This article’s content comes from my ongoing report, Connections to Place: "Belarusian Identity and Lyceum Education in Eastern Poland and Belarus."
There is no universal Belarusian. Caught between Russia and the West, the ground on which Belarusians have lived for centuries has been a disputed borderland that prevented a common definition from developing. Aside from those who live in Belarus, today a sizeable minority of ethnic Belarusians lives across the border in Poland.
That group didn’t relocate. The 1945 Polish-Soviet border treaty, Poland’s last of several partitions in the twentieth century, returned the region of Białystok and several other districts from direct Soviet control to Poland and established the current border. Suddenly around 125 thousand Belarusians found themselves in another country with different cultural and societal standards.
Ever since, the Belarusian minority’s assimilation into Polish life and the laws being implemented in Belarus have marginalized what some consider the “original” Belarusian identity. Its most central components include the language itself, the white-red-white national flag, and the unofficial 1918 year of Belarusian independence.
In Belarus, decades of Soviet russification and the government of Alexander Lukashenko have all but eliminated that identity—most people in the country speak Russian, the national flag is entirely different, and Belarusian independence officially happened in 1944. In Poland, consequent generations of ethnic Belarusians also have become increasingly distant from their heritage. Young people may know they have Belarusian roots, but many prefer to call themselves Polish.
Despite the decline, the symbols of that old identity are still out there. Schooling has been among the ways of anchoring them in both countries. Two lyceums in Bielsk Podlaski and Hajnówka, south of Białystok, are known as the last schools in Poland that require Belarusian language study II Liceum Ogólnokształcące z Białoruskim Językiem Nauczania w Bielsku Podlaskim (est. 1944); and II Liceum Ogólnokształcące z Dodatkową Nauką Języka Białoruskiego w Hajnówce (est. 1949). In Belarus, their sibling school is the Belarusian Humanities Lyceum (est. 1991), an underground school that operates from a private house on the outskirts of Minsk.
The Bielsk-Hajnówka lyceums and the Humanities Lyceum illustrate that several Belarusian identities with distinct cross-border variations have arisen over the years. Although they relate to the same Belarusian symbolism today, the meanings they find in these symbols differ. For the Bielsk-Hajnówka lyceums, they combine with Polish national symbols to create a hybrid identity. However, the members of the Humanities Lyceum still separate themselves from the identity promoted by their state.
The Bielsk-Hajnówka lyceums and the Humanities Lyceum were founded at times following huge interregional transformations. Although the end of the Second World War and the breakup of the Soviet Union were very different events, the new political systems that followed them both offered chances to open characteristically Belarusian schools.
Andrzej Stepaniuk, current director of the Bielsk lyceum, commented that following the Second World War it made sense to open schools in eastern Poland because “this is a place where Belarusians have lived for centuries. As a consequence, it was called for to have Belarusian schools.” Despite already being in the new Poland, the communities they served were still entirely Belarusian-speaking.
By contrast, Uladzimir Kolas, one of the founders and the current director of the Humanities Lyceum, called the unraveling of the Soviet Union in 1991 a chance to establish a linguistically and ideologically Belarusian high school: “My target was not only to create this school with the Belarusian language, but also to create one that would be free of Communist ideology.” A return to the former Belarusian identity within post-Soviet Belarus already was a central goal of the school.
Therefore, although the lyceums near Białystok and in Minsk both sought to provide uniquely Belarusian educations, their audiences already had been formed by the Polish-Belarusian border.
In the years following, the schools faced serious turning points in their development. In Poland, a 1972 state law required the primary language in all schools to be Polish. Lobbyists also demanded that Belarusian be offered only as an elective course. Stepaniuk said that it probably was the parents of students who pressured the Bielsk-Hajnówka lyceums into adapting to the switch, because if their children were to go to university in Poland “they would have a problem: studying everything in Belarusian, they would then have to pass exams in Polish.” It was logical for the Bielsk-Hajnówka lyceums to minimize their emphasis on Belarusian if they wanted to remain competent.
Conversely, after Lukashenko was elected in Belarus in 1994, one of his first orders was to remove all textbooks from schools that had been published after 1991, including the textbooks the Humanities Lyceum had since published. This would leave only old Russian-language Soviet books in circulation. After repeatedly refusing the order and facing tightening regulatory and budgetary controls, in 2003 the government officially banned the Humanities Lyceum. The school moved several times until it arrived at the private house where it operates today.
