Tomasz Kamusella: Who Is Afraid of the Letter Ł?

Who Is Afraid of the Letter Ł?
The Łacinka and the Belarusian Dictator

Tomasz Kamusella
University of St Andrews

Former Russian Deputy Prime Minister and opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, did not hold Belarusian dictator Aljaksandar Łukašenka in high esteem. Nemtsov deemed him to be ‘a Slavic Gaddafi. He is an outrageous murderer and dictator, a completely insane person. He has nowhere to retreat. It is not worth waiting for the velvet revolution to happen.’[1] No one cared to listen. Now Nemtsov is dead, assassinated in front of the Kremlin in 2015. The West even tried to do business with Łukašenka’s Belarus, as usual, turning a blind eye to the ugly reality that Nemtsov succinctly described. But following the rigged presidential election in August 2020, which gave a landslide victory to Śviatłana Cichanoŭskaja, Belarusians rose in exactly such a velvet revolution against the tyrant, who now added the distinction of usurper to the panoply of his haughtily worded titles and positions.


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Orthography: An Ideological Battlefield

Branisłaŭ Taraškievič’s Belarusian Grammar for Schools in Cyrillic (1929 edition)

Like all dictators of long standing, who want to rule for life, Łukašenka is paranoid, vengeful and full of fears. Among others, he sees the Belarusian language as a breeding nest of opposition. That is why, in 1995, he made Russian an equal official language, which de facto marginalized the country’s national language of Belarusian. Belarusian-medium schools and institutions were closed or seriously scaled down. Russian was imposed as the language of the Belarusian Army. Population at large were discouraged from using Belarusian in speech and writing. As a result, the everyday use of this language plummeted, and is attested only among a tenth of the Belarusian population.

Branisłaŭ Taraškievič’s Belarusian Grammar for Schools in Łacinka (1931 edition)

Another step in Łukašenka’s struggle against Belarusian language and culture was the re-imposition on Belarusian of the 1933 Soviet Russifying rules of spelling and writing. It is known as Narkamaŭka, because it had been originally approved by the council of the narkamov, that is, narodnyja kamisary (ministers) of Soviet Belarus. In independent Belarus these Soviet rules were replaced by the pre-Soviet classical orthography, as developed and published in 1918 by Branisłaŭ Taraškievič in Vilnius. The Łukašenka regime made the Soviet orthography official again, and began persecuting periodicals and publishing houses that dared to use the classical spelling. This classical orthography was posed to be a sign of disloyalty and even treason in Łukašenka’s Belarus. In the regime’s eyes the proof of the latter misdemeanor is the fact that in 2005, among others, the oldest Belarusian-language newspaper Naša Niva (established in 1906) and the Radio Svaboda (or the Belarusian service of the Radio Free Europe and the Radio Liberty) agreed on the updated version of Taraškieviča, as Classical Belarusian is often referred to.

The 1959 edition of the 1933 Narkamaŭka grammar


A spiral of repressions commenced in Belarus, for instance, closing the possibility of printing and distributing Naša Niva through any official channels in the country.[2] In late 2008, Naša Niva relented and in order to reach its readers on a regular basis, the newspaper adopted the now official Russifying spelling.[3] In the summer of the same year, the regime had adopted an updated version of Narkamaŭka, which provided the newspaper with a pretext for replacing neo-Taraškieviča with Łukašenka’s neo- Narkamaŭka.[4] Otherwise, also cyberspace became a new ideological battlefield for the Belarusian opposition and the regime. In 2004 the Belarusian Wikipedia was founded. Initially, articles written both in Narkamaŭka and Taraškieviča were welcomed. Two years later, in late 2006, it was decided to continue the Wikipedia in Narkamaŭka only, while the articles in Taraškieviča were moved to a Wikipedia incubator. These articles were updated in line with the 2005 reform of Taraškieviča, and in 2007 another Belarusian Wikipedia, written exclusively in Classical Belarusian, was launched.[5]


Łacinka: Another Ideological Battlefield

In the Soviet Union, all official documentation for use abroad was either in Russian or translated from Russian into a target foreign language, be it English or French. The thorny issue of Soviet personal names that were not originally Russian was ‘solved,’ first, by endowing all the Soviet Union’s ethnically non-Russian population with Russian-language versions of their names. Thus, the famous modern Belarusian writer Vasil Bykaŭ (Васіль Быкаў) became a Russianized ‘Vasil Bykov (Василь Быков).’ Subsequently, when a foreign travel passport was issued to a Soviet citizen of a non-Russian origin, the Russian-language version of their name was noted down in Latin letters, following the principles of French spelling for Romanization. Hence, the Belarusian dictator’s name in his Soviet passport would be romanized as ‘Loukachenko.’ The Soviet authorities employed the French language-based romanization of Russian in order not to use English for this purpose. During the Cold War, English symbolized the Kremlin’s arch enemy, that is, the United States.

