Belarusian: An Extremist Language?
University of St Andrews
Belarus’s sole Belarusian-language bookstore, Kniharnia Lohvinaŭ (2010-2019), Miensk (Source: https://nn.by/?c=ar&i=233616)
The article’s title contains an absurd proposition, of course. It is a person or an organization that can be extremist, that is, the use of violence to express opposition to the political, economic or social order, as obtaining in a legitimate polity. A language is just a medium through which information is conveyed. A language is not a message, let alone an act of violence. However, in Central Europe languages are employed for creating, legitimizing and maintaining statehood in accordance with the principles of ethnolinguistic nationalism. In this region, speakers of language X are seen to be members of nation X, who should be gathered in their own nation-state X. On the other hand, speakers of other languages are defined as ‘foreigners’ who must either assimilate to speaking and writing language X, or leave nation-state X. Hence, a ‘foreign’ language – or rather its speakers – may be unwanted in a given country, where the ethnolinguistic type of nationalism dominates.
But may the state authorities extend this dislike to the country’s own national language? From the national perspective that would be an illogical and counterproductive step in Central Europe of ethnolinguistic nation-states. Yet, that is what has been actually happening in Belarus since 1995. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, in 1991 Belarus gained independence. Across the length and width of the Soviet Union, Russian had become the de facto state-wide and most important language after 1938. This meant the sidelining of the country’s other languages, including Belarusian. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, for the first time in history, between 1991 and 1994, Belarusian functioned as the sole national and official language of Belarus. This elevated role for Belarusian was guaranteed by Article 1 of the 1990 Declaration of State Sovereignty of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. The shift away from Russian to official monolingualism in Belarusian was rapid, because after all ethnic Belarusians constitute 85 percent of the country’s population. In 1994, Article 17 of the then promulgated Constitution of independent Belarus recognized Belarusian as the country’s only state language.
Which language Belarusians speak at home?
Yet, with the onset of Aljaksandar Łukašenka’s dictatorship in the same year, already in 1996 an updated version of the Constitution demoted Belarusian to the position of an official language. At the same time, Russian was raised to the same level as the country’s another official language. Thus Russian gained full equality with Belarusian in the Republic of Belarus. Afterward, the dictator pressed on with the founding of a Union State of Belarus and Russia in the late 1990s. Obviously, Russian is the sole language of the Union State’s administration. As a result, during the past quarter of a century, Russian swiftly became Belarus’s default language of administration, business and education. For instance, in the Belarusian capital of Miensk the number of students attending Belarusian-language elementary schools dropped dramatically, from 58 percent in 1994 to a mere 17 percent in 1999, and to 13 percent in 2016. At present no more than a tenth of the country’s inhabitants use Belarusian in everyday life. Likewise, less than a tenth of all books published in this country are in Belarusian. All the country’s television stations broadcast not more than 5 percent of programs in Belarusian. Uniquely, Belarus is the only post-Soviet country, where not a single university uses the national language as the sole (or at least leading) medium of education, and in which a working command of the national language is not required for employment in civil service or any sector of the economy. In Belarus it is sufficient to be fluent in Russian, unless one wishes to pursue the now unpromising career of a Belarusian language teacher. Unsurprisingly, only 0.1 percent of the country’s students attend university-level education in Belarusian, that is, in the departments of Belarusian language and culture.
