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A nation made speechless: A chronicle of the Belarusian language destruction, from the Bolsheviks to Lukashenko

According to UNESCO, the Belarusian language is on the verge of extinction, despite being actively used by millions of people only half a century ago. Alexander Lukashenko has made the fight against the nation’s language an almost explicit part of his domestic policy. Today, the number of Belarusian-language educational institutions is much lower than in Soviet times, the media space is almost entirely Russian-speaking (the country does not have a single Belarusian-only TV channel), and singers, actors, directors, and other performers who try to create works in their native language are pressured by the authorities. The situation of the Belarusian language is so deplorable that it may disappear in the coming decades if the status quo does not change.

  • The origins of the Belarusian language

  • Belarusian language alphabets

  • The Belarusian language and the Soviet government

  • Lukashenko and Russian as the “language of the future”

  • Language extermination

  • Revival of the Belarusian language

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According to the 1999 census in the Republic of Belarus, 37% of its citizens considered Belarusian their native language. In the 2009 census, only as many as 23% called it their mother tongue. Many other sociological studies have also revealed that Belarusians are using their native language less and less. Furthermore, UNESCO experts have acknowledged that the situation with the Belarusian language is threatening: in the “Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger”, Belarusian is designated as vulnerable, which is the first of four steps on the road to extinction. And unless something changes, the Belarusian language will pass the remaining steps before long.

In UNESCO’s “Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger”, Belarusian is designated as vulnerable

Many European languages have disappeared along with their speakers. This was usually due to wars of conquest, after which the aggressor countries assimilated the population in conquered territories, depriving people of culture and language. Belarus is no exception. After the population of three million was ceded to the Russian Empire in the late 18th century, the new government began to exterminate the Belarusian language. In the two centuries that followed, most Belarusians abandoned the use of their native language.

In the 21st century, Russia has continued its aggressive imperialistic policy. Just before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin explicitly stated that there can be no Ukrainian state or Ukrainian nation. After his words, there can hardly be any doubt that the Russian president has a similar attitude towards another post-Soviet neighboring Slavic country and its people. The Russian authorities have been insisting for centuries that Belarusian, like Ukrainian, is only a dialect of Russian. However, even a cursory glance at its history makes it clear that Belarusian is an independent language, special and unique.

The origins of the Belarusian language

Belarusian was already significantly different from Russian and other Slavic languages when it was first mentioned. Historical documents in the Belarusian language first appeared after the Belarusians adopted Christianity. In 986, Icelandic missionary Thorvald Konradsson baptized the Belarusian lands. Even then, however, the Belarusians rejected the rules of the Old Church Slavonic language in favor of their own. Later, in the 13th-16th centuries, Belarus was part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Europe's largest state since the 14th century. In addition to the Belarusian lands, the principality included the territories of the modern Baltic states, as well as parts of Ukraine, Russia, and Poland.

During this period and until the end of the 18th century Belarusians were called Litvins. The political leadership of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania used the Belarusian language to correspond with Eastern European rulers. Peace and trade agreements, the most important state acts, and other documents were signed in Belarusian. The Russian lands, meanwhile, were under the Tatar-Mongol yoke. Therefore, it cannot be argued that Belarusian existed as a dialect of Russian in that period because Belarusian was the state language of Europe's largest power, while the Russians had no independent state at all.

Belarusian was once the state language of Europe's largest power

A key figure in the history of the Belarusian language is Francysk Skaryna, who played a huge role in the birth of the entire East Slavic book printing. His name is mentioned on par with such famous figures of the European Renaissance as Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Jan Amos Komensky. Francysk Skaryna went down in history as the “father of Eastern European book publishing” for printing the first Bible in Old Belarusian in 1517. This is how Belarusian became the first East Slavic language in which book printing began. Francysk Skaryna’s legacy numbers 520 books, many of which are in Russia, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Germany.

