From Baltics to Baltika
[b]Where in the world is literacy taught in Belarusian? [/b]Almost 20 percent of Belarusian residents prefer to speak Belarusian at home, with the greater part of these being villagers. As a rule, Russian speech prevails in cities and towns. In 2010, the country’s leadership announced its plans to expand the application of the Belarusian language. President Alexander Lukashenko noted, “Like no one else, the state feels its responsibility for the development of the Belarusian language and guarantees to maintain the integrity and unity of its contemporary literary norms.
Almost 20 percent of Belarusian residents prefer to speak Belarusian at home, with the greater part of these being villagers. As a rule, Russian speech prevails in cities and towns. In 2010, the country’s leadership announced its plans to expand the application of the Belarusian language. President Alexander Lukashenko noted, “Like no one else, the state feels its responsibility for the development of the Belarusian language and guarantees to maintain the integrity and unity of its contemporary literary norms. The Government has already approved a plan of action, aiming to popularise and expand the sphere of application of the Belarusian language in the life of society. It has been elaborated taking into account the proposals of state structures and non-governmental organisations, as well as scientists and culture figures.” Belarusians abroad try to preserve their national traditions, including receiving education in their native language. This is possible in various countries of the world — from the banks of the Baltic Sea to Baltika village in Russian Bashkortostan.
Over 17,000 Belarusians reside in Bashkortostan — a Republic of the Russian Federation. The largest Belarusian ‘colony’ is situated even further afield— on the banks of Lake Baikal, in Irkutsk.
The first Belarusian settlements appeared in Bashkortostan back in the 19th century, with migration inspired by the abolition of serfdom in 1861; many peasants were left without land plots. The arrival of WW1 also influenced movement, with many residents of contemporary Belarus fleeing to find refuge in Siberia; there, they became arable farmers, bred animals, kept bees, hunted and fished.
The Republican Spadchyna National and Cultural Centre of Belarusians operates in Bashkortostan — not in the capital of Ufa but in Iglino District, where most Belarusians reside. The Centre is sited in Baltika village, organising its annual Kupalle holiday with support from local authorities. There’s a library of Belarusian literature, the language is taught in three schools and Belarusian Syabry folk band originates from there. Belarusian is also taught at Pushkin’s junior school, in the village of Kaltymanovsky.
A folk museum has been set up at the Centre in Baltika, displaying rural household items, souvenirs and talismans made by the local arts club, headed by Lyubov Vtyurina. A panel of the unique ‘Polotsk quilt’ was donated from Baltika, helping create the collective work of decorative and applied art, which honoured the jubilee of the ancient Belarusian city of Polotsk. The quilt has been sewn from 400 patchwork pieces, sent from 40 cities throughout Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Denmark and Germany.
Back in the 1920-1930s, Belarusian schools operated in various regions of Latvia. The development of education in Belarusian was supported by Jānis Rainis, a People’s Poet of Latvia and a deputy of the Latvian Parliament. He knew and corresponded with many prominent Belarusian figures, including those residing in the Baltic States. At present, a Belarusian school operates in Riga; it was founded in 1994 at the initiative of the Svitanak Belarusian Society and the Belarusian Embassy to Latvia. It takes children through grades 1-9, with more than 100 pupils on the register; 70 percent are ethnic Belarusians.
Last summer, the Belarusian primary school in Riga moved to a new building, occupying two floors of Riga’s secondary school #86. Director Anna Ivane planned to deliver lessons exclusively via the Belarusian language. Initially, all textbooks, even those in mathematics, were in Belarusian, sent from Minsk. However, the Latvian Ministry of Education and Science introduced a requirement that books compiled abroad could not be used. As a result, only Belarusian language and literature lessons are now taught in the native language, as are extra-curricular activities and various clubs. At present, just 2-3 hours are spent weekly on studying the native language, with other lessons conducted in Russian and Latvian, with elements of Belarusian. Schoolchildren sing Belarusian folk songs with pleasure and are keen to recite poetry by national literary genius Maxim Bogdanovich. Each classroom has its own Internet connection.
“Of course, the parents have chosen to send their children here,” notes Ms. Ivane. “However, as they grow up, the children begin to appreciate the unique opportunity they’ve been given to preserve their native culture.”
At one Latvian forum, where pupils were asked to ‘assess’ their school, the Belarusian school received only positive feedback, with comments such as ‘I study at this school! The best!’
There’s a large Belarusian diaspora in Riga, working actively and efficiently to promote its culture and native language. Additionally, two cultural societies operate: Pramen and Svitanak. These are successfully involved in preserving cultural traditions while promoting the native language. The school boasts a strong ‘Belarusian aura’. Everything begins with the teachers, who speak only their native language.
In late summer 2010, the Belarusian Ministries for Education, Industry, Culture and Sports and Tourism joined Bellesbumprom and Bellegprom concerns, as well as regional executive committees and Minsk’s City Executive Committee to send equipment to the Belarusian school in Riga. Under the instruction of Alexander Lukashenko, the school was given a bus, catering tools and equipment for teaching chemistry, biology, physics, foreign languages and handicraft. They even sent furniture for classrooms and auxiliary areas, computers and office equipment, sports gear, teaching materials, carpets and rugs, curtains, cleaning equipment, toys, table games and handicraft items.
Belarusians have lived on Lithuanian territory for more than a century: since the time of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania — a multi-national medieval state and one of the largest in Eastern Europe. Many Belarusians moved to Lithuania in the Soviet times, after the WW2.
In the 16th century, Vilnius was a centre of book printing in the Belarusian language. In 1906, the first newspaper in Belarusian — Nasha Dolya — was released there; Yanka Kupala, Yakub Kolas and Maxim Bogdanovich had their works first printed on its pages. In 1919, the Lithuanian Government agreed to allow a Belarusian gymnasium to open in Vilnius, which existed for 25 years — until 1944.
