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Struggle over Identity

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Nelly Bekus

Part IV. Arguments and Paradoxes of Weak Belarusian Identity

Chapter 15. Paradoxes of Political and Linguistic Russification

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1One of the paradoxes of the Belarusian national development is related to the language issue. The numerical data testifying to the language Russification of the Belarusian cultural life do not cause any doubt that the Belarusian national culture and language are in a critical position.

  • 1 Andrei Yekadumau, “The Russian Factor in the Development of Belarusian Culture,” in Belarus-Russia (...)
  • 2 Marples, Belarus. A Denationalized Nation, 50.

2Russification is a historically lengthy process in Belarus, with its roots going back to the Russian empire. At that time it was aimed at a complete elimination of Belarusianness and transformation of Belarusian lands into western Russian ones, and the Belarusians were considered as a regional group of the great Russian nation (conception of the so-called Zapad no rusizm–Western Russism). Under the Soviet rule Russification had a different character. As Yekadumau writes, “In relation to the Soviet era, it would be more accurate to speak about Sovietization—the formation of a specific Soviet culture, which the Russian language served, than Russification.”1 Nevertheless, the promotion of sovietness by means of the Russian language had led to a high level of linguistic Russification of the Belarusian public and cultural life. The policy of Russification, officially introduced under Stalin, had an impressive effect: by the mid-1970s not a single Belarusian-language school remained in the republic’s ninety-five cities. In 1984 only some 5 percent of journals in circulation were published in Belarusian. Only about one-third of the population spoke Belarusian in their daily life, and these were concentrated among rural inhabitants.2 During perestroika, numerous efforts were made to return the Belarusian language into public and cultural life, including political decisions and shifts in cultural life. Finally, perestroika in Belarus brought about possibilities to restrict Russification.

  • 3 Tavarystva Belaruskai movy imia Fratsishka Skaryny, http://tbm.org.by.
  • 4 “Gosudarstvennaia programma razvitia belorusskogo iazyka i drugikh natsionalnykh iazykov v Belorus (...)

3In June 1989 the Fratsishak Skaryna Society of the Belarusian language3 was founded in Minsk. It was a time of intense public discussions in newspapers, journals, and the electronic media, which raised the level of popular awareness of the language issue in cultural life. The Belarusian language appeared in educational institutions, on television and the radio—all this was taking shape of a common process of “the return to everything Belarusian.” In January 1990 the Supreme Soviet adopted the law “On languages in the BSSR.” In September 1990 the Belarusian government sanctioned a national program on the development of the Belarusian language and the languages of other nationalities in the BSSR, thereby ratifying a decree that established Belarusian as the state language of the Republic.4 In 1992 Deputy Minister of Education Vasil Strazhau announced that the language to be in all pedagogical schools would be Belarusian and 55 percent of first graders would be taught in Belarusian. Notably, he forecast that in ten years the entire Belarusian system of education would shift to the Belarusian language.

  • 5 Yekadumau, “The Russian Factor in the Development of Belarusian Culture,” 218.

4These plans, however, were reversed after the 1994 political climate change. Developments in Belarus after Lukashenka’s coming to power made it a unique Soviet republic where political independence led to a step toward further Russification. While during the Soviet rule Russification was an instrument of Sovietization of cultural and public life, this time “the policy of the Belarusian authorities after 1991–1995 was directed not so much at Russification as at the de-Belarussification, fighting against the national self-awareness of the Belarusians as a factor that threatens the stability of the Lukashenka regime.”5 Russification was not a purpose in itself, it was simply a means to attain a definite political task. This time Russian returned not as a language of intercultural communication in the expanses of the Soviet State (the Russification logic in the Soviet times), but as a language of the independent Belarusian state. This was immediately reflected in the change of educational and cultural policy.

  • 6 Yekadumau, “The Russian Factor in the Development of Belarusian Culture,” 218.
  • 7 David Marples, “Changes proposed to Belarusian language,” Eurasia Daily Monitor no. 3 (166) 2006, (...)

5The number of first graders being taught in Belarusian declined from 58.6 percent in 1994 to 4.8 in 1998, in Minsk alone. No higher education institution in Belarus taught in the Belarusian language. By 2001 most big cities had no schools where the language of instruction was Belarusian. The best situation was in Minsk—twelve Belarusian-language schools operated in the city.6 A similar picture of the intense trend of de-Belarussification could be observed in printed media. Only 10.5 percent of all single-circulation newspapers appear in the native language, and, from the perspective of Belarusian speakers, the situation deteriorates each year.7 At first glance, the logic of these developments is another argument in favor of the thesis about the weakness of the Belarusian national idea. The refusal to use Belarusian in public life is an indication of the decline of Belarusian culture, and from the most pessimistic viewpoint it predicts its possible elimination under the aegis of the great Russian tradition. Such a conclusion, however, faces at least two paradoxes.

6According to the 1999 census data, published in 2001, the situation with the use of the Belarusian language in Belarus did not look so threatening. The majority of Belarusians called Belarusian their native language (see Table 7).

Table 7. Use of the Russian and Belarusian languages among Belarusians and Russians living in the Republic of Belarus

Table 7. Use of the Russian and Belarusian languages among Belarusians and Russians living in the Republic of Belarus

Source: Adapted from Yekadumau, “The Russian Factor in the Development of Belarusian Culture,” in Belarus-Russia Integration, 217.

7Only one-fifth of ethnic Belarusians spoke Belarusian according to the 1989 Soviet census. But from 1989 to 1999 the number of Belarusians who consider the Belarusian language their native language increased by more than half a million (the Belarusian population grew by 250,000 people). Thus, according to the 1999 census, more than two-fifth of ethnic Belarusians spoke Belarusian in their daily life, while in 1889—only one-fifth. In other words, during the ten years following the disintegration of the Soviet Union and while on the crest of a new wave of Russification (or de-Belarussification) the country experienced an increase in the number of Belarusian-speakers.

