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18 Jan

Kiryl Kascian (Belarus)
The Point Journal, May 7, 2013


Belarusian history à la BelTA or a few words about the lack of national self-respect

While preparing materials for the Belarusian Review, I am regularly following English language news about Belarus from various news agencies, including, the official Belarusian news agency BelTA, which claims to be the "national source of news."

In preparing this year’s spring issue I have found a news item about unveiling of a memorial plaque in Riga, honoring Janka Kupala. The text contained the following phrase: "...the founder and first head of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Mindaugas". I am purposely underline the reference to Mindoŭh’s name in the Lithuanian version to avoid altering the sense of the English-language news item.

This approach towards the information provided by the national news agency urged me to perform a detailed search on the BelTA website in order to determine whether this Lithuanization of names represents a solitary case or the common practice. The scheme of this search was simple — the search on the English-language version of the site has shown the names of Lithuanian Grand Dukes from Mindoŭh to Vitaŭt in various written forms. From determined coincidences I have eliminated occurrences not having to do with the Grand Dukes, as well as institutions or works named in their honor (for instance ballet ”Duke Vitaŭt”, or the Vytautas the Great University in Kaunas). The following table provides a list of  determined results; whenever a certain  type of search came up with a zero result — for instance Mindouh or Mendog — it is simply ignored.

Search Results


Mindaugas -3 (Lithuanian), Mindovg -  1 (Russian)


Gediminas - 3 (Lithuanian)


Olgerd – 1 (Russian)


Vytautas - 7 (Lithuanian), Vitovt -5 (Russian)


Jagiello - 6 (Polish), Jogaila -1 (Lithuanian),  Jagaila  - 1 (formally Belarusian)

This type of statistics may appear not representative; however, it allows to reach a number of conclusions.

First, the Belarusian national news agency lacks a single normative approach defining the written version of the names of key personages of the Belarusian history.

Second, it seems that this choice depends on the translator or editor, and usually raises additional questions concerning the knowledge of these people in history, and their using some standardized approach in this matter. For instance, in the news item about the Kreva castle regional festival in August of  2011, the three generations of  the grand-ducal family — Hiedymin, Alhierd and Jahajla, are referred to as Gediminas, Olgerd and Jagaila — which creates the impression of them belonging to three different  ethnicities.  In an analogous fashion, in the news item about the anniversary of Saint Michael the Archangel’s Fortress Temple in the village of Synkavičy, cousins Vitaŭt and Jahajla appear as representatives of different ethnic groups.

Third, a question arises whether these historical personages are representatives of the Belarusian history, since from all versions listed in the table only one form of writing the Grand Dukes’ names may be considered Belarusian, even though only formally. When taking into account the total number of mentioning the historical personalities, then in exactly half of cases (14 out of 28) they are given in Lithuanian versions. Formally such a number may indicate that in BelTA’s eyes the Grand Dukes appear as an ethnically foreign element, ruling the Belarusian lands at that time.

Of course, one might say that in the version of history that is generally accepted  in the English-speaking world it is traditional and established to refer to the Lithuanian Grand Dukes  in the Lithuanian versions — Mindaugas, Gediminas, Algirdas, Vytautas, Jogaila etc. However, these "standards" are not something inalterable; in the given case they are not supported by any references to historically original sources. They are based on the attempt to view retro-actively the past society from the perspective of contemporary nations and their national myths. The resulting attempt of some historians to adjust to this fashion creates such personalities as: Dmitry Karijotaitis, Vladimir Algirdaitis, Anastasia Karijotaitė, Voin Pukuveraitis or Agrafena Algirdaitė (see: Rowell, S. C., Lithuania Ascending: A Pagan Empire within East-Central Europe, 1295–1345, Cambridge University Press, 1994). It suffices to state, that in these written versions these personalities are unknown to historical sources. These versions, chosen by historians, represent a historical nonsense.

Thus, nothing prevents the Belarusian governmental agency in its products addressed to foreigners to present the names of outstanding personalities of Belarusian history in a manner corresponding to the Belarusian view of history. And Belarus’ neighbors have nothing to do with this problem. As a matter of fact, it is difficult to imagine that in the English-language version of the Lithuanian news agency ELTA website the names of grand dukes Vitaŭt or Hiedymin could be written any other way than Vytautas or Gediminas.

On the other hand, in Belarus the time has come to introduce order in writing the famous names of our pre-Russian history in English-language texts in correspondence with the Belarusian version of history, at least with that promoted by the official Belarusian state. Therefore, the absence of a norm-setting version of writing names of Lithuanian grand dukes on the web-site of the Belarusian official state-run news agency, as well as the way of presenting the names of these outstanding historical personalities raise the question: interests of what state are being presented by this agency?

Originally published: http://thepointjournal.com/output/index.php?art_id=225&spr_change=eng