Staunton, August 8 – “For Russia and Russians, Belarus simply doesn’t exist,” Russian thinker Maksim Goryunov says, not so much because they see Russians and Belarusians as identical but rather because “the empire sees only those who resist it.” Those who don’t, like the Belarusians, don’t garner its attention and respect.
In an interview with Serhii Ablameiko of Radio Liberty’s Belarusian Service, Goryunov says that he reads Belarusian every day because that is the only way to understand that nation and country and because “the majority of good books on the history of Belarus are written in Belarus (svaboda.org/a/30093108.html; in Russian at belaruspartisan.by/politic/472532/).
Some of best are printed in pathetically small print runs. The essential study by Elena Markova, Shlyakh da savetskay natsii (“The Path to the Soviet Nation”, Minsk, 2016), for example was published in a tirage of 100 copies. But without reading it, Goryunov says, one cannot understand Soviet policies regarding the Belarusian nation.
Ever more people, the Russian scholar says, are interested in Belarus. Recently at Prague’s Charles University, scholars from many countries focused on Belarus for a single reason: “Belarus is the last nationalism. You look at a map of Europe” and see that everywhere nations have developed national myths, ideas and so on.
Belarus is the only exception. It is still in the process of doing so, and in the view of some, it is a nationalism which was blocked from development mid-course but shows signs of restarting that process. Indeed, it has a chance to become a nation and country “just like Lithuania or Latvia.”
Until he began focusing on Belarus, Goryunov says, he had the sense that “the fate of Belarus was a repetition of the fate of one of the republics of the Russian Federation after the collapse of the Soviet Union” – a larger Udmurtia if you will which would be subject to “complete Russification, forgetting its past, and replacing its own past with a Moscow one.”
But that view was wrong as he has since discovered, the Russian scholar says. Belarusians aren’t disappearing; they are reviving and uniting. Unfortunately, Russians do not see this and do not want it: “For Russia, Belarus doesn’t exist; [for Russians] Belarusians do not exist.”
“This is a common view of the metropolitan center on the territories around it,” and it leads to absurdities such as the insistence by some Russians that they didn’t conquer anyone in the Middle Volga such as the Chuvash because the Chuvash did not have an organized state or an army.
“When you live in Russia, inside this big Russian discourse, then you look at the planet in this way: on it, there is Paris, Berlin, London and so on. In other words, you see only imperial capitals and except for them, nothing else exists,” Goryunov explains, except perhaps folkloric assemblies and the like.
“For the Russian point of view, there is no Slovenia or Croatia. Belgrad however exists since it is the capital of Yugoslavia, a kind of small Slavic empire. Belarus is not an empire and that means it doesn’t exist. Tallinn doesn’t exist. Riga doesn’t exist. This is the view of an empire which sees only other empires.”
Peoples without empires are to disappear in the Russian conception of the world. “This is a sincere even more than sincere conviction,” one found among any graduate of middle school or university in the Russian Federation, Goryunov continues. For them it is hard to imagine Belarusians, Ukrainians, Finns or anyone else existing.
Putin is a cynic but he likely believes exactly this. He certainly knows that Russians think this way and plays to it. For him and them, a territory becomes a subject of history only when it articulates a state and fields an army that shows resistance. That’s why the Finns, the Ukrainians and even the Chechens are viewed as having an existence while the Belarusians are not.
Anywhere Russian tanks can pass without losses “or with losses which the Russian army can ignore need not be given any attention. It doesn’t exist,” Goryunov says.
In the course of his long interview, the Russian scholar makes many other intriguing and provocative observations. Two of them deserve particular attention, one about Russia’s actual size and a second about the Stalinist sources of Putin’s understanding of the nature of Russia and the world.
“Russia in fact is very small. It is impossible to live in those territories which it seized. This is like Denmark. There is Denmark where one can live and there is part of Denmark, Greenland, an enormous block of ice in the Arctic. If the two are put together, this is a gigantic country. But no Dane will ever think that it is possible to live in Greenland.”
Similarly, he continues, “if one collected in Russia all the places where it is possible to live and united them with a population density like the Czech Republic or Italy, then we would have a very compact, small country of a size possibly like Belarus or a little more – one and a half Belaruses.”
Goryunov says that he has read through Stalin’s writings for the period 1919-1923 when the Soviet leader was forming the country’s nationality policy. In one place, Stalin asks: “What do we have? Bread is the south, forests are Komi and Karelia. Iron ore is the Urals and further east. Trade is the Baltic countries.”
“But what do we have? And Stalin answered: officers. In other words, we have a serving stratum which can organize something. But a country consisting of only such managers won’t exist for long.” And that led him to restore the empire so that these officers could establish order in it – and have something to eat while they did so.