Western Borderlands

Finding National Identity in the Western Borderlands [Kris McClellan and Sarah Argodale]

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (known as the Commonwealth, Rzeczpopospolíta) was a major cultural and political force in Europe for centuries, but it was gradually partitioned and absorbed by the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. The Commonwealth had a diverse population that would eventually become multiple ethnic groups; its elites were primarily “Polish,” and the peasants were largely “Belarusian.” After the Soviet Union disintegrated, the lands formerly controlled by the Commonwealth split into four separate nations: Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Belarus. Historian Timothy Snyder argues that modern national identity in these areas is unintelligible without reference to the diverse past of the region and the interaction between the four modern “titular nationalities” and other groups like the Jews, Germans, and Russians in the past (Snyder, 8). Belarus’ path to nationhood was not guided by an internal or émigré intellectual movement during independence, but was heavily influenced by Soviet nationalities policy.

During the Commonwealth, “Lithuania” (the term applied to the territory) was a land of many peoples but a “Polish destiny” (Snyder, 29). Polish-speaking elites dominated the political and cultural landscape, and Polish was the language of power and society for centuries. Catherine II progressively annexed almost all the lands of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth between 1772 and 1795 with a series of partitions. After the defeat of the anti-Russian Kościuszko uprising in 1794, the third partition removed the Commonwealth from the map of Europe. As the Russian Empire claimed the lands of the Commonwealth, it also absorbed “elites who spoke Polish, peasants who spoke Belarusian, and towns filled with Jews”(Snyder, 25). Belarusia under the tsars faced several obstacles to the formation of national identity. Unlike the Lithuanians, who had a distinct Baltic language, or the Poles, who had a developed literary tradition, the Belarusian was a low-status, un-codified Slavic dialect that was morphologically related to both Russian and Polish. Geographically and linguistically, the “Belarusians” occupied a fragile frontier between two cultural and political powers that eclipsed Belarusian identity (Snyder, 41). Belarusian was the “simple speech of honest folk,” but it did not connote national belonging; members of “society” (synonymous with “the nation” at this time) spoke Polish or Russian. “Belarusians” were the largest “ethnic group” in the former Commonwealth, but they failed to independently articulate a modern national identity until the Soviet period (Snyder, 41). In order to prove Belarusia was capable of becoming a nation on its own terms, poet Vincent Dunin-Martsinkevich attempted to translate great literary works into Belarusian. Based on Romantic ideas of nationhood at the time, literary achievement was a hallmark of national culture, but a nation could also prove that “its” language was advanced by rendering the poetic masterpieces form other traditions into its own. Martinskevitch attempted to translate Adam Mickiewicz‘s Pan Tadeusz into Belarusian so that “Belarusian peasants” could read the epic tale of “Belarusian gentlemen.” Interestingly, although Mickiewicz was born to (and his masterpiece Pan Tadeusz set among) East Slavic peasants we would now call Belarusians, the Belarusian gentry and writers didn’t advance exclusive claims to him as a “national” poet even while Polish and Lithuanian national activists did (Snyder, 29).

Martinskevitch ultimately abandoned the effort in 1859 because of the difficulties of translating into Belarusian, which was not a codified written language and was generally dismissed by elite patriots, who had little regard for the Belarusian peasants and instead worked for the restoration of the Polish-dominated Commonwealth. There was simply no desire for books in Belarusian in the 1850s because anyone who was literate could probably just as easily read in Polish or Russian instead. The ban on Belarusian publications after 1863 produced little response for this very reason, and failed to become a rallying cry for national activism. Martinskevich also faced Russian imperial censors who would not allow him to publish Belarusian language rendered in Latin script (making the title appear the same way it would in Polish); if he had used Cyrillic script, he would have been able to publish, but the title would appear the same way as it would in Russian (“Пан Тадеуш”) (Snyder, 42).

