Essay by Maksim Goriunov

Between Soviet Belorussia and sovereign Belarus: Why young Belarusians prefer to leave the country

An Essay by Maksim Goriunov for the discussion in Minsk

Compared to their peers from Ukraine and Russia, young citizens of Belarus are less interested in politics and are more eager to leave the country. Their political indifference and weak ties with their homeland, can be explained, among other things, by the fact that Belarusians failed to become a political nation, despite being independent for thirty years.

On the EU’s doorstep

In comparison with Russia and Ukraine, Belarus is located on EU’s doorstep. It takes two hours by high-speed train from Minsk and one more hour in a queue to a tardy Lithuanian customs officer to reach the nearest European capital – Vilnius. While in Vilnius, the Belarusian citizens do not feel like strangers. There are many commemorative tablets with names of Belarusian poets and politicians in the historical center of the city. The first newspaper in the Belarusian language Nasha Niva1 was issued in Vilnius in 1905. This newspaper is printed and read up until now. Lithuania and Belarus are both successors of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. This is where the Lithuanian Coat of Arms and the original pre-Lukashenkan National Emblem of Belarus come from, both featuring a knight on a rampant horse. The only difference is that the Lithuanian horse has its tail lifted up, whereas the Belarusian one holds its tail down.

Since no low-cost airlines fly to and from Minsk, Belarusians use the Vilnius airport to take advantage of the cheap flights. There are bus connections from Minsk to the main Lithuanian airport, which is jokingly referred to as “Minsk 3”. (The actual Belarus National Airport is called “Minsk 2”)

Peasant rationalism vs national romanticism

Low standards of living, harsh authoritarian regime and proximity to the EU, are the three general rationales for youth emigration. In case of Belarus these should be complemented by the matter of national identity. More precisely, by the matter of its absence. Formally, Belarus is a mono-ethnic Slavic state, same as Slovenia. According to the census conducted in 2010, 85% of citizens identified themselves as Belarusians. Meanwhile, only 50% stated that they knew the Belarusian language and only 21% acknowledged speaking it at home, having preferred to speak Russian. The clash between the national identity and the population’s first language outlines the identity crisis that goes far beyond anything that the modern Slovenians have to cope with.

Miroslav Hroch, a Czech historian and author of a well acknowledged classification of Eastern European nationalisms, defines Belarusians as a “belated nation” (opožděný národ). Though the circumstances may seem incomparable, the modern Belarusians, who are actively gaining presence on the IT market, and the uneducated Slovenian peasants of the feudal period struggling for their everyday bread have something important in common: shared ethnicity doesn’t ensure strong political solidarity for either group.

The last non-nation of Europe

On the first sight, Belarusians are no different from the modern Slovenians. Just like Slovenians, Belarusians have their own sovereign republic recognized by the UN. There is a Constitution, a Parliament, Tax Inspectorate, a wide network of museums, including castles and pompous residencies of the local aristocracy of the past. Speaking of independence in terms of military power would even give Belarusian sovereignty more grounds. The only difference lies in the Belarusians’ lack of the sense of nationhood. In this regard they are similar to the modern Slovenians’ predecessors.

Young Belarusians live in a society which poorly recognizes the boundaries between itself and its neighbors. Belarus is less aware of its separateness than Russia and, recently, Ukraine. Quite similarly to Slovenian peasants associating their own identity with low social status until the “Spring of Nations”, the residual colonial inferiority complex forces Belarusians to seek an opportunity to become Russians (or Polacks, Lithuanians or Germans) – as they feel ashamed of their origin. Except for the intellectuals and their followers, Belarusians generally try to absorb foreign identities as those are considered to be more successful. For the same reasons Slovenians wanted to become Germans or Italians – they tried to assimilate to their feudal lords. Such readiness to switch their identity makes Belarusians extremely apt for emigration. After having emigrated, they take on a new shape with flexibility of liquid, forgetting the previous one.

