How a Belarusian TikToker is teaching people a language whose use can get them behind bars.
“I never wanted to do long boring lectures,” says Liza Vetrava, a 26-year-old Belarusian TikTok success story with 89,000 subscribers. “On the contrary, I’ve tried to destroy the stereotype that learning Belarusian is a difficult and boring task.”
Like others worldwide who discovered that teaching languages can attract thousands of TikTok users, Vetrava makes videos where she talks about the intricacies of grammar, shares slang words, or passes on the secrets of correct pronunciation. She prides herself on attracting a wide audience through dynamic editing, the use of humor, and an informal style of presentation.
Yet Vetrava faces a challenge unlike most of her fellow language TikTokers: she is teaching a language whose use has become overtly political (and potentially dangerous). The situation has further worsened since the Belarusian authorities launched a brutal crackdown against independent voices after the mass protests that erupted after the disputed presidential election of 2020, won officially by the country’s long-standing authoritarian president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Vetrava herself left Belarus in April 2022 because of the political situation and the threat of reprisals for her online activities, yet her videos are still gaining traction back home.
“Now I speak exclusively in Belarusian, and I can say that, to a large extent, Liza Vetrava inspired me to take this step,” one of her followers says. “By watching Liza’s videos, I began to remember words that I had forgotten in my childhood,” chimes in another.
A Native Tongue Under Threat
Back before the two world wars, the area of present-day Belarus was a vibrant, multiethnic place where many languages were spoken, including Belarusian. That changed after Belarus became part of the Soviet Union in 1918, and Russification and the influx of tens of thousands of ethnic Russians transformed local language dynamics.
After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Belarusian experienced a revival and even became the main language in schools and other institutions, but those times were short-lived. In the mid-1990s, Lukashenka pushed through a referendum that elevated Russian to the second official language as he promoted closer integration with Russia.
According to the official 2019 population census, native speakers of Belarusian outnumber Russian speakers by 54.1% to 42.3%. Looking at this statistic, someone unfamiliar with the peculiarities of Belarusian history, might think that Belarus is home to a large Russian diaspora. However, according to the same census, the vast majority of residents – 84.9% – consider themselves Belarusian, and just 8.9% identify themselves as Russian.
Further complicating the picture, not even half of native Belarusian speakers, or 26% of the total population, use the language at home, and 71.4% of the population use Russian for daily communication. The figures are not likely to change with the younger generation: the National Statistical Committee reported that in 2021, only 10.1% of schoolchildren were studying in Belarusian. Already in 2010, UNESCO listed Belarusian in its atlas of endangered languages, calling it “vulnerable.”
At the same time, the authorities started persecuting those who tried to learn what was for them their forgotten native language, as Belarusian had become a symbol of the national democratic opposition. In July 2021, for example, the authorities in Minsk disbanded Mova Nanova (Language Anew), a language program that had been operating in many Belarusian cities since 2014, presenting courses in various fields taught by well-known experts giving instruction in Belarusian. Police had also detained course participants. The Belarusian Language Society (BLS) lost its state accreditation at the end of 2021. The Belarusian-language publishing industry is also the target of official suppression.
Despite all this, interest in the Belarusian language is rising, especially since the 2020 protests – numbers that climbed even higher after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as many return to their native tongue to signify their opposition to the war. And in circumstances where even speaking Belarusian in public can be a pretext for arrest, the internet has become a way out for teaching and learning the language.
The Potential of TikTok
Vetrava spent her childhood in the town of Haradzeya, some 80 kilometers from Minsk. She grew up speaking Belarusian at home and attended a Belarusian-speaking school. After graduating, she moved to the capital, where she took a degree in biochemistry and worked in the office staff at a private medical center. She began speaking mainly Russian, because her university, like all others in Belarus, taught only in Russian, and she was no longer surrounded by Belarusian speakers.
She switched back to her native language in the summer of 2020, as she saw opposition candidates and their supporters detained and harassed in the lead-up to the August presidential elections. She quickly noticed that people treated her positively when she spoke Belarusian in public.
