Monday, May 21, 2018

Belarusians Can Remain Belarusians Even If They Speak Russian, Zisser Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 21 – Belarusian national identity is not dependent on any exclusive use of the Belarusian language, Yury Zisser says. Instead, Belarusian identity is based on a sense of membership in the nation and the state and thus will continue and possibly flourish even if Belarusians should go over to speaking Russian en masse. 

            Speaking to a conference on the future of Belarus, the founder of the portal made nine other provocative suggestions about Belarus and the nature of Belarusian identity (  and in Russian at

                First of all, Zisser says, Belarusians currently do not know what their national idea in fact is.  “One can only feel it when reading the words of writers, philosophers and thinkers.” It can’t be imposed from above and it shouldn’t be “directed toward the past” or be some sort of “reconstruction of the past.” Instead, it must focus on the future.

            Zisser says that personally he views the Belarusian national idea as “independence and the consciousness of civil society,” one in which people cooperate for the common good in small things and large.

            Second, he argues, that reduces the importance of language as a definer of the nation. “If we will speak Russian, this will not change national identity. We are who we consider ourselves t be.” Russification has been and will continue to be a problem.  But the spread of a language to other countries need not preclude an independent nation.

            “Even if it should happen that we will speak only Russian, this will not change our national identity. It is within us. We like this country, its nature and its location. Language is important but it isn’t the foundation … Self-consciousness is the most important thing in an ethnos. Whatever you consider yourself to be is what you are.”

            Language or even country is “secondary. Nothing threatens us” from this direction.

            Third, Belarus will never be an industrial giant, although it can become an IT one, admittedly lagging behind the US for 30 years and Israel for 20.  If Belarus develops this sector, it will be able to occupy “a worthy place in the world.” Belarusians are “at the center of Europe, at a crossroads, and the educational system in general is not that bad.”

            Fourth, Zisser says, “Students must be taught how to learn.” Education must become life-long and uninterrupted. 

            Fifth, IT is something that people with different levels of skills can enter. People should not assume that everyone has to be at the highest level to take part. 

            Sixth, those of the older generation who work in factories have an unfortunate fate: they aren’t going to be transformed; they are simply going to pass from the scene.

            Seventh, “an instructor can’t have a smaller income than his or her student.”  Unfortunately, today that is not always the case in Belarus.

            Eighth, “nationality is the state.” Many people still think of it Soviet-style in ethnic terms. Foreigners who come to Belarus will be assimilated if Belarus becomes attractive to them.

            And ninth, “the greatest threat for the country,” Zisser concludes, “is the fear of speaking out.” Belarusians must overcome that fear; and if they do, the future can be theirs whatever language they use.

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