Pulling the Rug Out from Under

During the summer just preceding the collapse of the Soviet Union, I spent several days in Minsk, the capital of newly independent Belarus, in the company of a group of young people who called themselves Belarusian nationalists. One of them had recently converted to Orthodoxy, or rather to a new, “independent” branch of the Orthodox Church. Another translated English texts into Belarusian—he was particularly interested in contemporary poetry—and he told me of a friend who had translated Ulysses into Belarusian as well. A third, although not himself Jewish, was trying to resurrect the lost history of the Belarusian Jews. In different ways, each was obsessed with the notion of an authentic national identity. What they wanted, they explained to me, was to find a way of being “Belarusian,” which was different and distinct from the kitsch “Belarus” identity that had been defined for them over the preceding decades by the Soviet state.

This was not, in other words, an ordinary nationalist revival of the sort that has taken place in so many other countries (and so many Eastern European countries) during the last hundred years. For not only did these nationalist intellectuals have to decide who they were, they also had to decide who they were not. They would never have bought the cheap, bright-colored, factory-made “folk” dolls and spoons sold at Minsk souvenir shops. Instead, they traveled into the countryside, trying to find old-fashioned craftsmen who still made genuine folk carvings by hand. They mocked their Soviet schools, where they had learned how the Marxist revolution had dragged a drowsy, feudal peasant culture into the bright light of modern society. Instead, they traced their national origins to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, an empire whose court language was an early dialect of Belarusian. They also shunned the Russian language that they had been taught in school, preferring to speak only in Belarusian. As children, they had been told that the language was a backward, peasant dialect, the language of grandmothers, a language best confined to the past. Now they were learning it, and teaching their children too.

It was a complicated matter, being a resident of the country called Belarus in the early 1990s, and so it remains. Some of the complications are those that face any inhabitant of a relatively small country with a relatively obscure language in the English-speaking, globalized world of the twenty-first century. But some of the difficulties are specific to the Soviet experience. For as Terry Martin explains in the introduction to this ground-breaking and original book, the Soviet Union did not originally set out to destroy national culture in Belarus—or in Georgia, or in Ukraine, or in any of the other non-Russian Soviet republics. Instead, Soviet strategy was usually “aimed at disarming nationalism by granting what were called the ‘forms’ of nationhood”—but not the substance.

True, the policy was never consistent. At times, the Soviet state actively encouraged national intellectuals. In the 1920s, Stalin sent one of his personal favorites, Lazar Kaganovich, to “Ukrainize”…

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