The first issue of issue of Naša Niva (1906), the parallel version in Latin letters
Initially, the pro-democracy forces trusted they could turn back the Russifying and authoritarian tendency in Belarus. The country’s then highest moral authority and world-renowned Belarusian-language writer with a good chance of receiving a Nobel Prize in literature, Vasil Bykaŭ, did not mince his words, when criticizing the dictatorship. For this ‘demeanor,’ in 1998 the fledgling dictator hounded him out of Belarus. The oldest Belarusian-language newspaper Наша Ніва Naša Niva (Our Field), founded in 1906, was revived in 1991 in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. The editorial headquarters were moved to Miensk in 1996 with an eye of supporting failing democracy in this country. However, the switch from Belarusian to Russian in Belarus’s public sphere was paralleled by another from the pre-Soviet traditional form of Belarusian to the Soviet codification, which had been introduced in 1933 with the intention of bringing Belarusian closer to Russian. The regime favored the latter, and among others insisted that the country’s capital should be known exclusively as Minsk in the Soviet-style spelling, as opposed to the traditional form Miensk. The Naša Niva newspaper’s decision to press on with the use of traditional spelling, as characteristic of the 1991-1994 democratic period, was met with increasing repressions and ad hoc administrative measures to prevent the distribution and printing of this weekly. Finally, the editors relented in order to be able to reach readers. In addition, the Latin alphabet (Łacinka), which is Belarusian’s second national alphabet, was arbitrarily removed from any official use across Łukašenka’s Belarus.
The last paper issue of Naša Niva (2018)
In Belarus all bookstores’ offer is solely or overwhelmingly in Russian. Often, the section with Belarusian-language publications is smaller than that with English-language books. The state does not support Belarusian-language publishing beyond some low-key scholarly monographs, school textbooks and pro-regime newspapers. Independent private publishers stepped in to fill in this widening gap on the market, and now offer the latest and the best in Belarusian-language fiction and poetry, including Belarusian translations of world literature. In 2000 Ihar Lohvinaŭ bravely entered the fray with his own publishing house, only to be repeatedly harassed and persecuted by the regime. After the protests that followed the rigged presidential election in 2010, the regime decided to clamp down on independent publishers specializing in Belarusian-language books. Yet, in 2014, quite unexpectedly, the dictator delivered an official speech in Belarusian. The hope was awoken that as long as proponents of Belarusian language and culture stayed away from politics, they would be left unmolested. In the same year the now iconic publisher of Belarusian-language literature Januškievič was founded. It was a good period for the oldest private Belarusian-language publisher Knihazbor (established in 1995) and the publishing house Halijafy (established in 2007), which then began to flourish, the former specializing in classics, while the latter in new and popular literature. Uniquely, in 2015, with state support, a Russian-language publishing house founded the series Мая беларуская кніга Maja Biełaruskaja Kniha (My Belarusian Book) that published over 50 cheap paperback editions of Belarusian-language classics.
Biełaruskaja Palička (Belarusian Bookshelf)
2015 could have been a year of triumph for Belarusian literature and culture. In this year the first-ever Belarusian writer Śviatłana Aleksijevič (Svetlana Alexievich) won a Nobel Prize in literature. Although she writes in Russian, her success put Belarus firmly on the literary map of the world. However, as earlier in the case of Bykaŭ, her outspoken and principled criticism of the dictator entailed barring Aleksijevič from the official mass media and state-organized cultural events. Three years later, in 2018, thanks to a crowd-founding effort, Aleksijevič’s collected works were published in a Belarusian translation. But the generous offer of gratis sets of these works to public libraries was snubbed by the local and regional authorities on the dictator’s orders. It was Lohvinaŭ who published the collected works, and the state authorities did not particularly like him. In 2015 Lohvinaŭ had been officially labelled as an ‘extremist’ for his publishing activities. His company’s diminutive bookshop Кнігарня Логвінаў Kniharnia Lohvinaŭ (established in 2010) in central Miensk was the country’s only one that specialized exclusively in Belarusian-language books and literature. But the regime had its way, and to chagrin of the country’s Belarusian-language writers, this cult bookstore closed down in 2019.