The Frantsisk Skorina Belarusian language school continues the traditions of the original gymnasium. Skorina was the first to publish books in Vilnius and is also considered to be Lithuania’s first printer. School alumni continue the traditions of uniting cultures, speaking perfect Lithuanian, Belarusian, Russian and English.
In recent times, Minsk’s Mayoral Office has allocated $500,000 to strengthen the material base of the Belarusian school in Vilnius, including the purchase of equipment for its language laboratory, two computer classes and a new bus. Moreover, first graders have been given knapsacks and books in Belarusian.
The Belarusian Sunday school, named after Vladimir Korotkevich, is located behind the wall of the ancient city in Tallinn, near St. Olaf’s Church (Oleviste kirik) — a symbol of the Estonian capital. The National Library of Belarus has donated books for use both by children and adults wishing to study their native language.
The school aims to popularise Belarusian language, history and culture among Belarusians in Estonia. The educational programme relies on the creative legacy of Vladimir Korotkevich — a classical writer of Belarusian literature and a master of historical novels. Korotkevich managed to skilfully describe every important stage in the development of the Belarusian nation.
The first stage of the one year school course aims to give complete understanding of Belarusian, while teaching the basics of the country’s history and culture. At the second stage, pupils learn to speak Belarusian.
Lessons are conducted by Artur Tsurbakov — an author and host of the Batskaushchyna (Fatherland) Belarusian programme for Estonian Radio-4. He graduated from Gomel’s Frantsisk Skorina State University and boasts a Master’s Degree in International Relations from Tallinn University of Technology.
Poland, Podlaskie Voivodeship
In Poland, primarily in Podlaskie Voivodeship, bordering Belarus, 3,000 schoolchildren speak and write Belarusian during additional lessons at school. Belarusians have lived there since ancient times, being native inhabitants of the region, just like the local Poles, Lithuanians, Ukrainians and Jews. In March 2009, Belarusian was recognised as the second official language in the municipality of Gmina Orla and, in April 2009, in Gmina Narewka.
Most pupils study Belarusian at schools in Bielsk and Hajnуwka districts. All teachers of Belarusian language have graduated from Białystok University’s Department of Belarusian Philology. Rector Jerzy Nikitorowicz is very proud, noting, “I’m reviving Belarusian studies at Białystok University, enrolling all those wishing to study Belarusian language and culture. Students arrive from across Poland, despite not having known of the existence of the Belarusian language previously.”
Several schools offer additional Belarusian language lessons and have been given textbooks by the Belarusian Embassy. One school is named after Jarosław Kostycewicz while another, in Bielsk Podlaski, is named after Bronisław Taraszkiewicz. Alongside the Belarusian Lyceum in Hajnуwka, they began lessons on September 1st, 1944.
The history of Belarusian schools abroad covers many decades. Belarusian can be studied at universities in various countries, alongside those in Białystok and Warsaw, in Poland.
Belarusian is taught at the University of Oldenburg by professors Gerd Hentschel and Gun-Britt Kohler. Moreover, an intensive course in Belarusian language and literature is available (covering 40 hours). During her internship in Minsk, Ms. Kohler perfectly mastered the Belarusian language and now writes reports and organises discussions in Belarusian. Claudia Hurtig teaches Belarusian at the University of Leipzig, conducting compulsory and optional courses. Meanwhile, Prof. Uwe Junghanns has ensured that Belarusian language is now taught for three, rather than two, terms.
Previously, Belarusian language courses were also available at the University of Jena. Recently, grammar books, phrase books and textbooks on Belarusian were released in Berlin, Munich, Jena and Bielefeld.
Since 1994, Belarusian language has been taught by famous Slavist and Belarusian language expert Andrбs Zoltбn, who heads the Department for Eastern Slavonic and Balkan Philology at Budapest University. He holds the Frantsisk Skorina Medal from the Belarusian President and is assisted by linguists from Brest’s University. There, associate professor Larisa Stankevich has been teaching Belarusian for the last five years. University teachers and students have helped compile a Hungarian-Belarusian Dictionary (2007), in addition to Twenty Meetings with Belarus — a textbook in Hun-garian (2006).
A former associate professor from the Belarusian State University, Victoria Lyashuk, is now working with the University of PreЁov, which boasts good relations with the Belarusian State Pedagogical University. Moreover, Slovak language is now offered at the BSU’s Philology Department.
Belarusian has been taught for five years at the University of Belgrade. In 2007 and 2009, Minsk was visited by Serbian students, who arrived for internships. Svetlana Kristina, an associate professor of the BSU’s Philology Department, is working in Belgrade, speaking perfect Serbian.
The Czech Republic
Extracurricular studies of Belarusian are available at Prague’s Charles University, conducted by young Czech philologist Marian Sloboda and a former associate professor of the BSU’s Philology Department Yuras Bushlyakov .
Due to the efforts of an assistant at the Zьrich Central Library, Monika Bankowski-Zьllig, Belarusian was offered as an optional, short course.
Prof. Sergey Mikhalchenko teaches Belarusian at the University of Bryansk to those learning Regional Studies. Students then pass a state exam in Belarusian.
Prominent Slavist Prof. Curt Woolhiser, of Harvard University, speaks perfect Belarusian. He annually organises a Summer School of Belarusian Studies in Polish Hajnуwka.
Prof. Jim Dingley is involved in teaching Belarusian, joining Prof. Peter Mayo in writing an English language textbook for foreigners wishing to learn Belarusian. However, the work has had to be postponed.
By Victor Korbut