Language, Literature, Culture, Religion
The Belorussian language is a language of the ethnic population of the Republic of Belarus. In the 16th – 17th centuries the language of Belorussians was the official language in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. After the territory of Belarus became an integral part of Russia the Russian language began to spread.
In 1990 the Law “On the languages in the Republic of Belarus” was adopted, which declared Belorussian the official language. In conformity with the referendum of May, 14, 1995 the Russian language acquired an equal status. Each nation living in Belarus is conferred with a right to study its own language and use it.
Writing and literature
Literary activity in Belarus started in the far distant past. It is inseparable with the oral folk poetry and folk-lore, which is considered to be one of the richest among the Slavic nations. The arousal of the earliest works of literature on Belorussian lands is connected with the emergence of the alphabet in the 10th century. The cities of Polotsk and Smolensk were major literary centres, where the genre of local chronicles developed and hagiographical works of considerable literary significance arose (“The Life of Yefrossinia of Polotsk”, “The Life of Avraamy of Smolensk”). Reminiscences of the Belorussian (Polotsk) land can be found in the Povest vremennykh let (“Tale of Bygone Years”; Eng. trans., The Russian Primary Chronicle) and in Slovo o polku Igoreve (“The Song of Igor’s Campaign) – the finest works of the Slavic literature.
The integration of Belorussian lands which took place in the 14th – 15th centuries in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, where Old Belorussian was the official language, was vital for further shaping and development of Belorussian literature. The chronicles of the 14th – 16th centuries (“The Chronicler of the great dukes of Lithuania”, “The Belorussian-Lithuanian Chronicle of 1446”, “The Chronicle of the great duchy of Lithuania, Russia and Zhamoyda”, “The Chronicle of Bykhov”) are of great interest and importance.
Outstanding examples of Belorussian official writing and judicial thought were the Statutes of the great duchy of Lithuania of 1529, 1566 and 1588.
The literary activity of the Belorussian enlightener, writer and translator Frantsysk Skaryna of Polotsk, who started book-printing in the whole of eastern Europe, was of crucial importance for Belarussian culture. Skaryna translated the Bible into the language, which was close to that of Old Belorussian writing, and printed 23 books of the Bible in 1517 – 1519 in Prague. The first book in the Old Belorussian language on the territory of present-day Belarus was printed by Symon Budny (“Catechism”, edited in 1562 in Nesvizh). In the mid 17th century the Belorussian-Russian poet, playwright and enlightener Simeon Polotsky (Symeon of Polotsk) started his active literary work.
On the whole, up to the first half of the 19th century Belorussian literature developed in conformity with the tendencies that dominated in eastern Europe.
In the first half of the 19th century a new romantic trend emerged that marked the orientation towards the contemporary language and folk-lore. The brightest representative of that trend was the great Polish and Belorussian poet Adam Mickiewicz, who dedicated one of his most outstanding works Pan Tadeusz to Belarus. The start of the literary work of Vincent Dunin-Marzinkevich, who is considered to be the founder of modern Belorussian literature, took place in the first half of the 19th century. He was the author of the collections of poems Vechernitsy, Gapon, etc., the plays Idyllia (“Idyll”), Pinskaya shlakhta.
The most significant person of the late 19th century was Frantyshek Bogushevich (the author of the collections of lyrics Dudka Belorusskaya (“Belorussian pipe”), Smychok Belorussky (“Belorussian bow”), who is considered the first truly national Belorussian writer.