  • 8 Pavel Loika, “Prablemy gistarycznai adukatsyi u Belarusi. Gistarycznaia adukatsyia— asnova idealog (...)

8The ambiguous position of the Belarusian language in the practice of Belarusian people’s life is reflected in the theoretical concept of Belarusian ness expressed by some historians working in state education system. Loika, one of the authors of the definitive Belarusian history textbook, writes: “While taking into account the dramatic character of the Belarusian history in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries associated with the tearing our Fatherland between Warsaw and St. Petersburg, between Catholicism and Orthodox faith, we should not abjure our ancestors’ achievements. There is no sense in considering only texts written in Belarusian to be “national.” There is no ground in granting our neighbors or anyone else the Belarusian cultural values created in Polish, Russian, and Latin [languages]. In general, Belarus both in the remote past and today, has been having polyethnic and polylinguistic character.”8

  • 9 Zaprudnik, “Belarus: in Search of National Identity,” 117.
  • 10 “Dovedet li iazyk do Kieva,” Novosti IISEPS Bulleten’, 4, (2004), http://www.iiseps.org/bullet04-4 (...)
  • 11 Oleg Manaev, “Elektorat Aleksandra Lukashenko,” in Belorussia i Rossia: Obshchestva i gosudarstva, (...)
  • 12 Yu. Drakhohurst, “Belorusskii natsionalizm govorit po russki,” Belorusskaia Delovaia Gazeta, Janua (...)

9Another paradox of the last “wave of Russification” is connected with the growing contradiction between the linguistic and the political Russification of Belarusian minds. As opinion polls show, those who use the Russian language are not necessarily pro-Russian in their political preferences; that is, one needs to distinguish the linguistic and the political Russification. Jan Zaprudnik noted, “Russian in Belarus in many cases is as much a language of cultural renewal of the country and its independence as Belarusian.”9 Different studies show that the majority of supporters of Lukashenka’s policy and of the reintegration with Russia live in rural areas, and paradoxically, are Belarusian speaking. On the contrary, the Russian-speaking Minsk has become a center of political activism in defense of Belarus’s independence. The research of the dependence between the political orientation and the spoken languages conducted by the IISEPS sociologists, manifests that “contrary to the widespread ideas, namely Russian speakers, in comparison with other language communities, are to a greater extent committed to the independence of Belarus and the economic liberty values and are least supportive of A. Lukashenka.”10 A sociological picture of the opponents to President Lukashenka’s policy aimed at the reunification with Russia characterizes him as “a young educated Minsker, actively engaged in entrepreneurship, who speaks Russian, supports Belarus’s independence and is West-oriented.”11 In other words, as Yuri Drakhohurst writes, “The Belarusian nationalism speaks Russian.”12

10The contradiction between the linguistic Russification and the parallel “political Belarussification” of the public awareness in Belarus leads to a paradoxical fact: Russian-speaking Belarusians keep a distance in relation to Russia and are West-oriented. This fact, if does not disaffirm completely, at least diminishes the significance of the linguistic Russification in the context of the Belarusian national development.

Notes

1 Andrei Yekadumau, “The Russian Factor in the Development of Belarusian Culture,” in Belarus-Russia Integration, ed. V. Bulgakau (Minsk–Warsaw: Analytical group Minsk, 2003), 186–87.

2 Marples, Belarus. A Denationalized Nation, 50.

3 Tavarystva Belaruskai movy imia Fratsishka Skaryny, http://tbm.org.by.

4 “Gosudarstvennaia programma razvitia belorusskogo iazyka i drugikh natsionalnykh iazykov v Belorusskoi SSR” (“The state program of development of the Belarusian language and other national languages in the Belarusian SSR), Sovetskaia Belorussia, September 25, 1990.

5 Yekadumau, “The Russian Factor in the Development of Belarusian Culture,” 218.

6 Yekadumau, “The Russian Factor in the Development of Belarusian Culture,” 218.

7 David Marples, “Changes proposed to Belarusian language,” Eurasia Daily Monitor no. 3 (166) 2006, http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=32027.

8 Pavel Loika, “Prablemy gistarycznai adukatsyi u Belarusi. Gistarycznaia adukatsyia— asnova idealogii belaruskaga dziarzhaunaga patryatyzmu,” Gistryczny almanach no. 4 (2001), http://kamunikat.fontel.net/www/czasopisy/almanach/04/04prab_lojka.htm.

9 Zaprudnik, “Belarus: in Search of National Identity,” 117.

10 “Dovedet li iazyk do Kieva,” Novosti IISEPS Bulleten’, 4, (2004), http://www.iiseps.org/bullet04-4.html.

11 Oleg Manaev, “Elektorat Aleksandra Lukashenko,” in Belorussia i Rossia: Obshchestva i gosudarstva, ed. D. Furman (Moscow: Prava cheloveka, 1998), 289.

12 Yu. Drakhohurst, “Belorusskii natsionalizm govorit po russki,” Belorusskaia Delovaia Gazeta, January 19, 1998.

Table des illustrations

Titre Table 7. Use of the Russian and Belarusian languages among Belarusians and Russians living in the Republic of Belarus
Légende Source: Adapted from Yekadumau, “The Russian Factor in the Development of Belarusian Culture,” in Belarus-Russia Integration, 217.
URL http://books.openedition.org/ceup/docannexe/image/616/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 94k

© Central European University Press, 2010

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