Belarus: A Real Or Fictitious Nation?

Alexander Bely looks at the potent mix of history and politics in the defining national identity in a new 'White Russia' - the post-Soviet Union State of Belarus.

Few people in the world were aware of the existence of Belarus until the so-called 'referendum' of November 1995 that completely destroyed the remnants of parliamentary democracy that had existed in the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Partial successes that Adradzennie (Revival), the movement for the restoration of a sense of identity, had achieved during the post- independence 'thaw' of 1991-94, have proved to be rather ephemeral. Belarus appears to be the first post-colonial state in modern history that is striving to re-unite with its former imperial overseer. Re-Sovietisation gathers momentum. There is no shortage of those, both in the West and in Russia, who claim that the very existence of a separate Belarusian nation has always been a fiction. But this is not entirely true.

Indeed, the area now known as Belarus (Russian Byelorussia; in literal translation, (‘White Russia') has always been a buffer zone between Europe and Muscovy, neither Polish nor Russian, never strong enough to determine its own destiny. Yet attempts to consolidate this area into a sort of a nation are more than a thousand years old. A historiographical tradition traces the country's statehood back to the early medieval principality of Polack, the area's oldest town, whose mention in East Slavonic chronicles and Icelandic sagas dates from 862. It is believed to have been founded by Norwegian Vikings in order to control the route to Byzantium via Western Dvina and Dnieper rivers.

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