The first legal Belorussian newspapers Nasha Dolya (“Our Lot”) and especially Nasha Niva (“Our Cornfield”) played an important part in the development of Belorussian literature. Their contributors were Yanka Kupala, Yakub Kolas, Eloise Pashkevich, Maxim Bogdanovidh, Zmitrok Byadula, Maxim Goretsky, Constance Builo, Ales Garun etc. Of great significance were the poems and collections Skrypka Belorusskaya (“Belorussian Fiddle”) and Krest na svobody by E. Pashkevich, Zhaleika (“Shepherd’s Pipe), Guslar (“Psaltery Player”), Dorogoi Zhizny (“Along the Path of Life”) by Y. Kupala, his romantic and dramatic poems, plays Pavlinka, Razoryonnoye Gnezdo (“Pillaged Nest”), the collections of works Pesny Zhalosty (“Songs of Grief”), Rodnye obrazy (“Native images”) by Y. Kolas, the collection of poems Vyanok (“Wreath”) by Maxim Bogdanovich – all penetrated with the idea of national identity. Important contribution to the Belorussian prose of that period was made by Maxim Goretsky and Zmitrok Byadula.
During World War II special importance was attributed to publicistic writing and satire. The most significant works of that kind were Pimen Panchanka’s Iransky dnevnik (“Iranian diary”), Arkaszy Kuleshov’s long-runnig verse Znamya Brigady (“Banner of a Brigade”). The best works of war prose were the novels by Kuzma Tshorny Mlechny Put (“The Milky Way”), Poiski Budushego (“In Search of Future”), Bolshoi Den (“Great Day”).
War theme became predominant in the Belorussian literature of the Soviet times. Most noteworthy were the works of prose by Ivan Shamiakin Glubokoye techeniye (“Deep Stream”), Trevozhnoye schastye (“Troubled Happiness”), Ales Adamovich’s Khatynskaya Povest (“The Story of Khatyn”) and his Karately (“Pundits”), Ivan Ptashnikov’s Tartak and Nidorf, Rygor Baradulin’s long-running verse Blockade. Alongside with the war theme Belorussian writers lay emphasis on the problems of rural life (“The Polessye Chronicle” by Ivan Melezh, “Nizhniye Boyduny” by Yanka Bryl a.o.). Vladimir Korotkevich is the brightest representative of the genre of historical prose, to which there was an arousal of interest. He was the author of the novellas Sedaya Legenda (“The Legend of Old Days”), Dikaya Okhota Korolya Stakha (“The Wild Hunting of King Stakh”), of the novel Kolosya Pod Serpom Tvoim (“The Spikes under your Sickle”) a.o.
The mid 1950 – 1970s were marked with the emergence of many talented young poets, who possessed unique creative personalities: Grygory Borodulin, Gennady Buravkin, Oleg Loiko, Nil Gilevich, Yevgeniya Yanishits, Sergei Zakonnikov, Gennady Pashkov, Ales Rozanov a.o. The most noteworthy names of the Belorussian drama of that time were Andrey Makayonok, Vladimir Butromeyev, Alexei Dudarev.
After 1986 the Tschernobyl theme was given special concern (Ivan Shamiakin’s novella Zlaya Zvezda (“An Angry Star”, the lyrics of Gennady Buravkin, Sergei Zakonnikov).
The creative effort of Belorussian writers is supported by the Belorussian Writers’ Union, which is a non-profit organization. Works of Belorussian poetry and prose were translated into many foreign languages.
Belarussian national culture is rooted in old antiquity. Belorussian nation has stored tremendous spiritual treasures that reflect the versatility of its interllectual, moral, aesthetical and other being. Belorussian culture has always maintained its national traditions, at the same time remaining an integral part of the world cultural heritage.
Belorussians have created a unique multi-genre folk-lore, which is considered one of the richest among the Slavic nations. The outstanding Belorussian enlighteners were St. Yefrossinya of Polotsk, Cyril of Turov and Franzysk Skaryna, who started book-printing and edited the first Bible in the whole of eastern Europe. Literature has become the foundation of Belorussian culture. The classical works were written by Vincent Dunin-Marzinkevich, Frantishek Bogishevich, Eloise Pashkevich, Maxim Bogdanovich, Yanka Kupala, Yakub Kolas.
