The national language debate in Belarus

25 November 2005
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In Belarus, both Russian and Belarusian language groups stake claim to the national language. Supporters of Belarusian argue for the cultural rootedness of the language in the nation; supporters of Russian accuse them of suffering from a national psychosis. The debate is closely bound up with the Belarusian relationship to Russia, according to whether Russian influence in Belarus is considered desirable or not. Here, a Belarusian philosopher considers the possibility of reconciling nationalism with liberalism, and draws up a blueprint for tolerant, multi-lingual policy in Belarus.

The liberal “dogfight”

The German broadcasting corporation Deutsche Welle has sent shockwaves throughout Belarusian elites. The European Commission’s decision to sponsor Deutsche Welle’s Russian-language service to Belarus has provoked critics in some intellectual circles and revived polemics between “Russophiles” and “Belarusophiles”. It is clear that the position both of Deutsche Welle and the European Commission is indicative of Europe’s cultural and linguistic strategy towards Belarus, and is closely connected with the language problem in the country.

Recently, one commentator, Yanau Paleski, made an analysis and critique of this polemic 1. He proposed an interesting methodological approach, namely, to treat the battle between adherents of the Belarusian language and adherents of the Russian language as an analogy of the battle between liberals and communitarians. However, his conclusions were inaccurate: “We need to establish the rules of the dogfight”, and, “The adherents of the Russian language are united in a game against the psychosis of national sentiment, so foreign to the liberal-democratic ethos”. Paleski’s contemptuous attitude of the matter being disputed is unpropitious for the entire debate on “language problem”.

Nevertheless, the challenge has been made, so let us treat Paleski’s argument with respect, and assume that it is neither a “dogfight” nor “a game”, but a serious intellectual dispute. Paleski remarks that, despite the “paltriness” of discussion, “it has a connection with problems in the discourse of globalism, multiculturalism, and so on”. If this connection were absent, we could asssume that Paleski would not have wasted his energy.

To reconstruct his point of view:

1. The discussion between adherents of Belarusian and Russian (for the sake of simplicity we will use words “Belarusophiles” and “Russophiles”, remembering that these terms connote only linguistic, not political, preferences) is analogous to the discussion between communitarians and liberals. “Kantian liberals are united by the presumption that the issue of cultural and linguistic differences is of secondary importance to the issue of democracy or, generally, the issue of right”. “The use of the terms ‘identity’, ‘cultural rootedness’, and ‘national project’ […] bears witness to the intention of the liberal-democratic section of the Belarusian-speaking intelligentsia to withdraw from the great emancipatory programmes of the Enlightenment.”

2. “Liberals stress the principle of the priority of subjective right over an ‘object’ understood as some ‘good’, for example the ‘good of language'”. “Communitarians, on the other hand, stress the principle of the priority of ‘good’ over the law, although they agree that ‘abstract’ law is necessary”.

3. Belarusian Kantian liberals do not deny the importance of “cultural rootedness”, they merely perceive this rootedness to be of secondary importance.

4. Neither group is reasonable, says Paleski. What lies behind appeals to “democracy”, “law”, or “language”? According to Paleski, only one thing: the will to dominate. According to Paleski, the formula of Kantian liberals – “first democracy, second language” – masks pretensions to “expertise in democracy”, and subsequently to being leaders of the democratization process. However, Paleski also discovers “hypocrisy” in the communitarians’ claim to “expertise in the humanitarian project”.

5. Although Paleski claims to be impartial towards the arguments of both Russophiles and Belarusophiles, he doesn’t hide his sympathy for the Kantian liberals. We can easily guess the reason for his preference: it is “the psychosis of national sentiment, so foreign to the liberal-democratic ethos”.

A game against psychosis

How does Paleski ground his claims about the “psychosis of national sentiment” of the Belarusophile elite? He refers to the “weak moments” of the Belarusophiles. Do these form the basis for his claim about “psychosis of national sentiment”?

1. The Belarusophiles are unable to exploit fully the potential of communitarianism. “If we follow up the argument of cultural rootedness, why are some parts of history and some aggregations of the cultural matrixes (eg Russian culture) destined to oblivion?”