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After Belarus became independent, this Russifying-cum-Gallicizing romanization of personal names was ditched in favor of Łacinka (Лацінка in Cyrillic; literally ‘Latin alphabet’), or the Belarusian Latin alphabet. Some languages sport more than a single ‘alphabet’ (script, writing system) for writing and publishing. Yugoslavia’s state-wide language of Serbo-Croatian was a well-known Slavic case, before this language split following the bloody breakup of the federal country during the 1990s. Serbo-Croatian was a biscriptal language, that is, with two official scripts (or writing systems), namely, Cyrillic and Latin. Each word, text or name in Serbo-Croatian could be with equal ease written and published be it in Cyrillic or Latin letters. The equivalence of both alphabets obviated any need for romanization in the case of Serbo-Croatian. Both scripts continue to be in official use for the Montenegrin language, and de facto in the case of Serbian. When a need for cyrillizing a name in the Latin alphabet-based languages of Bosnian, Croatian or Slovenian appears, the Serbo-Croatian Cyrillic is employed as a rule of thumb. Likewise, any romanization of Macedonian is conducted with the employment of Serbo-Croatian’s Latin alphabet.

Łacinka is the equivalent Latin alphabet of Belarusian, alongside the Belarusian Cyrillic. Between 1906 and 1912 Naša Niva was published in two parallel editions, one in Latin letters and the other in Cyrillic. The latter was earmarked for Orthodox Belarusians, while the former for Catholic Belarusians. During World War I, the German occupation administration in Belarus (within Land Ober Ost) followed the same biscriptal pattern, but favored Łacinka. Cyrillic was seen as too strongly associated with and symbolic of the enemy Russian Empire. At that time many referred to Cyrillic as the ‘Russian alphabet.’ For the first time in history, the German occupation authorities also made Belarusian a medium of school education and an official language of local administration. Branisłaŭ Taraškievič published his classical standardizing grammar of Belarusian for schools in two variants, that is, in Cyrillic and in Latin letters. In the interwar period, the use of Łacinka survived among the Belarusian diaspora and in Poland, in whose frontiers western Belarus was contained. In eastern Belarus, made into a Soviet republic within the Soviet Union, Cyrillic was the sole official alphabet used for writing and publishing in Belarusian. During World War II, the German occupation administration of Belarus favored Łacinka over Cyrillic for Belarusian-language publications. In 1943, in occupied Minsk, Anton Losik’s (Антон Лёсік) eighth edition of Taraškievič’s grammar was published. It was titled Biełaruski pravapis (Belarusian Orthography) and was printed exclusively in Łacinka. After the war, all of Belarus found itself in the Soviet Union, entailing the ideological compulsion to write and publish in Belarusian only in Cyrillic.

In Soviet Belarus and under the Łukašenka regime, Łacinka has been denigrated as a ‘fascist alphabet.’ Yet, Belarusian-language authors disagree. In 2017, in Minsk, a reprint of Losik’s book came off the press with an added foreword in the Belarusian Cyrillic. Belarusian writers use words and phrases in Łacinka for emphasis, while during the post-Soviet decades the Belarusian Latin alphabet has spread on posters of theater and music events and in advertising. At present, the knowledge of Łacinka is quite limited, because it is not taught at school. However, Belarusian-speaking intellectuals, dissidents and the educated public consider their national language to be a biscriptal character, that is, endowed with Cyrillic and Łacinka as its two equal and national alphabets.

However, without saying it openly, since the beginning of the 21st century, the regime has progressively made Belarusian into a monoscriptal language, or with Cyrillic as its single official script. In 2000, the first official document was published on the romanization principles for Belarusian. This romanization standard was finalized in 2007 and was proposed for international adoption in 2013.[6] At least in cyberspace this adoption was effected, as evidenced by the GoogleTranslate service, in which Cyrillic-based Belarusian-language texts are romanzied into this standard by default. Proponents of Belarusian language and culture and the Belarusian opposition were appalled, because this romanization standard de facto means the diching of Łacinka from any official use in Belarus and abroad.

