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Struggle over Identity

Nelly Bekus

Part VI. Cultural Manifestation versus Social Reification

Chapter 28. The Official Politics of Identity: Social Reification Strategy

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1In the official cultural space there are some examples that can be considered in the context of representation of the national idea. As cases of such cultural support provided by official cultural activity to the national state ideology, this chapter considers the annual Slavonic Bazaar festival, the national historical “blockbuster” Anastasia Slutksaya (2003), and the performance of Dreams About Belarus (2007) on the stage of the Belarusian Academic National Theater. These examples demonstrate how the authorities try to use culture and the cultural sphere to popularize ideas of the official ideology of Belarusianness. However, it is not culture that carries the main functions. The major means of public representations of official Belarusianness looks different from those of the followers’ of alternative Belarusianness.

2The beginning of the Slavonic Bazaar festival in Vitebsk goes back to Soviet times. Today, the name itself serves to actualize and popularize the idea of Slavonic unity. Traditionally, Russian, Belarusian, Ukrainian celebrities are invited. The event is decorated with elements of national (folk) culture (with exhibitions of traditional crafts of Belarusian artisans in the streets of the city). A competition among young musicians is included in the program. In general, however, the concerts of the Bazaar are a reproduction of the Soviet concepts of pop-music celebrities. One of the main leitmotifs of the performances and the greeting of post-Soviet popstars is reminiscent of a time when we lived happily in “one country and were one Soviet people.”

3Filmed in 2003 under the patronage of the president of the Republic of Belarus, Anastasia Slutskaya was financed from the state budget and initially announced as the first “national historical blockbuster.” It did not become a convincing national myth, although the ideology and national idea presented in the film were initially identified. This found reflection not so much in the events shown in the film as in the way they were presented. The director of the film Yuri Elhov said in an interview: “As regards the ideology, we thought about how to give the film a patriotic character. Not without reason, in one scene, Anastasia calls the people to fight ‘for the Slutsk land and the Orthodox faith.’ But we tried to completely avoid acute political angles. Because of their mentality, Belarusians have not had serious quarrels with anyone or serious wars for national independence in the course of history. […] There were no conflicts with either Russia or Poland in the film […] We avoided such political scandals. It was a matter of principle. We did not want to irritate anyone.”1

4The image of the national past in the film is built on a denial of historical truth—one can say that national history “abandoned” the film. On the demand of the authorities, the authors of the film offered a national myth that did not contain what was in Belarusian history; neither historical Belarusian symbols—the emblem of Chase, nor Litvins, nor wars with the “fraternal Russian people.” As a result of the loss of all references to the past, the film became a “naive romantic legend from the life of a strange people in colored clothing.”2 Despite the fact that the film was placed into distribution and was seen everywhere including in remote Belarusian villages, because of emasculated relations with real history it turned into a more or less qualitative analogue of Hollywood fairytales.

5A certain interpretation of Belarusianness appears on the official theater stage, for example, in the performance of Dreams About Belarus at the Belarusian Academic National Theater. The performance was staged by Uladzimir Savitski after the play The Cradle of Four Enchantresses, by Uladzimir Karatkevich in 2007.

  • 3 Andrei Kureichik, “Krasnaia kniga belorusskogo teatra,” Belgazeta, July 28, 2007, http://www.belga (...)

6Despite its direct dependence on official ideologists, this theater has managed to remain the most politically democratic from the perspective of its repertoire. On its stage one can see Prince Vitovt, written by Alexei Dudarev in 1993, where Russian–Belarusian history is interpreted in manner quite oppositional in relation to the doctrine of the Union State. Here one can also see a performance of Locals (Tuteishia) by Kupala, with a white-red-white flag in the finale, “the last safety valve of the nationally minded intelligentsia,” according to the Belgazeta weekly.3 The new perfor mance Dreams About Belarus can be considered if not officially ordered, in any case officially approved, and staged by means of budget allocations in order to represent the idea of Belarusianness.

7The main protagonist of the play is the national poet of Belarus, one of the symbols of twentieth-century Belarusian culture, Yanka Kupala. On the one hand, the poet belonged to the first generation of Nasha Niva activists, and his creative work reflected the social oppression and suffering of the people on Belarusian lands. At the same time, he exemplifies a lifting of the contradiction between the pre-Soviet and Soviet periods of the national development of Belarusianness. The poet of the early twentieth-century national revival later became the national poet of Soviet Belarus. His death in 1943 in a Moscow hotel still has no definite explanation, the official version being suicide.