Escape from Minsk to the West

Belarus is regularly ranked first in the world in the number of obtained Schengen visas. It outpaces other 140 countries whose citizens need a visa to enter the EU. In 2014, Belarusians received around 900,000 visas. In other words, every tenth Belarusian citizen including infants and elderly people has a Schengen visa. Most often, those are the visas of the following countries: Lithuania, Poland, Germany, Italy, Latvia, and Estonia.

Around 100000 Polish Cards (Karta Polaka) have been obtained in Belarus since 2008. This is a document confirming that a CIS or Baltic region citizen belongs to the Polish nation. This equals to half of the total number. According to data from the 2010 census, at least 200000 more people can obtain the Polish card. Lithuanians do not have a “Lithuanian card”. Nonetheless, Belarusian publicists promote the “theory of Balt substrate”, according to which Belarusians are Slavicized Balts. From this perspective, a Belarusian is a Lithuanian who forgot the Baltic language a long time ago.

Escape from Minsk to the East

Despite permanent trade wars, borders with Russia are still open. Russian is the second state language – however in reality it is the first and the only one. Russian television channels and digital media are broadcast in Belarus. The aging northern empire retains its dark appeal. Like their predecessors, Belarusians try to relieve their children from the mother tongue. As in the past, the Russian language and Russian identity seem more prospective.

The desire to switch to the Russian language is so strong that Belarusian intellectuals, trying to “think straight”, readily admit that the days of the Belarusian language are numbered. Regarding the future of their country, they draw a parallel with Ireland, which had lost its native Gaelic language and replaced it by English. Yet, it remained the country of the Irish and not of the English.

It can be said that there is an ongoing assimilation in Belarus which started two centuries ago under Emperor Nicholas I. Its territories became part of the Russian Empire after the partition of Poland in the late 18th century. According to the historian Mikhail Dolbilov, Saint Petersburg considered Belarusians “tainted” by the Polish and Catholicism, as part of the Russian people. Since then, the Russification had begun. 1839 saw the liquidation of Greek Catholic Church, with which the majority of the region’s population identified themselves. Since the liquidation was carried out by the regular army together with Cossacks, Belarusians accepted Russian Orthodoxy smoothly, unanimously and, as it was written in the press in those times, “with genuine enthusiasm”. Up until their last day the Romanovs were sure that the poor farmers living in the swamps to the West from Smolensk, were destined to become the Great Russians. That is the reason why the first school teaching in Belarusian was opened in 1915 in Vilnius, right after the city had been occupied by German forces.

Lenin and his nationalism

Belarusians have no history of national liberation struggle comparable to the Ukrainian and Polish ones. Even in comparison with Slovenians who had to compromise due to their small number, Belarusians acted passively. The Belarusian People’s Republic proclaimed on March 25th, 1918, was weak and short-lived. The number of Red Army soldiers it saw to afterlife was not enough to make Moscow reckon with it. Nevertheless, Belarusians had Belarus. And, oddly enough, they owe the birth of their country to Marxists. First the Austrian Marxist congresses, and later the Russian ones saw the debates, which gave rise to the idea that all nations without exception had to be given the right to self-determination. Alyona Markova, a historian, describes in detail the way the Bolsheviks, first headed by Lenin and then by Stalin, backed by Austrian Marxist programs of Otto Bauer and Karl Renner, dictated to the Belarusian peasants to use their own mother tongue. This was illustrated in her book The Road to a Soviet Nation. Nationalities Policy of Belarusization (1924–1929). Markova describes the cases of peasants’ protests against schooling in native language. Adhering to the so-called colonial habit, they did not consider their tongue as of high-grade and demanded the education to be in Russian. The latter was considered to be the language of the mother country, the one of career prospects and of their masters. The Bolsheviks were not confused by this fact.

According to Timothy Martin, having taken into account the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, they decided to protect themselves from bourgeois nationalists in advance. In that regard, the Bolsheviks created loyal republics, which were “national in form and socialist in content”, in lieu of former colonies.

