Poland & Belarus: Twin Experiences
default, Poland & Belarus:
Twin Experiences, Holy Trinity Cathedral in Hajnówka, photo: Wojciech Pacewicz / PAP, center, #000000, cerkiew_hajnowka_1_pap.jpg
During these days of dramatic events, it’s worth reminding ourselves that Poland is connected to its eastern neighbour not only through the national colours – but also through shared national heroes, an intertwined literary tradition, and a similar dream of freedom.
There are many reasons for Polish-Belarusian solidarity. Not only were Poland and Belarus once joined as one nation, with the same kings and national heroes, but they were also connected through common values and cultural codes. This is why the two countries’ cultural maps are full of shared places of significance. Poland and Belarus have had, to a large extent, parallel existences – in each of their histories, the other can recognize another version of its own fate. We present here 10 pieces of evidence that Polish and Belarusian cultures are much more intertwined than you might know.
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1. Colours & symbols
Before this shared history materialised in the form of a common state called the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Belarus had its own Principality of Polotsk, and then the multi-ethnic Grand Duchy of Lithuania – in which Old Ruthenian culture and language played a key role. It was in this language that the Statutes of Lithuania were written, and it is the Grand Duchy of Lithuania which constitutes the paradigm of statehood and political independence for today’s more patriotic Belarusians.
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Because they were once joined as one country, Poles and Belarusians are united today by national colours and symbols. One of these is Belarus’s white-red-white flag. It’s considered a legitimate symbol of Belarusian statehood in opposition to the red-and-green flag, which has origins dating back to the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (introduced in 1951). The white-red-white colours are connected to those of the emblem of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – the Pahonia. A flag with these colours is said to have first appeared during the Battle of Grunwald, in which the allied forces of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania defeated the Teutonic Knights. Such colours were also present on the fields of subsequent battles, such as the Battle of Orsha in 1514.
2. Material & cultural heritage of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
Poland and Belarus (as well as Lithuania) are linked by a common, once-powerful state existing from the Union of Krevo in 1385 until the partitions in 1795. Over 400 years of coexistence meant not only a shared territory stretching to the east as far as Smoleńsk, but also a common cultural and political tradition (a republican tradition, regional councils, and a ‘noblemen’s democracy’).
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The material relics of this country include many monuments such as palaces and castles of Belarusian magnates (Mir, Nesvizh), manor houses of noble families, and historic churches located throughout the territory of present-day Belarus.
One of the most important places for this shared Polish-Belarusian historical tradition is the Old Castle in Grodno. Built on a high bank of the Neman River, it was the seat of Polish kings. It was here that Kazimierz Jagiellończyk died in 1484 and Stefan Batory in 1586, and that sessions of the lower parliament of the commonwealth were held. Nearby in the New Castle, the last parliament session took place 1793, which sealed the second partition of Poland and symbolically ended the history of Poland and Belarus’s unified statehood.
Another aspect of this shared tradition is something less tangible – a spiritual heritage. Some of the phenomena that Poles have come to regard as defining their history – such as a multi-ethnic, pluralistic and tolerant society – also define the history of Belarus to an equal (if not higher) extent. Ethnic and religious minorities settled in the Belarusian territories, historically called Lithuania, such as the Tatars, who were Muslims, and the Crimean Karaites, who belonged to a faction of Judaism. The Reformation (Calvinism and the Polish Brethren) flourished here. There were many shtetls in which Jews lived for centuries, and where the following notable figures were born in the 20th century: Marc Chagall, Michał Waszyński, Shimon Peres, Paul Baran and Noam Chomsky’s mother.
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The year 1918 can be regarded as a symbolic moment for this multicultural tradition. The short-lived Belarusian state established at that time – the Belarusian People’s Republic, which survived only a few months – had four official languages: Belarusian, Polish, Russian and Yiddish. It was then that the first white-red-white flags flew over Minsk.
4. Colonial experience
In the 19th century, the Belarusian lands were entirely within the borders of the Russian Empire. The local culture and identity were under constant pressure, which intensified even further during repercussions after uprisings (especially the January Uprising). Like Poles, Belarusians had to face oppression by a foreign power and find ways to preserve their identity. As in Poland, culture was a weapon in the struggle for the preservation of identity, and its vehicle – the native language.