As they struggled to defend Belarusian as a legitimate, developed language, national activists also searched in vain for a special national religious tradition. The Poles and Lithuanians drew on Catholicism to differentiate themselves from the Orthodox Russians, but imperial policies had deprived the Belarusians of their separate church. At the time of the 1795 partition, 80% of the peasants that became Belarusian were Uniates, but the Russian Orthodox Church absorbed the Uniate Church in 1839. Belarusian nationalists lamented the loss of “their” church up through the 1863 revolt, but the Uniate Church had never been an explicitly Belarusian institution, and it had used Polish instead of the Belarusian vernacular for over 200 years (Snyder, 45).

The small Belarusian national movement reoriented its efforts after the failed uprising in 1863 against the Russian Empire. During the uprising, the leaders believed that the Commonwealth could be restored by an alliance of (Polish-speaking) gentry and (Lithuanian/Belarusian) peasants. In order to inspire peasant participation, leaders like Jakób Gieysztor, Konstanty Kalinowski, and Antanas Mackevičius tried to persuade peasants to take up the fight in their own language, even promising them land if they helped throw off Russian rule. These leaders appealed to the peasants because they needed their involvement against the Russians; they were still not willing to define “the masses” as an essential part of “the nation” and did not believe that the peasants could understand the importance of restoring the Commonwealth.

The fact that leaders addressed peasants to take up arms in their own national language marked a significant turning point for the people who would become Belarusian because it increased their expectation of instruction and media in their language in peace time (Snyder, 30). The failed uprising also changed the perceptions of Belarusian national activists; after 1863, leaders stopped looking back to the Commonwealth and embraced peasants and their language as “the nation” (Snyder, 31). This shift in identity is also observed in the “Belarusian” peasants, who before 1863 referred to themselves as “Lithuanian.” After 1863, “Belarusian speakers called themselves ‘Russian’ if they were Orthodox, ‘Polish’ if they were Roman Catholic, and ‘local’ if they were watching out for themselves” (Snyder, 50). The Russians also changed their perceptions of the people from the former Commonwealth; they came to regard Polish elites as the enemy, the Lithuanian national movement as a way to weaken the Poles, and Belorussian peasants as part of the Russian nation (Snyder, 49).

After the 1863 uprising and subsequent ban on Belarusian publications within the Russian Empire, the Belarusian national revivalists had to work remotely in Cracow, Vienna, and Posen. The Polish alphabet continued to be used for Belarusian publications even after they were once again legalized within the Empire after 1905. Nasha Niva (Our Soil), the first major Belarusian periodical, was published in both Cyrillic and Latin scripts. Frantsishak Bahushevich is now considered the father of Belarusian literature, but his work had only limited impact during his time and was banned by the Russians in 1908 for its nostalgia toward pre-Russian traditions (Snyder, 46).

The First World War and the Russian Revolution provided another opportunity to assert a separate Belarusian nation. Both Lithuanian and Belarusian national activists wanted to use the cover provided by German occupation to buy time and build new states before the Bolsheviks could interfere (Snyder, 60). The Belarusian National Council, led by Anton Lutskevich, proclaimed Vil’nia a part of a new independent Belarus in March 1918. He envisioned a multinational Belarus, a revision and restoration of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as a “modern socialist federation.” The proclamation was made under German occupation but lacked German support, and most of the Council fled their meeting place Minsk to avoid the Red Army in December 1918 (Snyder, 61). The Belarusian effort to recreate historic “Lithuania” but called Belarus failed, but the Bolsheviks granted the small group of activists who remained in Minsk a Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. The Belorussian SSR was originally just a small sliver around Minsk, but it expanded and lasted for 70 years (Snyder, 61). A Lithuanian SSR was also established by the Bolsheviks, with Vilnius as its capital after the city fell to Bolshevik forces on January 5, 1919. Then the Bolsheviks merged the new Lithuanian and Belorussian SSRs, and Vilnius became capital of the combined “LitBel” SSR.

