ISSUE 3-2013
Олександр Сушко Вероника Мовчан Сергей Саркисян Alili Ziya
Ольга Потемкина Агата Вежбовска-Мязга
Виктор Замятин Степан Григорян
Mykola Riabchuk
Богдан Олексюк

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the articles and/or discussions are those of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views or positions of the publisher.

By Mykola Riabchuk | Reasercher, Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, Ukraine | Issue 3, 2013
Nelly Bekus. Struggle over Identity. The Official and the Alternative “Belarusianness”. --­ Budapest & New York: CEU Press, 2010; 306 p. ISBN 978-963-9776-68-5.
Nelly Bekus published a book that boldly challenges some “basic truths” about Belarusian identity as allegedly “weak”, “immature”, and “underdeveloped”. She argues that the process of nation building under the presumably “nationless” or even “anti-national” regime of Aleksandr Lukashenko is going in full swing. Moreover, she avers that all the previous decades of the Soviet rule had been not a completely lost time in terms of the nation building – contrary to the belief of many scholars, including such luminaries as Ernest Gellner, who considered postcommunist developments as continuation of some processes interrupted by the advance of communism. She definitely opposes the view that the national development was suspended in the conditions of socialism, and at the moment of the systems’ breakup these societies resumed, according to Gellner, “the development which had been frozen seventy (or, in some areas, forty) years earlier” [34].

Nelly Bekus is certainly not the first author who questions the common wisdom about today’s Belarusian identity – suffice to mention Aleksandr Pershai’s and, especially, Natalia Leshchenko’s articles. Even less exceptional is her view of the Soviet period as a period of nation building rather than nation destroying. Such a view actually prevails among many adherents of the modernist approach in the nationalities studies – from Eric Hobsbawm to Terry Martin. “From this point of view, Nelly Bekus maintains, for all of the decades of Soviet history, the USSR actually played its usual role creating ‘national constructions’ with educational systems, media, civil rituals, and so on at its disposal. The creation of a Soviet community was thus analogous to other nation-making projects, with the exception that the Soviet state did not attempt to build a unified nation similar to other big nations, but was engrossed in institutialization of the numerous nations on its territory, a phenomenon that Ian Bremmer calls ‘matrioshka nationalism’.” [3-4]

What is really new in the book is an attempt to present today’s processes as a rather natural continuation of the Soviet experience of nation building as well as of a prerevolutionary development (at least of its populist-socialist-egalitarian tenets). Even of greater importance is the recognition of a profound identity split in today’s Belarus – something that is misperceived by so many authors as an apparent proof of identity “weakness” and “fundamental imperfection”. In fact, there are two very different Belarusian identities, each of them pretty strong in its own way but immanent only in a part of the population and unacceptable for the other part. Belarus therefore is considered as a “public and cultural space in which a ‘struggle over identity’ between official and opposition discourses takes place and in which both discourses claim their right to be the only voice of genuine Belarusianness” (where “Belarusianness” is understood as a “set of axiological criteria, historical ideas, and geopolitical orientations that sum up the essence of the Belarusian nation in a definite political and cultural conception”). [2]

Nation building by default

Nelly Bekus stops short of defining these two communities (and discursive formations) as two different Belarusian nations but all her analysis point actually at this very direction:

“Two concepts of the Belarusian nation are the source of a profound division in Belarusian society. It is not only split along the lines of political values and socioeconomic development strategies, but this split also influences the system of collective self-determination of ‘Belarusians as Belarusians’. Each Belarusian idea, both official and alternative, is articulated and manifested in the public space according to a definite logic of nation building. Each resorts to historical discourse to create the foundation of Belarusian tradition. This tradition, in turn, establishes a historical alibi for a given strategy of formulating a modern image of Belarusianness, the selection of geopolitical guidelines, and the system of socio-cultural values. Thus, behind the screen of the political struggle between the official authorities and the opposition lies a struggle for Belarusian identity, for the right to set up its civilizational parameters and to establish the trajectory of its further development.” [2-3]

