Saturday, January 19, 2019

Belarusian Nationalism has Strengths as Well as Weaknesses, Experts Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 18 – It is generally accepted by most observers of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet space that Belarusian nationalism and Belarusian national identity are far weaker than their counterparts in neighboring countries, but there is seldom much reflection on why this appears to be the case and what it means for the future.

            The absence of such consideration has opened the way for Russians to claim and many elsewhere to accept that Belarusians are in Engels’ term, an “ahistorical” nation that is fated to be part of another state nation, in this case the Russian, because it has not articulated a nation or achieved statehood on its own.

            In fact, many of the assumptions underlying this accepted evaluation of Belarusian nationalism and Belarusian national identity are highly problematic, as a careful consideration of the history of the nation and state there shows. And at a time when some are talking casually about the annexation of Belarus by Russia, it is important to be clear about that.

            The Poland-based Belarusian radio and web portal, Belsat, asked four leading specialists on Belarusian national identity for their views on the history of Belarusian identity and nationalism, views that have been summarized in a useful way by the Belarus Partisan website (

                Valery Bulgakov, editor of Arche and author of The History of Belarusian Nationalism, argues that Belarusian national nationalism emerged later than its counterparts in neighboring countries.  Specifically, he says, it lagged behind Ukraine’s by 50 to 60 years. It is not radically different than theirs but just simply at an earlier stage of development. 

            Pavel Tereshkovich, an ethnographer and author of The Ethnic History of Belarus of the 19th and Early 20th Centuries, disagrees. It isn’t when a national movement begins that matters but rather whether there has been sufficient modernization to support it.  Belarus lagged in that regard and lacked the literate population that supported nationalisms elsewhere.

            Modernization, he says, “is closely linked with the level of literacy” and “a national movement rests on the printing press – newspapers and journals.” Estonia raced ahead because at the end of the 19th century, 80 percent of its population was literate, while in Belarus, only 13 percent was.

            “Every people had national elites which developed national slogans and an ideology,” Tereshkovich continues. “But what is needed is an audience capable of accepting them.” Estonia and the others had that audience; Belarus at that time did not.

            Per Anders Rudling, a professor at the University of Lund in Sweden and author of The Rise and Fall of Belarusian Nationalism, 1906-1931, has a slightly different take than either of these.  He agrees that literacy matters and notes that among the Orthodox of Belarus, it was lower than among their Catholic counterparts.

            Given the contest between Polish and Russian nationalism, that played a part in how Belarusian nationalism developed and why Russian officials viewed Belarusian nationalism not as a self-standing phenomenon but as a Polish attack on Great Russian identity and the unity of the state.

            Belarusian projects for the construction of the nation are “very different from Polish, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian nationalism because they were influenced from both the east and the west,” from Russia and from Poland. Had it been otherwise, Rudling argues, Belarusian national identity and nationalism would have been different as well.

            And Aleksey Lastovsky, a sociologist at Polotsk State University, roots the weakness of Belarusian identity and nationalism in its lagging economic development. “We did not have a really developed industry,” he says. “Where there is no industry, there are no cities and no sufficient education.”

            Another factor, he argues, is that Belarusians historically did not have the basis for distancing themselves from Russian consciousness that others did. Lithuanians had a state tradition and a language that set them apart, neither of which Belarusians could rely on to the same degree.

            Lastovsky says that there is one advantage that Belarusians have because their national movement arose later: This “gave them the opportunity to learn from others. The Belarusian national movement has borrowed definite models from the Poles and the Czechs” and been the better for it.

                We Belarusians, he says, “found ourselves between two highly-cultured and politically-aggressive projects, Polish and Russia and were forced to try to escape from their tight embrace.” That has limited development but it has also had a very positive set of consequences.

            “Belarusians have been able to create a very inclusive model of nationalism which include in itself all who live on this territory.” And as a result, Belarusian identity and nationalism have “the lowest percentage of chauvinism in comparison with West European nationalisms.”  That is something to build on.

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