Belarusians: in need of a nation

The contest between rival “Soviet” and “European” discourses fuels a dead-end debate about Belarus’s elusive national identity. It is time instead - whoever wins the presidential election on 19 December 2010 - to change the question, and find what Belarusians have in common. A shared archetype is a good place to start, says Natalia Leshchenko.
Natalia Leshchenko
8 December 2010


The presidential election on 19 December 2010 means that the light of international attention is again being cast on Belarus. Much current discussion of Belarus focuses on the contest between the “Soviet” understanding of the nation propagated by the authoritarian government and the “European” discourse of the democratic opposition.

But the imminent election poses an arguably more relevant and pertinent question to those seeking to govern the country: whether the next government, whatever its colour, will be able to define a socially relevant concept of national identity that can unify Belarusians, give them a sense of purpose and direction, and propel the development of their country. In any outcome, it is crucial that any such project is based on today’s experiences, rather than historic insights or interpretations.

A useful starting-point for an elaboration of this idea is the openDemocracy article by Nelly Bekus, which makes a refreshing contribution to the field of Belarusian political studies (see "Belarus: the national vice", 21 October 2010). This itself is no mean achievement, since the field seems to have just about exhausted itself with a discovery that has also proved a dead-end: namely, that the two rival national discourses outlined above (the Europe-oriented view of the democratic camp, and the “Soviet”-based ideology of the ruling autocracy) respectively underpin the country’s opposed political forces.

Nelly Bekus’s core insight, developed at length in her book Struggle over Identity: The Official and the Alternative "Belarusianness" (2010)  is to reveal that the contest over “national” stances is in fact political, and that the opposition cannot win on the regime’s ground. This article seeks to take the discussion further by proposing what a contemporary Belarusian national identity might look like - and comparing its features to what has emerged in the current presidential campaign.

Neither Europeans nor Soviets

The widespread depiction of Belarus as a society whose bitter political struggles are rooted in opposing views of national identity (liberal European vs collectivist Soviet) is not entirely useful. The committed supporters of both the government and the opposition in Belarus are greatly outnumbered by those who prefer to adjust their private lives to the existing political circumstances rather than seek to affect them. (A current joke in Minsk says that the election-campaign funds would have a more tangible effect if there were spent on subsidising heating in the winter season.)

Both the government and the opposition camps like to claim the politically inactive middle ground as tacit supporters, but neither political camp has offered the majority of Belarusians what arguably they need most: the shared sense of themselves as a nation, and recognition and appreciation of their country in the world.

For despite this presence of not one but two national discourses in the country, Belarusian national identity remains poorly defined. The official ideological discourse is more concerned with the state than with the nation; the oppositional discourse is too beset by history to be of relevance today. Between these formations, the nature of the actual, living nation remains neglected and clarity over its real character elusive.

The official ideology propagated by the government since 2003 is a tool of state- rather than nation- building. It defines and advances state symbols and interests, and maintains public rituals that are civic rather than ethnic in character. These have been rather effective in rallying the population behind the Belarusian state, as confirmed by regular opinion-poll findings that Belarusians are keen to preserve their national sovereignty.

The government and its official ideologists, however, are struggling with regard to national identity and have said very little about the distinctive features of Belarusians as a nation. The lyrics of the national anthem open with the statement that they are a “peace-loving people”, whilst ideology-led textbooks and official speeches resort to scraping up such qualities as collective spirit, diligence, and hospitality. These do not, however, amount to a coherent or compelling national picture that would resonate with the Belarusian people (far less excite their foreign partners).

The camp that lays claim to ownership of the Belarusian historical heritage and ethnic core has been no more successful in giving Belarusians a sense of themselves. The political opponents of the government uphold Belarus as a European nation, pointing to the country’s close links with Europe in medieval times. Such links were indeed diverse and rich, but they took place in an entirely different political and socio-economic context; they are not sustained by the everyday experiences of Belarusians today.

