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The Lynching of a Language

Renowned Belarusian writer Vasil Bykau talks with TOL about the crisis of his native language by Vasil Bykau 10 April 2000 In May 1995, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka held a referendum that resulted in making Russian and Belarusian the official state languages-previously, both had been widely spoken but neither had been made official. That marked the beginning of a rigid campaign to Russify Belarusian society from the top down. Abruptly reversing the efforts of 1991-1994 to revive aspects of Belarusian culture long repressed under communism, Lukashenka's administration has closed virtually all Belarusian schools; put a chokehold on private Belarusian-language publications, causing their numbers to dwindle (some have been forced to publish abroad); altogether banned the publication of textbooks in Belarusian; and criminalized the display of national symbols. Lukashenka clarified the philosophy behind his language policies to the people of Belarus in a widely broadcast statement that Russian and English are the only languages in the world in which one can fully express their thoughts. The president has long been a vociferous advocate of a comprehensive union with Russia, largely by playing on nostalgia for the Soviet Union and on feelings of so-called Slavic brotherhood.

The renowned fiction writer Vasil Bykau, an outspoken dissident who repeatedly inflamed political leaders during Soviet rule, has become a spokesman for the Belarusian national opposition to Lukashenka's pro-Russian regime. His Belarusian contemporaries have called him a symbol of the struggle for Belarusian independence, language, and culture; a national phenomenon; and the leader of the present epoch. Such roles won Bykau exile to Finland in 1998, the same year he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. In an interview with TOL's Felice Wilson, Bykau shares his views on the travails of his native tongue and national culture, and what he feels must be done to preserve them for future generations.


TOL: Why did you decide to write in Belarusian when it was considered more prestigious and advantageous to write in Russian?

Vasil Bykau: I was born on Belarusian soil and my native language is Belarusian, so naturally I began to write, and still write, Belarusian literature in the Belarusian language. It was a very clear-cut and natural thing to do. It's another matter that the politics of the Bolshevik regime did not encourage the development of Belarusian language and culture, although the official national policy was to develop and sustain the national cultures [of the republics]. In fact, all national elements were repressed and persecuted. The Belarusian people, like many other peoples-not only of the former Soviet Union, but also of Europe-were under the influence of an illusion and didn't immediately comprehend the danger communist ideology and communist dictatorship posed toward culture. This has become clear with the emergence of dictatorship in Belarus. [President] Lukashenka has simply rejected the Belarusian language and adopted a course of destroying Belarusian national culture. For many that came unexpectedly. But a smaller part of the population understood that this has been nothing less than the logical continuation of communist policy, but in a more extreme, detailed, and, I would say, cynical form.

TOL: But would you agree that writing in Russian was considered more prestigious?

Bykau: Yes, of course, but it's not just that it was prestigious. Publishing in Russian opened the door to a wide range of opportunities-for example, translation into other languages. But I am, after all, Belarusian by descent and nationality. My whole life is tied to Belarus and Belarusian history. Therefore, because of purely patriotic motivations, I started to write only in Belarusian.

TOL: How do you rate the Belarusian language's chances of survival?

Bykau: It's clear that the Belarusian language and national culture can only exist-to say nothing of develop-in Belarus under a sovereign Belarusian state. As you know, the enemies of Belarus-her national ideological opponents-understand that problem perfectly, which is why they are attempting, above all else, to liquidate the sovereignty of the Belarusian state. In order to achieve that, Lukashenka is openly attempting political integration with Russia. Legally this has already been achieved; the only thing left is to unite administratively-to make Belarus a part of Russia, to turn it into a Russian province, just like Smolensk, Kalinin, or other neighboring provinces of Russia.

TOL: What do you think about the attempts of the young urban intelligentsia to make Belarusian fashionable-for example to dissociate it from Soviet stereotypes and create a kind of post-modern Belarusian culture through the Internet, youth magazines, and newspapers?

