Fragility of Belarussian National Identity (I)

Belarus is a land known also as Belorussia (White Russia, Weißrussland) in East Europe which was for centuries occupied by a Polish-Lithuanian common state until it became included into Tsarist Russia in the late 18th century.[1] Belarus is facing many identity problems but the most important is the ethnolinguistic challenge to a separate Belarussian[2] national feature.

National identity

A common national identity is a focal element for the creation of a national state as without a common identity that is based on a fundamental element of group’s identity a psychological sense of common solidarity cannot be developed. However, such solidarity is a sine qua non of a voluntary decision to live with the others in the same house (i.e., a national state). In other words, the inner stability of any state primarily depends on the level of developed solidarity among the citizens. If the level of solidarity is not properly developed than the possibility for the self-destruction of the state is an open option. The recent case of ex-Yugoslavia is probably the best example of the case of self-destruction based on the lack of a common national solidarity as a common national identity of the Yugoslavs was never properly developed by state authorities. However, an example of ex-Yugoslavia’s fragile national identity is not the only in contemporary history and the present day’s politics. For instance, Europe is currently facing the same „Yugoslav syndrome“ in Spain concerning the „Catalan Question“. In East Europe, the same problems of national identity is facing Ukraine but other countries too, like Belarus.

It is commonly understood that for the creation and stable existence of an ethnic state (i.e., based on the common ethnic group identity) a native language is the most important factor as it is among all other factors of common ethnic identity, the most natural one. It is given by birth and it can not disappear or be replaced. It can be suppressed (for instance, by the state authorities) but, nevertheless, it will exist in some form. The language assimilation is the most difficult and the longest process in ethnonational assimilation and it can go for several centuries and generations as, for instance, the story of old Prussian language is telling us. As the language is a focal factor of ethnonational identity, every nation pretending to exist on ethnic (not political) basis is trying to prove to possess its own separate language which has to be internationally recognized as such. If it is done, the nation, at least according to the political philosophy of German romanticists, has natural-democratic rights to establish its own ethnonational independent state. Furthermore, the „value“ of a nation is measured according to its historically long existence of a national statehood as the „historical“ nations are more valuable in comparison to „non-historical“ nations. Those are the reasons why many national historiographies and philologies are trying to prove that their ethnic groups are historically statehood nations with a possession of a separate ethnonational language. However, in many cases it is not possible due to the lack of historical evidence in the sources and, therefore, the „academicians“ have to activate the instruments of politicized historical interpretations usually followed by the creation of the fake national historiographies. The case of Belarus is in this matter only one example among many.

According to some social investigations and research surveys in Belarus, only about 20% of the citizens are having a strong belief in the survival of Belarus identity. However, probably the most important fact is that it is possible in practice to keep Belarussian identity while speaking the Russian language as the so-called Belarussian language is more and more not a living language in the full sense of the meaning.[3] Therefore, the crux of the matter is what at all the Belarussian language is. Is it a separate language, a dialect of Russian, an artificial political construction or a natural native language of Belarussian people? Getting answers to those questions are automatically solving the more important problem: do Belarussian people exist as a separate ethnic nation if they speak Russian?

Religion is in many cases one of the most important factors of national identity even in some cases (like in the case of Bosnian-Herzegovinian Muslims) the fundamental one. Belarus as a country, like Ukraine, historically was situated between Russia and Poland-Lithuania and, therefore, is viewed as a borderland territory in which the Christian Orthodox believers are mainly associated with the Russians while the Roman Catholic Christians with the Poles. A fragile Belarus identity is, in essence, originally, framed within the framework of the Uniates – Greek Catholic believers who use Orthodox rites but recognize the dogmatic filioque and the supremacy of the Pope in the Vatican. Henceforth, Belarussian national identity is historically created as a transitional half-way between Russian Orthodoxy and Polish/Lithuanian Roman Catholicism as Belarus is a transitional land on a half-way between Orthodox Russia and Roman Catholic Poland-Lithuania, changing sides according to the historical accidents as the results of the relations between Moscow/Sankt Petersburg and Cracow/Vilnius. Nevertheless, most of those who declared themselves as Belarussian today are, in fact, the atheists or not strong believers who do not care much about organized and institutionalized religion.[4]

Belarus political map

The geographic-political-historical location of a land in many cases determines the identity of its people that is exactly the case of Belarus. Even the ethnonym of the country is a reflection of its historical development and, therefore, for the majority of Belarus’ citizens to squeeze their national identity between Russians and Poles continues to be a historical realm of reality. However, Belarussian nationalism during the last century succeeded to rally people around several constructed markers of Belarussian identity: language, history, and ethnicity. The case of Belarussian identity is today probably the best example in East Europe of an effective policy of the creation of the national identity founded, according to Benedict Anderson, on the „imagined community“ feelings.[5] Nevertheless, the belief in a common identity of a certain group, no matter of whether such belief has any foundation in the reality, has in many cases very important consequences for the creation of a national state or a political association of such imagined ethnonational community.[6]


