16 September 2020 | Anton Somin, Arzamas
Why is taking off one’s shoes when stepping onto a bench at a protest not pamiarkounasts, but hodnasts? Who drives a bus – a Russian vadzitsel or a Polish kiroutsa? What do Belarusians wear – futbolki, tsishotki or sakolki? And which potato pancake recipe is correct? This is a gentle introduction to the complex world of Belarusian culture.
The answer to the question “What is Belarusian culture?” is rather intricate. Is it a reference to the glorious past of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the territory of which stretched “from sea to sea” [i.e. from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea]; or a Soviet-inspired image of the country of partisans, storks, and blooming flax? Is the answer an everyday conversation about household staples and pancake recipes, or the contemplations of high-cultured intelligentsia with a strong sense of national identity? Is Belarusian culture the memes and quotes that make sense only to Belarusians, or the stereotypes about Belarus – potatoes, clean streets, and Lukashenko? Can we find precise words that will tell a complete story to both Russians and French equally well? Lastly, if modern life in Belarus is almost entirely Russian-speaking, should those words be Russian, Belarusian, or maybe in Trasyanka [a mixed form of speech in which Belarusian and Russian elements and structures alternate arbitrarily]? It seems that the correct answer is a little bit of each.
Meaning: local, native
In Belarusian, tut means “here” or “locally”, therefore tuteishy means “local”. Ordinary people living on the territory of Belarus during the Soviet era had difficulties with their national self-identification. In 1903, the ethnographer Yevfimy Karsky wrote: “At present, the ordinary people in Belarus do not know this name [Belarusian]. To the question: ‘Who are you?’, a commoner answers: ‘Russian’ or, if he goes to the Catholic church, he calls himself a Catholic or a Pole; sometimes he calls his homeland Lithuania, and sometimes he would simply say that he is ‘tuteishy’ – a local – of course, juxtaposing himself with someone who speaks Great Russian, who would be looked upon as a foreigner in the western region [referring to the geographic position of Belarus, which is to the west of Russia].” For example, a prominent Belarusian poem “Khto ty hetki?” (“Who are you?”), written in 1908 by Belarusian poet and writer Yanka Kupala, begins with:
Who are you?
– I am a native, tuteishy.
The difficulties with national self-identification were also reflected in their language. During the 1897 census of the population of the Russian Empire, when asked for their primary language, people just shrugged and replied: “We speak simply.”
Undoubtedly, a myriad of different ethnic groups have identified themselves as “local” and their language as “ours” or “simple.” However, for the Belarusians, the concept of tuteishy acquired the status of a symbol, evolving from parochialism to national pride. For over a century, tuteishy has remained a controversial topic, as demonstrated by the article “Our tuteishy” published in 1906 and the article “Belarusians: Tuteishy or a Nation?” published in 2010.
In 1922, Yanka Kupala wrote the tragicomedy “Tuteishy”. The protagonist of the play does not care whether he lives under Polish, German, Tsarist Russian or Soviet rule, or whether he is Belarusian or not – as long as there is food and clothing. Among the other characters of the play are two scientists, Eastern and Western, who are disputing which country Belarus belongs to – Russia or Poland. In this 1922 play, tuteishy implies having no principles, being unscrupulous and ready to submissively adapt to any power or ruler and betray the ideals of one’s own nation. The play, by the way, was banned until the 80s.
The definition and common usage of tuteishy began to change some 65 years later, with the beginning of the so-called Second Belarusian Renaissance, which largely repeated the processes of the First Renaissance with the development of the national identity (more on this in our later section on Sviadomy). Tuteishy changed connotations and became almost synonymous with Belarusian self-identification. In 1986, a literary society called “Tuteishy” united Belarusian writers who have since become modern classics. “Ya naradziusya tut” (“I was born here”) is a legendary collaboration album of Belarusian singers recorded in 2000 that was critically acclaimed as “a historical event, not just for Belarusian music culture, but for the country in general”. TUT.by is the main Belarusian news portal. Opened in 2014, the bar “Tuteishy” was the first attempt to “create the national interior design not from clichéd straw, spinning wheels and clay jugs, but from the urban Belarusian culture of the early 20th century.” This list of examples is far from exhaustive.
