Many distinguished artists and architects, who enjoy worldwide renown to this day, were born on Belarusian soil. However, due to the century-old shifting of borders to various countries and empires, not all artists who lived on Belarusian territory are counted as Belarusian artists.
The first Belarusian artists were mainly architects and icon painters, but their names were seldom recorded in the Middle Ages. Many of them purposely did not want their names to be mentioned. It is known today that the St. Sophia Cathedral in Polotsk (1030-1060) was built by the architects David, Toma, Mikula and Kapes and others, but they themselves had their names removed from the foundation stone.
Another name prominent in Belarusian art of the Middle Ages is that of Lazar Bogsha. He was a talented goldsmith from Polotsk and made a famous altar cross in honour of St. Euphrosyne in the year 1161. Unfortunately this disappeared in the Second World War. In 1997, goldsmiths made a copy of the cross, which is to be found in the Church of the Transfiguration in Polotsk. It is considered the most important religious symbol of the country.
Architects from Polotsk and Grodno attracted attention in the 13th to 16th century. Many skilled architects emanated from the schools of architecture in these towns and made an impact during this period.
However, during the baroque period many aristocratic families increasingly invited foreign architects to come and work in Belarus. Thus the first Belarusian church in the baroque style, the Catholic Corpus Christi Church in Nesvizh, was built by the Italian Giovanni Maria Bernardoni. It was completed in 1593. Another important project for Bernardoni was the Corpus Christi Church in Grodno, which is one of the most beautiful sights of the city today.
In the context of late baroque, the so-called Vilnius baroque was generally popular (also known as the baroque of the United Church). Typical of this style are the high, multi-tiered towers with broken contours, the distinct shapes of the gables and many apertures. The name of the Prussian architect Johann Christoph Glaubitz is particularly associated with this specific type of baroque. His works are to be found in Vilnius, Polotsk and Lida. His most important project in Belarus was the reconstruction of the St. Sophia Cathedral in Polotsk (1748-1765). Other architects who contributed to the proliferation of Vilnius Baroque in Belarus were the Italian Giuseppe Fontana III and the Belarusian Alexander Ossikevich. Around this time, several churches were remodelled in this style, whilst others were newly built in the regions of Vitebsk and Polotsk.
As in Western European architecture, in particular in Italy and France, baroque classicism began to influence Belarusian architecture. The famous Italian architect Giuseppe de Sakko (court architect of the Polish king Stanislaus II August) devoted much of his creative period to the region. His works can be seen in Grodno and the surroundings to this day. In the field of painting, very few names of baroque artists have been handed down, as they rarely signed their works in this period. However, staff at the Belarusian National Art Museum has been able to attribute some works to certain artists. So we know the names of some painters who lived and worked at the end of the 18th century/beginning of the 19th century, for example Vassili Markiyanovich from Slutsk and Thomas Silinich from Mogilev.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Belarusian architecture was governed by eclecticism. Parallel to the classical forms, more modern neo-baroque, neo-classicistic, neo-Gothic and neo-romantic forms developed. A striking example of this is the red brick theatre in Mogilev and a neighbouring building built by Peter Kamburov in pseudo-Russian style. After the annexation of Belarusian territory to the Russian Empire, Belarusian architecture was influenced by followers of two Russian schools of architecture, the Moscow and the St. Petersburg schools. These included the well-known Russian architects Vassili Stassov and Avraam Melnikov. The Russian architect Nikolai Lvov designed the St. Joseph Cathedral in Mogilev and Ivan Storow erected the castle in Krichev for Prince Potemkin, as well as the castle of the aristocratic family Rumjantsev-Paskewitz in Gomel. The reason for this was that the Russian empress Catharine the Great had generously given her favourites estates on Belarusian soil. These counts and princes invited only Russian architects to build their palaces and castles. Belarusian master craftsmen were not in demand.
In the 19th century, Belarussian artists were trained primarily in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Therefore their work developed predominantly in line with Russian art and architecture. However, other Belarusian painters were influenced by Lithuanian and Polish arts. The most famous Belarusian painters of the 19th century are Joseph Oleshkevich, Ivan Khrutsky, Andrei Khrutsky, Sergei Zaryanko, Apollinary Goravsky (Horawski) and Theodore Yasnovski.
The Belarusian artist Ivan Khrutsky was one of the founders of Russian still-life. He imitated the Dutch masters in his first works. All of his paintings were focussed on a central point and were always symmetrical. Today, everyone in Belarus knows the most famous still-life by Khrutsky as it was imprinted on the old 1000 rouble banknote which was withdrawn in 2016 when a new currency was introduced.
This style can also be seen in particularly vivid form in the works of the painter Sergei Zaryanko, which are considered today as archetypal of classical Russian portrait painting of the 19th century.
