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Andrzej Tichomirow, Belarusian Review, November 28, 2012 (Belarus)

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The Second International Congress of Belarusian Studies

The Second International Congress of Belarusian Studies was held in the Lithuanian city of Kaunas on 28-30 September 2012.  The primary organizers of this scholarly and civic event were the Institute of Political Studies ”Political Sphere” and the Vitaut the Great University in Kaunas, as well as a number of other scholarly and civic associations and informal scholarly communities.

The First Congress, held last year, was a very interesting place for exchanging ideas and experience among various researchers in the humanities engaged in Belarusian problems. This year the Vitaut the Great University published the first volume of short theses of lectures delivered at the First Congress. The Second Congress was a considerably larger enterprise, especially in the number of participants (about four hundred), as well as in the number and variety of sections - twenty, compared with eight in 2011. One should note the practically faultless work by the organizers, who managed to coordinate such a large number of participants and promote productive discussion on various issues in the humanities and social sciences.

It’s worthwhile to note the geographic range of participants who came from many European countries (Belarus, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Germany, the Czech Republic, Russia, Ukraine, Hungary, France, Finland, Belgium, Great Britain, Moldova, the Netherlands, Romania, Sweden), as well as from Japan, Canada,  and the USA. This indicates clearly the interest of foreign researchers  in Belarusian problems; it is understandable that, in many respects, the interest of Western European or North American scholarly communities in Belarus is weaker than their interest in Near East problems or other post-Soviet states (for instance, Ukraine). In some sections, the representatives of foreign countries (including emigres from Belarus) outnumbered those from Belarus itself, as was the case in the section on Belarusian literature.

It’s rather difficult to describe equally well the work of all sections of the Second Congress. In comparison with the First Congress, when discussions between politologues and researchers of social processes were most significant, the Second Congress was much wider in the range of topics. Four large sections were devoted to history (two to the history of the Grand Duchy of Litva and two to the history of the 19th and 20th centuries). Separate sections dealt with problems of contemporary Belarusian culture, Belarusian cinematography and literature; three other sections dealt with problems of religion: the Belarusian Bible and its translations, theological thoughts. Three special sections treated problems of political science: institutes of Belarusian politics (1990 - 2012), Belarus in the system of bilateral relations, and Belarus in the system of international relations.

Social problems were presented in sections dealing with civic society, transformation of Belarus’ economy, and the varied nature of (post-)communism in Central and Eastern Europe. 

Philosophical and methodological problems were analyzed very intensely in the section entitled ”Social and humanitarian scholarship: transformation of research paradigms”; the section on reformation of the  Belarusian education system  dealt with more practical aspects.

A separate section concerned historical town-planning, which dealt not only with past research of Belarusian towns and the current interpretation of preserving their historical legacy; there were also lectures stressing comparative aspects of ”urban history” in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

The section on gender practices and policies in Belarus was one of the largest in the number of participants. This testifies to the growing interest in these problems and the gradual formation of a Belarusian community of gender researchers.

The Congress began on September 28th with a large plenary session, which consisted of presentations by four foreign researchers. Unfortunately, the historian from Hrodna - Siarhiej Tok? - was not able to attend the congress; other researchers also had this problem due to various reasons.  This caused the ”elimination” of a Belarusian-language lecture, which was strongly criticized by a significant part of the auditorium.

First to present was the Lithuanian historian Zigmantas Kiaupa, who discussed the problems of describing the history of the ”short” 18th century.  He noted the commonality of Belarusian and Lithuanian history during that period and showed a panorama of primarily social history. The importance of the period of Enlightenment in our region for historians is becoming secondary.  It is becoming a ”forgotten century” in comparison with the extensive and varied research of the 19th-20th centuries.  In the opinion of the Lithuanian researcher, the Enlightenment was a distinctive period of conscious reevaluation and the reconstruction of society on new beginnings, in comparison to the baroque period.

Second to present was the Russian historian, Alexey Miller - a specialist on the 19th century, historical methodology and historical policies. The researcher noted that the last 12 years have  witnessed a distinct change of optics in the research of empires. A large number of publications have appeared on the topics of nation-building and comparison of various empires in Europe, as well as research dealing with the USA or Japan. The Russian researcher primarily concentrated on problems concerning the Russian empire; he also showed new methodological paradigms for studying the past. He separately underscored the role of historians’ international cooperation, of widening the range of studied problems, of the significance of the last twenty years for the ”historical imperiology.” Alexey Miller’s  appearance provoked many questions and echoes, including criticism of reviving the imperial ideology. The historian remarked that the Russian empire is part of the past. One shouldn’t build contemporary policies on its basis; good contemporary policies don’t need history’s assistance. He also appealed to Belarusian researchers to join in international cooperation in historical research, including that of problems of the 19th - 20th centuries.

Third to appear was the Polish historian Leszek Zasztowt - the director of the Institute of History of Science of the Polish Academy of Sciences. Professor Zasztowt is a well-known specialist in the field of  the 19th century’s education history in the Belarusian and Lithuanian lands. The main feature of the Polish historian’s appearance was the problem of historical mythologization during the 19th-20th centuries. As an example of such mythologization, he chose the reevaluation of the city of Vilnia in Polish civic and political thinking. In the first quarter of the 19th century, the concept of the Grand Duchy of Litva, and even of the Rzeczpospolita in the Polish narrative, gradually disappeared and was replaced by the concept of ”Poland,”  which also led to a distinct motive of periphery, sub-ordination and secondariness in comparison with the ”Crown.” The lecturer noted the appearance of the concept of  ”Kresy” and the evolution of this term and the degradation of the capital city function of Vilnia after the division of the Recpospolita. In the Polish (and also Russian) thinking of the 19th century, Vilnia simply became a provincial city with a rich history. The Polish historian remarked on contemporary views on the mythologization of history, and the need to fight such a phenomenon - or conversely, to accept the existence of such mythologization and treat it as a part of our past.

The fourth appearance - by the well-known Hungarian sociologist Pál Tamás - dealt with the social structure of an authoritarian regime (dictatorship). The researcher underscored the mutual relationship between the population and the person of the dictator (or, in a broader sense, of the oppressors).  As long as such a connection exists, a corresponding system of authority remains in the given country.  Also, he expressed very interesting reflections concerning the concept of ”civic society” and the Belarusian situation  in the context of other Central and Eastern European states.

The proceedings of individual sections were very diverse and productive. Many participants in discussions expressed themselves very emotionally and responsibly. This was one of the positive features of the Second Congress. The opportunity to  discuss  freely, to present results of one’s  work, to exchange ideas with other researchers, and prospectively create common projects is probably the main achievement of this scholarly event. Its venue - the city of Kaunas, is another useful  feature. The city  has a unique atmosphere, and is a very convenient logistical base. I hope that future congresses will continue to be held in Kaunas (though, ideally, they would be held in Belarus).

This article appeared in Belarusian Review, Vol. 24, No. 4.
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