My first remark is logical: “Belarusophiles” do not contradict themselves if they realize the communitarian potential only partly. Communitarianism and the choice to use the Belarusian language are independent of one another.

What about Paleski’s comment about “destined to oblivion”? Who are those people who assign other cultures in Belarus “to oblivion”? The author generalizes about Russophobe tendencies, which do in fact appear among some Belarusophiles. But it is incorrect to ascribe this vice (Russophobia or, more generally, xenophobia) to the entire group.

Paleski misinterprets Belarusophiles’ activity. They propagate the emancipation of “Belarusity” as such. This programme has different versions, the most influential of which has been elaborated by the circle concentrated around the weekly Nasha Niva, which stresses the cultural socialization of the Belarusian “creoles”. Who are these creoles? In short, a group of the population practicing “internal communism” or “internal colonialism”, who feel totally dependent on external forces (a strong state, the Soviet Union, Greater Russia, and so on). The “Greater Country” (the USSR or simply Russia) is the foundation of their self-identification; they understand it not as a cultural community, but as a political giant, which to belong to provides the satisfaction of feeling that one is part of a majority. At the same time, they remain tuteyshyja, in other words, attached to the local community. The language they use is called prostaja mova [the simple language]. By prostaya mova, they mean either the local Belarusian dialect or the Belarusian-Russian mix [trasianka]. According to the Nasha Niva circle, the “creoles” are a permanent source of authoritarianism because of their “pre-modern” mentality; being “rootless”, they willingly subordinate to the “strong hand” of Bat’ka [father/master]. Stability and safety are more desirable than individual autonomy and civic solidarity.

The “emancipation of Belarusity” does not mean a crusade against disloyal Russophiles. Rather, it is the idea of the cultural socialization of these creoles. Russophones instantly reply: “A noble idea, but where is the guarantee that tomorrow the Nasha Niva circle will not call anyone who disagrees with them a ‘creole’?” This question is reasonable enough: any mission (cultural or religious) can furtively be transformed into a programme for unification. But I see no way to resolve this dilemma except by adopting a dialogical attitude.

It is worth remarking that the idea of “emancipating Belarusity” does not automatically mean “Russophobia”; analogously, choosing to use the Russian language does not mean “Belarusophobia”. The “Belarusian national project” does not seek the elimination of Russian culture (as the culture of the Russian national minority in Belarus). It is true that adherents of this project are sceptical of the possibility of national discourse in Russian (“Belarusian nationalism in the Russian language”), but to support one cultural model and criticize another is their right. To put it simply, the Nasha Niva circle support Belarusification in the case of the “creoles”, respect in the case of the Russian national minority, and remain critical concerning Russophiles (Belarusian adherents of the Russian language). Let us remember these distinctions, and not suspect Belarusophiles of hostility to Russophiles or Russian culture.

Of course, we can treat the “national project” as a kind of “ethical faith”; but faith and psychosis are quite different things. Paleski himself notes that, “Every kind of coexistence provides an irrational component; there is nothing one can do except accept it”. So, “an ethical faith” is something normal, not psychotic.

2. Paleski asks: “Aren’t fantasies about the Grand Duchy of Lithuania an excessive idealization – hinting at the next “weakness” of the Belarusophiles?”2 Yes, I would like to say. But a cognitive function is not the task of these narratives. Their task is to accumulate the experience of Belarusians. In the same way as Christians tell stories about the Creation, the Flood, or the Tower of Babel, and at the same time recognize that these stories are myths, Belarusians tell national myths. Myth is an “accumulator” of spiritual experience, which we use to communicate this experience to others. It must be noted, however, that myth must be balanced by critical reason. A blind faith in myth can generate genuine psychosis. Thus, I agree with Paleski in cases where Belarusophilia in fact propagates an uncritical adoption of national mythology.

3. Peleski says: “The negative side of the communitarian attitude in its Belarusian version appears as language as ‘ultimatum'”. Here, Paleski detects Belarusophile pretensions to being “language leaders”. Note that the same reproach often appears in official propaganda.

