Night in Novogrudok, Belarus (2017) by Pavel Gamburg.
Even though we tend to take it as a given, it isn’t exactly obvious why Belarus should be so much more “Russophile” than the Ukraine. The lands of White Russia were “regathered” into the Russian Empire well more than a century after Left-Bank Ukraine (the lands east of the River Dnieper, including Kiev). Both Ukrainians and Belorussians were subjected to korenizatsiya policies in the early USSR, in which their local, rustic identities were promoted as distinct to the Russian “chauvinist” culture which had held them in bondage (“prison of nations”) and which the Old Bolsheviks viewed as one of their prime enemies. Although solid majorities in both Ukraine (70%) and Belarus (83) voted for the preservation of the Soviet Union in the 1991 referendum, both countries elected nationalists upon attaining independence.
But their post-Soviet paths have sharply diverged. The Belarusian nationalist soon lost to Alexander Lukashenko, who promised to restore Soviet-era welfare guarantees and economic integration with Russia. In a 1995 referendum, 87% of Belorussians voted to make Russian an official language. Meanwhile, attempts to give the Russian language a similar status in the Ukraine were ideologically divisive and eventually helped kick off the Euromaidan. Opinion in the Ukraine on joining the EU vs. the Eurasian Union was usually at fifty-fifty even before the Euromaidan (e.g. 45% vs. 40% in 2013), while Belorussians have consistently favored integration with Russia by a large margin (e.g. 65% to 14% in 2017). (Since the Euromaidan, Ukrainian support for pursuing integration with Russia has – unsurprisingly – cratered). Furthermore, this is all despite the fact that there are twice as many ethnic Russians [russkie] in the Ukraine (17% in 2002) as in Belarus (8% in 2009).
|Join the Russian Army||3.5%||2.5%||3.5%||2.1%||2.0%||0.0%||1.2%||0.7%||0.5%|
|Hard to say||15.6%||26.1%||21.6%||17.1%||20.5%||23.7%||26.3%||24.8%||19.0%||12.9%|
|Refuse to answer||1.0%||6.0%||1.7%||2.5%||4.9%||1.7%||1.7%||3.2%||0.7%|
However, perhaps the best indication of these divergent attitudes can be illustrated by the answers to a poll question – posed to the denizens of South-East Ukraine and Belarus in April and June 2014, respectively – on what they would do if Russia was to send troops into their region. Even within the historical region of Novorossiya that Russian irredentists were dreaming about in 2014, the share of respondents who answered that they would respond with “armed resistance” was more than twice as high as those saying they’d welcome the Russian troops (or join them). The only two regions where more people were ready to support Russian troops than oppose them were Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts. Hard to imagine that it’s a coincidence that the People’s Republics successfully formed precisely in those two territories, while the attempted coups in Kharkov and Odessa – where anti-Russians were twice as numerous as pro-Russians – failed. As we can see from the above chart, Belarus neatly fits the profile of the Donbass – and that’s the country as a whole, from near totally Russified Gomel or Vitebsk, to the semi-Polonized north-west region designed as a buntive “Veyshnoria” during the Zapad-2017 war games with Russia. Consequently, it’s hard to imagine there being much in the way of popular Belorussian resistance to “little green men” in the event of a major crisis.
So even though the Russian (Great Russian) component in Belarus is lower than in Ukraine, the Belorussian identity as a whole is “in sync” with an All-Russian one to a much greater extent than is the Ukrainian one. Here, I will try to answer why.
French ethnographic map of European Russia, 1898.
I suspect the most banal factor in “zmagarism” being less developed than Ukrainian svidomism being less developed is them simply being called White Russians. Hard to deny some degree of Russian identity when it’s literally in your name.
This may have been a similarly “pro-Russian” factor had the Ukrainians remained “Little Russians”, but the struggle between those two identities was conclusively resolved in favor of the former during the 1920s. Now sure, the Ukraine does literally translate to “borderlands”, and has in the past intermittently applied to various Russian regions, including Great Russian ones, which fit the description (the West European equivalent would be a “march”). But as has been pointed out since Ibn Khaldun, borderlanders often develop their own, strong local identities.
Map of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth after the Union of Lublin, 1569.
