You can still hear Russian spoken by non-Russians on Polish streets. The speakers are mostly Ukrainians and Belarusians. A few of us, however, are fully aware that the Ukrainian salesman or the Belarusian Uber driver speaking this language are just the tip of an iceberg, while below the surface there is a fierce cultural war going on. The clash is between Ukrainian and Belarusian cultures and Russian culture, aided by the power of regional dictatorships and numerous intrigues. Few also understand that if we do not take an active part in this conflict, Central and Eastern Europe could once again become a place where freedom is seriously threatened.
The clash is between Ukrainian and Belarusian cultures and Russian culture, aided by the power of regional dictatorships and intrigues. Without action the freedom in Central and Eastern Europe could be threatened.
An uncertain presence – how to lose one’s sense of identity on native soil
Today, when writing anything about Belarus and Ukraine, it is necessary to refer to the crisis of democratic liberal Europe. There are no other nations that have the right to feel so let down as our two eastern neighbours. When we pass by Ukrainians in Krakow or Lodz, we should remember that while we are still talking about human rights, their country has been torn by a hopeless war for seven years now, with Russia, a full member of the Council of Europe, as the aggressor. So how can we talk about a „triumphant march of democracy” in their context? It is also hard to imagine how we can tell a Belarussian whose relatives were tortured in Okrestina about the end of history, when the EU is considering sanctions against the post-Soviet Lukashenko regime. There are more questions than answers here.
At this point only one thing is clear – both Ukrainians and Belarusians have every right to feel ridiculous and grotesque today when they hear EU politicians raising slogans about human rights. The crisis of unifying tendencies in Europe may paradoxically benefit our two neighbours and become another catalyst for their national awakening. This shift from westernisation to localisation takes on a new dimension if we look at the linguistic situation in Belarus and Ukraine, where the Russian language still plays the role of a window to the world. To understand the peculiarities of the inconspicuous poison that is the domination of this language in those regions, and to learn about the motives of people breaking away from Russian, let’s listen to two stories – Ukrainian and Belarusian.
Mykola Riabchuk, Ukrainian essayist and literary critic, writes about the situation of Russian culture in Ukraine in the following words: „The cities (in Ukraine) have historically formed as Russian, Russian-speaking centres with a fairly insignificant Ukrainian-speaking population. To this day they function as a kind of «meat grinder», continuing to assimilate and Russify Ukrainians coming from the countryside”.
Later in the text, Riabchuk points out that a higher level of urbanisation de facto means privileging Russian speakers. He points out that speakers of Russian have much better salaries, better access to culture, careers or social contacts; in this way the Russian language consolidates its dominance.
Now let us take a look at the excerpt from an essay by the Belarusian writer, Valancin Akudovich, from his book The Conversations with God: „When I finished the eighth grade, my parents sent me out of town to continue my education in the faraway world – as far as Moscow. Oh, with such admiration and envy my colleagues looked at me (…) when they listened to my Russian…”.
Akudovich further explains what he only realised many years later: the reason for his pride was not his linguistic abilities, but the hope that as a Russian-speaking person, „easily forgetting his native words”, he would enjoy a better fate than that of a Belarusian. Reading both of these testimonies – from a social and a personal perspective – we can imagine the magnitude of the destruction that the domination of Russian culture is wreaking in Ukraine and Belarus.
Dying language, dying culture
Russian culture, as a result of the Russification of the lands of the former Ruthenia and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, has taken a dominant place in almost every sector of Belarusian or Ukrainian life: from economic through the social and to cultural sectors. It probably does not need to be explained to anyone that this pressure is all the more dangerous, the more intimate areas of life it touches.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was the language that largely guaranteed Russia’s ability to keep Ukraine and Belarus in its sphere of influence. Both countries used Russian media, listened to Russian music, and Russian was a dominant language in their cities. On the one hand, the Russian language served as a window into this „higher”, „world” culture. On the other hand, the Russian authorities deliberately contrasted Russian with the „provincial” Ukrainian or Belarusian languages, making it an instrument of subjugation.
The situation in which the culture of a neighbouring, expansive state dominates weaker neighbouring countries that strive for more independence cannot last forever. When Ukrainians demanded more autonomy in 2014, the divisions created by centuries of Russian domination unexpectedly came to light. In response, Russia set in motion its propaganda machine, occupied Crimea and started an avalanche of conflict in Donbas. None of this would have happened without several centuries of Russification of this country.
We observe a similar pattern in the case of our other eastern neighbour. When protests broke out in Belarus a year ago, we could see a similar, violent polarisation. On the one side stood the supporters of a free, „European” Belarus under a white-red-white flag, while on the other, according to many polls, were the minority, yet supported by the post-Stalinist regime, supporters of a Belarus reconstructed on the Soviet model by Alexander Lukashenko. Yet Lukashenko is exactly this kind of Belarusian, a former director of a Soviet kolkhoz who soaked in Russian culture. His regime would not have had a chance to emerge if the non-Soviet Belarus had not been stifled by several centuries of cultural warfare with Russia.
Both of these protests had, and still have, one important common feature – the anticipation of Europe. The flags of the European Union were flying at both the Maidan and Belarusian demonstrations. Poland was to be the ether of this „EU” Europeanness practically from the very beginning in 2004. What will being an ether bring us at a time when the signal strength from the western world is fading? The Union is increasingly tarnishing its reputation, while our relations with the Ukrainians and Belarusians are becoming more and more intense in our daily lives.
