Review of the book United Nation: The Phenomenon of Belarus by Yury Shevtsov,
Eurasian Geography and Economics, 2006, Vol. 47, No. 3: 228 - 240
Shevtsov, Yuriy, Ob”yedinyonnaya natsiya: Fenomen Belarusi (United Nation: The Phenomenon
of Belarus). Moscow, Russia: Yevropa, 2005, 239 pp. ISBN: 5-9020-4820-7.
Reviewed by Grigory Ioffe1
native and citizen of Belarus, Yuriy Shevtsov has written a book for the purpose of Aintroducing that country to the intellectual communities of Russia. To be sure, Russians
are aware of their western neighbor. Recent surveys (IISEPS, 2005) have shown that when
foreign countries are ranked according to degree of friendliness, Belarus tops the list in
Russia, and Russia in Belarus. Since 1997, the two countries have been building a union.
Although it is still unclear what shape this union will eventually take, efforts to achieve it
have generated publicity.
Thus while Belarus is not terra incognita, all too many Russians do not recognize it as
an ethno-national entity in its own right. Limited recognition of Belarus’ separateness is
caused in part by the overwhelming dominance of the Russian language in Belarus. Also,
adept at stereotyping all former republics as inherently backward and vitally dependent on
Russia, many Russians do not view Belarus as an exception. Another problem is that in
Russia, President Aleksandr Lukashenka of Belarus’ is a polarizing figure, a “divider, not a
uniter.” Despised by liberals, he is praised by national patriots for his allegedly Pan-Slavic
pronouncements and loyalty to the Soviet legacy, including Stalinism. Yet neither end of
Russia’s political spectrum seems likely to take Lukashenka for what he most likely is: the
president of a sovereign country whose aspirations may have something to do with that coun-
try’s own peculiarities and mindset. This, in a nutshell, is the context that Yury Shevtsov confronts
in his book. “We, Belarusians, are a separate people, and we are different from you” is
the message this book sends to its Russian readers.
A historian by training, Shevtsov is a gifted author with experience in journalism. In the
introduction, he acknowledges that to refrain entirely from discussing Belarus’ leader in a
book devoted to that country may be a failing proposition. So much, however, has been
already said about Lukashenka, “irritating quite a few people and almost everybody in
advanced countries” (p. 8), that the country over which he presides has all but disappeared
from view. “A leader, though, cannot but draw from the socio-economic structure of his
society, cannot but be part of its people’s culture and part-and-parcel of local political
tradition However, just because Alexander Lukashenka derives from the phenomenon of
Belarus, the analysis of this phenomenon may avoid too intent a look at this politician” (p. 9).
Shevtsov transforms this statement into a commitment, so that Lukashenka’s presence in
the book is reduced to a minimum. This, however, does not mean that components of Belarus’
success under his leadership are spared attention. According to Shevtsov, one such component
is the stability of the country’s political system and another is its economic growth. Growth
has been recorded annually since 1996, and in 2004, it was 11 percent (World Bank, 2005).
1Professor of Geography, Radford University, Radford, VA 24142.
Eurasian Geography and Economics, 2006, 47, No. 3, pp. 228-240.
Copyright © 2006 by V. H. Winston & Son, Inc. All rights reserved.
For a long time, this post-1995 spurt was shrugged off by Western Belarus-watchers. The
question that concerned them was whether the economic growth reported by the country’s
national bureau of statistics was contrived or genuine. Recent Belarus reports by the World
Bank (ibid.) and IMF (2005) were watershed events confirming the latter,2 after which the key
question became whether or not Belarus’ could sustain such growth. Already some experts
have opined that it cannot, which may well be the case, but the change in the key question
about the country’s economy is stunning. Among other things, it shows that a campaign to
rebuke the “last dictator of Europe” should not be the sole focus of Belarusian studies.
Alongside questions about the underpinnings of economic success and stability,
Shevtsov poses others. Why is the Belarusian opposition so weak? Why is Belarus the only
post-Soviet and (more broadly) post-communist country that has rejected the policy of
national revival? Why are Belarusians generally opposed not only to Russian, Polish, and
Ukrainian, but also to their own Belarusian nationalism?
ETHNIC HISTORY AND IDENTITY
“Belarusians are that rare people in Europe any talk about whom still must begin with
the proof that this people exists,” writes Shevtsov (p. 34). He avers, however, that “by all
indications accepted in ethnography” (p. 37), Belarusians have long been a separate ethnicity.
Any lingering doubt is attributed to Russians’ inferior knowledge of Belarusians (ibid.) and
to Belarusians’ aversion to manifestation of their identity.3
Belarusians are reluctant to advertise who they are because of their peculiar history. Early
on, northward-migrating Slavs settled in a marshy region with poor soils and assimilated local
Balts, thus giving birth to an autochthonous group, the forebears of today’s Belarusians.
