Russifying Identity: the cultural war on the geopolitical integrity of Belarus
Chloe Henshaw is a recent graduate of MML at the University of Cambridge, having specialised in the geopolitics of identity in Russia.
At the time of writing this article, in late July and early August 2023, international news reporters are all publishing one story with regards to Belarus – notably the movement of the Wagner troops onto Belarusian territory near the Polish border. The Financial Times reports that ‘Poland [is] to station 10,000 troops on the Belarus border,’ and cites Maciej Mileczanowski, a political scientist from the University of Rzeszów, who states that the move is in response to the ‘real threat from Russia or Belarus […]’. I cannot help but notice this grouping of Russia and Belarus – a geopolitical amalgamation with which the ‘Western’ reader has grown increasingly familiar. The discourse of Belarus as a ‘puppet state’ has passed the lips of almost every close watcher of the region. For example, Katia Glod for Al Jazeera states that ‘the Belarusian president is well on the way to becoming a de facto puppet of the Kremlin […]’. It's an observation that exists with good reason. Belarus has, for many years, posed a significant problem to cultural historians who observed the cultural and ethnic suppression of Belarus over the 20th century (perhaps even before, should one include other dominant cultural forces such as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the centuries prior). With over 90% of its intelligentsia decapitated by the Soviet Regime, as well as its discursive inclusion into the Soviet-Communist historical narrative, Rory Finnin refers to Belarus as having suffered a ‘discursive cleansing’. It is very easy to draw a connection between this apparent historical lack of national identity and the claim that Belarus was 'the most Soviet of the Soviet republics' – somewhat indistinct, at least culturally and historically, from its dominating neighbour Russia for much of the latter half of last century. It is therefore not surprising that for much of the Soviet period, the territory was known by the far more Russo-centric name of Byelorussia, rather than its post-1991, nationalistically driven name ‘Belarus’- referring to the medieval ‘rus’ people, as opposed to the Russian ethnicity per se.
For Putin’s regime, it would seem that the concept of Russian identity is intimately linked to the discourse of international relations policies.
The role of cultural identity has long been associated with political power, Edward Saïd in his ground-breaking work Orientalism, stated that ‘too often literature and culture are presumed to be politically, and even historically, innocent,’ and it’s a proposition that has been expanded on by many ‘post-structuralist’ historical theorists. In the introduction to their work, Lene Hanson writes that ‘foreign policies rely upon representations of identity, but it is also through the formulation of foreign policy that identities are produced and reproduced.’ It is broadly accepted that Putin’s justification for the invasion of Ukraine was based upon, or perhaps more accurately justified, by the cultural assumption that Ukraine culturally and historically ‘belongs’ to Russia – claiming for example that Ukraine has never existed outside of the cultural framework of the Russian nation. Putin identifies both Belarus and Ukraine as featuring in the civilizational sphere stemming from the shared historical ancestor of medieval Kyiv, stating that there are ‘cultural, civilizational and human values that unite the peoples of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.’ In other words, for Putin’s regime it would seem that the concept of Russian identity is intimately linked to the discourse of international relations policies. To again cite Saïd, who continues to provide rich reading for the role of discursive practices despite his work referencing a totally different subject matter, discourse has ‘by no means a direct, corresponding relationship with political power in the raw, but rather is produced and exists in an uneven exchange with various kinds of power, shaped to a degree by the exchange with power political […], power intellectual […], power cultural […], power moral […].’ Within this context, Belarus provides a particularly interesting example of cultural discourse (that of the Russian imagination of Belarus as part of Russian identity) that commands a certain political sway over not only Russian foreign policy toward countries like Ukraine and Belarus but casts an increasingly long shadow over the geopolitical realities and discourses of neighbouring countries themselves. In his February 24th speech on the day of the invasion of Ukraine, Putin stated: We will strive to achieve the demilitarization and the denazification of Ukraine, as well as to bring to justice those who have committed numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including citizens of the Russian Federation […] The historical link, in this case to the Second World War and the advancing ‘fascism’ of the Western world, has been researched in depth by McGlynn in her PhD work in 2020, relating how historical ‘sub-narratives’ link the Great Patriotic War and the Ukraine Crisis of 2014. It’s a discourse with which most Western readers of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are increasingly familiar – indeed, one might even find risible the article in the Russian newspaper Argumenti I Fakti, in which the reporter cites Russell Brand likening Germany’s military aid in sending tanks to Ukraine as being somewhat similar to the Nazi incursion in the Second World War. This clumsily repurposed Stalinist rhetoric of Russian resilience to fascism, however, has also been taken up by Belarus which, despite gaining its independence from Russia in 1991, continues to repurpose the Soviet narrative in its national narrative, unlike some of its neighbours such as Lithuania which has developed independent, ethnically-centred narratives. In almost shockingly similar rhetoric to that of Russia, on the 10th of August 2023, Vladimir Andreichenko (a Belarusian MP) stated at a remembrance ceremony that: We see how Europe and the USA work to erase historical memory, the Soviet nation's contribution to the victory over fascist Germany, how they are trying to destroy the unity of our nation. But we do creative work and continue religiously remembering and honouring the accomplishments of our forefathers […] From as early as the 1990s, the Lukashenko regime has accumulated popularity in Belarus by re-establishing a national narrative with reference to its Soviet roots, leaning on Russian and Soviet models. Discarding ethnic references, which would establish a sense of independence, the Lukashenko regime incorporates what Natalia Leshchenko perhaps correctly identifies as an amalgamation of Soviet collectivist principles applied to a sense of Belarusian sovereignty and statehood. The founding myth of the regime is the partisan struggle during the Second World War, ‘the noble effort to protect the state from an external aggressor,’ strikingly similar to Russia’s narrative from the Second World War as a ‘besieged fortress’. The cultural and historical ties, which one might understand as a reflection of the Russian narrative mindset, manifest themselves in the geopolitical realm. With the formation of the Union State between 1999 and 2000, Belarus has become politically considered almost synonymous with (or a subject of) the Russian Federation in parallel with a blurred cultural and historical delineation.