International misperception of today’s Belarusianness largely stems from the traditional ethno-cultural notion of national identity that is immanent, indeed, only in the minority of Belarusian population. This identity evolved in the 19th century along the Miroslav Hroch’s three-stage model of national development applicable to all “small”, stateless nations deemed “non-historical”, in Eastern Europe in particular. The main peculiarity of this model is that the process of nation making is carried out not by the state (as in France or Britain) but by a tiny group of intellectuals who discover, initially, richness of local cultural heritage (the phase A – of cultural interest), then try to inculcate masses with this newly discovered, culture-based identity (the phase B – of nationalistic agitation), and finally raise the political demands supported by popular movement (the phase C – of mass national mobilization).

Belarus began the phase B, in fact, only in 1905, after the tsarist government partially lifted heavy restrictions on Belarusian publishing and education. This belated development had dramatically hindered the advance of the phase C and largely precluded Belarusians from gaining political independence in 1917, when the empire was crumbling. The Belarusian National Republic created in 1918 under the German auspices appeared weak and short-lived, whereas the Soviet Belarusian Republic created in the same year by the Bolsheviks appeared to be a very ambiguous and controversial phenomenon, still open to different interpretations.

From one point of view, exemplified above by the quotation from Gellner and shared by virtually all today’s Belarusian activists and many international observers, the Belarusian nation-making was forcefully interrupted at the phase B and resumed only at the end of perestroika and in the first years of independence. Logically, the main task of today’s nation-builders, i.e., of the government and national intelligentsia should have been to complete the phase B, which meant to induce national self-awareness in popular masses – to make “locals” into Belarusians. Within the Hroch’s scheme such a completion is a prerequisite for the phase C – political mobilization and acquiring national sovereignty. In Belarus, however, the national sovereignty was achieved by default, that is by the collapse of the USSR.

This created a paradoxical situation when, on the one side, the Belarusophile intelligentsia strove to complete the phase B in order to buttress the political independence and imbue the new state with a Belarusian “spirit”. Yet, on the other side, the post-Soviet nomenklatura that inherited a piece of empire called “Belarus” was not interested too much in the completion of the phase B since they had already benefited from the incidentally achieved independence (without phase C) and reasonably considered the Belarusophile intelligentsia either a nuisance or, worse, dangerous rivals. Of course, they needed some master-narrative to legitimize their dominance in the newly acquired state and buttress its political independence against possible external challenges. However, they opted to base the identity of the new nation-state primarily on the Soviet rather than Belarusian legacy. More precisely, they chose the version of Belarusianness that was developed under the Soviets as a regional form of the overarching imperial identity of “homo sovieticus”.

The choice was determined probably by two reasons. First, this type of identity was predominant in Belarus, inherent not only to the ruling elite but also to the majority of population. And secondly, the acceptance of the alternative identity promoted by the Belarusophile intelligentsia would imply not only some sort of power-sharing with this group but also acceptance of European, liberal-democratic values embedded historically within this type of identity. From the point of view of the postcommunist rulers, the identity of Soviet Belarusians was much more suitable for their nation-building project based on illiberal, paternalistic, anti-occidental, and profoundly authoritarian values.

Nelly Bekus, like many students of nationalism, tends to mistake this type of identity for “civic” just because its adherents define their Belarusianness primarily via citizenship – contrary to their opponents who define it largely (but not exclusively) in ethno-cultural terms. The labeling is misleading – not only because the dichotomy of civic/ethnic (Western/easterm, “good”/“bad”) nationalisms is a sorry oversimplification (disproved actually long ago), but also because in post-Soviet cases “civic” identity is only on paper. In actuality it does not entail any commitment to civic values. Rather, it is a statist, quasi-feudal identity of obedient, paternalistic subjects rather than of free and self-confident citizens.

Nation building or nation destroying?

