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The Rise and Fall of Belarusian Nationalism, 1906–1931

The Rise and Fall of Belarusian Nationalism, 1906–1931

Per Anders Rudling
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    The Rise and Fall of Belarusian Nationalism, 1906–1931
    Book Description:

    Modern Belarusian nationalism emerged in the early twentieth century during a dramatic period that included a mass exodus, multiple occupations, seven years of warfare, and the partition of the Belarusian lands. In this original history, Per Anders Rudling traces the evolution of modern Belarusian nationalism from its origins in late imperial Russia to the early 1930s.The revolution of 1905 opened a window of opportunity, and debates swirled around definitions of ethnic, racial, or cultural belonging. By March of 1918, a small group of nationalists had declared the formation of a Belarusian People's Republic (BNR), with territories based on ethnographic claims. Less than a year later, the Soviets claimed roughly the same area for a Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR). Belarusian statehood was declared no less than six times between 1918 and 1920. In 1921, the treaty of Riga officially divided the Belarusian lands between Poland and the Soviet Union. Polish authorities subjected Western Belarus to policies of assimilation, alienating much of the population. At the same time, the Soviet establishment of Belarusian-language cultural and educational institutions in Eastern Belarus stimulated national activism in Western Belarus. Sporadic partisan warfare against Polish authorities occurred until the mid-1920s, with Lithuanian and Soviet support. On both sides of the border, Belarusian activists engaged in a process of mythmaking and national mobilization. By 1926, Belarusian political activism had peaked, but then waned when coups d'états brought authoritarian rule to Poland and Lithuania. The year 1927 saw a crackdown on the Western Belarusian national movement, and in Eastern Belarus, Stalin's consolidation of power led to a brutal transformation of society and the uprooting of Belarusian national communists.As a small group of elites, Belarusian nationalists had been dependent on German, Lithuanian, Polish, and Soviet sponsors since 1915. The geopolitical rivalry provided opportunities, but also liabilities. After 1926, maneuvering this complex and progressively hostile landscape became difficult. Support from Kaunas and Moscow for the Western Belarusian nationalists attracted the interest of the Polish authorities, and the increasingly autonomous republican institutions in Minsk became a concern for the central government in the Kremlin.As Rudling shows, Belarus was a historic battleground that served as a political tool, borderland, and buffer zone between greater powers. Nationalism arrived late, was limited to a relatively small elite, and was suppressed in its early stages. The tumultuous process, however, established the idea of Belarusian statehood, left behind a modern foundation myth, and bequeathed the institutional framework of a proto-state, all of which resurfaced as building blocks for national consolidation when Belarus gained independence in 1991.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7958-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    Belarus is a country that sometimes puzzles outside observers. For much of its existence as an independent state, Belarus has developed quite differently from most of its neighbors. It is a country in which a majority regards Belarusian as its native language but only a relatively small minority actually does speak it as its first language. Nationalism, the hegemonic political current in most of postsocialist Europe, has never been embraced by more than a minority of its population. Rather, it is a society with two rivaling concepts of “Belarusianness”: against the official one, drawing heavily upon Soviet tradition, stands an...

  2. Chapter 1 Imagining Belarus
    (pp. 13-31)

    The manufacturing of a Belarusian consciousness took place within a context of the ideological historicizing of the past, a deliberate attempt by Belarusian intellectuals to break the Russocentric approach of the tsarist historiography of Vasilii Kliuchevskii (1841–1911), Pavel Miliukov (1859–1943), Sergei Solov’ev (1820–1879), and others. Belarusian national activists sought to establish an alternative narrative, intended to demonstrate a historical continuity of Belarusian statehood dating back to the Middle Ages. As the Belarusians had long lacked a political and cultural elite of its own, the task of constructing a continuous “national” history was daunting for the nationalist pioneers....

  3. Chapter 2 The Beginnings of Belarusian Nationalism
    (pp. 32-65)

    Modern nationalism arrived late to Belarus. A multilingual and ethnically diverse corner of Europe, lacking clear geographic boundaries in the historical borderlands between Poland and Russia, Belarus has been influenced by both Russian and Polish cultural traditions. The modern form of nationalism, seeking cultural “purity” and “authentic” cultural expressions was in many ways a problematic import to an area with multiple identities, which had not yet adopted the ethnic and linguistic definition of nationhood. This chapter outlines the history of modern nationalism in Belarus to the year 1906.

    Lithuania—or Letuva, Litva, Litwa, Lietuva, or Lite, as it was called...