Belarus cannot therefore boast of accomplishments similar to those of its predecessor state the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in late-medieval times: showing leadership in Europe’s legislative development or being highly responsive to European cultural trends.

This makes the opposition’s claim to Belarusians’ Europeanness rather a political aspiration and statement of adherence to democratic and human-rights values. But to expect that modern Belarusians would embrace European ways only because the people who lived approximately on the same territory five centuries ago did so is hardly sustainable.

There is an additional problem: namely, that liberal values transcend - and thus defy - national boundaries. The Belarusian opposition tries to resolve this by presenting them as national values and asserting them through the Belarusian language, which most residents of the country struggle to speak. The opposition’s national discourse tells people to be proud of and belong to what is evidently not part of their everyday experience. In light of such a clash, it is hardly surprising that (as Nelly Bekus shows persuasively) the opposition finds little following, and even what it does command is mostly on political grounds.

The result is that, as the British journalist Sam Knight says, Belarusians are people tired of their own past, who have too much knowledge of their history but little understanding of their present. Without a shared national identity, Belarusians feel they belong to a state rather than a nation - and are uncomfortable about it.

A qualitative study recently conducted by the Institute for State Ideologies (INSTID) confirms this reality. When people were asked about their national identity, their reactions were instructive. “I am a Belarusian - so what? Do you have a problem with that?”; we often heard this, characteristically defensive, response. “Belarus is my home, but I am not like other Belarusians, I differ from them a lot, I do”; this self-distancing from the nation (with its revealing description of Belarusians as “them”) was also heard. There was also the near-automatic response that referred to “tolerance”, though this was often mixed with cynicism and irony - and little else followed.

It was characteristic that interviewees eagerly praised the country and its natural features, identifying them as home; but with regard to the nation there was an air of embarrassment, exacerbated by the absence of a widespread international recognition of the country. The “national void” in Belarus is almost palpable, and evidently painful.

We, Belarusians...

After two decades of independence, and with a functioning stable state, Belarusians have come to the point where they need a shared, universally accepted, veritable and satisfying understanding of themselves as a nation, and a common vision of their goals and priorities of development. The national soul-searching has already spilled beyond the divides between the political camps, but the results are yet to be recognised.

The search for Belarusian identity comes from different quarters but is invariably rooted in a fact-based approach. Information agencies and news sources run competitions on the best picture or story about Belarus, and one web resource (tut.by) recently established a column interviewing prominent figures on what it means for them to be a Belarusian. About a dozen commercial companies, mostly from the marketing and public-relations sphere, have started conducting polls on national features with a view to building the Belarusian national “brand“; whilst the foreign-affairs ministry has established a working group to improve the image of Belarus abroad.

These endeavours generate a body of skin-deep descriptions of Belarusians that are problematic, on two grounds. The first is the quality of contributions. Marketing-type quantitative opinion-polling in a country where nationality is a politically tainted issue is likely to yield off-the-peg answers rather than genuine products of deep contemplation. The second is the applicability of any findings to the nation as a whole: there is no need for yet another marginal, or sectarian, national discourse.

The propositions for “national-identity material” in Belarus, therefore, must be relevant to the present-day society and experiences: both genuine and universally shared. In the conditions of conscious restriction (and self-restriction) of many Belarusians with regard to expressing their views, Carl Gustav Jung’s notion of the “collective unconscious” provides a useful and innovative tool of insight.

Jung introduced the concept of archetype to argue that individual behaviour can be driven by subconscious forces that condition a person’s responses, attitudes, and worldviews. The archetype is not understood to be a quasi-mystical possession nor does the subconscious belong to the realm of deep, dark waters. Rather, the idea of archetype seeks to account for the fact that the humans often act “automatically”, without giving much thought or contemplation to their actions, as if a plane on cruise-control.