Let’s begin with a conundrum. Girl A is going to marry. Neighbours say: “she is doing it for money”. How can A prove she is doing it for love? Similarly, how can I prove I have no ulterior motives in promoting the Belarusian language? Anyone who supports the emancipation of the Belarusian language can be accused of careerism. Paleski’s “strategy of suspicion” should be replaced by a “strategy of charity” (to refer to the Davidsonian principle). It means the presumption “that man X has a good will” is stronger than the presumption that “he has ill will”. It might be called the “principle of ethical asymmetry”.

4. Paleski asks: “If the national language is censored by a limited circle, and if it is uninteresting for ‘outsiders’ (Russians, Poles, many Belarusians), what are the grounds for calling it a ‘national’ language?” His question implies that national discourse must be uncensored (though it is unclear what censorship means in this context); that it must have a large number of supporters (though it is unclear what this number is); and that it must be interesting to “outsiders” (though it is unclear how many “outsiders” must be interested).

To sum up, most of the “weaknesses” of the supporters of the Belarusian language named by Paleski cannot be perceived as a solid foundation on which to accuse Belarusophiles of psychosis. Paleski’s critique of the “Belarusian communitarians” is really a game and nothing else.

The privatization of liberalism

Let’s analyze the relationship between liberalism and “national sentiment”. It is undeniable that the relationship between liberalism and nationalism (which is not the same as national sentiment) has always been tense. One of the great representatives of liberalism, Isaiah Berlin, wrote a compact treatise about nationalism, in which he stated that nationalism is a force that is often overlooked despite the danger it can pose to human freedom. The core of the conflict between nationalist and liberal ideology appeared in Belarus at the beginning of the 1990s. Belarusian sociologists Aleh Manayeu and Yury Drakakhrust have written that:

“Nationalist ideology, which has become a symbol of the struggle against communism, is in fact similarly collectivist, because it appeals to the nation, in other words, a collective subject which needs an instrument suitable for the realization of its aims: the State. In nationalist ideology, like in communism, the State becomes the main subject of social life. […] Only the ideology of liberalism is able to efficiently oppose communism. Liberal ideology is, in essence, the ideology of the Freedom of Persons. […] Each person is worthy in him or her self, regardless of the context (national, religious, etc.).”3

This position is nothing but an explication of Berlin’s thought. The latter often warned that “the whole”, proclaiming itself “higher”, “genuine”, or “selfness”, can devour human individuality. In this case, the nation-state appears as such a “whole”.

Is the conflict between nationalism and liberalism inevitable? It is worth mentioning some attempts to reconcile these two ideologies. The idea of reconciliation is contained in the title of the work “Liberal Nationalism”, by Yael Tamir, a disciple of Isaiah Berlin. In Poland, the liberal philosopher Andrzej Walicki speaks seriously about the possibility of, and the need for, “liberal nationalism”. The Belarusian sociologist Uladzimier Rouda went further and claimed that, “contrary to the prevailing opinion, national communities are in some sense more open and pluralist than communities founded on a number of values shaping the platform of social consensus” 4

The marriage of liberalism and nationalism is difficult enough. Regardless of the “vague character” of the notion of “nationalism”, it is possible to indicate one feature that belongs to every kind of nationalism. Every version of nationalism provides some kind of unifying programme; this is a permanent feature of the ideology. Nationalism canonizes a certain value system, in which the national community is the absolute value. In the national discourse we can find many statements about personality, about freedom, the freemarket economy, and political pluralism; but the Nation, like the Jungian Magna Mater, follows your every step.

Rouda maintains that nationalism and pluralism are interdependent, that one implies the other. This is not quite the case. There is no doubt a connection. In the case of nationalism, we encounter controlled pluralism. Various opinions, religions, and even different languages can exist in society (although accepting the last is extremely difficult for nationalists); but nobody may offend the sacred unity of national integrity. Rouda writes about “exiles” in liberal societies such as the US, noting that in national societies, such exiles do not exist. We find exiles in every society (national and liberal); the difference is that exiles in liberal societies barely differ from “natives”, while for exiles in societies dominated by nationalist ideology, life can be very difficult. To see this, we need not look at Serbia or Croatia: it is enough to remember the atmosphere in Lithuania during the “national awakening” at the beginning of the 1990s.

