Staunton, February 15 – One of the reasons that the author of these lines became a specialist on Soviet nationalities a half century ago was the remark of one of the instructors I had in graduate school when asked what his opinion was of Belarus. He responded that it was the same as he would have for any other “backward, peasant and anti-Semitic people.”
That led me to the library where there were at that time a total of two books in English about Belarus, books that called into question two of those three stereotypes but not the third: At that time, Belarus was more rural than most of the other lands of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
Now, it is time to dispense with the third of these notions: Belarus today has a higher percentage of urban residents than any of the countries it borders with. And thus, as the Belarusian ThinkTanks portal puts it, “the stereotype that Belarus is an agrarian country does not correspond to reality” (thinktanks.by/publication/2021/02/15/uroven-urbanizatsii-v-belarusi-vyshe-chem-v-sosednih-stranah.html).
According to international researchers, 79 percent of the Belarusian population lives in cities, far above the 60 percent in Poland, 68 percent in Lithuania and Latvia, 74 percent in the Russian Federation, and 69 percent who are urban residents. This largely unrecognized reality has two important consequences.
On the one hand, it is a sign that Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s efforts to hold people in the villages through a redevelopment program there have failed. And on the other, it means that urban Belarusians perhaps more than in these other countries are recent arrivals, bringing many of the values of the village, including an attachment to Belarusian culture, with them.
This recent urbanization thus goes a long way to explain why residents of Belarusian cities are so alienated from Lukashenka, himself a former collective farm director in a rural area, and also why the national movement in Belarus combines so many urban and rural ideas, something less true where urbanization has been slower and less thoroughgoing.