8The first scene is in the Moscow Hotel with a message about the death of the Belarusian poet. The end of Yanka Kupala’s life is replaced with scenes from his youth, actually portrayed in the dreams he sees before death. His parents, his first love, his thoughts about the land are the background against which the mind of the future poet experiences pangs of realization of his Belarusianness that separate him from those around him who have more mundane concerns about housekeeping and family. In his youth he already had a sense of foreshadowing of a special mission, a clear understanding of which he was to obtain. “He would be one of those whose mission is to create anew, from the ashes, from nothing and oblivion— Belarus.” This sounds like a projection of the role played by the people’s intelligentsia in the awakening of Belarusian self-consciousness.

9Remarkably, the theme of national revival is articulated here in the context of anti-Polish intentions—the anti-Polish phrases of a Belarusian noble-rebel; concealed dislike of the Polish language; a passing joke disclosing the anti-Polish mood of the Belarusian peasants. Specifically, Polish influence is seen in the performance as a problem for the full development of Belarusianness. This point of view quite agrees with the idea of the threat of denationalization for Belarusians on the part of its western neighbor, although it does seem true for the period described. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Belarusian lands had been part of the Russian empire for more than 200 years. Polish culture was devoid of institutional support and though it found itself in a better position than Belarusian culture, it did not prevail in this territory. The threat of denationalization on the part of Polish culture is still less topical today, when the majority of Belarusians speak Russian and for more than eighty years, the Belarusian cultural territory has remained within the sphere of active Russian cultural influence, having experienced a period of common “Sovietness.” Dreams About Belarus brings us no closer to the essential problems of Belarusian national life but rather takes us away from them, shifting our attention to what has no relation to modern life, having taken place in the distant past. It is just a safe, not very topical talk about the search for Belarusianness. The lack of vivid, significant acts of cultural representations of official Belarusianness and the tradition on which it is based is filled with constant and laborious actualizations of social rituals at the micro and macro levels of everyday life.

  • 4 Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 4–5.

10Paul Connerton writes: “If there is such a thing as social memory […] we are likely to find it in commemorative ceremonies; but commemorative ceremonies prove to be commemorative only in so far as they are performative; performativity cannot be thought without a concept of habit; and habit cannot be thought without bodily automatism.”4 It is social rituals that lead to the automatism and nonreflexive level of evidence the identification of Belarusians with the state and ideology.

11At the macro level social rituals are connected with national holidays and symbols. The official version of the national idea gave an ideological interpretation of an event so “basic” that it would not even seem possible to give it an alternative “reading,” for example, identifying Independence Day. Independence Day is celebrated in Belarus neither on the day of signing the Declaration of Sovereignty, July 27 (as it was before 1996), nor on the day of the first proclamation of the Belarusian state (Belarusian People’s Republic) on March 25 (which the opposition celebrates as “Freedom Day”), but on July 3, the day of Belarus’s liberation from German fascist invaders. The main reason for changing Independence Day to July 3, according to the authorities, was that, for most people, the Declaration of Sovereignty is associated with the collapse of the USSR, which by no means can arouse positive emotions. And the Belarusian People’s Republic is considered to be “a state that existed only by word of mouth.” In reality, in both the first and second cases, “independence” primarily implies liberation from the external influence and presence of the eastern neighbor. The celebration of Independence Day on the day of liberation from the fascist occupation entirely obliterates the context of independence from Russia and substitutes the context of “independence” from the military occupation. At the same time, the government is not confused by the tautology: Independence Day becomes a repetition of Victory Day— another ritually significant national holiday. This tautology, justified ideologically as the participation of Belarusians in the common victory of World War II, is crucial to the Belarusian tradition of collective deeds. Furthermore, May 9 is also celebrated beyond the bounds of the country and July 3 becomes a particular nationalizing act in which Belarusians celebrate Belarus’s liberation as their own victory.

