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Belarus: Students Seek Revival Of Language And National Consciousness

  • Jeremy Bransten

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka once declared that he knew of only two great languages: Russian and English. Since coming to power in 1994, Lukashenka, rather than promoting the culture of his own country, has pursued an active campaign of Russification. In 1995, Russian was reinstated as an official state language. Few schools now teach in Belarusian and most university courses are in Russian. But a growing number of young people -- especially at universities -- are getting in touch with their Belarusian identity. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten reports from Minsk.

Minsk, 7 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- There was a time when no one questioned the status of Belarusian and its linguistical antecedent, Ruthenian. In the Grand Duchy of Lithuania -- one of Europe's most influential regional powers from the 14th to the 17th century -- most inhabitants spoke Ruthenian. The language that was to later develop into modern Belarusian was used in the chancery.

Documents of historical significance, including the 1588 Statute of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, medieval Europe's most thorough legal code since Roman times, were written in Ruthenian.

But since those glory days, the language has been in decline, a victim of neglect and assimilation policies by rulers who sought to Polonize or Russify parts of the country.

In Soviet times, Russification policies continued, and for the past seven years, under the rule of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the same attitudes have prevailed. Aksyuta Kashkevich, a university student in Minsk, is press secretary for the Union of Belarusian Students. She recalls her high school days:

"In school, they taught us some Belarusian, but it was awful. All the time they inculcated the idea that Belarusian is a peasant language and only uneducated people speak it." Kashkevich says her history studies led her to the opposite conclusion, spurring her to study Belarusian more thoroughly. Initially, she says, she did not find much understanding.

"I tried to speak to people in Belarusian, but I wasn't very successful. There was no support -- there was nowhere where you could speak Belarusian all the time. It was only when I met people from the Union of Belarusian Students, when I discovered that there were people who spoke all the time in Belarusian and who weren't afraid to do so, that I came here."

Kashkevich says mastering Belarusian took her several years of effort. But now, she speaks it full-time.

"Of course, at the beginning it was tough, because you're used to speaking Russian all the time and Russian words would slip in all the time. Now it's the opposite: when I speak Russian, Belarusian words mix in. Because I practically no longer use Russian -- only when people don't understand me."

Kashkevich says her Russian-speaking parents still don't express much understanding -- even though her father is capable of speaking Belarusian:

"To this day, my mother reproaches me. She says: 'We taught you to speak Russian and now you're distancing yourself from us and speaking Belarusian.' She laughs and makes fun of me when I use words that aren't similar to Russian words. They are Belarusian words -- but old. Few people know them. My father can speak Belarusian, but he doesn't always try. But my younger brother is also trying to speak Belarusian."

How representative is Kashkevich of her fellow citizens and her age group? Is she part of a trend or just a nationalist exception? Professor Oleg Manayev, head of Belarus' leading independent think tank, the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Research (NISEP), has researched the issue.

Manayev says that in terms of language use, Belarusian national identity remains dormant for the majority of the population.

"National identity in Belarus is far more weakly expressed than in any of the other post-Soviet countries -- any -- even in Moldova or Central Asia, not to mention Russia and the Baltic states."

Manayev's surveys indicate less than five percent of the population use only Belarusian in their professional and personal lives. But a Western diplomat posted in Minsk who has traveled extensively throughout the country tells RFE/RL that statistics can be misleading. He says most people use Russian frequently because there is no other choice, especially in official contexts. All administrative documents are printed in Russian, most schooling is conducted in Russian, and the language is promoted as the most convenient medium of exchange. But, the diplomat says, especially in rural areas, Belarusian remains alive and in use.

The revival of Belarusian among some of the nation's young people, promoted by organizations such as the Union of Belarusian Students, is a newer phenomenon but one that appears to be growing -- despite the odds. Another student, Oksana, discussed her feelings while chatting with a friend in front of her university:

"In general, I am trying to resuscitate this Belarusian identity in myself and my family, especially in my younger sister. It's very hard, because there are no conditions for developing our Belarusian identity. Just imagine, there is almost no subject taught in Belarusian at the university. It's very hard to find Belarusian literature in bookstores. Most of the books are in Russian. It's very hard to get quality language education in Belarusian. It's very hard."

Plans by several professors to set up a national university where courses would be taught in Belarusian have been blocked by government authorities for several years.

In some respects, the Western diplomat says, the situation in today's Belarus can be compared to that in Central Europe 150 years ago, when national revival movements formed in several states dominated by larger empires.

He recalls that in countries like today's Czech Republic, which lived through an analogous period of Germanization, it took the work of a handful of determined intellectuals to gradually revive the use of Czech as a literary language and preferred means of communication in state institutions. They too were swimming against the current. But today, the diplomat notes, "no one questions the fact that one of the world's leading playwrights and statesmen -- Vaclav Havel -- writes in Czech and not in German."

Even in eastern Belarus in the heavily Russified Mahileu (Russian: Mogilev) region, where few people speak Belarusian, some people today will tell you they are different from Russians and do not consider themselves part of the same nation. Vladimir Gaidukov, who heads the Mahileu branch of the opposition United Civic Party, sums up the general feeling:

"I consider myself a European. I am closer to Europe. We try to attune our youth to the fact that they are Europeans and don't belong to some sort of Eastern culture. We are at the center of Europe, after all. We must consider ourselves Europeans and we must not consider ourselves Russians. Russia is huge -- it has Eastern and Western influences all mixed up. But we are closer to Europe and have to educate people to this fact -- that they are Europeans."

Regardless of the language they speak, Gaidukov says, Belarus's people must come to see themselves as citizens of their own state and not as provincials in a larger empire.