Who speaks Belarusian? It depends on who you ask

The International Mother Language Day, celebrated annually on February 21, invites us to reflect on the languages we speak, but also those we don’t speak, and, most importantly, why this happens. While most Belarusians are well aware of their mother language’s complicated status, foreigners often miss the point. Dr. Paterson Franco Costa, a Brazilian linguist and researcher in the field of the Belarusian language and culture, explains how that came to be and where Belarusians can go from here.

When one looks at the map of Europe, a certain pattern seems to emerge: the French speak French, Germans speak German, and it’s really hard to imagine an Italian who can’t speak Italian. European borders, in general, follow ethnic borders, forming the so-called nation-states. In this sense, Belarus is no exception. Over 80% of its population is ethnic Belarusian, whose mother language, at least in theory, should be Belarusian. The reality on the ground is much more complicated, though.

According to the 1989 census [1], almost 71% of the population of the then-Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR) [2] considered themselves native Belarusian speakers. That number climbed to over 85% in just one decade following independence and plummeted to just above 60% by 2019 [3], an average of -1% per year of Lukashenko’s rule. Still, that’s a number high enough to keep any language from being endangered since over five million people can speak Belarusian. 

Now, if you have ever been to Belarus, you know something is off. And even if you haven’t, why would you be reading this text or would it even exist, to begin with?

Why over 5 million people can speak Belarusian (but mostly don’t)

The sad reality is that the Belarusian language faces an existential threat. It has even been included in UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, with the mention that “while an official language of an independent country, [it] is regarded as vulnerable, based on the widespread use of Russian in its stead” [4]. If you go to Belarus, you’re likely to hear and see pretty much everything in Russian. If you meet someone from Belarus, chances are that their primary language is Russian, not Belarusian. Looking at the map again, one could easily argue that this is due to Belarus’s geographic closeness with Russia. That doesn’t seem to affect its other neighbors, though. For instance, Finns, Poles, and Lithuanians predominantly speak their national languages, even though they all experienced Russian occupation. The use of Russian has been declining steadily in all the former Soviet republics except for Russia and Belarus. So, why is that?

To understand the paradox of why so many Belarusians say they can speak the language but actually don’t, it is necessary to go a little deeper into Belarusian culture, history, and politics. The term “native language”, or родная мова, means the language of your nation – and that is how Belarusians understand this census question. You may never speak Belarusian in your life but still consider yourself a native Belarusian speaker since it is not a foreign language to you. Secondly, speaking Belarusian in Belarus can land you in jail. Seriously. 

Speaking Belarusian in Belarus can make you a political prisoner

Belarus has been under the rule of Alexander Lukashenko, a man who considers the collapse of the USSR to be “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”, since 1994. Now let that sink in. A man who considers the event that granted independence to his own country a “tragedy” worse than both world wars, the Holocaust, and the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to name just a few, becomes president. That on its own is a tragedy, especially considering he is a historian by training. Since then, Lukashenko has imposed a series of reforms that have essentially made Belarus an extension of the Russian Federation: 

  • The Russian language became co-official, along with Belarusian [5], which was the sole official language since the country gained independence;
  • The national symbols were changed from the then-official pre-Soviet white-red-white flag and Pahonia coat of arms to designs clearly inspired by those of the Byelorussian SSR [6]. It is worth mentioning that Belarus is the only former Soviet republic to do such a thing: such countries as Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Ukraine have all reinstated their pre-Soviet symbols, which remain official to this day;  
  • The creation of the Union State eliminated border control between Belarus and Russia. As absurd as it may sound, many believe Lukashenko’s endgame was to become the president of both countries [7].

