I’m having a new round of former Soviet Union obsession. This time it is taking the form of fascination with the greatest dictatorships there – Belarus and Turkmenistan. All the rest are dictatorships too, but these two provide the most interesting stories. It’s quite startling how those two guys, Türkmenbaşy and Lukashenko keep ruling. It’s a depressing proof – yet another – that the hope doesn’t lie in the proles.

The Belarus obsession, unlike the Turkmen one, may have practical value for me, as i started a Balto-Slavic Studies course this year. Reading the texts will probably be a very easy part and i even feel a little like cheating, but the more i read about the subject the more i understand that serious linguistic work will not be easy at all. First, because the patterns of Russian are thouroughly stuck in my head and it makes me look at every Slavic language in comparison to Russian, which is obviously wrong. Moreover, virtually anything written on the subject of Baltic and Slavic languages is so soaked with politics, that trusting anyone on giving solid facts is impossible. But then again – languages are defined by politicians who tell linguists what to write in their “research”. Particularly in Eastern Europe.

I heard earlier about the history of the west of Eastern Europe – this gray zone formed by eastern Poland, Baltic states, Belarus and Ukraine. Names like Galichyna, Ruthenia, Bukovina, Prussia, which are long gorgotten – or rather erased from history books by force – keep springing up. And of course the GDL – The Grand Duchy of Lithuania. I don’t remember learning about it at history lessons in USSR – there i lived under the impression that Ukraine and Belarus (called Byelorussia, of course) were almost always quiet vassals of Russia, although Kievan Rus’ was briefly mentioned. But the reading texts in the Lithuanian grammar book which i used at my Lithuanian courses in the University talked a lot about it, painting a colourful picture of a big peaceful union, where Belorusians and Ukrainians, who considered their land Rus’ were the majority of population and the Lithuanians and the Poles were the nice rulers who did not loot the villages, rape the women and make everyone pay terrible taxes. And they all coexisted nicely. But of course that was a Lithuanian book, written by mostly Lithuanian authors at the time of Russian/Soviet occupation. Even this Russian nationalistic “Encyclopedia” admits that Rus’ is the western land and doesn’t include Moscow – but it does say that Ukrainians (“little Russians”) and Byelorussians are just branches of one Russian nation, the center of which is, of course, in Moscow.

I grew up in Moscow, so the impression i got when i read Ukrainian and Byelorussian/Belarusian texts was that those languages are the little sisters of Russian. Although the visit to Ukraine at the age of five made me want to study linguistics (really!), i always found those two languages more amusing than interesting. It was like this even when i grew up and started learning linguistics, which was supposed to thoroughly teach that all languages are equal.

So in the last weeks i started to take a serious look at Belarusian, which until now mostly made me laugh, because in written form it looked like a homework of a Russian kid in the first grade who didn’t yet master the spelling rules. In the last few days i read the Wikipedia article and some related sites and it was eye-opening. Yes, Wikipedia is not 100% reliable and Belarusian sites are bound to have an anti-Moscow or even pro-Lithuanian/Polish bias, but it made me realize that Rus’ and Russia are quite different things; that what i always called Russian, was once called Moscovite and only later began to be called Russian. How – i don’t yet exactly understand and probably never will. I also understood that the demand of Belarusians to spell the name of their language Belarusian and not Byelorussian is not a mere secessionist whim, it has historical grounds (and i never liked the expression “White Russia”).

Now i just hope that it will help me in my studies.


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