As a new wave of persecution hits the Belarusian-language book publishing industry, the war in Ukraine has prompted more Belarusians to speak their native tongue. From Al Jazeera.

The Knihauka bookstore in Belarus, which specialized in Belarusian-language books, had unexpected visitors on the morning of its first day of operations on 16 May.

Rygor Azaronak and Lyudmila Hladkaya, two journalists infamous for spreading state propaganda, visited the small shop and criticized it publicly for its alleged “nationalist ideology.”

A few hours later, the police arrived, searched the store, confiscated more than 200 books – including a translation of George Orwell’s 1984 – and reportedly sent 15 titles to an “expert” to determine whether they contained “extremist materials.”

During the operation, the shop’s owner, publisher Andrey Yanushkevich, and sales assistant, literary blogger Nasta Karnatskaya, were arrested on “petty hooliganism” charges that are commonly used in politically motivated arrests in Belarus. They remained behind bars after their administrative sentences were extended, before being released in mid-June. 

This attack on Belarusian-language publishing was not unique or out of the ordinary. Earlier in March, Andrey Yanushkevitch’s namesake publishing house was asked to vacate its office. A year earlier, its accounts had been frozen and equipment confiscated (the accounts were finally unfrozen in June 2021).

Several other publishing houses specializing in books by Belarusian authors or in the Belarusian language – Halijafy, Limaryus, and Knihazbor, as well as the printing house Medysont – were ordered to temporarily cease operations “for violation of regulations” earlier this spring.

This wave of persecution in the book publishing industry rolled on top of another one the year before. “With the current government, I don’t see a future for book publishing [in the country],” a Belarusian publisher who was forced to shut his publishing house and bookstore recently told me. He asked to remain anonymous out of safety concerns.

A Diverse Past

Belarus has historically been a multilingual, multiethnic state, with people speaking Belarusian, Polish, Russian, Yiddish (more common before World War II), and a number of local dialects.

When Belarus became part of the Soviet Union in 1918, its ethnic language and culture, just like the languages of many other Soviet republics, came under attack.

Belarusian intellectual and cultural elites were purged, and books by Belarusian authors, as well as dictionaries, were burned. On the night of 29 October 1937, which is now remembered as the Night of the Assassinated Poets, more than a hundred Belarusian writers, poets, artists, and scientists were executed in Minsk on the orders of Joseph Stalin and his associates. From 1937 to 1938, more than 100,000 Belarusians were repressed – arrested, jailed, sent to camps, or killed. Before Stalin’s death in 1953, between 600,000 and 1.5 million Belarusians were victimized. Russian became the dominant language.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Belarusian language experienced a brief renaissance, becoming the main language in schools and other institutions. In 1994-1995, at its peak, over 75 percent of middle schools had Belarusian as their main teaching language.

The abrupt transition was hard for many, and the newly minted president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, seized the opportunity. In May 1995, he held a referendum on the status of the Russian language, a new official flag and seal, further economic integration with the Russian Federation, and the powers of parliament. As a result, Russian received equal status with Belarusian, and became the second state language in the country. 

Today, the enrollment in Belarusian-language schools is negligible – less than 4 percent – and less than 20 percent of the population speak Belarusian in their daily lives. It is officially an endangered tongue.

However, with the war in Ukraine entering its fourth nightmarish month, the language situation in Belarus has started to change. More and more Belarusians now choose to speak their mother tongue. More and more are choosing to use the language in their everyday life. The transition is also palpable on social media, with Belarusian Twitter and Instagram becoming increasingly dominated by the Belarusian language by the hour.

Recently, a close friend of mine suggested we speak Belarusian, instead of Russian, between us. Soon another friend started texting me in Belarusian rather than Russian. No explanation was needed.

As Belarusian poet and Cornell University associate professor Valzhyna Mort told me, “[the] Belarusian language came to signify something more than just a system of signs.”

“Just saying a word in it, like ‘thank you’ or ‘hello,’ means more than just ‘thank you’ or ‘hello’ – it is also a political statement.”

A Struggle to Remember

As Russia continues its immoral war against our southern neighbor, Belarusians all over the world are coming to the conclusion that returning to our mother tongue is one of the few remaining ways for us to signal our protest against Russian aggression in Ukraine, and in Belarus, and survive as a nation.

“Russians refer to us as their ‘younger brothers and sisters’; they say that we have a lot of similarities and we’re the same,” Mort told me. “From that position, it is just one step to say that we do not exist at all as a culture, which is not true. We see what happened in Ukraine.”

My attempts to speak Belarusian after speaking English and Russian for decades sound ill-equipped. My Belarusian limps on both feet, but I persevere, like many others.

With limited access to Belarusian-language education and media, it is through reading Belarusian literature or translations that countless Belarusians like me try to remember the forgotten lexicon and grammar of their mother tongue. So it is not surprising that Lukashenka’s regime, which has effectively turned Belarus into Russia’s vassal state, assaults Belarusian-language bookstores and publishing houses.

“We are not just in the crisis of censorship, but in the crisis of annihilation,” said Mort, as we discussed the recent decree signed by Lukashenka that allowed capital punishment for attempts at “terrorism.” In Belarus, where thousands have been persecuted on charges of extremism and terrorism for their acts of peaceful resistance, a death penalty for a book – for example, Alhierd Bacharevič’s novel Dogs of Europe is now considered “extremist material” – doesn’t seem far-fetched.

Effectively, day after day Lukashenka is carrying out a cultural genocide of Belarusians that was first started by the Soviets. We hope that the international community will not avert their eyes.

Olga Loginova is a Belarusian-American documentary filmmaker and journalist based in New York. She is a fellow at Columbia Journalism Investigations, where she reports on the U.S. communities experiencing extreme climate change. Before, she was a staff journalist at Voice of America, a long-time visual journalist, and a recipient of the journalistic excellence award at RFE/RL. This article was originally published by Al Jazeera. Reprinted with permission.