Belarusian became the first East Slavic language in which book printing began.
“Biblia Ruska” by Francysk Skaryna
“Biblia Ruska” by Francysk Skaryna

Belarusian language alphabets

The unique features of the Belarusian language that distinguish it from other Slavic languages include the use of three alphabets: Cyrillic, Latin, and Arabic. Arabic script came to the Belarusian land with the Tatars, who began to settle in the territory of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 14th-15th centuries. Living among the Belarusians, the Tatars mastered their language, gradually forgetting Arabic and Tatar, but retained the use of the Arabic alphabet. Later they were forced to translate their religious books into Belarusian. This is how Belarusian-language books written in Arabic letters appeared - kitabs.

A kitab from the National Library of Belarus
A kitab from the National Library of Belarus

Meanwhile, the Polish language contributed to the use of the Latin alphabet. In 1569, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland signed the Union of Lublin to establish a new state: the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Essentially, it signified the accession of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania to Poland. This was a forced step on the part of the Lithuanian rulers, who feared defeat in the war against the Russian Principality. The Polish nobility was in no hurry to provide military or any other kind of assistance to the GDL without receiving anything in return. In the era of the Rzeczpospolita, the Belarusian Latin alphabet, or Latinka, appeared.

The Belarusians, being essentially part of Poland for more than two hundred years, managed to preserve their language and culture despite pressure from the Polish authorities. Attempts of Polonization failed. About 90% of the Belarusian population lived in villages, and in the absence of a general education system, no one could force them to speak Polish. However, not only did the Latin alphabet penetrate the Belarusian language, but it also played a giant role in its development. It was with the Latin alphabet as the foundation that modern Belarusian took shape. By and large, everything written in the 19th century was written in the Latin alphabet.

The Latin Belarusian alphabet (Latinka)
The Latin Belarusian alphabet (Latinka)

At the end of the 18th century, Rzeczpospolita fell apart, and all Belarusian lands without exception became part of the Russian Empire. Since then, the Belarusian language has been severely persecuted. And it was Latinka that suffered first. Yet many famous Belarusian writers created their works using the Latin alphabet, including Jan Czeczot, Pauliuk Bahrym, Vintsent Dunin-Marcinkievic, Francisak Bahusevic, and Adam Hurynowicz.

In the Russian Empire, Latinka carried not only religious connotations (Catholicism) but also ideological and political ones. The choice of the Latin alphabet signified oppositional views, free-thinking, and a Western European orientation. For revolutionary Kastus Kalinouski, who led the uprising of 1863-1864, Latinka was the only possible choice. He published the first Belarusian-language newspaper, Muzhitskaya Pravda, in the Latin alphabet. Kalinouski's rebellion was brutally suppressed by the Russian authorities, who also followed up with a ban on printing in Latin-Polish letters. In 1904 the ban was lifted. However, in the 20th century, Latinka gradually fell out of use and continued to be popular mainly among Belarusians in emigration.

After Belarus gained independence in 1991, interest in the Belarusian Latin alphabet revived, and it began to appear in print media and online. For example, a 1993 issue of the newspaper Nasha Niva was published entirely in the Latin alphabet. Today Latinka is a living, albeit unofficial, Belarusian alphabet that some Belarusians choose to use for everyday writing.

Today Latinka is a living, albeit unofficial, Belarusian alphabet

The Cyrillic Belarusian alphabet also has peculiarities that distinguish it from all other Slavic scripts. Here, first of all, we should mention a unique letter that the Belarusians treasure almost like a national legacy: “Ў” (pronounced as “U neskladovaye”, which stands for “non-syllabic U” or “short U”). This letter is pronounced exactly like the English “w”. According to some scholars, the Cyrillic alphabet was originally poorly suited for transmitting the local phonetics, and the letter “Ў” first appeared only in the 19th century in the Belarusian Latin alphabet and had several variants. It was only in 1881, in the Krakow edition of Francisak Bahusevic's Dudka Belaruska, that it acquired its modern shape: “Ў”.