Many realities of Belarussian culture have turned into symbols of national identity. The Slutsk belts, the multi-coloured “kaflia” (tile), the volatile “vytsinanka” (images cut out of black paper), wood-carving, the cross of St. Yefrossinia of Polotsk, the artworks of Mark Shagall, Kazimir Malevich as well as Belorussian ballet are well-known markers of Belorussian contribution to the world heritage.
Belorussian crafts are an inseparable part of the national culture. Belorussian craftsmen make objects of willow sticks, straw and flax linen of an original form and design.
Belarus has 27 drama and music theatres, 158 movie theatres, 56 professional music and dance groups, 129 museums, 4725 public libraries, 4260 activity centres, 24 recreational parks, 524 children’s music and art schools, 3 institutions of higher learning in the sphere of art and culture.
The museum funds comprise over 2.5 million exponents. 4 mln. people visit Belorussians museums annually. Of special interest to Belorussian as well as foreign visitors are the memorial of Brest fortress, which is dedicated to the prolonged and courageous stand its the garrison made when Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, and the Khatyn memorial dedicated to the victims of the Nazi punditive expedition to the village of Khatyn and other villages of Belarus, which were completely burnt together with its dwellers. The real jewel of Belorussian fortified architecture is the castle of Mir, which is a branch of the National museum of Belorussian history and culture a.o.
Belorussian film-makers managed to win international recognition. Many films took part in international film festivals and won a number of awards.
Belarus organizes and hosts numerous international festivals, contests and exhibitions on a regular basis. Such international music festivals as “Belorussian music autumn”, “Slavic Bazaar”, “Golden Hit”, a festival of jazz, the festival of chamber music “Muses of Nesvizh”, those of contemporary dance in Vitebsk, of Belorussian songs and poetry in Molodechno, of the old and contemporary music in Polotsk are held regularly.
545 publishing houses of various forms of property and 491 enterprises are invoved in the publishing trade and printing industry. 5.5 new books per capita are published in Belarus annually.
Due to its specific geographical position Belarus lies along the boundary between two worlds, cultures and mentalities. It has always been a zone of interaction between the Orthodox civilization originated in Byzantium and the Roman Catholic one centered in Europe. This fact has determined the unique cultural and historical status in Europe. The syncretic, primarily Orthodox-Catholic culture of the Belorussian nation has been enriched by the achievements of other cultures, borrowing the ideas and values, which could be adapted on its ground. The representatives of the traditional religions play the leading role in the development of Belorussian culture.
The relations between the two major religions in Belarus have in most times been marked with tolerance. Orthodoxy had been the dominating faith before the Union of Brest in 1596. Orthodox believers had considerably outnumbered the local Catholics, Judes, Muslims and Protestants. In the 17 – 19th century Orthodox believers were forcibly converted to Uniatism, which retained Orthodox traditions and rites and used the Old Slavic and the contemporary language in its liturgy. In the late 18th century Uniats comprised up to 70% of the whole population, Roman Catholics – up to 15%, Orthodox believers – up to 6%, Judes – up to 7%, others – around 2%.
In 1839 Uniatism in Belarus as well as in Lithuania and much of the Ukraine was abolished and the Uniate Church joined Russian Orthodox church. Orthodox population restored its dominance (over 66% in the early 20th century).
Over the last two decades (1980 – 2003) religious and ethnical awareness of Belorussians has raised considerably and faith began to play a significant part in the political and social life of the country. It has been viewed as a guarantor of social order, stability of moral values and of the revival of national traditions.
Religious organizations have considerably intensified their activity since the late 1980s. Surveys show that in 1989 65% of the respondents considered themselves Atheists while in 1994 this number reduced to 32%. The number of believers has grown from 22% in 1989 to 43.4 in 1994. Women are generally more religious than men (54.6% – 33.3% accordingly). Among older generation women who profess a religion outnumber men by 1.5 – 2 times. Among religious youngsters the sexes have almost evenly divided. Surveys of the 1990s show that 70% of people associate themselves with Orthodoxy, 15 – 20% with Roman Catholicism, 2% with Protestantism.
