pub_start=20&pubid=1026.

5 Usievalad Ihnatouski, Karotki narys gistoryi Belarusi (Minsk: Belarus’, 1991), 178.

6 One of the leaders of the 1917 October Revolution in Minsk, first Chairman of the Belarusian Central Executive Committee (1919), First Secretary of the Central Bureau of the Belarusian Communist Party (from 1920).

7 Chairman of the Belarusian Central Executive Committee between 1920–1937.

8 Nikolai Zenkovich, Ch’ia Belarus’ (Mockva: MK-Periodika, 2002), 58–59.

9 Vakar, Belorussia, 138.

10 Ivan. S. Lubachko, Belorussia under Soviet Rule (1917–1957) (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1972), 189.

11 Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 160.

12 Vadim Krutalevich, Rozhdenie Belorusskoi Sovetskoi Respubliki, Razvertyvanie natsion alno-gosudarstvennogo stroitelstva. Noiabr 1918–fevral 1919 (Minsk: Nauka i tekhnika, 1979), 169.

13 Krutalevich, Rozhdenie Belorusskoi Sovetskoi Respubliki, 171–72.

14 Krutalevich, Rozhdenie Belorusskoi Sovetskoi Respubliki, 173.

15 Krutalevich, Rozhdenie Belorusskoi Sovetskoi Respubliki, 147.

16 Carrère D’Encausse, The Great Challenge, 87.

17 Carrère D’Encausse, The Great Challenge, 85.

18 Osnovnye itogi raboty pravitelstva Soiuza SSR; K perevyboram sovetov 1928–1929 gg. Moscow, 1928.

19 Mironowicz, “Kształtowanie się struktury narodowościowej w BSSR (1921–1939),” Białoruskie Zeszyty Historyczne 22 (2004), http://kamunikat.org/bzh.html?pub_start=0&pubid=2196.

20 Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire, 160, 264.

21 Vakar, Belorussia, 145.

22 Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire, 261.

23 Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire, 15.

24 Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780, 166.

25 Eugeniusz Mironowicz, Białoruś. Historia państw świata w XX wieku (Warsaw: TRIO, 1999), 8.

26 Eugeniusz Mironowicz, “Białorusini wobec państwa polskiego w latach 1918–1925,” Bia ło ruskie Zeszyty Historyczne 1 (1994), http://kamunikat.org/bzh.html?pub_start=20&pubid=1026.

27 Vakar, Belorussia, 219.

28 Zaprudnik, Belarus at a Crossroads in History, 77.

29 Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire, 267.

30 Zaprudnik, Belarus at a Crossroads in History, 87.

31 Zaprudnik, Belarus at a Crossroads in History 87.

32 Vakar, Belorussia, 150.

33 Vakar, Belorussia, 146.

34 V. Bulgakau, Gistoria belaruskaga natsiianalizmu (Vilnius: Instytut Belarusistyki), 314.

35 D. Marples refers to Slavamir Antanovich, “Piotr Masherov: riadom s Brezhnevym,” Respublika, September 24, 1993. D. Marples, “History and Politics in Post-Soviet Belarus: The Foundations,” in Contemporary Belarus: Between Democracy and Dictatorship, ed. E. A. Korosteleva, C. W. Lawson, and R. J. Marsh, (London and New York: Rout ledge -Curzon, 2003), 24.

36 I. Smirnov and A. Lebedev, “Vsia zizn’—sluzhenie narodu,” Sovetskaia Belorussia, February 13, 1988, cited in D. Marples, “History and Politics in Post-Soviet Belarus: The Foundations,” 24.

37 Marples, “History and Politics in Post-Soviet Belarus,” 24, 25.

© Central European University Press, 2010

Conditions d’utilisation : http://www.openedition.org/6540