The 20th century – the century of scientific and technological progress and modernity – saw the turning point in both Belarusian and worldwide architecture. Building typology and structural engineering changed and new forms of architecture arose thanks to electrification and new construction options.
One of the most prominent architects of the 20th century in Belarus was Joseph Langbard, whose buildings are characteristic of the Belarusian capital to this day. He designed the government building, the opera house, the academy of science and the officers’ club house.
Many talented architects from all over the Soviet Union, including Mikhail Parusnikov, Alexander Voinov, Yuri Yegorov, Georgi Zaborski, Naum Trakhtenberg, Mikhail Barshch und Vladimir Korol, worked on the mammoth architectural post-war project of virtually rebuilding the capital of Minsk. Together with Abram Duchan, Korol worked for example on the design of the architecturally appealing Main Post Office in Minsk.
Inspite of two World Wars, the art of painting still developed in Belarus in the 20th century and many world-class painters emerged. Witold Byalynitsky-Birulya was a highly talented landscape painter and lyricist. His work was dominated by so-called pure landscape painting which entailed the depiction of nature in abstracto without any living beings.
In the post-revolution period of 1917, the town of Vitebsk became the most important centre of arts. A folk art school was inaugurated there in 1918. This was founded by the world-famous painter Marc Chagall, one of the precursors of the avant-garde and visual arts. Chagall’s painting was influenced by his teacher, Yehuda Pen, who was a prominent advocate of the Jewish renaissance.
Other famous artists who attended the Vitebsk Folk Art School were Lazar Lissitski, Vera Emolaeva, Zair Azgur and last, not least Kazimir Malevich. The latter developed a new movement in painting: suprematism. The painter and sculptor Zair Azgur became known thanks to his many sculptures which grace Minsk and other Belarusian cities today.
Painting in Belarus developed further in the second half of the 20th century and was fashioned by artists such as Nikolai Ishchuk, Mikhail Savitsky, Vladimir Tovstik, Felix Janushkevich and Valeri Shkarubo.
One of the most significant contemporary artists is Mikhail Savitski. He focuses primarily on historical subjects in his paintings. His best known series of paintings is called “Ziffern am Herzen” (Numbers ingrained in your heart), which examines the atrocities in the concentration camps.
Currently the best known and most successful architects in Belarus are Victor Kramarenko and Mikhail Vinogradov. They are responsible for the designs of the Belarusian National Library and the Minsk main station. These architects construct their buildings largely of glass combined with ingenious metal structures.
The Belarusian cuisine developed in pagan times. It has a rich history and is based on centuries of tradition.
On account of their geographical location and weather conditions, the Belarusians always had a relatively limited selection of local foods available, which did not prevent them from using their imagination and curiosity to create an interesting cuisine. This resulted in new dishes, which in the first instance appeared to be composed of incompatible ingredients, often based on a recipe from a popular foreign cuisine. Over time, the recipes changed to reflect local cooking traditions. Therefore the Belarusian cuisine has been influenced by different national cuisines (in particular the Russian, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Polish and Jewish). Nevertheless, there are still many dishes which are exclusive to the Belarusian cuisine. Belarus has always produced ample cereals, potatoes, meat, milk and vegetables and as there are many rivers and lakes, fish has always been the main ingredient of many dishes. Nearly 40% of Belarus is covered by forest, so berries, mushrooms and game have also played a significant role.
The introduction of the potato in the 18th century caused a culinary revolution and since that time the potato has been at least on a par with bread. One will seldom find such a wealth of dishes using this root crop as in the Belarusian cuisine. Consequently, the Belarusians are often jokingly called “Bulbaschi” (Belarusian for ‚бульба’ – bulba – potato) by the neighbouring countries.
An essential ingredient in the Belarusian cuisine has always been bacon, which is used in all kinds of dishes or just eaten salted. Traditionally salty bacon is used for cooking: raw bacon is cut into small slices and liberally sprinkled with salt and other seasoning, which preserves it for up to six months.
National Belarusian recipes typically use a combination of different types of flour such as oatmeal, pea flour, buckwheat flour, rye flour, etc. The pride of the Belarusian cuisine is its natural bread, for which the dough is prepared with rye flour using a special ferment instead of yeast. To this very day Belarusian bread is often baked in wood-fired ovens.
Belarusian cuisine includes very few desserts. They are comprised mainly of berries, fruit, honey and quark.
Among the traditional beverages there are various spirits such as krambambulja (a liqueur with honey and spices), chrenovucha (a horseradish liqueur) and of course samogonka (home-distilled vodka). Typical non-alcoholic beverages include sbiten (a hot drink made with water, honey and spices), kvass (a special non-alcoholic beer which is made by fermenting the basic ingredients water, rye and malt), uzvar (a cold drink made from dried fruit) and mors (a fruit juice made from soft fruit).