Although from the 9th century on, few outsiders other than Jews (not mixing with the locals)
migrated to this region for good, it was repeatedly ravaged by military campaigns waged by
external powers. Following each war, cultural self-identification of the region’s upper classes
changed. This happened so frequently (once in every 150 years) that no cultural form ever
had sufficient time to crystallize before it was replaced by a different form. The word tuteyshiya
(“locals”) became the token of self-identification among peasant survivors of these military
campaigns. At the same time, the higher and even middle strata of people identified with
neighboring Poles or Russians, and most cities became dominated by Jews, as the region
became central to the Jewish Pale. This panoply of identities, with would-be Belarusians
remaining a demotic ethnie (a folk without an upper strata), existed until the 1920s.
As Shevtsov notes (p. 18) only under the Soviets did “locals” become Belarusians.
Facilitating this conversion was a revolutionary change of the 1940s, when Jews and Poles
who once dominated the middle and high strata in the region vacated their social niches.4
With the exception of relatively few Nazi collaborators, Belarusians did nothing to force
Jews and Poles out; Germans (in regard to the Jews) and then the Soviet leadership (in regard
to the Poles) accomplished that. As a result, the gates of upward mobility were thrust wide
2The World Bank team observed that “economic growth in Belarus was genuine and robust, especially in
recent years” (World Bank, 2006), whereas the IMF reported that “bolstered by rapid real wage growth policies as
well as decelerating inflation, consumption continued its rapid rise” (IMF, 2005, pp. 3).
3“Belarus is there to comprehend, not to manifest,” notes Shevtsov (p. 71).
4The phrase “revolutionary change” can be found in an earlier version of Shevtsov’s narrative (Shevtsov,
2001), still available via the Internet under the title “Strana Bazirovaniya” (A Country as a Location Setting). The
essence of Shevtsov’s previous explanation, nevertheless, remains intact.
EURASIAN GEOGRAPHY AND ECONOMICS
open for many rank-and-file Belarusians. Consequently, Belarusians enjoyed as much of a
“heyday” in post-war Soviet Belarus as did Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians during their
short-lived inter-war independence.
During the war, a clash between two competing versions of Belarusian identity ended in
a triumph of one and the near-annihilation of the other. The victorious Soviet version is
rooted in West-Rusism, a late 19th century concept according to which Belarusians are a separate
ethnicity belonging, however, to Russia’s cultural universe. The defeated alternative
version, named “pro-European and anti-Russian” (p. 72), claimed Belarusians as descendants
of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a European entity that waged wars against barbaric Russia.
Whereas the proponents of the defeated version were a minority collaborating with the
Nazis,5 the majority of rank-and-file Belarusians joined Soviet-led partisans or aided them.
The World War II death toll in Belarus was second to none: more than one-quarter of the
entire population perished. Yet after the war, Belarus became one of the true Soviet economic
success stories (see below) and the most “Russified” union republic.
Because both personally and as a group Belarusians are accustomed to the idea that success
is achieved as part of the larger and multi-ethnic polity (e.g., the Great Duchy, Russia,
Soviet Union) they, according to Shevtsov, developed what he calls uniinost’, i.e., a proclivity
to enter alliances with outsiders to achieve Belarusians’ own goals and yet avoid
becoming diluted in those alliances. From this perspective, Shevtsov sees Lukashenka’s
drive to integrate with Russia and yet retain independence as entirely natural in the
Belarusian political tradition. At the same time, mutual integration without the smaller partner
yielding its statehood is unnatural for the imperial tradition of Russia. From the perspective
of Belarus’ however, integration exclusively with Russia is not an imperative but rather
situational, and rooted in a common industrial legacy and an understanding of Belarus’ own
national interests at the present.
From the same perspective (of Belarusians’ utmost cultural flexibility and pragmatic
appetite for unions), Shevtsov explains the failures of Belarusian “nationalists.” Their popularity
among ordinary Belarusians is low for several reasons. For example, “nationalists”
speak only Belarusian and urge all to switch to it, whereas ordinary Belarusians are bi- and
poly-lingual. “Nationalists” also are committed to manifesting their identity, whereas most
Belarusians are averse to it. Finally, “anti-Soviet and anti-Russian interpretations of East
European cultures and identities usually imply readiness to reconcile with Nazi collaborationists
and Nazism if only to some extent,” and this arouses Belarusians’ consistent aversion
to Nazism (p. 77).
Shevtsov examines the religious communities of Belarusians on the basis of a 1970–
1995 regional time series of the number of parishes, prefacing his analysis with somewhat
contrasting statements. On the one hand, “most people of the region changed their religious
affiliation voluntarily, without foreign conquest, approximately every 150 years, under the
influence of political considerations” (p. 44). On the same page, however, he interprets such
5According to Shevtsov (p. 75), the proponents of the non-Soviet version of Belarusian identity were killed or
left the country, forming the core of Belarusian emigrant communities in the West. The enmity of proponents of the
victorious version of Belarusian culture toward the collaborationists is usually automatically transferred to [pre-
Soviet] historic Belarusian symbols that those collaborationists used to everything not linked to the Soviet version of
Belarusian identity and ideology, including literature and (sometimes) the Belarusian language. There is also reciprocal
rejection by Belarusian emigrants in the West of all aspects of Belarusian life after the war.
a pragmatic attitude toward religion as part of a geopolitical strategy to ward off foreign
invasion. Also, in apparent contradiction with the asserted “religious pragmatism,” Shevtsov
hypothesizes that frequent changes of religious affiliation had to do with the mainstream
religion of neighboring states losing moral high ground in the eyes of their Belarusian coreligionists.