As a result, the national-progressive inspiration, which was supposed to help Belarusians create their own republic with all the necessary institutions, fell into Lenin’s trap and led to nowhere from the very beginning. For 75 years the rhetoric, which closely mirrored the national ideas, didn’t serve the purpose of enlightening the masses and mobilizing the civil society, as it had been the case with Slovenia. On the contrary, this was the propaganda of loyalty to the empire and hatred towards civic engagement. In late October 2018, “The night of the murdered poets” campaign in memory of 132 Belarusian poets executed by Stalin’s order in 1937 saw only 100 participants, whereas in the neighboring Baltic states such campaigns are attended by presidents.

Twins on Volga, in Urals and Siberia

A similar case of language and identity can be found in the national republics within the Russian Federation. Like Belarusians, Udmurts and Bashkirs massively switch to the Russian language and adopt the Russian identity. 1991 saw the dissolution of the USSR in Belovezhskaya Pushcha. Nevertheless, RSFSR had not been dissolved and it transformed into the Russian Federation. Twenty national republics, as well as 10 more national entities, remained under the authority of Moscow with their own capital cities, Constitutions and state languages.

New Moscow’s attitude towards the republics was worded by an academician Valeriy Tishkov, former minister of National Politics of the Russian Federation and long-serving head of Miklouho-Maclay Institute for Ethnology and Anthropology. Tishkov believed that Vladimir Lenin had made a mistake by forming the basis of USSR national policy with the slogan about the right of nation to self-determination, “including the right to secession”. As stated by the academician, the former Empire was not a “prison of nation”. In Russia, the development of general Russian civil society had begun since the Romanov’s era. The Turkic, Mongolian, Finno-Ugric and Slavic people, once inside the Empire, lost their language and became Russians. The academician is sure that in this regard Russia was no different from France, which systematically replaces regional identities with a universal French one. If it were not for Lenin, Kiev and Minsk would have always remained within Russia. Lenin did tie them to Moscow as he stated but pushed away by having legalized their languages. Valeriy Tishkov suggests canceling Lenin’s project and turning back to the Romanovs’ one.

What Paris is allowed to do in Corsica or Bretagne, Moscow should be permitted to do on the shores of Volga River. 200 nationalities living within the Russian Federation borders should have become generic Russians same as Bretons became universally French. Starting from this year, without changing their status, the state languages of the republics are no longer compulsory for teaching at schools. They have become electives, which did not give rise to any disturbances. The reason for that is that Lenin-built republics were more folklore rather than national. Moscow provided freedom for choosing the pattern, with keeping the political liberties to itself. Udmurts were not able to determine the destiny of their republic. As a result, they keep the “folklore identity” deprived of any political content in favor of the Russian identity. The given case is very similar to the Belarusian one, although not identical.

Harvard in the Belarusian language

At the present moment, an average Belarusian far from the idea of national romanticism still does not see any better prospects for his/her children, rather than the Russian language and a career in the Russian commodity-based economy which is related to the knowledge of the tongue. He/she has a specific knowledge of what to do to achieve success. Proficiency in Russian without a Belarusian accent is one of those keys to success. On the other hand, it is suspected that the Belarusian aversion to their mother tongue and attraction to “Russian high culture” is not a love story, but a matter of convenience.

When at the end of 2014 the Russian Ruble collapsed and the average salary equaled to the average pay in Minsk, cheap bus routes to Warsaw appeared almost at once. Vitebsk, the most Eastern regional center, saw a route to Munich. A bus company, which has been taking workers from Belarus to Moscow or Saint Petersburg for 20 years, now drives them to Germany twice a week. The journey takes 38 hours but costs less than a regular state monopoly “Belavia” airlines flight.

This summer all Belarus, especially the “married with kids” part of it, widely discussed an independent admission to Harvard of a 16-year-old Minsk high-school student Maxim Bogdanovich. It is widely known that while waiting for the results, the student attended fee-based native language courses in a private tutorial center – incredible occurrence for Belarus. Before this case came along, Harvard and the Belarusian language were as far as possible from each other. The way from Minsk to Harvard lied through Moscow and substitution of the “peasant” Belarusian language by “high-class” Russian. The fact that Harvard can be reached directly from Minsk, bypassing Moscow and Dostoyevsky might bring Belarusians back to their own language.