The modern Belarusian cuisine is an eclectic mix. Nowadays many old recipes are being reintroduced in modern variations. It goes without saying that the actual Belarusian cuisine – like any other national cuisine in this day of globalization – is influenced by general international culinary trends.
Nearly all Belarusian families own a summer house (Russian: datscha) in the country, where they grow fruit and vegetables for their own consumption. Harvesting takes place in August and September and a large part is bottled (far more than in the west) and stored for the winter months. It should be pointed out that in Belarus vegetables are preserved in brine and not in vinegar.
Belarusians are an incredibly hospitable people, who put nothing but the best on the table when they have visitors. No gathering around the table is complete without vodka, which is usually accompanied by light snacks (Russian: sakuski). These may consist of bread with caviar, sprats and gherkins, marinated vegetables or mushrooms. In addition, you might expect to see salads with meat and vegetables, usually with plenty of mayonnaise. The main dish, normally chicken or pork, made according to the secret recipe of the lady of the house, usually stands in the middle of the table.
Strangely enough, there are few overweight people in Belarus, even though the cuisine is hearty and rich in carbohydrates. Maybe this is because the portions are usually considerably smaller than in Germany for example.
Below you will find some of the tastiest recipes of the Belarusian traditional cuisine.
Veraschtschaka (Minsk version)
0.5 kg pork with ribs
200 g kvass
1 laurel leaf
Season the pork with salt and pepper and sear both sides briefly in the pan. Remove the meat and sauté the finely chopped onions in the fat. Lay the meat, onion and laurel leaf in a sauté pan, cover with kvass and simmer for 10 minutes on a low heat.
Serve with mashed potato or blinis which are dunked in the veraschtschaka.
Another speciality of the Belarusian cuisine is cold soups, for example made from beetroot, nettles or sorrel. We can recommend svekolnik (Russian: ‘свёкла’ [swekla] – beetroot) – a cold beetroot soup. This is served mainly in the hot summer months.
Svekolnik (traditional recipe)
2 beetroot with stalks and leaves
1 tbsp vinegar
sour cream (for serving)
Peel the beetroot, wash and cut them into thin strips. Boil in water with the vinegar until cooked. Ten minutes before the beetroot are cooked through add the leaves, season with salt. Leave to cool. Wash and peel the cucumber and dice. Wash the chives, radishes and dill and cut finely. Hard boil the eggs and dice. Add the cucumber, salt, sugar, chives, radishes, dill and eggs to the chilled beetroot soup. Serve with sour cream.
As already mentioned, it is hard to imagine the Belarusian cuisine without potato dishes. Try cooking one of the simplest and tastiest potato dishes: babka. There are two variations of this: the original and vegetarian.
600 g potatoes
100 g bacon/ oil for baking
Grate the potatoes, without squeezing out the liquid.
For the vegetarian alternative: cut the onion finely and fry in the pan.
For the original „babka“: cut the onion and bacon finely and fry together in the pan.
Mix the contents of the pan with the grated potatoes, season with salt and turn into an earthenware pot. Place in the oven and bake for 40 minutes at 180-200°.
Babka is eaten hot and served with milk.
Kulaga (traditional berry dessert)
400 g berries (blueberries, cranberries, raspberries or rowan berries)
70 g honey
2-3 tbsp wheat flour
Sort through the fresh berries, rinse and place the saucepan with the berries on the hob. Mix the wheat flour with a little water and add to the softened berries with the honey. Bring to the boil at medium temperature, constantly stirring until creamy and thick. Kulaga is a traditional accompaniment to pancakes, white bread and milk.
Ten or fifteen years ago, Minsk was the undisputed centre for cultural events, forums, festivals etc. in Belarus. Today, the situation is slowly but steadily changing. Each region has its own special events and festivities which are renowned beyond the borders of the region. Old traditions and customs are being revived. Belarusians themselves are again showing greater interest in their folklore and their history. There are also international festivals which are acclaimed beyond the national borders, which have been re-discovered or newly founded since the country gained independence.