Such a condition is familiar to all (except perhaps those very few enlightened souls who make a conscious and hard effort to stay “in the present” at all times). The archetype, furthermore, is a group phenomena; and as long as any group exists, there exists an archetype that draws it together, underpins its unity and provides a universally available outlook that its members can rely upon.

The team at INSTID, with a view to being constructive as well as critical on the subject of Belarusian national identity, conducted a study of the Belarusian national archetype. This was a qualitative study that included observing as much as listening and questioning. We analysed non-verbal communication, patterns of behaviour and reactions, views and attitudes to the main challenges of everyday life for people of different ages, occupations, approaches to life - in search of an underlying theme, a grounding feature that would mark a common denominator among otherwise diverse Belarusians.

The outcome of this inquiry is that Belarusians’ archetype is at its core matrimonial. It upholds matrimonial-associated features such as equality, steadiness, preservation, conservatism, peace and harmony; and it rejects such patrimonial-associated ones as aggressiveness, risk-taking, conflict, and emotional excess.

The archetype, moreover, can be more closely defined in these terms as neither purely maternal nor resembling a siren; rather, its distinctive symbolic attributes are embodied more in the sense of a lady of the manor, even an empress, or a proud housewife: a mature, steady woman who manages a household. The principal attributes of this type are diligence, effectiveness, practicality, thrift, welcoming, and healthy rationality.

Such findings do not suggest that Belarusians are distinguished by impeccable households (although many of them are); but rather that Belarusians as a nation associate themselves with the features, values, attitudes and dispositions of such a type, in ways they regard as common to and characteristic of them.

A president for the archetypal Belarusian

The current presidential campaign is rooted in the clashing perceptions of Belarusian national identity, and as such ignites the reaction of the politically committed few; meanwhile, the majority of voters apparently remain lukewarm and unexcited. This is arguably, at least to some degree, because none of the candidates has managed to touch the nation’s sensitivity - to offer a unifying, shared view of Belarusians that would strike a chord with their inner perception of themselves.

Even the incumbent, although being the closest to achieving this feat, misses the mark in a number of important areas; most notably when he is in dispute with the neighbours. A full, Russian-language analysis of the Belarusian presidential candidates through the prism of national archetype is here).

The implication is that aspiring political leaders in Belarus need to take the issue of a common national identity into account, both to appeal to the voters at this and subsequent elections and to get a clearer vision of Belarus’s developmental priorities. The understanding of the nation’s archetypal inclinations can form the basis for an economic-development strategy, and priorities for investment.

Thus, we suggest that “preservation” industries - healthcare, recreation, time-keeping, safe investment, natural and organic foods and materials - would be most successful; and we advise against adrenaline-driven investment banking, heavy-machinery building, or avant-garde arts. The harmonious, peace-loving, and conflict-averse archetype also suggests a foreign policy that is based on neutrality and balanced relations with all Belarus’s neighbours, without a clear prevalence for any one side.

An awareness and recognition of the country’s national identity is also essential for creating self-respect and appreciation of their nationality among the Belarusians themselves. This could also put an end to painful comparisons with neighbours close and far, and create a foundation for the confident and harmonious development of the nation in the future. A common national identity is on the top of the agenda for Belarusians, and the earlier it is addressed, the better for the nation.

At the hearth

The answer to the question about the competition of European and Soviet national identities posed at the outset of this article is that neither actually serves Belarusians’ need for national identity in a convincing way. In a valuable essay, Timothy Snyder argues that Belarusians need to have a debate on the developmental priorities for their country (see Timothy Snyder, "In Darkest Belarus", New York Review of Books, 28 October 2010). This is surely right; but what they need even more is understanding of and agreement about who they are and where they are going in the 21st century.

Indeed, this actually matters more than the identity of the winner of the election on 19 December 2010. Because only that leader will ultimately yield political legitimacy who can produce a coherent, relevant, likable, trustable, and succinct idea of what Belarusians are as a nation. It might help to start thinking of a houseproud woman. 

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