Underground Belarusian

If you want your kids to grow up speaking Belarusian, you’ll need to fight for it. RU

Alena Spasyuk
25 August 2017

Alexander Lukashenka believes "you can't say something great in Belarusian". These people think differently. CC BY 2.0: Marco Fieber / Flickr. Some rights reserved.Tatyana Borisevich (name changed) is a researcher at the History Institute of the National Academy of Sciences. Belarusian being the language spoken by her family at home, Tatyana wanted to send her daughter to a Belarusian-language kindergarten, only to find that none existed in the surrounding area. Borisevich was advised to reach out to other parents in the same position with a view to organising a children's group.

“I thought our efforts would be enough to ensure Belarusian-language schooling for my daughter. The education department of the administration of Minsk’s Moscovsky District, where we live, were supportive and very friendly. And there was a particular cynicism in that. The official politely explained that there were no Belarusian-speaking groups near our home. They suggested that I either take my daughter to a kindergarten that’s far away from us, or else that I find other local parents keen for their kids to receive Belarusian-language schooling. But I couldn’t find any,” Tatyana complains.

The same thing happened when Tatyana’s daughter started school. Tatyana was presented with a similar choice: she could either ferry her little girl to a Belarusian school halfway across town, or she could send her to the Russian-language school down the road. Tatyana and her family are convinced that their right to choose their child’s language of instruction has been infringed: “We settled for Russian-language schooling because it would’ve been very difficult, physically speaking, to ferry her across town — we don’t have any nannies or grandmas to lend a helping hand.”

A mere 1.8% of Minsk’s schoolchildren currently receive Belarusian-language schooling

The story of Tatyana’s daughter is far from unique across Belarus: a mere 13% of kindergartners and schoolchildren (a total of 128,600 individuals) currently receive Belarusian-language schooling. According to Ministry of Education data, 49% of the country’s schools provide instruction in Belarusian; the majority of these, however, are “ungraded” schools in rural areas — hence the small percentage of Belarusian-language pupils. Thus, a mere 1.8% of Minsk’s schoolchildren currently receive Belarusian-language schooling. By way of comparison, the percentage of children receiving Belarusian-language instruction stood at 29.4% in 1994-1995 (21% in Minsk) and 20.9% in 2007-2008 (2.5% in the capital).

A child’s parents may demand the creation of a Belarusian-language class in any school, but in practice they must seek out other parents in order to put together a group. At the same time, the number of teaching hours for Russian and Belarusian in Russian-speaking schools is almost identical, with Belarusian taught from Year One onwards. Yet Russian remains predominant: the majority of subjects are taught in that language.

“I don’t understand why I personally had to seek out other parents keen for their kids to be taught in Belarusian. There’s no provision in the Education Code for such a way of going about things. According to the law, my child should have been given the right to study in her native language. This didn’t happen, while we, I must confess, threw in the towel,” says Tatiana. She regrets that she didn’t plump for an alternative often favoured by parents in her position — sending her daughter to the Yakub Kolas Belarusian Humanities Lyceum, an “underground” institution officially liquidated in 2003, but de facto operational in Minsk for over 26 years.

A Lyceum that isn’t for everyone

The Belarusian Humanities Lyceum used to occupy a building in central Minsk, but now has no premises of its own. Classes are held under the patronage of the Belarusian Language Society. Among the Lyceum’s teachers are philologist Lyavon Barshchevsky, historians Oleg Trusov and Valentin Golubev, as well as various other scholars. According to Vladimir Kolas, the institution’s founder, more than 1,500 children have graduated from the Lyceum over the course of its existence.

The school doesn’t widely advertise its services — being unregistered, it cannot take on large numbers of pupils — with many Belarusians ignorant of its very existence. There are currently some 80 children on its books, these predominantly hailing from families regarded as the cultural elite.

“Not only do our pupils do well at Belarusian schools, they get in to European universities as well. Their high level demonstrates that Belarusian-language education isn’t non-prestigious,” Kolas asserts. Subjects are taught according to curricula approved across Belarus, but, as the Lyceum’s head takes care to stress, without the ideological component characteristic of state schools.

It takes a naïve Belarusian-language activist to fight for the right to Belarusian-language schooling only to send their child to a Russian-language university

That the Lyceum was deprived of a state licence by the Education Ministry at the instigation of the Council of Ministers serves to create additional problems for parents and pupils. Most children here are also enrolled in homeschooling programmes with a regular curriculum: in order to obtain a state-recognised diploma, they sit examinations externally.

In the eyes of many, such a set-up seems overly punishing, and Tatyana Borisevich agrees. “It’s very strenuous, and it isn’t suitable for every child,” she says.

Nevertheless, there are other factors behind the comparatively low demand for a Lyceum education: “After we agreed that my daughter would be schooled in Russian,” Tatyana recalls, “the official dealing with our case reassured me, saying, ‘You’ll actually be thankful things’ve panned out the way they have. So your kid graduates from a Belarusian school, and then what? She’d have to start over, because there aren’t any Belarusian-language higher education institutions in Minsk.’ Which is actually true. It takes a naïve Belarusian-language activist to fight for the right to Belarusian-language schooling only to send their child to a Russian-language university.”

