Diary of a Belarusian journalist in Latvia, Part 2

Once, when I – a Belarusian refugee in Latvia – was on a train from Rīga to Tukums, which has become my home in the two years I have lived in Latvia, an elderly woman approached me in the carriage. Dressed simply, with a flowery scarf on her head, she reminded me of my paternal grandmother, who was born in the Voronezh region. She came over and tried to ask me something… in English.

I was very surprised and answered her in Russian: "What did you say?" The issue was eventually resolved, but it started me thinking – it turned out that I know several languages, they exist peacefully side by side in my head, but my native language is still Belarusian. And why did the woman address me in English when we both obviously understand Russian?

Everything will be fine – or "Всё будет хорошо"?

Without a doubt, the best thing that happened to me in my life is Latvia, which undoubtedly accepted me and became my refuge. In all the time that I have lived here, I personally have never once had a question not answered in a store or been helped in some institution. Even though I am actively learning Latvian, I have passed the tests at the B1 level in a year and a half, but I still speak it poorly and switch to English or Russian, which is easier for me. More often Russian, because the Belarusian language is not understood here. (With Ukrainians, we each speak our native language and understand each other perfectly.)

Many emotions and memories were stirred up in me by Danuta Dembovska's recent broadcast "The air inside society is stale" which debted the place for the Russian language and culture in Latvia, with Aleksejs Yevdokimovs and Denis Hanovs participating.

I would really like for the fact that my mother tongue is Belarusian to stop being a political tool, like any other language for any other representative of any nation.

[I'd like it if] everyone has a free choice of lifestyle, native language and ideological views. This is also what a democratic society strives for. However, in my personal case the truth is clear – if you don't deal with politics, soon politics will deal with you. If you are not interested in your native culture and language, then quite quickly a foreign language and a foreign culture will take over you. This is shown by the example of the residents of the occupied territories of Eastern Ukraine. Moreover, during the almost 30 years of the dictatorial regime, I watched my Belarus lose itself in the clutches of "big brother", and it breaks my heart that there is no way I can free it from this iron grip.

Watching the documentary about the Russian-speaking population of Latvia "Everything will be fine" created conflicting impressions in me, but especially the conversation with the director, Stanislavs Tokalovs, in a relaxed atmosphere that allowed free discussion. Using the example of his family, Stanislavs shows the conceptual conflict in Latvian society, the opposite attitudes towards the Soviet past in completely different cultural codes, in different languages: three generations of women – grandmothers, mothers and sisters. After watching the film, I realized that local residents on opposite sides of ideological barricades still have a chance to reconcile. The director's goal to reach people with different visions of the future of their common homeland – Latvia, and to help them take steps towards each other – is achievable.   

Cult of life v Cult of death

As a child, I had no choice in what language to speak and what events to attend. Everything was decided long before I was born, because I was born in the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. At first, I was only a person of Russian culture simply because there was no access to another culture. I had no idea that anything else existed. At the same time, when I was in elementary school, I did not understand at all why we should march in line and be dressed the same way on May 9.

My school was located in Victory Square in Minsk, next to the monument. We were excused from class to participate in the rehearsals, and we lined the main avenue, creating a mass spectacle for the parade of troops. We stood like soldiers, all buttons buttoned, in the hot sun for several hours. Sometimes I felt the button bite into my throat and the simple red carnations seemed to melt in my hands.

After returning from captivity, my grandmother never told me about the war or her past in general. She was just silent, her lips tightly pursed as the footage of the war chronicle was shown on the TV. It was a ban on pain, memories of the horrors experienced. Even then I instinctively understood that the cult of life was more important than the cult of death.  

My mother, having moved from the countryside to the city at the age of 17, denied her roots in every way, because the Russian language was "city", and the native Belarusian language - "country", kolkhoz". The formed stereotype (from the state ideology of the Soviet era) has influenced my people so much that many people are still ashamed of their origins.

Why should it be considered bad to be a man of the earth? I am sure that Latvians (in this case, I mean all residents of Latvia without exception) are very familiar with this story.

And if it weren't for the random voice of blood, when the first book I read in my life became the "Tales of the Belarusian people" taken from the shelf, my fate would have been completely different. I could not learn to read for a long time, I did not understand anything from the Russian alphabet. I really tried, but it didn't work. Mother was furious. I cried. Once I just picked up another book, opened it and started reading it. It contained painfully familiar words that echoed in me. How I knew them, I did not understand. I just liked them as music.

Already later, when years had passed, when I had grown up and become a philologist, I found out that my native language was included in the UNESCO Red Book as endangered. This is not surprising – it is taught in schools according to the methodology of a foreign language, as if it were foreign to Belarusian children.       

Sing and dance, Latvia!

For small nations, the number of people who speak the mother tongue assumes colossal importance, as it is a matter of preserving the nation, as such. When speaking with representatives of large nations, for example with people from Latin America, I have encountered their surprise and question: "Why is it so important for you to preserve your language, why do you carry it like a flag and fight for it like lions? For us, the whole continent [Brazil excepted – Ed.] speaks Spanish, it is not a problem and it is not a cause of social conflicts."

My answer was simple - we are few. A mother tongue is practically the only element that cements our nation. Without it, the larger nation will swallow us up. Will swallow, lick its lips and not even notice our disappearance.

And the smaller the nation, the more importance traditional culture, folk beliefs and language acquire. It is a pledge of survival and prosperity.

That's why I watched the Song and Dance Festival with great interest this year, especially since it was my first time visiting it. The unity and solidarity of the participants, when the chorus of many thousands of singers and spectators turn into one common voice, creates genuine excitement. Latvians can do it, but we Belarusians don't know how to do it yet. Sing and dance, Latvia! And know that you are an example for me.

You can also read this piece in Belarusian HERE, in Russian HERE and in Latvian HERE.

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