An independent people or a sub-ethnos of the Russian people?
2022 has been declared the year of historical memory in Belarus. In the first days of the new year, President A. Lukashenko held a meeting on issues of historical policy, where he made a number of loud statements. In particular, he called for an adequate assessment of the historical periods of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL) and the Commonwealth in Belarusian history.
“Let us in history textbooks, in castle and museum expositions, for example, call the period of the Commonwealth – the occupation of the Belarusian land by the Poles. Ethnocide of Belarusians. And what was it for our ancestors? – The native language, culture, faith are prohibited. You couldn’t even be human. The tycoons exchanged Belarusian peasants for dogs. But the people survived and, moreover, they preserved their originality ”, – Lukashenka said.
These words are remarkable and surprising in that until recently, it was the periods of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Commonwealth that were the main focus of the Belarusian historical narrative, and these periods were highlighted in a purely positive light. The Polish-Lithuanian period was regarded as the flourishing of culture and statehood, and the Lithuanian-Polish gentry and magnates were perceived as the great ancestors of the Belarusians. The Ministry of Culture (which was headed by the current opposition leader Pavel Latushko for several years) promoted and financed the “Castles of Belarus” program, the main goal of which was the restoration (and often actually rebuilding from scratch) of castle and palace complexes belonging to Polish-Lithuanian magnates, mainly in the western regions of Belarus.
What is the reason for such a rapid change of milestones and why did they suddenly decide to pay such close attention to the issues of historical memory?
Obviously, the consequences of the political crisis of 2020, under the sign of which the Belarusian authorities and Belarusian society continue to live, are also haunted in this area.
Until August 2020, a narrative developed among Belarusian nationalists was taken as the basis of the official historical myth. Belarusian nationalism emerged at the beginning of the 20th century and was aimed at substantiating the idea that Belarusians are an independent people with the right to cultural and political self-determination. Belarusian nationalism was opposed to Western Russianism – an ideology based on the belief that Belarusians are an ethnic group (subethnos) of the Russian people, and Belarusian dialects are a dialect variety of the Russian language.
Within the framework of Belarusian nationalism, a literary standard of the Belarusian language was formed, as much as possible isolated from Russian, and a historical myth was developed that substantiated the long historical roots of the Belarusian nationality and statehood.
It is in this context that the myth about the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as a Belarusian state is born. In poetic form, the “Lithuanian” idea was formulated by the poet Maxim Bogdanovich in the poem “The Pursuit”, which is considered by many Belarusian nationalists as an informal anthem of Belarus.
In the Soviet period, the myth of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as the “cradle” of the Belarusian nationality was strengthened, although it was balanced by the concept of “three fraternal East Slavic peoples” – the heirs of Ancient Rus.
It is noteworthy that early Belarusian nationalism had a negative attitude to the era of the Commonwealth, in the spirit of Lukashenka’s statement quoted above. However, the general pro-Western tilt of Belarusian nationalism, its desire to distance itself from Russia as much as possible inevitably led to the romanticization of this historical period as well. This was greatly facilitated by the policy of Poland, which viewed the Belarusian nationalists as allies in its eternal struggle with Russia and was interested in the myth of the Commonwealth as a common homeland of Poles, Lithuanians, Belarusians and Ukrainians.
With the collapse of the USSR, the attitude to the historical narrative of Belarusian nationalism changed several times. In the first years of independence, Belarusian nationalism became, in fact, the official state ideology, but came into sharp contradiction with objective reality.
The ethnic-linguistic nation of Belarusians did not work out. The predominantly Russian-speaking society did not feel the need for radical isolation from Russia, and the interests of the Belarusian economy directly pushed to strengthen integration ties with it. All this ran counter to the attitudes of the Belarusian nationalism.
Lukashenka, having come to power under the slogans of integration with Russia, turned Belarusian nationalists into the backbone of opposition to his regime, but was unable to offer a coherent ideological alternative. Moreover, as relations with Russia deteriorated and slipping in the construction of the Union State, the Belarusian authorities began to increasingly resort to the ideological services of nationalists.
One of the reasons for this was the fear of the Belarusian elites that in case of excessive rapprochement with Russia, the Belarusian state would simply be swallowed up. Therefore, the preservation of Belarusian sovereignty has always been that red line, which was forbidden to intercede in relations with Russia. In turn, the value of the Belarusian sovereignty in one way or another required historical substantiation and argumentation, and only Belarusian nationalism could give them.
The multi-vector policy, which Minsk adhered to until August 2020, was also aimed at compensating for the “dangerous” influence of Russia by drawing closer to the West. And in this context, the emphasis on the Polish-Lithuanian roots of the Belarusian state also played an important role, substantiating the allegedly greater involvement of Belarus in European civilization in comparison with Russia.
The collapse of this policy is forcing Lukashenka to look for new ideological footholds. Belarusian nationalism, with its pro-Western tilt and romanticization of the Polish-Lithuanian era, is again recognized as a threat to the existing political system in Belarus.
Moreover, the acute conflict with Poland and Lithuania is also forcing Lukashenka to reconsider his attitude to the “gentry romance”.
However, what can you offer in return? It should be admitted that a stable national myth capable of uniting the majority of Belarusians and not provoking a conflict within the Belarusian society has not developed. Belarusian nationalism with its Russophobia and linguistic aggression is not only dangerous for the Lukashenka regime, but also unacceptable for a significant part of the population. At the same time, this is the only sufficiently harmonious and well-developed ideology that substantiates the existence of the Belarusian state and Belarusians as separate from the Russian people. However, the need for a viable alternative to Belarusian nationalism remains acute.
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