During the 14th century, while their eastern brethren struggled to free themselves from the “Tatar yoke”, the territories of Belarus and the Ukraine came under Lithuanian rule. After the Union of Lublin in 1569 between the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, many of the Belorussian lands remained within Lithuania, while the Ukrainian ones were annexed by the Poles. As such, if one can view Ukraine as a Russian-Polish metis culture, then Belarus would be a Russian-Lithuanian one (and Moldova would be a Romanian-Russian one, to extend the comparison). Though ironically, unlike Ukraine, today’s Belarus retains a significant Polish minority because they didn’t ethnically cleanse them like the Ukrainians did during World War II.
But why did Lithuania leave a “lighter” cultural imprint? I suspect there are two reasons for that. The obvious one is demographics: Belorussians were significantly more numerous than Lithuanians, whereas it was the opposite case for Ukrainians and Poles. Second, it just so happens that whereas Poland was during the 17-18th centuries the most intellectually advanced of the East European states, as proxied by numeracy (i.e. what percentage of people knew precisely how old they were, as registered from graveyards, church records, etc.), Lithuania was the most backwards – even below the Belorussian lands. (Incidentally, the roots of Lithuanian backwardness may go very deep back in history, seeing as it was the last major European state to abandon paganism). It is thus plausible that Lithuania actually retarded Belorussian cultural development, whereas Poland enhanced Ukraine’s.
Another factor may have been that the center of Ukrainian nationalism during the period of the Russian Empire was in Lvov, where it was aggressively promoted by the Austro-Hungarian authorities in the decades before World War I. This coincided with the achievement of mass literacy, which Galicia reached one to two decades before the Russian heartlands. There is some interesting literature arguing that national identities tend to become “fixed” at precisely the point when mass literacy amongst school children is reached (e.g. see Keith Darden’s “Lessons from a Natural Experiment in Carpathian Ukraine“). Moreover, the center of Belorussian national-activism was Vilnius, where the opportunities for pushing an anti-Russian narrative was constrained by the fact of it being within the Russian Empire.*
The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (1918). Even the Germans did not seriously challenge Russian suzerainty over much of modern-day Belarus during Russia’s greatest moment of weakness, but what they failed at – the Bolsheviks would subsequently “fix.”
One general trend that can be observed over centuries is that Belorussians seem to have been more comfortable in adopting a Russian identity – in terms of politics, culture, language, and even geopolitical loyalty – than Ukrainians.
In the Ukraine, it seems that for every Khmelnitsky, there was a Vyhovsky, for every Skoropadsky, a Mazepa. There have never been serious insurrections within Belorussia. During the Russian Civil War, there were a number of independent states in regions with a strong Little Russian presence, including even those that are today part of the Russian Federation (the Kuban, the Don Republic, and “Green Ukraine” in the Far East) and – if anything – more “patriotic” than the average. There were no such statelets in Belorussia apart from the very weak and short-lived Belarusian People’s Republic.
Between 1917 and 1947, the Russian World suffered an unprecedented demographic-humanitarian disaster thanks to the joint effects of Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler. During this period, its population remained broadly stagnant, despite fertility rates of around 6 children per woman at the start of this period; under demographic normality, it would have increased by at least 50%. Between the October Revolution and the end of World War II, the population of Russia within its current borders increased from about 92M to 97M, the population of Belarus increased from 7.0M to 7.5M, and the population of Ukraine fell from 35M to 33M.
However, the precise factors behind these disasters in each region were subtly different. Unlike the Ukraine – or, for that matter, parts of Russia, such as the Kuban and the Volga region – there was no collectivization famine in Belorussia during the 1930s. But Belarus would make up the difference during World War II, during which it lost 25% of its population – in large part due to German collective reprisals against villages suspected of harboring partisans. Children were kidnapped from Belorussian parents and used as disposable blood banks for German soldiers across 17 “donor concentration camps”. However, the very fact that there was a large-scale partisan movement in Belarus, which extended seamlessly into Russia proper, is also telling by itself. Meanwhile, after World War II, the USSR faced an insurgency in Galicia an order of magnitude bloodier than what the “forest brothers” in the Baltics managed.
