In the political, academic, and public discourse of the majority of countries, Belarus is rarely present or mentioned. That discourse is often dominated by a weak understanding of the cultural and linguistic distinctness of Belarus and its unique history, especially when it almost disappears in the shadow of the history of Tsarist Russia and then the USSR.
Today’s situation in Belarus can seem more confusing to a foreign observer, especially if they learn that the majority of Belarusians do not speak the Belarusian language and do not even always share an identity based on the national language and a sense of belonging to the national heritage. In the capacity of contemporary state symbols, in 1995 the Belarusians also selected a somewhat altered coat of arms and a flag from the recent Soviet past (i.e., a red-and-green flag and a wreath of grain heads with ribbons and a red five-pointed star as the coat of arms) instead of those traditional national state symbols (i.e., the white-red-white national flag and the Pahonia [Pursuit] coat of arms – an armed horse rider on a white horse against the background of a red shield with a six-pointed golden cross) that referred to the Belarusian medieval and early modern history of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which incorporated ethnically Belarusian lands, or the symbolical legacy of the Belarusian People’s Republic (1918) and were chosen as state symbols immediately after the proclamation of independence of the Republic of Belarus in 1990.
In that same year of 1995, the majority of Belarusians voted for returning the status of the second state language to the Russian language, which eventually led to a decline in the use of Belarusian in the area of private and institutional social communication, to the displacement of the Belarusian language from public discourse, and to its repeated russification that had been taking place since the Soviet period.
The use of the Belarusian language in Belarusian society today is an evidence of symbolical deliberate choice and a prerogative of a small circle of nationally-oriented political and intellectual elites, public figures, and even opposition politicians. However, constant displacement of the Belarusian language from the field of secondary and higher education, from mass-media, and, in general, from the public sphere is accompanied with a silent lack of interest of the majority of Belarusian society that is mostly indifferent to that process. That situation is not accidental. It stems from events of the very recent Belarusian past, where answers to many of today’s urgent questions can be found.
The present monograph aims to shed light on the historical period when the modern Belarusian nation emerged. That period in the case of Belarus is associated with the implementation of the policy of Belarusization. That policy can be considered one of the most significant events of the interwar period in Belarusian history. Its successes and failures have produced a most substantial influence on contemporary Belarusian history.
At the time of Belarusization that was implemented in the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR) in the course of 1924–1929, active nation-building processes were taking place that led to the completion of the formation of the modern Belarusian nation. In the framework of Belarusization it was supposed that the Belarusian language would be developed, intellectualized, and actively promoted in the public sphere, a new model of national identity would be created, national activities and Belarusian academic studies would be supported, etc.
The period of the 1920s in Belarus, or rather in the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic was marked by an overall instability of political borders, an incomplete formation of its societal and social structures, a vagueness of collective identities, as well as by a struggle between the national and communist ideologies. Ideas about the future of the Belarusian state kept changing during the entire period. Intensive internal political struggle for the fate of the republic and its further economic, cultural, and political development was taking place. A system of Belarusian national education was being created. And, finally, yet another distinctive feature of that period was the simultaneous existence of different, often contradictory approaches to the interpretation of Belarusian national history and to the understanding of national identity.
A distinctive feature of the said period was also the fact that the Belarusian language – the native language of the majority of the republic’s population – was almost non-existent in the area of social communication and in the public sphere. The codification of the Belarusian language had not been completed yet, and there was a lack of Belarusian scientific and professional terminology. In addition, as a result of the many unfavorable factors of previous historic development, the Belarusian language had low prestige and an equally low social status.
Belarus is a unique example of a European country where state-building processes have overtaken the development of the mass national movement, and the formation of statehood has gone ahead of the formation of national identity. To a significant extent that has conditioned the fact that the Belarusian society has not had a chance to adopt and fully identify itself with the national identity project that has been typical for other modern European nations. One of the characteristic features of society during that period was the domination of ethnic rather than national identity among representatives of the Belarusian society.1 Also, identity-formation processes were to a significant extent influenced by the fact that Belarusians belonged to various religious confessions, which often determined their national selfness as well. In other words, Catholic Belarusians often considered themselves to be Polish, and Orthodox Christian Belarusians considered themselves to be Russian, which was slowing down the already complicated and delayed process of formation of the Belarusian nation.
Those and other historic idiosyncrasies characterized the period of the 1920s, during which the policy of Belarusization – one of the most significant events in contemporary Belarusian history – was implemented. That policy was conducted by the Communist Party in close cooperation with the Belarusian national intelligentsia. Belarusization meant the promotion of the Belarusian language in all domains of the public sphere, including in the field of education and in the state apparatus. Here, the objective was to actively develop the Belarusian language. At the same time, support was provided to the development of national culture and Belarusian academic studies. In the framework of indigenization (korenizatsiya) that was taking place along with Belarusization new ethnically Belarusian elites (i.e. academic, party, and managerial ones) were expected to be formed.