The main confusion comes probably from the general ambiguity of the Soviet project, which for a number of reasons supported development of modern national identities in the ethnic peripheries – at least within the first decade of the communist rule. Nelly Bekus seems to accept uncritically Terry Martin’s view that the Soviet state “literally seized leadership over all the three phases: the articulation of national culture, the formation of national elites, and the propagation of the national mass consciousness. It still went further and initiate even ‘phase D’ [Martin’s term, not Hroch’s] measures typical of newly formed nation-states, establishing a new language of state and a new governing elite. To use more familiar Bolshevik terminology, the party became the vanguard of non-Russian nationalism”. [74]

Martin is wrong. First of all, the Soviets had never permitted any phase C in their fiefdom, and there was no reason to fabricate any phase D – the idea rejected, inter alia, by Hroch himself. It is probably the specter of the phase C that made them to thwart and rollback the phase B, supported initially in only specific forms and to a certain degree. The Soviets actually never conceded any real power to native elites (e.g., army, security service, and party apparatus that had always been under the strict Moscow control), and never gave up close surveillance over the content of cultural and educational activity in ethnic peripheries. It could be “national in form”, according to the Soviet dogma, but its “content” should have been definitely “socialist”, and it was Moscow who decided the right proportion of “national”/“socialist” ingredients. Of course, this whimsical dialectics left some room for embellishment of the “form” at the cost of the “content”, and even more room for intellectuals’ self-deception. By the 1930s, however, the space in that room shrank dramatically as a witch-hunt for ethnic “nationalists” began (up to 90 per cent of ethnic intelligentsia perished), whereas Russian nationalism became de facto official ideology of the Soviet state.

Nelly Bekus is well aware of these developments but still tends to downplay their impact on Belarusian identity: “Change of politics had a definite impact on the rate of articulation of Belarusianness while russification and bilingualism influenced the cultural status and image of Belarussianness. At the same time, they by no means abolished the result of the prior epoch, i.e. the formation of the Belarusian nation”. [75] “Soviet policy has led to shaping a definite format of national identity [but] not to its erosion or elimination”. [50]

Following many modernists, she argues that the Soviet modernization, even though in a “reduced form”, “was nevertheless related to those spheres of public life that directly affected nationalism”. In particular, it changed the social structure of the society through the process of industrialization and urbanization; transformed communicative facilities through promotion of literacy and spread of newspapers and radio; institutionalized ethnic identities through the creation of ethnically-based administrative units and ethnic entries in documents; and, in sum, “created conditions for a new way of thinking about the ‘nation’ as a whole”. [44]

One may add to this list introduction of mandatory military conscription for all males and some other measures; all of them, however, were apparently a mixed blessing in regard of development of particular national identities. Soviet modernization led no so much to urbanization of peasants but, rather, “ruralization” of cities (as Nelly Bekus herself recognizes at some point [88]) – something that best could be defined as total lumpenization of the Soviet society. Elimination of bourgeoisie and well-to-do peasants, as well as extermination of nationally-minded intelligentsia, left ethnic groups virtually without any intellectual leadership – without any social strata able and willing to promote a separate national identity. As to the spread of literacy and mass media, it was, again, rather a tool of Russification-Sovietization and party-state control over the people minds, than any sustainable “nationalization” of ethnic groups. And finally, “passport” ethnicities were rather a stigma for their holders than object of pride. Even though all Soviet citizens were vulnerable to the repressive policies of the state, Russian ethnicity provided at least one advantage: there was no Russian nationalism officially recognized in the Soviet Union, and this made the Russians at least at one point more secure than other nationals broadly susceptible to criminal accusations in “bourgeois nationalism”.

All this quite naturally led non-Russian nationals to mass assimilation into Russian language and culture and to acquiring Russian “passport ethnicity”, even though the latter was complicated by the Soviet law which determined person’s ethnicity by that of his/her parents. As a result, “by the mid-1970s not a single Belarusian-language school remained in the republic’s ninety-five cities; in 1984 only some 5 percent of journals in circulation were published in Belarusian; only about one-third of the population spoke Belarusian in their daily life, and these were concentrated among rural inhabitants”. [151]