Meaning: Sir/Madam, Mr.
Spadar is a polite way to address a person in Belarusian (feminine form – spadarynya; or when addressing a group of people – spadarstva). The word spadar itself appeared as a result of the gradual simplification of the word gaspadar (“master, landlord”), analogous to the Russian sudar from gosudar. Linguists have different opinions about the history of this word: its first uses in texts are recorded as early as the end of the Middle Ages, but its use as a direct address most likely began during the WWII German occupation of Belarus – and even then, it was not very widespread.
Over time, the association of spadar with German occupation was erased, and with the dissolution of Soviet ideology, spadar returned to the Belarusian language to replace the departed tavarysh (“comrade”) and gramadzianin (“citizen”), while in the Russian language there remains a semantic gap for these words.
Unlike most forms of address in other European languages, spadar can be used both with only the last name (spadar Yankouski) and, even more often, with only the first name (spadar Yahor); when referring to someone who is absent, a full name can be used as well (spadarynya Nina Bahinskaya).
Meaning: compliance, moderation of temperament, agreeability, patience, conformism
This difficult-to-translate word is commonly believed to be one of the main characteristics of Belarusians. Dictionaries suggest “compliance”, “agreeability”, “humility”, “pliability”, “benevolence”, and “moderation” as translational equivalents, but none of them are quite correct. Somewhat closer in meaning would be “conformism”, “meekness”, “obedience” or even some obscene equivalents. But pamiarkounasts, as a distinctive national trait, is best illustrated by two inside jokes:
1. Scientists decided to conduct an experiment. They put a stool in a dark room with a nail sticking out of it. A Russian sits down and immediately jumps up, curses, and smashes the stool to pieces. A Ukrainian sits down, jumps up, pulls the nail out, and puts it in his pocket, saying: “It will come in handy on the farm.” A Belarusian sits down, slides and fidgets around, then says thoughtfully: “Well, maybe that’s the way it should be?”
2. A German, a Russian and a Belarusian are to be executed by hanging. The German dies immediately; the Russian twitches for a while, but also dies eventually. The Belarusian remains alive and hanging. Eventually, someone asks how he has managed to stay alive. The Belarusian replies: “At first, it felt very very tight, but over time, I got used to it.”
In 2010, the journalist Irina Chernyavko announced a competition to find the best symbol of Belarus that could be manufactured as a refrigerator magnet. All the stereotypical symbols – potato pancakes, storks, prisoner transport vehicles – lost by a landslide to a chair with a nail.
Belarusians love to be ironic about their pamiarkounasts character. A satirical community on social media, “The Party of Pamiarkouny Centrists”, awards an annual prize called “Pamiarkounasts of the Year”. An excerpt from a late 90s television commercial for mental health services – ahulnaya mliavasts i abyakavasts da zhytsya (“general lethargy and indifference to life”) – fits perfectly into the concept of pamiarkounasts and has become a popular catchphrase, which is a rare phenomenon in the Belarusian language. In “Porry Hatter. Nine Feats of Sen Whatif”, the Harry Potter parody by Belarusian writers Andrei Zhvalevsky and Igor Mytko, there is a rare foreign calming spell: “ahulnaya-mliavasts-i-abyakavasts-da-zhytsya.”
Some life principles that are strongly associated with Belarusian mentality are also good examples of pamiarkounasts. Maya khata z krayu (“my house is aside”) means minding one’s own business, especially when not wanting to be involved and get in trouble. Nu vy zhe vsio ponimaete (“You understand everything, don’t you?”) is typically used as a pseudo-polite rebuttal when people question illogical or clearly-unpopular orders. Probably the most important example is aby chaho ne vyshla (“as long as nothing [bad] happens”), which often transforms into aby ne bylo vainy (“as long as there is no war”). This phrase is particularly common among the older generation given the devastating aftermath of WWII for Belarus and a consequent desire for stability. (It is not for nothing that Belarus is often ironically referred to as an Island of Stability – a term coined by Lukashenko.)
