Belarusian is an official language of Belarus but it is dying out as most of the population uses Russian. There are four reasons for that. All are related to Belarus and its people.
Neighbors like Poland or Russia could also be considered as the fifth reason, as these countries suppressed the Belarusian language to a various degree. However, it was in the past while we’re interested in the present.
Native Belarusian Speakers Are Passive & Lack Initiative
We’ll start with native Belarusian speakers. We have a good example that backs up the first point. Our magazine is published in three languages — Belarusian, English and Russian. We also have thirteen articles in Ukrainian. Let’s compare Belarusian to Ukrainian:
Ukrainian is showing solid growth while Belarusian is marking time. It’s important to note that Ukrainian is completely on its own. We don’t promote it at all. In spite of this, it grew 3.4 times in almost two years.
When it comes to Belarusian, after all the effort put in it, there’s a modest growth of 33 % for the same period. It should also be kept in mind that the number of materials in Belarusian was growing: in January 2017 there were 4.7 times more Belarusian articles and that number grew to 5.8 by October 2018.
One can argue that Ukrainians are experiencing a renaissance of their language and culture. Plus the Ukrainian audience is five times bigger. True, but there’s also a different perspective to that.
There’re few websites in Belarusian and few Belarusian speakers. We can assume that we have Belarusian for a tiny but a very active group that has a limited number of websites to consume. Having this in mind, we can also assume that the website will quickly become popular among this group or at least will gain approval. But it doesn’t.
The reason for that is that Belarusian-speaking Belarusians don’t differ much from the rest of Belarusians. Belarusians are known for their political apathy, lack of initiative and fragmentation. Belarusian speakers have little interest for the new and their ‘standard’ package is Radio Free Europe, Naša Niva and a couple of other Belarusian-speaking opposition sites. It’s hard to confess, but Belarusian speakers have created an ideal ‘cage’ where they exist in their ‘endless struggle.’
Their passivity and paternalism are striking. They are native speakers of the language. What do they do to pass that knowledge? They give courses in large cities in Belarus. That’s good, though, even there they couldn’t agree on some details and quarreled among themselves.
Language-courses are a good endeavor, but why do we lack a website where everyone can learn Belarusian for free and online? After all, it’s 2018. For example, you don’t need to live in a city to learn Esperanto. You can live in the middle of nowhere or be an immigrant and still learn Esperanto.
You need to have a very strong will if you want to learn Belarusian. Not because the language is difficult but because all of the websites and books devoted to it are boring and unattractive.
The political situation in Belarus has left the Belarusian language and culture on its own. That is why native Belarusian speakers are responsible for the popularization of our language. Unfortunately, they stay in their comfort zone: they don’t create new projects and don’t support others.
Zero Solidarity With Belarus Among Talented People
This is what a young Swedish bank that grew from a startup has on its website:
Every time you open Periscope you see this:
And this is Masquerade, a Belarusian app:
Nothing about who they are and where they’re from.
I’ve no idea why it is so, but Belarusian companies rarely mention their roots. This is bad because the Belarusian society doesn’t have positive examples. However, for some reason, people feel zero connection to Belarus and don’t think it’s important to show their ethnicity. How much disaffection should one hove towards the birth country to not even put a simple ‘Founded in Belarus’ on their website or biography?
Next, we have the media. Almost all of it is in Russian. It’s a fact — there’s no financial incentive to add Belarusian to your project, but otherwise, there’s little motivation to learn Belarusian if you can’t practice it in real life.
As an owner of a small magazine, I’ll tell you that it’s not that hard to have multiple languages on your website. The biggest troublemaker is English since it’s a different audience, a different marketing strategy, and a completely different language. Belarusian, in comparison, is easy and fast to translate and the audience is mostly the same — Belarusians. Hell, you can just get a motivated student that will translate your work into Belarusian for the ‘national idea’ (translation: for free). The only thing the website owner has to do is to add the language and supply it with translations. You don’t even have to translate it on a daily basis.
No one needs a car to drive on a field, but people will consider buying one when there’ll be a road. It’s the task of the educated class of Belarusians to build that road. Yes, there’ll be no tremendous numbers of visitors for the Belarusian version of the website, but who else will provide people with reading material in Belarusian?
If cultural and business elites in Belarus don’t see their ethnicity or the Belarusian language as something of value — what should be expected from the regular people?
Bad Associations With the Soviet Union and Nationalism
Belarusian is not a language but a political instrument in the hands of the government and the political opposition. That’s why there’s no motivation to learn it.
In my village near Janaŭ in the South-West of Belarus, I don’t remember anyone speaking Belarusian. People in our region speak our own ‘God-knows-what’ with a strong Ukrainian influence. So, the Ukrainian ‘kartoplja’ is closer to me than the Belarusian ‘bulba.’ Both mean ‘a potato.’