Bykau: Young people also understand the dangers associated with integration. The main struggle of the national democratic forces is to defend the sovereignty of Belarus. If that fails there will no longer be a need to speak about Belarusian language and culture.

TOL: Do you think the younger generation succeeding in creating a new Belarusian popular culture?

Bykau: I think they are succeeding in some measure, although this creative work is very difficult under the pressures of a dictatorship. But they're succeeding in something, mainly because they don't want to submit to the dictatorship. And they're discovering their methods of battle-though they are limited and difficult-which give them a sense of independence. They're creating their own sub-culture-nationalistic, of course-which is not only independent of the regime, but independent of the previous traditional culture. That is good; it's a positive process.
TOL: Do you think that if Belarusian popular culture manages to escape Russification it will almost inevitably be Americanized?

Bykau: Americanization is actively going on in Belarus, as is Russification. But in contrast to other states in Europe, where there is also active Americanization in the cultural sphere, in Belarus Americanization is a two-sided danger, as it's not coming directly from the United States, but from Russia, and is intensified by Russification.

TOL: Is there a generational language division? For example, do young people speak more Belarusian than their parents?

Bykau: Yes, there is such a division, and the opposite is also true in some cases.

TOL: But would you say that young people are speaking Belarusian with greater frequency?

Bykau: Yes, but I want to say that the statistic [that 87 percent of Belarusians speak Belarusian at home] is very debatable. It doesn't indicate the state of the language as much as it speaks about the attitude towards it-that Belarusians are conscious of and recognize their language. Even if they don't use Belarusian, they still call themselves Belarusian and indicate Belarusian as their native language during a census. ... That gives us much hope ... but hope ... doesn't mean much in Belarus. In a regime such as ours, 87 percent doesn't mean anything as long as the ruling regime-the police, KGB, army-operates in another language. ... International law doesn't mean anything either in this situation. For example, the [Belarusian] constitution says there are two state languages: Russian and Belarusian. But there's not one Belarusian-language school in Minsk. And if a police officer hears a couple of young people speaking Belarusian on a bus or at a bus stop, he'll take out his long rubber truncheon and start beating them. A person who speaks in Belarusian is suspected as a potential opponent to Lukashenka's regime.

TOL: And that has a bad effect on the language?

Bykau: Of course, because language isn't a political substance, but a common national substance. It is bad for language when different political forces begin to use it for their own interests, or divide it according to different parameters. Language-every national language-must retain its integrity. Otherwise, its development will be retarded.

TOL: How did you begin to write in Tarashkevitsa [an old form of Belarusian grammar and spelling that was banned in 1933, as part of Stalin's program to "update" the language and bring it in line with the Russian orthographic tradition]?

Bykau: That is a rather complicated problem, which is specific to Belarus. Tarashkevitsa grammar is closer to the national Belarusian language than the language and grammar imposed in 1933 as a result of the [language] reforms. That is, Tarashkevitsa grammar is more organic to Belarus. But during the Soviet period, Belarusians became unaccustomed to the old grammar, and now it seems archaic to them. Therefore, time, activity in Belarusian linguistic studies, and widespread information campaign are required for people to again master the old and forgotten grammar of Tarashkevitsa.

TOL: How did you begin writing in Tarashkevitsa if this form was lost in the years following 1933?

Bykau: This form has been preserved, above all, by immigration. Belarusian immigrants took it with them to the West before, during, and after the war. Abroad, they never adopted the reformed form. They communicated exclusively in this linguistic form, preserving it overseas.

TOL: And how did you learn Tarashkevitsa?

Bykau: Well, I don't think I've mastered it yet, but I've taught myself, mainly by reading. I read a few publications by immigrants that were written in Tarashkevitsa.

TOL: Do you think that form has prospects for the future?

Bykau: The language that has prospects is Belarusian. And as I've already said, Belarusian depends on the fate, on the sovereignty, of the state.
Alex Znatkevich contributed to this report.
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