Be that as it may, “by the end of the 16th century, only two out of twenty five
senators of the Great Duchy of Lithuania were Catholics, the rest were Protestants. In the
end of the 17th century, no more than 5 percent of the population of today’s Belarus was
Orthodox. From 1596–1839, Belarus was a Greek-Catholic and Catholic country for the
most part” (ibid.). After 1839, it became predominantly Orthodox, however, with significant
Catholic influence in the west.6
In January 2005, in Belarus there were 1315 Orthodox, 433 Catholic, and 983 Protestant
parishes, with the number of Evangelical Protestant communities growing explosively in
recent decades. The gravity centers of all three religious groups are in western Belarus. When
the Red Army entered western Belarus (under Polish jurisdiction from 1921–1939) on
September 17, 1939, there were about 700 Orthodox, more than 200 Catholic, and about 100
Protestant (mostly Baptist) churches there. By that time, religious life had been severely
undermined in eastern (Soviet) Belarus, with no more than 10 Orthodox and one Catholic
church remaining. Although quite a few churches were reopened after 1941, the east has
never quite overcome the atheist onslaught of the 1930s. The collectivization of agriculture
in the 1930s in eastern Belarus also boosted migration from the countryside and undercut
rural demographics for decades to follow. Today, the highest concentration of Catholic parishes
in Belarus is at the crossroads between the Grodno, Minsk, and Vitebsk regions, along
the border with Lithuania and Latvia. The highest concentration of Orthodox parishes is in
Brest region, and the southwestern Brest region, contains the historical core of the Baptist
Shevtsov underscores the presence of a “concentration of Catholics in the ranks of
Belarusian opposition of various ideological strands” (p. 52). Nevertheless, rural areas with
a high share of Catholics display only slightly less enthusiastic support of Lukashenka than
do other rural regions. Some tension within the Catholic Church in Belarus has emerged
between the Polish and non-Polish strands of religious life. Although most educated Poles
left Belarus for Poland soon after the war, even now, no fewer than 70 percent of Catholic
priests and monks are citizens of Poland. At the same time, the Polish character of the
Catholic Church would seem to have quite limited prospects outside the Grodno region, and
Russian as a language of Catholic parishes is gaining ground.
According to Shevtsov, Poland as a funding and spiritual base for Belarusian Catholics
is more powerful than is Russia for the country’s Orthodox. Another major problem of the
Orthodox Church in Belarus is its overly cordial relationship with the state.7 Shevtsov
believes that overt state patronage of a single religious community is against political tradition
in Belarus, and is fraught not only with growing tensions between Orthodox and
Catholics but also with an outflow of believers from the Orthodox to Protestant churches.
Protestants have made inroads into traditionally Orthodox areas, and nothing, according
to Shevtsov, can thwart their further expansion over the next 10–15 years. Shevtsov believes
that Protestant expansion “strengthens Belarus’ state organism” (p. 83). Although he does
6In contrast to Russia and Poland, no religious denomination of Belarus has promoted the Belarusian national
idea. Religious tolerance is what sets Belarus apart from Russia.
7Indeed, Lukashenka speaks of himself as an “Orthodox atheist” (an atheist with an Orthodox background) and
demonstrates his friendship with Filaret, the Orthodox leader of Belarus.
EURASIAN GEOGRAPHY AND ECONOMICS
not elaborate, one can attribute this assertion to the fact that, in contrast to Catholicism and
Orthodoxy, Evangelical Protestantism has not encroached on Belarus from core areas of
neighboring states; rather Protestant missionaries are either locals or those who previously
left Belarus for America and Canada and have now returned.
Among all the former Soviet republics, Belarus benefitted most during the Soviet
period, gaining both a unique industrial complex in its eastern regions and highly mechanized,
large-scale animal husbandry in the west.8 The industrial core of eastern Belarus consists
of 10 manufacturing giants9 and dozens of their subsidiaries so that almost each rayon
seat of eastern Belarus is a company town. Four industries constitute the industrial core:
mechanical engineering, petrochemicals, radio-electronics, and ferrous metallurgy. Mechanical
engineering is represented by six giant firms.10
The petrochemical industry is based on two refineries, located on two different major
pipelines from Russia: NAFTAN in Novopolotsk, Vitebsk region, and Mozyr NPZ in Mozyr,
Gomel region. NAFTAN is the largest refinery in Europe, with a processing capacity of 20
million tons of crude a year, while Mozyr NPZ can process up to 12 million tons a year. The
products of NAFTAN are further transported through pipelines from Novopolotsk to a Baltic
Sea oil terminal in Ventspils, Latvia. The Mozyr NPZ receives crude from the Druzhba pipeline
(via Ukraine); gasoline and other products are then delivered to Western Europe by
tanker-trucks and rail. The combined capacity of the two Belarus refineries exceeds domestic
demand by a factor of three; thus export has been their major function from the outset. Several
chemical plants connected with the major refineries by local pipelines operate in
Novopolotsk, Polotsk, Mozyr, Mogilev, and Grodno.11
The leading radio-electronics enterprise in Belarus is Minsk-based Integral, offering a
broad array of automotive and power electronic products (e.g., monochip voltage regulators
and temperature sensors), timers, sensors, microcontrollers, LCD-drivers, plasma-panel
drivers, and integrated circuits for consumer electronics and other uses. Yet another industrial
giant is the free-standing Belarusian Metallurgical Plant in Zhlobin, Gomel region (a mistake
on p. 114 places this plant in Zhodino), whose principal products are steel cord and steel wire.