Rouda reproaches liberal thinkers such as Berlin and Popper. These philosophers, he says, create “caricatures” of the national idea, aiming to discredit it. The reproach is partly just, however, generally unacceptable. I am ready to concede that Popper erroneously identified nationalism with tribalism (the mystification of the tribal organism). Although it is possible to imagine the existence of a nationalism that is not tribal, it is necessary to acknowledge that nationalism, as a specific programme of unification, is dangerously near to the idea of tribal unity.

Up to now we have been considering the relationship between liberalism and nationalism, although the main question is the relation between liberalism and national sentiment, since the latter is linked by Paleski to “psychosis” and proclaimed “foreign” to the liberal ethos. Our digression had a methodological character. If several liberal thinkers have seriously thought about the marriage of liberalism-nationalism, this is all the more reason to seriously consider the possibility of including national sentiment in liberalism. The distinction between nationalism and national sentiment must be preserved. The former absolutizes national sentiment. But there are non-nationalist social theories available that accept national sentiment as a relative, non-absolute value.

Paleski’s position resembles Rawls’ in many respects. Here, the “liberalism of neutrality” appears as a regulative idea. According to this idea, social-political organization must be abstracted from identity. Building the system of values is a private business for individuals or groups. A task of the State is to construct regulators that are able to restrain the “inadmissible expansion” of particular ideologies. In other words, people should remain within their own jurisdiction and not trouble their neighbour.

The main criticism of this conception is that such liberalism is oriented towards limiting freedom, rather than increasing it. State and society are intermingled in different ways: whatever happens in society has an echo at the state level, and the state in turn involves society in its “own” life. What does it mean that person A or group B has the right to cultivate an identity in Rawls’-Paleski’s liberal society? It means that A and B aim to manifest their identity in public. What about the “neutrality” of the state? Where is the limit of the “neutrality imperative”? When I promote my identity via state television, do I violate the principle of neutrality or not? It seems that I do, since particular identity is to be cultivated in particular places. But it is a “pluralism of jurisdictions” rather than a pluralism of ideas. By the latter, I mean the state of creative tension between different ideas and identities. What we need is discussion and critique, not “neutrality” and social sclerosis.

What about Popper? Here, we have another picture. First, Popper does not confirm the radical relativity that hides under the principle of Rawls’ neutrality. Popper said that relativism is intellectual murder. Second, despite associating nationalism with tribalism, Popper regards “respect for tradition”, in other words history, as one of the principles of liberalism. It follows that the national cultural tradition is a positive factor in Popperian liberalism. Popper adds one condition: that tradition must not suppress the individual, that it can be questioned or criticized by individuals. Thus, the Popperian “open society” remains open to national sentiment.

One supporter of Anglo-Saxon liberalism, the Polish Dominican Maciej Zieba, remarked that what a person needs, apart from “cold” values such as liberal economy, democracy, and open society, is “warm” values such as nation, history, and religion. Neither individual nor society are able to exist in a cultural-historical vacuum. We need narratives and symbols, which shape the temporal system of coordinates. Hidden under the idea of the “liberal-democratic ethos” are various versions of liberalism, some of which do not exclude national sentiment. To proclaim that the latter is “so very much foreign” to liberalism as to “privatize” liberalism.

Belarus or the cosmos?

The Polish poet Cyprian Norwid wrote:

Humanity? – I do not know what humanity is. It does not really exist, it remains a “holy abstraction”, lonely; it is able to – and ought to – inspire, but to force it to is impossible. Nations – that is a different matter. They live, they suffer, they hesitate, they really exist, but they do not inspire, like Humanity; they just oblige.” [trans P.R.]

To recognize an “organistic proclivity” in the Polish poet would be correct, since Norwid was influenced by the organistic ideas characteristic of nineteenth-century romanticism. However, we can also hear in Norwid’s comment an echo of Enlightenment thought. After traditional forms of self-identification had collapsed – monarchy, religion, the sacred language (Latin) – there came a new, Enlightenment form of identification: the nation. Nation builders simply repeated the main idea of eighteenth-century thinkers, namely the idea of humanity, but in a new version: humanity made specific in the nation.

Nation is the innovation of men baptized in the waters of Enlightenment, and an idea that has successfully stood the test of time. The idea has a dramatic history and has gained ambiguous significance. I will propose a hermeneutics of the national idea using the categories of ambiguity, sublimity, and mimesis.