12Another ritually meaningful “national holiday” example is the Day of the State Emblem and the State Flag. It is known, that decorative elements of the national culture, such as the national anthem, flag, serve as an effective means of identification with the state. The present state symbols were introduced in 1995 as a result of the referendum initiated by the president. In the new symbols their succession from the symbols and flag of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic is easily seen. They replaced the historical white-red-white flag and emblem—the “chase,” which in the period from 1991 to 1995 served as state symbols of independent Belarus. These became alternative symbols, which are used by the political and cultural opposition, and prohibited from being displayed or carried in public places under Belarusian law as “not officially registered by the state.”

  • 5 A. Lukashenka, “Pozdravlenie s dnem gosudarstvennogo gerba i gosudarstvennogo flaga’, May 2007, ht (...)
  • 6 Anastasia Mitrofanova, “Khrustalnyi sosud ideologii, ili belorusskii proekt,” http://magazines.rus (...)

13The Day of the State Emblem and the Flag is held in Belarus according to all of the rules of ritual “memory” encoded in the symbols. “The emblem and flag are relics of the fatherland. They symbolize the succession of generations and consolidate society in the name of creating a strong and flourishing Belarus.”5 As Belarusian symbols represent slightly transformed symbols of the Soviet epoch, the “succession of generations” unambiguously means a connection with the Soviet epoch, although “Sovietness” does not exhaust the whole meaning of the new state symbols. In the words of A. Mitrofanova, “The Belarusian state symbols are undoubtedly transformed Soviet ones, but the fact that they are transformed is more important than the fact that they are Soviet ones. On the Belarusian emblem in the rays of sunshine, no hammer and sickle appear, but […] the contour of its own territory. Soviet legacy is used in such a way, that people have an opportunity to be proud of their own country and not of the country that had already become part of history.”6

14The official symbols lack deep historical roots but this defect is compensated by a scaled ritualization of its celebration. The State Emblem and Flag days are celebrated by relevant official ceremonies and informal activities. These include not only “pioneer parades” and meetings with official speakers but also large concerts with the participation of popstars, the launching of balloons imprinted with the state Belarusian flag and emblem, and grandiose spectacular fireworks. Organized according to the rules of all mass holidays, the day of national symbols turns into a holiday in which one way or another everybody takes part.

15The topic of patriotic education of young generations has become part of state publishing policy aimed at education. In 2004, the textbook Belarus’, Nasha Rodina. Podarok Prezidenta Respuliki Belarus’ A. G. Lukashenka Pervoklassniku. (Belarus, Our Motherland. A gift of the President of the Republic of Belarus A. G. Lukashenka to a First-grader) was published. This book is distributed annually to every first-grader in the country as a gift. Traditionally, the book begins the first lesson of first-graders in Belarusian schools. In 2007 its circulation was 92,000 copies. The publishing house also prepared a book Tol’ko pod nebom Otechestva (Only Under the Sky of the Fatherland), released an educational and methodological textbook Na poroge grazhdanskoi zrelosti (On the Threshold of Civic Maturity), and a reader Moia Otchizna. Respublika Belarus’ (My Father land. The Republic of Belarus.) In 2007 it was decided to publish the book Ia Grazhdanin Respubliki Belarus’ (I Am a Citizen of the Republic of Belarus) for distribution to sixteen-year-olds with their passports. The book is planned to be a richly illustrated gift edition that presents the basic premises of the constitution of the Republic of Belarus, legal commentaries, and quotations of renowned persons. Attached to the book will be an informational disc, containing reference information (interpretations of laws, addresses of law offices, universities, etc.), and a music disc containing masterpieces of Belarusian classical music.

  • 7 Ibid.

16The main task of social rituals is to form individual-level perceptions of the sense of belonging to Belarus (as it exists in the official doctrine). To achieve this, national holidays in official Belarus are combined with various practices that actualize official Belarusianness in everyday life. (Not without reason Lukashenka is sometimes called “the master of micro policy.”7) These are all connected with the institutionalization of the national project, which by nature becomes a symbolic reification of official Belarusianness. This national project is introduced through public institutions at all levels: schools, universities, and work collectives. At the first lesson of the school academic year, called “Belarus is my Motherland,” children not only listen to stories about “their country” but also draw pictures of the national symbols. The state emblem and flag are popularized in the youth environment, for example, by using cloth containing state symbols to create fashionable pieces of clothing. Once in the supermarket I saw a twelve-year-old boy, who, when asked what he wanted for his birthday as a present, he said “a scarf with the Belarusian flag.” Many state organizations have “red corners” with the text of the state anthem, an image of the emblem, and also a “political information corner.” Almost all stores are decorated with national flags— little paper flags are placed on almost every cash register and counter. The broadcasts of the two central television channels, BTV (Belarusian TV) and National Television end with the sounds of the state anthem.