The Soviet policies, despite their congenital ambiguities, were definitely much more about nation-destroying than nation-building. The communist dogma envisioned the future as not only classless but also nationless. Even though Bolsheviks did not specify what would be the cultural and linguistic core of the prospective “nationless” community, the very “vanguard” role they ascribed to the great Russian nation (the most “progressive” and “internationalist”) in the communism building left little doubt who would assimilate whom within the official policy of “closing in and merging” of Soviet nationalities. The initial concessions made to the “ethnics” in the 1920s, were gradually removed and replaced with increasingly crude Russification measures. In the 1930s the Russian became mandatory in the “national republics” alongside local languages; thirty years later it became the only mandatory language in schools, while local languages were deemed optional. In the 1970, the Soviet scholars divided all national languages for those “having” and “not having any prospects” (perspektivnye i besperspektivnye), with a great majority falling predictably into the latter category. The communist bosses proclaimed that the “new historic community – Soviet nation” was formed, and there were too many signs that this “community” had to be further homogenized and consolidated around the Russian cultural and linguistic core.

Nelly Bekus does not deny that the Soviets derailed the initial attempt of ethno-nationalists to construct Belarusian identity along the Hroch’s scheme – based primarily on Belarusian ethnicity and cultural and linguistic “revival”. She argues, however, that they constructed instead their own – Soviet – version of Belarusian identity and this very version is appropriated and developed today by the incumbent regime. The latter is true but the question remains whether we can justifiably define that version as “national”.

Drawing on “banal nationalism”

“Matrioshka nationalism” is a nice metaphor but it describes rather hierarchy of identities (national – regional – local – personal) than any strength of “nationalistic” feelings. In fact, there was only one kind of nationalism in the Soviet Belarus and it was certainly not “Soviet” (or compatible with “Sovietness”) but, rather, anti-Soviet – explicitly or implicitly. The Soviet Belarusian identity was hardly anything but local/regional sentiment supported, indeed, by passport ethnicity and administrative divisions but fully subordinate to the overarching Soviet identity – more or less like Bavarian identity within Germany or Texasan identity within the U.S. Each of them can become “national” by default (if one imagines a sudden collapse of Germany or the U.S. and decision of local elites to “privatize” the inherited territory) but in the absence of ethnic nationalists it is very unlikely to have local patriotism transformed into full-fledged nationalism.

The Soviet Belarusianness was a type of local identity that could have gradually faded away like a Provençal identity in France or, to the contrary, revitalized and rebranded as “national” – as it happened in Belarus after the fall of the USSR. The Soviets did not create full-fledged nations but they created some institutional ambiguities seen as transitional entities in their way to a full dissolution in the Russia-based Soviet nation. Yet, as the empire collapsed, the entities were used by ethno-nationalists and/or nomenklatura opportunists as both territorial and institutional domains for their nationalizing efforts.

Sociological surveys examined by Nelly Bekus confirm that today’s Belarusian identity is neither weak nor feckless. Indeed, a clear majority of Belarusians prioritize their national identity over all other identities – either regional, local, or Soviet. They are proud of their citizenship; they support integration with Russia but are not going to hand over their national sovereignty; and even though they are heavily russified, this is not tantamount to political pro-Russianness (actually Belarusian-speaking peasants are more pro-Russian than Russian-speaking urbanites [154]). All these changes occurred within the past twenty years and result primarily from the very existence of Belarusian state and some forms of “banal nationalism” it inevitably induces, rather than from specific policies of Aleksandr Lukashenko or his nominally “Belarusian” Soviet predecessors.

Lukashenko, however, is greatly responsible for the strong Soviet component in the official version of Belarusian identity he promotes. It intensively draws on Soviet myths and stereotypes, starting from old good notions of “Slavic unity” and “historical re-unification of Belarus with brotherly Russian people” and ending up with the “Great Patriotic War” in which Belarusians played increasingly central role. In a striking difference to other post-Soviet rulers, Lukashenko completely rejects the alternative (non-Soviet) concepts of national history and identity promoted by ethno-nationalists, and aggressively ostracizes them as Western stooges, dangerous radicals, and public enemies. [219]