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Differences between Łacinka and this official romanization are not many, but they are crucial and highly symbolic. First and above all, on the sly, the Latin script was decommissioned from the role of Belarusian’s second national alphabet. This move detaches Belarusian further from ‘Europe’ as a sphere of culture and values associated with the Latin letters, and makes this language more similar to monoscriptal Russian. Second, the Romanization standard does away with the use of the Łacinka letter [ł] for the Cyrillic letter [л], and [l] for [ль], replacing both in accordance with the contemporary English-based romanization of Russian, that is, with [l] and [ĺ], respectively. This change was executed because [ł] is commonly seen as a ‘Polish letter,’ while next to no one in today’s Belarus will note that [ĺ] is a uniquely Slovak letter.

Łukašenka has no proverbial ‘beef’ with Slovakia, while the image of the ‘imperialist and dangerous Poland’ features high in his propaganda.[7] That is why, the regime looked on approvingly, when the Catholic community in western Belarus revived the religious and liturgical use of Polish, but with the innovative modification of religious publications printed in the Russian-style Cyrillic, although the Latin alphabet is exclusively employed for writing and publishing in Polish. Some hoped that such a Cyrillic-based Polish would be a mere stop-gap measure, given that the majority of the faithful had no knowledge of the Łacinka, let alone of the Polish Latin alphabet. However, on the contrary, the Polish Cyrillic became a permanent fixture of Catholicism in western Belarus.[8] This is a dual victory for the regime, because this Polish Cyrillic distances the country’s Catholics-cum-Polish minority both from Poland and the Belarusians. In the latter case the Belarusian Cyrillic was not even considered for underpinning the development of this Polish Cyrillic. Furthermore, the Russian-style Cyrillic pushes the Polish minority toward a scriptal, cultural and linguistic unity with Russia, alongside the overwhelming majority of the country’s ethnic Belarusians who employ only, or predominantly, Russian for talking and writing. Russification and the Union State with Russia is Łukašenka’s only constant program for Belarus and its citizenry.

Hence, some may be surprised why in the official Romanization of Belarusian Łukašenka  allowed for such uniquely Polish letters as [ć], [ń], [ś] and [ź]. Like, [ł], they almost never occur in the Latin alphabet when employed for writing other languages. However, let us remember that the Belarusian dictator introduced [ĺ] instead of the Łacinka [l] for the Cyrillic diagraph [ль]. The diacritic sign ‘acute’ [’] that features above all these Latin letters is driven by the orthographic conventions of the Belarusian Cyrillic, in which [ць] = [ć], [ль] = [ĺ], [нь] = [ń], [сь] = [ś] and [зь] = [ź] in accordance with the official romanization. On the other hand, the system closely emulates the currently standard English-based romanization for Russian, in which the apostrophe [’] is used to represent the Cyrillic letter [ь], so [ль] becomes [l’], or [нь] is Romanized as [n’]. As a result, the official Romanization of Belarusian may be interpreted as making this language closer to Russian in this aspect; it is yet another element of Łukašenka’s overall policy of Russification.


Politics is Suffocatingly Personal in Belarus

Dictatorship is a masculine and very personal business. Like Muammar Gaddafi or Hugo Chavez, Łukašenka micromanages the entire state and its institutions, so that each official or entrepreneur of a state, regional and even county-level stature must be personally nominated (or approved) by the dictator, and thus fully dependent on his good will. Thus the reader may ask, why I insist on this ‘strange’ form of the dictator’s surname: ‘Łukašenka,’ instead of settling on ‘Lukashenka,’ which is the norm in English-language literature. The answer is simple, in order to reveal the acutely personal manner of his rule and politics.

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The Belarusian version of the dictator’s name in Narkamaŭka is Аляксандр Лукашэнка. The official romanization yields the following form: Aliaksandr Lukašenka. The Romanization of the Russian version Александр Лукашенко results in quite a similar form, namely, Aleksandr Lukashenko. Because in most English-language sources his first name is anglicized to ‘Alexander,’ the sole difference perceptible to the Western ear is the surname’s ending, or [-a] in the Belarusian version and [-o] in the Russian one. The English-language version of the official website of the Office of the President of Belarus employs the Russian-based version of his name, that is, Lukashanko.[9] This Russifying preference is also visible in the article on the dictator in the English Wikipedia.[10] I suspect that his Presidential Office closely monitors and manages this article, given that it tends to be edited several times per day.[11] Not only is the Russian form of the dictator’s personal name preferred to the Belarusian one. What is acutely missing from any publications on the dictator and is meticulously expunged from Wikipedia,[12] is the Łacinka form of his name, or Aljaksandar Łukašenka, as derived from the Taraškieviča version of the dictator’s name, that is, Аляксандар Лукашэнка. The Taraškieviča form of his name is suffered in the Wikipedia composed in Classical Belarusian,[13] but displaying the dictator’s name in Belarusian’s second alphabet is a strictly forbidden area. The ‘Polish’ capital letter [Ł] at the beginning of the dictator’s own surname clashes with his anti-Polish rhetoric, and some may say that actually outs Łukašenka as a ‘Polish spy.’


