Green branches on wide-spreading tree
[b]A delegate at the 6th Congress of Belarusians of the World urged, “Belarus is incomplete without us, and we are rootless without it. Today, the state perceives the Diaspora as an integral part of the Belarusian people and a powerful resource for the further development of the nation.”[/b]
In answer to the question ‘Where does our notion of homeland reside?’ most of us would recall childhood memories, finding something that comforts us from our homeland. Some would call this a sentimental notion while, for others, separation from their homeland brings true pain. Oginski’s famous polonaise Farewell to the Fatherland begins: ‘One loses something close, dear, when standing speechless in front of strangers in a foreign world.’
Those who have left their homeland usually retain the deepest sense of love. “You can’t imagine how much we love our native Belarus, from so far away, in a foreign land,” noted Anna Mazur sadly, from Kishinev city. A young mother of three sons, she left Minsk for her now beloved in Moldova ten years ago. It was a difficult transition but she smiles, “We probably love our Fatherland more than you...”
Anna was one of the few to receive an honourable certificate at the Congress, being given the prestigious title of ‘Belarusian Mistress’ for her art classes at the Sunday Belarusian School in Kishinev (she jokingly calls the school her fourth child). She deserved this award for her untiring work with children.
On the eve of the Congress, artist Vyacheslav Ignatenko — who is well known even in Belarus — presented more than 50 of his canvases at an exhibition entitled Kaleidoscope, organised at the Museum of Modern Art. His old friend Anna, who is an artist and photographer (a member of the Union of Photographers and Designers of Moldova), represented the Diaspora of Moldova at the Congress alongside Vyacheslav and the Head of the Belarusian Community in Moldova, entrepreneur Yuri Statkevich (who supplies apples to Belarus). They made suggestions and, of course, brought the beautiful gift of an art exhibition.
Artist Vyachka Telesh from Latvia also arrived with ‘treasures’, presenting some of his works to Belarus after the exhibition at the Belarusian State University of Culture and Arts.
In my notebook, where I wrote some phrases and thoughts from various speakers, I underlined the words: ‘if we align ourselves with that which is foreign, we feel that we are different’. The ‘moment of truth’ for emigrants is when they try to decide on their identity. The nature of national identity received much attention at the Congress and it was clear that the gathering is really inspired by Belarusians who, despite being separated from their ‘native’ people, desire never to be ‘strangers’ in their Fatherland. They love to get together, chatting about their problems and sharing their experience in how they deal with homesickness. In a press release sent to the editor, the Congress was defined as a significant event for Belarusians from the metropolis and from abroad, promoting the unity of the nation, strengthening ties between Belarusians from various countries and helping to solve common problems.
The international public organisation Union of Belarusians of the World — Fatherland holds a similar congress every four years. The first, in 1993, brought together more than a thousand delegates from Belarus and from abroad. This year, just 240 home delegates attended, alongside 95 guests from 18 foreign countries and from Belarus itself. The speakers referred back to the past many times, evaluating the successes and failures of the past 20 years and trying to understand the phenomenon of the Belarusian Diaspora. Everyone added their own touches to a colourful, three-dimensional painting entitled The Belarusian Nation in the Context of Globalisation: Challenges and Opportunities: the main theme of the forum.
Today’s ‘globalised’ world boasts technology allowing books to be published easily (based on Congress materials — as the organisers promise) or to place information on the Internet, making the texts accessible to all. I remember how difficult it was in the late 1980s even to print labels for meeting guests at the train station or airport. However, the speakers noted that ‘globalisation’ threatens our national identity, its characteristics and traditions, diluting them with outside influences. Unsurprisingly, delegates are keen to promote the use of Belarusian language at home, linking it firmly with national identity. Although delegates expressed differing views on bilingualism and whether those who cannot speak Belarusian can be considered to be Belarusian, there was total agreement that the Belarusian language is the foundation of the nation. A number of resolutions adopted by the Congress included the phrase: ‘The Belarusian language is the main factor in maintaining the Belarusian nation’. Another resolution stated: ‘We appeal to all Belarusians in the metropolis and abroad to use the Belarusian language actively, every day, in all spheres of life.’ The delegates were appealing to our souls’ deeply hidden love for our native language.
According to Oleg Trusov, the Chairman of Francisk Skorina Belarusian Language Society, when people forget our language, it is a serious threat to our national security. He explains, “In losing the language, we lose our spiritual core: the one dominant, which allows us to identify ourselves as Belarusians. Population censuses show that there are fewer of our people in every country. The nation is contracting rapidly, at home and abroad. After the war, there were 300-400 thousand Belarusians in Poland; the last census showed only 47,000. In Russia, not long ago, there were 1,500,000 Belarusians; today, there are 800,000. It’s the same almost everywhere and there is a pattern: when first generation йmigrйs lose their language, the second and third generations lose their nationality. Our famous countryman, the Chancellor of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Lev Sapega, knew this well; in 1588, the third Statute of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania recorded that Belarusian was the language of our state and should be used by state clerks.