Through their opposite means of assimilation versus opposition, the Bielsk-Hajnówka Lyceums and the Humanities Lyceum managed to keep their original Belarusian identities.
Same colors, different fatherland
Now in the present day: the most tangible parallel symbolism of the Bielsk-Hajnówka lyceums and the Humanities Lyceum is the white-red-white Belarusian flag. While illegal in Belarus since the 90s, in Poland it was never banned.
This means the Bielsk-Hajnówka lyceums can publicly endorse that flag. Built into the wall of the Hajnówka lyceum lobby is a mural that depicts the Polish and Belarusian flags side-by-side. Regardless of its outlawed status across the border, the white-red-white flag is what the Bielsk-Hajnówka lyceums have known since they first called themselves Belarusian.
The situation is more difficult for the Humanities Lyceum. Two current students described their experience during school field trips: “We have the school flag, and we also have the Belarusian national flag—but we only use it in Poland, when we’re in Warsaw. We carry five of them around and everyone sees us. People yell, ‘Live Belarus’ [‘Жыве Беларусь’].” For the Humanities Lyceum, support becomes a matter of avoiding persecution by Belarusian authorities.
Hence the ultimate point of departure: while the schools’ colors seem to line up, what separates them are the locales to which they apply. Stepaniuk explained that his school identifies with the Polish fatherland, but also within it the Belarusian fatherland of the Białystok region. The fatherland of Belarus, Stepaniuk made clear, is completely separate: “I don’t have a relation to that [Belarusian] fatherland. And I don’t want to have it—here is my fatherland. For me, the fatherland is Poland. And that I am a Belarusian is my own decision.”
This may be a common sentiment for many others in the Białystok region. One Bielsk lyceum student said: “Overall, I think I’m Polish. Well, I got used to [Belarusian], but I’d say I’m Polish … But I’m sure I have some kind of roots, there’s definitely something there.” Most students in Bielsk and Hajnówka probably would agree that a local Belarusian fatherland exists within the Polish fatherland.
Stepaniuk confirmed that in Belarus there still is just one fatherland—but to whom it belongs is the question. Students of the Humanities Lyceum pitted their Belarusian national identity against the one formed during and after Soviet times: “We can show that people don’t need to be afraid of studying in Belarusian, because—one—it’s our national language, and—two—it’s our culture.” These students of the Humanities Lyceum feel that as citizens of Belarus they also should speak the appropriate language. They are adamant the pre-Soviet culture can still thrive.
Thus, on one side of the border are two flags held together, while on the other side is one flag in conflict with another. Today the white-red-white flag belongs to the regional fatherland and the national one.
This all goes to show an artificial border’s effects on a people. Vincuk Viačorka, co-founder of the Humanities Lyceum and former head of the oppositionist Belarusian National Front, said that in Poland “there have been folk roots for centuries. The Belarusians there are not immigrants; there are Belarusian villages of grandfathers and great-grandfathers.”
Viačorka further argued that over time a Belarusian elite specific to the Polish context has formed. Of the Bielsk-Hajnówka lyceums, he said: “These schools, really, produce a regional Belarusian elite. That is, co-workers of institutions like Radio Racyja, or the Belarusian studies departments at the universities in Białystok or Warsaw, or the local administrations … Oftentimes, or even 90% of the time, they are graduates of those schools.”
Some also think the Humanities Lyceum is responsible for preparing the next elite in Belarus. Said Stepaniuk: “There, they intend to establish a new independent state. The students who choose to go to that school compose the Belarusian state elite.”
Whatever one says of the other, the students and graduates of these schools will continue their lives in their respective contexts, and the difference between them will continue to grow. Evidence already is the increasing ethnic diversity in the Bielsk-Hajnówka lyceums. More than indoctrinating their students with a certain identity, they and the Humanities Lyceum want to raise their standards of education.
When Janka Kupala (1882-1942) coined the term tutejsi in 1921, he suggested a Belarusian people who came from nowhere in particular but who had always lived “here.” The concept still holds relevance. In Liceum Białoruskie w Hajnówce (Belarusian Lyceum in Hajnówka) , a short history of the Hajnówka lyceum published in 2000, Aleksander Iwaniuk and Bazyli Sakowski state:
“One must admit that in large part our tutejsza Belarusian community changed.”
Indeed, west of the border, the Belarusians are not like they used to be. After a jarring past, today they are Polish-Belarusians. But their current identity is neither good nor bad; it simply is. And the schools are moving with the currents.