After decades of Russian dominance, Belarus begins to reclaim its language
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After decades of Russian dominance, Belarus begins to reclaim its language
Quote:In the wake of the Ukraine crisis, activists tell Katerina Barushka that aspects of Belarusian identity – especially language – are making a comeback

Gallery Y is one of the very few alternative cafes in the Belarusian capital Minsk, and every Monday evening it is packed with around 200 people of all trades and ages. They sit on the floor or stand for three hours to participate in one of the most popular public events in the city – a Belarusian language class.

Belarus’ president, Alexander Lukashenko, who is widely criticised for his authoritarian rule, once said “nothing significant can be expressed” in Belarusian. He played a key role in stigmatising the language in favour of Russian, and in the years that followed, Belarusian became the language of the marginalised political opposition.

But for the first time in his two decade-long rule, Lukashenko – facing fresh concerns about Russia’s influence over the former Soviet country – he has begun to show signs that he may be changing his mind. And Belarusian speakers are excited.

Alena Vasilyeva is one of the students at the class. A university lecturer in her forties, she was raised in a Russian-speaking household. Back in the 1980s, her parents stopped her non-obligatory Belarusian language classes at school, and a short university education in the language was not enough to start conversing.

“I came here to learn the language, but also to see how distinct we are as a nation, what Belarusian do or can do to be different from Russians,” she says.

Belarusian and Russian are both considered official languages of Belarus, but only 23% of the 9.67m population speaks the former, whereas more than 70.2% per cent speaks the latter. No more than 10% of Belarusians say they communicate in Belarusian in their day-to-day lives.

Public courses have been run by independent Belarusian academics for decades, but the language was frowned upon at state level. It is only recently that they have seen a boost in popularity, with independent courses now conducted across Belarus.

People want to be proud of who they are, to be distinct and original,” says Alesya Litvinouskaya, one of the founders of the most popular course Mova Nanova.

It’s hard to be distinct when you are constantly reminded your nation is Russia’s younger brother, and anything Belarusian is boring and provincial. We aim at making the Belarusian language and culture look cool again.


2015 Feb 20 16:33
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