The connection between nationalism and the freedom of speech seems to be obvious: nationalism restricts the freedom of speech. And largely this is true — like any other undemocratic ideology nationalism cannot withstand being questioned or being critiqued. Critics are regarded as mean, vicious, and for cultural or racial reasons they may even be seen as foreign elements.
The creation of a nationalistic culture often puts the focus on the past — the golden era that a nationalist culture seeks has already existed but has somehow been polluted, debased, and gone lost. The idea is to cleanse an “original culture” from unseemly foreign traits and to build a future through the elimination of these added traits and through isolation. Logical and simple.
In this process it is necessary to create a national canon grounded in a national romantic era when the concept of the nation — in a modern sense — arose. Disregarding our own evaluation of this period most countries in Europe have experienced such a time. However, there are nations that have stayed behind — nations that were never properly formed. This I believe is what happened in Belarus. And, the question is now: what happens to the ideology of nationalism in these ‘nations’?
In Time Second Hand Svetlana Aleksijevitj, this year’s Nobel Prize Laureate in literature, writes that of the Soviet Union’s many senseless projects the only one that has probably succeeded is the attempt to create a new type of human being: “Homo sovieticus.” Among other things, this new person was aimed to be an internationalist person free from all nationalist sentiments. The issue of nationhood would be solved from the perspective of “an historically shaped stable community of people based on a common language, a common territory, economy, and psychology that is expressed in a shared culture” (I hope that I have correctly recalled Stalin’s definition of the nation state). In practice this meant that the constituent republics divided up according to ethnicity were meant to become “national in form and Soviet in content.”
This is exactly how the leaders of Belarus want to imagine their nation. President Lukasjenka has described himself as a Soviet citizen of Belarus. The written history of his country begins after WW2 and the war counts as the main dramatic mythological event from which the nation of Soviet-Belarus has sprung. Historical facts are of no importance and the date of independence is now moved from July 27 ( the day Belarus declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1990) to July 3 (the day Minsk was liberated by the Red Army in 1944). This means that last year it was possible to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of an independence counted as from 1944.
The people of Soviet-Belarus are only allowed a past in the form of stylized folklore. The modern-day Soviet-Belarusian cultural traits are also shaped according to the same type of stylized folklore but with the addition of some strains of popular dance music and a censured literature written by authors who are loyal to the regime. That is practically all.
The government regards everything Belarusian without the prefix ‘Soviet’ as a threat, and the nationalist ideology is one case in point. The rebirth of nationalism in the late 1980s that helped to overthrow the Soviet dictatorship and tried to link various periods of the pre-Soviet history with contemporary history in order to enhance the building of a modern nation of Belarus, is now being associated with the unwelcome development towards democracy — a development that was thwarted by Alaksandr Lukasjenka’s rise to power in the middle of the 90s. Ironically, this means that nationalism in Belarus stands for democratic sentiments — at least from the government’s viewpoint.
The absurdity of the situation can be illustrated by several examples, but the most poignant is probably the language issue. Today, for all practical purposes, a non-sanctioned use of Belarusian is forbidden. It is possible to see a folkloristic song show with songs in Belarusian in a state-owned concert hall and in a book store it is possible to buy an ideological book or magazine in Belarusian, but at the same time it is also possible to be arrested for speaking Belarusian openly in the street since the latter is seen as a sign of nationalism. “The language of international communication” in the Soviet Union has been Russian and in Belarus it is meant to remain that way. Soviet-Belarusians are not to become nationalists who speak a language of their own. Period.
It is hard to describe a complex situation in a short article such as this, but without exaggerating too much it is possible to say that each democratic utterance is regarded by the state of Belarus as a sign of nationalism.
Does this imply that the nationalism we find in other European countries does not exist here in Belarus? Of course it does not — there are people who want to see ‘pure Belarusian’ traits turned into prevailing norms, into a common identity for those who qualify. However, these are weak movements. Belarus is not yet a well-formed nation and therefore it needs to endure the difficult and intricate process of nation building which most other European countries completed approximately a hundred years ago. This is a highly problematic process due to the described circumstances and also because the process is not synchronised with the rest of the world — no matter what we do we are left behind in a backwater.
The fight for democracy can perhaps be seen as a nationalistic one if one does not look too deeply into the complex and hard to decipher factual circumstances. The democratic forces in the country are often keen to advance the more ordinary national traits such as a history writing based on heroic historical events and national symbols. The writers and activists fighting for free speech tend to foreground the Belarusian language as opposed to the Russian. The significant hindrance seems however to be the lack of a historically formed cohesive nation built on a majority rule. The nationalism that exists — as far as it exists and may be called nationalism — is probably not focussed on the past but seems to be trying to fashion a missing identity for the future.
This may not be possible but we are living in a world where our democratic rights as citizens are still guaranteed us by the nation state, and despite the negative aspects of such a system there is no other to take its place. So, it seems to be necessary to first build a nation-state — to replace this surviving fragment of the Soviet Union — in order to then build and maintain a democratic regime. It seems to be necessary to foster a feeling of nationhood in place of this random cohesion of Homo sovieticus. Anyhow, this is one way of understanding the democratic movement in Belarus and how it largely differs from the dictatorship that also wants an independent country. Something uncertain, a bit contrived perhaps, but lively and authentic is trying to combat something stable, synthetic, but long since dead — ‘stability’ is the Belarus’ regime’s holiest concept.
Another aspect worth mentioning here is that Belarus is living under a constant threat of becoming annexed both culturally and physically by a certain big country in the East. Historically, Russification has been a highly effective weapon during the expansion of the former Russian empire and this weapon was successfully used by the Soviet Union too. It also lives on in the independent Belarus — the majority of the country’s population speaks Russian and the government, as mentioned, is strangely enough hostile to Belarusian.
So, the supposed Belarus nationalism is most probably a defensive one — a small nation trying to assert itself against a big aggressive neighbour. A ‘weak’ nation that almost completely lacks a glorious historical past to build on; apart from a short period after the revolution Belarus has principally always been enveloped in some other nation, even when it was a major part of one as when in the Middle Ages it was part of Lithuania. In other words, it is difficult to inspire a romantic nationalism based on old mythological and heroic historical events; the kind of nationalism we see today in Russia, Poland, and Hungary seems to be almost impossible to achieve in Belarus.
This does not necessarily mean that nationalism as a feature in Belarus is in any way inoffensive or less harmful than in other places in the world. It must be kept in mind that if nationalism develops and grows stronger it can fan xenophobic and/or isolationist sentiments and must therefore be combatted. Despite everything, today’s situation in the country is still an interesting one: if nothing else it at least makes it possible to discern nuances in the dichotomy nationalism/freedom of speech.