The ethnonym Belarus/Belarussia (White Russia/White Rus’) is dating back to historical sources (chronicles) by the end of the 14th century.[7] As the origin of the term is not clarified by the experts its interpretations are (mis)used by many, including and Belarussian nationalists, for political-national purposes. However, the most realistic interpretations of the origins of the ethnonym Belarus/Belorussia are:

  • Belarus (White Rus’) originally meant those people of historical Kievan Rus’ who did not have obligations to pay tributes to the Tatars of Golden Orde in the 12th century as opposed to Black Rus’ who had such obligations. According to this interpretation, White Rus’ were, in essence, free Rus’ out of Tatar hegemony.
  • However, Russian linguist Oleg Trubachev offered a different interpretation. According to his research results, there were three groups of the people of Rus’: a) Malaya Rus’ (Russia Minor) – the original homeland of ethnic Russians from which the expansion started; b) Velikaya Rus’ (Russia Major) – the territory of colonization from Russia Minor; and c) White Rus’ (Alba Russia) – according to the ancient color-tradition of orientation, West Russia.

There is an unprovable opinion (by Mikolo Ermalovich) that the original term for the present day Belarus was, in fact, Litva but in the course of time the term was usurped by neighboring Slavs and transformed into White Russia. Nevertheless, all of such hypotheses are not officially proven to become formal academic theories but they are serving well to the certain national-political propaganda orientations. In other words, for the contemporary Belarussian nationalists, the ethymology of the term Belarus is not connected with Russia but rather with the West and, therefore, a natural destiny of Belarus is not to be in closer political-economic relations with Russia but with Europe (NATO and European Union). Nonetheless, as a matter of historical fact, it was a clear absence of a single ethnonym for today’s territory of Belarus (and of Ukraine) before the Soviet time as, de facto, the Soviet authorities established the modern national identities of both Belarus and Ukraine.[8]


An idea of Belarussian ethnonational identity, as autonomous from both Russian and Polish, was born in the mid-19th century at Vilnius University in Roman Catholic Lithuania by several professors who claimed that a Belarussian self-awareness can be advocated taking into consideration literary and official state documents of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL) before the Lublin Union (signed between Poland and Lithuania in 1569). The essence of their claims was that Slavic inhabitants of GDL inherited a cultural-historical legacy and tradition to be enough different from those of neighboring Western Slavic Poles and Eastern Slavic Russians. However, as at that time the present-day territory of Belarus was part of Tsarist Russia but not of Poland (which itself at that time did not exist as an independent state) it is not so difficult to conclude that Vilnius-based idea of a separate Belarussian identity, culture, nation, and history was primarily designed as an anti-Russian political project. The idea of Belarussian ethnic distinction from Russian national identity was further developed by Vilnius-based literary cycle around the journal Nasha Niva (1909−1915).

It can be said that Belarusian nation as „imagined community“ was ideologically created and politically framed in Vilnius – a capital of GDL, and subsequently, it is not of any surprise that after the dissolution of the USSR all active leaders of Belarussian (Russophobic) nationalism (like Ukrainian one) have great sympathies and open financial and political support by Lithuanian authorities. Vilnius is today transformed into both the main refugee campus for Russophobic dissidents from Belarus and propaganda center against the legitimate President of Belarus – A. Lukashenko who is demonized in Lithuania as „the last European dictator“[9] or „tyrannical President Aleksandr Lukashenko“.[10] As a matter of fact, due to the historical relations between Lithuania and Belarus, Belarussian opposition leaders consider themselves to be heirs of GDL and, therefore, using the coat of arms of it (in Lithuanian called as Vytis) as a national-historical insignia of Belarussian nation that is also telling very much about their pro-EU/NATO’s political aspirations.[11] However, on the other hand, the majority of Belarus’ citizens consider themselves as Belarussians in geographic-political terms and/or as ethnolinguistic Russians – the fact which basically confirms their pro-Russia’s political and economic orientation.


Historically, as situated between Poland-Lithuania and Russia, Belarus’ Roman Catholics have been identifying themselves from ethnonational point of view as the Poles while Belarus’ Christian Orthodox believers were self-denominated as the Russians and, therefore, there was no room for Belarussian identity except for those who did not belong to one of two groups. The advocates of a separate Belorussian ethnonational identity have been promoting their nationalism essentially in opposition to both strong neighbors of Belarus but today Belarussian nationalism, as well as Ukrainian, is a part of well-orchestrated and sponsored Western policy of „Russophobia Vulgaris“.