This is therefore another distinction between the “lived experiences” of Belorussians and Ukrainians as pertains to Russia, reinforcing pre-existing trends. It was primarily outsiders – Germans, Westerners, of a sort – who inflicted the greatest amount of “trauma” on the former. But for Ukrainians, the Holodomor (~3M excess deaths) was broadly comparable in the scale of death to the results of the Nazi occupation (~5M civilian deaths). And in modern opinion polls, most Ukrainians consider the Holodomor to have been a genocide against them – though opinions differ on whether it was Soviets, Russians, or Jews who were most responsible. This is a questionable interpretation, since (Great) Russian areas suffered a similar number of excess deaths in absolute terms. Moreover, one may point out that neither Jugashvili, nor Kaganovich are Russian names. Even so, there are too many Russians, including in positions of influence, who are overly eager to trivialize or deny these tragedies – claiming that they didn’t happen; claiming that they happened on account of natural causes; even claiming that the US also experienced a famine with millions of excess deaths during the 1930s, which is something one encounters on the more “powerful” Stalinist blogs. Ukrainians are not incorrect to resent that and want to distance themselves from those elements. However, this is not an issue for Belorussians, who did not particularly suffer from the Soviet regime – and who are perhaps more “sovok” than the Russian average.
From left to right: Map of Russian Empire elections to the Second Duma (1907), Third Duma (1907), and Fourth Duma (1912). Black regions represent right-wing, moderate right, and nationalist forces across all three maps; the liberal right-wing Octobrists are included in the Black region for the first map, but are Blue in the second and third; Social Democrats and Social Revolutionaries are Red; Yellow regions represent Kadets and liberal forces; Orange regions represent national groups.
During the short-lived dawn of Russian electoral politics between the 1905 Revolution and the Bolshevik coup, the Belorussian territories consistently voted in line with Central Russia. Out of the 37 deputies elected to the Third Duma from the five Belorussian governorates (Vilna, Vitebsk, Grodno, Minsk, Mogilev), some 24 of them were representatives of nationalist and right-wing parties; this number rose to 27 during the Fourth Duma.
Russian Constituent Assembly election, 1917: Brown = Social Revolutionaries; Red = Bolsheviks; Green = Regional SR’s; Yellow = Local parties.
In the Constituent Assembly elections of 1917, a strong plurality of Belorussians voted for the Bolsheviks (though they only got an absolute majority in the Baltic provinces). This result was however in line with voting across much of Central Russia. Meanwhile, the Ukrainians – though not the Novorossiyans – voted for regional Social Revolutionary parties. In the Minsk governorate, the Belarusian Socialist Assembly – the first, and for a long time only, organization of Belarusian nationalists – got a mere 0.3% of the vote.
Unlike with Ukrainians, there was were no calls for autonomy (during the Provisional Government), nor subsequent demands for independence (after the October Revolution). The Third Assembly of Peasant Deputies of the Minsk and Vilna governorates issued a resolution declaring that “Belarus is an indivisible whole with the great revolutionary Russia.” The pronounced lack of “national” consciousness amongst the Belorussian peasantry was noted and lamented by local nationalists: “It got to the point that at the Peasant’s Assembly, the peasants renounced themselves, their language, and everything Belarusian in front of the whole world. “We don’t need Belarusians, down with Belarusians!” shouted the peasants and teachers, clenching their fists…” This obviously does not imply that Belorussians hated themselves, but that a political Belarusian identity had simply not made inroads amongst the popular masses.
Unsurprisingly, when the Bolsheviks launched their korenizatsiya policies during the 1920s, there was active discontent amongst its putative Belorussian beneficiaries, who harshly but not incorrectly viewed it as a useless peasant language that would constrain their opportunities for cultural advancement. In one famous letter from 1926, addressed to the Central Executive Committee of the USSR, representatives of the Polotsk intelligentsia wrote: “When for the first time the Belarusian language was introduced into the schools and institutions by decree, without any plebiscite, the population reacted to this reform so negatively that such voices began to be heard in the villages: “First, the Germans came to us, then the Poles, and now the Belarusians are attacking us…” That is, the population began to consider the Belarusifiers as their enemies.” These sentiments were sufficiently widespread to generate a steady stream of annoyed letters to the editors of Belarusian papers throughout the 1920s requesting that they switch to Russian instead of the broken Belarusian that they were forced to use. But Stalin, the guy then responsible for nationalities policy, was resolutely opposed, remarking at the 10th Bolshevik party Congress in 1921: “Here I see that allegations that we, Communists, are artificially foisting a Belorussian identity. This is incorrect, because there is a Belorussian nationality, which has its own language, distinct from Russian. As such, it’s only possible to raise the culture of the Belorussian people in their own people.”
