Monday, January 26, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Belarusians, Ukrainians and Russians are ‘Not Cousins Let Alone Brothers,’ Mensk Historians Say

Paul Goble

Vienna, January 26 – A group of Mensk historians have challenged the view now again being actively promoted by Moscow writers that the three east Slavic peoples are closely related and that Ukrainians and Belarusians, rather than having an independent ethnogenesis, are the byproducts of Russian national development.”
Instead, the Belarusian group led by Anatoly Taras says, the historical record amply demonstrates that the three are “not cousins let alone brothers,” a position that has consequences not only for the self-definition of each of these nations but also for their political relationship to each other and to the larger world (
Taras and his colleague Oleg Trusov made those comments as their collective monograph, “The History of Imperial Relations: Belarusians and Russians, 1772-1999” (in Russian, Smolensk, 2009), went into its second printing because the first sold out in less than a week (
Taras said the book was being published in Russian to reach a larger number of readers not only in Belarus but in the Russian Federation and abroad, and Trusov suggested that the book is likely to be purchased by members of the Belarus diaspora, who are interested in their national past but who have “forgotten their native language.”
But Taras suggested that the book and others like it were playing a key role among Belarusians in Belarus, most of whom lack a full understanding of their nation and its past. “For the last 200 years,” he continued, “almost everything which makes possible national self-identification has been stripped from the memory of the residents of Belarus.”
“Despite Belarus’ acquisition of independence in 1991,” the book’s introduction argues, “the country is considered by Russian society through the prism of old myths and dogmas. Even certain Belarusians still believe that they are part of the Great Russian Nation and received from it their language, religion, culture, art and in general civilization.’
Such a view is fundamentally wrong, the authors of the chapters in the book insist, “Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians are three absolutely different ethnic communities,” “different genetically, psychologically and historically,” Taras says. And if the Belarusians are to have a future, they must understand their distinctive past.
Another key idea of the book is that “the entire history of the Muscovite state is one of uninterrupted expansion, 800 years of constant aggression. The dynasties have changed from the Rurikides to the Romanovs; the political regimes have changed from a grand ducal state to a tsardom to an empire and then to a republic of workers and peasants. But policy did not1”
This book is only one in a series of popular histories Taras has overseen the publication of over the last decade. Some of their titles underscore their purpose: “The Western Front of the RSFSR in 1918-1920: The Struggle between Russia and Poland for Belarus,” “The Forbidden History of Belarus,” and “All Against All” which is about the republic during World War II.
Such discussions of the distant past and even more of ethnogenesis are often ignored by political analysts who see them as irrelevant to their own concerns. As in the case of Belarus, that is a mistake because the treatment of these subjects often defines the shape of the mental maps of national elites.
An example of that is a new study by Yuri Shevtsov, the director of the Minsk Center for Problems of European Integration. Unlike many Russians and Belarusians influenced by Russians, he argues that Belarus is located between Russia and Europe with roots in both (
While he does not directly address ethnogenetic questions, his commentary about the way in which his republic is situated economically, politically, and culturally suggests that to paraphrase and slightly modify Kipling, he views it as being equally the easternmost of Western peoples as the westernmost of an Eastern one.

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