The support of state authorities determined positive changes in the religious life. In conformity with the law “Of national minorities” passed in 1992 money is assigned from the state budget to facilitate the development of education and culture of national minorities. In 1994 the Republican Centre for national cultures was organized, which in particular is concerned with modelling the national relations typical for the multi-national cultures of Europe, America and Asia.
Most of the religious organizations contribute to the mutual understanding of different denominations and help to maintain tolerance in society. A balanced position taken by the state as well as constant search for compromise in the course of forming the society governed by law resulted in the fact that now the official ideology is based on shared Christian values rather than on the doctrine of one particular denomination. The State Committee of religions and nationalities at the Cabinet of Ministers, which was formed in January, 1997 to control as well as to survey and coordinate this sphere, also helps to maintain general consent of different denominations. The law “Of freedom of faith and religious organizations” underwent international examination and was acknowledged as answering the international standards. By the beginning of the year 2002 Belarus had had 26 religious denominations.
The Orthodox Church
The Orthodox community is comprised predominately of ethnic Belorussians. Apart from them, Orthodoxy is professed by the representatives of other national groups, much of which are Russians and Ukrainians.
From 1986 to 2003 the state has transferred to the Orthodox communities over 350 churches that prior had been closed for liturgy service. In 1989 the Polotsk, Mogilev and Pinsk eparchies were reinstated, in 1990 the Gomel eparchie was reinstated and the Brest eparchial cathedra was formed, in 1991 the Novogrudok and Grodno cathedras and in 1992 the Turov and Vitebsk cathedras were formed. Together with the Minsk eparchy all the ten ones comprise the Belorussian Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox church, which was formed in 1989. Another official name for the Belorussian Exarchate is Belorussian Orthodox church.
Belorussian Orthodox church is governed by the Synod chaired by Filaret, the Metropolitan of Minsk and Slutsk, the Exarch of the Patriarch in the whole of Belarus.
By the beginning of 2002 Belarus had had 983 functioning Orthodox churches and around 135 had been under construction. In 1992 the Spas-Yefrossinian nunnery was restored and has turned into a centre of enlightenment and charity as it was originally founded by Mother Superior Yefrossinia of Polotsk, later recognized as a saint. By the end of 2002 Belarus had had 5 functioning monasteries and 8 nunneries. 12 Orthodox brotherhoods participate in the construction and repairment of churches, in helping lonely, aged and seriously ill people, in the organization of brethren choirs, of libraries and Sunday schools as well as in the publishing trade.
7 Orthodox sisterhoods are involved in missionary activities, taking care of the lonely, aged and ill people, work in the Institute of traumatology and orthopaedy and in Children’s hospital N1 in Minsk.
Belorussian Orthodox church has over 1119 priests. Education is provided in the Minsk seminary, which works on the premises of the monastery of the Assumption in Zhirovichi. Now it has become an institution of higher learning where any citizen of the former Soviet republics can enter. The seminary supervises a Sunday school and a precentor’s class. The profession of a precentor and a psalm-reader can also be obtained in Minsk and Vitebsk ecclesiastical colleges.
In 1993 the department of theology was formed at the European Humanities University (now at the Belorussian State University). Its dean is Metropolitan Filaret. The curriculum includes theology, ecclesiastical history, pedagogics, psychology, literature and art as well as 2 modern and 4 ancient languages.
The Roman Catholic church
The Roman Catholic church is a traditional religion in Belarus. Catholisism began to spread here in the late 14th century.
Since 1830s and up to the early 20th century as well as in 1920 – 1980 Catholic church had been discriminated first by the tsar and then by the Soviet authorities. Positive changes in the attitude to Catholics in Belarus (as well as to other believers) started in 1988 when the old dioseses were reinstated and new ones formed. By 2002 Belarus had had over 482 Catholic communities, about half of them functioning in Grodno region where most of the Belorussian Poles live. Over 285 Roman Catholic priests work in Catholic dioseses (more than half of them are Polish citizens). About 200 church buildings were returned to the Roman Catholic church in1988 – 1997. About 60 churches have been restored and currently function. By the beginning of 2002 there were 345 functioning churches and 38 ones under construction.
