Belarus’s Hybrid Linguistic Practice: Language as a Post-Colonial Legacy
Last week MoveHub.com released an infographic showing the second language spoken in countries across the globe. The infographic revealed many surprises, such as that Polish is the second language in the UK and that Turkish is the second language in Germany. There was a curiosity about Belarus, too: Belarusians’ second language is … Belarusian!
The paradox of Belarus’s linguistic identity is that most Belarusians speak Russian on a daily basis. Not unlike other post-Soviet states that broadly use Russian, Belarus has struggled with elaborating an appropriate language policy. What distinguishes Belarus from other nations, however, is that the very nature of its linguistic identity remains contested.
The language issue in contemporary Belarus is extremely politicised. One’s language identification inevitably entails “political classification.” Russian is typically seen as the official language, while Belarusian has become the language of political and cultural opposition. Paradoxically, on both sides “discrimination” arguments are deployed to justify preferred visions of language policies.
President Lukashenka, a populist who seeks to stay in power, demonstrates a high degree of “liberalism” in language matters.
At a 2009 press-conference he said that language “does not follow coercion or dictatorship” and promised to abstain from “forced Belarusisation or Russification.”
Lukashenka justifies the recognition of both Belarusian and Russian as state languages by Belarus’s historical closeness to Russia.
Of course, he forgets to mention that Belarus’s linguistic design resulted from two centuries of Russification – imposed first by the Russian empire and then by the Soviet Union.
On the other side of the barricades stand opposition activists who have advocated national revival since the early 1990s. They conceive of Belarus as a mono-lingual community, not unlike other small East European nations. From this perspective, linguistic Belarusisation is Belarus's ticket to Europe and becoming a Belarussophone means becoming European.
Proponents of the monolinguistic model view the lack of legal support for the Belarusian language in the Russian-dominated environment as discrimination. They argue that having two state languages would have fatal consequences for the country’s geopolitical future.
A Third Way: a Nation in Between
Some Belarusian intellectuals have managed to avoid the polarisation of language and bridge the gap between Belarusianness and bilingualism. They define Belarus as “a nation in between” different civilizational universes and argue that the country's identity entails accommodating other cultures.
This conception “opens up" the Belarusian nation to the speakers of other languages. Moreover, it avoids promoting exclusive “closeness” with Russia, in contrast to Belarus's official ideology. The idea of multilingual Belarus places the big eastern neighbour into the context of multiple others. At the same time, this perspective legitimises the growing number of Russophone Belarusians who support neither integration with Russia nor Lukashenka’s rule.
Surveys suggest that many Belarusians indeed have “open” and inclusive identities. According to a survey on the Belarusian identity and language conducted by the Novak laboratory in 2012, when respondents were allowed to define more than one native language, 52.4% named Belarusian, and 78.7% named Russian. It appears, therefore, that 35% of respondents have not one but two native languages. They view Russian not as an agent of foreign influence, but as a part of their legacy and tradition.
Unfortunately, this multilingual concept offers no solutions for averting the disappearance of the Belarusian language from the country’s public life.
Trasianka: a “Hybrid” Linguistic Practice
Hybrid linguistic identity of Belarusians has found its expression in trasianka, or the mixture of Russian and Belarusian spoken by a growing share of population.
The origin of trasianka goes back to the rapid urbanisation process in Soviet Belarus; this language was often spoken by the first-generation city dwellers. Back then trasianka was “a code of rural migrants,” betraying the lack of a proper culture of speech.
Recent studies, however, suggest that the use and perception of trasianka have gradually changed. In a 2010 study more than 80% of respondents acknowledged having used a mix of languages on occasion. What is more, sometimes trasianka continues to be occasionally spoken in the third generation of urban immigrants, which cannot be explained simply by a lack of knowledge of Russian or Belarusian. Studies also show that roughly two-thirds of Belarusians view trasianka as a “mother tongue” or use it regularly alongside another “mother tongue.”
In other words, the stigmatisation of trasianka has diminished, and Belarusians are now adapting Russian to their linguistic needs. This linguistic practice in the Belarusian society may create the conditions for the development of a new, Belarusian version of Russian.
Language as a Post-Colonial Legacy
The linguistic repertoire of the Belarusian society should be viewed in the post-colonial context, in which the inherent purity and originality of culture is untenable. Against the background of several co-existing concepts of the Belarusian identity, the contemporary linguistic patterns speak to the hybridity of Belarusian culture. They have enabled the majority of Belarusians to avoid alienation and polarisation of language.
Other post-Soviet states have also sought to adjust Russian to their national needs. For example, Ukrainians have attempted to change the use of prepositions in the expression “to Ukraine” (in Russian “v” instead of “na”). Similarly, Kyrgyz intellectuals have spoken up about their right to alter the rules of Russian grammar in order to use the Kyrgyz name of their nation in Russian. Belarus’ attempt to promote the use of “Belarusian” instead of “Belorussian” should also be seen in this context.
Now each of these former “Russian peripheries” can be viewed as a legitimate owner of Russian as part of their own postcolonial legacy. Only Belarus, however, has articulated the claim to Russian in its national language policy.
With its persistent use of Russian as a language of Belarusian nation- and state-building, Belarus is using its right to Russian as its postcolonial legacy.