The discreet culture war and its devastating effects
Russia is waging a culture war on Belarus and Ukraine. Some might say that this is an internal matter of these two countries and that Poland should remain neutral on this issue. However, it must be understood that the Polish state does not exist in a vacuum, and the domination of the Russian model of identity and vision of history over the entire space to the east of us poses a serious threat to us. All the more so because, as Jacek Bartosiak in his interview with onet.pl points out, „Russians have a powerful sense of insecurity. They are unable to be an attractive centre of civilisation for the nations around them. They, therefore, want to increase their security through the absolute insecurity of their neighbours”.
Now imagine that across our eastern border we have people who, as a result of an undeveloped self-identity, have adopted, under the pressure of the challenges of everyday life, the smuggled identity of the Russian model. Fortunately, we have some ammunition that can be used in this culture war. Russian propaganda channels are well aware of this, scaring their audiences with a Poland that seeks to rebuild the Republic stretching from sea to sea. It would not be out of place to point out that the Polish Commonwealth was also formed by the ancestors of today’s Belarusians and Ukrainians. Contrary to Soviet and nationalist historiography, the Ukrainian and Belarusian elites participated in it on completely equal footing.
A republic of many nations – what good is such a heritage?
If we contemplate what remains of the Commonwealth, we can come to the conclusion – coexistence with the Belarusians and Ukrainians is part of our identity. The years of political unity, after its disintegration and the formation of our national identities in separate camps, still result in various grotesque disputes today.
Whenever a Belarusian dares to mention Mickiewicz’s Belarusianness, we become indignant. How dare they deprive us of our national poet? We overlook the fact that the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was a state in which the official language – and the language of its people and its culture – was Old Belarussian. We do not see that his Polish nationality would not exist without a link to Lithuania-Belarus. Let us state it clearly – without Poland’s connection to this country and all its mythical-ethnic baggage, there would have been no Mickiewicz and other Polish Lithuanians, and no people who describe themselves as „of Ruthenian origin, a Pole by nationality”. Unlike today, „Polishness” at that time meant being a member of a supraethnic (!) national community.
The Republic was de facto, though not de jure, a tripartite state. A formula in which Lithuanian, Ruthenian and „crown” components were combined, forming the nucleus of what we today call Belarusian, Ukrainian and Polish identity – Ukrainians were still called Rusyns in the twentieth century, and in the case of Belarus, Mickiewicz himself suggests that the name of a Lithuanian, at the level of ethnos, is Belarusian Vitovt (Vitaut). Both states, if we are talking about non-Soviet variants, trace their lineage back to Lithuania and Ruthenia, which co-created the Commonwealth with us. We formed an organism both as an ally for the West and also – which is inextricably linked to this partnership – as a counterweight to Moscow. At a time when to the east of us there is a cultural war between Russia and our own and its neighbours, it is our duty to make the most of this historical and cultural potential.
The fact that both the Polish and the Ukrainian or Belarussian independence movements were formed in opposition to tsarist and Soviet tyranny tells us to this day about a community of values, the guiding principle of which is resistance to Russian despotism. It found its expression in the Promethean movement and slogans such as the slogan of the January insurgents „For our freedom and yours”. It meant that the blade of rebellion was directed not so much against the Russians as against the despotism of their rulers, and was, therefore, an expression of civilisation in the best sense of the word.
Unfortunately, the awareness of this community is disturbed today. The bitter words of a Belarusian oppositionist, heard by me in the autumn of 2019, at a protest outside the Russian consulate in Krakow, tell a lot in this regard: „How many years of Russian propaganda did it take for us to forget that we used to form a single state?”. It should be mentioned here that this propaganda would have had limited potential had it not been for prior Russification. Speaking Russian inevitably leads to participation in the Russian-speaking cultural space and feeling emotionally connected to it. It is not about stigmatising Russian speakers. Those stigmatised would retreat to where the reason for condemnation is a common feature, that is deeper into the Russian-speaking universe. Poland would only lose in such a case. Rather, we should open up a cultural alternative by supporting centres dedicated to preserving the languages and cultures of our neighbours from across the river Bug. At the same time, let us keep alive the story of a united front, which has proved its unbroken existence on so many occasions, for example during the Ukrainian Maidan or the Belarusian protests.
We should focus on reconstructing as accurately as possible the cultural ties that bind us to the heirs of Lithuanian and Ruthenian culture – finally recognising that they form an integral part of the history of the Commonwealth. Make the slogan of „our freedom and yours” practically applicable to state action in the field of culture and not be limited to manifestations. Ensure the restoration of what was broken by Russian pressure and further destroyed by our nationalisms – the realisation that we are interdependent as countries. Let us make the support for the independence of Belarus and Ukraine and our rapprochement with them on equal terms an expression of Polish patriotism. Otherwise, it may turn out that the signal, transmitted to the East through the Polish ether, has lost its power. And we will be left empty-handed once again.
Polish version available here.
Publication (excluding figures and illustrations) is available under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International. Any use of the work is allowed, provided that the licensing information, about rights holders and about the contest "Public Diplomacy 2021" (below) is mentioned. Public task financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within the grant competition “Public Diplomacy 2021”. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the official positions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.
Publication (excluding figures and illustrations) is available under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International. Any use of the work is allowed, provided that the licensing information, about rights holders and about the contest "Public Diplomacy 2021" (below) is mentioned.
Public task financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within the grant competition “Public Diplomacy 2021”. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the official positions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.