Other components of Belarusian industry, mostly based in eastern Belarus, are textiles
and the production of potassium fertilizers. The latter is the only example of the production
cycle nested in and controlled by Belarus in its entirety, as the potassium raw material is
8The two parts of Belarus, east and west, reunited in 1939 but remain quite different. Eastern Belarus
accounts for about 60 percent of the republic’s population (6 of 10 million people) and territory. It includes the
regions (oblasts) of Gomel and Mogilev in their entirety, as well as two-thirds of the Vitebsk region and more than
half of the Minsk region, including Minsk city.
9The Soviet legacy in eastern Belarus has been described as hyper-industrialization. In the late 1980s, more
than one-half of all industry personnel in Belarus worked for enterprises with more than 500 employees.
10These are: MTZ (Minsk; tractors), MAZ (Minsk; trucks), MoAz (Mogilev; excavation and earth-moving
equipment), Gomsel’mash (Gomel; agricultural equipment, such as combines), MZKT (Minsk; an offspring of
MAZ; heavy-duty tractor trailers), and BELAZ (Zhodino, Minsk region; heavy trucks for mining operations).
11Shevtsov points out the commercial complementarity of Belarus’ mechanical engineering and petrochemical
industries provided, of course, that they are centrally managed. During periods of soaring oil prices, profit margins
on petrochemical products rise and those for mechanical engineering products fall. The opposite prevails when oil
prices decline. Hence the necessity of profit redistribution that would keep both industries afloat regardless of market
mined in the Soligorsk district of the Minsk region. All industries are deeply integrated with
Russia and to some extent Ukraine: they either process raw materials from Russia (petrochemical
industries) or depend on parts from Russia and Ukraine. Some Belarusian industries
are linked to major consumers in Russia (factories producing electronic and optical
devices for the Russian army, and enterprises producing household appliances such as refrigerators
and TV sets). The degree of export orientation of Belarus’ industrial complex is
impressive: in 1990, 80 percent of the entire output of Belarus was exported either to other
parts of the Soviet Union or abroad.
The industrialization of western Belarus was planned to accelerate during the final
decade of the 20th century, when new electronic and petrochemical factories were to be constructed
in Grodno and Brest. In the meantime, western Belarus contributed migrants to the
industrial enterprises of the east and developed into an advanced agricultural region. Postwar
collectivization in western Belarus was not nearly as destructive of rural communities as
pre-war collectivization had been in eastern Belarus, and the survival rate of locals during the
war was higher as well. The west even experienced a post-war baby-boom, a rarity in the
non-Muslim regions of the Soviet Union. In western Belarus, rural population decline commenced
only in the 1980s, decades later than in the east.
For a long time, the main obstacle to agricultural development in the southern part of the
republic (both west and east) was the prevalence of marshes in the poorly drained Polessye
lowland, accounting for 40 percent of the entire land area of Belarus. Here patches of dry
land on the few elevated areas between tributaries of the Pripyat’ River (the axis of the entire
lowland) used to shrink significantly during high water periods. A costly state program of
land improvement was launched in the 1960s. A massive artificial drainage system proved to
be particularly successful in the western part, in the region of Brest, because land reclamation
was implemented in areas with still vibrant rural communities.12
Elsewhere in western Belarus, in the Grodno region, with a much smaller scale of land
improvement, 16 giant cattle-fattening and pig farms were constructed in the late 1970s and
1980s. A large segment of the local population came to depend on this highly centralized animal
husbandry, which came to resemble industrial operations more than traditional (seasonal)
peasant farming. In terms of quality of life in the countryside, intensity of land use,
and output per unit of land, western Belarus in the 1980s was on a par with Baltic Republics
(the USSR leaders in agricultural productivity).
Shevtsov argues that the socio-spatial and functional structure of the economy that
Belarus inherited from the Soviet Union did not leave much freedom of maneuver to the
leaders of post-Soviet Belarus. Any responsible regime would have been “doomed” to conduct
the same policy that became associated with Lukashenka.
First, the share of large and super-large industrial enterprises and the lack of raw
materials (except potassium) did not make rampant de-industrialization a sensible option for
Belarus. When, even before the USSR’s dissolution, it became clear that Moscow was
experimenting with the idea of abandoning central planning, Belarusian enterprise directors
looked to Minsk for guidance. Even by 1990, it was clear that the overwhelming majority of
Belarusians retained a vital interest in sustaining large industry, a fact not lost on
Lukashenka, the winner of the 1994 presidential election. By the latter time, however, most
12Shevtsov compares the Belarusian Polessye with ancient Egypt. There, the very existence of civilization
depended on the quality of irrigation systems managed from a single center. So it is in Polessye, where maintaining
the land newly reclaimed from Pripyat’ marshes depends on centralized upkeep of the drainage canals and dikes, as
no single farm or even a group of them can accomplish this independently.