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In this first phase of the Belarusian awakening, a major role was played by activists and authors of Polish origin such as Jan Barscheuski (Jan Barszczewski) and Francišak Bahuševič (Franciszek Bahuszewicz). The latter was the first modern author to use the term Białoruś (Belarus), and he called himself a Belarusian. He was also aware that the struggle to preserve the native language was crucial for the survival of the nation. He wrote: ‘Do not forsake our Belarusian tongue, so that you (yourselves) shall not die.’ Poles understood this situation – after all, they were in a very similar position during the Russian and Prussian partitions. This is why Bahuševič’s books were smuggled into Belarusian lands, for example by Józef Piłsudski.
This ‘colonial’ experience and struggle for national identity, culture and language did not end for Belarusians with the fall of tsarism. After a short period of ‘korenisation’ in the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic, when Belarusian culture was able to develop, waves of repression followed in the 1930s – including Stalinist purges of the Belarusian intelligentsia (1937) and mass murders of the civilian population (e.g. in Kuropaty near Minsk, between the years of 1937 and 1941). Even after World War II, a policy of intense Russification was applied to Belarus, as a result of which, on the threshold of independence in 1989, the Belarusian language and culture had to be recreated almost from scratch.
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5. Shared literary heritage
Shared Polish-Belarusian history also means a common culture – artists who can be regarded as belonging to both traditions, such as the composers Stanisław Mtoniuszko and Michał Kelofas Ogiński, whom both nations claim as their own. These interdependencies are particularly fascinating in the field of literature.
Thanks to a common perspective that is outlined, for example, by Lavon Barscheuski, we can see the Belarusian tradition in the work of writers whom Poles include amongst Poland’s literary figures. We can see Belarusian motifs in the biography of the Renaissance poet Mikołaj Hussowczyk (the author of Carmen de Statura Feritate ac Venatione Bisontis [Song of the Bison]), find traces of customs from the time of the commonwealth in Adam Mickiewicz’s Forefathers’ Eve and inspiration from the Polesia region in works by Adam Naruszewicz, and discover elements of the Belarusian baroque in the Polish-language works of Józef Baka and Franciszek Kniaźnin.
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At the same time, we can see how Polish culture influenced the greatest Belarusian poets, such as Vincent Dunin-Marcinkievič, Yakub Kolas and Yanka Kupala – who wrote his first poems in Polish.
6. Mickiewicz & Polish Romanticism with a Belarusian spirit
What’s known as ‘Polish Romanticism’ is perhaps the most unusual phenomenon in the realm of Polish-Belarusian influences. Mickiewicz initiated this trend in literature with his book Ballads and Romances in 1822, in which folk motifs played an important role. It is not often remembered in Poland that these were motifs from the Belarusian people who lived in the town of Navahrudak and the surrounding areas, where Mickiewicz grew up. Mickiewicz’s ballads are very often poems directly inspired by material drawn from local (Belarusian) oral tradition (as evidenced by a frequently added note: ‘from a common song’), and woven from legends about a city submerged in a lake, water-dwelling rusalki (nymphs), and wandering pipers.
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Mickiewicz shared his interest in local folklore with his fellow members of the Philomath Society, many of whom had been raised in Belarusian culture. Some, such as Tomasz Zan and Jan Czeczot, recited poems in Belarusian during the society’s meetings.
We can find many Belarusian elements in the language of Poland’s national bard. Even at the end of his poetic journey, after many years in foreign lands, Mickiewicz added to the manuscript of lyrics he composed while staying in Lausanne in the years 1839 to 1840: ‘I see this water all around / And I reflect everything faithfully’.
Belarusians still wonder, to this day, if Mickiewicz wrote any works in Belarusian. According to Professor Mikołaj Chaustowicz, the only lines by Mickiewicz which can be established with any certainty to have been written in Belarusian are in the margin of an encyclopaedia he was reading during his stay in Paris: ‘Na Bożym sudzie – usim u sraku budzie!’ [‘At the Last Judgment, we’ll all get our arses kicked!’] Such a prophet!
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7. Common heroes: Kastuś Kalinoŭski (Konstanty Kalinowski)
Polish-Belarusian history is comprised of the stories of shared heroes, such as Mickiewicz and Tadeusz Kościuszko. The latter, considered to be a hero of three nations, came from a Polonized Belarusian family, and his great-grandfather belonged to the Eastern Orthodox Church.
One of the most interesting figures in shared Polish-Belarusian history is Konstanty Kalinowski (1838-1864) – or, as the Belarusians call him: Kastuś Kalinoŭski. This nobleman from Svislach was devoted to the peasant cause and published the first Belarusian-language newspaper (Mużyckaja Prauda). His participation in the January Uprising, which is called the Kalinoŭsky Uprising in Belarus, led to him being arrested by the Russians and taken to Vilnius, where he was tried and hanged on the order of Governor Muravyov.