17In order to develop and consolidate the feeling of national unity in Belarusian society, an action, “Let’s sing the anthem together,” was intended to be performed on Independence Day, July 3, 2007, at 22:45, immediately after the two-hour concert “For Independent Belarus” with the participation of stars of the official Belarusian scene. The collective performance of the national anthem by all those who attended the festive concerts in the squares of Minsk and other large towns was televised by all of the Belarusian channels.

18The state program of Belarusian tourism development is aimed at internalizing the official Belarusian idea. Traveling throughout the country, Belarusians become familiar with the state territory as “their own country.” The contour of the country appears on the state emblem as well as on all publicly displayed propaganda posters. These signs of national institutionalization under state patronage are exhibited in the entire public area of modern Belarus. For example, as in the name of the new National Library building, the word “national” is applied to the majority of significant institutions. Domestic policy devotes significant attention to those spheres of life such as sport and music that make Belarus “visible” in the international arena and develop national feelings at home.

  • 8 E. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780, 142.

19E. Hobsbawm wrote that “sport as a mass spectacle was transformed into the unending succession of gladiatorial contests between persons and teams symbolizing state-nations.”8 He considered sport a good functional means of “bridging” the gap between the individual and public dimensions of national identity. The fact that sportsmen become “modern national heroes” in Belarus is not exceptional: ritualization of the national identity in sport contests is a common feature today. However, Belarusian athletes playing for “the state” under the official national flag not only strengthen the connection between the individual space of each spectator and “the national self” of Belarus. At the same time, they consolidate the perception of official Belarusianness and weaken alternative Belarusianness in the mass consciousness. The same can be said about music contests, albeit on a slightly smaller scale. The young Belarusian girl Ksenia Sitnik won the Eurovision Junior 2006 contest and immediately found herself among the “national heroes” of official Belarus. Her portrait can be seen side by side with that of Maksim Mirny (Belarusian tennis player) in the series of portraits ”For Belarus” exhibited everywhere in Belarusian towns.

20All of these mechanisms have made the official Belarusian symbols working instruments for the expression of patriotic feelings. Belarusian journalist A. Znatkevitch describes the strange combination of the official Belarusian flag with an opposition slogan.

  • 9 The slogan traditionally used at the opposition’s rallies. Aliaksei Znatkevitch, “Tsiazhkaia navuk (...)

21Once, while walking via the underpass near the Minsk railway station, I noticed a lot of policemen and heard the mighty slogan “Long Live Belarus!” I was surprised, as I had not heard about any political protest at the railway station. It turned out that football fans were escorting the Moscow guests to their train. The Belarusian team had lost to their Russian opponents that day. Most young people come to the games with red-green flags. And this may not be only because the police go after the white-red-white flag. Certain Belarusian youth seem to perceive this red-green flag as a natural sign of patriotism.”9

  • 10 John Borneman, Belonging in the Two Berlins: Kin, State, Nation (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni versity (...)
  • 11 Katherine Verdery, “Whither ‘Nation’ and ‘Nationalism’?” Daedalus (Summer 1993): 41.

22Anthropologist John Bornerman’s distinction between “nationalism” and “nationness” may be helpful. He defines “nationalism” as conscious sentiments that view the nation as an object of active devotion, and “nationness” as daily interactions and practices that produce an inherent and often unarticulated feeling of belonging, of being at home.10 These practices and routines may vary from the “relatively mundane rituals of court ship and family-making, as influenced by the policies of the state to the relatively rare and spectacular, such as participation in warfare, which may have been essential to building devotion to the nation during the earlymodern period so that such devotion could be presupposed by war-makers later on.”11 This approach to the individual aspect of the national identity refers to Foucault’s idea about the formation of the modern subject through often invisible practices—the microphysics of power. To study this means to redirect attention away from the straight rhetoric of nationalists and toward the techniques and tools through which receptive dispositions have been unconsciously internalized by those to whom they appeal.