Kant treated ambivalence as a form of aesthetic experience, caused by the contemplation of the sublime, where tremendum and fascinosum form a mixed sentiment. We have to seek this thread and see where it leads us. We can define “nation” as an open-ended work that resulted from the conjugation of minds and wills, of sentiments and passions, of loves and expectations, gathered together by the historical and cultural situation.

The work is situated in an old and noble aesthetic tradition of mimesis (imitation). Leonardo da Vinci aimed to reflect the face of woman as exactly as possible; nation-builders aimed to reflect as exactly as possible “the face of nature”. They strove to create the illusion of natural community, persuading themselves and others that it was an ancient, eternal community, which had been overcome by some dreadful lethargy, but which survived and was awaking. Let it be added that illusions, fantasies, and expectations are able to have real effects. If a word is spelled right, it becomes flesh.

Like da Vinci, the builders of nations imitated nature according to an idea. Classical mimesis is not simply imitation, but imitation plus idea. Renaissance masters painted not simply man, but ideal man. The idealist component of nation building was sometimes called the “spirit of nation”, sometimes “divine destiny”, and sometimes – in the (post-)modern epoch – the “national project”.

The appeal of nation builders is: “Let us live like nature, our nature”. Orthodox heirs of the rationalist tradition may say that this is primitivism. But on the other hand, nation builders fight the “unorthodox” heirs of the Enlightenment – Rousseau with his “common will”, Nietzsche with Dionysian dances, and Heidegger with the idea of the re-membering of being. For Heidegger, the being that is to be “remembered” is nothing but the physis, in other words, that which is nascent – nature, nation discovering itself through language.

We can add to this alliance scientists such as Conrad Lorentz and Edward O. Wilson, who postulate a return to nature, a renewal of our unity with nature. But is there a more efficient way to do to so than through national community? Globalization, urbanization, anonymization, and atomization threaten human nature. Today, as never before, man has the chance to lose himself, suggest Lorentz and Wilson.

Russian philosopher Vladimir Solov’yov said that every nation is “chosen” in the sense that its vocation is to lend specificity to the universality of humanity: the universal is to appear in the polyphony of national cultures. Here we find the possibility to synthesize nationalism and cosmopolitanism. “Our home is Belarus”; “Our home is the cosmos”: we can accept these two phrases simultaneously. We need the feeling of being shoulder-to-shoulder with others, says Dynko, meaning that we must build our own, familiar, and warm community. But we need also to transcend our cultural, national, historical borders, and dare “to go on into the unknown” as Popper said.

Logical and erotic language

A division of Belarusian society into language preferences is not the main problem, which lies at a level of pre-philosophy or folk philosophy – a collection of ideas not formulated in any discourse. We must be aware that there are two pre-philosophies of language in Belarus. One perceives language as a sacrum, an absolute value. In this discourse, we meet emotional invocations, moral admonishments, and encouragements to cultivate a “mother tongue”. “Belarusians, do not commit suicide!” appealed the poet Nil Hilevich before the referendum of 1995, which became a symbol of the victory of the Russification of Belarusian politics. Others are indifferent about which language people speak: for them, language is simply an instrument of communication, and important is only what we communicate.

Dynko and Drakakhrust discuss in Belarusian, Silicki and Paleski in Russian; each, I infer, has a different concept language. Dynko and Silicki incline to language as sacrum, while Drakakhrust, Paleski, and Miniankou incline to language as instrument. We must counter the illusion that the two pre-philosophies run along Belarusophile-Russophile lines, in other words, that the former are prone “to adore” language and the latter to perceive it only pragmatically. Indeed the division between pre-philosophies runs across language groups and results in at least four linguistic-philosophical groups.

The conflict between the two language conceptions in Belarus is the picture of more universal conflict, namely, between theory of language as instrument of analysis on the one hand, and the language as a universal medium on the other. According to Polish philosopher Andrzej Bronk, the first theory runs along the line of Descartes-Leibnitz-Husserl (the analytical tradition), and second one along the line of Herder-Peirce-Heidegger (the modern hermeneutic tradition).