Although radical Belarusization was reversed from the mid-1930s, the epistemological foundations for long-term separateness had been successfully laid. Even the postwar concept of the “three Slavic brotherly peoples” affirmed the sundering of the Russian [russkie] people, which now came to refer exclusively to what had previously been Great Russians [velikorosy] as opposed to an identity that both Belorussians [belorosy] and Little Russians [malorosy] could belong to without contradiction.
Even so, unlike the case with many Ukrainians, the vast majority of Belorussians do still hold to the Soviet ideal of Slavic brotherhood, with large majorities supporting both the official status of the Russian language, and economic integration with Russia (though this sentiment stops short of wishing to fully merge into Russia, which only enjoys ~15% support). Russian language usage is near universal, including in rural areas – despite some limited Belarusization efforts since 2014. In the Ukraine, the Russian language is only dominant in the cities of Eastern and Central Ukraine. As of September 2020, all Ukrainian schools will transition to Ukrainian by decree, with the Russian language receding to the status of an elective foreign language, setting a symbolic capstone to 30 years of post-Soviet Ukrainization.
Ukrainian nationalists can, at least in theory, dream of themselves as a Great European Power. On the collapse of the Soviet Union, their population of 52 million was comparable to that of the UK, France, and Italy – and their GDP per capita was higher than Poland’s. In 1991, President Leonid Kravchuk promised that within a decade, Ukraine would become a “Second France”. It didn’t quite work out. Ukraine’s population fell to 35-37 million, and it is now the second poorest country in Europe after Moldova. Even so, convergence to at least Poland’s level is still not entirely implausible.
More germane so far as nation-builders are concerned is that the Ukrainians can also look back to a history of independent statehood in the Hetmanate. Furthermore, their more “svidomy” elements can appropriate the history of “Kievan Rus”… although the term is a purely historiographic one coined by 19th century Russian historians, and its denizens called themselves Rus and had never even heard of “Ukraine”, there are but minor quibbles for committed svidomists who enjoy support at the highest official levels (recall Poroshenko’s remarks on Kiev building churches while Moscow was a swamp).
However, zmagarism – the Belarusian analogue of svidomism – is even more innately absurd. While the svidomy can at least pretend to be their own autochthonous civilization, occasionally embellished by medieval Cossack armadas (no, not kidding) by the most “powerful” amongst them, Belarusian zmagars can only larp as the “real” descendants of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (even though for much of that period, many of their own intellectual elites viewed themselves as part of the Russian World, e.g. the early 17th century Barkulab Chronicle treats the Muscovite princes with more sympathy their their own Lithuanian rulers).
Тhe most “powerful” zmagars find inspiration in the Principality of Polotsk in medieval Rus. In 2017, one such “historian” Olga Levko dated the foundation of Belarusian statehood to the 9th century, an endeavor in which she was supported by Lukashenko. However, the Polotsk larpers do at least have a cooler origin story than Litvin “we wuz Sarmatians” larpers. The Principality of Polotsk did produce one of the more colorful characters in Rus history – a guy called Vseslav the Sorcerer, who was rumored to be a werewolf. In 1068, he was color revolutioned from imprisonment into princeship in Kiev. (Some things never change). Though he only lasted in the position for seven months, before the old prince returned with a Polish army and kicked him out. After some further adventures, he returned to ruling over Polotsk in 1071, settled down, and built a bunch of churches.
In terms of its compatibility with a Russian identity, Belorussia isn’t even so much Novorossiya – which may well have “tipped over” into Russia in 2014, in the absence of committed nationalists from Western Ukraine – as Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts, even if its “Russophilia Quotient” falls short of outright Russian-majority Crimea and the territories that came to constitute the LDNR. This is undergirded both by deep history, and by a slower pace of de-Russification since 1991. Nonetheless, it is happening, and Lukashenko – his early promises of reintegrating with Russia aside – has been a central player in this, quietly repressing Russophiles while seeding positions of cultural influence to zmagars. Their larps might be ridiculous, but ultimately all nations begin as larps – the Aeneid is basically “we wuz Trojans” – and any larp, sustained for a sufficiently long period of time, will eventually become real. At which point they also become a great deal less ridiculous.
Consequently, the Belorussian Question remains very much an open one.
* I would like to thank the commenter AP for many of the arguments in this paragraph, and for bringing Darden’s work to my attention.