Three important books on Belarus released in the past two years shed new light on the complex debates over Belarusian identity.
First, Alexander Nosovich, a political scientist with Belarusian roots but based in Kaliningrad, Russia, published the book Why Belarus Is Not a Baltic State (Alexander Nosovich, Pochemu Belarus ne Pribaltika, Moscow, Algoritm, 2017). In his work, the author claims that Belarus turned down the Baltic routine of replacing Communism with ethnic nationalism (EN) due to the fact that Belarus’s native EN had never developed traction. Consequently, much of the country remained loyal to the idea of a three-pronged Russian culture allegedly uniting three East Slavic communities. Nosevich believes “the Bolshevik project of Belarusian nation-building was conditioned by “the task to stem the influence of the newly restored Polish state on the western borderlands of the USSR [Union of Soviet Socialist Republics]” (p. 44). The Bolsheviks pushed Belarus to reject the depressive self-image of a traumatized nation. Such self-imagery is common to the rest of Eastern Europe—illustratively expressing itself in the stanza “Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła” (“Poland has not yet died”) of the Polish national anthem and the identical words found in the Ukrainian anthem with regard to Ukraine. Instead, Belarusians embraced a sunnier view of themselves, Nosevich asserts. Belarus’s success is ascertained against the backdrop of a demographic collapse of Lithuania, whose population is currently 2.8 million people, down from 3.7 million in 1989. Belarusian success is also seen in the preservation of its manufacturing and in maintaining a higher level of independence than the Baltic States, which, he contends, sacrificed their freedom on the altar of Atlantic solidarity.
Second, the book Around the Identity of Belarusians, by Lublin University Professor Ryszard Radzik, was released last year in Belarusian (Ryszard Radzik, Vakol Identychnastsi Belarusau, Minsk, Limarius, 2017). It is an expanded translation of Radzik’s 2016 Polish-language work devoted to Russian “communal imperialism,” that is, to a thesis that Belarusians and Ukrainians are somehow Russians, too. However, in regard to Belarusians, Radzik all but reaffirms this thesis by stating that up to the end of the 19th century, Belarusians did not have their own elites—rather, they saw Russian elites as their own (p. 113). Likewise, Radzik bemoans Soviet propaganda’s influence on Belarusian identity and yet admits that without the USSR, there would have been no independent, sovereign polity of Belarus. The earlier creation of the Belarusian SSR allowed a free Republic of Belarus to emerge from the Soviet Union’s collapse, he argues. He also cites the 2014 national survey revealing that only 14 percent of Belarusians would resist Belarus’s annexation by Russia, whereas 20 percent would welcome it and the rest would choose to adjust (p. 218). Radzik analyzes Yanka Kupala’s classic 1922 play Tuteyshiya (Locals), in which the main character, Mikita Znosak, is mocked for his attempts to change his identity depending on which outside power controls his native land. On the other hand, Znosak’s antagonist, Yanka Zdolnik, who is a Belarusian patriot, is cast by Kupala as an insufferable moralizer—a possible, if partial, explanation for why Belarusian EN never developed traction.
The third important release has been Yury Shevtsov’s The War in Ukraine and Transformation of Europe (Yury Shevtsov, Voina na Ukraine: Transformatsiya Yevropy, Moscow, RGGU, 2018). This work’s focus is broader than the subjects covered by the two aforementioned books. Shevtsov believes that the goal of the external forces that fomented crisis in Ukraine was to eliminate the eastern Ukrainian industry integral to the Soviet military-industrial complex. The ensuing crisis led to unprecedented depopulation. A country of 53 million people in 1989 had, by 2017, shrunk to 38 million (p. 80), he claims. And according to Shevtsov, within 15–20 years, further shrinkage by 15–20 million is possible (p. 91). Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin’s recent assessment of the demographic situation as “catastrophic,” with one million people leaving Ukraine per year (CurrentTimeTV, September 4), sounds like it may be in line with Shevtsov’s prediction. Depopulation on this scale will undermine the demographic basis of West Ukrainian culture, the bulwark of Ukrainian EN, Shevtsov believes. A significant number of Ukrainian migrants are ending up in Lithuania and, especially, in Poland. That incoming migration will change the ethno-cultural landscape in both countries. Geopolitically, Belarus prevents two Russia-hostile areas from forming a contiguous arc by (mostly) separating Poland from the Baltic States. Whereas domestically, Belarus’s political power has for the first time in centuries been controlled by the offspring of the local peasantry. In Shevtsov’s opinion, the latter has always identified with the Russians, while the nobility identified with the Poles. Consequently, Belarus has rejected the usual Eastern European path of nation-building, whereby EN would consolidate around the local language and homegrown literature. Moreover, the collaborationist movement during World War II reinforced this rejection, as adherents of EN lost the moral high ground. “In the final analysis, Belarus and Belarusian culture are just a territorial form of Russian culture. The peculiarity of this form is the availability of statehood” (p. 148), Shevtsov writes, arguing that this independence should be upheld. The book is replete with equally explosive statements and logic that, to many Westerners, would come across as unconventional at best.
Despite significant differences in content and style, one refrain unites all three books: the failure of Belarusian ethnic nationalism to consolidate Belarusians into a community. To some extent, this refrain is rooted in popular semantics. Specifically, in Russian, the term “nationalism” is rarely infused with neutral meaning—rather, it is a synonym for “xenophobia.” This tradition, however, does not apply to Radzik. That he, nevertheless, is in unison with the two other authors as far as the frailty of Belarusian EN is concerned, is telling all the more.
EN’s failure set Belarus apart from the rest of Eastern Europe. The inability to recognize this fact may explain why Western democracy promotion has failed in Belarus more spectacularly than elsewhere and has actually reinforced the authoritarian regime. This is the point that Alexei Pikulik, the former director of the Western-funded Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, and his Swedish coauthor make in their article “Aid Paradox: Strengthening Belarusian Non-Democracy through Democracy Promotion,” published by East European Politics and Societies (East European Politics and Societies, August, 30). The authors, however, attribute this result to a faulty setup of funding channels, with donor agencies working through intermediaries that did not speak either Russian or Belarusian but pocketed 60 percent of funds assigned to democracy promotion, and with Belarusian democrats only accountable to their foreign donors. This, however, is the preamble to a somewhat different story.