Few people in the world were aware of the existence of Belarus until the so-called `referendum' of November 1995 that completely destroyed the remnants of parliamentary democracy that had existed in the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Partial successes that Adradzennie (Revival), the movement for the restoration of a sense of identity, had achieved during the post independence `thaw' of 1991-94, have proved to be rather ephemeral. Belarus appears to be the first post-colonial state in modern history that is striving to re-unite with its former imperial overseer. Re-Sovietisation gathers momentum. There is no shortage of those, both in the West and in Russia, who claim that the very existence of a separate Belarusian nation has always been a fiction. But this is not entirely true.
Indeed, the area now known as Belarus (Russian Byelorussia; in literal translation, `White Russia') has always been a buffer zone between Europe and Muscovy, neither Polish nor Russian, never strong enough to determine its own destiny. Yet attempts to consolidate this area into a sort of a nation are more than a thousand years old. A historiographical tradition traces the country's statehood back to the early medieval principality of Polack, the area's oldest town, whose mention in East Slavonic chronicles and Icelandic sagas dates from 862. It is believed to have been founded by Norwegian Vikings in order to control the route to Byzantium via Western Dvina and Dnieper rivers.
The first known Prince of Polack, Rohvalad (Rogavald), presumably a Norwegian, established a local dynasty at the end of the tenth century. Shortly after that, Polack was conquered by the Kievan prince Vladimir, famous for converting pagan Slavonic tribes of Kiev, Polack and Novgorod into Orthodox Christians. Nevertheless, the Rohvalad dynasty most of the time ruled independently of Kiev.
From the 1230s to the early fifteenth century Lithuanian dukes gradually took over, as apanage, the principalities of today's Belarus. Contemporary Belarusian historians assert that they were not conquered by the Lithuanians, but that the latter were initially mercenaries at the service of Slavonic princes. Whichever is true, the entry of the Slavs in the new state -- the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL) -- was of primary importance for the cultural development of Lithuanians. Monetary systems and common law, official language and diplomatic rites were borrowed by them from their new compatriots. Almost all Lithuanian Grand Dukes from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries were brought up in the spirit of Slavonic culture, married Slavonic princesses and were for at least part of their lives, Orthodox. For centuries, the main centre of Belarusian, as well as Lithuanian, culture was Vilnius (Vilnia) until it was handed over by Stalin to the Lithuanian Republic in 1939.
The Grand Duchy (Chaucer's Lettow and Ruce) is, therefore, regarded as a dual state, like Belgium or Canada and is called, ex post facto, Lithuania-Belarus. Radical nationalists, meanwhile, deny any right of Lithuanians to the historical heritage of the GDL and contend that, if not Belarusian by name, this state was essentially Belarusian. Oddly enough, both constituent peoples, known now as Lithuanians and Belarusians, called themselves `Lithuanians' in their native tongues --lietuviai and litviny, respectively; the native language of the latter, however, was called Russian and the feeling of Russian identity remained quite strong, especially among the lower classes. (Medieval and Early Modern Russia proper was generally known abroad under the name of `Muscovy'). But even in the early twentieth century, the rural population had little sense of belonging except to tutejsyja (`local people').
For most of their history, the Belarusian lands had no other collective name than Litva (Lithuania). The itinerant name White Russia was coined in medieval literature in German (Weissrussland) and Latin (Russia alba) and was applied by Western scholars to include north-west Russia adjacent to Finland and Karelia, to the Black Sea northern littoral. Only in the late sixteenth century did it become associated with the north-east of today's Belarus and its Slavonic population -- the would-be Belarusians. In the seventeenth century, Tsarist propaganda actively promoted the use of this name to substantiate claims on `old Russian heritage'. When, after the three partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Tsars consolidated their position in Belarus, they tried to erase any token of distinction from people's consciousness, officially renaming the area `north-west province'.
However, by the end of the nineteenth century the name Belarus had become quite well-known, though many prominent figures of the national revival movement accepted it only reluctantly--anticipating its use would encourage Russian claims. (Similarly, Ukrainians are insulted when Ukraine is referred to by its official imperial name, as Little Russia). Other names like Vialikalitva (Great Lithuania) or Kryvija, after the most powerful tribal union of the past, were suggested but failed to win enough support.
The name, the language, the capital -- all matters of crucial significance for any sense of national identity experienced repeated disruption in continuity in Belarus. Even for the professional historian it is not easy to navigate the complex and many changes. But the unwillingness of the average Belarusian of the 1990s, who has never been taught the country's tortuous history at school, even to attempt to grasp what has happened is a real shock for the conscious ones. Even moderate interest in history and heritage is perceived as `nationalism' which is meant to be a swear-word and is used in a context more appropriate for `chauvinism'.
But this indifference, to say the least, to the concept of national identity and values referred to as national nihilism can hardly be considered unexpected. In the late 1980s Belarusian intellectuals bitterly called their country `Vendee of perestroika'. Like Breton peasants of the late eighteenth century, the rustic Belarusian clutches at a primordial existence so tenaciously that all efforts to preach to him such intangible things as democracy or market economy have so far. been doomed to failure. It has proved much easier to build a political career on striving to get back -- not so much to the new Russia, but rather to the Soviet Union, with its cheap sausage and vodka, guaranteed wages and absence of anything that would demand mental effort. initiative or any kind of responsibility.