23Indeed, all of the various practices are nothing but instruments of embedding the attributes of official Belarusianness into people’s notions about “their country.” The ideas of official Belarusianness are expressed in national form and become the national idea, the idea of belonging to the Belarusian nation as the titular nation of the Republic of Belarus. At the same time, institutionalization of the official Belarusian idea works not only in the representation of some mythological (or ideological) content. It constitutes the existence of a Belarusian nation that practically “finds itself” in the signs of the representation. Belarusianness is reified by means of symbolic institutionalization and social ritualization. The longer such a state of affairs exists during this political regime, the more difficult it is for the majority of Belarusians to deny their support, which would mean leaving the territory of Belarusianness that constantly affirms itself as the only legitimate space of Belarusianness. Furthermore, in these processes, certain ideas concerning the arrangement of social and political life become part of the foundation of Belarusian national unity. And as was shown above, some of these ideas were inscribed into the symbolic matrix of Belarusianness long before the Lukashenka regime was established, and even before the Soviet state was created. The first articulations of Belarusianness by national awakeners were closely connected with the ideas of social justice and class equality based on the historical conditions in which they worked. For this reason, there are no apparent conflicts between the official national idea and the way the majority of Belarusians have been taught to understand what Belarusianness is about.

24One can also find attempts to institutionalize alternative Belarusianness. For example, the Yakub Kolas Lyceum was an alternative educational institution, where teaching was conducted entirely in Belarusian. The general cultural context of the curriculum was different from that in staterun schools. The lyceum was opened in 1989 by members of the Belarusian intelligentsia who strove to emphasize Belarusian culture and history. In 1991 the lyceum was converted into a Belarusian humanities education and cultural center of the Ministry of Education, which included the lyceum, a publishing house, and a cinema and video studio. The center had six branches in a number of towns in Belarus. But the Ministry of Education closed down the center in summer 2003. At that time, there were 30 teachers and 130 pupils, and since then the lyceum has practically gone underground, conducting lessons as preparatory courses in private homes and on the premises of public organizations that sympathize with its activities. The lyceum is widely supported abroad. Its graduates receive grants for further education in other countries. But its elimination completed the monopolization of Belarus’s official educational landscape.

25The political opposition aspires to popularize “alternative holidays” connected with historical events of the Belarusian past, thus creating its own calendar. This calendar contains the day of establishment of the Belarusian People’s Republic in 1918 (March 25), commemoration of the victory of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania’s troops in the battle of Orsha over Muscovy in 1514 (September 8). Remarkably, in 1992 on that day in Independence Square in Minsk, the oath of allegiance to their people was administered to Belarusian soldiers. It was the symbolic start of legalization and institutionalization of the new version of Belarusian history in the state’s life. When A. Lukashenka came to power this version became oppositional, and the date of September 8 has retained its significance only on the alternative calendar of Belarusian history. Since then, this day is annually celebrated in the Krapivenski field in the vicinity of Orsha by a singersongwriter festival,12 medieval reenactments, and divine services of praise to Belarusian warriors who fought against Muscovy.

  • 13 Naviny, “V Belarusi ogranizovano kraevedcheskoe puteshestvie po mestam Sluckogo vosstania 1920 god (...)

26Every November since 1992, members of the Belarusian Popular Front and a number of cultural organizations have held a kind of tour of the sites of the Slutsk uprising in 1920. The Slutsk uprising was the first armed attempt to protect the independence of Belarus in November–December 1920. For about forty-five days 10–12,000 Belarusian patriots in the troops of the Belarusian People’s Republic fought against the Red Army in the final stage of the Soviet–Polish war of 1919–20. The uprising was held under the slogan “Neither Polish Pans nor Moscow Communists!” Visits to these places are revive the memories of the Belarusian past during which Belarusians acted independently and demonstrated their aspiration to freedom from outside domination. In this context, according to oppositional activist Viacheslav Sivchik, “the struggle of Slutsk insurgents is a link in the chain of the Belarusian national and liberation movement, together with such events as the rising of Kastus Kalinouski, the fight of the national and liberation forces against the Bolsheviks, the anti-Nazi partisan movement during World War II, and the current struggle of democratic forces for freedom and democracy.”13

  • 14 Documentaries form another sphere of opposition Belarusian cultural development that is actively i (...)