“They thanked me, treated me to coffee,” Vetrava recalls. “Once a shop assistant gave me a bun for free, because I spoke with her in Belarusian. I understood that people hunger for the Belarusian language.”
TikTok’s rising popularity, especially among young people, made the social site the logical choice to reach out to the masses and inspire them to switch to Belarusian as she had. Vetrava resolved to continue making videos if, within three months after opening her TikTok account, at least one person told her they had switched to Belarusian thanks to her. In her first video, in November 2020, she spoke Belarusian words and asked viewers to translate them into Russian. With a few years of practice now behind her, the young teacher considers this approach wrong.
“One should not show the Belarusian language in this way, but instead explain the meaning of Belarusian words in Belarusian,” she says. Having people translate into Russia helps build views, “but it’s not about ‘Belarusianness,’ ” she says. “You still seem to be looking toward Russia.”
That “one person” who would thank her for helping them make the switch came quite quickly. The number of subscribers grew, and more and more positive comments appeared.
With Vetrava’s TikTok account already growing by leaps and bounds, her numbers got a boost when a civic initiative based in the city of Hodna that promotes Belarusian culture, Hodna.by, sent her a feeler about possible cooperation.
When she visited Hodna.by, she says, “They showed me their TikTok page, saying something like, ‘We are also on TikTok, but it’s not getting popular. What do you think?’ ” She told them that the page lacked consistency and a unified style.
She soon began to collaborate with Hodna.by, and now makes videos for the organization om YouTube and TikTok – not as much about language as culture. “For me, the topics of language and culture are interconnected,” she explains. “When I started to get interested in the language, I read a lot about the phases of its history, about the cultural context that influenced its development, and so on.”
The authorities have since labeled Hodna.by as “extremist” and the initiative’s founder, Pavel Belavus, has been behind bars since November 2021.
At around the same time, Vetrava saw her own TikTok page starting to stagnate, as her subscriber base rose to about 10,000 but then leveled off. At first she suspected she had been hit with a “shadow ban” – when a social network curtails traffic to an account for some, often unspecified, violation of its rules.
More likely, she says now, the TikTok algorithm – which demands even more views from high-subscriber accounts to spread further their reach – wasn’t helping. She needed a new tactic, something to build some hype.
That “something” became a sketch where she played two characters in conversation. The video took off, generating almost 10,000 likes and 65,000 views. More than 2,000 new subscribers soon joined.
Tricks of the Trade
Many of her humorous videos rank on the list of Vetrava’s most watched, and she credits much of her popularity to her use of humor. Often one character makes mistakes when she speaks Belarusian, and the other corrects with irony and jokes.
The “language bug” – a creature that prevents Vetrava from speaking Belarusian by constantly correcting her mistakes, played by herself in an oversized pink sweatsuit and sunglasses – is also very popular, she says.
“We all know there are toxic correctors out there, but no one had shown them before. That’s why everyone liked the bug so much,” she says. “I thought, I have followers who also correct me like this. Why shouldn’t I be inspired by them and create my own character?”
She drew inspiration for the language bug from two Ukrainian TikTokers who also employ funny characters to talk about the most common mistakes language learners make.
At first, she didn’t follow many other like-minded content creators, Vetrava admits. “Now I advise everyone who starts their own account to watch as many other creators as possible. … In general, if you watch content from other countries, you can get a lot of inspiration and adapt it to our realities and our language.”
From a technical point of view, Vetrava advises using professional lighting and a phone with a good camera. Writing a script is also key, or at least an outline to jog your memory about key moments in the shoot.
She regards herself as a pioneer in the Belarusian social media space, saying, “When I first started, Belarusian-language TikTok was not widespread at all. I remember that I was added to a common chat for all Belarusian-speaking creators, and there were only 20 people there: TikTokers, YouTubers, and Instagrammers – 20 people for the whole of Belarus!”
