Which country speaks Belarusian?

The Belarusian language in the struggle for survival

In contrast to Ukrainian, which has developed well in recent years, Belarusian sees itself in an almost hopeless situation. President Lukashenko regards language as a breeding ground for the national and as a means of communication for his enemies and is doing everything possible to deprive it of the soil it needs to survive.

U. Sd. Vilnius, in December

It's a sight that makes even his fiercest opponents smile: Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych speaks Ukrainian. There he sits in the TV studio, imposing as always, and sweats. One almost suffers when the shirt-sleeved herald of those who are friendly to Russia wrestles with the sound sequences he was not born with. He frowns, he laughs embarrassed and charming, and sometimes a Russian word escapes him against his will - but he bravely continues to speak Ukrainian, and not at all bad for someone who boasted a few years ago, just that Good command of Russian. Thanks to extensive government measures, Ukrainian has recovered very well. Even after the reign of Yanukovych, it is the only official language and is compulsory in all schools. It has now established itself in the classe politique and is on the rise even in the east of the country.

An exiled college

In Belarus it looks different. How did the despot of Minsk, President Aleksander Lukashenko, say on the radio recently, when an elderly woman unsuspectingly asked him why he didn't like Belarusian so completely? "Grandmother, dear," said the head of state - and he said it in his strangely stilted Belarusian - "you don't like the language itself." In this no man's land between perfidy and peasant cunning, Lukashenko wages the campaign of destruction against the language of his country, and those who love and want to preserve it have to defend themselves on this inhospitable terrain. We met one of them, Aleksander Smaliantschuk, lecturer at the European Humanistic University (EHU), in Vilnius. The EHU was once based in Minsk, but Lukashenko identified it as a haven of resistance and had it closed. Thanks to generous financial support from numerous international donors and the EU, the university has been re-established in the Lithuanian capital, and over 1000 young people are now studying at it.

Can a university help save a language? Smaliantschuk vehemently affirms it. He diagnosed two opposing processes. The negative: Lukashenko continues to fight Belarusian with all means, despite all the “theatrical conflicts” with Russia. He has closed numerous schools and newspapers that used the language, he addresses his civil servants and citizens practically exclusively in Russian, his oversized secret service KGB reports to him when Belorussian is spoken for suspiciously long anywhere, and who the literature of the Land wants to rely on the handful of private bookstores that still exist in Grodno and Minsk. In state-run shops, one searches in vain for the works of greats such as Janka Kupala, Jakub Kolas, Konstantin Mizkjewitsch, Rygor Baradulin, Maksim Bagdanowitsch and Wassil Bykow. The television still broadcasts Belarusian programs from time to time, but there are few and they are as dreary and loyal to the state as the Russian ones.

Non-stop harassment

The despot has left a few alibis. The newspaper «Zvezda» («Star») appears in Belarusian, as does the literary magazine «Nascha Niwa». Articles in Belarus and Russia can be found in the country's largest opposition newspaper, Narodnaja Wolja. But the "Narodnaja Wolja" is badly weakened by the never-ending avalanche of lawsuits with which the judicial organs are covering the country's media and can neither be bought at the kiosk nor available by subscription. If you want to read it, you have to have it delivered to you by the publisher's own sales department - or you have to pick it up yourself from the printer.

The positive: there is a countermovement. According to Smaliantschuk, Belarusian is increasingly becoming the language of the educated elite: academics, musicians, writers, artists, especially in the cities of Brest and Grodno. It goes without saying that these people also include many critics of the authoritarian head of state - what is commonly referred to as "intelligence" is predominantly against Lukashenko in Belarus. There are simply no serious intellectuals who stand up for him.

Numerous variants

The Belarusian-speaking class has a hard time not only because of Lukashenko's constant repression, but also because Belarusian appears in at least four variants. They all go back to the old Belarusian, which developed in the Middle Ages - together with Russian and Ukrainian - from a common source, Old East Slavonic. First there is Taraschkiewize, a language based on an orthography created in the 18th century and containing more Latin than Cyrillic letters. She only stayed in families who deliberately cared for Belarusian, as well as in emigrant circles who fled Stalin.

The Narkomowka, created under Stalin in 1933, is more widespread, an approximation of Russian that only uses the Cyrillic alphabet. People's commissars - from “Narodnije Komissary” derives the acronym “Narkom” - used the methods common under Stalin to ensure that it was spoken and thus contributed to the ousting of Tarashkiewize.

The third variant is also very lively, what Smaliantschuk calls the "village language". It is spoken in the country, especially in the area around Grodno, and is closer to Tarashkiewize than to Narkomowka. In 1999, 30 percent of the population said they used them. However, it is becoming more and more forgotten among the young. The fourth variant of Belarusian - here the otherwise very serious Smaliantschuk grins for the first time - is the Trasjanka ("cattle feed"), the amusing-sounding Belarusian pronunciation of Russian words to most ears. «Shenshchina» («woman»), no Russian says with the clarity required by the orthography, but the Trasjanka speaking Belarusian does.

Disdain for one's own?

So why is Lukashenko's aversion to his language? Smaliantschuk suspects that Lukashenko is not only guided by hatred of the dissidents and his fading dream of a powerful, Russian-speaking Soviet Union, but also by the gap between the supposedly “civilized” Russian and the “uncivilized” Belarusian. Countless Soviet subjects, not just Belarusians, have internalized this discrepancy. Just as many black West Africans prefer French and many Indians consider English to be the superior language, so countless Caucasians and Belarusians (less Balts) have not only learned to speak the language of the colonial rulers, but also to revere it - and cherish it, even if they do don't often say something like disdain for one's own.

Such feelings are alien to the students studying in the EHU library on this gloomy afternoon. Not that you have narrow-minded nationalists in front of you. Almost all of them speak Russian as a matter of course, and many point out that they like Russian not only because of its melodic sensuality, but that it is an important language, knowledge of which can bring economic advantages above all. A student points out that the vast majority of EHU lectures and seminars are still held in Russian today - not a cynical comment on the weakness of one's own language, but an indication of how much Russian has spread in Belarus and how justified it is is concerned about one's own language.

No money from Switzerland

In a certain way, the opposite of what is practiced in Estonia and Lithuania is happening in Belarus today, where the native language, which has long been superseded by Russian, is being promoted with all the often controversial means. Belorussian students can only dream of such conditions, and the fact that Belorussian officially has the status of a national language is little consolation for them. Since the new constitution was adopted in 1996, Russian has become the official language again, and it has in fact dominated everything since then. It is not easy for Belarusians to study in Vilnius. Life at the EHU is extremely expensive. Many students live at home, commute and travel here weekly or even daily, including Professor Smaliantschuk. It is not easy to get scholarships. But the Vilnius location also has advantages. You get to know the West in one of its most attractive, dynamic forms, the Baltic. The EHU does not receive any financial support from Switzerland.