27All of these attempts to actualize ideas of an alternative past and alternative Belarusianness, however, give way in confrontation with the official version. Alternative history is popularized on Internet websites, books are published, competitions of children’s pictures are held, trips organized, and documentaries produced.14 Music, theater, cinema, literature, historians, and reconstruction clubs interact and often work together for a common idea. Knights are present at concerts and in films, musicians take part in the Free Theater performances, historians work with knight clubs and filmmakers. All of these events, however, remain locked in the parallel sphere of the public space. Not mentioned in the media, memorable dates of alternative history are not described in the press and not studied in schools.

28The main and insuperable advantage of official over alternative Belarusianness is its access to state institutional resources. The official “tradition” learned in schools and universities is supported by official holidays, while official symbols are also used by the international community to identify Belarus. The fact that official Belarusianness has become a synonym for the Belarusian state gives it an essential advantage over alternative Belarusianness. The Belarusian authorities are undoubtedly aware of this. That is why the authorities thwart all attempts to institutionalize the alternative Belarusian idea: the humanities lyceum was closed down, the dates of alternative history are not mentioned in the calendar or included in their own actions (e.g., March 25, the day of the official action “For Belarus”). A particular feature of the Belarusian regime is its reluctance to prevent manifestations (signs, attributes, actions) that represent an alternative Belarusianness. It seldom tries to eliminate them. One can buy books with “alternative history” in bookstores, ideologically oppositional Belarusian literature is published. Discs of disfavored musicians are sold in the shops. The Belarusian authorities mainly aim to prevent information— any manifestations of the alternative Belarusian idea—from getting into the official public space, which is considered the only legitimate public sphere and is reserved for official Belarusianness.

29I once witnessed an illustrative conflict involving national symbols: during the conference the Wave of Resistance organized by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Alfred Mozer Foundation in The Hague, the hall was adorned with the national flags of the participating countries. The participants were representatives of youth organizations that promote democratization in their countries. Belarus was represented by Zubr—a front of the youth resistance that is not registered officially because of its openly political stand in opposition to the regime. At the very beginning of the conference an embarrassing event took place as the Belarusians re presenting the opposition refused to participate in the conference “under the regime’s flag.” Indeed, among other national flags was the official Belarusian flag in red and green. It was not the behavior of the Belarusian opposition that was symptomatic in those circumstances. The conference organizers were undoubtedly on the side of the democratic opposition and used the official symbol perhaps without being aware of the war of the national symbols. By not realizing this and just following international rules and using the recognized state symbol the organizers in effect took the state “side.” And this, as a matter of fact, is not a problem of the conference organizers or the international rules, but, rather, the main difficulty of alternative Belarusianness and its followers in their activities, which is more intense inside the country than abroad. They fight to represent the Belarusian nation against the Belarusian state, and they manifest a national Belarusian unity that is separate from the political unit of the same name.


30One aspect of understanding the Belarusian nation is connected with its formal definition. A nation that is shaped and implemented in practice with the help of state institutions and various social practices is a nation of the state. The image of an alternative Belarusianness is built on an appeal to the cultural and symbolic community of the nation based on ethnic legacy. In this context, the results of a sociological study conducted by independent IISEPS specialists in late 2006 are noteworthy. In this opinion poll, respondents were asked to choose one definition of the Belarusian nation from among several variants: a nation as a community of citizens of the Republic of Belarus, a nation as a community of ethnic Belarusians, and a nation as a community of people who live within the cultural Belarusian tradition (who speak Belarusian, observe Belarusian traditions, and educate their children in this spirit). The results of the poll are given in Table 10.

31As we can see, no concept of the nation has an absolute majority in Belarusian society. A relative majority adheres to the definition of a civicnation (38.2 percent), or, as the authors of the study write, “the definition that underlies the policy of European Union members.”15 This is also the definition of the nation embedded in the official Belarusian discourse.

Table 10. Responses to the Question “For you, what is the “Belarusian nation?” (%)

Table 10. Responses to the Question “For you, what is the “Belarusian nation?” (%)

Note: National opinion poll conducted in October–November 2006 by IISEPS sociologists by means of face-to-face interviews with 1,527 respondents.

Source: “Chto takoe beloruskaia natsiia,” Arkhiv analitiki IISEPS, November 2006,​1106.html.

32At the same time, Belarusian society has numerous supporters of the definition of nation through ethnicity (26.8 percent), which can be accounted for by the legacy of the Soviet system, in which “nationality” in the passport of each citizens was determined precisely in this manner. Finally, 25.6 percent of the respondents support the definition of the Belarusian nation based on language and cultural traditions.