About the author: Dr. Nelly Bekus, an Associate Research Fellow at the University of Exeter, UK, currently works on the project “1989 after 1989. Rethinking the Fall of State Socialism in Global Perspective.” Her book "A Struggle of Identity. The Official and the alternative Belarusianness” was published by CEU Press in 2010.
This article is adapted from Bekus's academic piece “Hybrid” Linguistic Identity of Post-Soviet Belarus," which originally appeared in the Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe.
Non-Formal Education in Belarus: Unleashing the Civil Society Potential
Over the past couple of years informal education has witnessed remarkable growth in Belarus. It offers Belarusians possibilities missing at the nation's over-regulated state-run universities.
New grass-roots initiatives such as the European College of Liberal Arts and the Flying University are organising innovative and inspiring courses in Minsk. Although functioning within a certain limitations peculiar to Belarus, they still manage to appeal to the nation's youth.
Belarus Digest interviewed representatives of the Flying University and the European College of Liberal Arts about what it is like to organise non-formal education in Belarus.
Education in Belarus: a Sensitive Area?
Many people in the West often have a distorted view of the educational system in Belarus thinking that nothing is impossible in Belarus living under a non-democratic regime. Despite its relatively strong standing in international rankings for education, academic freedom in Belarusian
Belarus remains the only country in Europe outside the common European educational space, also known as the Bologna system. The educational system, largely unchanged from Soviet times, is reacting very slowly to the demands of the market. The stagnate system fails to promote Belarusian civil society and often remains out of touch with the new realities of Belarus.
However, the emergence of projects like the European College of Liberal Arts in Belarus, the Flying University, the Belarusian Collegium, and a number of Belarusian language courses show a real demand for new modern forms of education. They also show that education no longer exclusively the domain of the state.
The first serious non-formal education initiative, the Belarusian Collegium, dates back to 1997. Its founders gathered a few Belarusian intellectuals and started running evening courses for adults. Despite financial difficulties it continues to function. Aliaksei Lastouski
The Flying University: Responding to the Need for a National Belarusian University
The Flying University (Liatučy Universyte
Much has been changed in education in Belarus since the 1990s. “We can observe the process of squeezing out critically thinking people from academia and education”, Vadalazhskaja
The name of the University relates to the underground “Flying University“ (Latający Uniwersytet) that organised courses to promote the self-education of people in communist Poland. The Flying University offers its courses for free. It does not issue any diplomas and Vadalazhskaja emphasises that the education that the University provides remains largely non-formal.
This year around 300 young Belarusians applied for its courses, and on average around 15 students are attending each course. The University offers 20 different courses and seminars. The most popular courses include the study of the Bible, the "European choice" of Belarus, methodology and design.
34 years old Alexey Konstantinov has been attending courses and seminars at the Flying University already for three years now. Originally from Ukraine, for over 20 years he has been living in Minsk. He told Belarus Digest he was attracted by the unique learning environment at the University, but also its strong principles of encouraging critical thinking.
Liberal Arts: Belarus Today
Another initiative, the European College of Liberal Arts in Belarus (ECLAB), launched its courses only this past October. Currently more than 40 Belarusian students are attending various courses at the European College. The most popular courses are in popular culture, media, but also social problems and collective values.
Aleksandr Adamianc, a project director, explains that the liberal arts remain an underdeveloped area of education in Belarus. The idea to establish the College came about as a result of an existing niche in the education market. “Our programme of Liberal Arts is the first in Belarus”, he proudly notes.
Adamianc believes that Belarusians should have the opportunity to obtain a modern European education inside the country saying that "many young people neither have the possibility of studying abroad, nor do they want to". He points to “the conservatism of state education organisations” as the main factor impeding the development of liberal arts education in Belarus.
Predominantly young people attend their courses, with ages varying between 19-35 years old. The vast majority of them have already received degrees from higher education institutions, with a third currently enrolled in other university programmes.
Presently, ECLAB offers a free programme of education and issues certificates for its students. Aleksandr Adamianc
Non-formal vs Formal Education
Achieving success with new non-formal education initiatives can be challenging in Belarus. The biggest challenge for the Flying University was to find rooms for classes. “First, we rented some space, but in a month we were asked to leave. From there we went on “flying” from one place to another”, Tatsiana Vadalazhska
Aleksandr Adamianc from the European College of Liberal Arts told Belarus Digest they did not have difficulties with finding space in Minsk.
The informal nature of these initiatives appeals to many Belarusians, particularly to young people. Tatsiana Vadalazhskaja
Both the Flying University and the European College run attractive and informative web sites and a have strong presence on social media networks, an item that is crucial nowadays. The European College also has ambitious plans to expand and start to co-operate with other European universities so that Belarusian students could obtain dual degrees that would be recognised in Europe.
Non-formal Education's Enormous Potential
Both Belarusian and Russian languages are used for instruction at the Flying University and the European College. Their representatives emphasised that the language of instruction depends entirely upon the instructors themselves.
“For example, the course on “Mathematics as the Language of Thinking” is taught in Belarusian on purpose, because the instructor, Mr Liavonau, wanted to develop this topic in the Belarusian language”, Tats
The European College and the Flying University prove that these kinds of education projects have great prospects in Belaru
With very limited resources, especially when compared to state-funded universities, the organisers of informal courses already managed to make attractive education outside the bounds of state-run institutions. With the organisers' mix of idealism, pragmatism and professionalism, their student numbers and the geographical prominence of their activities is likely to grow further.