Dreams of a national university

For many in Belarus, the issue of the language of education is thorny indeed — not least because none of the country’s universities teach their courses exclusively in Belarusian.

The idea of establishing an institution of this kind was initially floated some twenty years ago. The Belarusian Language Society collaborated with a number of experts to develop the concept of a national university, with 50,000-plus signatures collected in favour of its creation over the course of several years. As society chair Oleg Trusov remarks, no such university was established because of antagonism from the authorities: for many years, a Belarusophone linguistic identity was synonymous with oppositionism.

Alexander Lukashenko’s rival in the 1994 election, following which he became the country’s permanent head of state, was Belarusian Popular Front (BPF) leader Zianon Pazniak, who emigrated from Belarus in 1996. It was the Pozniak-led BPF that spearheaded the Belarusian-language revival following the collapse of the USSR.


"If we do have nationalism, then it's a clever one" - believes president Lukashenka. Image: Maxim Edwards. A national cultural-linguistic revival was identified as a crucial objective during Belarus’ independence period, especially in light of the fact that the country was forced to endure a Russification drive throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. The Soviet leadership decided, as early as the mid-1930s, to rethink its indigenisation policy (korenizatsiya), which promoted the use of national minority languages, and began to revive the linguistic policies of the Russian Empire.

The post-war period witnessed mass migrations from rural areas to towns and cities, where Russian became increasingly widespread. At the same time, professionals and experts began to arrive en masse from across the Soviet Union: it would have been difficult to revive the country without Moscow’s help due to the immense losses suffered by the indigenous population. Over time, Russian became predominant — initially in the cities, and later in the villages as well.

Over time, Russian became predominant — initially in the cities, and later in the villages as well

1958 saw the adoption of a Soviet law (“On the Strengthening of the Ties between School and Life, and on the Further Development of the Public Education System in the USSR”) which made it possible for parents to decide on the necessity of studying the national language in Russian-language schools. In particular, children enrolled in Belarus’ Soviet education institutions were made exempt from studying Belarusian if both their parents were non-Belarusians by nationality. As a result, the percentage of Belarusian-speaking schoolchildren had fallen to 22% by the late 1980s.

The national revival of the early 1990s catalysed the creation of Belarusian-language schools. Efforts were made to encourage the use of Belarusian in schools, state institutions and the media, and it became the sole official state language. By 1994-1995, the percentage of schoolchildren receiving Belarusian-language schooling stood at 29.4%.


A monument to the letter Ў in Polotsk. CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0: WikiMapia. Some rights reserved.The policy of Belarusification, however, was soon rejected by Lukashenko. His attitude to the language is encapsulated in this quote from 1994: “People who speak Belarusian can’t do anything other than speak it, because you can’t express any great ideas in Belarusian. Belarusian is a poor language. There are only two great languages in the world: Russian and English.”

As a result of a referendum held at his instigation in 1995, Belarusian ceased to be the country’s sole official language, with Russian, granted the same status, gradually becoming the language of education.

This language policy has made Belarus one of the very few countries globally to lack a university where programmes are taught exclusively in the language of the indigenous people. The others — Ireland, Cyprus and Malta — have predominantly English-language education systems (and English-language programmes, while we’re on the subject, are also in extremely short supply in Belarus).

“We have to recognise, then, that the Belarusian-speaking population of the country is a discriminated minority. While there’s at least a degree of provision for the right to a Belarusian-language secondary education, this isn’t the case at university level,” insists Pavel Tereshkovich, a member of the Public Bologna Committee, which promotes the advancement of European educational standards in Belarus. Currently, universities only offer a handful of Belarusian-language programmes.

Against the party line

Certain academics, however, do conduct lectures and seminars exclusively in Belarusian. Among them is Oleg Trusov, who works at the Belarusian State University of Culture and Arts.

“I cover a lot of subject areas, invariably in Belarusian,” says Trusov. “I’m operating on the assumption that, as per the constitution, no one can force me to do my teaching in Russian. I’m entitled to choose what state language I’m going to communicate with students in. I don’t switch to Russian even if there are foreign students in the group. My position has gradually gained acceptance: people here are aware that I’m a Belarusian-medium academic – and nor, incidentally, am I the only one.” Trusov is right: according to the Belarusian Language Society, over 500 academics across Belarusian universities also teach in Belarusian.

Belarus is one of the very few countries globally to lack a university where programmes are taught exclusively in the language of the indigenous people

Nevertheless, the presence of such academics in a particular faculty doesn’t mean that a Belarusian-speaking student from another faculty within the same university will be able to receive tuition in Belarusian.

Alexandra Kuzmich, director of the Centre for the Development of Student Initiatives at the GEDEVS Informational-Educational Institute, recently graduated in economics from the Belarusian State University of Informatics and Radioelectronics. More often than not she communicates in Belarusian, although she does stress that using her native language at the university isn’t particularly straightforward: “There’s no economics-related literature in Belarusian, and us Belarusian-speaking students have to do double the work: we study the subject in Russian and present our responses in Belarusian, because that’s the language we always speak. It’s sometimes even the case that lecturers who’ve arrived from some other post-Soviet country don’t speak any Belarusian at all. I had one, for example, who didn’t understand what I was saying.”