EURASIAN GEOGRAPHY AND ECONOMICS
enterprises already had been forced to scale back operations and payroll because of the disruption
of Russian-controlled supply lines; empty store shelves and a sudden rise in the cost
of living resulted in huge rallies in usually calm Minsk. By 1996, however, and a concerted
government effort to restore ties with Russia, most industrial giants had resumed fullcapacity
operations, as promised by Lukashenka, the presidential candidate. Since 1996, as
noted above, Belarus has registered economic growth, and by 2004 industrial output
exceeded the 1990 level by 40 percent.
Shevtsov insists that mass support of strong central power in Belarus has been motivated
by a sheer survival instinct rather than by any adopted form of ideology. This instinct necessitated
elements of a mobilization economy, with redistribution of profits and consolidation
around the central government. Considering Belarus’ economic growth and the fact that most
Russian and Ukrainian counterparts of Belarusian industrial enterprises have either closed
down for good or significantly shrunk their operations, Belarus’ strategy should be considered
The village has supported government policies with no less enthusiasm, despite a seeming
paradox: although entrepreneurial spirit among the peasantry is more alive in western
Belarus than in the east, individual family farming is more widespread in the east. This is
because in the west, people see their interest in preserving Soviet-style socialized farming
operations; hence there is no vacant land. In contrast, in the east the socio-demographic erosion
of rural communities transformed local collective farms into wards of the state. Here,
land abandonment is rampant, so those willing to establish a family farm have the opportunity
to do so.
It is no accident that Lukashenka’s popularity is overwhelming in areas where several
factors conditioning public support for his regime overlap, as in the triangle Gomel–
Mogilev–Slutsk in southeastern Belarus, where extensive rural drainage systems exist side
by side with large-scale urban industry. In this area, however, one more factor should to be
Seventy percent of all radionuclides discharged by the accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear
Power Plant (7 km south of the Belarus-Ukraine border) on April 26, 1986, were deposited in
Belarus. Although 1.8 million hectares of farmland (about 19 percent of Belarus’ total) were
contaminated, only 264,000 hectares were removed from cultivation in 1990. Consequently,
according to Shevtsov, Belarusians still consume large quantities of contaminated food. In
2005, 1,840,951 people lived in areas with more than 1 curie (Ci)/km2, including 483,000
A common refrain in Shevtsov’s account of the impact of Chernobyl’ is that a specific
community of Chernobyltsy—i.e., those affected by the catastrophe—has formed, and its
identity transcends ethnic and denominational lines. The psychological complex of Chernobyltsy
includes feelings of insecurity and abandonment, as well as a proclivity to selfsegregation
and opposition to the rest of society. According to Shevtsov, the crime rate in the
areas with a high concentration of Chernobyltsy in Gomel and Mogilev regions is twice as
high as in the regions with a limited number of Chernobyltsy. Also, the community in question
is characterized by high levels of nostalgia for the Soviet Union, staunch anti-market
attitudes, and extremely high support for Lukashenka despite the fact that much of the coun-
try’s post-1996 economic growth has been achieved at the expense of scaling down post-
Chernobyl’ recovery programs (p. 145).
Shevtsov’s narrative becomes expressive in its account of Chernobyl’—e.g., “the
Chernobyl’ catastrophe gave to Belarusian culture moral justification for its independent
existence and the right to evaluate the degree of morality of other cultures, particularly those
of advanced countries” (p. 138). Moreover, “today’s spiritual self-isolation of Belarus from
all of Europe is to a large extent conditioned by Chernobyl’” (p. 178). The tension between
Belarus and the West could be relieved, according to Shevtsov, if the “West commits itself to
very significant spending in order to remove the prerequisite for the continuing existence of
Chernobyltsy community” (ibid.). Scaling down of recovery programs and the now widespread
assertions that much of the Chernobyl’-affected area is no longer unsafe are not
acceptable to Shevtsov.
CONTEMPORARY BELARUS AND PROSPECTS FOR THE FUTURE
Belarus occupies a central location within the network of trans-European transportation
corridors, which makes every responsible political player in Europe interested in its stability.
According to Shevtsov, the significance of these corridors, which include rail, highway, and
above all, pipeline connections, portends a good investment climate in Belarus irrespective
of political relations with the West. Already, Belarus is among Europe’s leaders in terms of
the number of transportation projects per unit of its territory, such as the new pipeline to
transport natural gas from Russia’s Yamal Peninsula to Europe.
The author makes four observations concerning contemporary Belarus and its foreseeable
future. First, it is unlikely that Lukashenka’s regime will be uprooted any time soon.
