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18 Jan

Andrzej Tichomirow (Belarus)
The Point Journal, June 21, 2013

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On the current “West-Russian” ideology in Belarus

Since the middle of 1990s the “Renewal” of the West-Russian historiography school and ideological trend in Belarus became a specific phenomenon in “our” part of  Europe.  Similar “hybrid” ideologies, typical for nations of Eastern and Central Europe in most cases ceased to exist or were fully transformed at the end of the 19th, or already in the 20th century.

Main elements of this type of ideas were based on the preservation of “regional”  peculiarities of a nationality (or ethnic community) that lost or never had its own statehood - with the simultaneous recognition of the dominant position of an ethnic group more significant in an existing state (as a rule, an empire), which, after some time became a state-building nation. Additional moments of such ideological trends were: considerable interest in social issues (which served to widen its base among the rural majority), strengthening of one religious confession (usually dominant in the state), and wider usage of the state official language.

Obviously, each of this type of ideologies had its own specific character - often even very significant. Various authors of such a trend intermittently treated the same issue very differently, wrote on different topics, yet kept to a certain  conformity of their own positions; they did it in a sufficiently  defined form, characteristic for the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.

Among Central and Eastern European ideological and political  trends similar to the “West-Rus’ism” the researchers list “Moscow-philia” and “Russophilia” in Galicia, “Little-Rus’ism” in  Ukrainian lands of the Russian empire, specific forms of  “Russophilia” among Latvians and Estonians.  Notable is also the phenomenon of “Bohemism” in Czech lands, characteristic for the first half of the  19th century; it manifested itself in recognition of  distinct  “Lands of Saint Wenceslas’ crown” with preserved  balance  between Czech and German communities and  a clear dominance of German culture.

The first World War, series of revolutions and collapses of empires have practically buried the “hybrid” ideologies. A significant portion of “non-state” nations gained or renewed their statehood; there was no need anymore in preserving loyalty to former empires. The “West-Rus’ism” was sufficiently crossed out from the social consciousness by communist authorities in Belarus. However, paradoxically, in 30-40s of the 20th century, a portion of its ideological elements naturally blended in the new interpretation of Belarus’ history. These elements primarily consisted of the thesis of age-old unity of three Eastern Slavic peoples (Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians) and the confrontation with the “West” (primarily personified by Poland, Germany and the Roman Catholic church). The names of most “West-Russian” authors were not mentioned in the scholarly literature (and very seldom in the professional historical research). However, the matrix of their texts very clearly permeated works published in Soviet times.

The renewal of Belarus’ independence in 1990 -1991 triggered considerable interest in history  and the “return” of entire periods of the past to the scholarly discourse and the wider consciousness. The national view of history predictably gained an important place for a considerable portion of intelligentsia; it was also supported by the state. However, along with the need for an ideological evaluation of the foreign policy and integration with Russia, for some historians and philosophers the “West-Rus’ism” became one of the main sources not only for their own idelogical reflections, but also a part of their self-perception.

For most of the nationally oriented part of the Belarusian society the “West-Rus’ism” presents a very negative and unacceptable phenomenon. Approximately the last 15 years  are marked not only by the “renewal” of the “West-Russian” rhetoric in the media, but also by the gradual  domination of this type of thinking. The “West-Rus’ism” of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, that was partially supported by the state (but  also competing with other models) was considerable more “attentive” to  “regional” specifics, has not demanded complete Russification of rural population, and has preserved very clear social orientation, often suspected of connection with the contemporary communist ideology.

For that  portion of today’s intelligentsia that chose the “West-Rus’ism”  as an ideological reference point, an important factor was also the search for its own self-identification, lost after  the break-up of  communist ideology. Another path to it led through the return to Orthodoxy (although not always); for some members of intelligentsia the religious component represents only a part of cultural markers, characteristic for the “Russian civilization.”

The current “West-Rus’ism” in Belarus is even more radical than its ideological forerunner. First of all, it completely rejects the use of Belarusian language in the country’s public space.  For most of these authors it is either completely unacceptable – or they agree with its existence only in very limited spheres. Any widening of its use almost immediately elicits a sharp reaction on the Internet (for instance in the case with the Romanization of the Belarusian geographic names adopted at the UN level and implemented as signs in Minsk metro, or statements that road signs of localities should be also in Russian), accompanied by arguments about violations of rights or “discrimination” of the Russian language. The same authors consider themselves great “experts” of Belarusian language (while stressing that they don’t use it and it isn’t their native tongue), and publicly speak or write on topics they know little about.

One might define two opposite poles: one group declares that only Russian is Belarusians’ native tongue, and should be the only official language, while the other says – that the contemporary Belarusian literary language is artificial and should be naturally replaced by the codified trasianka (specifically Belarusian form of  Belarusian-Russian diglossia). In addition to arguments about the “undeveloped, non-demanded,  non-prestigious” nature of the Belarusian language, these authors are also using  the more “anti-westernization” component about the influence of the Polish language on formation of the Belarusian literary language. For the “West-Russian” ideology Poland and Polish culture are traditionally the most dangerous rivals; argument of this type should be also effective in creating a negative attitude toward the Belarusian language. The dissemination of “West-Russian” ideology by means of Internet, aided by various special resources (mainly Russian) also shows the attitude toward the Belarusian language. The Web-site “Zapadnaya Rus” declares clearly  that it accepts users’ comments only in Russian; frequently attempts to use Belarusian in comments were accompanied by corresponding comments by the web-site’s administrator, threatening the user with banning the use of site.  At the same time using Belarusian words in a negative or mocking context in most texts does not elicit any reaction; actually, it is welcomed.

