Belarusian is one of the two official languages of Belarus, but it is classed as an endangered language. That’s because the other language is Russian which has gradually usurped Belarusian in the country of its birth. While some might welcome the demise of the Belarusian language in favour of Russian, there are others who are actively trying to reverse its fortunes and to take back its place as the language of the region.
Belarusian is, like Ukrainian and Russian, part of the East Slav family of languages. It is not, as some would claim, merely a ‘dialect of Russian’. This is pretty much like declaring that Portuguese is a dialect of Spanish or Dutch and English are dialects of German as members of the Germanic language family. In this respect nobody would legitimately claim that German had some linguistic superiority – let alone political right – over the other languages in the family. However, various information channels make this assertion about Belarusian vis a vis Russian and Belarusian as a ‘dialect of Russian’ is now pretty much taken as a given in parts of the Russian-speaking world.
In the middle ages, Belarusian was the primary language spoken in the area. Like every other language of the time before a written standard was developed and imposed through education and literature, there were strong regional variations. By 1529 when the first statutes in Belarusian of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania appeared and later the second statutes in 1566, it could be justifiably said that old Belarusian was the official language of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In 1517, the preface to the bible appeared in Belarusian – a first in an East Slavonic language -. when Francis Skaryna had it printed in Prague. Uniquely, Belarusian was the only Slav language to be written in three scripts: Latin, Cyrillic and in Arabic the latter by the Muslim population which came to the area from the Crimea.
In the centuries after the Union of Lublin in 1569 where the territories of the Grand Duchy of Lithuanian were incorporated into the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth, a large part of the local gentry gradually abandoned their language and took up the Polish language. The Polish Roman Catholic church also played a role in the Polonisation of the country. As a result, Belarusian eventually lost its importance as an official language and became the language of the rural population. The Eastern Part of the Polish commonwealth was incorporated into the Russian empire between 1772 and 1795. For a while, Polish was still the official language but by the 19th century The Russian authorities gradually imposed Russian through education, through the dominance of the Russian orthodox Church and through the suppression of the elites. Russification followed and from 1859 to 1905, the Russian authorities banned the printing of books and pamphlets in Polish and in the Belarusian language, although publications not sanctioned by the authorities did appear. It was during that time that the Russian authorities declared Belarusian to be ‘a dialect of Russian’.
In the twentieth century, the fortunes of the Belarusian language ebbed and flowed. With the lifting of restrictions on the language in 1905 (along with a general liberalisation in the Russian empire), books began to be printed in Belarusian. During their occupation from 1913-1918, the Germans reintroduced Belarusian into schools. In 1918, Belarusian was declared the official language of the short-lived Belarusian Republic. That was the high-water mark of official support for Belarusian until the early 1990’s.
The incorporation of Belarusian territory into the USSR in the wake of the Russian revolution, infused new life, albeit briefly, into the Belarusian language. In its attempts to create the foundations of utopia and satisfy the aspirations of minorities which had been repressed or neglected under the Tsars, the Bolshevik government encouraged the languages if ethnic minorities. Belarusian became one of the four official languages of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic of the USSR, along with Polish, Yiddish and Russian.
This freedom of expression didn’t last long. By the early 1930’s, the Kremlin reverted to its historical default setting of Russian language domination and the view that minority languages were a threat to Russian or Russian control. Commissions were established to review a standard form of Belarusian and, after several attempts, the final version was imposed in 1933. It was created by government officials and imposed by decree apparently without consultation or input from linguists. These language changes brought elements of vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation closer to Russian.
In addition, the Stalinist repressions of the Belarusian intellectuals in the 1930’s, the Russification of the language at that time dealt a blow to the Belarusian language.
The Polish authorities, which governed Western Belarus, sought to minimise Belarusian in society too. Between 1921 and 1939, the Polish government gradually closed Belarusian schools down and discouraged the use of Belarusian in Catholic churches in an attempt to Polonise the country. While they saw the use of Belarusian as a threat to the cohesion of Polish society and imprisoned those who tried to promote the language and culture, the repressions were not as severe as in Stalinist Soviet Union. Nevertheless, it was the aim of some of those in authority in Poland, to eliminate Belarusian language and culture altogether or to least to minimise its role.
In the Post war years, Belarusian lost further ground to Russian. for several reasons. Firstly, there was a massive influx of Russian speakers from other parts of the Soviet Union to replace the massive decline on population. Many of these were professionals such as teachers, managers, public officials moving into urban areas who had no wish to learn Belarusian. Thus, Russian consolidated its position as the language of the urban educated classes.
Secondly, the leaders of the Post-war Belarussian Soviet Republic came from other parts of the USSR and had no interest in promoting Belarusian. As a result, official documents became almost exclusively written in Russian. Belarusian became stigmatised as an ‘uneducated peasant language’. This attitude has continued well into independence and into the 2000’s. As recently as ten years ago a friend from the provinces who came to study in Minsk said that she was derided by her Minsk friends for speaking Belarusian with her friends as proof that they were ‘from the sticks.’
At a USSR-wide level, the view from the Kremlin was best summed by Nikita Khrushchev who stated ‘The sooner we start speaking Russian, the sooner we will build Communism’.
Despite the tendency to encourage Russian within the USSR in the closing days of the USSR, there was still a recognition of the role of the Belarusian language and that many people still spoke and understood it. Up to the 1980’s the main state TV stations had most of their output in Belarusian except for reports on party congresses and interviews with Russian-speaking officials.
By the end of Soviet power in the late 1980’s there was a slight reversal of official policy against Belarusians, but I wasn’t until independence 1991 that a brief window of opportunity appeared for Belarusian. The new authorities set about trying to reconstruct Belarusian as a symbol of identification for the new Republic. It was declared the official language of the state and the education system Belarusian was reintroduced into the school curriculum and Schools teaching in Belarusian appeared. The aim was to make a transition to Belarusian within five years. By the mid 1990’s, almost 30% of pupils were studying Belarusian.
The greatest changes came in Minsk which, more than any the area, had undergone the greatest degree of Russification – for example only on there was only one school left that taught in Belarusian. With Independence, the language became one the symbols and expressions of national identity, though still heavily overshadowed by Russian.
Thus, it seemed that after many centuries of neglect, the tide was turning for Belarusian and that once again it would be the main means of communication for the population.
That this hasn’t happened is due in the main to a reversal of attitude by the Belarusian authorities since the late 1990’s.