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Jun 3, 2022
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Why is Belarus renamed?

At the end of May, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Norway announced that the official name of Belarus in the Norwegian language would be changed. Instead of the traditional Hviterussland (literally Belaya Rus, or White Russia), the Belarus form will be used. This decision was made shortly after representatives of the Norwegian government met with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a former candidate for the presidency of Belarus in the 2020 elections. According to the Norwegian authorities, this was done as a sign of solidarity with the Belarusian “democratic movement” and, of course, negative) associations with Russia. Similar decisions have already been made by two other Scandinavian countries – Denmark in 2021 and Sweden in 2019, and the decision of the Swedish government was officially welcomed by the Belarusian Ambassador to this country Dmitry Mironchik. Finland intends to follow the same path, the president of which also supported the replacement of the historical Finnish name Valko-Venäjä with Belarus. This epidemic of name changes that has swept through Scandinavia is remarkable in its own way. After all, before the question of how to correctly call Belarus concerned only the Russian language, and how the country is called in other languages ​​was of little concern to anyone. The dispute “Belarus or Belarus” goes back to 1991, when the Byelorussian SSR became officially known as the Republic of Belarus. Until 1991, the form “Belarus” was considered normative for the Russian language, while “Belarus” was considered as an exclusively Belarusian-language variant. With gaining independence, the systematic displacement of the old name Belarus, used in the Soviet and pre-revolutionary periods, begins from everyday life. The Belarusian society was gradually accustomed to the idea that the name Belarus is incorrect and, moreover, offensive, and that only “Belarus” should be spoken and written. And if the state limited itself to silent bureaucratic procedures, removing the “wrong” name from tablets, signs and official letterheads, then the nationalist opposition organizes regular noisy actions against “Belarus”. Moreover, the addressee of these actions is not so much the Belarusians themselves, but Russia, where the name “Belarus” is still in use both at the official and at the everyday level. On the eve of the political crisis of 2020, when a campaign of “soft Belarusianization” was carried out in Belarus, business also joined the fight against the “wrong” name of the country. For example, the Korean automobile concern “Hyundai”, which in informal communication both in Belarus and in Russia is often called “Hyundai”, held an advertising campaign under the slogan “Belarus, not Belarus! Hyundai, not Hyundai.” Where did this discrepancy come from and why did it become so painful? First of all, we note that both Belarus and Belarus are derivatives of the toponym Belaya Rus. As a result of the division of ancient Russia between different political entities, its individual parts began to acquire specific definitions associated with color or size over time. “Dimensional” definitions are the well-known Little and Great Russia. Although, in fact, these definitions most likely have nothing to do with size. According to the most common version, the definitions “small” and “great” are borrowed from the Byzantine tradition, where “small” is usually called the historical core of a particular territory, and “great” is the zone of later colonization. There were three color designations of Russia – White, Red and Black Russia, and all three were associated with the lands of Western Russia as part of Poland and Lithuania. In historical sources, these designations are fixed in the XVI-XVII centuries. Red Russia was called the current Galicia, Black Russia was localized in the west of modern Belarus, approximately in the Novogrudok-Lida-Grodno triangle, and White Russia proper was then called the eastern half of modern Belarus. However, the name “Belaya Rus” was nomadic for a long time. So sometimes the lands around Pskov and Novgorod and even Moscow were called. However, by the XVI-XVII centuries. this name is finally assigned to the northeastern lands of modern Belarus. At the same time, the concept of “Belarusians” came into circulation, which initially had a rather vague content. “Belarusians” in Russia could be called both the inhabitants of “Belaya Rus” itself, and the entire East Slavic population of the Commonwealth. Over time, “Belarusians” were transformed into “Belarusians”, and “Belaya Rus” – into “Belarus”. In the XVIII-XIX centuries. this form becomes normative for the Russian language. In the 19th century, with the beginning of the rapid development of ethnographic research, the term “Belarusians” (up to the language reform of 1956 was written with two s) acquires an ethnic content. However, since the Belarusian ethno-linguistic features spread far beyond the borders of “Belarus” in its original sense, this term is also gradually expanding, covering the western regions of modern Belarus, which were often called Black Russia in book sources. Back in the 19th century, the Polish-Lithuanian historian Adam Kirkor singled out the ethnographic group of “Chernorusses”, pointing out the color features of their costume. The form “Belarus” appears with the development of the Belarusian national movement and, in all likelihood, is an adaptation to the Belarusian phonetic spelling of the Polish form Białoruś. Considering that the leaders of the Belarusian movement at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries were mainly people from the strongly Polonized petty gentry, voluntarily or involuntarily oriented towards the norms of the Polish language, this version looks very plausible. However, no attempts were made to introduce this form into the Russian language at that time. With the formation of the Byelorussian SSR, “Belarus” is fixed in the Byelorussian language, but the old name Belarus remains in Russian. This status quo persisted until 1991. Interest in how Belarus is called in languages ​​other than Russian appears in the 2010s, largely at the suggestion of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry led by Vladimir Makei. In 2016, at the initiative of the then ambassador to China, Kirill Rudy, a campaign was held there to change the hieroglyphs that designate Belarus. The renaming of Belarus in Swedish also took place largely thanks to the efforts of Ambassador Dmitry Mironchik. The fact is that in most languages ​​of the world Belarus is designated as White Russia, while no distinction is made between Russia and Russia. As a result, there is an “unnecessary” association of Belarus with Russia from the point of view of the official Minsk. After the events of 2020, the initiative to rename was seized by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and her “headquarters of the united opposition.” Now the meaning of the campaign has become to express solidarity with the “Belarusian democratic movement”, as well as protest against the dominance of Russian influence, allegedly taking place in Belarus. The renaming of countries in different languages ​​of the world is by no means a new phenomenon. Over the course of the 20th century, this happened more than once and affected, among other things, the Russian language. Usually, such renamings are justified by the desire to get rid of the colonial past and support for the “oppressed” peoples in their struggle for independence. However, attempts to present Belarusian-Russian relations as relations between an oppressed colony and a cruel imperial metropolis do not correspond either to historical reality or to the spirit of relations between the Belarusian and Russian peoples (and, in fact, one people living in two fraternal states). That is why these linguistic games, despite their seeming curiosity, are by no means harmless.

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