Today, the Belarusians cherish this letter, considering it an object of national pride. There is even a monument in its honor in Polotsk. In Belarusian cities, you can find bars, bookstores, and other kinds of establishments called “Ў” (“U neskladovaye”).

The monument to the letter “Ў” in Polotsk
The monument to the letter “Ў” in Polotsk

The Cyrillic Belarusian alphabet was first formed in the 10th-16th centuries and then continued to develop in the early 20th century, as the Belarusians had no statehood in the 16th-19th centuries.

The Belarusian language and the Soviet government

In 1920-1921, Soviet Russia had an armed conflict with Poland and was forced to sign the Peace of Riga on March 18, 1921, ceding western Belarusian and Ukrainian lands to Poland. As a result, the new Polish state obtained almost half of the territory of modern Belarus and kept it until 1939. The Belarusian lands that remained part of Soviet Russia were renamed to the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. In the 1920s, the republic embarked on a process that went down in history as “Belarusianization”. During this period, the Soviet authorities did not hamper the opening of Belarusian schools or the printing of Belarusian-language newspapers and books. In the 1920s, the BSSR had four official languages: Belarusian, Russian, Yiddish, and Polish.

The year 1929, however, marked the beginning of another tragic era for the Belarusian people and their culture. The government began to exterminate those who were reviving all things Belarusian, virtually shutting down the process of Belarusianization. The Bolsheviks realized that the strengthening of the Belarusian language and culture would catalyze the growth of national consciousness and a desire for political independence.

The Bolsheviks realized that the strengthening of the Belarusian language and culture would catalyze the growth of national consciousness

On the night of October 30, 1937, alone, more than 100 representatives of the Belarusian political and economic elite, writers, cultural figures, and artists were executed by firing squad outside Minsk. As a result, only a dozen and a half members of the BSSR’s Union of Writers had remained alive by 1939. The purpose of these executions was to make the Belarusian language disappear. In 1938, a compulsory study of the Russian language was introduced in Belarusian schools. In 1939, Belarus was renamed Belorussia, and the Belarusian language was called “Belorussian” instead of “Belarusian” from then on. However, the word “Belarusian” is still used in Russian, as it comes from the name of the country Belarus.

Pishchalauski Castle, where 36 Belarusian cultural figures were executed during the Black Night
Pishchalauski Castle, where 36 Belarusian cultural figures were executed during the Black Night
Kuropaty, the burial of many Belarusian victims of the Soviet terror of the 1930s
Kuropaty, the burial of many Belarusian victims of the Soviet terror of the 1930s

On August 26, 1933, the government of the BSSR passed a decree “On the Change and Simplification of the Spelling”. The grammar of the Belarusian language has become similar to its Russian counterpart. This is the form in which the Belarusian language exists to date, except for minor amendments made by the Ministry of Education in an independent Belarus after 1991.

The modern Cyrillic Belarusian alphabet
The modern Cyrillic Belarusian alphabet

Lukashenko and Russian as the “language of the future”

The period from the 1950s to the1980s saw the use of Belarusian shrinking rapidly. The circulation of Belarusian-language publications was reduced, and public schools switched to Russian on a massive scale. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev provided yet another impetus to this trend with his speech in Minsk in 1959, saying that the Belarusians would be the first to reach communism because they had been the first Soviet republic to adopt the “language of the future”: Russian. In 1960, Soviet Belarus was headed by Peter Masherov. In line with Khrushchev's ideas, he accelerated the transition of schools from Belarusian to Russian. As a result, only 23% of schools in the republic taught in Belarusian in 1985. Knowledge of Russian also became a necessity for young villagers moving to the city to get an education or a job. Essentially, Russian evolved from a means of international communication into the main everyday language of Belarusians. The process was both forced from the top and facilitated by local officials who wanted to curry favor with Moscow.