In the interwar period (1919−1939) the contemporary territory of Belarus belonged to Poland and the Soviet Union. Polish authorities at that time were recording only the Christian Orthodox believers as of Belarussian ethnonational identity and those of Roman Catholic denomination who were considered as Poles. Such asymmetry in Polish policy of ethnonational identity was obviously going to the favor of Polonization and de-Russification of North-East Poland. At the same time, Soviet authorities were implementing a policy of Belarussification of Russian Orthodox speakers in East Belarus at that time part of the USSR in the form of the autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic of Belarus.


All spoken Slavic languages in East Europe belong to East Slavonic group of languages with sharing many similarities.[12] Regardless to the fact that Russian, Belorussian and Ukrainian languages are traditionally written by the Cyrillic alphabet, there are voices by Belarussian and Ukrainian nationalists to switch to Western Latin graphemes in order to be allegedly more European and lesser Russian.[13] The same voices are also trying to negate a philological fact that both the Belorussian and Ukrainian languages are originating from the Old Russian language like Russian itself.[14] A proto-Russian language existed from the 8th century onwards and became fragmented on the regional basis by the 13th century. A political division of Belarus and Ukraine between Poland-Lithuania and Muscovy-Russia finally broke up a linguistic unity of all East Slavs, and, therefore, the Ukrainian and Belarussian languages became separately standardized in the 19th century more on political than on philological foundations. In Belarussian case, the poetry of Yanka Kupala (1882−1942) and Yakub Kolas (1882−1956) gave a basis for standardized deviation of Belorussian language from Russian, and Vilnius-based journal Nasha niva created before the WWI necessary alphabetical, orthographical and grammatical norms for the Belarussian language. This deviation was soon recognized in the Soviet Union as a separate Belorussian language, formally enough different from Russian, was further standardized and promulgated. As a consequence of such de-Russification, according to the 1989 Soviet census, there were 77,9% of Belarus’ population who officially spoke Belarussian as their first language and only 13,2% of the local population speaking Russian as the first language. However, these official figures might be misleading in practice as, for instance, according to one survey in 1992, 60% of Belarus’ inhabitants preferred to use Russian in everyday life and 75% favored Belarussian-Russian bilingualism in public life and state institutions.[15]


[1] Jan Palmowski, A Dictionary of Contemporary World History from 1900 to the Present Day, Oxford−New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 56.

[2] In this article, I use an adjective Belarussian but not Belarusian as the second option is, in fact, an artificial politicized Russophobic construction. In German historiography, for instance, is used only the first option (Weißrussische) [Prof. Dr. Hans-Erich Stier at al. (eds.), Westermann Großer zur Weltgeschichte, Braunschweig: Westermann Schulbuchverlag GmbH, 1985, 160].

[3] Grigory Ioffe, “Understading Belarus: Belarusian Identity”, Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 55, No. 8, 2003, 1241.

[4] A President of Belarus, Alyaksandr Lukashenka is calling himself as an “Orthodox atheist”, i.e., the atheist with a Christian Orthodox background.

[5] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Revised edition, London: Verso, 2016.

[6] Max Weber, “What is an Ethnic Group”, Montserrat Guibernau, John Rex (eds.), The Ethnicity. Reader. Nationalism, Multiculturalism and Migration, Maiden, MA: Polity Press, 1999, 18.

