July 9, 2016 –
By Alexander Gronsky for Fort Russ
Translated by J. Arnoldski
Note from Eduard Popov (guest writer and analyst for Fort Russ): After the publication of my article devoted to the celebration of Independence Day in Belarus, I obtained detailed commentary from the famous historian from Belarus, Alexander Gronsky, a specialist in studying the Belarusian national myth. Gronsky is the author of numerous scholarly and independent articles on Belarusian historical issues and speculations on the joint history of Russia and Belarus. Alexander Gronsky is an active member of a social movement for the unity of the Russian World organizationally structured around the editorship of the website “Western Rus.” Despite the modest resources and opportunities of this group of enthusiastic likeminded thinkers, the worldview of this movement resonates with the overwhelming majority of Belarusian society.
The Belarusian National Myth
Belorussia, like any other country, has its own historical myth. In Belarus, however, this myth is not fully formed and is therefore very vulnerable to criticism. In addition, the Belarusian historical myth is partially based on a set of myths that are either very controversial or nothing but false allegations. Perceptions of the Medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania as a Belarusian state is a particularly controversial example. Attempts to call the border wars for territory between the Muscovite and Lithuanian principalities “Russo-Belarusian ethnic conflicts” does not stand up to criticism. Also massively widespread are myths in which the deeds of historical personages for the sake of Poland are explained as deeds in the name of Belarus. Conscious Poles are written down as Belarusian activists and Polish uprisings against Russia aimed at the revival of Polish statehood are turned into Belarusian uprisings for restoring Belarusian statehood.
In studies of the socio-political life of the 19th-20th centuries, the activities of Belorussian national separatists are also described who in their own time were not known at all, while the activities of the much more widespread and conscious “Western Rus” movement consciously or spontaneously supported by up to 80% of Belarusians are only briefly mentioned. Attempts are also made to justify the activities of Belarusian collaborators during the Great Patriotic War. So far, these attempts have not had any major success, but they are nevertheless constantly being made. Moreover, the activities of Belarusian collaborators during the First World War have long sense been sanctified.
At the same time, it cannot be said that the Belarusian historical myth has penetrated the mass consciousness of ordinary citizens. The people’s historical memory, its cultural and civilizational preferences, stereotypes, and notions of set cultural, ethical, and other values often come into conflict with historical myth. When the Belarusian historical myth has been imposed, natural resistance and an ignoring of this system of stereotypes often arises. One should also consider the indifference of certain groups of the population, especially the youth, towards any kind of ideological manipulations insofar as they do not bring any material benefits.
The Russian World in a Belarusian Context
One of the stumbling blocs in the Belarusian political scene is the term “Russian World.” The Belarusian opposition, and even a portion of officials, invest a meaning in this term which is in fact counter to its actual meaning. Out of anti-Russian fears, these people perceive any kind of integration on a cultural-historical basis as a threat to the existence of Belarusian identity and the Belarusian state. In other words, they simply politicize the Russian World as an aggressive and anti-Belarusian phenomenon. Of course, since 2014 the opponents of the Russian World have referred to the Ukrainian events as “aggression by the Russian World.” But, in fact, this negative association was developed even before the Ukrainian crisis. The Russian World does not oppose the statehood of Belarus, Ukraine, or any other country. The concept’s use for political purposes does not mean that this concept itself is political.
The Russian World is a cultural-civilizational concept. As such, the “Russian World” is a concept entirely suitable for Belarus. Belarusians and Russians are fairly close nations with a long, common history, culture, and civilizational preferences. The ancestors of the modern Slavs who formed the foundation of the Russian and Belarusian nations lived in a single state, Rus. The allied relations between the two countries now and the confidence that “brothers live on both sides of the Belarusian-Russian borders” also indicate that the idea of the Russian World is nothing alien to Belarusians. Thus, the adoption of the values of the Russian World by Belarusians and the existence of an independent Belarusian (or any other) state do not contradict each other in any way. The Russian World is a call to return to one’s own roots and to not forget them.
Belarusian society as such can be divided into two parts: the overwhelming majority of Belarusians and those who oppose the sentiments of this majority on the basis of a nationalist, separatist consciousness. The Belarusian opposition for its part belongs to this second group. This part of society is small, but feels itself entitled to make statements on behalf of all Belarusians. The majority can be defined as “Western Russian” or at least neutral in terms of sentiments, while the minority professes national-separatism which it attempts to impose on the rest of society. According to the polls conducted even by Belarusian opposition sociologists, 2/3 of Belarusians believe that Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians are one people.
The Russian World vs. Belarusian Politics
Belarusian authorities are trying to divide historical understandings and thus break this common history. Textbooks on Belarusian history, for example, teach of two states, part of which was made up by Belarus: Lithuania and Poland. Ancient Rus, the Russian Empire, and the Soviet Union, of which Belorussia was also a part, are taught only in courses of world history. Belarusian “unity” with Polish-Lithuanian history is imposed upon students without any mention of unity with Russian history. A “nationalization” of common history can also be seen. For example, some common symbols of the Great Patriotic War are being replaced by local Belorussian ones which were invented only several years ago and which bear no relation to the war itself. This is what is happening with the St. George ribbon. There is no official ban on wearing the St. George ribbon, but St. George colors were not used at all for decorations in Minsk for Victory Day 2014.
It cannot be said that the Belarusian government is completely repeating the mistakes of the Ukrainian leadership which led to the unfortunate events of 2014 in Ukraine, but there does exist a partial repetition of errors. For example, there is reluctance to emphasize Russians and Belarusians’ historical and cultural unity, a sudden love by officials for embroideries which did not exist in the past, flirting with the West and, most importantly, flirting with the opposition. The latter, I think, is the most dangerous insofar as the opposition will begin to feel its own impunity and confidence in the weakness of authorities, which could lead to attempts by radicals to test the government’s strength.
Speaking of Russian structures promoting the idea of the Russian World in general and Russia in particular as part of the Russian World, it would be better if Russian structures didn’t do anything. An organization in Russia exists which works with compatriots abroad: Rossotrudnichestvo. In theory, this organization should create a positive image of Russia and explain the real meaning of the Russian World, but in fact, at least in Belarus, it sometimes busies itself with doing the opposite. In 2012, for example, Russia celebrated the 1125th anniversary of Russian statehood and the 200th anniversary of the Patriotic War of 1812. Rossotrudnichestvo and Russian compatriots in Belarus also took active part in celebrations but, for example, several academic and public events were held at which anti-Russian Belarusian intelligentsia were invited. Other intellectual compatriots could not be invited because they were kicked out of the organizations’ structures just before. The apotheosis of “promoting” the ideas of the Russian World became Russian diplomats’ awarding a Russian social award to a person who insisted on the abolition of the term “Patriotic War of 1812.”
As far as I know, no serious events could be organized in Belarus by compatriots. Rossotrudnichestvo and compatriots’ individual, local successes speak to the little potential that they have. This potential depends on individuals who are capable of doing something. But overall, this is an exception to the rule. Compatriots can do something only if they attract objectively assessed intellectuals from the side to their situation. Compatriots have not created a serious intellectual force of their own in their own scene. Compatriots either leech the intellectual achievements of those whom they once squeezed out of their movement or broadcast already well-known truths and consider such to be “achievements.” Or they merely form strange ideas based on the misunderstanding that these intellectuals can be read. Overall, I am very critical towards Russian compatriots in Belarus as I am towards the activities of Russian structures popularizing the idea of the Russian World.