Józef Piłsudski’s Polish army managed to drive Red Army out of Wilno on April 21, 1919, but his quest to restore the Grand Duchy satisfied neither Lithuanians (who saw it as Polish imperialism) nor Poles (who were angry that the people of Wilno could choose their own leaders, implying that it was not automatically and essentially a Polish city). Meanwhile, Lithuanian and Belarusian communists fled to Minsk and blamed each other for fall of the “LitBel” SSR (Snyder, 62). Polish and Bolshevik delegation met in Riga in September to resolve their conflict, and reached agreement on October 7, 1919 (Snyder, 63). For Belarusians, the Treaty of Riga was seen as treason and tragedy because they had lost hope of Polish cooperation and claims to important cities like Wilno/Vil’nia. The Treaty left the Belarusian population weak and divided between Poland and the re-established Belorussian SSR, but the Belorussian SSR grew farther to the east in 1923, 1924, and 1926, and Belorussian culture was reinforced through Belorussian education under the Soviets in the 1920s (Snyder, 65-66).

For a decade, the Soviets followed a policy of helping the Belarusians develop a strong national identity. This was mostly done by supporting education on a national scale in the newly created SSR. Several schools and Universities were founded that taught exclusively in Belarusian, which had never occurred under the Commonwealth or the Tsarist Empire (Snyder, 65). Unfortunately for the Belarusians, these liberal educated policies were harshly rolled back under Stalin’s rule in the 1930s. From that point forward, the Soviet Union attempted to dampen nationalist sentiment in Belarus, by forcing its citizens to learn Russian as opposed to the native Belarusian language (Snyder, 66). The Soviet actions of the 1930s closely resemble the interwar treatment of the Polish leadership towards the Belarusian minority that resided within Poland’s borders.

The delineation of nations following World War I left Wilno with a large number of Belarusians. These mostly educated people tried to create a Belarusian national movement within Poland, but were unsuccessful in gaining the support of the uneducated Belarusian peasants who resided outside of the city (Snyder, 66). The Polish also dampened any signs of a Belarusian movement, by closing Belarusian schools and banning the dissemination of Belarusian newspapers in the country (Snyder, 77). These brutal suppression methods created a tense relationship between the Belarusians and the Polish, which is still felt today in the post-Soviet Union era, as both sides continue to visit prejudices on the other. This tension was momentarily alleviated, however, during the repartition of Poland in World War II. At this point, the Soviets were finally able to further expand Belarus’s borders westward, assimilating Belarusian peasants who were living in the eastern region of Poland.

During Poland’s redistribution, there was a fierce debate over which country would control Vilnius. Both the Lithuanians and Belarusians made strong arguments for why the city belonged to them, which were grounded in questionable historical rhetoric. Ownership of Vilnius would allow a country to claim themselves as the descendents of the Commonwealth, establishing an unbroken historical narrative that did not necessarily reflect actual historical events. The Belarusians were determined to gain this territory, and for a moment, it appeared that the Soviets supported them. When Soviet forces occupied Vil’nia in the 1930s, they distributed pamphlets in Belarusian and encouraged the idea that Belarus had strong historical claims over the city (Snyder, 80). Belarusian leaders inside Vil’nia were convinced that the Soviet Union would honor their desire for a Belarusian SSR that included Vil’nia. In a surprising reversal, however, Stalin chose to award Lithuania with the city, effectively destroying Belarus as the heir to the Commonwealth (Snyder, 80).

Following Stalin’s decision in 1939, the many incarnations of the contested city-Polish Wilno, Belarusian Vil’nia, and Jewish Vilne-were completely replaced by the Lithuanian Vilnius. The Jewish, Belarusian, and Polish populations, which once were a significant portion of the city’s demographic, were essentially exterminated during the Second World War (Sndyer, 89). A once ethnically diverse city became almost exclusively Lithuanian, thereby erasing any connections that once existed between the city and other groups. A territory that once hosted a large Commonwealth of people had been dismantled into smaller national units with very little resemblance to the vast entity that preceded them. While these groups, the Belarusians, Lithuanians, and Polish, attempt to position themselves as direct descendants of this powerful union, in reality, these modern-day ethnic identities have very little to do with what existed over four hundred years ago. The experience in Belarus is an example of inorganic national construction, which relies on false historical identities for legitimacy.


Works cited

  •  Timothy Snyder, The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569- 1999 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).

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