Below you will find some of the most important dates of events and festivals which are worth visiting in Belarus and which can be ideally combined with one of our tours.
||Orthodox public holiday according to the Julian calendar|
|19.01. Kalyady||Slavic winter solstice festival|
|Terra Nova||International festival of digital art in Minsk|
|February||Masleniza begins 54 days before Easter||Butter week, marking the end of winter|
|March||21.03 – 28.03. M@rt-Kontakt||International theatre festival in Mogiljov|
|April||International festival of ancient and modern chamber music||Music festival in the oldest Belarusian town of Polotsk|
|May||Puppets on the Neman||International puppet theatre festival in Grodno|
|09.05. Victory Day
||Throughout Belarus, celebration of the end of the Great Patriotic War (Russian phrase for the Second World War)|
|01.05 – 03.05. Minsk street
|Open-air performances in the historic centre of Minsk|
|June||Musical evenings at Mir Castle||2 week event on the stage in front of Mir Castle, with Belarusian and foreign performers.|
|15.06. Rok za bobrov||Open-air rock festival near Minsk|
|July||03.07. Independence Day||Celebrations throughout the country|
|03.07 – 04.07. MOST (Russian: bridge)
||Open-air-Festival bei Minsk|
|06.07. Kupalye||Summer solstice festival|
|09.07 – 13.07. Slavyanski Bazaar||Largest international culture and song festival in Vitebsk|
|August||Polesie’s Call (Sow Polesja)||International festival of ethnocultural traditions in the Pripyatsky National Park|
|Mirum Music Festival||Open-air in front of Mir Castle|
|September||Folklore festival „Kamyanitsa“||Festival of folklore culture in the Museum of Folk Architecture in Ozerco (a suburb of Minsk)|
|Potato festival „Bulba-fest“||The potato is considered to be the second staple food in Belarus and this culinary festival is therefore celebrated annually in Silitchi (a skiing centre near Minsk)|
|Harvest (and agricultural) festival|
|November||International filmfestival „Listopad“ Minsk||Competition for domestic and foreign films, also by young film directors|
|„Sophia bells“||International organ music festival in Polotsk|
Take a trip with us and discover the rich culture of the country.
The present-day state symbols of the Republic of Belarus were adopted by public referendum on 14 May 1995. The coat of arms, the flag and the anthem are the main symbols of independence, representing the historical and cultural heritage of the Belarusian people and emphasizing “the national spirit and dignity of Belarusians”.
The Belarusian flag
The present flag of the Republic of Belarus consists of two horizontal stripes: the upper one is red, the lower one is green and slightly narrower than the red one. The Belarusian national ornament is depicted along the right-hand side (red on a white background). These basic features of the national flag have certain historical roots.
In general, the red stands as a sign of the sun, symbolizes blood ties, brotherhood, struggle for a just cause. The red of the modern Belarusian flag symbolizes the guidon of the victorious battle at Tannenberg (1410) against the crusaders as well as the color of the flags of the Red Army and the Belarusian partisan brigades. At the same time it is a sign of happiness and life. There is also evidence of the connection between the red and the flame, without which man can never exist. The red also symbolizes struggle, resistance to oppression and blood shed in battle. This meaning came up in Belarus in the 19th century with the revolutionary movement in the Russian Empire.
Green is the colour of nature, rich fields, meadows and forests covering most of Belarusian territory. Green is a sign of growth, development, prosperity and peace. Traditionally, greenery has been accorded great importance in Belarus. One of the main deities for the Slavs was the earth mother, inseparably connected with the green flora. This tradition found its way into many proverbs and desires.
Forests and swamps as well as cultivated fields were and are characteristic for Belarusian landscapes. Pagan ancestors deified the surrounding nature, there were developed cults of oak and birch groves, hills and stones. The worship of the forces of nature and the pagan faith remained even after Christianization. The green as one of the national colours symbolizes joie de vivre, the spring awakening of nature after a long hibernation.
Whiteness, above all, is the colour of freedom, the colour of integrity and wisdom. The Belarusian national ornament, which symbolizes ancient folk culture, spiritual wealth and unity, rests on the white. According to its origin, the ornament is a graphic incantation of the celestial powers. Such ornaments were used to express desires and legacies when writing did not yet exist. In this way the Slavs wanted to pass on their knowledge. In the middle of the ornament runs a vertically stretched diamond with two lines reminiscent of horns. For millennia, the diamond symbolized the feminine, soil fertility. The Slavs often used this pattern. In the centre of the diamond there are two crossed lines between which four dots stand. These stand for the sun, a symbol for fertility.
The other motifs symbolize the wish that the begging person succeeds in everything. Such ornaments are often embroidered on traditional clothes, cloths and tablecloths. Ornaments are believed to protect against evil. According to popular tradition, the simple farmer’s wife Matrena Markewitsch embroidered this pattern for the first time in 1917.
The Belarusian coat of arms
The origin of the national coat of arms of the Republic of Belarus is connected with the coat of arms of the BSSR (Belarusian Socialist Soviet Republic). However, there have been significant changes reflecting the fact that Belarus has become an independent state. The hammer and sickle, the abbreviation “BSSR” and the Soviet slogan were removed. The band surrounding the coat of arms is not red, but red-green (like the state flag). The emblem is framed with a wreath of ripe ears of rye, symbolizing victory. In the centre, the outline of the Belarusian borders can be seen. As a sign that Belarus is a part of the world civilization and perceives other countries as equal partners. The earth-sun-unity is the sign of peaceful coexistence.