An important even in the life of the Roman Catholic church in Belarus was the restoration of the Cathedral in Minsk in 1994 – 1997 carried out by Polish restorers in cooperation with Belorussian specialists. The growth of the number of Catholic communities in the last decade caused some changes in the administrative structure of the Roman Catholic church in Belarus. In 1991 the Pope sanctified the formation of 3 archdioceses – those of Grodno and Pinsk and one for both Minsk and Mogilev. In 1999 a Conference of the Catholic bishops was formed, the head of which is Cardinal Kazimir Sventak. The Minsk and Mogilev archdiocese encompasses eastern Belarus where Catholic church is strongly influenced by local ethnical specific features and consequently does not represent Polish culture and national identity to the same extent as it does in western regions. The sessions of the Synod of the Roman Catholic church have been held since 1996 to intensify and coordinatie the activity of the Catholic dioceses.
Many Catholic churches in Belarus have restored their former reputation as religious centers and places of pilgrimage. Among them is the Bernardite Church in Budslav, a town in Miadel region of Minsk province, dating back to the 16th century, which has a wonder-working icon of Virgin Mary (the Mother of God). In 1995 Pope John Paul II issued a decree, which declared the coronation of the icons of Budslav as well as those of Miadel and Logishin. The solemn coronation took place in 1996 in Logishin, Brest province, and in 1998 in Budslav.
Many Catholic churches in Belarus are centres not only for religion but also for education and culture. Among them is the Church of St. Simon and Helen in Minsk. The church hosts a Sunday school for children and adults, the youth society “the Light of Life”, the children’s choir “the Voice of Soul”, one-man theatres “Znich” and “Angel” on its premises. There is a publishing house that prints a great number of books in Belorussian and Polish. Since 1995 the Catholic society of Christian mercy has been functioning. The needy are given humanitarian aid and provided with food in soup kitchens.
In 1993 the Roman Catholic diocese in Mogilev initiated an International Festival of Spiritual (Christian) music Mahutny Bozha (“Mighty Lord”) aimed at the revival and mutual enrichment of European cultures as well as at uniting believers of different denominations. Music groups from Ukraine, Poland, Russia, Germany, France and other countries participate in this festival.
The number of Protestant communities grows each year. They are especially numerous in Polessye (the Pripyat Marshes – the southern regions of Brest, Gomel and partly of Minsk provinces). The sustainable influence of Protestantism has been spreading eastwards.
The Protestant trends of Lutheranism and Calvinism have been known in Belarus since the 16th century. Currently there are two Lutheran communities registered in Grodno, one in Minsk and in Vitebsk. Most of the adherents are ethnic Germans. Since the 16th century this faith had been spreading from the neighbouring states – Prussia and Livonia, with German merchants, craftsmen, theologists and military men. Since the times of Reformation Lutheranism (unlike Calvinism) has not acquired wide popularity and is chiefly professed by Germans (partly by Latvians, Lithuanians and Poles) living in Belarus. By June, 2002 there were 19 Lutheran and 9 Calvinist communities in Belarus.
Fairly active nowadays are the modern Protestant trends. The modernistic attitude to dogmatics, cult and rites contributes to the perception of Protestantism as the ideology of present time, which helps to adapt to the ever-changing life. The number of Protestant trends in the last decade has grown by 5 times – from 3 up to 15 and the number of communities – by 2 times. On the territories where traditional religions due to various historical and political reasons have reduced their attention, the activity of Protestant missionaries from abroad has intensified considerably. Over the last decade their activity has been shifted towards eastern Belarus, which especially suffered from “total atheism” in Soviet times.
