I remember watching how little Odrija, granddaughter of the lady of the house, was reading a book in Latvian with her grandmother. I communicated with Odrija only with gestures – the girl does not know a word of Russian, while I did not understand anything in Latvian. Odrija is very active, it is very difficult to keep her in one place, and after a few minutes, Audrey left her reading and ran upstairs to her room, which was full of toys. So the cardboard book about animals came into my hands.
There were many pictures in it, but few words, which is often the case in publications intended for pre-school children. "Exactly what is needed to start learning Latvian," I joked to myself and opened a page. It showed a beautiful squirrel and next to it was written: squirrel. I was both surprised and pleased. It is interesting how it is: as if we are different nations, but in Belarusian the name of squirrel is вавёрка , almost the same as in Latvian (vāvere).
Before the events of 2020, when the peaceful protests in Belarus against the bogus presidential elections were brutally suppressed by the "self-elected" government and many Belarusians were forced to leave their homes, fearing political persecution, the inhabitants of Latvia could barely have imagined that the citizens of the neighboring country would find refuge here.
It's asylum in the literal sense – in the status of refugees.
It might seem that Belarus is a country geographically located in the center of Europe, with a large proportion of the population with higher education and historically based on Western European values. It is now the case that Belarusian state history and ideology textbooks are rewritten every year, guided by the "current political agenda": the State of the Union; big brother Russia; Russian-speaking as a sign of loyalty to the regime (yes, in Belarus it is now dangerous to speak one's native language, it is administrative, but in some cases also criminally punishable).
But even 30 years ago (yes, there has been a dictatorship in Belarus for almost that long), children learned from white-red-white textbooks in the colors of the historical flag (it is now considered "extremist"), which described the times of the Polotsk and Turov principalities, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Rzeczpospolita... When the Belarusians, together with their Western European neighbors, distanced themselves from the predatory principality of Moscow, as best they could.
As we can see, hundreds of years pass, but events do not change – only now, Belarus, which is barely breathing and is pressed by the imperial boot of Putin, stands on the other side of the barricades together with dictatorial Russia.
Those who do not agree – and there are many tens of thousands of them – are either in prison, convicted by politically-motivated courts, or have left, or are forced to remain silent and live in constant fear that people in black without identification tags can break into their homes at any moment.
As a result, Latvia has become a second home for some Belarusians. I am one of them. And when we held a demonstration with Belarusian political prisoners on the International Day of Solidarity, standing with their portraits at the Freedom Monument, one of the most touching phrases for us was "Thank you, Latvia!". We finished it with tears in our eyes. And next to me stood a girl from Ukraine, and in this chain of solidarity we stood shoulder to shoulder.
What do our two peoples have in common, Belarusians and Latvians (when I say "Latvians", I mean all Latvian residents without exception), and why do we really feel at home here?
We are good neighbors and we share a lot in history. There is a theory about the Baltic origin of the Belarusian ethnicity, according to which the Slavic tribes, coming to the territory of modern Belarus, mixed with the ancient Balts living there – the Yatvings. Whether it is true is hard to say because it was so long ago.
During the Soviet era, only one theory was recognized: Greater Russia. Its name speaks for itself.
Common words, different languages
At first glance, it seems that the Belarusian and Latvian languages are not similar at all. This is also what formal science says: Belarusian belongs to the Eastern Slavic languages, while Latvian belongs to the Eastern Baltic designation.
However, let's not think about that now. If you look more closely at our languages, it will turn out that they have several common words that are not characteristic of the Russian language, which is considered to be more closely related to the Belarusian language.
See for yourself:
- Latvian vavere (squirrel), Russian белка, Belarusian вавёрка (vaviorka)
- Latvian talka (collective cleaning), Russian "делать что-то колективно, вместе" (to do something collectively, together), Belarusian талака (talaka)
- Latvian trusis (rabbit), Russian krolik, Belarusian trus (trus)
- Latvian mirgot (to blink), Russian мелькать, Belarusian миргаць, мигцець (mirhać, mihcieć)
- Latvian kaija (gull), рус. чайка, Belarusian кирля (kirlia)
The Belarusian language even has two spelling variants in the Latin alphabet and several more in Cyrillic. Latin letters do not scare Belarusians, they have been familiar with them since the beginning of the 20th century.
Another observation I made after living in Latvia for two years: traditional ancient beliefs (ancestor days, solstice, holy springs, oaks and stones), as well as national folklore, folk art, are still of great importance to both our peoples. Land is a sacred concept for both Latvians and Belarusians. We are people of the earth, peasants, homesteaders, and this defines our worldview and way of life.
There are just over nine million Belarusians and just under two million Latvians. Throughout our history we have been fighting for freedom from empires. Latvians managed to gain full independence, Belarusians not yet. However, the Latvian nation is an example for us of endurance, love of freedom, as well as love for all that is ours.