A number of scholars was involved in studying the Soviet policy of Belarusization. However, it is worth noting that their interpretations and assessments of that policy often depended on the ideological climate of one period or another. The nationality policy was often researched without a deep study or analysis of unpublished archive sources that could provide more detailed information about the Belarusization activities and shed more light on the attitude to Belarusization of the population itself. That is why Belarusization has remained an open issue in the history of BSSR and, in general, in the history of the USSR.
A study of the Belarusization policy and of the processes related to it assists in not only understanding the work of the internal political mechanisms in a state that would soon be called totalitarian, but also in understanding the essence of a close interrelation between history and politics, ideology and national identity. At the same time, an analysis of Belarusization processes can assist in understanding the cause of many conflicts and disagreements that were taking place in society during that period and continue to take place in the Belarusian society today.
A study of the nationality policy and of the model of national identity proposed under the Belarusization allows us to make more sense of the processes of de-nationalization that are taking place in the post-Soviet Belarusian society, and to understand the causes of the current low social status of the Belarusian language.
In this study that for the first time presents a generalizing and synthesizing view of the Belarusization policy, the following issues will be considered:
The policy of Belarusization and its concept as understood by its proponents and participants during that period;
The model of national identity proposed within the framework of Belarusization and its interrelation with the dominant (communist) ideology;
The Communist Party’s reasons and motivation for the promotion of the idea of nationality development that was de facto in direct contradiction with the ideas of proletarian internationalism;
Causes of active cooperation between the Communist Party and the Belarusian national intelligentsia. The party’s attitude to the intelligentsia and the role played by the latter in the nationality policy implementation;
Belarusization of the education system, the state apparatus, trade union organizations, and military units;
The attitude of society during that period to Belarusization-related activities. Reasons for the population’s support for or, conversely, negative attitude to those activities;
The strategy of advocacy campaigns for the opening of Belarusian schools;
Causes of successes and, at the same time, failures of some Belarusization- related activities;
A change in ideological priorities of the Communist Party and the reasons for ceasing the Belarusization policy (i.e. from support of the “national construction” to harsh criticism of the “nationalistic bourgeois counter-revolution”).
The main objective of the present study is to analyze the reasons, processes, and results of the Belarusization policy that was implemented in the BSSR in 1924–1929. The main emphasis is made on studying Belarusization processes in the system of education, as well as in the state and party apparatus. An equally important place is taken up by a study of the attitude of the actors and direct participants (peasants, teachers, propagandists, inspectors, party workers, government officials, etc.) to those processes. In addition, the study deals with the issue of the interrelation between the Communist Party and the Belarusian national intelligentsia: from cooperation to persecution and even to physical elimination of the latter.
Along with a study of Belarusization processes per se, the book sheds light on topics from the Belarusian and, in general, Soviet history whose general context one needs to be familiar with in order to better understand some events of the nationality policy.
The first chapter of the book Overview of literature and sources familiarizes the reader with the studies dedicated to the Soviet nationality policy, as well as with the sources used in the research. The second chapter Debate on the essence of Belarusization: terminology and definitions is dedicated to an analysis of interpretations of the essence of Belarusization and the reasons for its initiation made by various scholars. The third chapter Soviet Belarus on the threshold of Belarusization provides a general historical context of interwar Soviet history in which the Belarusization policy unfolded, including events around the enlargements of the territory of Belarus (BSSR), the NEP, etc.
The fourth chapter Communist or National? Ideology and the nationality policy is dedicated to an analysis the ideological platform for the Soviet nationality policy, as well as of interaction between Communist and nationally-oriented elites at the time of conceptualization and implementation of the nationality policy in the 1920s. In the fifth chapter Belarusization in the field of education processes of the implementation of Belarusization and of the Belarusian language promotion in the system of national education in that period both in the city and in the countryside are studied. Special attention is also focused on analyzing the reaction of that process’ direct actors and participants: teachers and government officials, pupils, students and their parents, peasants and city-dwellers, etc.
The sixth chapter History and national identity on textbook pages deals with the analysis of the model of Belarusian national identity on the example of school text-books on history and geography of the Belarusization period.
The seventh chapter Language and bureaucracy: Belarusization in the state sector and party apparatus is focused on the process of Belarusization and indigenization (korenizatsiya) in the state apparatus, the ranks of the Communist Party, Belarusian military units, and other structures. Special attention is paid to the analysis of reports made by inspectors who regularly inspected the progress made in the implementation of the nationality policy at enterprises and state agencies. The eighth chapter Belarusization: from “national construction” to “nationalistic bourgeois counter-revolution” summarizes the results of the Belarusization processes, and analyzes the process of its wrapping up and a gradual change in attitude to it – from “nationality construction” that was supported by the party to “bourgeois activities”.
The conclusion provides to the reader the theoretical framework for interpreting processes of Belarusization as a unique case of Soviet formation of a modern nation in Eastern Europe.
For more details on ethnic identity, see Smith, А., “Etnický základ národní identity,” in: M. Hroch (ed.), Pohledy na národ a nacionalismus, Praha 2003, 270–296 or also Smith, A. D., National Identity, London 1991.