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18 Jan

Andrzej Tichomirow (Belarus)
The Point Journal, Nov 25, 2013

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West-Rus'ism and the politics of memory in today's Belarus

Does politics of memory exist in Belarus? On one hand, it is rather difficult to call the political activity exhibited by various government organs in the field of past memory an actual ”politics of memory” in the western sense. First of all, because the authority does not use this concept to actualize these or other actions. Yet, when we turn our attention to the practical side of actions, they do have all the features of active “politics of memory”.

A very limited period of history is being actualized – mainly that of the 20th century, associated almost exclusively with the Soviet past. The main event, around which a collective consciousness is being built, is the Great Patriotic War. This concept is practically repeating those ideas about the war that took shape in 1960-1980s, in a somewhat modernized form.

In such a limited form other periods of Belarus’ history appear as only auxiliary elements for actualization of the current policy. The early medieval Polack, Turaŭ-Pinsk and other duchies, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, or the Russian Empire period are usually being used in a very limited fashion or in cases of some anniversary dates, very often only on a regional or even local level. Such a situation is sufficiently understandable. For actualizing memory of the past on a state level it is simpler to use events not very remote in time, first of all because there are witnesses of those events. The availability of real (or even falsified) testimonies of an event makes such actualization – by means of mass media – more probable and understandable for most of the population. Such testimonies (properly prepared) may be very well utilized for showing an ”objective” image of history, that is then ”canonized” in school textbooks. Accordingly, alternative versions of these events, other testimonies at a certain moment can be called ”fantastic,” ”incorrect,” or ”hostile”.

The actualization of the ”West-Rus’ism” ideology in today’s Belarus took place in the middle of 1990s. The idea was characteristic for the Russian Empire period and represented essentially a form of a ”hybrid” self-consciousness of a part of clergy, officialdom, and partially of Orthodox farmers. The fact that it gained its “second” life is sufficiently unexpected phenomenon for a country in this part of Europe. At the end of 20th century this type of idea was considered at least absolutely archaic and contradicted the processes of awakened nationalism in all neighboring countries.

During the Soviet period the ”West-Rus’ism” was on one hand an unacceptable ideology. Monarchism, a strong actualization of the Orthodox religiosity and the resistance to the “idea of progress”  fully contradicted the communist ideology and could not be used. In addition, most advocates of ”West-Rus’ism” were  wiped out or had to emigrate. However, the idea of the exclusive unity of Belarusians and Ukrainians with Russians, the anti-westernization component in the form of anti-Catholicism and negative attitudes toward the Polishness, and tendencies toward isolationism were actually included in the new image of Belarus’ history on the wave of political repressions of the 1930s. All these features also very strongly affected the general concept of the past that took shape after the Second World War.

The gradual revision of these notions, that began since the 1960s (to a certain degree it was influenced by publishing activities of the Belarusian diaspora in the West), prepared a change of the historical narrative that took place at the end of 1980s and beginning of the 1990s. Such a change, labeled the “national-state concept”, was accepted by a certain part of historians. However, the radical change of the country’s political course since the middle of 1990s oriented toward integration with Russia and other CIS countries also elicited a demand for a completely different historical concept.

A first possible version was the return to the old communist vision, well known by most of the ruling elites; such a transformation did not demand any extra efforts. Initially precisely this was being utilized. The form of the communist memory centered on the “Great Patriotic War” became dominant again. Utilizing the Soviet holidays, changing the state symbols, introduction of the official bilingualism in 1995, as well as the course for integration with Russia, were the elements of the ”new” culture of memory.

The political, economic and cultural orientation on Russia under completely changed circumstances required, however, not only stressing the common Soviet past. Such a political turn demanded simultaneous attention to earlier periods of history that would legitimize it to a greater degree. The imperial idea of the unity of eastern Slavs, rebirth of the Orthodox church, the cult of strong power were elements that could  be used by the ”West-Rus’ism.

Former advocates of the communist ideology and of Marxism-Leninism have sufficiently quickly stopped criticizing the religiosity, and began paying more attention to the period of the Russian empire, as well as criticizing political and social movements of leftist directions. Such symbiosis was gradually transformed into a distinct project of Ideology of the Belarusian state, officially institutionalized in 2003.

Introducing in the institutions of higher education of the Ideology of the Belarusian state as a separate educational discipline took place sufficiently fast. However, the possibility of teaching essentially quite different ideological components resulted in this course becoming very eclectic, combining both communist and ”West-Rus’ian” elements. In one ”state ideology” textbook one can find extensive reflections about the ethnic connection and actual common identity of Belarusians with Russians, and a few pages later – about the  ”West-Rus’ian” ideology not corresponding to needs of the Belarusian state. The coexistence of such incompatible statements points out not only to the eclectic character of the educational discipline, but also to the self-consciousness of the author of this text.

For present advocates of ”West-Rus’ism” in its initial 19th-20th century version the ”state ideology” contains too many unacceptable elements, primarily of the Soviet origin. The combination of the Orthodox religiosity and tolerance of the communist ideology is sufficiently problematic for this group of people. However, it’s worthwhile noting that in the ”state ideology” they may be combined quite well.