For better or worse, readers in search of a whole range of Belarusian-language books and journals must avail themselves of e-publications. In 1996, thanks to a private initiative, Belarus’s largest online library of Belarusian-language publications Беларуская палічка Biełaruskaja Palička (Belarusian Bookshelf) was founded. In 2000 it was followed by another, Камунікат Kamunikat (Message), safely hosted in Poland. Independent Belarusian-language radio, podcast and online service is offered by the Радыё Свабода Radyjo Svaboda, originally launched in 1954 in Munich as part of the United States’ pro-democracy Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty media complex that used to target the Soviet bloc. Now Svaboda broadcasts from Prague. In 2007 Poland launched a similar pro-democracy television service in Belarusian, Белсат Belsat/Biełsat (Belarusian Satellite Television). It built on the Belarusian-language radio Радыё Рацыя Radyjo Racyja (Radio Walkie-Talkie), founded a decade earlier by the Polish government. In 2002 the Radyjo Svaboda launched the Бібліятэка Свабоды ХХІ стагодзьдзя Bibliateka Svabody XXI Stahodździa (21st-Century Library of Liberty) that uniquely offers all the 80 titles and counting as paper and e-books. In 2005, a group of Belarusians in exile in Poland launched the youth-oriented Belarusian-language Euroradio.fm (Еўрапейскае радыё для Беларусі Eŭrapiejskaje radyjo dlia Biełarusi European Radio for Belarus). In recognition of both the growing Russification of Belarus and the Belarusian youth’s pro-European aspirations, the aforementioned radio and television websites offer information in Belarusian, Russian and English. Naša Niva, which in 2018 switched to publishing exclusively online, follows suit, and the newspaper’s website is fully available in Belarusian and Russian.
The ‘extremist’ book titled The Belarusian National Idea
In 2008 the Belarusian Ministry of Information launched the List of Extremist Materials that are officially banned in this country. Symbolically, the item that opens this list is a CD-R disc ostensibly with the recording of a lesson of the Belarusian language. No more details are provided, though some say this entry refers to the 2006 documentary film on the rigged 2006 presidential election in Belarus. One way or another, what irks the Belarusian government most is the Belarusian language. The regime’s obvious goal is to marginalize Belarusian language and culture, making it insignificant and as unattractive as possible, especially to new generations of school leavers and university graduates. Prospects of a good career and comfortable life are to be found through the medium of the ‘big modern’ language of Russian and its ideological opponent (in the Kremlin’s perception) of English. To a degree, in line with the stalinist formula the form of culture, politics and permitted public discourse might be Belarusian from time to time, though the Russian-language form is preferred. Yet, the content must be always łukašist, pro-dictatorship or at least neutral to the dictator and his regime.
In post-1994 Belarus there is no great political idea or ideology that would legitimize the system beyond the mundane but singular task of keeping Aljaksandar Łukašenka in power on his own terms. In a long run, the tyrant could not tolerate making the Belarusian language into an appealing channel for independent, let alone critical and pro-European, thought. All was fine as long as Belarusian language and culture remained a rarified minority pursuit, shunned by the vast majority of Belarusians, including the youth who were born and educated under the dictatorial rule. In such a case the dictator was even ready to make a seldom gesture in favor of Belarusian to please the Belarusian-speaking intellectual minority. To the latter it appeared as if a promise of ‘soft Belarusianization,’ especially in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Obviously, it was a false dawn in the dead of the anti-Belarusian night. Soon it turned out that the dictator fears more the Belarusians than Moscow’s maneuvers to make Belarus into another Russian province.
The White Revolution
Prophetically, the publication of the first Belarusian translation of George Orwell’s 1984 coincided with the outbreak of the White Revolution in 2020
The point break came with the 2020 Peaceful White Revolution of Dignity (Мірная белая рэвалюцыя годнасці Mirnaja biełaja revaliucyja hodnasci) in the wake of rigged presidential election in which Łukašenka did not secure more than 10 percent of the votes (or most likely only around 1 percent). Participation in these mass protests cut through all the social and age strata, importantly, including the young generation, who previously had stayed away from demonstrations against the dictatorship. Brutal repressions that followed and continue to this day removed crowds from the streets, but despite prisons full of political prisoners, numerous inventive and individualized actions of protest continue across Belarus. This Peaceful Revolution continues, and has already brought together most of Belarus’s politically passive Russian-speaking population and youth with the patriotic Belarusian-speaking movement. This development is well illustrated in the shift from President Elect Śviatłana Cichanoŭskaja’s de fault use of Russian and her team’s non-committal stance on Belarusian to the embracement of Belarusian language and culture by the Belarusian Coordination Council and the President Elect’s Office in Vilnius. In the Office’s English-language materials, initially, Cichanoŭskaja’s name was transliterated from its Russian version (Тихановская) as ‘Tikhanovskaya.’ But now only the Belarusian-language original of her name (Ціханоўская) is used for this purpose, yielding ‘Tsikhanouskaya.’ A detail hardly noticeable abroad, but a momentous political statement in Belarus (despite falling short of espousing the Belarusian Latin alphabet, in which her name reads ‘Cichanoŭskaja’).