During the protests following the rigged presidential election on 9 August 2020, Belarusians created many astonished and ironic memes showing that pamiarkounasts, as it turns out, has its limits [as demonstrated by the recurring mass protests calling for Lukashenko’s removal from office].
4. Shchyry and Hodnasts
Meaning: sincere, heartfelt, diligent
Meaning: goodness, dignity, self-respect
Unlike pamiarkounasts, which has a rather negative connotation, shchyry is the main positive quality of Belarusians and embodies a full set of virtues. Shchyry means “sincere”, “direct”, “open”, and also “cordial” and “hospitable”. A faithful friend is shchyry; an enthusiastic fan is also shchyry; sincere, frank conversations are shchyry; genuine surprise is shchyry as well. If a person is very grateful, he does not just thank, he shchyry-ly thanks; if he works diligently and conscientiously, he works shchyry-ly. Even a forest consisting of the same tree species or unadulterated gold metal are both shchyry. In some usages, however, shchyry may also imply “simple-minded” and “gullible”, which, to some extent, is not a bad trait either. Overall, shchyry means genuine in all respects.
Along with shchyry, there is another defining quality of Belarusians – hodnasts (“goodness”). Godnasts is not only “best before” on a package, but also “dignity” and “self-respect”, the good side of pamiarkounasts. If you must bear your cross, you do so with hodnasts; the songs you sing in the face of danger are full of hodnasts. Belarusians take their shoes off before stepping on benches at a rally – a highly publicised picture from the recent protests – not because of pamiarkounasts (as in, “it is not allowed to step on a bench with your shoes on”), but because of hodnasts (“it is indecent to step on a bench with your shoes on”). And the final stanza of the above-mentioned poem “Khto ty hetki?” (“Who are you?”) is also about hodnasts:
What do you want?
– To not be cattle…
In addition, hodnasts can be used to refer to a title: for example, honorary citizens, PhD-holders, high-ranking clergy and any other prominent and respected members of society.
Kalykhanka is both the lullaby song to put a baby to sleep as well as a children’s television show that broadcasts weeknights on Belarusian state TV, and is fondly remembered by thousands of Belarusians. The show has several recognisable hosts, including puppet characters such as Dzed-Baradzed (“Grandpa Beard”), who is beloved by some children but scares others to tears.
The show usually opens with a short dialogue between the hosts, followed by a cartoon, and concludes with the lullaby song “Douhі dzen” (“A Long Day”) – the chorus “Bayu-bai, Bayu-bai, Vachaniaty zakryvai” (“Bayu-bai, Bayu-bai, Close your eyes”) evokes strong nostalgia for childhood among hundreds of thousands of late and post-Soviet generations of Belarusians. This song was even sung at protests, only with a proposal to “open your eyes”.
Although mova literally translates as “language”, without additional qualifiers, this word is commonly used specifically in reference to the Belarusian language. For example: “How do you say ‘kettle’ in mova?” The word is used in both Russian and Belarusian – it is not uncommon to see comments in the discussion section on news portals ranging from “You annoy me with your mova” (in Russian) to “How nice it is to read news in mova” (in Belarusian).
For the Belarusian-speaking intelligentsia [Belarus has two official state languages] who use the word as it is literally defined, such slang usage is frustrating because it is associated with a colonial way of thinking: let us take a word from the language of aborigines and use it in reference to their language. To them, using the word mova to denote a language sounds completely insane – “How nice it is to read news in language!” – and clearly shows how foreign the native Belarusian language has become to some Belarusians.
A similar phenomenon is the use of Belarusian words in an otherwise Russian context for naming: for example, steam bath and wellness spa “Laznya” (Laznya means steam bath) or coffee shop “Kaviarnya” (Kaviarnya means coffee shop). To Belarusian-speakers, this naming style is reminiscent of the bureaucratic generic names of Soviet canteens and public steam baths.
