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Struggle over Identity

Nelly Bekus

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

Chapter 7. Post-Soviet Conditions for Independence

Texte intégral

  • 1 Zaprudnik, Belarus at a Crossroads in History, 224.

1Jan Zaprudnik in his 1993 book Belarus at a Crossroads in History referred to Belarus’s first years of independence as “a laboratory of changes.”1 At the time when the book was written the country was on the threshold of its first presidential elections, whose results would determine the general line of development for the independent state.

  • 2 Plokhy also writes that Slavic studies in the West continue to be influenced by the imperial-era v (...)
  • 3 Zaprudnik, Belarus at a Crossroads in History, xiv–xv.
  • 4 Zaprudnik, Belarus at a Crossroads in History, xv.

2The very fact that such a book appeared at all is noteworthy. Written in an encyclopedia format, it depicts the beginning of a new epoch in the life of Belarusians. The Supreme Soviet of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic adopted the declaration on the state sovereignty in June 1990, which formally endowed the status of independent statehood to the Belarusian people. Jan Zaprudnik’s Belarus at a Crossroads in History, symbolically, has the same effect—it tells a story of the Belarusian people in which they become a separate entity and an actor in cultural, political, and ideological events and relations. The author admits that he attempts to give his own vision of Belarusian history, which is an alternative to both the Soviet view of the Belarusian past and the one accepted in the West (whose authors, according to Zaprudnik, in their majority, support the Russophile historiographic school).2 The main problem of Belarusian history in both cases was the reluctance to see anything Belarusian as a self-sufficient political and cultural unit. Zaprudnik believes that Belarus was interpreted “as an ‘appendix’ to a larger political unit, whether to Kiyvan Rus in ancient time, Poland in the late Middle Ages, or Russia and the Soviet Union in the ensuing period.”3 This “imperial” context inevitably led to disparagement of Belarusianness itself and the national aspirations of the Belarusian people. In fact this meant that Belarusian history was positioned as devoid of its own inner dynamics and its own aspirations. Zaprudnik aims at a reconstruction of Belarusian history from the standpoint of Belarusian logic. A newly-depicted history gives ground for the Belarusian entity and lays the foundations for a new articulation of the Belarusian idea. The Belarusian people described therein prove to be, albeit not independent, but a separate entity in history, no matter how subordinate and oppressed it was. A new standpoint in history, Zaprudnik writes, is important as part of a more general reappraisal of Belarusians by Belarusians, for “historical con sciousness is a part of political awareness, in today’s Belarus the past has become a potent argument in shaping programs for the future.”4 However, it takes years, sometimes even decades, to put new collective self-consciousness into shape, while the choice of a state development strategy had to be made as early as 1994, when the first presidential elections were scheduled.

  • 5 Mark Beissinger writes that nationalist intellectuals are usually “opposed to what are arguably th (...)
  • 6 Vakar, Belorussia, 219.

3In the first three years of Belarusian independence, a paradoxical situation had taken shape. There appeared a national movement of Belarusian intelligentsia that appealed to the pre- and extra-Soviet experience of the Belarusian nation. They saw Belarusian nation as a cultural unity as op posed to the Soviet and Russian political colonization. However, as it was shown above, real “nationalization” of the Belarusian people took place under the Soviet regime and with the help of its instruments. The Belarusian nationalists of the 1990s actually appealed not to the nation’s history, but to the first stages of the development of the national movement itself. Remarkably, like in the early twentieth century, when the nation-formation took place in the form of a triangle made up of national intelligentsia, the Soviet state and the Belarusian people,5 at this stage the process was also run by three main actors: Belarusian nationalists, who appealed to the pre-Soviet Belarusian idea; the Belarusian state that leaned in its legitimacy on the Soviet period of nation-formation; and the Belarusian people who have been formed in the years of Soviet power and supported by its institutions. (In N. Vakar’s words, “Belorussianism has been for years identified with the Soviet authority, and […] it seems that it has become to the natives just another aspect of Communism.”)6

4During the first years of independence, the national intelligentsia faced an extremely difficult task of conducting a complicated “surgical” operation of separation of the Belarusianness and Soviet ideology, meaning a step-by-step deidentification of Belarusianness and Soviet mass consciousness with a simultaneous saturation by alternative content. As the experience of the Soviet nation-building revealed, a success of this kind of work is most probable when the process of installation of the new content of the national idea into mass consciousness is carried out by means of numerous articulational and institutional practices supported by the state.