33The fact that a considerable number chose the “cultural definition” of the nation demonstrates the potential for enhancing the influence (but at the same time the “ceiling” of this enhancement) of political supporters of Belarusian cultural nationalism. According to the same opinion poll, only 7.8 percent of respondents speak mainly Belarusian in their everyday life, however, the proportion of people who consider themselves Belarusians to those who speak Belarusian is over three times greater (25.6 percent). This suggests that these people have a definite motivation, a desire to speak Belarusian under more favorable circumstances. These results make it possible to determine how widespread the idea of the nation as a community formed by the state is—an idea that is actively propagandized by the state itself.

34Another aspect of understanding of the Belarusian nation investigated by the IISEPS sociologists is related to its “content:” the geopolitical and cultural values that are available in the self-determination of Belarusians. Surveys reveal different formulas of self-determination and definitions of Belarusianness, which form intricate patterns in Belarusians’ consciousness. On the one hand, as the 2006 IISEPS opinion poll revealed, 52 percent of Belarusians consider themselves “Soviet people.”16 This striking number speaks in favor of the fact that the reason for the stable character of the Belarusian regime should be searched for not so much in its internal administrative resources (i.e., in the mechanisms of suppressing nonconformists with the aid of special services), as in the peculiar, and for many, paradoxical, correlation of the Belarusian model of self-identification and the national realization with the concept of Belarusianness offered in the official discourse.

  • 17 Roy Allison, Stephen White, Margot Light, “Belarus’ mizh Uskhodam i Zakhadam,” ARCHE no. 10 (2006) (...)

35At the same time, the results of national representative polls conducted during 2004 and 2005, reveal that “Belarusians practically in everything manifest greater ‘Europeanness’ than Russians and Ukrainians. […] Belarusians more frequently consider themselves ‘European’ and refer to ‘Europeanness’ as a variant of their self-identification.”17 These polls also show that more Belarusians can define the European Union, and know where the headquarters of the EU are located, as compared to Russians and Ukrainians (see Table 11).

Table 11. Belarusians, Russians, Ukrainians, and “Europe,” 2004–2005 (%)

Table 11. Belarusians, Russians, Ukrainians, and “Europe,” 2004–2005 (%)

36Source: Roy Allison, Stephen White, Margot Light, “Belarus’ mizh Uskhodam i Zakhadam,” ARCHE no. 10 (2006),​2006-10/​alisan610.htm.

37If “Europe” is one of the main signifiers of alternative Belarusianness, one can say that in this capacity it also has a great impact on Belarusians’ selfawareness. However, this does not prevent Belarusians from remaining extremely Russian-minded. As the IISEPS opinion polls reveal, during the past few years, even in the conditions of persistent exacerbation of political and economic crisis in relations with Russia, in a forced choice between the East and the West, the majority of Belarusians decidedly prefer Russia.

Table 12. Responses to the Question “If you had to choose between unification with Russia and joining the European Union, what would your choice be?” (%)

Table 12. Responses to the Question “If you had to choose between unification with Russia and joining the European Union, what would your choice be?” (%)

Note: Nationwide representative opinion polls conducted by IISEPS in 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007. Source: “Integratsionnyi perelom,” Arkhiv analitiki, IISEPS, January 2007,​1-07-6.html.

  • 18 Christian W. Haerpfer, “Electoral Politics of Belarus Compared,” 97.

38This phenomenon of the considerable presence of “Europeanness” in Belarusians’ self-image against the background of their no less impressive “Sovietness” and persistent pro-Russianness can be explained in the same way that Christian W. Haerpfer explained the high proportion of democrats in Belarusian society governed by the authoritarian regime.18 Haerpfer wrote that, although 41 percent of Belarusian citizens are in favor of pluralistic democracy, which is the highest result for the post-Soviet space (second only after Estonia), still, the other 59 percent of the Belarusian electorate are not “democrats.” The paradox of a large number of European-minded Belarusians (34 percent) in the most pro-Russian country can be explained in a similar way: while their numbers may indeed be higher than those of European-minded Russians or Ukrainians, the other 54 percent of Belarusians “seldom” or “never” think of themselves in this way. They determine the stable orientation of society “in general” to the East.