Another source of disagreements lies within the Belarusian-speaking community itself. The problem is that there are two variants of the Belarusian language (hence, the two versions of Belarusian Wikipedia). The split occurred after the 1933 reform: theoretically, the language update was meant to only affect the orthography of Belarusian, with the intention to simplify spelling because the phonetic nature of pre-reform Belarusian had turned some words into cumbersome giants. However, in reality, the changes covered everything from grammar to vocabulary. Therefore, the disputes among linguistic communities are far from over and range from what version of Belarusian to use – the post-reform variant, which is officially taught in schools but adulterated by Russification, or the pre-reform variant, which is less familiar to most people – to the semantics of particular words. It comes across as the battle of the century: is it worse borrowing from Russian or from Polish; inventing neologisms or reviving archaisms? Is the bus operated by a Russian vadzitsel or a Polish kiroutsa? Do we wear futbolki (derived from Russian), tsishotki (derived from English “T-shirt”, i.e. neologism) or sakolki (finally, a genuine Belarusian word but with a narrow scope of what’s known as a “wife beater”). These examples represent only the tip of the iceberg; there are dozens of subjects for such disputes, and there is no end to them in sight.
Meaning: with the highest degree of brutality, dramatically maximal
The words discussed in the previous sections are all in proper Belarusian, while zhestachaishe is an example of Trasyanka: a mixed Russian-Belarusian speech with mostly Russian grammar and vocabulary and Belarusian pronunciation. Trasyanka emerged after WWII due to the policy of Russification, as well as due to urbanisation: villagers who spoke Belarusian dialects had to move to Russian-speaking cities and tried to speak Russian. They did not manage to achieve pure Russian and passed the mixed speech on to their children, who became the first generation of native Trasyanka speakers.
In Belarusian society, Trasyanka is associated with the lower class, often villagers, poorly educated townspeople or blue-collar factory workers from the suburbs. In the 2000s, Trasyanka also pervaded popular culture. The most famous and pithy representation of the Trasyanka mentality was the satirical adult remake of “Kalykhanka” (“Lullaby”) hosted by two simple-minded characters – Sasha and Sirozha (the latter is Sergei Mikhalok, the leader of the popular Belarusian band, Lyapis Trubetskoy) – discussing urgent problems and giving their simpleton take on topics ranging from wisdom teeth to glamour. The spin-off of the show was a musical album, also in Trasyanka.
The word zhestachaishe is a Trasyanka meme coined and consistently used by Lukashenko. In Russian, zhestachaishe is a superlative of “brutally”. When pronounced with a heavy Belarusian country accent, this captures the essence of Lukashenko’s public persona perfectly – a simple-minded strongman with plain heritage – and it’s not for nothing that his manner of speech has been the object of numerous parodies and stand-up comedy acts. In modern culture, zhestachaishe is used to sarcastically describe superlatives of anything: a zhestachaishe fact is a 100% true fact; zhestachaishe metal is “heavy metal”, implying very good rock music. Even if something goes totally wrong, zhestachaishe can be used to describe this failure: zhestachaishe renovation or zhestachaishe PR. There are multiple examples of memes in the same vein as zhestachaishe, which were unintentionally created by Lukashenko and became cultural references of the era. For example, khto-ta urot in Russian would mean “someone is lying”; however, when pronounced with a country drawl, it sounds like “someone is getting a blowjob”. Another example is peratrakhivats, which is intended to mean “ to sort out / put into order”, but the presidential Trasyanka accent turns it into “to fuck them all”.
Trasyanka is basically a “spell-as-you-hear” language and is often used to mock Lukashenko and his supporters. For example, writer and journalist Ales Piletsky uses Trasyanka as a literary device in his satirical mini-sketches to ridicule presidential phone conversations:
“Alexander Grigorievich [Lukashenko], hello? Can you hear me?”
“Keep talking, keep talking. I am here. What happened there again?”
“Resolution of the European Parliament, Alexander Grigorievich.”
“Revalution in the Europarlamenz? How intseresting.”