  • 7 Smith, Myths and Memories of the Nation, 181.

5However, this constructivist and institutionalist aspect in understanding of the nation and national identity was underestimated by Belarusian intelligentsia. “The new nationalists” built their project of Belarusian nation on an open confrontation with the Sovietness and with the Soviet state and expanded this project mainly in the framework of historical ethno-culturalism. Here they began to actively work at a new content of the national idea deeply rooted in the past and stipulated by history. They acted like political archeologists rediscovering and reinterpreting the communal past in order to regenerate the community.7 In the territory of their project of Belarusianness, nationalists “animate” the Belarusian past outside Russian influence and create an alternative national mythology, which is accumulated around the golden-age seventeenth century. A specific feature of the oppositional project of the Belarusian nation is its accent on the cultural symbolic capital of the Belarusian ethnos. Belarusian nation is presented here as a historical and cultural community in a state of oblivion and un consciousness. The new nationalists’ accent on revival implies an appeal to the restoration in its national rights of the nation that had existed in the pre-Soviet past. Though, in fact, Belarusian nation had not existed—as a community whose formation was complete—prior to the Soviet rule. Here we should stress that this statement does not imply that the Belarusian nation arose entirely owing to Bolsheviks—nation-formation is stipulated by socio-historical transformations in society and is related to economic progress, modernization, and other processes. The fact that all these transformations of Belarusian society took place in the state governed by Bolsheviks was, in a way, a fatal historical coincidence. Neither does it mean that without Bolsheviks the Belarusian nation would never have taken shape. The national movement did exist outside the Bolshevist party movement and its development would highly probably have led to mass national mobilization, which would have shaped it in a different way, under different conditions. However, these considerations refer rather to the genre of historical hypothesis.

6The prepresidential period of the independent Belarusian state was characterized by a complicated configuration of socio-political and economic transformations. On the one hand, it was the time of the institutional shaping of a new state. On the other hand, the process of making a new system and reform in society was hampered by the social inertia and conservatism of the old Soviet nomenclature that had retained its commanding position. Nationalists and democratic movements were gathering momentum. At the same time, the first public discontent was growing due to the catastrophic slump in the standards of living. All these factors found their reflections in the presidential elections. It was the political outsider A. G. Lukashenka who won the election, and not V. Kebich who had real power as the then prime minister and who represented the old system of power. This testifies to the fact that Belarusians gave no credence to the old political system actor and preferred an alternative one. But this was not an ideological alternative—whether democratic or nationalist—but an institutional one.


1 Zaprudnik, Belarus at a Crossroads in History, 224.

2 Plokhy also writes that Slavic studies in the West continue to be influenced by the imperial-era view that the Grand Duchy of Lithuania belongs to Russian history. Serhii Plokhy, The Origins of the Slavic Nations: Premodern Identities in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 88.

3 Zaprudnik, Belarus at a Crossroads in History, xiv–xv.

4 Zaprudnik, Belarus at a Crossroads in History, xv.

5 Mark Beissinger writes that nationalist intellectuals are usually “opposed to what are arguably the two most important dramatic personae in any nationalist politics: state and society.” Mark Beissinger, “How Nationalisms Spread: Eastern Europe Adrift the Tidesand Cycles of Nationalist Contention,” Social Research 59, no. 1 (1996): 98.

6 Vakar, Belorussia, 219.

7 Smith, Myths and Memories of the Nation, 181.

© Central European University Press, 2010

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