  4. Chapter 3 Six Declarations of Statehood in Three Years: Origins of a New National Mythology
    (pp. 66-122)

    The chaotic period of 1917–1920 encompassed revolutions and collapses of the Russian and German empires, the reemergence of Poland, the dramatic conclusion of World War I, the Russian Civil War, and the Polish–Soviet War. All these events directly affected the Belarusian lands, through which ran the fronts in all these wars. During this short timespan there were no less than six attempts at declaring Belarusian statehood. At the same time, the fate of Belarus was dependent more on political developments in Moscow, Berlin, Warsaw, Kaunas, Versailles, and Riga than on those in Vilnius or Minsk. When the hostilities...

  5. Chapter 4 Nationalities Policy in Soviet Belarus: Affirmative Action, Belarusization, and Korenizatsiia
    (pp. 123-163)

    The reestablishment of the SSRB in 1920 was accompanied by nation-building policies, aimed at shoring up support for Soviet rule. The division of Belarus between Poland and the Soviets as a result of the Riga treaty was a serious setback to the Belarusian nationalists, who had witnessed a significant growth in national consciousness in the wake of the revolutions of 1917. The Polish–Soviet War ended in a peace that left all parties dissatisfied. Soviet Russia was forced to accept the Polish conquest of large areas to the east of the Curzon Line, populated primarily by Ukrainians and Belarusians. The...

  6. Chapter 5 Belarusian Nationalism in the Second Polish Republic
    (pp. 164-208)

    The peace treaties that concluded World War I failed to resolve the national question for several peoples in Eastern Europe. The principles of national self-determination, articulated in Wilson’s famous Fourteen Points, were implemented unevenly. Sizable German and Magyar minorities were dispersed among the territories of newly independent states. Their irredentist aspirations would turn out to be a constant irritant over the following decades.¹ Whereas the Versailles and Trianon treaties treated the Germans and Magyars harshly, the Riga peace treaty of 1921 was nothing less than a catastrophe for the Belarusian and Ukrainian nationalists. While several new nation-states were established in...

  7. Chapter 6 Opposition to Belarusization
    (pp. 209-242)

    In her study on Soviet ethnography and the construction of Soviet nationalities policy, Francine Hirsch shows that “the Soviet regime would use ethnographic data to impose nationhood on people who either ‘hid’ or did not know their ‘true’ nationality.”¹ Since Soviet authorities interpreted a lack of national awareness as a sign of social and political retardation, parents and students who were not interested in the promotion of their “national” languages were labeled as “politically immature” and as displaying “abnormal attitudes” toward education in their native tongues. The authorities concluded that minorities unaware of their ethnicities had to be subjected to...

  8. Chapter 7 The Suppression of Belarusian Nationalism in the Second Polish Republic, 1927–1930
    (pp. 243-274)

    During the first half of the 1920s the Polish government was hostile to the aspirations of the Belarusian nationalists. Perceiving Belarusian nationalism as an irredentist threat to the state, strong forces within the ruling circles of the Grabski government wanted to suppress it. However, Poland was in disarray, and the weak coalition governments lacked resources to carry this out. For years, an armed rebellion raged in West Belarus, supported by the Soviets. It ended in 1925, as the left-wing Belarusian nationalists opted instead for participation in the political process. The years 1924–1926 represented the peak of Belarusian national activism...

  9. Chapter 8 Soviet Repression in the BSSR: The Destruction of Belarusian National Communism
    (pp. 275-303)

    If the 1925 Concordat with the Vatican and Piłsudski’s coup of 1926 were important events in the process of suppressing Belarusian nationalism in the Second Polish Republic, the so-called War Scare in the spring of 1927 marked a similar turning point in the BSSR. The Stalinist reorganization of society brutally destroyed the political base for Belarusian national communism and marked the beginning of a period of violent transformation that would permanently alter the ethnic and demographic makeup of Belarus. Few went unaffected, as virtually the entire political and intellectual leadership was repressed over the course of the 1930s.

    The suppression...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 304-318)

    In his 1922 tragicomic playTuteishyia, Ianka Kupala, the most celebrated Belarusian writer, describes the arrival of two ethnographic specialists to the Belarusian lands. One is a Polish-speaking scholar from the West, the other is a Russian-speaking colleague from the East. The ethnographers are in Belarus looking for “true Belarusian types.” Encountering the hero of the play, a nationally conscious Belarusian by the name of Ianka Zdol’nik, they react with astonishment and disbelief:

    THE EASTERN SCHOLAR: So you are a real Belarusian?

    IANKA: But, Messrs. Scholars! I am not alone. (Showing them Alenka, Haroshka, Hanulia.) Because here is another Belarusian...