The Belarusian Łacinka letter [Ł], vilified by Łukašenka as a ‘Polish letter’

How Łukašenka manages the linguistic forms and romanizations of his personal name closely reflects his policy of Russifying Belarus and moving it away from Europe and ever closer to Russia, at the expense of Belarusian language and culture. However, does the European Union or the West need to observe any red lines drawn by an illegitimate dictator, who usurped the country’s presidency in 2020? And for that matter, the dictator who chose to sideline and suppress his native Belarusian language and culture as long as they do not fit his personal and political needs, irrespective of the Belarusians’ wishes.

Belarusian President Elect Śviatłana Cichanoŭskaja (2020) – fot. Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps, the international community could protest peacefully and effectively against the dictator’s cruel and arbitrary rule by adopting the use of Łacinka for ‘romanizing’ his name and the names of other Belarusian personalities, localities and institutions. This costs little but is sure to anger (and even unhinge) this very personal regime of Łukašenka. So from now on, not Minsk but Miensk, not Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya but Śviatłana Cichanoŭskaja, not Svetlana Alexievich but Śviatłana Aljeksjevič, not Yulya Tsimafeyeva but Julia Cimafiejeva, not Stanislav Shushkevich but Stanisłaŭ Šuškievič, not Grodno but Horadnia… Not only does the letter [Ŭ] distinguish Belarusian as a language, but also the character [Ł], so much hated by the dictator that he decided to liquidate the Belarusian Latin alphabet. As such Ł is a becoming symbol for Belarusian democracy, alongside the red-white-red national tricolor now so obstinately targeted at the dictator’s behest by all his militia and security forces.[14]

March 2021

[1] Nemtsov. 2020

. Lukashenko — eto takoi slavianskii Kaddafi. On bespredel’shchik, ubiitsa i dictator. YouTube. 24 Aug.

[2] «Naša Niva» taksama vydalienaja z padpisnoha kataliohu. 2005. Radyjo Svaboda. 15 Nov.

[3] Ad Redakcyji. 2008. Naša Niva. 4 Dec.

[4] Pravily bielaruskaj artahrafii i punktuacyi (2008). 2021. Vikipedyja.Правілы_беларускай_артаграфіі_і_пунктуацыі_(2008)

[5] Belarusian Wikipedia. 2021. Wikipedia.

[6] Instrukcyja pa translitaracyi. 2021. Vikipedyja.Інструкцыя_па_транслітарацыі

[7] Cf Łukašenka: užo ŭ Hrodnie vyviešvajuć polskija sciahi. 2020. 19 Aug.

[8] Tomasz Kamusella. 2019. The New Polish Cyrillic in Independent Belarus. Colloquia Humanistica. Vol. 8.

[9] Biography of the President of the Republic of Belarus. 2021. President of the Republic of Belarus. 2021.

[10] Alexander Lukashenko. 2021. Wikipedia.

[11] Alexander Lukashenko: Revision History. 2021. Wikipedia. ; Alexander Lukashenko. 2021. XTools.

[12] Cf Alexander Lukashenko. 2018. Wikipedia. 21 Nov. ; Alexander Lukashenko. 2020. Wikipedia. 9 Feb.

[13] Aljaksandar Łukašenka. 2021. Vikipedyja.Аляксандар_Лукашэнка

[14] Andžej Pačobut: Lukašenka nie zmoža pieramahčy biel-čyrvona-biely sciah. 2021. Chartyja ‘97%. 30 Jan.

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Jedyn kōmyntŏrz ô „Tomasz Kamusella: Who Is Afraid of the Letter Ł?

  • 22 kwiytnia 2021 ô 14:33

    Unfortunately, the author has made a number of mistakes himself when transliterating names through lacinka. More to that, the names of the cities Minsk and Hrodna are the official names, while Harodnia and Miensk are the historical names and have little to do with lacinka.


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