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Kalinoŭski’s last words, spoken to the official who read out his sentence and referred to him as a ‘nobleman’, were: ‘There are no noblemen in Belarus. We are all equal’. His body was buried in a mass grave in the Vilnius citadel, and his steadfast attitude and ideals about the struggle ‘for our freedom and yours’ remain, to this day, a living example of political commitment to the struggle for independence.
Kalinoŭski’s remains were buried in Vilnius during an official ceremony in 2019 attended by the presidents of Poland and Lithuania as well as throngs of Belarusians. His Letter from Beneath the Gallows, written while he was in prison, is used nowadays in national Belarusian spelling competitions.
8. The Belarusian alphabet
Like Poland, Belarus has been situated between more-powerful neighbours throughout most of its history. Unfortunately, in the case of Belarus, one of these stronger neighbours was Poland. The rebirth of Polish statehood after World War I, which for Poles was a long-awaited dream come true, meant for Belarusians yet another division of their lands. A peace treaty between Poland and the Bolsheviks in Riga led to Western Belarus becoming part of the Second Polish Republic, and to the establishment of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic in the east.
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Throughout this entire 20-year period, the Polish government attempted to assimilate the Belarusian minority (1.3 to 1.9 million people), which met with resistance. Branislaw Tarashkyevich (Bronisław Taraszkiewicz) can be regarded as a symbol of this resistance – but also of the tragic choices faced by the Belarusian intelligentsia.
This eminent linguist, translator (of Homer and Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz, for example) and Belarusian grammarian became a member of parliament in the Second Polish Republic. He was arrested in Poland for his activities in defence of the Belarusian minority population and was deported to the Soviet Union in 1933 – where he was shot several years later during the Stalinist purges that decimated the Belarusian intelligentsia.
Tarashkyevich’s most significant contribution is the codification of spelling rules for the Belarusian language and its alphabet (known informally as the ‘Tarashkyevich alphabet’). This alphabet is still used by Belarusians, especially those living outside of Belarus, and has remained a clear expression of patriotism among them (and opposition to the Soviet spelling variant).
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9. People of the borderlands
Clearer evidence of the coexistence of the two nations can be found today in the mixed population still inhabiting the Polish-Belarusian borderlands. Having survived in spite of all the adversities of the 20th century (mass deportations, repression, purges), they continue to cultivate their traditions. While Poles live primarily in the western region of Belarus, Belarusians live on the Polish side mainly in the Podlasie region (in such towns as Białystok, Bielsk Podlaski and Hajnówka). The most important centres of Belarusian culture in Poland include Villa Sokrates in Krynki and the Museum of the Little Homeland in Studziwody, near Bielsko. Nowadays, however, Belarusians live and work throughout Poland, where they play an important role in Poland’s economy and cultural life.
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10. Walls & Solidarity
Poland and Belarus’s shared history still continues today, and traces of mutual inspiration can be seen beyond the border that now separates Belarus from Poland and the European Union. Common musical themes and motifs can be seen in the work of the Belarusian bard Dzmitryj Wajciuszkiewicz, who sings poems by Rafał Wojaczek in both Belarusian and Polish; in 2013, his album was selected as Album of the Year in Belarus. Another example of such cross-border cooperation is a music video by the band NRM made in cooperation with a Polish artist, Paweł Althamer.
For many years, concerts of Belarusian music have been organized in Poland, such as Basóvišča (Music Festival of Young Belarus) and Solidarity with Belarus, the latter organized by the Free Belarus Initiative. Perhaps it is also thanks to this close contact that a version of Jacek Kaczmarski’s song Walls could be heard at protests in Belarus against the rigged election in August 2020, translated into Belarusian by Andrei Khadanovich.
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This song, which became a powerful anthem during the Solidarity movement in Poland in the early 1980s, was performed in August 2020 at the gate of the Gdańsk shipyard by Jacek Kleyff. The Belarusian lyrics were sung by Nasta Niakrasava, while the word ‘solidarity’ was shown behind the artists, written in Cyrillic. It would be hard to find something that links Polish and Belarusian history in a more symbolic way – or that could serve as a better opening for future relations.
Originally written in Polish by Mikołaj Gliński, translated by Scotia Gilroy, Sep 2020