Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Belarusian National Identity about Far More than Just Language

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 17 – It has long been an unquestioned article of faith among Russians and unfortunately among many Russian experts in the West that Ukrainians and Belarusians are “really” Russians who just happen to speak different “dialects” and thus do not have a national identity worthy of independent respect.

            In recent years, Ukrainians have demonstrated the absurdity of such views with Russian- speaking Ukrainians and ethnic Russians living in Ukraine showing that they are committed to their nation and country and even prepared to die for it, something few in Moscow talk about because this pattern undermines their officially prescribed worldview.

            Now, in a development that may prove equally important, Belarusian activists are demonstrating that “Belarusianness” is also not just a question of language but is rooted in a national culture and history that make Belarusians – including not unimportantly Belarusians who speak only Russian – very different from those living in the Moscow-centric state.

            Indeed, while some nationalists in the non-Russian countries oppose any suggestion that promoting their own languages is not a first-order task as of course it is, the emergence of recognized Russian-speaking Ukrainians, Russian-speaking Belarusians both undermines Moscow’s claims about “a Russian world” and helps solidify the 1991 settlement.

            In an interview published today, Belarusian photographer Marina Batyukova invites her fellow Belarusians regardless of the language they speak to take part in a project about what “unites” them as a nation and sets them apart from others (lady.tut.by/news/life/527722.html and charter97.org/ru/news/2017/1/17/237926/).

            The photographer says she has involved literary figures, sociologists, directors and artists in her project so far but she wants to hear from ordinary people about what they think their country is and who those who live there in fact are.  Obviously, she continues, there won’t be a single answer but rather a variety that can be woven into a tapestry.

            That tapestry, of course, involves more than things that are Belarusian alone: Belarusians are part of the world and feel what is going on in it beyond their borders as well as inside them. For her, Batryukova says, the word that comes to mind first is “instantaneous,” not surprising she acknowledges because as a photographer she seeks to capture that in her pictures.

            But she continues by saying that she is “connected with many things” in Belarus and that is why she always “wants to return hoe even from unbelievably beautiful places abroad.” The associations she has with it are powerful, although they may not be those that others might expect.

            For her, the photographer says, “Belarus is not Victory Square. It is rather the Belarusian forest,” a place where she can think and recharge. “When we say ‘Paris,’” she continues, “associations immediately arise: the Eiffel Tower, cheese, wine, chestnuts … But with the word Belarus,” the situation is more complicated and requires visual stimuli.

            Batryukova says she is an urban Belarusian from childhood and did not encounter the Belarusian language until 1994 when she joined the artists union. From that time forward, she has been asking questions about her identity and the way it is or isn’t linked to language.

            It is hard not to notice, she says, that “in any other country everyone speaks the language of their country, but in Belarus, everything is different in that regard.” But “if it isn’t the Belarusian language, then what does make us Belarusians? What do people feel who were born here?”

            She says the ancient traditions of the Belarusians are most obvious in the villages, adding that she is pleased that these traditions are being handed down from one generation to the next rather than dying out as many had thought.  These things too are part of what makes Belarusians Belarusians, and her project now on Facebook will identify even more of the sources of this.

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