Fidel Castro or Lee Kwan Yew?

Despite the status of the “last European dictator”, Belarussian citizens are not afraid of their eternal president. Erika Fatland, a Norwegian journalist and author of the book about travels around 5 Central Asian countries, believes that cults of Lukashenko in Belarus, Nazarbaev in Kazakhstan and Berdimuhamedow in Turkmenistan have little in common. Nazarbaev and Berdimuhamedov are not criticized in the streets. Especially if a foreign journalist can witness the criticism. Leaders’ portraits can be found all over Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. It is not the same in Belarus. According to Fatland, Belarusians willingly scolded Lukashenko and complained about his cruelty and willfulness. His portraits can be found in state bookshops. However, there is none of them in the squares and building walls. After the annexation of Crimea, the attitude towards Belarus changed dramatically. Part of sanctions was lifted. Minsk saw the visit of German and French leaders within the Normandy Quartet meeting. It seemed like Lukashenko was no longer an outsider.

In spring 2018 Forbes (Finland) Editorial Director, Forbes (USA) ex-executive editor Tom Post and Forbes (Latvia, Estonia, Finland) publisher Arkadij Steinman compared Lukashenko with Lee Kwan Yew. Upon the invitation of a Belarusian IT company Humansee Labs, a few days in Minsk “opened their eyes”. It turned out that Lukashenko was not Fidel Castro’s copy. He is an authoritarian, but progressive leader, just like Lee Kwan Yew, the author of Singapore miracle. Accordingly, Belarus under Lukashenko is not similar to Cuba under Fidel but is a copy of the “Asian Tigers” of the 1990-s. Forbes can be suspected in the desire to enter the Belarusian media market. The magazine has an extensive positive experience in working in authoritarian countries. Forbes goes well with Nursultan Nazarbaev in Kazakhstan. A year after the annexation of Crimea, the Russian edition of Forbes excluded those experts, who criticized the annexation. Now the magazine is “strictly about business” and feels good, despite the censorship.

If Forbes managed to find a common ground with Nazarbaev despite shootings in Zhanaozen and with Putin despite Crimea, why not establish relationship with Lukashenko? However, it has to be taken into consideration that if Lukashenko behaved as Fidel Castro, this attempt would not have been possible. According to a Belarusian political scientist Andrey Kazakevich, Lukashenko has a lot in common with left-wing South American dictators. But unlike the late Castro and present Maduro, he was smart enough “to step on the path of correction”. Or, at least to make it look like it.

Laboratory of Russian authoritarianism

The alarming situation in Belarus is another important rationale for young people to emigrate, since staying in their own country might mean learning to live “as Russians”, as young people in Crimea are learning now. The Belarusian presidential residence in Minsk is called “residential presidence” – as a hint to Lukashenko’s subordination to his Eastern neighbor. Famous for his pessimistic approach, Pavel Usov – head of Warsaw center for political analysis and prognosis – regularly predicts early and severe reduction of Belarus’ sovereignty. According to him, after 2020 Belarus will witness the closest linkage to the metropole. His pessimism resonates with common expectations.

In October 2018, during the meeting with Vladimir Putin in a Belarusian city of Mogilev close to the Russian border, Lukashenko noted that Mogilev “was more Russian than Belarusian, because that was the East of Belarus”. Panic swept through the social networks. A wide range of posts arose saying that Lukashenko was ready to give the city away to Russia. Taking into account growing distrust towards Lukashenko, the annexation of Crimea and lasting war at the East of Ukraine – the reaction was understandable. There had been a heated debate for two weeks until the Ukrainian president Petr Poroshenko visited Gomel, a city neighboring to Mogilev. During that meeting, Alexander Lukashenko pointed out that “Gomel was no different from wonderful Ukrainian cities”.

It all turned to be Lukashenko’s rough courtesy; Mogilev’s citizens were not supposed to learn the Russian anthem. On the one hand, it was funny. But on the other – it’s not too pleasant to make long-term plans in an environment like that.