In the wake of the rigged presidential election in August 2020, Naša Niva angered the regime by publishing Naša Historyja with Lech Wałęsa on the cover. This issue is devoted to the 1980-81 Solidarity revolution that eventually ended communism in neighboring Poland
The most visible symbol of the President Elect’s and the protesters’ opposition to the dictatorship is the country’s white-red-white national tricolor, from which the name of the White Revolution originates. This flag was in official use in post-Soviet Belarus during the brief flowering of democracy in the years 1991-1994. The dictator swore the presidential oath for the first time in 1994 with the white-red-white banner unfurled. But now the regime sticks by the Soviet era-inspired green and red flag. Unsurprisingly, since late 2020 the confrontation has been over the ‘illegal’ display of the national tricolor. In early 2021 the regime planned to adopt legislation that would declare the national flag ‘extremist.’ Opposition to such an odious move was too strong, although the dictator and the country’s Ministry of Internal Affairs officially and unabashedly defame this tricolor as ‘fascist.’ Now the regime abuses the existing anti-fascist legislation for combatting any display of the vilified white-red-white flag. Since August 2020, over 30,000 protesters and suspected protesters have been arrested, and several hundred convicted, pushing the known number of political prisoners in Belarus to half a thousand. Many were thrown into prison for wearing even a tiny white and red ribbon or possessing books by Śviatłana Aleksijevič. Reading Belarusian-language books in public is now a crime in Belarus, which entails arbitrary arrest.
Against Extremist Belarusian
Aleksijevič protected by EU diplomats in 2020
In the spring of 2021 the authorities firmly turned against Belarus’s writers and artists, especially when the latter keep using the Belarusian language and dare to be critical of the regime. The popularity of the tricolor among this group makes them suspect and ‘guilty by association.’ In this way, not only does the regime’s propaganda recognize the white-red-white flag as a ‘clear signs’ of the ‘revival of fascism,’ but this accusation is also levelled against Belarusian language and culture. According to the authorities, ‘to be a good Belarusian’ a person must speak and write in Russian, act as an ethnic Russian, see Russia as their own country, and above all be servilely loyal to the dictator and his wishes. The first internationally visible salvo in this ‘war of cultures’ was fired in the fall of 2020, when the dictator ordered a kidnap of Śviatłana Aleksijevič. As Belarus’s sole Nobel Prize laureate her voice is more listened to in the country and abroad than the dictator’s. Yet, by standing guard at her apartment’s door, EU ambassadors and diplomats foiled this plan. The writer promised to stay put and work for a new democratic Belarus in her capacity as a member of the Coordination Council. This was not to be. As a quarter of a century earlier in the case of Vasil Bykaŭ, now the dictator also succeeded in hounding Aleksijevič out of Belarus. (When de facto expelled from Belarus both writers were almost the same age, Bykaŭ – 74, and Aleksijevič – 72.)
Already in September 2020, the state monopoly on printing newspapers enabled the regime to withhold this vital service from the newspapers that covered the protests on their front pages, including the Belarusian-language broadsheet Народная Воля Narodnaja Volja (People’s Will). The emergency shift of printing these newspapers to Russia did not work either, because the regime leaned on the printing establishments there to cancel the newspapers’ orders. As a result, like Naša Niva before, Narodnaja Volja had to move online. In 2018 the former newspaper returned partly to print with its quality monthly Наша гісторыя Naša Historyja (Our History). However, in March 2021 the authorities cancelled this periodical’s printing contract and barred Naša Historyja from all the country’s distribution networks, including Belarusian Post. As a result, now readers are compelled to collect copies of Naša Historyja by hand from the editorial headquarters of Naša Niva in Miensk. Belarusian is such an annoying language in today’s Belarus that prison guards have no choice but to punish arbitrarily unruly inmates who ‘maliciously’ persist in speaking Belarusian or do not know any Russian.