It is actually not the history but the system of values that makes the Soviet Belarusian identity so attractive for Lukashenko and so important for his project of nation-building. Those values include paternalism and collectivism, social equality and support for a “strong hand”, egalitarian anti-liberalism and anti-intellectualism, lack of any idea of separation of powers (“law” and “power” is virtually the same) and shallow religiosity that replaced the equally superficial communist creed. (The replacement did not mean any significant change since the local version of Christianity is less about spirituality and more about traditional pan-Slavism, anti-Westernism, and rather odd Belarusian (diluted Soviet?) messianism epitomized in Lukashenko’s seminal dictum: “We are the same people as Russians but with a quality mark”).

His nation-building runs high on “banal nationalism” (Michael Billig’s term) – something that Nelly Bekus defines as “constant and laborious actualizations of social rituals at the micro and macro levels of everyday life” [264]; “daily interactions and practices that produce an inherent and often unarticulated feeling of belonging”; practices and routines that, in Katherine Verdery’s words, may vary from the “relatively mundane rituals of courtship and family-making, as influenced by the policies of the state, to the relatively rare and spectacular, such as participation in warfare”. [268]

“All the various practices”, Nelly Bekus sums up, “are nothing but instruments of embedding the attributes of official Belarusianness into people’s notions about ‘their country’. The ideas of official Belarusianness are expressed in national form and become the national idea, the idea of belonging to the Belarusian nation of the Republic of Belarus. At the same time, institutialization of official Belarusian idea works not only in the representation of some mythological (or ideological) content. It constitutes the existence of a Belarusian nation that practically ‘finds itself’ in the signs of the representation. Belarusianness is reified by means of symbolic institutionalization and social ritualization. The longer such state of affairs exists during this political regime, the more difficult it is for the majority of Belarusians to deny their support, which would mean leaving the territory of Belarusianness that constantly affirms itself as the only legitimate space of Belarusianness. Furthermore, in these processes, certain ideas concerning the arrangement of social and political life become part of the foundation of the Belarusian national unity… Some of these ideas were inscribed into the symbolic matrix of Belarusianness long before the Lukashenka regime was established, and even before the Soviet state was created. The first articulations of Belarusianness by national awakeners were closely connected with the ideas of social justice and class equality... For this reason, there are no apparent conflicts between the official national idea and the way the majority of Belarusians have been taught to understand what Belarusianness is about”. [269]

The Soviets understood perfectly the advantages of “banal nationalism”, which is so mundane and routinized that becomes almost invisible – like a banal national flag on the government building, to employ Billig’s metaphor. They benefited greatly from this invisibility, representing themselves as genuine “internationalists” and condemning everybody who questioned or challenged the status quo. All those troublemakers were ostracized as sinister “nationalists”. Lukashenko employs the same techniques to demonize and marginalize his opponents as obsessed radicals or, worse, foreign agents. He consolidates his own version of social “normality”, which is largely continuation of the Soviet “normality” internalized by the majority of the people.

Most of his policies, let alone rhetoric, meet expectations of the majority of population. Opinion polls reveal that Belarusians trust more in official than independent media, and that public support for the president is sufficient to win elections even without brutal falcifications. (Nelly Bekus aptly explains Lukashenko’s fake eighty-plus percent electoral victories as a desire to symbolically homogenize political space and completely marginalize opponents as insignificant deviants. His decree that allows only state-run media to use words “Belarusian” or “national” in their titles [165] signifies also an attempt to monopolize the notion of Belarusian identity and prevent anybody from questioning or alternating it. Even though the alternative versions of Belarusian history and identity are not completely forbidden in Belarus – as it had been before, in the Soviet Union, – they are still excluded from the public space, being either inaccessible for the majority of population or a priori suspicious and maverick).