In 1991, Belarus gained independence, leaving seemingly no obstacles to the resurrection of its native language – now that the country was no longer occupied. However, even this stretch of Belarusianization did not last long: only until 1995.

After Alexander Lukashenko won the 1994 presidential election, one of his top priorities was to make Russian a second state language. In 1995, he sponsored a referendum for the nation to decide whether or not to make Belarus a bilingual state and whether the Belarusian flag and emblem should be replaced by the Soviet ones (albeit slightly modified). Following the referendum, the Russian language received the status of a second official language, and the flag and emblem were replaced by the variants proposed by Lukashenko. The president also gained the right to dissolve parliament. While European countries did not acknowledge the referendum, the Kremlin hailed it: according to the official statement, the State Duma “was heartened by the results of the direct expression of the people's will on May 14, 1995, which confirmed the unbreakable aspiration of the Belarusian nation to unity with Russia”.

Lukashenko dissolved parliament, appointed an executive branch loyal to him, including the ministers of defense, internal affairs, and the head of the KGB, and began to establish an authoritarian regime. Journalists, independent media, and opposition politicians were repressed, expelled from the country, and even assassinated. Meanwhile, Lukashenko began a rapprochement with Russia. On January 6, 1995, he signed an agreement on a customs union between Russia and Belarus, and on January 26, 2000, an agreement establishing a Union State.

At the same time, Belarusian-language educational institutions in Belarus began closing their doors and the number of state media in Belarusian was shrinking. According to many political analysts, Lukashenko toyed with the idea of becoming the Russian president back then. He probably hoped that the Belarusian-Russian Union provided a framework for Belarusian citizens to run for president of the common Union State. These assumptions were confirmed by Lukashenko's public statements in which he hinted that he would like to rule from the Kremlin.

However, he had to curb his political appetite over time, especially after Putin came to power. But the persecution of the Belarusian language did not stop even after the Belarusian dictator's dreams of a Russian presidency were dashed. After all, Lukashenko's desire to stay in Moscow's good books was not his only motivation for purging the country of all things Belarusian. There were other considerations: Belarusians who supported their native culture and language usually opposed the dictatorship, presenting a direct threat to his power.

Belarusians who supported their native culture and language usually opposed the dictatorship

Many Belarusian-speaking residents represent both the cultural and political elite of the country. They support the fight against authoritarianism, promote fair elections, and tend to favor a pro-European course. Simply put, Belarusian has become the “language of the opposition”. Therefore, all Belarusian-speaking communities, organizations, parties, educational institutions, as well as Belarusian speakers among cultural figures, officials, and politicians challenge the dictator’s rule.

So Lukashenko decided to smash the “lairs” of nationally-oriented Belarusians, which is to say he was bent on destroying any “Belarusian-speaking cell” in the country. First, the nationally-oriented opposition was defeated (albeit not completely), then major Belarusian-language educational institutions were crushed.

One of the loudest cases was the closure of the Yakub Kolas Humanities Lyceum. The private secondary school was opened in 1990 and soon became a prestigious educational institution with branches in several Belarusian cities. The lyceum faced serious conflicts with the Belarusian authorities in the mid-1990s. After unsuccessful attempts at liquidation, it was renamed the Yakub Kolas National State Humanities Lyceum in 1998. Later, in June 2003, the Council of Ministers of Belarus issued a decree to liquidate the lyceum. But the educational institution managed to survive. Today, the lyceum teaches its students unofficially.

A rally against the closure of the Yakub Kolas Lyceum, Minsk, 2005
A rally against the closure of the Yakub Kolas Lyceum, Minsk, 2005

Language extermination

The biggest blow to Belarus’ native language was delivered by the mass closure of Belarusian-language schools. Whereas in Soviet times they were closed primarily in large cities, Lukashenko intensified this policy and spread it to small towns. As a result, in towns where people used to speak Belarusian or Trasianka – a mixture of Belarusian and Russian – Russian became prevalent.