Viktar Marcionovič’s new novel Revaliucyja (Revolution) under the dictatorship’s close surveillance
Writer Viktar Marcionovič had the bad luck that his new novel on which he had worked for a dozen years happens to be titled Revaliucyja (Revolution). It hit the market in 2020 when the street protests were in full swing. From the regime’s standpoint the title was too suggestive of the current situation in Belarus itself, though the novel is actually set in Moscow. Custom officers were ordered not to allow parcels with this novel to leave the territory of Belarus. In January 2021 all the copies of this book found in the publishing house Knihazbor were confiscated. Another telling case is the Russian-language work on the participation of Belarusian volunteers and military in the Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine. It was published before the rigged 2020 presidential election. However, in March 2021 the authorities added it to the list of extremist materials banned in Belarus. The same fate met the Belarusian-language volume of interviews with leading Belarusian intellectuals Biełaruskaja nacyjanalnaja ideja (The Belarusian National Idea).
The Belarusian authorities arrested the entire run of the second edition of Alhierd Baharevič’s novel Sabaki Eŭropy (Dogs of Europe)
In an interview from this book, the at present best Belarusian-language writer Alhierd Baharevič proposes that in a nutshell, Belarusianness equates both liberty and the Belarusian language. No space in this tight equation is reserved for the dictator, which must irk the regime. In April 2021, the customs office impounded the entire run of the second edition of this author’s 2018 opus magnum Sabaki Eŭropy (Dogs of Europe) upon its arrival at the Belarusian border crossing from the printers in Lithuania. Governmental experts continue discussing whether the novel should be declared extremist. What seized censors’ attention may be the writer’s portrayal of the mid-21st century, when no trace of Belarus remains, while the ‘Russian Reich’ extends from the EU frontier in the west to the Indian Ocean in the south. In March 2021 the authorities froze the bank accounts of the two main Belarusian-language publishers, Knihazbor and Januškievič and of the main online distributor of Belarusian-language books in both paper and electronic editions, Knihi.by. This move brought all the three companies almost to bankruptcy, though in June the accounts were finally allowed to operate again.
Alhierd Baharevič’s two new books published in June 2021
In the last quarter of 2020 the Belarusian PEN Center recorded almost 300 cases of repressions against writers, actors, singers, publishers, artists and organizers of mainly Belarusian-language culture. The level of repression against Belarusian culture remains the same in 2021. At present creators of Belarusian culture account for a tenth (or around 50) of all political prisoners. In May 2021, the regime closed down Belarus’s largest and most popular online information portal Tut.by, and arrested its managers and journalists. The portal used mainly Russian, but some content was available in Belarusian, too. What spooked the regime was its independent and objective coverage of the White Revolution protests and other events in Belarus. The Ministry of Internal Affairs pushes for recognizing this platform and all its content as extremist, so that even citing Tut.by articles would become a crime. Repressions against independent journalists and information outlets continue across Belarus. The country is the most dangerous in Europe for journalists, and… for Belarusian-language writers. Like Aleksijevič, Baharevič also had to leave Belarus. He has no chance to publish his books in the country. But he does not despair and in June 2021 released two new Belarusian-language novels as e-books. On top of that he explains the White Revolution to the European public opinion in a German-language collection of his essays, optimistically titled, Sie haben schon verloren. Revolution und Revolte in Belarus (You Have Already Lost: Revolution and Revolt in Belarus).
Sie haben schon verloren. Revolution und Revolte in Belarus (You Have Already Lost: Revolution and Revolt in Belarus) by Alhierd Baharevič
 Антонава Т. 1999. Моўныя пытаньні ў Беларусі (pp 4-5). Зьвязда. 10 Apr, No 59 (23660).