By Ales Bondar
Being Belarusian abroad is never easy.
“Hi, where are you from?”
“I’m from Minsk, Belarus.”
“Oh, from Russia! Pretty cold there, isn’t it?”
What usually follows is a long explanation of where Belarus is (in Europe, wedged between Poland and Russia) and what it is, or, rather, what it is not. Belarus is not Russia, Minsk streets are not full of roaming bears, and Belarusians (who are not Russians) do not drink vodka out of shiny “samovars” (neither do most Russians).
Even a foreigner who had actually heard the name “Belarus” before would usually only recall a couple of other words like “Chernobyl” and “Lukashenka" and give you a consoling tap on the shoulder.
But what is Belarus? We Belarusians have a hard time explaining this to our foreign friends - mostly because we often have only a vague understanding of our country ourselves. What is the origin of Belarus? What is Belarus famous for? How are Belarusians different from their neighbors?
It takes a well-rounded scientist to answer these questions and a talented presenter to make them palatable for a foreign audience. Or, better yet, it takes a good book - and now we have one. “This Country Called Belarus” is an English-language version of a long-time Belarusian besteller by Uladzimir Arloŭ, renowned historian, and artist Źmicier Hierasimovič. With 300 pages and more than 2,000 illustrations this book is a movie-like experience, taking the reader on a journey through Belarusian history, from dinosaurs and cavemen to the declaration of Belarusian independence in 1918. In fact, the only bad thing about this book is that it is so magnificent that one has a hard time giving it away as a present. Well, one can always buy a copy for himself - the books have just arrived in Belarusian bookshops.
“This book is a status symbol,” Źmicier Hierasimovič, one of the co-authors, says. “An illustrated history of a country in English, the language of the international politics, business and science is a prestige object which any country can be proud of”.
Historian Uladzimir Arloŭ believes that the book will be interesting to diplomats, scientists who deal with Belarus, foreign businessmen who work in Belarus, as well as those Belarusians who do business abroad or simply look for a good present to their foreign friends.
So what is this country called Belarus?
“The main idea of the book is that Belarusians are true Europeans - historically, culturally, and mentally,” Arloŭ says.
Belarus played an integral part in European history until late 18th century when its territory was annexed by the Russian empire.
“Tsarist regime has effectively put Belarus behind an iron curtain, cutting it off from the rest of Europe” Uladzimir Arloŭ says.
A series of the 19th-century anti-Russia uprisings on the Belarusian lands was a sign that local elite circles aspired to reclaim their European kinship. “They fought for European democratic values, challenging the Russian feudalism and tyranny,” believes Uladzimir Arloŭ.
The first Belarusian-language version of the book appeared in 2003 and sold almost 15,000 copies since then. Not bad for a rather expensive Belarusian-language book in the country where most people survive on an average monthly wage under $500, where Belarusian-language schools are being shut down, and the government doesn’t favor any deviations from its neo-Soviet ideology. Many ideas featured in the book are on the verge of “playing with fire” in modern Belarus, such as praising the role of the pro-democratic rebellions of the 19th century as nation-building phenomena or displaying the knight horseman “Pahonia” and white-red-white flag, traditional emblems of Belarusian independence which were banned two years after president Ayaksandr Lukashenka came into power in 1994. Needless to say, the authors have not received any state support in their endeavour to create this image-booster for their country. And only now, ten years after the first Belarusian-language publication, the idea to translate the book into English bore fruit - owing to support from the Office for a Democratic Belarus, the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Ministry for European Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands( MATRA).
“I am truly happy that we managed to publish “This Country Called Belarus” in English,” Voĺha Stužynskaja, Director of the Office for a Democratic Belarus says. “This is the first book of such kind, presenting the non-Soviet version of the country’s history to foreigners”.
While the first print-run of 3,000 copies is on its way to bookstores, the Russian-language version of the book has already arrived too. Some of the world’s most prominent libraries, such as the U.S. Library of Congress and the National Library of Sweden have already ordered their copies of the book.
One of the major challenges the authors and Jim Dingley, translator, faced while working on the book was how to transcribe Belarusian names in English. Rather than using an English-looking letter soup the authors decided to use “Lacinka”, the Latin-letter version of Belarusian, which was once used in press and literature and now enjoys a tentative revival with the station names in Minsk subway being written both in Cyrillic and Latin letters. As a result, the reader is confronted with St. Eŭfrasińnia of Polacak, Francišak Skaryna, and Tadevuš Kaściuška - the way of writing which may be familiar to Czechs or Poles who use a similar type of alphabet. Native English speakers may require some adjustment, but “Lacinka” is not difficult to master - in any case much easier than Cyrillic.
The history of the country may also hide the key to the country’s present problems. As Uladzimir Arloŭ worked on the book, it became more and more clear to him that Belarusian elites have always suffered from inability to negotiate and agree within their own ranks. In the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a regional power which existed from 13th till 18th century with Belarusian lands at its core, local aristocracy put its interest over the interests of the country, engaged into endless civil wars, and, finally, lost independence as the Grand Duchy was partitioned between authoritarian Russia, Prussia and Austria. As Belarus proclaimed its independence in 1918, the founding fathers of the Belarusian People’s Republic squabbled with each other instead of finding a coherent strategy in the face of the impeding threat of the Soviet regime spreading its tentacles over Belarus. Even today, Belarusians could have been more successful in their nation-building if they knew how to come to agree with each other, Arloŭ says. “Unfortunately, we have inherited this problem from our forerunners,” Arloŭ says. Why this is so and what can be done about it is a subject worth another book.
Still, despite all difficulties and sacrifices, Belarus is now an independent country. And its history is now available in English to anyone who is eager to get to know better this country called Belarus.