Interpretation difficulties

Belarusian Language Society vice chair Elena Anisim, who last year became a deputy in the National Assembly’s House of Representatives, is campaigning for the Belarusian language to become an integral component of the country’s education system. She lobbied the Ministry of Education for the establishment of a national university, only for the Ministry to riposte that the equal status of the two official languages was being respected: when it comes to this issue, state bodies traditionally take their bearings from the president.

In recent years, Alexander Lukashenko has repeatedly underscored his “very scrupulous” attitude to the Belarusian language question: “The issue hasn’t become a stumbling block for society. Though it could well have done, if the policies pursued by the Supreme Council back in the day are anything to go by. It's a good thing I managed to turn down the heat a little.” He hasn’t ruled out the possibility of establishing a national university, but only if such a move was “sufficiently well received” and “the demand was there”.

But it’s impossible to tell for sure whether demand would indeed be high: on one hand, not all graduates of Belarusian-language schools are keen to pursue a Belarusian-language education at university level. On the other, the Belarusian language courses inaugurated in 2013-2014 on the initiative of several writers and journalists are popular with all age groups. Entitled Mova Nanova (literally “language anew”), the courses are now available in Minsk, Astravyets, Babruysk, Baranovichi, Brest, Vitebsk, Grodno, Gomel, Mahilyow, Maladzyechna and Svetlogorsk, and serve some 650 students weekly.

By way of response to the president’s statement concerning the possible establishment of a national university, the Ministry of Education organised a round table that was held in Minsk in early April. NGO representatives proposed the creation of Belarusian-language groups and suggested that the history of the republic ought not to be taught in Russian. According to Tamara Matskevich of the Belarusian School Society, the initiative was sufficiently well received by officials, but no decisions vis-à-vis the next academic year have yet been made in this regard. 


Graffiti in Minsk - in Russian. CC BY 2.0: Mika Stetsovsky / Flickr. Some rights reserved.Representatives of the Belarusian School Society also suggested that the Ministry of Education incorporate into curricula and textbooks the principle of “Belorusocentrism”, this with a view to fostering children’s perception of themselves as part of European, rather than Russian, culture. A similar idea was approved by Lukashenko in early spring of 2017, after he’d familiarised himself with a series of scholarly investigations entitled The Origins of Belarusian Statehood: the Polotsk and Vitebsk Lands Between the Ninth and Eighteenth Centuries. These works shed a new and different light on the formation process of early East Slavic polities and their centres.

Olga Levko, head of the Centre of Archeology and Ancient History of Belarus at the History Institute of the National Academy of Sciences, acquainted the president with recent studies demonstrating that Belarusian statehood began to crystallise in the middle of the ninth century, with the creation of the Land of Polotsk. The president responded by saying that these junctures in the formation of the Belarusian state must be accurately presented in textbooks: “We must articulate the truth and implant it into the minds of our people. If there’s any nationalism to speak of here, this nationalism is an intelligent one.”

That the textbooks fail to present the country’s history in an entirely accurate way didn’t go unremarked in earlier years either. In 1990s, for example, historian Nikolai Ermolovich put forward a conceptualisation of Belarusian statehood incongruous with Soviet historiography, which remains the basis for history textbooks to this day. But his work Ancient Belarus: The Polotsk and Novgorod Period wasn’t taken into consideration.

The fact that Lukashenko didn’t disregard the new approach seems truly strange in light of his dismissal, in December 2016, of Education Minister Mikhail Zhuravkov. Zhuravkov was appointed to the post in December 2014, and was already creating ripples of excitement among the populace on January 21, 2015, when he said that the gradual integration of the Belarusian language into the education system was a “normal phenomenon”, and one that “must be encouraged”. Lukashenko promptly criticised the minister, noting that the language issue had been resolved once and for all by the referendum.

Language of the village, language of the intelligentsia

Igor Karpenko, the current Minister of Education, is now faced with the challenge of “correctly” interpreting the president’s words regarding the formulation of a new version of Belarusian history. Yet it would appear that this challenge remains of secondary importance for the ministry, which must review school curricula by 1 September. There’s no question of publishing new Belarusian-language textbooks.

While the government continues to ignore the demands of Belarusophone parents and their children, the NGO sector is doing its best to plug the gaps. According to Tamara Matskevich, however, the problem as a whole cannot be resolved through these efforts alone: as long as there’s no Belarusian-medium university in Belarus, the numbers of children in Belarusian-language classes will remain low. Competing with the Russian language is an uphill struggle, both within the education system and across public life.

“Parents don’t send their kids to Belarusian-language schools because they don’t believe the education on offer there will be of high quality,” says Matskevich. “To demand Belarusian-language schooling for your child is to embark on a warpath against the state. While the equal status of the two languages is enshrined in law, there are no effective, reliable mechanisms for implementing these laws in practice. Your only remaining options, then, are to learn Belarusian in a family setting and to take courses.” Which means that, despite all the exertions of the NGO sector, Belarusian is still the language of the cultural intelligentsia and the countryside.


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