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26 Nov

Ewa Zwierzyńska (Poland)
Czasopis, 5.9.2014

Mova nanova - kursy patrioyzmu/Mova nanova — a course of patriotism

A little room is filled with people to the brim. Latecomers are crowded near the door, there is only standing room for them. There are about 50 people at the meeting, mostly youth, but there are also a couple of older people and even whole families. Since meetings started in March this year, these courses have been very popular. The atmosphere in the room is casual and cheerful. It is mainly due to the lecturers, as they are enthusiastic and keen on their work. They all speak Belarusian and breathe freedom which allows them to speak their native language freely. This joy may be compared to the joy that one feels after coming back home.

Each session has its main topic and today’s meeting is focused on poetry. But first, there is a special block for the youngest ones. Kids are watching “Peppa Pig” in Belarusian and then, they learn politeness formulas: “good morning”, “thank you”, “I’m sorry”. Each one of them receives a picture to color. They revise the names of the seasons, months and then they compose poems about the days of the week. The lecturers prepared many multimedia resources: videos, audio files, songs. The young ones prepared a project on the Belarusian poet Rygor Baradulin. When his poetry was being read aloud, at a certain moment, everyone stood up and continued reciting his poem all together: "Hatowy usio addać, i tym bahaty, my Biełarusy, My narod taki". The atmosphere in the room became solemn and formal. The words by Igar Kuźmich about the sinking in the Belarusian world turned out to be meaningful. These meetings not only allow learning the language, but also practicing Belarusian patriotism.

Free of charge, social Belarusian language courses for everyone who is interested were launched in Minsk in January 2014. The idea belongs to the philologist Alesia Litvinouskaya and the journalist Gleb Labadzenka. The courses are to teach the language in an interesting, easy, and informal way, based on the interaction with the participants with the use of modern multimedia. From the very start, they have been very popular. Each weekly meeting in Minsk has hundreds of participants. Shortly, similar courses were organized in large Belarusian cities: Baranavichy, Grodna, Nesvizh, and Gomel. On social networking sites, the courses are advertised as “trendy”. They are advertised this way on purpose as the organizers want to break stereotypes concerning the Belarusian language that is considered by most of the Belarusians “inferior” and associated with villages and state farms. They would like the Belarusian language to become trendy among the young and to be considered the language of intellectuals, open-minded people, and those who are attached to their cultural heritage. The courses “Mova nanova” are to satisfy the demand of the part of Belarusian society that is interested in nourishing the national identity.


The situation with the Belarusian language is dramatic and it is getting worse. UNESCO considers Belarusian to be an endangered language. During the ten years between the two censuses of 1999 and 2009, the proportion of people speaking Belarusian at home decreased from 37% to 23%. The latest census showed that, Belarusian was considered a native tongue by 53% of Belarusians, down by 20 points from the previous census. The share of people still speaking Belarusian is even smaller: in the recent three years, it decreased from 5.8 to 3.9%. Although Belarusian is one of the two official languages besides Russian, it was practically smothered by it. In the public life, in offices, in the media, and in the streets, people speak mainly Russian. A similar situation is observed at schools where Belarusian has the same status as foreign languages.

Only 16.4% of students in Belarus study in Belarusian, which was shown by an opinion poll conducted by the Belstat central statistical office, and Belarusian-speaking kindergartens are only attended by 11.4% of children. It is even worse in universities, with only 700 students studying in their native language, which amounts to 0.2% of the total. This is a lot less than 3 years ago, when 20% of school-age children and 0.9% of students studied in Belarusian.

Ostracism and lack of social approval discourage people to speak Belarusian on a daily basis. Igar Kuźminicz speaks directly of discrimination of the Belarusian language — the Belarusian language is of course not banned, it is officially considered a national language, but in practice, there are various problems when it comes to using it: for example, in public offices people are asked not to bring documents in Belarusian, there is no reaction to complaints submitted in Belarusian and there are many other smaller issues concerning the language, and as a result, Belarusian is in a worse position. In Grodna, there is no school, not even a class, in which lessons are conducted in Belarusian. To create such a class, a school needs signatures of at least 20 parents. We were able to receive much more but the class was not created. The fact that one needs to collect signatures to enable children to learn in Belarusian in Belarus means that the language is discriminated. I speak only Belarusian, even if someone is addressing me in Russian. I have observed a clearly negative reaction only once, in a public office. An office worker asked if I am not ashamed to stubbornly answer in Belarusian when she speaks Russian to me. Then I asked if she wasn’t ashamed to speak Russian to me when I address her in Belarusian. This is my country. Where should I speak Belarusian if not in my country? She was shocked. For the first time, she realized that I had the right to use my native language in my country.