The Belarusian language and culture have dwindled as the country’s ties with Russia became stronger. Ales Bialiatski, a Belarusian activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, pointed out back in 2007

  • Almost all regional and local newspapers have been switched to Russian. The same has happened to radio and television. Broadcast journalists from the national TV channels pointedly speak Russian even if they address Belarusian-language speakers; 
  • Belarusian-language writers and poets are persecuted in the country. Their creativity is under a secret prohibition, and their names are smeared by the state media; 
  • Every year about 100 Belarusian-language schools are shut down for different reasons. (…) Belarus does not have a single university with the Belarusian language of instruction. Thus, the constitutional right to education in the mother tongue is violated.

Since then, the situation has only gotten worse, as Bialiatski’s own predicament sadly illustrates: he is currently a political prisoner in a Belarusian jail. His imprisonment came as a consequence of the worst crackdown in recent Belarusian history, which started in the wake of the 2020 protests against the rigged presidential election.

Luckily, change in politics could lead to dramatic improvement

Is Lukashenko the only one to blame, though? Certainly not. He himself is the result of centuries of russification that started with the Russian Empire’s invasion in the late 1700s. Centuries of occupation, genocide, epistemicide, famine, slavery, war, and forced displacement have taken a huge toll on the Belarusian language. I hope that upon learning this, you will think, “It’s actually a miracle that someone still speaks Belarusian”, because it is. But then you might also ask: “Why doesn’t Lukashenko outright ban speaking Belarusian?” After all, it is still co-official and mandatory in primary and secondary education. 

The reason is that the Lukashenko regime needs the Belarusian language since it is the only thing that really sets the nation apart from its neighbors. Without it, there’s just no telling Belarus from Russia, and the former’s regions would become subjects of the latter, as has been proposed by Vladimir Putin [8]. Such a scenario would be Lukashenko’s nightmare, not because Belarus would lose sovereignty, but because he would lose power.

The good news is that if Belarusian has survived through all this, it sure will survive Lukashenko. Under a government that won’t persecute Belarusian speakers, and that’s a pretty low bar, Belarusian shall regain much of its lost ground. Should a nationally oriented administration come to power and undo Lukashenko’s reforms, e.g., revoke the status of Russian as a co-official language (counting on a Russia weakened enough to be unable to “come to the rescue”), it wouldn’t be too surprising to see, in less than a decade, Belarusians primarily speaking their national language just as their European counterparts do.


[1] Госкомстат. Итоги переписи населения СССР. Москва: Финансы и статистика, 1990, с. 37 [Goskomstat. Itogi perepisi naseleniya SSSR. Moskva: Finansy i statistika, 1990, s. 37]

[2] From the dated Russian form Белоруссия (Byelorussia). ‘Belarus’ is a transliteration of Беларусь, of current use in both Belarusian and Russian.

[3] Белстат. Общая численность населения (…) по Республике Беларусь. Минск: НСКРБ, 2020, с. 36
[Belstat. Obshchaya chislennost’ naseleniya (…) po Respublike Belarus’. Minsk: NSKRB, 2020, s. 36]

[4] UNESCO. Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. 3rd ed. Paris: UNESCO, 2010, p. 39.

[5] Навумчык, С. Сем гадоў Адраджэньня, альбо фрагмэнты найноўшай беларускай гісторыі (1988–1995). Варшава: Беларускія Ведамасьці, 2006, p. 113-116
[Navumchyk, S. Sem hadou Adradzhennia, albo frahmenty nainoushai belaruskai historyi. Varshava: Belaruskiya Vedamastsi, 2006, s. 113-116]

[6] Kotljarchuk, A. The Tradition of Belarusian Statehood: Conflicts about the Past of Belarus. In: Rindzeviciute, E. (org). Contemporary Change in Belarus. Huddinge: Baltic & East European Graduate School, Södertörns högskola, 2004, p. 41-72.

[7] Федута, А. Лукашенко: политическая биография. Москва: Референдум, 2005, с. 604
[Feduta, A. Lukashenko: politicheskaya biografiya. Moskva: Referendum, 2005, s. 604]

[8] ibid. с. 628 [s. 628]

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