The Belarusian National Anthem
On 24 September 1955 the text and music of the new national anthem was introduced. Many of the most famous Belarusian poets took part in the competition for the national anthem. In the end the poet Mikhail Klimkovich won with the text “We, Belarusians”. The music for the anthem was composed by Nestor Sokolovsky. It was reedited in 2002. Vladimir Karizna wrote a new version of the national anthem based on the old one. The music remained unchanged.
Here is the first verse and the chorus of the three-tropical anthem in English translation:
We Belarusians are peaceful people
With the heart faithful to our homeland.
We are good friends and steel ourselves
In a busy and free family.
Long live the bright name of our country,
Long live the brotherly union of nations!
Our dear mother home,
Live and glow forever, Belarus!
However, these modern state symbols are not uncontroversial. Some Belarusians do not recognise them and do not perceive them as historically rooted. The alternative state symbols are the white-red-white flag and the coat of arms “Pahonia”. The word can be translated as “persecution”. It shows, on a red ground, an attacking white sword-wielding knight on horseback carrying a shield with a golden double cross. The Pahonia is a very old symbol, already the Grand Duke Vytautas used it as national coat of arms of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 13th century. These symbols were considered official state symbols from 1991 to 1995 and 1917 after the collapse of the Tsarist Empire, when the Belarusian People’s Republic was formed for a short period of eight months.
Besides the flag, the coat of arms and the anthem, Belarus has some unofficial symbols. The cross of St. Euphrosinia from Polotsk from the 12th century, although lost in the Second World War, is considered the spiritual symbol of the country. Today there is only one copy of it. Heraldic animals are the bison, which has the largest population in Europe, especially in the Białowieża Forest near Brest, and the white stork. The cornflower is a representative of the rich flora and is often found in postcards and souvenirs.
In Belarus there are numerous national and religious public holidays. Among the most important national public holidays are Constitution Day (15th March), the Day of Unification of Belarus and Russia (2nd April), Victory Day (9th May, Russian: Den Pobedi), Independence Day (3rd July) and the Day of the National Coat of Arms and the National Flag (on the second Sunday in May).
The 9th May is one of the most important national public holidays and is celebrated ceremoniously in Belarus. The day commemorates the victory of the Soviet Army over Nazi Germany in the Great Patriotic War, as the Second World War is known in the former Soviet Union. A large military parade is held in Minsk on this occasion and reviewed by the president in person. This holiday is still of great significance for the national consciousness, as every third person lost his life during the Second World War. Another large parade takes place on 3rd July. On this day in 1944, the Belarusian capital was liberated from the German occupying forces: today this day is celebrated as Independence Day. Echoes of the Soviet past persist on 1st May (Labour Day) and 7th November (Day of the October Revolution).
Christmas is celebrated twice in Belarus: the Catholic Christmas on 25th December and then the Orthodox Christmas on 7th January. New Year’s Eve is far more festive than in Western Europe and the USA. Ded Moroz (Russian: Jack Frost) is the counterpart of Santa Claus and brings presents for Belarusian children on New Year’s Eve. He is traditionally accompanied by his granddaughter and a helper called Snegurochka. At midnight all the members of the family sit around the festively laid table and drink to each other, listen to the bells chiming, wish each other well and congratulate each other. This is the time of “Kaljady”, the name for the 12 days of Christmas, from 25th December to the 6th of January. This was originally a pagan custom but the Church integrated it into its own festivities. Going from house to house, singing and performing, is a widespread tradition on Christmas Eve. Evil spirits and monsters are supposedly frightened away by cheerful songs, the so-called “Kaljadki”.
Easter is also an important celebration for Catholic Belarusians. The day before the festivities the traditional Easter cake is baked (Belarusian: Kulitsch). As a symbol of the festivity, eggs are traditionally dyed red with onion skins. The eggs are consecrated in the church and laid in water at home. Then one washes one’s face with the water so as to become (or to stay) healthy and beautiful. A popular game at Easter is similar to a game of conkers: eggs are knocked against each other and when one egg is broken, the other person has won. This game is called “Bitki” (from the verb “bit” – to hit),
The Russian Orthodox Church celebrates the Radonitsa festival nine days after Easter. This is a commemoration of the departed and families assemble at the cemetery after a service of remembrance. It is an ancient custom to lay cloths on the graves and place an uneven number of different dishes on it. This is a symbolic invitation to the relatives who have passed away to partake of a meal. In the autumn there is another day of remembrance called Dziady (Belarusian for ancestors).