The denomination of the Evangelical Christians in Belarus was formed in 1988, when they left the Baptists’ Union. This allowed the Union of the Evangelical Christians, formerly registered within the Baptists’ Union, to form their own administrative structure. The number of its adherents grows faster than in any Protestant organizations of the republic. By the 25th of July, 2002 there were 494 communities, including 146 ones in Brest and 138 in Minsk provinces, while in 1988 there were only 38 communities. Apart from the Union of Evangelical Christians 9 communities of the Apostolical Christians were registered as well as 59 communities of the conference of the 7th Day Adventists and 64 communities of the Full Gospel church. The union of Jehova Witnesses was also legalized in Belarus (it has 27 communities).
The Uniate church
The Uniatism is also one of Christian denominations existing in Belarus (also known the Greek-Latin, the Greek-Catholic, the Orthodox-Catholic, or Belorussian faith). In 1596 in Brest the Unia (union) of the Orthodox and Catholic denominations was declared officially. By the Unia the Orthodox and Catholic denominations had to by united under the supervision of the Pope. The Uniates did not drive from the basic dogmates, traditions or rites of the Orthodox church, though submitted themselves to the papal authority as well as recognized some Catholic symbols of faith, trying to adapt it to the local peculiarities. The activity of the Uniate church in Belarus, eastern Lithuania and Ukraine was banned by the tsar authorities in 1839 at the Church Congress in Polotsk, although for a long time it has retained among the Ukrainian population in western Ukraine as the neighbouring regions of Poland, Slovakia Romania and Hungary.
The Uniatism revived in Belarus in the late 1980s. Small groups of Uniates began to get together and register as communities since 1989. Unlike many other denominations in Belarus the Uniate church does not receive strong support either from abroad or from the native Belorussians. In 2002 there were 14 Uniate communities (in 1994 there were 9).
The followers of Judaism were known in Belarus as early as the 9th – 13th centuries. Most actively Jews began to spread over the country in the second half of the 17th – the first half of the 18th centuries. Jews settled in accordance with their trade occupation in large and small cities and townships (shtetls). Judaism actively revived in the 1990s, although this process is slowed down by the sustainable emigration (and, accordingly, by the reduction of the Jewish population in Belarus) as well as the religious schism. By 2002 Belarus had 25 functioning communities of the Orthodox and 12 communities of the Progressive Judaism. The latter are chiefly headed by youth and intellectuals, who, possessing a strong feeling of Jewish national identity, do not tend to isolate their faith and are socially mobile and active. 6 synagogues function and 19 rabbies work in a number of cities, including Minsk.
Islam spread over Belarus in the 14th – 16th centuries. The great dukes of Lithuania encouraged the Tatar Muslims from the Crimea and the Golden Horde to come to their country to protect its boarders. Since the 14th century Tatars were offered to lead a settled life as well as official ranks and positions within the state administration. By the late 16th century over 100,000 Tatars had settled in Belarus and Lithuania, including those who were admitted to the state service, the settlers, the war prisoners etc.
The local Tatars are associated with the Sunnite trend of Islam.
Most of the Tatars in Belarus (especially the youth) are not fully aware of the dogmas of the traditional religion, are religiously neutral and tolerant. The cultural and religious elite of the Tatars is loyal to the Belorussian national revival and takes active part in it.
By the middle of 2002 there were 27 Muslim communities. Most of them were registered in Grodno province (10), Minsk province (3), 5 in Vitebsk and 1 in Mogilev provinces.
New religious trends
New religious trends have spread in Belarus on the wave of the religious revival. There are 6 Krishnaits communities and 6 Bahá’i communities registered in the country. In the last decade attempts were made to form a number of destructive sects – those of the White Brotherhood, AUM Senrike, of the Satan. Much effort is taken to reduce the influence of the destructive sects on people. In 1995 the Cabinet of Ministers of Belarus issued Regulations, which determined the order of inviting foreign preachers to Belarus.
The State Committee of Religions and Nationalities of Belarus has formed a commission of experts, which comprises specialists in religion, philosophers, historians, layers and doctors. The main aim of it is to make an examination of the doctrine, status and activity of the new religious trends.