Post/neo-Soviet “banality” of Lukashenko’s nationalism accounts probably for the widespread mistreatment of his regime as “nationless” or even “antinational”. In one sense, indeed, it can be deemed antinational – as adamantly opposed to the alternative, ethno-nationalists’ project of the Belarusian nation and aggressively suppressing any attempts of its symbolic reification in public space. Any nation building, as Walker Connor remarked long ago, is also a nation destroying. It means that all modern nations are built on the remnants of ethnic groups -- would-be “nations”, which had not got a chance to develop their ethnic identity into national. Or, as Eugene Weber may have put it, they failed to make local peasants into Bretons or Occitanians rather than Frenchmen. One may speculate whether today’s English-speaking Irish nation is the same nation that may have developed as an Irish-speaking alternative. Even more debatable is the question whether today’s Lukashenko’s crypto-Soviet nation is the same Belarusian nation that was incepted by the early Belarusian activists over a century ago and still is cherished as the project alternative to Lukashenko’s “official Belarusianness”.

Two Belaruses

Nelly Bekus defines it as “alternative” but the paradox is that the ethno-nationalists’ project is older and, in a way, more traditional than the Lukashenko’s. It is actually Lukashenko’s project that could be deemed “alternative” to the century-old project of ethno-culturally defined Belarusian nation. It emerged only because of the independence – as a response of the imperial stakeholders of the territory called “Soviet Belarus” to the nation-building attempts of the local ethno-nationalists. From the postcolonial point of view, it might be described as an attempt of the colonizers to preserve their dominance by upgrading the regional “Soviet Belarusian” identity to “national” (of a Creole type, however) and suppressing the aboriginal identity of non-Sovietized Belarusians, along with all their hopes for cultural and linguistic revival. At least, this is how nationally conscious “aborigines” (deemed “nationalists”) perceive Lukashenko’s state – as completely alien, hostile and, indeed, antinational. It is the state where they feel like “guests” or even prisoners under “military occupation”. [246-7]

Nelly Bekus does not try to answer a delicate question whether two groups with so different identities belong really to the same nation or they rather represent two different nations living on the same territory and bearing, ironically (and confusingly!), the same name. She persuasively proves, however, that “there are two different ideas of ‘Belarusianness’, two different concepts of Belarus, to which the Belarusian regime and political opposition appeal… Both ideas came to being as a result of different approaches to the development of the Belarusians’ history. The idea of Belarusianness represented by the official discourse is built on the basis of continuity with the Soviet past and in some aspects it is connected with the ideas of the Belarusian revival of the early twentieth century (e.g., ideas of social equality as the ground for national unity). For the Belarusian nationalist movement of the 1990s, the national revival became the main source when articulating the concept of alternative Belarusianness as opposed to the Soviet development of the nation. Both the official and alternative discourses aspire to generalize and ‘globalize’ their way of representation of Belarusianness, both of them are declared to be the only true ‘Belarusian idea’. And in both cases the Belarusian ‘Motherland’ appears as an ‘indivisible’ ideological entity. To a certain extent, this can be seen as logical because the national interest excludes particularity, because it implies the ‘wholeness’ of the nation. In the developments taking place in the Belarusian political space one can discern numerous signs of the symbolic struggle for the right to represent the true Belarusianness”. [163-4]

We may guess whether this struggle would really result in the emergence of two fundamentally different “Belarusian” nations, or in some compromise between them and development of a common civic identity, or, most likely, in a victory of one of them and complete assimilation of the other. Nelly Bekus suggests that the “official Belarusianness” has better chances to win this zero-sum game since it enjoys much broader public support, relies on powerful “banal nationalism” inherited from the Soviets, and promulgates itself through enormous institutional resources of the authoritarian state, to which their rivals have no access. The only advantage of ethno-nationalists is national culture, largely missing in their opponents, and probably system of values, more compatible with today’s liberal-democratic, Western-dominated world.

Nelly Bekus wonders if this is enough since the playing field is not level and the competing forces are too unequal. “From this perspective, it appears highly unlikely that a democratization of the Belarusian political system and a liberalization of society will ever result from the effective ‘nationalization’ of Belarusians’ own consciousness in the meaning implied by [ethno-] nationalists”. [282] This might be true but there are quite a few ethnic groups in the world who feel oppressed and discriminated against, and are not ready to accept any colonial “truth”, however ultimate and self-evident.

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