Friday, January 29, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Russians Still Can’t See Belarusians as a Separate Nation, Mensk Guides Say

Paul Goble

Vienna, January 29 – Mensk tour guides say that nearly 20 years after Belarus acquired its independence, Russian visitors to their country still cannot deal with the reality that Belarus is an independent country and that Belarusians are a separate nation with a separate language, culture, and tradition.
Sergey Plutkevich, a commentator for the portal, asked tour guides in his country “what facts from the history of Belarus shock Russian tourists?” Their answers, as summarized on that site this week, suggests just how little Russians understand about their Western neighbors (
Anatoly Varavva, who Plutkevich says is “one of the most experienced tour guides of Belarus, said that “almost any fact which you could name when talking about the events which have occurred in our land generates shock among Russian tourists,” few of whom are prepared to acknowledge that “out history can be distinguished from the all-Russian” version.
Tatyana Khvagina, the president of the Pinsk section of the Belarusian Association of Tour Guides, says that Russian ignorance about and attitudes toward Belarus and Belarusians had caused her much grief until she realized that the Russians had seldom been told the truth about her country.
She noted that if one looks at the standard Russian reference works, there is nothing about the Grand Principality of Lithuania and consequently, “it turns out that in the consciousness of our neighbors is missing six entire centuries of the Belarusian land!” Without a knowledge of that period, she continued, nothing afterwards makes sense.
But having understood that Russians do not know about this, she said, she has been able to sit still for “the tirades of certain Russian colleagues who present themselves as historians and who declare that ‘there are no Belarusians, this is an artificially created nation, and the Belarusian language in general does not exist.” At most, “’it is a dialect of Russian!’”
Meanwhile, Aleksey Dubrovsky, another award-winning Belarusian guide, said that “Russians in reality have heard practically nothing about the Grand Principality of Lithuania and even more do not know that there was a time when Moscow was a vassal of the Grand Principality of Lithuania.”
Given this ignorance, he continued, “Russian tourists now think that all the enormous territories which the Russian Empire included were Russian from time immemorial,” rather than being more recent acquisitions and having entirely different histories before, during and after the Russian occupation.
Varavva acknowledged that Belarusians do not have a perfect knowledge of Russian history, but he said that unlike the Russians, “our people are much more tolerant,” and they never militantly insist on their own point of view,” even on such critical issues as the Grand Principality of Lithuania and the war of 1812 in which Belarusians fought on both sides.
But Khvagina said that Russians really get things wrong regarding the history of Belarus: “Many Russian tourists sincerely think that precisely Russian liberated us unhappy Slave from under the centuries-long Polish oppression, exactly the same way that they think about Ukrainians. In fact,” she points out, “we are different!”
“We have our own history which has deep roots,” she continued. “This isn’t something good or bad; it is simply a fact with which others must take into consideration if we want to have good relations.” And it is certainly the case that Belarusians have disagreements with the way in which they are treated in Poland and Lithuania.”
But however much that may be, Belarusians are “civilized people and we must move forward, remembering our past and respecting the point of view of our neighbors. Tourism without this cannot develop.” And if some Belarusians do not know their history, they need to learn it before presuming to lecture others about Belarus.
Nonetheless, the slighting attitude of many Russians toward the Belarusians has an impact not only on Russian visitors to Belarus and on Russian officials but also on otherwise sensible Russian commentators, as is reflected in a comment offered today by a Moscow commentator on Belarus (
He concludes his comment on Moscow’s relationship with Minsk with the following anecdote. Relations between the two, he says, recall the relations between a trolleybus driver and one of his passengers in an old Soviet anecdote, one familiar to almost all people in that country.
Every morning, the Moscow commentator recalls, the trolleybus driver would stop at one pickup point wondering whether a particular woman passenger would arrive. Each time, she made it before he left. “But once, having seen the running woman, the driver closed the doors just as she got there, noting “with satisfaction” that at last she hadn’t caught his trolley.

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