The generation change of active humanities scholars who influence the authorities’ policies took place approximately at the end of 1990s –  beginning of 2000s. Most advocates of the Soviet Marxism were replaced by the younger generation, oriented mainly on fast career growth; precisely for them the newly actualized ”West-Rus’ism ” became a very attractive idea. Complete orientation on today’s Russia, on the Russian culture, strong elements of the ethnic nationalism and anti-western rhetoric became fundamental elements of the texts published by these authors. Basic topics of historiography works by these authors are events attributed to the Russian Empire period. They are mainly events, connected with liquidation of the Uniate church (1839), anti-Russian uprisings of 1830-1831 and 1863-1864, and the Russification policy. In focus of these works there appears a very intensive ”deconstruction” of the Belarusian national historical narrative, described as ”unnatural,” ”anti-popular,” and ”mendacious”. Recently the main focus of such ”deconstruction” was the uprising of 1863-1864 and its leader on Belarusian lands – Kastuś Kalinoŭski. Additionally the very concept of Russification is subject to criticism, and some of the authors consider it unscholarly. By utilizing certain elements of western constructivist theories of nation and nationalism, today’s ”West-Rus’ians” strive to prove that  Belarusians have no tradition of armed struggle against Russia or, at least, that such attempts were characteristic of the Polish population in Belarusian lands. Most active authors of such direction are concentrated around the scholarly-enlightening project Zapadnaya Rus, that is formally not registered with the state, but is informally supported by the Orthodox Church in Belarus and by a part of governmental structures. This organization conducted in last few years several scholarly conferences, is maintaining its own Web-site, and attempts to engage in ”ideological”  control of historical policies.  Zapadnaya Rus actively directs appeals to various governmental institutions (among others – Institute of History of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus). Such appeals demanded calling the French-Russian war of 1812 the ”Patriotic War of 1812,” –  complying with the term officially accepted by the Russian and Soviet historiography ( this postulate was actually supported), to restore  in Minsk the monument to the Russian emperor Alexander II, demolished during the Bolshevik dictatorship, and also to call the 1863-1864 uprising in Belarus as ”exclusively Polish”.

It is worth noting that in addition to such publicist activeness latest editions of history textbooks, now used in schools also contain many elements of ”West-Rus’ism”, especially while describing events from Russian Empire period. A particular place among them belongs to the textbook edited by Jakaŭ Traščanok; here one may additionally find special anti-Polish rhetoric and justifications of Stalinist repressions in the Soviet Union.

An important element of such activeness is the actual non-acceptance of using the Belarusian language in the public space. The minimal presence of Belarusian elicits accusations of ”discrimination” of the Russian language. A special example of these efforts can be the discussion on the additional usage of Belarusian-language signs in the Minsk Metro in the classic Belarusian Latin alphabet – lacinka. The introduction of such additional signs outraged the advocates of ”West-Rus’ism.” Their basic argument was the fact that signs were transliterated not from Russian, but from Belarusian; also that the signs were using diacritical signs, characteristic for the Belarusian lacinka. The ”West-Rus’ians” saw it as a ”polonization” of the Belarusian language, and expressed arguments that most foreigners, ”used to reading English,” won’t be able to read such transliteration. This type of criticisms did not result in changing signs; it resulted in additional explanations by philologists on the signs being in the Belarusian tradition and corresponding to the official legislature.

Such attempts of ”ideological control” by the ”West-Rus’ians” are being treated as some marginal phenomena. However, under proper conditions they can lead to realizing their postulates. Here the example of school textbooks is very characteristic, and rather dangerous for educating the young generation in the spirit of freedom and tolerance (especially toward ethnic and religious minorities).

Corresponding criticisms and requests directed to local authorities do concern not only names of historical events, but also their memorialization. The monument of the Grand Duke  Alhierd in Viciebsk,  prepared for installation  was actually postponed as result of written requests by the local ”Russian community” and ”West-Rus’ian” activists. At the same time it is worth noting that so far these activists did not very actively affect the policies of memorialization and creating new ”places of memory.”

One may characterize the Belarusian project of politics of memory as very controversial. On one hand, it is directed in support of society’s unity and avoiding various ethnic, religious and social controversial moments. Yet, the logic of a political regime demands also the availability of some group of adversaries, who appear as domestic and external Others. A full renewal and utilization of the old Soviet ideology in quite new circumstances was nearly impossible. The concept of the ”Great Patriotic War” and memory of the victory over Nazism were supplemented by the authorities by various elements of ”West-Rus’ism.” A more attentive attitude toward religiosity (Orthodox, first of all), exclusion from the memory of the events, recalling confrontations with Russia in the past, propagation of thesis about the actual ethnic unity of Belarusians and Russians – these are the dominant theses, adopted from the ”West-Rus’ian” rhetoric.

Originally published: http://thepointjournal.com/output/index.php?art_id=273&spr_change=eng