Changes in the system of values
And national identity image changes in post-Soviet Belarus

Alena V. Korshuk

Belarusian State University, Minsk
Paper presented at the Fourth Nordic Conference on the Anthropology of Post-Socialism, April 2002

To download, print, or bookmark, click:
To cite, quote this address and the download date. Not for commercial use.
2002 Alena V. Korshuk. Distributed by
Do not remove this notice from digital or paper copies of this text. 


"Belarus was known for its traditional calmness, tolerance and neutrality…. The Belarusians have a great desire for independence and autonomy, but they are steeped in tradition, and tend to follow powerful leaders without question."
(Terri Morrison, Wayne Conaway, George Border. 1994. Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: How to do Business in Sixty Countries. Holbrook: B. Adams)

National identity as a dynamic mental (or emotional) construct is based on certain objective prerequisites. The most important of these prerequisites are related to geography, human geography, history, anthropology, economy and technology on the one hand and culture both as artifacts and a shared system of beliefs, values, rules and norms of behavior, on the other hand.

The Western Dvina, Pripyat', Sozh, Niemen, and Dnieper rivers shape the territory where Belarusians have always lived.

The people inhabiting these lands have a certain number of salient anthropological features, one of them being the famous Belarusian "BULBA" (potato) nose.

There is a generally accepted view stating that there was an unknown ancient Finno-Ugric tribe, a Baltic substrate and three East Slavonic tribes - Dregovichi, Radzimichi, Krivichi, with a considerable influence of West Slavs and other East Slavs who contributed to the formation of the Belarusian nation.

Belarus has traditionally been an agricultural land despite the harsh climate and poor soil. The land ownership differed from the communal one, typical for the Russians.

Due to its - advantageous in this respect - geographical position Belarus has always been a trading point. Even the name of the capital, Minsk (Men'sk, Menesk) comes from the verb "MENIAT'", to barter.

However one can hardly think of it as of a major trading centre as no major investments have ever been made into the development of this land and its potential but for the Soviet times.

In the years following the October 1917 Socialist Revolution, and especially after the Second World War the centralized planned economy has turned Belarus, not very rich in natural resources, into a big assembling plant for the entire Soviet Union. For instance it was only in Minsk that the big road truck-refrigerators were produced.

One of the effects of this economic development was a big influx of people from other parts of the USSR who came to Belarus to work at these heavy industry enterprises and thus influenced some demographical and linguistic processes.

The term "Belarusian" has been generally accepted only since the 17th century. However, according to the view of the specialists, "the Belarusian literary language appeared in the 14-15th cc, on the basis of Church Slavonic and the live dialects of the former Dregovichi, Radzimichi and Krivichi tribes".

Old Belarusian has reached its highest point of development at the turn of the 15th c., when it became the official state language of the Great Lithuanian Principality. It was the language in which the original literature was created, diplomatic correspondence was written, books were printed, the famous three editions of the Lithuanian Statute were created, etc. But after the 1569 Lublin Union and especially after the 1696 Warsaw Sojm, the Old Belarusian language went out of use as an official language by conceding these functions to Polish and Latin. It was only the spoken Belarusian that was preserved.

Modern literary Belarusian was coming into being in the 19th century, severed from old traditions, on the basis of the national dialects of central Belarus. The literary written language was originally formed as a language of fiction. Only after 1917, with the foundation of the first national state of BSSR and as a result of belarusization policy, Belarusian has received the status of a state language and started being used by the Belarusian people in all major spheres of their life. However the political repression of the 30-ies sharply narrowed the potentialities of the Belarusian language and resulted in a situation of forced bilingualism, which through administrative and everyday practice paved the way to Russian to become practically the only "official" language in Belarus. The Belarusian language card has more than once been used in various political games at various times.

History is the most unpredictable part of the objective factors shaping the national identity of Belarusians. Throughout centuries Belarusian land and its people made part of a number of states (e.g. Kievan Rus, Great Lithuanian Principality, Rzecz Pospolita, Russian Empire, etc.), and due to its geographical position Belarus had suffered from all wars going from North to South, from South to North, from West to East, from East to West. As an outcome of these historical events, Belarusians had learnt to live side by side with people of different national and religious backgrounds.

At the dawn of the communist era in the history of Belarus, A. Burbis wrote that,

"... the Belarusian national movement is deeply rooted in the unique past history of Belarus, in its economic, ethnographic and linguistic peculiarities. In the 11-16th cc the Belarusian people has experienced the golden age of its statehood, society, national culture, built on free democratic principles. In the long centuries of its further life together with Poland (16th-18th cc) and later with Russia 18th-20th cc) it could hardly put up with the major basis of centralization, brought to Belarus by Poland in the form of a gentry-aristocracy republic, by Moscow in the form of boyar oligarchy and absolute monarchy.

As a result of national-religious antagonism and a whole number of social, reasons, class and social layer contradictions in Belarusian history, the Belarusian people did not manage to preserve its state and social independence in the course of history.

Gradually losing the socially privileged strata of society , who were becoming alienated from the Belarusian popular [National]masses both in their language, life style, ways of thinking and feelings, the people donated all its strength, active force, creativity to build up the statehood and culture of the neighboring peoples. However they still retain their national features, which differentiate them from other peoples.