In Belarus many cultural festivals have survived. The best known is the summer solstice festival (Belarusian: Kupalje, Russian: Ivan Kupala), which is celebrated on the night of 6th/7th July. Like many pagan customs, Kupalje is associated with fire, water and burgeoning magical powers. By burning old things, one is supposed to cleanse oneself and free oneself of all tribulations. Fire is believed to scare off evil spirits. The tradition of jumping over fire is intended to promote inner cleansing. It is tradition to dance round the fire and sing special Kupalje songs. Young women usually weave wreaths of flowers and blades of grass and let them float away on the rivers. If a young man manages to retrieve a wreath, then he is destined to marry that girl.
Paparz-Kwetka (Belarusian for fern flower) has a special role to play on this day. It was widely believed that ferns flower in the Kupalje night and so people used to search for the magic ferns in the woods at night. According to pagan belief, all treasures buried in the ground would be revealed to anyone finding these flowers. Likewise they would have a long life and happiness.
At the end of winter, Maslenitsa is celebrated in Belarus. Festivities last for a week and end with the beginning of Orthodox Lent. The name comes from the word “Maslo” (Russian: butter). During that week believers may not eat meat, but milk products, eggs and fish are allowed so that pancakes (Russian: blini) are particularly popular. Traditionally, they are made with different fillings such as quark or fruit. Blini are a symbol for the sun, which supposedly shines stronger at the end of the winter after the festive week. Therefore in some regions this festival is called “Bliniza”, derived from blini.
Sunday is the last day of “butter week”. A final farewell is said to winter and spring is welcomed in. The highlight of the festival is the burning of the Maslenitsa doll, which is usually made of straw. The doll symbolises all that is dark and negative experienced during winter. This last Sunday before Lent is a very lively affair, with traditional folk songs, dancing and plenty to eat and drink.
Other important folk festivals originate from peasant traditions, in particular “Zazhinki” – the start of the harvest – and Dazhinki – the end of the harvest. In former times, these festivals were celebrated in every village. However, traditional peasant folk festivals are gradually losing their significance in a Belarus which is becoming more and more urbanised.
The origins of the Belarusian language and literature date from the early Middle Ages. Literature emerged in the 10th century as a direct consequence of the development of the written language. The principal centres for the promoting the spread of writing were Polotsk and Smolensk (Russia), where the first forms of Slavic historiography developed through ecclesiastical and monastic chronicles. During the era of the Kievan Rus, the foundations of Belarusian literature were laid in conjunction with the Russian and Ukrainian literature and language. Outstanding examples of this period include the “Speech by Ioan Polozky”, the “Life of Euphrosyne of Polotsk”, the “Life of Abraham of Smolensk” and the “Works and teaching” of Kirill of Turov.
Between the 14th and 15th century, Belarusian literature broke away from pan-Russian literature, at a time when the Belarusian territory belonged to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Ruthenian was the official language. All Lithuanian statutes were recorded and published in this language.
Books have been printed in Belarusian since the 16th century. The first book to be printed in an East Slavonic language was a psalter in Belarusian. This was printed in Prague in 1517 by Francysk Skaryna. The name Skaryna is firmly anchored in Belarusian history, thanks to his achievements in the spheres of enlightenment, the art of book printing and book dissemination.
Francysk Skaryna was succeeded by Wassily Tiapinsky, who was a famous humanist and enlightener. The only remaining book of those he issued is the “Evangelium” (Gospel) which was printed in both Church Slavonic and Belarusian. In the foreword to this book, he mentions his special affinity to the Belarusian language.
Between the 16th and 17th century, baroque syllabic poetry and dramatic art (Simeon of Polotsk) emerged, influenced by Polish culture. In the 18th century, the Belarusian people – and in particular the upper class – were heavily influenced by the ruling Polish noblemen. This meant that for a while the significance of Belarusian writing lost importance. It wasn’t until the end of the 18th century that Belarusian literature experienced a revival and was rediscovered. The first romantic works were written in the vernacular, which had a strong impact on the modern Belarusian language. Examples of such literature are the satirical poems by Vikentsi Ravinski and Jan Barszczewski and poetry by Pauluk Bagrim and Yan Chachot (Jan Czeczot).
The beginning of the 19th century saw the advent of romantic literature, which was inspired by the lively language of folklore. The most prominent exponent of this genre was Adam Mickiewicz, who was born in Belarus but who wrote in Polish. To this day, scientists from both countries argue as to which country the poet should be ascribed to.
Around the same time, Vincent Dunin-Martsynkevich appeared on the literary scene. He is recognised as the founding father of modern Belarusan literature. His works include not only lyrics and drama but he also wrote stage plays. Family members and local farmers all took part in his village theatre.