Where did I encounter Belarusian in my region then? There were two sources. An absolutely disgusting newspaper called ‘Čyrvonaja źviazda’ (‘The Red Star‘) that materialized from time to time in our mailbox. Even the name of that newspaper was wrong since ‘źviazda’ is just a Belarusian-sounding word of the Russian word ‘zvezda.’ In Belarusian, the word ‘star’ is ‘zorka.’ Communism had died but this newspaper did not.
Television news held in Belarusian was the second source. Same as the newspaper the news didn’t change much from the Soviet times.
Where I lived the Belarusian language was the language of the government. It looked ugly and provincial. There’s a special name in Belarus for it. It’s called the ‘agro-chic’ or the ‘agro-style.’
It includes colors that should be as bright as possible and must not match (hey, there’s a flag of Lithuania!). It’s all about ‘matching the unmatchable’ both in design and material things like the ‘tractor ballet.’
That is why it would be ten times better if the government would keep a distance from the Belarusian language and started using Russian everywhere and created an association ‘Russian — language of the government — ugly.’
But that was the countryside. It turned out that in the cities the Belarusian language had been occupied by the opposition. They’re somewhat better than the state when it comes to the graphic but the language is used for the same topics: ‘Trump said, Putin did, Lukašenka visited’ and so on. Blah-blah-blah. Endless political discussions that lead to nothing.
The best thing that both parties can do is to stop using Belarusian in politics. The language has practically none associations except for politics. Let it become the language of culture, art, history, entrepreneurship, and fashion.
Both the government and the opposition look like two aggressive drunkards in front of a library. Let the police arrest these gents so that everyone can finally visit the library.
Last Reason — Russian Speaking Belarusians
I was born and raised in Russia and I’ve always justified Russian speakers in Belarus. ‘Nobody speaks Belarusian, how can they learn it?’ — was my logic. When I grew up in Russia I was surrounded by Russian speakers. Russian language and literature were being taught in school. Russia and Russians were everywhere. For some reason, I thought that Belarusians in Belarus had a similar situation. Not quite.
Belarusians in Belarus study both Belarusian and Russian at school. They have different history lessons. Their family and the surrounding people don’t speak 100 % Russian — there’re some words, phrases, and dialects that aren’t used in Russia. Signs in the cities are made in Belarusian as well as the navigation on public transport. Belarusian is on every official document, some forms are in Belarusian, the language is somewhat present on the TV and on the radio. There’re some Belarusian books at home as well as articles on the internet. Even Wikipedia has three versions to choose from: Russian, Belarusian, and Taraškievica (a variant of the orthography of the Belarusian language). One can also find Belarusian speaking friends and practice the language.
As we see, Belarusians living in Belarus and those that live abroad have a different level of interaction with the language. So, it’s quite possible to learn the language in Belarus. At least in ten, twenty or thirty years. But for some reason, Belarusians have stuck to the Russian language.
Yes, the Russian language is very useful. For example, you can get a job in Russia. It is common knowledge that if you go to Poland (and to the West in general) you’ll end up ‘cleaning somebody’s toilet’ while in Russia you’ll instantly get a high-paid position at Gazprom. Knowing Russian one can also read Belarusian classics like Lermontov, Pushkin, Tolstoy. Oh wait, they’re Russian classic writers from Russia!
Belarusians can be happy to have a full access to the history and culture of Russia but this comes at a cost: we barely understand our own classic writers and poets.
The Belarusian language can be worse at everything but you can’t take one thing from it — it is our language. When you read something in Belarusian you know that this is ‘only about us and for us.’ This is why I feel that our language should be at least respected. And we should do what we can to revive it. At least in the long term.
Russian speakers in Belarus give many arguments for using Russian like ‘why learn Belarusian, we need to study English and Chinese.’ However, frankly speaking, the majority of Belarusians don’t speak any language besides Russian. And it’s not about the language but about people simply hiding their laziness and inertia under lots of silly arguments. What’s worse — people have no interest in their own culture and history, otherwise, they’d see that they simply don’t understand their writers and poets.
Only Belarusians Are Responsible for Their Language
Russia, EU, NATO, the Belarusian government or whoever else can’t and won’t revive the Belarusian language. What’s more important — they shouldn’t even care about that. It’s the task of the nation to protect and save its culture and heritage. If Belarusians truly want to use their national language no dictatorship will be able to break that will.
I don’t know what will happen to Belarusian. It might go both ways. History knows stories that had a happy ending. Jews revived their language that is now used by millions. Same happened to the Czech language.
I’m certain that it’s all about small things that every Belarusian should do. I and my fellow colleagues are working on our Dialogue that has, as already said, three languages including Belarusian. So, maybe not everything is lost for our own language.