How does society treat people speaking Belarusian on a daily basis? Society is usually indifferent, but to speak Belarusian one still needs to conquer their fears and have courage. The young people attending our courses “Mova nova” are little heroes, like Ganna and Kasia, 19-year-old medical students. “We want to oppose the opinion spread in Belarus that the Belarusian language is used only by state farm dwellers or members of the opposition who are looked down on in society. We want to show that educated people from cities also speak Belarusian and that this is noble for us. Sometimes we try to speak Belarusian in day to day situations but it is very difficult because our people in our surroundings speak mainly Russian and this is quite a barrier.

 I tried to speak only Belarusian at the university, says Kasia, I addressed my colleagues in this language, I used to answer the questions asked by lecturers, but was able to do so only for two weeks. All handbooks are written in Russian and using Belarusian was even harder because of this. People reacted in various ways, lecturers usually had a positive attitude as well as my colleagues, but some people were aggressive and they claimed that I should speak the same language “as everyone”, which meant Russian. 

A 23-year-old student of history, who took part in the “Mova nova” courses for the first time, claims that he is a living proof that the Belarusian language undergoes a revival. He speaks Belarusian when talking to his grandmother in the village and sometimes with colleagues, but he wants to use it more frequently. “I am a Belarusian and I should speak Belarusian, as our poet Frantsishak Bagushevich once said: “Don’t resign from our Belarusian speech, because otherwise you will die”. If we forget our language, we will forget our identity and who we are,” he adds.

“Young people who come here are special and unique, Volga Astrouskaya shares her impressions. They are very enthusiastic and they really want to speak Belarusian! They inspire me to work and to them I want to give more and more. Our classes are like a self-propelled machine of collective giving and taking. The Belarusian language is so rich that you can take from it without any limits, like from a black hole, and there is always something to talk about or to show. I can see this when I prepare materials for the next class, the topics will never end! When I bring up one topic, another one appears, and there are always new ideas. I have noticed a great potential in this also when it comes to my personal development. Most of all, we want to show the young that they should not be afraid to speak Belarusian. Here, they are not afraid or ashamed and I have noticed that when they are in the street, they still use the language and bring it to shops, libraries and homes. The most important thing for them is to become good people. We don’t want to consider Belarusian identity and the Belarusian in a narrow and nationalistic context but we think that being Belarusian means being a good person. We want to tell them about prominent Belarusians, about their lifestyle and behavior so they, on one hand, can sustain their language and the Belarusian identity and on the other, remember about values and morality. Our schools are trying to bring up the young in the spirit of patriotism but this patriotism is based on different things, mainly on the cult of the Great Patriotic War.

The “Mova nanova” language courses are one of the most important and popular initiatives in Belarus that promote the native language but it is not the only one. There are some other initiatives suggesting an increased interest in the language. In 2012, an act was enforced, according to which office workers have to answer questions in the language of the question, and the ministry of trade demanded that every restaurant should have menus in Belarusian as well. There are also private initiatives like the one launched by a private entrepreneur from Gomel-based “Slavia” furniture maker: he offers a 10% discount for each buyer who makes his or her order in Belarusian. Internet communities promote an initiative to leave books in Belarusian in public transport every Thursday so that passengers can read them. The campaign “Budzma Belarusami” also contributes to the popularization of the Belarusian language and every year it organizes a festival of Belarusian advertisement. This trend is becoming more and more popular and companies like Adidas, Samsung and Renault started producing their advertisements in Belarusian. An advertisement in Belarusian used by the Ministry of Culture has been trying to convince Belarusians to use their native language for a couple of years now — they made billboards with phrases like: "Mama = mowa. Kochasz mamę?" (“Mother=Speech. Do you love your mother?”). Igar Kuźmicz is full of criticism when it comes to the influence of these billboards on the awareness of the younger generations and he sees in them only a desire to advertise support for the Belarusian language without taking any practical action. “Posters like this are a positive phenomenon, but if they are not a part of wider activity, it is impossible to change anything. Real change is possible only if the education system is changed on each level: kindergarten, school and university. What is also needed is the attitude of the media towards the Belarusian language. And we are still lacking these elements.

Is 50-100 people appearing at the courses in Grodna with its 300,000 residents a lot, or not? Volga and Igar have no doubts — all big things started from something small. One can say that the group of people that appeared today is small, but Christ also had only 12 disciples and they were able to change the entire world! The strength of these people lies in the fact that they are involved in this matter and when they leave this room, they still speak Belarusian and pass it further. We would not put our energy into something that, in our opinion, doesn’t have any sense.

Originally published: http://issuu.com/magdalenapietruk/docs/cz5_2014/3?e=0/10314957