The word sviadomy is literally translated as “conscious”, but has acquired an additional connotation over time. Its origin and evolution has a similar path to the Ukrainian svidomy: at the beginning of the 20th century, it was used to describe a person with a high level of cultural awareness and ethnic identity. In fact, the word sviadomy comes from sviadomast (i.e. “consciousness” or “self-awareness”) and has the same root as the Russian word for “cognition”. At the beginning of the 20th century, sviadomy was used to denote nationalists advocating for an independent Belarusian state, the broader use of the Belarusian language, and the development of Belarusian culture. Sviadomy came back into circulation in the late 1980s to early 1990s with the anti-communist democratic protests, gaining the designation of a nationally-oriented intelligentsia.
However, after Lukashenko became president in 1994, he gradually painted sviadomy with negative connotations by contemptuously calling any opposition groups sviadomy. Since then, the presence of this word in news or political analyses in Russian (but not Belarusian) unambiguously reveals the political viewpoint of the speaker. Part of what makes sviadomy such a representative word is this difference in connotation – when spoken in Belarusian, the word evokes positive visions of national identity, while speaking the same word in Russian is intended to evoke negative connotations of an “opposition brainwashed by foreign governments to undermine Lukashenko”.
The story of the word zmahar (“fighter”) is very similar. In Belarusian, it is used neutrally in any contexts, but in the context of heavily propagandistic Russian media, zmahar is used only as an offensive name for the opposition. The neologism zmahar-ism has even been coined specifically for Russian propaganda to claim Belarusian opposition figures are actually dangerous nationalists.
The stereotype of the Belarusians’ love for potatoes is so banal and overused that it is almost embarrassing to discuss it. Nevertheless, this stereotype is not only representative of how people in other countries see Belarusians, but also well grounded within Belarus in jokes and memes about potatoes. The song “Potato aka Bulba” participated in the Belarusian national selection process for the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest; the Belarusian Yandex office published a study titled “Jokes aside: what Belarusians look up on the Internet about potatoes”; social network news community Chai z malinavym varennem (“Tea with raspberry jam”) discusses how Elizabeth II excluded potato from her diet or how some Kyiv residents planted potatoes instead of flowers in their flower beds. A popular idiom that was even adopted by Russians, khavaisya u bulbu (“hide in the potato stalks”) is used, mostly jokingly, when something extremely unpleasant has happened.
Potato dishes are culinary staples in Belarus, with draniki (potato pancakes) being the main national dish. Draniki are made of grated potatoes, can be fried plain or with meat or other fillings, and are traditionally served with smiatana (sour cream). The Belarusian media often informally measures inflation by the potato pancake index. In one case, winter socks that featured draniki and smiatana as an inseparable pair were literally treasure-hunted after they quickly sold out in Belarusian Mark Formelle stores. The disputes over draniki recipes seem to never die down – should it be with or without flour, with or without onions, but never without smiatana! The question of the correct draniki recipe is so serious that it was even posed to candidates of the 2020 presidential election. When discussing presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka’s answer, Euroradio summed it up thus: “The hearts of those who cannot imagine draniki without flour, eggs or onions are now forever broken. Because one cannot joke around with draniki – it is a serious business. Draniki are sacred!”
It may be unusual to find the country’s name on the list of words that define the national mentality and culture. Nevertheless, this is precisely the case.
In September 1991, when the country was still a part of the Soviet Union, a law stating that the country should henceforth be called Belarus was adopted, and the name should no longer be translated but transliterated into other languages from this proper name. Some languages easily adopted this rule: in English, the former Byelorussia (hence the .by domain), or Belorussia, quickly changed to Belarus, though it took a little longer for the language to be referred to properly as “Belarus-ian” and not “Belo-russian”. In 1995, official Russian-language Belarusian state documents used Belarus as the country’s name. In Russia, nevertheless, the new name was never adopted. Other countries still keep the old transliteration of the Russian name – Biélorussie in French, and Weißrussland in German – which is literally translated as “White Russia”. This name began to be abandoned internationally in 2020 after the fraudulent presidential election, when the subsequent nation-forming protests received strong international support.