39European-Belarusians and Soviet Belarusians comprise a commonunity—the Belarusian people—they live in the same places on the same streetsand visit the same shops. They inhabit the same country, but their ideas of the country are different and they define its place in the surrounding world differently. The competing ideas of “Belarusianness” provide their supporters and adherents with different formulas for building their Belarusian identity. The fact that one is a “state-run” national idea and the other is opposed to the state, by definition, creates unequal conditions in this struggle over identity.

Billboard “For Talented Belarus.” The winner of Eurovision Junior 2006, K. Sitnik, has become a part of the official Belarusianness.


Official poster: Belarus for Independence! On the Blackboard: “I am a citizen of the Republic of Belarus, Motherland, Belarus, Minsk.”



1 Yuri Elkhov, “Interv’iu,” Belgazeta, July 07, 2003,

2 M. Zbankov, “Mif protiv mifa,”

3 Andrei Kureichik, “Krasnaia kniga belorusskogo teatra,” Belgazeta, July 28, 2007,

4 Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 4–5.

5 A. Lukashenka, “Pozdravlenie s dnem gosudarstvennogo gerba i gosudarstvennogo flaga’, May 2007,

6 Anastasia Mitrofanova, “Khrustalnyi sosud ideologii, ili belorusskii proekt,”

7 Ibid.

8 E. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780, 142.

9 The slogan traditionally used at the opposition’s rallies. Aliaksei Znatkevitch, “Tsiazhkaia navuka palitkarektnastsi,” in “Viasna narodu” Eseistyka 1991–2007 (Vilnius: Nasha Niva, 2007), 301.

10 John Borneman, Belonging in the Two Berlins: Kin, State, Nation (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni versity Press, 1992), 339.

11 Katherine Verdery, “Whither ‘Nation’ and ‘Nationalism’?” Daedalus (Summer 1993): 41.

12 Website of the Orsha Fest,

13 Naviny, “V Belarusi ogranizovano kraevedcheskoe puteshestvie po mestam Sluckogo vosstania 1920 goda,” November 24, 2007,

14 Documentaries form another sphere of opposition Belarusian cultural development that is actively involved in politics. Viktor Dashuk (Reportage from the Rabbit’s Cage), Yuri Khashchevatski (Ploshcha) show the repressive nature of the Belarusian regime, dealing in their documentaries with political events, filming oppositional rallies, interviewing relatives of politicians and activ ists who have disappeared, and so on. Other types of documentaries, such as “The Belarusian Post-War Anti-Soviet Resistance 1944–1957” made by the independent Belarusian Party zanfilm Studio (2008), present the opposition version of history.

15 “Chto takoe beloruskaia natsiia,” Arkhiv analitiki IISEPS, November 2006,

16 “Gdie konchaetsia Evropa,” Arkhiv analitiki IISEPS,

17 Roy Allison, Stephen White, Margot Light, “Belarus’ mizh Uskhodam i Zakhadam,” ARCHE no. 10 (2006). Originally published in the Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics 21 (4) (2006): 487–511,

18 Christian W. Haerpfer, “Electoral Politics of Belarus Compared,” 97.

Table des illustrations

Titre Table 10. Responses to the Question “For you, what is the “Belarusian nation?” (%)
Légende Note: National opinion poll conducted in October–November 2006 by IISEPS sociologists by means of face-to-face interviews with 1,527 respondents.
Fichier image/jpeg, 127k
Titre Table 11. Belarusians, Russians, Ukrainians, and “Europe,” 2004–2005 (%)
Fichier image/jpeg, 148k
Titre Table 12. Responses to the Question “If you had to choose between unification with Russia and joining the European Union, what would your choice be?” (%)
Légende Note: Nationwide representative opinion polls conducted by IISEPS in 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007. Source: “Integratsionnyi perelom,” Arkhiv analitiki, IISEPS, January 2007,​1-07-6.html.
Fichier image/jpeg, 84k
Légende Billboard “For Talented Belarus.” The winner of Eurovision Junior 2006, K. Sitnik, has become a part of the official Belarusianness.
Fichier image/jpeg, 439k
Légende Official poster: Belarus for Independence! On the Blackboard: “I am a citizen of the Republic of Belarus, Motherland, Belarus, Minsk.”
Fichier image/jpeg, 521k

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