Despite the many opportunities, Vetrava is in no hurry to advise everyone to start an account in Belarusian, given the ever-present threats. In November, Belarusian security forces detained TikToker Antanina Valkova, accusing her of participating in “unsanctioned mass events,” a charge often used against people connected in any way with the 2020 protest movement, although she had only posted videos of herself singing in Belarusian. A “repentance video” later appeared on Valkova’s TikTok page showing the young woman confessing to the charge.
“They went after people with small audiences,” Vetrava says. “All creators with large audiences have already run away: they either left the country or ended up behind bars. That’s why I cannot now call on people who remain in Belarus to switch to the Belarusian language in their [daily] lives, or to create an account in Belarusian. It is really dangerous.”
Making the Switch: Stories of Liza’s Fans
It’s impossible to know how many people have either switched to the Belarusian language or begun using it more because of Vetrava’s videos. But interviews with some of her followers offer anecdotal evidence of her impact.
Karalina (her and others’ names have been changed for their own security) studied at a Russian-language school and received her higher education abroad. “I didn’t have many opportunities for daily conversations in Belarusian,” the 25-year old says. “But when I started to follow Liza’s [videos], I expanded my vocabulary significantly. Also, I corrected [my knowledge of] some grammatical and phonetic rules in Belarusian, which they didn’t pay much attention to at school. Now I speak exclusively in Belarusian, and I can say that, to a large extent, Liza Vetrava inspired me to take this step.”
For Iryna, 28, Vetrava’s videos meant a return to the Belarusian language rather than studying it from scratch.
“I grew up in a Belarusian-speaking family,” she says. “I even had problems in my Russian-speaking school, because my classmates made fun of my pronunciation. And my grades in Russian were much lower than in Belarusian. When I entered university, and then went to work, there was almost no Belarusian-speaking environment around me, and in order to be accepted, I had to improve my Russian.
“I started to think about returning to Belarusian after I had traveled a lot and relocated abroad. I just wanted to somehow strengthen and emphasize my identity … By watching Liza’s videos, I began to remember words that I had forgotten in my childhood and I also learned some new ones. I like the format of the videos, because they are short, simple, and useful. Now I have to combine studies and work, so there is no time left for reading books or doing exercises in the Belarusian language.”
Similarly, 20-year-old Yuliya says that she watches Vetrava mainly to improve her knowledge of Belarusian. “I have been speaking Belarusian since childhood and studied at a Belarusian-language school,” she says. “I’m now studying at a university in Russian and my entire surroundings are also Russian-speaking. I like Liza Vetrava’s videos, because they help me not to forget my native language. By the way, thanks to Liza, I learned many interesting idioms that I had not used before.”
Vintsuk Vyachorka, a Belarusian linguist and educator who once led an opposition party, believes that Vetrava’s approach can work wonders to legitimize speaking in Belarusian among this younger age group, but might not be beneficial for serious language study.
“These videos play a motivational role for the target audience – the generation of the author,” Vyachorka says. “Using acting and the editing techniques of the genre, she makes it clear to the target audience that she is ‘one of them.’ ”
The prestige of speaking Belarusian in public could get a boost thanks to the backing of a popular figure, Vyachorka says, but he cautions that Vetrava’s heavy use of scripted and role-playing sketches not directly related to language learning might distract her audience.
Part of Vetrava’s appeal rests on her lowbrow style – “I’m not an expert, but I’m gonna tell you something,” although this might not persuade the audience to repeat and memorize what she presents, Vyachorka continues. A part of her audience might not understand her approach and take her for a language expert, perhaps leading them into errors, he says.
In today’s Belarus, however, where the choice of language carries so much additional weight against the backdrop of official suppression of the language and other manifestations of Belarusian national identity, the intricacies of grammar and other lessons are secondary, Vetrava would probably argue. Knowing the security forces cannot possibly control everything people watch on their phones, Belarusian-language media and social media influencers, mainly from abroad, continue to pump out content, and they are in demand among those who remain in the country.
“There is nothing wrong with speaking Russian in public places for your own safety,” Vetrava says. “You can still speak Belarusian with your loved ones, read Belarusian books, and watch Belarusian content. Learn Belarusian. I believe you’ll need it soon.”