This is not only because it has been successful in social and economic areas but also because
no one is seriously interested in destabilizing a country vital for energy transit to Europe’s
heartland. Indeed, recent steep growth in Belarus’ trade with the EU (which now accounts for
44 percent of Belarusian exports) appears to corroborate Shevtsov’s predictions.13
Second, in contrast to most Belarus watchers in the West, Shevtsov claims that Belarus-
Russia integration has been pursued by Belarus’ regime unilaterally, and therefore does not
derive from Russia’s desire to recreate its empire. Rather, it is the realization of Belarus’
aspirations to sustain itself as a separate entity with the aid of any political circles within
Russia that Belarus can possibly rely on. “This is truly phenomenal,” observes Shevtsov,
“that whereas the national interests of other East European countries demanded their distancing
from Russia, the peculiarities of Belarus’ socio-economic structure dictated the opposite
for Belarus” (p. 214). Realizing its national interests, Belarus’ political regime managed to
create its own lobby in Moscow, and close relationships with Russia have paid dividends.
Not only has Belarus extracted benefits from late-Soviet investment policy (preventing a
drastic decline in standards of living), but it has also managed to get Russia to write off
Belarusian debt, and secured low prices on natural gas imports. As long as Belarus retains
both these benefits and its statehood, there is no need for Belarus–Russian relationship to
become any closer than it already is.
Third, much economic growth in Belarus has thus far been based on consuming Sovietera
investments. Only in 2005 did the country embark upon technological modernization, the
financial resources for which (and for enhancing the quality of life) became available due to
steep growth in exports of gasoline and other oil-based products to the EU. Fourth, in the
13This growing trade appears to run counter to the trend in political relations, the low point to date being the
EU’s imposition of travel restrictions on President Lukashenka and 30 other Belarusian government officials in the
wake of “election tampering and violent crackdowns on dissent” (e.g., New York Times, April 11, 2006, p. A12).
EURASIAN GEOGRAPHY AND ECONOMICS
foreseeable future, Belarus will become even more economically tied to the EU, as Belarus’
large-scale industry proves ideally suited to the new role of Eastern Europe as the EU’s
bridge between Europe’s heartland and its “Africa” (Shevtsov’s term for Russia).
Shevtsov’s contribution to Belarusian studies cannot be overemphasized. His perspective,
that of an informed insider, is rare in this area, and his effort to avoid politicized statements
is commendable. The book, however, is uneven. The part devoted to religion is
illuminating, and much of it should be taken at face value. Much of the remainder is debatable,
with the coverage being more solidly grounded on economic and social welfare issues.
He is equally convincing in uncovering the latent geopolitics of the relationships between
Belarus and the West, which allows one to separate seeds (the real interests of international
players, and what is likely to happen or not to happen) from the chaff (ritual Lukashenkabashing).
Shevtsov is less convincing in his interpretation of Belarusian identity, the issue
whose importance for Belarus’ statehood may be second to none.
The part devoted to Chernobyl’ creates a mixed impression. On the one hand, it contains
a factual account of background contamination and a vivid description of the Chernobyltsy.
On the other, the marriage of social science and journalism so successful in the other chapters
is absent in the chapters devoted to Chernobyl’, where journalism holds sway. That the
expose of Chernobyl’s impact is expressive and apparently reflects the author’s deep convictions
does not compensate for this shortcoming. Although no one seeks to belittle the scope
of Chernobyl’s horrendous effects, almost 20 years have elapsed since the disaster, and the
September 2005 joint report of the International Atomic Energy Agency, World Health
Organization, and United Nations Development Programme, which appeared simultaneously
with Shevtsov’s book, would easily win a credibility contest.14
The problem involving more convincing parts of the book, on economy and social
welfare, is different. Shevtsov’s analysis of the preconditions of economic growth nicely
dovetails with both the World Bank (2005) and IMF (2005) reports, but his assertion that the
Soviet industrial legacy in Belarus inexorably and single-handedly shaped its policies in the
economic sphere, not leaving any freedom to maneuver, raises doubts. Whereas reliance of
the Belarusian economy on super-large industrial enterprises was more pronounced than
that of Estonia (an example Shvetsov contrasts with Belarus [p. 201]) and many other
former Soviet republics, some crucial features of national identity appear also to have
exerted influence on economic policy. In Belarus (and elsewhere in Eastern Europe), the
evaporation of long-time savings, and rising crime. But in much of Eastern Europe,
titular ethnic groups were keenly aware that they were very different from Russians. This did
not eliminate their frustration with abrupt socio-economic change, but gave them a modicum
of relief, in the expectation that once they “returned to Europe” where they “rightfully
belonged,” life would normalize. Belarus was and remains different. In the words of one
researcher, in Belarus, “the European idea and what it encompasses is not the common
14The report states that “poverty, ‘lifestyle’ diseases now rampant in the former Soviet Union, and mental
health problems pose a far greater threat to local communities than does radiation exposure” (IAEA, WHO, UNDP,
2005). The report is also reassuring in that, “except for still closed 30 km area surrounding the reactor and some
closed lakes and restricted forests, radiation levels have mostly returned to acceptable levels” (ibid.). Also, the projected
number of deaths (4000) attributable to Chernobyl’ in the most contaminated areas contrasts with Shevtsov’s
people’s project, and they have no ‘European self’ to ‘recollect’” (Gapova, 2002, p. 646).