[7] At the time of Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine were called Gudija, populated by Eastern Slavs separated from Russians (i.e., by today’s Belarussians and Ukrainians) [Arūnas Latišenka et al., Didysis istorijos atlasas mokyklai nuo pasaulio ir Lietuvos priešistorės iki naujausiųjų laikų, Vilnius: Briedis, without a year of publishing, 84]. However, the ethnonym Ruthenians “is the name given to those Orthodox East Slavs who were ruled by non-Orthodox sovereigns. Since its speakers were Orthodox Christians, the Ruthenian language was influenced by Church Slavonic. It was spoken in the territory of contemporary Belarus and Ukraine, and is the precursor of the modern Belorussian and Ukrainian languages, as well as modern Rusyn” [Barbara Törnquist-Plewa, „Contrasting Ethnic Nationalisms: Eastern Central Europe“, Stephen Barbour, Cathie Carmichael (eds.), Language and Nationalism in Europe,  New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, 193]. The ethnonym Ruthenians is derived from the Latin term Rutheni and it is historically and today very politically applied in order to separate them from the same ethnolinguistic group of East Slavs within Russia called Moscovitae (i.e., those under the administration of Moscow). Ruthenians are, for example, called in Lithuanian historiography as Rusėnai – East Slavs living in Lithuania, Poland and Hungary [Alfredas Bumblauskas, Senosios Lietuvos istorija 1009−1795, Vilnius: R. Paknio leidykla, 2007, 218]. Hereby Western historiography is not living space for the Russians as an ethnolinguistic group in Middle Ages as East Slavs were composed only by Ruthenians or Moscovitae. “However, the Ruthenians called themselves ruskije in their own language, the same name as the Moscovitae also gave to themselves. Both groups inherited this name from the period when they were united within Kievan Rus between 800−1240” [Barbara Törnquist-Plewa, „Contrasting Ethnic Nationalisms: Eastern Central Europe“, Stephen Barbour, Cathie Carmichael (eds.), Language and Nationalism in Europe,  New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, 193]. As a matter of fact, Kievan Rus’ was the first ever established state to politically organize East Slavs, with Kiev as its capital. Today there are three modern nations who trace or pretend to trace, their ethnolinguistic origins back to Kievan Rus’: Russians, Belarussians, and Ukrainians. Nevertheless, the original name of the state is in the modern history best preserved in the form of Russian ethnonym that is telling a lot about which contemporary nation has the most historical, ethnic, linguistic, cultural and moral rights to Kievan Rus’ heritage. For instance, the most important law code (codex) of Kievan Rus’ is named Russkaya Pravda (1016) but not Ukrainian or Belarus pravda. This codex later became the foundation of the law system in Russia [Jevgenij Anisimov, Rusijos istorija nuo Riuriko iki Putino: Žmonės. Įvykiai. Datos, Vilnius: Mokslo ir enciklopedijų leidybos centras, 2014, 40]. The ethnonym Ruthenia survived in contemporary history only for the tiny territory in post-WWI Czechoslovakia (in fact in Slovakia) but in 1945 Subcarpathian Ruthenia was separated from Czechoslovakia and annexed by Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine, where it became renamed into Transcarpathian Oblast [Chris Hann, „Nation and Nationalism in Central and Eastern Europe“, Gerard Delanty, Krishan Kumar (eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Nations and Nationalism, London−Thousand Oaks−New Delhi: SAGE Publications, 2006, 401] with a full degree of Ukrainization of the ethnic Ruthenians (i.e., the Russians).

[8] On the creation of a Belarussian nation, see [Nickolas Vakar, Belorussia: The Making of a Nation, Cambridge, USA: Harvard University Press, 1956.]. Similarly to the Soviet case, Yugoslav communist authorities created after 1945 three new nations: Montenegrins, Macedonians, and Muslims (today Bosniaks).

[9] It is a common Western propaganda pattern that “it is really only the former Soviet republic of Belarus that remains outside the democratic family” [David Gowland et al, The European Mosaic: Contemporary Politics, Economics and Culture, Third Edition, Harlow, England: Prentice Hall, 2006, 421].

[10] M. Donald Hancock et al., Politics in Europe: An Introduction to the Politics of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Russia, and the European Union, Third Edition, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002, 462.

[11] Belarussian pro-Western political opposition welcomed Minsk-Brussels signature on the EU’s Partnership and Cooperation Agreements in 1995. However, this agreement “did not come into force because of the deteriorating situation” [David Gowland et al., The European Mosaic: Contemporary Politics, Economics and Culture, Third Edition, Harlow, England: Prentice Hall, 2006, 514]. After the dissolution of the USSR, however, Belarus became “Russia’s closest partner” and, therefore, these two countries signed in 1995 a treaty of friendship and cooperation, in 1996 established a “deeply integrated Community” and in 1997 Community was converted into a Union which would, according to the project, involve a common legislative space and a single citizenship [M. Donald Hancock et al., Politics in Europe: An Introduction to the Politics of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Russia, and the European Union, Third Edition, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002, 452−453].

[12] According to Belgrade University-based Professor Predrag Piper, Russian language is today spoken by 159 million, Ukrainian by 42,5 million and Belorussian by 9,3 million speakers [Предраг Пипер, Увод у славистику, Књига 1, Београд: Завод за уџбенике и наставна средства, 1998, 25].

[13] The same “alphabetic schizophrenia” is already applied in the practice in Montenegro after its proclamation of independence in 2006. Hereby the Latin alphabet is, in fact, in use by all state’s authorities rather than traditional and national Cyrillic which is the same as Serbian Cyrillic. About the language as a principal national flag in ex-Yugoslavia, see [Victor A. Friedman, Linguistic Emblems and Emblematic Languages: On Language as Flag in the Balkans, Columbus, USA: The Ohio State University, 1999].

[14] Предраг Пипер, Увод у славистику, Књига 1, Београд: Завод за уџбенике и наставна средства, 1998, 144.

[15] Burant S. R., “Foreign Policy and National Identity: A Comparison of Ukraine and Belarus”, Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 47, No. 7, 1995, 1125−1144.

To be continued

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