A very significant differentiation from other forms of “pro-Russian” ideological trends  may be found in dealing with history of the 19th century  in the current  “West-Russian” discourse. While during the Soviet period left-oriented political and national movements (practically independent of ethnicity) in scholarly and popular literature were in principle evaluated positively, for today’s adepts Mikhail Koyalovich the treatment of the Russian empire period is completely different. The jubilee year 2013, dedicated to the 150th anniversary of the 1863-1864 uprising  in Belarus, Lithuania, and Poland (or better known to the wider Belarusian society as  ”Kastuś Kalinoŭski’s uprising”) is characterized by  an entire  discussion on evaluation of the uprising and spreading the opinion  about its “anti-Belarusian” character. The “scholarly and educational project “Zapadanaya Rus” conducted a special conference where the uprising was  treated according to logic of  Russian  historiography and popular readings of the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries: from calling the uprising exclusively Polish to denying Kastuś Kalinoŭski a place in the Belarusian national memory.

The discussions around the uprising and its leader on Belarusian-Lithuanian lands elicited also a number of problems of a methodological nature: most current “West-Rus’ians”  were educated in Soviet times, and, despite their attempts to abandon  not only the scholarly style specific  to that time, but also the treatment of events, they remain with methodological indicators, elaborated in the spirit of Karl Marx and Auguste Comte (positivism in describing history had a very strong influence on the Soviet historiography). An exception remains in the very mechanical and unevaluated use of  western (primarily Anglo-American) models of describing  nation-building in the 19-20th centuries, where primarily a constructivist view of nations is applied. Shortly such theses may be presented this way: The Russian nation (or German, sometimes Polish) are treated in the primordialist way (as age-old and unalterable), and the “rural” nations of  Eastern and Central Europe —  Belarusians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians — in the constructivist one (as artificial and  invented). Absence in western scholarly discussions in over 50 years led not only to a crisis of the Belarusian humanitarian knowledge, but also to difficulties in mastering western theories after such a scholarly exchange (mainly in a one-sided form) became possible.  The utilization of the sufficiently rich and ideologically unequivocal “West-Russian” scholarly and literary legacy of the 19-20th centuries by current advocates of this trend is fairly mechanical and uncritical.  The “Exit” from the contemporary scholarly style is also fairly infrequent; when it occurs, it has all  the features of   the typical Soviet “newsspeak,” or of the very specific style, characteristic for the Russian political science.

Despite the fairly limited circle of authors and advocates of the “West-Russian” idea, their activeness is disturbing nationally-oriented authors and observers. Such a reaction is understandable  due to a number of causes: the spread of   the ”neo-West-Rus’ism” is very visible in education, media, and influence on the  civic opinion; it is also reflected in Belarus’ image abroad, and thus becomes  an ideological challenge to  the nationally conscious part of  society. Additionally, the issue of broadening and strengthening the use of Belarusian language in the public space remains one of important issues for the society.  Voices opposing it become stronger, being aided by the “West-Rus’ism” and argumentation appealing to human rights and discrimination. The latter aspect is very interesting and characteristic  for the Russian view on neighboring countries: while basic ideological pillars of Western democracy are being rejected, an argument taken  precisely from the ”westernization” matrix is being used in the ”media wars”  with countries like Latvia and Estonia.

The ”revival” of  the  “West-Rus’ism” in Belarus, with its similarity to ”pro-Russian” movements in neighboring countries (most visible in Ukraine) may be considered a  certain paradox. In its “pure” form the “hybrid” consciousness of this type  actually experienced a renewal only in Belarus; additionally it received support of some state structures or the Orthodox church. Why was this “revival” possible? Most likely the ”explosion” of  interest in history led also to the renewal of  “West-Rus’ism,” as a “forgotten” or “half-forbidden” idea, known by few, and described and expressed by few. An additional factor may be the flowering of radical nationalism in Russia, and the intensive religious life from the end of 1980s to the beginning of 1990s. At a certain moment using the “West-Russian” matrix became advantageous in the political struggle , and, additionally in foreign policy rhetoric.

The current “West-Rus’ism” in Belarus, despite its relatively limited scope represents a part of  ideological support for the country’s dependence from its eastern neighbor. It also elicits the need for the scholarly and popular mastering of the country’s legacy not only from the “West-Russian” positions, but also from other sides, by using the latest methodological approaches. Most interesting may be the research of the influence of this type of consciousness on the masses, or the analysis of discoursive practices in texts or public appearances.

Originally published: http://thepointjournal.com/output/index.php?art_id=237&spr_change=eng