In a week when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich has argued that the Soviet period created the basis for Ukrainian statehood, a Moscow scholar suggests that Belarusians will remain divided by the Soviet inheritance but can be united on the basis of their pre-1917 national history.
In an article in the current issue of the Levada Center's "Vestnik Obshchestvennogo mneniya," Aleksey Lastovsky argues that the pre-Soviet period rather than the Soviet one "has the greatest potential for the strengthening of national identity" among Belarusians today and in the future (www.polit.ru/research/2010/07/19/belorus.html).
Indeed, this scholar argues on the basis of public opinion surveys in Belarus over the last several years, "Soviet history cannot serve as a unifying factor for an integral historical memory" among Belarusians. While they may know it best, they are sharply divided on the meaning for their nation of many of its events.
And although many Belarusians know less about their nation's pre-Soviet past, the growth of knowledge about that past has two "most important characteristics" for the future of their national identity. On the one hand, it is not completely defined, allowing "without particular difficulty, to include in it necessary content" through education.
On the other, this period, unlike the Soviet one, is already assessed positively or at least not negatively in the mass consciousness of Belarusians. Consequently, "pre-Soviet Belarusian history quite effectively can be used for the formation of a community of understanding about the past and present Belarusian nation."
As in the case of other countries in the former Soviet space, Lastovsky writes, "the collapse of the Soviet model of history required [in Belarus] a review and redefinition of the national historical narrative and the search for unifying ways of making sense of their own histories."
The greatest amount of public discussion of this took place at the very end of the Soviet period, but despite the ultimately unreasonable hopes of some, those discussions alone did not lead to a transformation of collective historical consciousness. And many people, especially members of the older generation not part of the educational system, retained Soviet values.
That reality, Lastovsky continues, has been highlighted by the surveys conducted by the Belarusian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Sociology, by polls conducted by the Eurasian Monitor, and by the Novak Sociological Laboratory on "The National Identity of the Belarusians: Who We are And Whom We Will Be?"
These three efforts, the sociologist says, allow for an analysis of what Belarusians believe about the sources of Belarusian statehood, about the events in national history which generate pride as well as shame and anger, and about the most important individuals in Belarusian history of the 20th century and before.
In his 6,000-word article the sociologist provides a detailed description of the findings of these various surveys, pointing out the various positions of members of different generations of Belarusians about all these points and the ways in which they are likely to evolve over time as a result of the passing of the older generation and the education of the young.
For example, he notes that "people over 50 are more inclined to give preference to the Belarusian SSR as the first Belarusian state (15 percent) than are younger respondents (five percent). But even the older generation identifies the origins of Belarusian statehood with the Polotskian principality or the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
That pattern reflects the fact, Lastovsky continues, that the pre-Soviet period of Belarusian history is "practically unknown" to members of the older generation. "The younger generation in contrast," he says, "is extremely well informed about various events and personages of Belarusian history."
And Lastovsky points out that the promotion of the Great Fatherland War as the signal event of the Soviet period has had the effect of putting in "the shadow other events of this period" or leaving public opinion about them very much divided, although the recent surveys show the anger many Belarusians still feel about the impact of the Chernobyl accident.
For Belarusians to complete their national consolidation and move forward, Lastovsky argues, it will be the pre-Soviet period rather than the Soviet one that will be the most effective means for doing so, a reality that highlights the historical nature of the Belarusian nation that many Russians and others continue to deny.
Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia, he can be contacted directly at email@example.com. You can read all his blog entries at http://windowoneurasia.blogspot.com/