Another factor which had an effect on the development of Belarusian literature was the appearance of the first, legal newspapers, such as ‚Nascha Dolja‘ (‘Our destiny’ and ‘Nascha Niwa’ (‘Our homeland’). These newspapers were published in Vilnius at the beginning of the 20th century, which at that time was considered to be the centre of Belarusian intellectuals. The best Belarusian prose writers gathered around these newspapers and had their first extracts printed in them. These newspapers therefore published works by many Belarusian men of letters including Janka Kupala (Yanka Kupala), Yakub Kolas (Jakub Kolas), Tetka (Ciotka, Alaiza Pashkevich) and Maxim Bogdanovich (Maksim Bahdanovič), all of whom are now ranked as belonging to the golden age of Belarusian literature. More recent Belarusian literature is a composition of different structures and incorporated different genres and styles such as impressionism and symbolism, romanticism and modernism. During the First World War, the dominating subject in literary works was patriotism
After the revolution of 1917 and the formation of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Belarus (BSSR), literary life was concentrated on the magazines “Maladniak” (Belarusian: young people) and “Uzvychch” (Belarusian: upturn). The authors and poets of the younger generation were: Vladimir Dubouka (Uladzimir Dubouka), Tsishka Gartny (Ciška Hartny), Kuzma Сhorny and others. In the 1930s Belarusian intellectuals were subjected to the mass persecution and political repression of the Great Terror or Great Purge. The night of 29th to 30th October 1937 was catastrophic for Belarusian literature, as 23 young poets were shot.
During the Second World War the publishing of literature and satire was particularly important and patriotic works were instrumentalised in the battle against the common enemy. Notable examples are the poems “Iranian Diary” by Pimen Panchanka and “The Brigade Flag” by Arkadi Kuleshov. The novels “The Milky Way” and “Search for the Future” by Kusma Tschorny are among the highlights of Belarusian prose during the war years.
In the post-war years, the subject of war was reconsidered and confronted. The novels and short stories by Ivan Schamiakin, Mikhas Lynkou and Ales Adamovich bear witness to this. But the unrivalled master of war prose was Vasil Bykau, who wrote more than a hundred literary works on the subject. His highly authentic prose is characterised by his own experiences on the front.
Historical novels are extremely popular in Belarus and one of the best authors in the field is Uladzimir Karatkievich. His novels are set in different periods of Belarusian history from the Middle Ages up to the war years. Uladzimir Arlou is a well-known contemporary author, who also writes about historical topics.
It was not until the end of the 1960s that it became possible to explore social and political issues of the recent past on a literary level. For example, in a trilogy, Ivan Melezh portrayed a profound picture of the inhumane agricultural collectivisation of the 30s. Rygor Baradulin (Ryhor Baradulin) has made a name for himself with his philosophical poems and has twice been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Innovative, contemporary authors include Ales Rasanau, Adam Globus (Adam Hlobus) and Andrei Khadanovich, all of whom are talented translators. A well-known book in German-speaking countries is “Minsk: the sun city of dreams”, by Artur Klinau. In this work, the qualified architect combines the characteristics of a tour guide with autobiographical elements and personal memories and compares the Belarusian capital to Utopia.
A major sensation in modern, Belarusian literature was the Nobel Prize awarded in 2015 to the authoress Svetlana Alexievich (who actually writes in Russian) … “for her polyphonic opus which immortalizes the suffering and courage of our times” (Die Zeit). She has been honoured on several occasions for her documentary prose about life in soviet and post-soviet society. In 2013 she received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. Svetlana Alexievich writes in a personal style of her own. She travels around the country and talks to people about subjects which are of concern to them. She then transforms these conversations into awe-inspiring masterpieces, in which her style alternates between journalism and belletristic. Among her most important works are “The Unwomanly Face of War”, “Boys in Zinc” (Afghanistan and the results), “Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future”, “Second-hand Time: the Last of the Soviets” and others.
One of the most important literary events is the Nefarmat Literary Festival, which takes place every year in Minsk. This includes many performances in which authors, musicians and other artists take part, in addition to numerous literature readings.
Modern literary life is centred in Minsk. Nearly all important literary events are organised by the Logvinau publishing house. The publishing house came into existence in 2014 as a private initiative of some Belarusian publishers and authors and aims to promote Belarusian literature and make it more widely known. Since the Russian language dominates in daily life, the idea is to revive the Belarusian language through literature. “Logvinau” is a combination of bookstore, publishers and a venue for literary exchange. Authors, readers and critics are able to meet regularly and exchange opinions at numerous events organised by the publishing house.
“Logvinau” has acquired renown beyond the national borders and is a regular participant at book fairs in Leipzig, Frankfurt, Prague and Warsaw.
