Staunton, August 2 – A growing number of people are aware of the importance of Ukrainian enclaves within the Russian Federation, the so-called “wedges,” of which the “Zelenyi kiln” in the Russian Far East is both the largest and most well-known. But fewer are aware of the importance of Belarusian communities within the borders of the Russian Federation.
Many outside observers accept the Russian notion that Russians and Belarusians are so similar culturally and linguistically that Belarusians living among Russians will assimilate to the latter within a generation and point to the decline in the number of Belarusians in Russia since 1989 from 1.1 million to 521,000 as evidence of that.
But both these numbers and these assumptions are problematic. As Russian writer has noted, much of the numerical decline reflects factors other than ethnic re-identification, including the aging of the Belarusians in Russia, the return of some 200,000 Belarusians to Belarus since 1991, and the equation of citizenship with nationality (materik.ru/rubric/detail.php?ID=17181).
That expert, Nikolay Sergeyev, does not mention what may be an even more important reason: Russian census takers in both 2002 and 2010 undoubtedly reclassified many Belarusians as Russians in order to cover the demographic decline of the titular nationality of the Russian Federation.
And the supposed closeness of Belarusian and Russian language and culture, a closeness that can in many circumstances become even more important than larger one under the principle of “the narcissism of small differences,” is not nearly as important as many Russian writers claim and many Westerners accept.
But investigations or even simple journalist reports about the Belarusians in Russia, who are spread across the country rather than concentrated along the Belarus-Russian Federation border, are few and far between, and consequently a new study about the Belarusians in the Transbaikal is especially precious.
Oleg Rudakov and Olga Galanova of the Belarusian youth club Krivichi visited that region and talked about how “the Belarusian diaspora is flourishing 6000 kilometers” from Belarus even as in Belarus itself, “Russian language and culture is doing the same” (belsat.eu/be/programs/aghliad-padzieiau-kultury/dalyokaya-belarus-pad-irkuckam-nalichyli-kalya-50-belaruskih-vyosak/ and charter97.org/ru/news/2015/8/2/162707/).
Rudakov told Belsat.eu that “we are conducting an ethnographic trip through Belarusian villages formed by people from Belarus a century ago at the time of the Stolypin reforms. We are studying them, as there are very many such villages: I myself know no fewer than 50.” Galanova, a third generation Irkuksk Belarusian, serves as his partner.
According to the two, the rebirth of Belarusianness in the Irkutsk land began approximately 15 years ago when our landsmen in distant Siberian began to hold joint Kupala celebrations.” They noted that many Belarusians still use the national language and still identify as members of the Belarusian nation.
The Belarusian community in Siberia has a long history. Some were deported there in the late 19th century after risings in Belarus itself. Others went, under Stolypin’s reforms, to acquire land, in much the same way Ukrainians did. And by the early Soviet period, the community was quite large: The 1926 census found 371,840 Belarusians in Siberia.
Its numbers grew again in the 1930s and 1940s when the Soviets deported many Belarusians from the Belarus SSR east of the Urals and then sent an even larger number of their co-nationals there after Stalin annexed western Belarus as a result of the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
Before the 1930s, the Belarusian presence in Siberia enjoyed a kind of official recognition: there were 71 Belarusian rural soviets there, with 26 more in the Russian Far East and 11 in the Urals region. These were liquidated by Stalin, and the life of Belarusians became ever more difficult and circumscribed.
The Belarusian national revival in Belarus at the end of Soviet times also had an echo among Belarusians in Siberia who set up ultural organizations. These groups have sometimes talked about political autonomy, but their development has been slowed both by Russian pressure and by divisions among the Belarusians about Alyaksandr Lukashenka and his regime.
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