Outlining the problem of national importance, Mr. Trusov noted happily that some Belarusians living abroad do retain their native language and use it daily. He praised such zealots of Comradeship of the Belarusian Language and added that ‘young people around the world are actively learning the Belarusian language, and not only Belarusians, but Italians, Arabs, Chinese and Brazilians’.
Until they start speaking our language, the Belarusian Diaspora, as they say, will be exposed to having their national identity eroded, becoming cosmopolitan. Some desire neither the Belarusian language nor culture: only their salaries. Young people tend to show less interest in national identity and feel fewer ties to their ‘home country’. The question arises as to whether the state should bother to maintain support for a pseudo-Belarusian community: for those who show no heartfelt love for Belarusian culture and traditions.
The issue of state support was discussed, with greater support offered for maintaining contacts between the Diaspora and the State: a mutually beneficial partnership. Already, national costumes and musical instruments are supplied to communities and groups who show their desire to pursue a path of nurturing their roots.
Opening remarks at the Congress, and the main report, were delivered by Yelena Makovskaya, the Head of Fatherland. At a plenary session, on the first day, the Minister of Culture, Boris Svetlov, gave a speech in which he underlined the Government’s perception of the Diaspora as an integral part of Belarus. He emphasised its power as a resource for the further development of the nation. Present were leaders and representatives of other governmental departments and agencies, as well as those from diplomatic missions and the clergy.
Belarusian immigration researcher Natalia Gordienko was joined by the Chairman of the Belarusian-American Association in Washington, Ales Kipel, in noting the features of Belarusian organisations abroad. Afterwards, Oleg Rudakov, the former head, and now a member of the Irkutsk Region Council of Belarusian Culture (named in honour of Jan Chersky) shared his 18 years of experience. All the speeches are to appear on the Fatherland website.
A great number of business proposals were made, which were then taken into account in the finalisation of certain resolutions adopted by the Congress. Discussions focused, in particular, on the possibility of the Diaspora strengthening national identity and the cultural heritage of Belarus abroad. The collaboration of ‘new’ and ‘old’ immigration, for the benefit of national development, came under scrutiny.
After dinner, on the first day, there was a two-hour gala concert, featuring participants from Belarus and abroad. The audience warmly welcomed Irkutsk folk group Kryvichy, singer Alena Kopylova from Novosibirsk and Anastasia Terentyeva-Trubyankova from Tomsk, as well as Czech Belarusian duo Sergey Dovgushev and Alexander Yasinsky. Inna Snarskaya, originally from Polotsk, read her poems (she now lives in Ukraine). Young Belarusian group Native Heaven entertained, as did and Pawa and Palace groups.
The next day, in the same building of the International Education Centre of Johannes Rau, delegates continued to deliver speeches. There was also a series of presentations of new projects and books from Belarusians from abroad. Results of work in various spheres were summed up and final documents passed, while the governing bodies of Fatherland were elected: Yelena Makovskaya as Head of the Association and Nina Shidlovskaya as Chairman of the Board.
The Congress’ approved documents concern all Belarusians, regardless of where they currently reside. In particular, the Congress is making an appeal to the National Assembly, the Government and the President of the Republic of Belarus to set up legislation to govern interaction with Belarusians abroad. The Congress approved the Belarusians Abroad programme, designed for the coming four years and aiming to: keep a Belarusian presence worldwide, in various forms; to consolidate the Belarusian nation; and to strengthen civil society in Belarus.
During a break, I saw an elderly person in the courtyard, stooped, as if looking for something on the ground. On approaching, I realised that he was trying to realign a paving slab which had come loose and moved in the rain. That small act showed that we Belarusians, regardless of where we live, are long-sighted. We understand the importance of influence in the world today, but also wish to preserve our legacy for the future — and we can see what needs fixing under our noses! We love to bring beauty into the world; and we are not afraid to get our hands dirty. With such an attitude, what can we not achieve! Our path into tomorrow may sometimes seem uncertain but, if we ‘repair the potholes’, we’ll help ourselves move forward. Like living branches of a tree, Belarusians can bloom in different directions, nurturing the main trunk of their Motherland.
Recall those words from the unknown delegate: ‘Belarus is incomplete without us, and we are rootless without it’. For five years, I studied in St. Petersburg, so I feel I can speak from experience in saying that our homeland strengthens us and we can strengthen it in return.
By Ivan Zhdanovich
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