Some languages are able to cross national borders, becoming a bridge that facilitates understanding between people of different cultures. Other languages, on the other hand, slumber in old books and are only spoken in remote areas where the wave of globalization has not yet arrived. This fate primarily befalls languages that are spoken by very few people. Fortunately, there are examples of how one’s own language can be cultivated even in small countries.
What is the fate of the Belarusian language? Many people will probably ask themselves one question while reading this: why does such a language actually exist?
The Belarusian language is as old as its Slavic sister languages – Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, etc. The basis for the emergence and development of Slavic languages were the dialects of individual Slavic tribes, which began to settle in the vast territories of Central and Eastern Europe two thousand years ago. The Belarusian language is based on the dialects of three Slavic tribes: the Dregovich, Krivich and Radimich. In principle, the current grouping of Belarusian dialects actually reflects the earlier settlement of the mentioned tribes on Belarusian territory. The oldest manuscripts date back to the 10th-11th century. Today the Cyrillic alphabet is officially used, which has existed since the 14th century. In the 16th century the Latin alphabet appeared.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets coexisted. For a while the newspaper “Nasha Niva” printed texts on two graphic systems, so that all Belarusians could understand what was written, because the Catholics got used to the Latin alphabet, and the Orthodoxy understood only the Cyrillic alphabet. Nowadays, the Latin alphabet is used mainly in toponymy, in names of geographical places. For example, the names of metro stations in Minsk are written in Cyrillic and Belarusian, not in English.
Since the 14th century, the Tartars, who were captured during their raids, began to settle in Belarus. Little by little they assimilated. With the time, writings were written in Belarusian-Arabic script. Thus there were three alphabets (graphic systems) in the Belarusian language.
From the 14th century until 1696, Belarusian was the official language of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. After the unification of the Principality and the Kingdom of Poland in 1569, the population of the Principality was gradually polonized. This ended with the complete suppression of the Belarusian language from official use. From 1696 all writings of the Polish-Lithuanian State Union were translated into Polish. Since then the Belarusian language has been used mainly in everyday life.
In the Belarusian language there are two different variants. The spelling founded in 1918 by the linguist and political activist Bronislaw Tarashkevich is today called “classical” or “Tarashkevich”. In 1933 as well as in the late 1950s, the spelling was changed as part of the russification reforms. The reformed spelling has an informal name and is called “Narcomovka”. After the law on the new spelling came into force in 2008, it finally received official status.
As a result of the long coexistence of the Belarusian and Russian languages, the so-called Trasyanka were created. Literally, this word means “hay of poor quality”, which is a combination of dry and freshly cut grass. In the Ukrainian language there is also a similar phenomenon called “surschik”. It is believed that this linguistic phenomenon was a consequence of communication between the predominantly Belarusian-speaking rural population and the Russian-speaking urban population. According to some researchers, the Stalinist repressions contributed to the spread of the Trasyanka, since the use of the mother tongue itself was a reason for denunciations, thus creating hybrid forms.
Belarus was one of the most heavily Russianized Soviet republics. The language law passed in January 1990 by the Supreme Soviet of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic secured the Belarusian language the status of a unified state language. Russian was recognized as the language of interethnic communication. In the status of the Unified State, the Belarusian language existed until the referendum in May 1995, which was held on the initiative of President Alexander Lukashenka. As a result, Russian was introduced as the language of instruction in many schools. Today, the number of Belarusian-speaking school children is rapidly decreasing, while in regional centers and large cities only a few pupils are taught in their mother tongue. There is not a single higher education institution in the country that offers education in the Belarusian language. This is one of the main factors deterring parents from sending their children to Belarusian schools.
Only a small percentage of the population uses the Belarusian language in everyday communication. Belarusian is more often used on state television and radio channels. The creative and young intelligentsia of Belarus is using the Belarusian language more and more.
Finally, some facts about the Belarusian language:
The Belarusian alphabet is almost completely identical to the Russian alphabet, but there are also peculiarities.
- The letter Ў, ў (the short U), which is missing in the Russian language. In Polotsk during the past “Day of the Belarusian Written Language” a monument was erected to the letter “Ў”. This monument is absolutely unique and quite unusual. In fact, it is a monument to the cultural uniqueness of the whole Belarusian nation.
- The apostrophe ‘, which is missing in the Russian language. In Russian this corresponds to the letter ъ (hard sign).
- The letter i, which in contrast to the Russian “и” is written as in the Latin alphabet.
Of course the Belarusian and Russian languages are very similar, so Russians and Belarusians understand each other well. But there are words that sound completely different in the Belarusian language and are more similar to Polish. And to understand these words, as with any foreign language, you need to know the translation.
Here are some examples: bicycle: rower (bel.), welosiped (russian); beet: burak (bel.), swjokla (russian); flower: kwetka (bel.), tswetok (russian); onions: tsybulja (bel.), luk (russian).