Left on its own in its original primitive forms of life, the nation preserved both its mother tongue, its beliefs, its customs, its general cultural and economic way of life." (see A. Burbis, Attachment to the Note on the Creation of a Model Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic, Part C Belarus in the past).

The first attempts of a national movement in Belarus in the form of literary activities date back to 1830-1840s, and in the second half of the 19th century they took the form of more varied activities (e.g. narodniki student group "Gomon" in St-Petersburg in 1880s) aimed at the restoration of the Belarusian culture, at building up the national pride and awareness of the people. This way the basis for human and social rights ideas was laid. Whatever the expectations and aspirations of the well-to-do Poland-oriented landlords or of the mighty bureaucratic authorities, who considered Belarus and Belarusians part and parcel of Russia, in 1897 census 74% of the population of the so-called North-Western Region named Belarusian as their native tongue.

As we can see, all the material prerequisites are here. Belarusians have their land, their history, their economy, their language, etc.

Going back to the relations with a "bigger brother" there is no doubt that the other East Slavic nations, Russians and Ukrainians have no doubts in identifying a Belarusian even if the in-group feelings prevail. Belarusians, are regarded as a little brother, and called in a - mostly - loving way "bulbashi" (potato people).

Though similar in many respects, Belarusians differ from the 'Big Russian brother" in many culture-defining aspects, i.e. attitudes to nature, to time, to activity and to each other.

How do the Belarusians, known as a tolerant, passive, conservative, collectivistically minded, modest people see their traits these days? A comprehensive sociological research carried out by Nadezhda Yefimova in 1992 and 1998 reflects the views of the intellectuals (men of culture, education, politics) on the issue of national identity. She analyzed a whole range of newspapers, from the rightist to the leftist as to how they cover the issue. In most papers national culture materials ranked first followed by history, ethnography and religion. It was basically the Belarusian language and literature that were covered under "culture". However in 1998 the number of articles devoted to language issues has diminished (from 28.4% to 13.1% of the publications). Language is no longer considered to be the major element of culture and cultural identity. [Forced Belarusization or Russification or Polonization has never actually brought good results unless well grounded in objective reality and economic needs.] Both in 1992 and in 1998 it was the creation of an ethnocratic [term suggested by N. Yefimova] state, restoration of statehood that people saw as a way of national revival. National identity is seen as incorporating the following elements: national language (41.5% in 1992, 20.6% in 1998), original culture (27%, 15.7 %), original history (9.6%, 11.8%), religion (4.8%, 0%), psychological traits (2.2%, 5.9%), ethnic peculiarities (4.1%, 0%), statehood (9.6%, 9.8%). As can be seen, more comprehensive elements are coming to the forefront of the understanding of the national identity concept.

The view on typical Belarusian qualities has also changed in the 6 years from 1992 to 1998 (to what degree it is the result of media influence on society is a different issue). The ranks of the features are as follows:

1992 1998
Tolerance Persistence, tenaciousness, strong mindedness
Self-esteem Self-esteem
Modesty, simplicity Talent
Talent Decisiveness, audacity
High moral standards Being demanding, critical, austere
Devotion to the cause Responsibility, sense of duty

There is a tendency to prefer active features to the passive ones.

These changes are also reflected in the way language is used by the Belarusians.

In 1986, 150 respondents in Minsk were asked to grade as "Good", "Acceptable" or "Non-acceptable" a number or interfered words from the "America", "Anglia" and "Romania" magazines published in Russian. To see if there were any changes taking place, a similar experiment was caried out in 1996.

The results show that the most serious changes have taken place in the group of words that belong to identical(?) lexical-semantic group in each language respectively. 33.4% of the units from this group were graded as "Good" by the 1996 subjects (cf. to 17.43% in 1986). Maybe the happiest example in this respect could be the word карьера (career). The dynamics here are 50% compared to 15.5 % in 1986, i.e. over threefold growth. ("Юноша был очень рано поставлен перед выбором своей карьеры" - The young man had to decide on his career at a very young age). A similar tendency refers to the word бизнес (business) - 33,3 % in 1986 and 66,6 % in 1996 in the sentence "Он искал возможности решать живые проблемы настоящего бизнеса" (He was looking for opportunities to solve the most pressing problems of real business).


At least two conclusions can be derived from the above data.

On the one hand it reflects certain development trends in the semantics of the units, activation of "obsolete" or new meanings (e.g. "profession, job" in the word карьера, which is marked as obsolete by the Russian-Russian dictionaries). In fact, more semantic elements of the words are being borrowed by the Russian language from other languages.

On the other hand, there is a clear tendency in the acceptability changes. It looks like it is the words that have a positive valence in the free market economies that have undergone the most dramatic changes in the minds of the Russian speakers. Under communism the notions, and, certainly words that showed that one was "sticking out" - бизнес, карьера, активность - had a negative connotation. Even if activity did belong to the area of peripheral values of the Russians, it was not looked upon positively by society.

The fact, that such words are in 1996 regarded as "good" point out a trend of changes in the value system of the Russian speakers in the post-communist countries.