Undeniably, Belarus and Russia are culturally close. In and of itself, this closeness is no liability except for its lopsidedness. Russia’s pervasive sway in every critical aspect of Belarusian life, from the economy to language and from historical memory to people’s worldview, keeps in check Belarus’s own personality and its recognition in the world. Assigning or personalizing blame for this durable situation would hardly make sense. “The principal problem of Belarusian history has been the problem of cultural and political survival […] ‘in the shadow’ of Russia and Poland,” wrote the Belarusian linguist Nina Mečkovskaya. Referring to the late 1800s and early 1900s, she observed that “anything that was elevated above the illiterate peasant existence, be that church, school or officialdom, automatically became either ‘Russian’ (and Orthodox) or ‘Polish’ (and Catholic)” (Nina B. Mečkovskaya, Belorusskii yazyk: Sotsiolingvisticheskie ocherki, Munchen: Verlag Otto Sagner, 2003, pp. 22, 28).
A lot of water has flowed under the bridge, but whereas Polish influence receded, Russian only grew stronger. The dominance of the Russian language and of Russian electronic and print media in Belarus are pervasive. And yet, despite being entirely within a single Russian information space, two societies—Belarusian and Russian—are diverging, however slowly. The 2015–2016 multi-national survey of the Pew Research Center, labeled “Religious Belief and National Belonging in Central and Eastern Europe” (Pewresearch.org, May 10), showed that whereas half of Russians from 18 to 34 years of age bemoan the breakup of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), in Belarus only one-third does. Incidentally, the largest share of those nostalgic for the USSR is not even in Russia but in Armenia (74 percent), now surrounded by hostile and not particularly friendly powers. Compare this situation with Belarus, the only post-Soviet country that controls all of its land and has no territorial conflicts with its neighbors. The same survey also revealed that whereas 58 percent of Russians and 58 percent of Georgians praise Joseph Stalin, only 26 percent of Belarusians do. On the contrary, only 22 percent of Russians appreciate Mikhail Gorbachev, but as many as 36 percent of Belarusians have a favorable opinion about the father of Perestroika. This is not a dramatic divergence of attitudes, but it is still meaningful.
In late August 2017, charges were filed against three citizens of Belarus, under arrest since December 2016, for inciting inter-ethnic animosity. They published articles in Russia’s “patriotic” media outlets, in which they allegedly denigrated Belarusians, their identity and language (Naviny, August 29). That the transgressions attributed to these individuals warrant criminal prosecution is far from certain, but it is hard not to heed the fact that heretofore only Western-leaning opponents of Minsk were labeled a “fifth column.” Apparently, times are changing.
Today, even the principal ideologue of Belarus’s Ministry of Defense, Major-General Alexander Gura, finds it important to warn against “the primitive understanding of patriotism under the cloak of either Russophobia or of pseudo-imperial ambitions wearing the insignia of the so-called Russian world” (Belaruskaya Dumka, August 30). Admonishment is at times a credible source of information about nitty-gritty realities. Thus, congratulating his compatriots on the occasion of the anniversary of the historical Battle of Orsha (September 8), Valer Karbalevich, a Minsk-based commentator of Radio Liberty, shares a misgiving that if government ideologues help reinstate this date in the mass consciousness of Belarusians, this might exacerbate the existing divide in Belarusian society (Svaboda.org, September 8). On that day, in 1514, near Orsha (in Vitebsk Region of Belarus), the army of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL), under the guidance of Konstantin Ostrozhsky, defeated the thrice more numerous army of Muscovy. Belarus’s Westernizing opposition considers the GDL a proto-Belarusian state. Of importance might also be the fact that Ostrozhsky was an Orthodox Christian, not a Catholic, which runs contrary to one of the tenets of the Russian world mythology, according to which the fight for Belarus was solidly waged by the Orthodox against Catholics.
Apparently, however, Karbalevich’s misgiving is not pointless. Belarusian society is in need of consolidation, not division. It is noteworthy that of all possible consequences of the Second European Games to be conducted in Belarus in 2019, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka singled out national consolidation—not an outcome that would spontaneously come to mind in conjunction with an international sporting event in the Olympic tradition (Belta, September 7).
Similarly informative is the observation of the Belarusian art critic Viachaslau Rakitsky. He thinks that the incredible agitation that engulfed Belarusians’ social networks in conjunction with the arrest of Russian theater director Kirill Serebryannikov does not reveal indignation over abuses by Russian law enforcement. Rather, it reflects the fact that Belarusians active in the visual and performing arts “still exist in the theatrical context and the art world of the neighboring country.” Belarusian artists, Rakitsky argues, “[perceive] whatever Russian as their own and [base] their aesthetic guidelines singularly on those established in Moscow and St. Petersburg” (Svaboda.org, August 28).
The aforementioned misgivings notwithstanding, Belarus desires to be an independent player on the European and the world stage as well as to be perceived accordingly. Along these lines, the Belarusian political commentator Artyom Shaibman commends the statements by Belarus’s neighbors, Ukraine and Latvia, to the effect that they trust Lukashenka’s reassurances about the upcoming Russian-Belarusian military exercises. “If, however, one would a priori and almost on a daily basis consign Minsk to the list of gutless footholds of Moscow,” writes Shraibman, “then […] why even try being a responsible partner?” So, if Western governments want to lessen the possibility of military provocations from Belarusian territory, they should frequently repeat what Kyiv and Riga have been saying, the argument apparently goes (Carnegie, September 5).
At times, however, interceding events make this suggestion hard to follow. For example, on August 24, 19-year-old Ukrainian citizen Pavel Grib went to Gomel, Belarus, to meet a Russian girl he had befriended on the Internet but ended up in detention in Russia’s Krasnodar. Whereas Belarusian law enforcement professes to know nothing about Grib’s fate (BBC News—Ukrainian service, September 7). It is of course in the interest of Belarus to preempt such incidents. After all, the accumulated capital of good will is easy to squander.