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14 Jan

Artyom Pugachev, Belarus Project, October 27, 2012 (Belarus)

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Belarus, who? – a quest for Belarusian national identity

National identity and independence are very popular topics in Europe. The 19th century ideas of nationhood gave space to the vocal calls for independence coming from strong national regions such as Catalonia, Scotland and others. Today, as in the past it is for the strong nation to “demand” independence, though not in case of Belarus. The state, often incorrectly dubbed as nationless in the media, seems to be lacking a unity of identities. The heritage of Great Duchy of Lithuania (GDL) competes with the Russian / Soviet modern history causing confusion not only in Belarusians’ heads but also all over Europe.

Golden times vs. new history

Due to historical factors, the formation of Belarusian national identity was not at all straightforward: being on the crossroads of Europe the Belarusian territory was often re-divided and annexed to more powerful neighbours [To know more, click here (a (hi) story of Belarus) and here (Europe’s (Far) East)] After gaining independence, two different historical narratives have been present in the Belarusian society[1].

The first one – supported by the official state ideology – emphasises the historical role of the Russian empire and of Soviet rule in the formation of the Belarusian state. The name “Belorussia” was used in the Russian empire to call some provinces that belonged to former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 18th and 19th centuries. The current territory of Belarus was formed in 1939, during the Soviet period. The official school of history underlines the negative impact of Western presence in Belarus, highlighting the suppressions during German and Polish occupations and the peasant role of Belarusians during these times. In line with the Russian Orthodox Church, official rhetoric promotes the idea of pan-Slavism, linking it to the Russian rule and the diffusion of religion in Belarus. Yet, the official approach clearly lacks historical national heroes.

On the contrary, the alternative history of Belarusian national origins, pursued by the oppositional circles in Belarus, underlines the importance of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL) – the largest state in Europe in the 15th century. The Duchy was formed by Mindowg and later ruled by Vitout, both considered to be Belarusian national heroes. The official language of the GDL was Ruthenian, which is often also referred to as old-Belarusian. Even official history books acknowledge the crucial role the period played in their history, as it is identified with “the golden age of Belarusian history”. Hence, from this alternative historical point of view, the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union periods are portrayed as an occupation of Belarus.

Is Belarusian culture a tree without roots?

 „A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.“

Marcus Garvey

Symbols are visible attributes of culture – the triggers that remind people about their heritage.  Unsurprisingly, Belarusian symbolism demonstrates the confrontation visible in historical narratives.

The official national flag and the coat of arms of Belarus are very similar to that of the Soviets, thus emphasizing the official historical narrative.

However, the opposition claims that the white-red-white flag and Pahonian Coat of Arms Chase are the only  true symbols of Belarus.

The Pahonian coat of arms, which can be traced back to the GDL times, has been used since 1917 as a symbol of the political opposition, and it has remained as such until today. It was also the official flag of the unrecognized Belarus National Republic (BNR) in 1918, but was branded as “fascist” as the republic was established under German occupation. In 1991 it shortly became again the official flag, only to be substituted by the new official symbolism in a referendum in 1995.

The confrontational duality is also noticeable in the use of languages and traditions in Belarus. Although there are two official languages, Belarusian and Russian, the majority of population speaks only Russian, placing Belarusian in the role of the oppositional language.

Nothing else, but Belarusians

In spite of the ambiguity in their historical origins and ill-defined cultural values, the people of the republic will strongly object to being called anything other than Belarusians.

A seeming contradiction can possibly be explained through the attitude to independence, which Belarus obtained in 1991. Even though it came without any major struggle from Belarusians, who had already largely assimilated Soviet ideas, it was just a matter of time before they became accustomed to being independent. Ever since IISEPS[2] public opinion surveys have been conducted, they have shown that the percentage of supporters of reunification with Russia has been constantly falling, until it stabilised to around 30% of respondents in 2004[3].

This tendency is not a coincidence. Firstly, sovereignty and independence are key topics in the state propaganda machine, as the current regime positions itself as the guardian of the Belarusian statehood. Secondly, it seems that in absence of any other major differentiating criteria, Belarusians clutch onto a straw of sovereignty in order not to be drawn into the ocean of Russian influence.

New nation is being created

“He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.”

George Orwell

 With a lack of a united national identity, it is clear that the current regime is working intensively on creating one. Starting from the introduction of national ideology in all educational establishments, to the promotion of new national heroes, most of whom come from sport. Victoria Azarenka, a young and successful tennis player, is one of such national heroes promoted by the government, ranked first in the Women’s Tennis Association and known globally as Lukashenko’s favourite.

The new identity is an amalgam of the Russian culture. One of the strongest signs thereof is the continued russification of the population. The figures are staggering: the number of Minsk first-graders taught in Belarusian declined from 58.6% in 1994 to 2.2% in 2010.  There is no higher education institution in Belarus teaching in the native language. Only 10.5% of daily newspapers are written in Belarusian.

New identity is easier to build on clean fundament. For this reason the use of pre-communist symbolism is strictly banned in Belarus, and it is also punishable: the story of Sergey Kovalenko is known in the whole world. A member of the Christian Conservative party, he was sentenced to two years in prison after placing the historical white-red-white flag of Belarus on a Christmas tree. And his case is not unique.


Even though Belarusians cherish their independence, a power struggle creates contradicting historical narratives destabilising the perception of national culture in Belarus. What is more significant yet, is that the present government purposely drives out the most important national distinction factors, such as language, from everyday life.

The lack of a clear national identity also deprives Belarusians from a feeling of common ground that could unite them. Consequently, they find themselves with a weak hand in the fight against the authoritarian regime. For this reason, the struggle for the national identity in Belarus could be a struggle for democracy. 

[1] Bekus N., Struggle over Identity: The Official and the Alternative “Belarusianness”, 2010

[2] IISEPS – independent institute for socio-economic and political studies

[3] Manaev O. et al, “More state than nation: Lukashenko’s Belarus”, 2011

Article originally published:

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