Comfort of Belarusian prisons

It cannot be said that the Belarusian passport lacks advantages. As jokingly noted by Valentin Akudovich, the patriarch of Belarusian philosophy, Belarusians are no longer put in Siberian camps. Courts in Belarus are no better than in Russia, but the prisons are tidier and 3000 km closer to home. Then again, Swedish judges have a better reputation and the furniture in Swedish prisons is better than in many Belarusian hotels. If a jail is a criterion, why not choosing Scandinavian countries?

Apart from Siberian servitude, Belarusians are also free from participation in wars waged by Russia. The latest war Belarusians took part in was in Afghanistan. During the years 1979–1989, 771 Belarusians died fulfilling “the international duty” in the Hindu Kush. Other fifteen hundred were injured. Svetlana Aleksievich, the first Belarusian Nobel prizewinner for literature, published her book Boys in Zink in 1989. A non-fiction prose consisted of interviews with former combatants such as war veterans, battlefield surgeons, persons with disabilities. Their words reflect pain and disappointment. To force rural Afghans to forget Koran and to start reading Lenin’s writings is not an obvious goal. Then again, it is important to remember that Sweden has not been participating in wars for three centuries in a row.

Epilogue. Andrus Horvat

The most resounding example of success in the Belarusian literature is the blog of Andrus Horvat. Issued on paper and titled Radio Prudok, his writing went down insanely well in Belarus, with 8000 copies sold out (with average run of 300 copies).

Horvat is not just writing in the Belarusian language. He writes in the Palyesian dialect, which differs from literary norms. He is now in his early 30s, used to be married, and has a kid. He worked as a guard in the Yanka Kupala theatre. A few years ago, Horvat left for a remote village and settled at his grandfather’s house. His blog described his life in a patriarchal Palyesian village and the way he had been rebuilding a wooden house with love. A well-known romantic plot in the spirit of Johann Gottfried Herder attracted attention instantly and unexpectedly. Young philologists read Horvat in the subway; he was quoted in pubs and debated. The money to publish the first edition was collected immediately. The first 700 copies were sold out in few hours. The second 700 had been standing on the counter for less than 24 hours. This year, the theatre, where Horvat used to work, staged a play based on his book. The tickets are all sold out six months in advance.

As soon as the all the excitement was over, Horvat took a long journey to Europe. It resulted in a blog post stating that Europe was his home. No less a home than his grandfather’s house. Again, this was written in the Palyesian dialect and received several thousands of “likes”.

It is very likely that the generation, which liked Horvat’s blog and his admission of love for Europe, will soon compromise the same way as its predecessors did. Lingering on the doorstep of the national republic will last. The question is what will come to an end first: the dream about having their own republic or persistency of deep dependence from Moscow.

Throughout the last century, Horvat’s generation was not first to confess its love to the Belarusian language, Belarus and Europe. To every question regarding the Belarusian nation, Vladimir Mitzkevich, a famous philosopher from Minsk commonly replies, “I answered in 1985! Find it and read it. I am tired of telling the same thing over again!” Mitzkevich was born in 1956. His generation was sure that a “European and national” Belarus would appear on the map immediately after the USSR dissolution. Unfortunately, their expectations remained unfulfilled. In 1995, 4 years after the declaration of independence Lukashenko held a referendum and brought back the Soviet Flag and Coat of Arms designed in 1950 to Belarus. Lukashenko restored the project of artificial Soviet nationalism. Vladimir Mitzkevich and his readers, however, kept dreaming of a liberal and civil nation state.

When reflecting on their future, young Belarusians wonder whether the persistency of the colony or their dreams about a nation state would take over. Judging from the success of Horvat’s Palyesian lyrics, they would love their country to resemble to Lithuania and Latvia. When it comes to their desire to emigrate, they do not really believe that it can happen. Looking at their reactions on the research results within the discussion sessions in Minsk, the idea of having the same destiny as their predecessors did does not seem very attractive.