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14 Jan

Marta Palombo, Belarus Project, December 4, 2011 (Italy)

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A (hi)story of Belarus

Did you say White Russian?

It is commonly believed that the term Belarus – also because of its former name, “Belorussia” – comes from “bielyi", meaning white, and  “Rus", meaning Russian. Well, if the intuition is correct for “white”, the issue with “Rus” is actually more complicated. Let’s see together why.

If we have a look at history, we can notice that today’s Belarus lies on a territory that during the Middle Ages belonged to the Ruthenian people. Originally, “Ruthenian” is the latinisation of “Rus” and reflects very well the lack of understanding the Occident has always had of Eastern Europe. Indeed, it vaguely refers to some Slavic Orthodox people who lived on a vast and ill-defined territory. However, the West was not the only one to try and identify this land, for White Rus (today’s north-eastern Belarus and Moscow’s region in Russia) is only a part of the larger Rus and shares its space with Black Rus (eastern strop of Poland and western Belarus) and Red Rus (north-western Ukraine and south-eastern Belarus).

How to explain this colours’ denomination? One possible understanding comes from the language of Turkic peoples, as they designated their cardinal directions by colours: white being north, black being west and red being south. Another possible explanation could be linked to Svetovid, a mysterious Slavic pagan god with four faces, whose the northern face was white. The white colour could also represent freedom, as the White Rus area was not occupied by Mongols and Tatars, or the fact that they were earlier Christianised. There are several hypotheses, but none of them has proved to be undoubtedly true; these unclear and mysterious origins show the specific identity of the Ruthenians.

If you have followed well, you have already figured out that “Belarus” actually means White Ruthenia, White Rus, and not White Russia. In fact, though initially tied to Russia through old Ruthenian, Belarus and Ukraine evolved into a separate linguistic and cultural group that transformed them into the modern Ruthenian states. Nevertheless, in the case of Belarus the point of national identity has never been completely resolved. Belarus’s history is a proof of a unique heritage through foreign hegemony. Even in the Middle Ages Belarus did not develop independently and homogenously; the state was made as a puzzle from White Rus, Black Rus and Red Rus, with the influence of the corresponding neighbouring states. This division made the formation of a clear national identity very hard.

Throughout its history, Belarus was almost always under the hegemony of its powerful neighbours. The only Belarusian age of glory was during the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (from the 12th-13th centuries to 1569). Belarus had an essential role in organising the political institutions by bringing its written language and the Cyrillic alphabet to the Lithuanians, who did not have an established written language yet. Its religion – Greek Catholic – through the diffusion of its alphabet, progressively gained more and more power, before becoming finally independent from Constantinople in 1531.

However, Belarusian influence ceased to exist, as it was progressively limited – first by Poland and later by Russian hegemony. The Union of Lublin of 1569 consecrated the largest multinational state of Europe of the time, but it also sealed Belarus’s future as a territory for hegemonic expression of intrusive neighbours. A series of wars let to the split of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth among aggressive and greedy neighbours, and at the beginning of the 19th century Belarus fell into the hands of the Russian Empire, where it stayed until very recent times.

The hegemony of Russia, both during the Russian empire and the Soviet Union, meant erasing the specificity Belarus had gained through its own separate history with its former cousins. Belarus consequently went through several periods of intense russification. A number of times Belarus attempted to declare its independence, without success. It was gradually turned into a safety belt for Russia against antagonist ideologies and military invasions from the West. On some aspects, this is still valid today.

Being a small buffer country among great powers and two centuries of Russian hegemony obviously did not support the development of a strong national identity. Although supposed to emphasise the independence from Russia, even the name “Belarus”, by referring to only White Rus, shows its  Moscow roots in it. Hence, erroneously dubbing Belarus as “White Russia” is not only the result of false translation, but might fairly reflect the long-standing Western perception of Belarus, and perhaps to some extent the deep confusion of the Belarusian people about their identity. In order not to be a buffer between conflicting ideologies of East and West, besides declarations, Belarus should consider itself and be considered through its own specificity: neither East nor West, just Belarus.

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