With the formation of the Union State between 1999 and 2000, Belarus has become politically considered almost synonymous with (or a subject of) the Russian Federation in parallel with a blurred cultural and historical delineation.
Far more concerning is how the Russian cultural hold on Belarus equally seeks to eradicate the nation geopolitically. The cultural hold of the Russian mindset, of its Soviet-style ‘unifying’ nature based on premises of a Russo-centric Slavic historiography, casts a long shadow on Belarus and is progressively eradicating the nation geopolitically through a cultural soft power (perhaps to contrast with the military hard-power currently being used to attempt to dissolve Ukraine). Leaked documents from February 2023 indicated that Russia plans to subsume and dismantle the independence of Belarus by 2030, seemingly to form a Russian-controlled Union State that functions under the cultural justification of Russo-centric historiography. It has perhaps never been more important therefore to affirm Belarus’ independence in our own discourse regarding the country – above all because such ethnic absorption seems to stand in stark contrast to the Belarus which sought to affirm its distance from the Lukashenko regime in the protests of 2020 and 2021. Despite obvious cooperation with the Russian Federation throughout the Russian ‘special military operation’, it is striking that Belarus has yet to send troops to Ukraine to fight with Russia. If the two countries are as amalgamated culturally and politically as they are often represented in Belarusian, Russian and Western media alike, one must certainly question Belarus’ hesitancy to join the war given the shared Russian and Belarusian fear of Western ‘fascism’. At the World Economic Forum in 2023, Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition party to present-day president Lukashenko and self-declared national leader in exile, stated that ‘Lukashenko is already fully participating in the war […] But the fact that our troops have not been sent to Ukraine is not because Lukashenko doesn’t want to participate. He knows Belarusians don’t see Ukrainians as enemies.’
The result is not only a non-homogenous public sphere but equally a non-homogenous historiography of the national identity.
Curiously, one sees the emergence of two ‘Belarus’ – the familiar politically and culturally assimilated Belarus of Lukashenko, and Tsikhanouskaya’s Belarus, which is opposed to the war and which is fighting ‘two dictators, Putin & Lukashenko’. This is congruent with Nelly Bekus’ analysis of Belarusian nationalism, which defines two distinct kinds of ‘Belarusianness’ – that which is official (provided by the discourse and the followers of the Lukashenko regime), and that which is ‘nationalist’ (those who consider Belarusian identity to be external to the Soviet or Russian conception of its identity). The result is not only a non-homogenous public sphere but equally a non-homogenous historiography of the national identity. In the case of Belarus, as Tsikhanouskaya would argue (and indeed did at the Cambridge Union in 2023) we should not be tempted to confuse the state apparatus with the people, and so long as political power rests with Lukashenko, the ‘nation’ (as culturally, politically and historically distinct from Russia) lies alive and well among the oppressed Belarusian people seeking liberty. Dissident media such as the Telegram channel ‘Nexta’, which has over 214,000 followers, would suggest that Tsikhanouskaya is by no means alone in her desire to separate herself from the dual occupation of Putin and Lukashenko, and their associated cultural regimes. More than anything, a recognition of the dual nature of Belarus and more specifically of the geopolitical reach of Russia’s cultural agenda and mindset highlights our duty, as democratic nations, to subvert the Russian-backed agenda of associating Belarus exclusively with Russia within our own discourse – if only to support a continuation of the Belarusian nation as a cultural entity distinct from the encroaching Russian regime. Crucially, the case of Belarus invites us to consider the very real and threatening role of Russian cultural soft power in the Central and Eastern European region – and how our own discourse plays into it.
Edward W. Said, Orientalism. (New York: First Vintage Books, 1979). Online edition.
Lene Hansen, Security as Practice: Discourse Analysis and the Bosnian War, (New York: Routledge, 2006), 1.
Edward W. Said, Orientalism. (New York: First Vintage Books, 1979). Online edition.
Saulius Sužiedelis, ‘Lithuanian Collaboration during the Second World War: Past Realities, Present Perceptions’in ‘Kollaboration’ in Nordosteuropa: Erscheinungsformen und Deutungen im 20. Jahrhundert. (Wiesbaden, 2006), pp. 140-163.
Nellie Bekus, Struggle Over Identity: The Official and Alternative ‘Belorusianness’ (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2010), 163-165