“We [in Belarus] have a genre [best described as] complaint songs. We love to take pity on ourselves and to cry out for compassion,” noted Igar Marzalyuk, who heads the Committee for Education, Culture and Science in the Belarusian parliament. Speaking recently at a roundtable discussion entitled, “Live Legacy: The Fate of the Belarusian Language Ought to Be a Concern for All of Society,” organized by the government daily Belarus Segodnya, Marzalyuk continued, “[And yet, despite such national self-pity,] Aleg Latyshonak, the Belarusian historian from Białystok [Poland], believes that Belarus is one of the most successful nation-building projects in Eastern Europe. When his grandmother was born, the Russian tsar Nicholas II ruled; but when she went to a better world, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka was in his second term. Within one generation, a leap has been made from [Belarus being only] a community studied by ethnographers to an independent state with institutionalized structures like the Academy of Sciences, army… This is a stunning success” (Belarus Segodnya, November 11).
A notable aspect of the above-cited transcript from the “Live Legacy” conference is the fact that it was published in Belarus Segodnya in the Belarusian language—quite unusual for this government-owned newspaper. But perhaps even more importantly, the roundtable discussion illustrates a meaningful change in the broader society. It used to be that only anti-Lukashenka, Westernizing nationalists expressed any concern that Belarusian was spoken in everyday communication by only a tiny portion of Belarusians. Whereas, now it seems that Belarusians of all political stripes are thinking about the trappings of their identity, language being the most important of them.
Particularly grievous is the state of affairs in Belarusian-language schooling. For instance, in the city of Mogilev, one of six regional capitals and the third-largest city of Belarus (380,400 residents in 2017), only seven secondary-school students attend classes with Belarusian-language instruction, including three pupils at one school and four at the other. These numbers imply individual instruction, as all of these students are in different grades. One participant of Belarus Segodnya’s “Live Legacy” roundtable acknowledged that he assigned one day a week for communicating in Belarusian with his daughter (Belarus Segodnya, November 11). In the aforementioned city of Mogilev, a single café has opened featuring waiters speaking exclusively in Belarusian; but it has turned out that finding Belarusian-language waiters is problematic (Naviny, November 13).
The six participants of the roundtable predictably fell into two groups: those insisting that Belarusian replace Russian by forceful top-down legislative action and those in favor of a patient and gradual approach, initially involving the further popularization of the language. Admittedly, the memory of the forceful Belarusianization of 1991–1994, which caused popular backlash and created favorable conditions for Lukashenka’s landslide electoral victory of 1994, is still there.
Besides language policy, opposition-minded Belarusians today are also discussing devotion to national symbols. Thus, Belsat, an online Belarusian-language TV channel broadcasting from Poland, interviewed Zianon Pazniak, the founder of the opposition party Belarusian Popular Front (BPF). He excoriated the new generation for its alleged lack of a self-sacrificing attitude toward Belarusian identity and culture. Pazniak’s verdict on youths is that “they have water in their veins instead of blood.” Pazniak has been living intermittently in Poland and the United States and has not visited his native country since he left it in 1996. According to him, Russia is purportedly keen on “squeezing out Belarusian workers from Belarus” as there is a deficit of labor in Russia. “[O]ne million Belarusians work in Russia, and they are being killed and robbed there… It is a venal and treacherous policy of this regime aimed at extracting the Belarusian population from Belarus,” he alleged during his recent Belsat interview (Belsat, November 7).
On the other hand, Viktar Martinovich, a bilingual (Russian and Belarusian) author of five novels, one of which is titled Mova (Language), argues against the idea that the new generation poses a problem for preserving Belarusian self-identity. Rather, he writes in an article for Budzma, blame lies in the foundations of national philosophy worked up “in 1989, in the cafes of Vilnius [where the founding congress of the BPF took place].” These foundations, he asserts, “are nearing the state of paranoid delirium, so they need to be reformulated” with an outlook for the future. Martinovich mocks the worn-out triad of nationalist thinking that culture and identity originates from mova, vioska, Vilnya (language, village, Vilnya—the Belarusian name for Vilnius). As he notes, the latter city used to be the seat of the Belarusian cultural elite in the beginning of the 20th century, but it is now and forever the capital of another country. Meanwhile rural villages in Belarus have become depopulated. Whereas, Minsk is home to 20 percent of Belarusians, and this proportion is only likely to grow. Consequently, the true culture-identity triad today is “language, Minsk, Minsk.” Regarding language, Martinovich cautions against repeating the blunders of the early 1990s. It is obvious to him that Belarus will remain bilingual, and patient state policy is required to revive Belarusian. He also believes that business people are best positioned to promote Belarusianization in broader society because “ordinary” folks do not care about “the national idea.” Martinovich gives an example of a network of gas stations in Minsk where technicians and cashiers speak only Belarusian. Overall, “the situation whereby Belarus Segodnya conducts roundtables about the Belarusian language,” while Belaya (White) Rus, a pro-government political movement that may be on the verge of crystalizing into a true party, conducts subbotniks (days of unpaid voluntary labor, usually on Saturday) in Kuropaty (site of KGB executions in the late 1930s) are a hopeful sign, he says. “And it is going to be even better,” predicts Martinovich. One only needs to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again (Budzma, November 14).
Like Latyshonak from Białystok, who asserted Belarus’s success at nation-building, Martinovich is on to something, too. Specifically, the old “democratic” opposition appears more frozen in time than the infamous Belarusian “regime.” But if the latter is actually willing to take on the nation-building project, perhaps this is not such a bad thing. By now, the “regime” in Minsk has taken over some of the most important slogans and refrains of the opposition. And today, language is no longer a clear marker of patriotism and identity. Such evolving nuances are easy to miss. Nevertheless, they are important to grasp for anyone aspiring to understand modern-day Belarus.