The Last European Dictatorship


Until twenty years ago, Belarus was not a state but a backwater of other states: of medieval Kievan Russia, of early modern Litva (the Kingdom of Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania), and then of Russia. Only when Stalin grabbed half of Poland and then needed a pretext for another seat at the United Nations did the ravaged city of Minsk become a capital city of a fictional republic. Stalin in the 1930s and the Nazis between 1942 and 1944, as Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands (2010) so graphically showed, turned Belarus into a living hell, but by purging it of Poles and Jews, as well as any independently minded citizens, they left in the ruins an ethnically homogeneous citizenry. When Boris Yeltsin engineered the abolition of the USSR and the deposition of Mikhail Gorbachev, Belarus, an accomplice in the plot like Ukraine, became a recognised state. It lacks, however, many of a state’s attributes: it has no natural borders, such as mountains or rivers; and it differs from its neighbour Russia primarily in that it inhabits a different time zone – the 1970s. The Belarusian language, used by a small minority of the country’s peasantry and intellectuals, is more a collection of dialects in which Russian is seamlessly transposed into Polish or Ukrainian, with only a boldly phonetic spelling system in common. In religion, too, the country moves (east to west) from Orthodoxy to Catholicism via the Uniate church.

more from Donald Rayfield at Literary Review here.