This brings us to Belarusian identity, Shevtsov’s treatment of which comes across as most
Shevtsov’s analysis of this identity rests on three pillars: autochthony of Belarusians and
lack of significant migrations of outsiders to Belarus, notably Russians and Poles; frequent
changes in cultural self-identification, religious affiliation, and even language by the upper
classes; and Belarusians’ aversion to manifestation of their identity. The description of each
of these underpinnings contains puzzling statements, like “autochthony of Belarusians is a
momentous feature of Belarusian identity” (p. 20) [not ethnic history, but identity (!)];
“Belarusianness is . . . a technology of living in this specific region; sometimes it is the technology
of survival In that sense, only in Belarus can one be a Belarusian” (p. 72).
Because statements like these mystify the reader (perhaps on purpose), a temptation to rationalize
the entire subject of Belarusian identity becomes irresistible.
To accomplish this, one has to fill noticeable gaps in Shevtsov’s reasoning. For example,
if there has been no significant inflow of neighboring ethnicities, it would be important to
know where Belarus ends and the ethnic fields of, say, Russians and Poles, begin. After all,
Belarusian statehood is new, and in the not so distant past its borders changed. Even the western
border of today’s Belarus, which was the Soviet Union’s border for 52 years, is not a cultural
discontinuity, as Belarusian identity is embraced by some to the west of the border and
Polish identity by many to the east of it. Other borders of Belarus are even lesser cultural
frontiers. The division lines between rural dialects in the Polish-Belarusian, Belarusian-Rus-
sian, and Belarusian-Ukrainian contact zones have never been distinct.15 It is quite possible,
in fact almost certain, that such borders can only be drawn arbitrarily. But without drawing
them somewhere and somehow, the autochthony thesis simply does not hold.
A larger problem with Shevtsov’s treatment of identity is his conviction that nation
comes first, and nationalism later or not at all. This seems to accord with how Soviet history
textbooks construed nation, and starkly contrasts with the views of leading scholars today.
Defined as imagined communities (Anderson, 1983), nations are thought of as inventions of
nationalist movements, rather than vice versa. According to Anderson, Gellner (1983), and
Smith (1986), nationalism creates myths, a kind of virtual reality that may or may not be
favorably received by the mass audience. Thus, no nation can emerge without nationalism of
some sort, and Belarus is no exception. The issue of borders is resolved accordingly: “Where
. . . meanings, myths and symbols cease to strike a responsive chord—because of other competing
ones—there [lie] the cultural boundaries of the nation (Smith, 1999, p. 136).”
By all accounts, including Shevtsov’s own references to different versions of Belarusian
identity, Belarus’ major predicament has been with multiple and conflicting national ideas.
Each of the available national projects fails to generate a critical mass of followers precisely
because Belarusians are divided and some are simply confused by the ongoing contest for
their hearts and souls. The people whom Shevtsov happens to call “nationalists” adhere to
just one strand of a Belarusian national idea. That strand was indeed dealt a blow during
World War II, but it did not die. It may be that the negative connotation of the word “nationalism”
in Russian and its traditional equation with chauvinism prevented Shevtsov from discerning
the full scope of the problem and led him to believe that nationalism somehow may
15For a more consistent account of this reasoning, see Ioffe (2003). Analyses by Skropnenko (2000) and
Woolhiser (2003) lead to a similar conclusion.
EURASIAN GEOGRAPHY AND ECONOMICS
be switched off on demand, as we do home appliances. This, however, is hardly possible, and
the realization of this brings us one step closer to solving another of Shevtsov’s mysteries.
Why indeed are there multiple versions of a national idea in a 21st century European
country? And why were all those identity makeovers by its upper classes occurring so often?
There seems to be only one rational response to both questions. While Belarus’ borders are
not cultural frontiers, one such frontier does run across Belarus. In a more narrow sense, this
is a zone of contact between western and eastern Christianity, exemplified and promoted by
Poland and Russia. This discontinuity and its landscape implications have long fascinated
cultural geographers. In a broader sense, this is what Huntington calls a civilizational fault
line (Huntington, 1996).
According to Eberhardt’s (2004) research into delineating this divide, a strip along the
northwestern and northern border of Belarus is part of “Western civilization,” whereas the
rest, including the Brest region, should be assigned to the Byzantine-Orthodox realm.16
Apparently Belarus has been much affected by ebbs and flows in Polish Catholic and
Russian Orthodox influences, as well as by numerous clashes between them. Changes in cultural
self-identification of educated local residents find convincing explanation in historic
shifts of the cultural frontier. Although such changes have not left much of a trace in the collective
memory of the local peasantry, they tormented local intellectuals, some of whom
became true martyrs, agonizing over conflicting Russian and Polish leanings (Weeks, 2003,
It therefore should come as no surprise that no sooner had the Belarusian national idea
been packaged for popular consumption (in the early 1900s) than it bifurcated down the old
division line. On the one hand, a historical tradition emerged that cast Belarusians as an
inherently Western group, the descendents of the Great Duchy of Lithuania (e.g., Lastouski
and Gritskevich, 1910; Dovnar-Zapolskii, 1919). The alternative position, West Russism,
was advocated by, among others, Yauchim (Yevfimii) Karsky (1904), the renowned Belarusian
linguist and one of the most ardent Russifiers of Poland, not just Belarus. Needless to
say, most historical accounts of Belarus published under the Soviets embrace the latter view:
that Belarusians constitute one prong in the three-prong Russian ethnicity that gave rise to
three East Slavic nationalities—Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians.