Meanwhile, since 1991, neighboring Ukraine has been working on creating all conditions to make it more appealing to learn Ukrainian since childhood, since the majority of colleges and vocational schools offer tuition in Ukrainian. Job applicants are also encouraged to have a strong command of Ukrainian. In Belarus, the opposite is true: young Belarusians have no motivation to learn their native language because it is unlikely to be useful in the future. Belarusians do not need to know their native language even to fill out official paperwork, since most of the forms are not even bilingual but Russian-only, contrary to Lukashenko’s initial promises. All legal papers in Belarus are usually written in Russian. The police, ambulance, armed forces, and rescue services all use only the Russian language. A Belarusian police officer is unlikely to be able to draw up a report in their native language, and a doctor can hardly write a medical report in Belarusian.

A Belarusian police officer is unlikely to be able to draw up a report in their native language

The government of today's Belarus certainly benefits from a Russian-language media space as well. After all, an artist who sings songs in his native language, enjoys popularity, and has a huge audience is a nightmare for the regime. Therefore, Belarusian-speaking musicians, poets, and other artists often hid their creativity underground, and many of them even went abroad because of the threat of political persecution. Virtually all state-owned media have also switched to Russian. From 1956 to 2001, Belarus had only one TV channel, and it was in Belarusian. However, at Lukashenko's behest, it turned to Russian-language broadcasting in 2001, and other channels that appeared after 2001 broadcast exclusively in Russian.

Soviet, and later Russian and Lukashenko's propaganda, often tried to spread the opinion that the Belarusians themselves do not need their language either because neither the younger nor the older generation resent the absence of their native language and both happily use Russian. However, this understanding is challenged by those historical periods when the Russian occupation authorities eased on the oppression of the Belarusian language and allowed Belarusianization to resume: immediately, Belarusian schools, universities, and lyceums were opened, and a huge number of works of art in the native language was created. From the 1950s to the1980s, musical bands singing in Belarusian were a raging success, both in Belarus and across the entire Soviet Union. The most famous ensembles were Pesniary, Syabry, and Verasy.

The Pesniary band
The Pesniary band

Revival of the Belarusian language

The Belarusian population never opposed Belarusianization or demanded Russian-language education. There was no resistance to the Belarusian language even in 1991-1995, when most of the population was already Russian-speaking. Paradoxically, the nation's interest in its historical language has only been growing since 1991, despite the government's desire to crush it. First of all, it is true about young people, the generation that has grown up in independent Belarus, did not live in the Soviet Union, and does not consider Belarus a part of Russia. The appeal of the Belarusian language is further evidenced by the emergence of Belarusian-language singers and bands, whose numbers have considerably grown compared to the previous decades. There is also a growing amount of Belarusian content on social media. Similarly, more and more restaurants, coffee shops, and stores put up signs in Belarusian, also proving an increased awareness of the national language.

A coffee shop sign in Belarusian, Lida
A coffee shop sign in Belarusian, Lida

On another note, as the nation grows more politically mature, its interest in the Belarusian language also intensifies. One cannot help but notice a tendency for people who are beginning to become aware of the country’s social and political life to find an inclination toward their native language as well. Being an informational autocracy rather than a totalitarian dictatorship, Lukashenko’s regime did little to curb processes that caused Belarusian society to develop an interest in both liberal values and the national culture.

Belarusian is an independent and unique language. Its grammar and vocabulary have been evolving for centuries, adapting to the features of Belarusian phonetics. Whenever repression against the Belarusian language eased, the population of Belarus immediately began to revive it. But today, due to Lukashenko's repressive policy, Belarusians can only try to revive their native language from abroad. Inside the country, the government has created conditions preventing the need to learn, much less use Belarusian in everyday life. This could cause a rapid disappearance of the Belarusians’ native language if the situation does not improve in the next few decades.

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