The problem of the translatability of language forms the core of this frequently unarticulated conflict. According to the second theory, we are determined by language we use. According to ethnologists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee-Whorf, we hear, see and perceive the world insofar as the interpretative tropes present in our environment permit us to. Therefore, language is not only logical, but also erotic. “There are many glorious breasts in the world, but no one is able to saturate you”, writes Belarusian poet Uladzimier Karatkievich about the Belarusian language. Female breasts symbolize the language; only the “mother tongue” can saturate us, return us to nature and nation.

Long live difference!

Let us consider the question formulated by editor-in-chief of Nasha Niva Andrej Dynko: “Can the Russian language be the basis of the national discourse?” Regardless of what Dynko’s intention and subtext might be, I think the question must remain open.

The Belarusian language is one of the “meeting places” of Belarusians. It (or she) is a symbol that integrates the Belarusian community. The Russian language cannot be such a symbol, because it does not satisfy a fundamental condition: that of being the specification of the community. The Russian language is not a birthmark, but only a label, on the Belarusian body.

The national discourse is something more than a language. Let us consider the next structure: a narrative concerning the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (1) containing a message aiming at the unification of all heirs of the Duchy (2) is told in Russian (3). Two factors – (1) and (2) – are undoubtedly positive for nation building. We can mark them with the sign (+). What about (3)? It is the core of the conflict. The “Russian factor” we can sign with a plus, a minus, or a zero. I am prone to exclude the first, for the reasons above. I fear that orthodox adherents of the national idea will be inclined to the second, in other words, treat the Russian language as a destructive factor. According to them, it invalidates national discourse. However, I believe that (3) is neither a constructive nor a destructive factor: it is neutral. Thus, the answer to Dynko’s question is affirmative: the Belarusian narrative in the Russian language is possible.

These reflections allow us to approach Russophone intellectuals’ proposal to create a “Geneva Convention” between “Belarusophiles” and “Russophiles”. Such a phantom has been hovering over the head of the Belarusian intellectual sphere for a year and a half. No one dares ensnare the phantom in a conceptual net; even the author of idea of the “Convention”, Yury Drakakhrust, has limited himself to occasional admonitions, addressed to Belarusophones, without wishing to make his idea more tangible.

I am unable to propose a concrete version of this convention; however, I shall try to sketch an ethical conception of coexistence in Belarus.

1. The Belarusian language, as one (but not the only) integrative symbol, possesses ethical value in itself. Indifference towards the language is not considered to be a neutral feature; it is aggressive in an ethical sense. It is a duty of all Belarusians to respect the language and support the Belarusian linguistic culture.

2. Unlike linguistic nationalists, I do not wish to imply that it is Belarusians’ duty to speak in Belarusian. Russophones ought to have only passive ability: they should acknowledge the Belarusian language to a degree, and be able to understand their Belarusophone countrymen. State officials ought to have the active ability to communicate with Belarusophone citizens.

3. The obligation to respect the Belarusian language does not mean an obligation to admire Belarusophones. It is to be expected that Russophones remain critical towards Belarusophones. I assume, however, the concept of the autonomy of values, according to which the worthiness of Belarusian language is independent of the worthiness of its users.

We have to be aware that such a convention is, unfortunately, unable to provide all the psychological and ethical aspects of the problem. Juridical norms, as a rule, are not sensitive to the long history of the “sterilization” of the Belarusian people, in other words, their being deprived of the Belarusian language. At the same time, both the Russian language and its users cannot be perceived as being guilty of this “sterilization”. It will be better to replace “the convention” with solidarity and reliability between two cultural groups.

Today, authoritarian bilingualism exists in Belarus. The government blocks free discourse, be it formulated in Russian, Belarusian, or Polish. Our main strategy must be to liberate bilingualism from the yoke of dictatorship. And then to let bilingualism develop of its own accord, by way of cultural dialogue, intellectual polemic, and democratic competition.

  1. "Nevozmozhnost' simbioza", in Nashe Mnenie 16.18.2005
  2. The main myth of the national movement, recalling the "Golden Age" of Belarus.
  3. Soglasie, 29.10.1990.
  4. Arche 2/2001.

Published 25 November 2005

Original in Belarusian
First published in Arche 5/2005 (Belarusian version)

Contributed by Arche
© Piotra Rudkowski / Arche / Eurozine


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