Is it only the habits acquired during the Soviet era that are to blame for this apathy? Speaking of the Lithuanian period as the Golden Age of Belarusian history, nationalists tend to hush up the fact that even in its heyday, Litva (or Lithuania-Belarus) remained a rural backwater of Europe: a country of serfdom, with peasants who knew no state institutions but their landlords, and who were considered too primitive to take responsibility for themselves. For their part the landlords were trying, not unlike aristocrats in I colonial Virginia, to lead lives reminiscent of an ancient l Greek idyll. Symbolically, the first national opera staged in I the mid-nineteenth century was called The Idyll which advocated harmonious relations between the peasants and the nobles and reinforced the status quo.
Perhaps, after all, there is something in common between the recklessness with which economic and political problems were dealt with in the Polish-Lithuanian Diet and how they are treated by the collective farm directors who form the majority in Belarus' quasi-parliament today. The latter are unlikely to have heard of the resolution of the Slonim county Dietine in 1666: `since I innovations, more than anything, harm the fatherland and undermine old rights, they should never be permitted'. But their angst at the unexpectedly complicated world that suddenly emerged from behind the Iron Curtain, together with envy at their more entrepreneurial and therefore more prosperous neighbours, is very reminiscent of it. Again, ostrich tactics are chosen to escape frustration. Economic interests that do not coincide with Russian ones, are sacrificed to `Slavonic unity' in the naive hope that this will be appreciated by Moscow.
A romantic wing of the nationalists sees salvation in preserving the language. By the early sixteenth century the official language of the Grand Duchy (called Old Belarusian in retrospect) diverged well enough from the other East Slavonic languages to be considered a separate language, Russian and Ukrainian. Though it survived the ban on its official use in 1699 by the Polish Crown, decades of Soviet oblivion brought the percentage of people who speak standard literary Belarusian fluently to a number by no means greater than that of the Gaelic-speaking community in Scotland. Both Poles and Russians consider Belarusian a dialect of their tongues and a substantial part of population speaks a sort of pidgin Russian.
Only some forty years ago Belarusian was spoken by the majority. But its usage even then was reduced to a few hundred words relating to everyday life and primitive agriculture. Its literary version, in addition, included all necessary Communist phraseology. It was comparatively easy for Belarusian literature that had re-emerged in the mid-nineteenth century, after almost two centuries of interruption, to switch from mourning the miserable lot of the pre-revolution peasant, to the praising of oh-so-happy life on the collective farms.
Adherents of the national revival point out that Belarusian literature has seen better times. In the sixteenth century, even the Tartars living in the Grand Duchy translated the Koran into Old Belarusian. Official status of that language was confirmed by the Lithuanian Statute of 1588, sometimes referred to as `the first written constitution in Europe', for its respect for the political liberties of nobles at that time could hardly be found anywhere beyond Poland-Lithuania. In the seventeenth century, the country was flooded with political and religious pamphlets -- many of them anonymous. Anonymity has become a sad Belarusian tradition; authors even in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries remain unidentified.
It is surprising how much of what stirred people's minds some 350 years ago has in common with the current problems. The classic example of one such anonymous pamphlet is Letter to Abubovic which accuses the addressee of high treason for the surrender of the strategic fortress of Smolensk to the Muscovian army in 1654. Another, Mialeska's Oration, sees the source of all misfortunes in the spread of foreign customs, showing that Belarusian xenophobia is not just a recent phenomenon.
It is not only the language, but the whole of the native folklore that fed the national revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that has ceased to exist in its entirety, though it was ousted by Soviet ersatz rather than by Russian culture, making seamless integration into Russia no less problematic than reconstructing national identity.
The younger generation, much more than by folklore, is attracted by the emotive story of the age-old Russian-Lithuanian struggle. Since its beginning, the Grand Duchy had to defend itself against strong enemies. From the West, it warded off Teutonic Knights supported by all European nations and won the right to become a part of Europe. From the East, Tartars who totally devastated Russia proper, were repelled. But the pressure from the East did not disappear. Until the end of the eighteenth century two relative Slavonic states, Muscovy and the GDL, waged incessant wars with each other. These were not so much provoked by ethnic or religious strife. The border divided two cultures, two modes of living above all. To the west of it, there were students, Jews, elections, litigation, reformation, religious tolerance, lay books, European fashions -- all kinds of things that people to the east were carefully protected from by the Tsars. No wonder that captives from the GDL, even Orthodox Christians, were forcibly re-baptised in Muscovy because they were considered infected with `Western disease'. Some Russian historians in the early twentieth century took an interest in the history of the GDL seen by them as `another Russia', a prototype of any would-be Europeanised East Slavonic state and an indication that Russia itself might well develop according to a Western scenario. Today, ironically, an ideology based on the mystical `Unity of all Slavs' against the world and denying individual freedom as `alien to Orthodox Slavs' is instead being imported from Belarus to Russia.
But from year to year, more and more young Belarusians celebrate as an unofficial national holiday September 8th, the anniversary of the battles of Orsa (1514), where a Russian offensive suffered a humiliating setback, as the `Belarusian military glory day'. These actions are met with undisguised annoyance by simple people, especially of the older generation. To them, commemoration of a victory over Russia, even one of the sixteenth century, is seen as `fascism' -- though they were not offended when Lukasenka (president since 1994) publicly admired Hitler's methods of ruling.
So, does Belarusian national identity have any chance of survival? It depends, apparently, on the strength of the pro-Western stance of the younger generation, and how ready they are to forget being beaten up for their attempts to speak Belarusian or bearing forbidden white-red-white national flags. Traditional cuisine (based on grated potatoes), fabulous Belarusian unpretentiousness, folk songs and theme parks have little to do with this.