As if to complicate matters further, today there is a third national project, so-called
Creole nationalism (e.g., Bulgakau, 2001; Abushenko, 2004; Babkou, 2005).17 Many
Belarusians who speak “trasianka,” phonetically Belarusian and lexically Russian, are quite
patriotic and nationalistic. For them, things Russian no longer yet belong in “we,” but cannot
be assigned to “they” either. Similar ambiguity typifies their attitude toward things Belarusian.
Creole consciousness is interpreted as an extrapolation of tuteyshasts, i.e., a Belarusian
variety of localism (Abushenko, 2004), and Lukashenka has been referred to as the president
of Creoles (Bulgakau 2001).
The above leads to the conclusion that Belarus is still a cultural crossroads. When construed
this way, the enigmas of Shevtsov’s account of Belarusian identity unravel. It becomes
clear, for example, that Belarusians are averse to manifestation of their identity not because
this is an innate trait, but because of a bewildering array of national ideas that have been contested
since the time the first tuteyshya became Belarusians. Many Belarusians have not
decided which national idea to embrace, and are additionally confused by politicians who
16Eberhardt (2004) also portrayed historic shifts in this cultural frontier from 1500 to the present, and identified
hallmark years and events conducive to those shifts.
17A summary of the three national projects can be found in Ioffe (2005).
seek to wrap their diverging cultural affinities in white-red-white and green-red fabrics.18 In
marked contrast to the title of Shevtsov’s book, Belarus is not yet a united nation.19
Unfinished nation-building is Belarus’ major predicament, by far more profound than
anything associated with Lukashenka. In fact, many facets of his regime derive from Belarus’
condition as a “denationalized nation” (Marples, 1999). Lukashenka’s personal input into
Belarus’ triumphs and failures, however, should not be downplayed. While Shevtsov steers
clear of both praise and criticism of Belarus’ leader (observing, for example, that Lukashenka
did not create Belarus’ economic strategy but only consistently implemented what had been
decided upon in the early 1990s), the ensuing verdict from his entire narrative is nonetheless
on the side of praise. The meaner streak of the Lukashenka regime is downplayed, and this
may be almost as short-sighted as unconditional criticism of Belarus’ leader.
Although some of the best informed Belarus-watchers have until recently denied that
Belarus is a full-fledged dictatorship (Marples, 2005; Timmermann, 2005) “despite the general
use of this appellation in the international media to describe Belarus” (Marples, 2005,
p. 905), the country seems to be moving rapidly in that direction. The March 19, 2006 Presidential
election ended, officially, with 83 percent of the vote cast for Lukashenka (e.g., New
York Times, March 22, 2006, p. A3). No opposition activist or Western observer will support
the authenticity of this result, although few indeed would suggest that Lukashenka gained
less than 50 percent.20 And yet in their post-election clashes with police and security forces,
Lukashenka’s opponents have gained a measure of high moral ground that they have not held
for a long time. Many Belarusian youths are not on Lukashenka’s side. And the fact that he
has failed to co-opt most Belarusian intellectuals is no less telling than his success in gaining
support from much of the rest of society. In this area, sheer numbers do not tell the entire
story, nor do they usually portend its finale. The latter may not be happy news for Lukashenka
despite some genuine achievements associated with his regime, so eloquently described
by Yuriy Shevtsov.
Abushenko, Vladimir, “Kreol’stvo kak Ino-Modernost’ Vostochnoy Yevropy (Creole Consciousness
as the East European Version of Modernity),” Perekriostki, 1-2:124-160, 2004.
Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities. London, UK: Verso 1991 (original edition, 1983).
Babkou, Igar, “Genealyogiya Belaruskai idei (The Genealogy of the Belarusian Idea): ARCHE, 3:136-
Bulgakau, Valerka, “Vybary Prezydenta Kreolau (Elections of the President of Creoles),” ARCHE, 4,
Dovnar-Zapol’skii, Mitrofan, Osnovy Gosudarstvennosti Bielorussii (Foundations of Belarusian
Statehood). Grodna, Belarus: Ministerstvo Bielorusskikh Del, 1919.
18A white-red-white flag is the symbol of the Belarusian National Republic declared by enthusiasts (westernizers)
of the Belarusian idea in 1918 under Germany military occupation, and was also used during the German occupation
during World War II. The current red-green flag of Belarus, adopted in 1995, represents a slightly modified
version of the Soviet-era banner.
19To this reviewer’s knowledge, the title of Shevtsov’s book manuscript was simply The Phenomenon of
Belarus, the United Nation part of the title being added by the publisher.
20Of the multitude of pre-election forecasts, perhaps the most accurate was issued by Alexander Potupa, Chairman
of the Belarus Union of Entrepreneurs. In a September 14 , 2005 interview with the Latvian Russian-language
newspaper Telegraf, Potupa asserted that “in 2006, Lukashenka’s victory is as assured as it was in 2001. He will win
no less than 80 percent of the vote. But one has to understand that he would win 2:1 (or about two-thirds of the vote)
even without sneaky fiddling technologies” (Martovskaya, 2005).
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