For the majority of Belarusians, especially those born after the 1980s, Belorussia sounds outdated, and the Russians who use this variant are often perceived as disrespectful and even expressing imperial ambitions of the Soviet Union. For many Russians, this naming has little to do with their political views and is only a matter of habit and spelling tradition. Spelling the country’s name as Belarus has recently posed another linguistic issue of the derivatives of the word in Russian: according to the orthographic rules, since the country’s name in Russian is Belorussia, the adjective to describe the language and nationality is Belorussian. Nevertheless, Russian-speaking media in Belarus have been increasingly using Belarusian instead of outdated Belorussian.
A myriad of social media disputes over the correct spelling, with each side presenting a tad under 10 arguments in favour of their variant, have become so culturally significant that this phenomenon acquired a derogatory name – bulba-srach (“potato-shitshow”). In August 2020, with the start of the post-election protests in Belarus, some Russian media outlets and supporters of the protesters opted to use the spelling preferred by Belarusians – Belarus and Belarusian. The Russian poet Lev Rubinstein gracefully called this gesture “spelling empathy”.
Meaning: table drawer
All the Belarusian words mentioned above come either from the Belarusian language or from Trasyanka. There is, however, another type of word origin – linguistic regionalism. It is no secret that for many Belarusians, Russian is the first language used in everyday life. The Russian language spoken in Belarus – as in Russian regions – somewhat differs from the literary norm. In addition to the Belarusian accent of varying strength, which is present among the residents of small towns and older generations, there are several dozen so-called regionalisms that do not occur or hardly occur outside of Belarus. Many Belarusian people do not even suspect that most regionalisms are not all-Russian words. The most famous example is shufliadka, a “table drawer”. Other examples very relevant to current events in the country include khapun (“mass arrests by the police”) and tikhar (“security officer in civilian clothes”).
Some of these regionalisms came into the language of Russian-speaking Belarusians from the Belarusian language itself, or from Polish and German (shufliadka is a prime example of it), while others originated directly from the Russian language but preserved a narrow regional span.
Meaning: Harvest Festival
Dazhynki is a celebration of the end of the harvesting season, literally meaning da- (“finishing”) the zhniva (“scything the crops”), similar to the Russian variants of Obzhinki, Otzhinki, and Pozhinki. In Belarus, the celebration tradition has been popular since ancient times, and was even preserved during Soviet times.
In modern day Belarus, the celebration of Dazhynki has been scaled up to the state level. Every year, the festival designates six “capitals”, one in each of the administrative regions of Belarus, and the entire stupendous might of state support is deployed in festive preparations. The celebration itself – which includes award ceremonies for the winners of various agricultural competitions, folk craft and artisanal exhibitions, processions of workers of various state enterprises, a rally with the President, and festive decorations (such as clichéd figurines made of straw or the Belarusian state emblem made of vegetables and sausages) – usually becomes a subject of ruthless ridicule and sarcastic mocking.
The propensity of the state apparatus for these kinds of celebrations got its name – agro-trash. Similar names for other phenomena with similar aesthetics appeared, such as agro-style, agro-glamour, and agro-renaissance. The agro- part of all these words comes from the word agronomy and entered the Belarusian vocabulary in the mid-2000s with the government attempt to revive and modernise declining Belarusian villages and small towns by transforming them into agro-gorodok (“agricultural towns”), followed by the nationwide promotion of agricultural tourism. Agrotrash, however, is not necessarily associated only with rural life. It encompasses a broader mentality expressed in ostentatiously and tackily decorated houses (a similar phenomenon in Russia is known as “collective farm chic”), buildings painted in some hideous colours, state-organised mobile truck exhibits of “achievements in national production” with displays of toilets and bathtubs right in the city centers, creating clichéd low quality souvenirs, and so on.
The antonym of agrotrash can be described by the Belarusian adjective vykshtaltsony. This word was borrowed from the Polish word wykształcony, originally meaning “educated”. Adopted into the Belarusian context and language, it acquired a whole range of connotations that roughly correspond to the Russian concepts of “elegant”, “graceful”, “tasteful”, “sophisticated”, “delicate”, and “refined”.
The author shchyry-ly thanks Yana Vladyko, Maria Badei, Maria Aksyuchits, Yulia Golyak, Lyubov Vylinskaya and Alena Pyatrovich for their invaluable advice and support while preparing the article.