A language is not an identity

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Fri Mar 24 17:06:59 UTC 2006


A language is not an identity
By Alexandre Billette and Jean-Arnault Derens

The headquarters of Nasha Niva newspaper, in the centre of Minsk, is a
hive of activity for Belarussian nationalists. The movement to defend
Belarussian identity seems to converge on these offices. Students attend
evening classes run by the banned Popular University while volunteers
stuff copies of the paper into envelopes. Like all independent media,
Nasha Niva has been excluded from the main distribution system. "Sixteen
publications have been banned," explained Andrey Dynko, the young editor,
"and almost all were in Belarussian."

After the fall of the Soviet Union, newly independent Belarus immediately
promoted the national language and emphasised Belarussian identity. But
when Alexander Lukashenko came to power in 1994, he abandoned the policy
and restored Russian to the status of second official language, alongside
Belarussian. Official parity is illusory: a few signs may be in
Belarussian, but the main language of urban society and public life is
Russian. The state media and public administration use Russian. Almost
everyone can speak the language, though according to 1999 census figures,
only 11.4% of the population is of Russian origin. Lukashenko speaks a
mongrel language, peppered with Belarussian words and expressions. But he
deems Russian to be one of only two languages capable of adapting to the
modern world: the other is English.

The story of the Yakub Kolas National Humanities Lyceum illustrates the
situation. Founded in November 1990, this alternative Belarussian high
school grew out of an underground network of weekend classes developed in
the 1980s. It aimed to allow everyone to learn or improve their knowledge
of Belarussian. The parallel system, headed by Uladzimir Kolas, was far
better known than attended, but its reputation was such that the state
enlisted its teachers to produce textbooks in Belarussian. Two months
after election, Lukashenko issued his first education directive: all
textbooks published after 1991 were banned, without explanation. The
government soon had to withdraw the edict as there were not enough
Soviet-era books. Despite regular demonstrations by teachers, parents and
students, the lyceum, which enjoyed wide support among the intelligentsia,
was officially shut down in June 2003. "Today we risk six months to two
years in prison for participating in a non-registered association," says a
school governor, "but we've decided to keep going." The past two academic
years have been tough: the school had to give lessons in private flats,
discreetly transformed into improvised classrooms. This year it rented a
house in an outer suburb of Minsk. It takes two hours to get there from
the city centre, but the students feel it is worth spending that time on
public transport to be able "to study in our language".

Fifteen years after independence, Belarus is still struggling to establish
a national identity. More powerful neighbours dominated its territory for
most of its history. In the Middle Ages, it belonged to the Grand Duchy of
Lithuania. Later it came under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonweath, the
republic of nobles formed in the 16th century. The tsars took it over
under the three partitions of Poland (1772, 1792 and 1795) and worked to
make it intensely Russian. A cultural Belarussian nationalist movement
emerged in the late 19th century, on the model of Europe's Romantic
nationalisms. But Belarus was soon a battlefield for other countries'
conflicts: the first world war and the Russian civil war. Despite the
short-lived, independent Belarussian Popular Republic of 1918-19, it never
managed to assert itself as a player. In 1922 the treaty of Riga divided
the country, half to Poland and half to the Soviet Union. The Russians
regained western Belarus with the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact, only to lose it
again when the Germans invaded Poland in 1941.

By the end of the second world war the Soviet Socialist Republic of
Belarus was wrecked, its cities and infrastructure ruined. It had lost its
Jews, a key element of Belarussian society; because Belarus had been part
of the pale of settlement in which Jews were tolerated under the tsars,
they had been a majority in big cities such as Minsk, Grodno and Vitebsk
(where the painter Marc Chagall was born). With their destruction, Belarus
lost an important part of its history and culture. There was intense
industrialisation and rapid economic development between 1945 and 1990.
The policy of Russification continued, without resistance from local
communist leaders. The homogenising Soviet system took over cities and
towns, destroying what was left of the traditional landscape.  Though the
regime pretended to protect Belarussian language and culture, it relegated
them to the status of folklore.

Dissident movements emerged during the 1980s, especially after the 1986
Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster (1) which affected Belarus worst. They
were quick to adopt Belarussian nationalist references, if only to
distinguish the country from Russia and to insist on its central European
identity. This reawakening intensified during the early years of
independence, though not everyone welcomed it. Many could not see the
point of the nationalist project. The election of Lukashenko confounded
the national identity movements. He is not an outright Russophile; he is
more interested in cultivating nostalgia for the Soviet era than in any
sense of underlying Russianness.

Lyolik Ushkin, a journalist at Nasha Niva, said: "Lukashenko wants to
present himself as an alternative to Vladimir Putin. That's how you have
to see the plans for union with Russia. His dream is to lead a new state
encompassing both countries. He doesn't want to see Belarus reduced to a
mere province of Russia." The likelihood of political union with Russia
has faded lately and the Belarussian regime has altered its line, placing
more value on Belarus's status as an independent country and on its
position at the crossroads of East and West. Soviet nostalgia is still the
regime's key ideological tool. It highlights the second world war, when
Belarussian partisans led the resistance against German occupation. This
theme resonates strongly with the Belarussian people, partly because many
veterans survive, but also for want of alternative references. There is
not even an independent Belarussian Orthodox Church. The metropolitan
bishop of Minsk, who is a former member of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR,
pledges allegiance to the Moscow patriarchs - and to Lukashenko.

Dynko is still hopeful. He is impressed by the example of neighbouring
Ukraine. "Ten years ago, you wouldn't hear people in the streets of Kiev
speaking Ukrainian," he said. "Now the city is mainly Ukrainian-speaking,
thanks to a determined policy of promoting national identity." He sees
Ukraine and Belarus as unfinished nations and believes that the
development of national identity can only come with democratisation. "The
orange revolution of autumn 2004 was a national revolution that allowed
Ukraine to re-establish its identity," said Dynko. "Lukashenko's regime
could turn out to be a historic opportunity for Belarus finally to come
together as a nation, in opposition to this regime built on lies and on
hollow state ideology."




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