Belarusian books axed

June 30, 1995

Text-books are among the first victims of a economic censorship in Belarus, following a referendum imposed by President Alaksandr Lukasenka.

The referendum, on Russian oriented changes including virtual ecomonic integration, a revised national flag and wider powers for the president, coincided with a general election and was carried out under conditions which, international observers reported, fell short of international democratic standards.

One of the four referendum questions was whether Russian should be given parity with Belarusian as a "state language". Belarus has a Russian ethnic minority of around 10 per cent - plus a large contingent of Russian servicemen (left over from Soviet days), who make up one in 33 of the population, and who still have the right to vote in Belarus.

For decades of Soviet rule, Belarus was the test-bed for a policy of ethnic and linguistic fusion into a single Russophone "Soviet" people. Unlike the neighbouring Baltic states, there has been no attempt in Belarus to make citizenship or employment dependent on knowledge of Belarusian - even the strongest advocates of linguistic revival were prepared to leave the linguistic changeover to time, "positive discrimination" in the form of subsidies for Belarusian-language events and publications, and the rearing of a new Belarusian-taught generation.

But, as Nil Hilevic, the president of the Belarusian Language Society, warned repeatedly, giving Russian parity with Belarusian under the present circumstances would signal the end to government support for Belarusian, and an inevitable decline of national and ethnic awareness. This would suit President Lukasenka, who would like a revived Soviet Union.

The referendum results claimed 83 per cent support in favour of equal status for Russian. Even if this is the true figure (and there have been reports of ballot boxes going missing, and observers from the democratic opposition being physically ejected from counting halls). Turnout represented only 53.8 per cent of the electorate.

But even before the total count was in - and while, ironically an international congress in Belarusian studies was taking place in the capital, Minsk, the minister of culture was promulgating a list of books to be withdrawn from the printing schedules "in order to deploy the budget more rationally". Publishing is subsidised by the ministry of culture and is impossible without state finance.

The majority of the titles axed were in Belarusian and/or dealt with issues of Belarusian history and tradition. A sprinkling of Russian-language titles are also included, partly to save face, and partly because of their content, for example, a mythological dictionary, on the lists of the "University" publishing house. Axed titles from the "university" press include Economic information and computer techniques, Forensic medicine, Principles of higher mathematics, and Physics for university entrants.

Other publishing houses lose such titles as Festivals and Traditions of the Belarusians, Christianity and the Belarusian People, Modelling Regional Geosystems, Historical Dictionary of the Belarusian Language, Russian-Belarusian-Latin Dictionary of Surgical and Clinical Terminology in Veterinary Practice and a Belarusian translation of Moliere's comedies. Reprints of works by Belarusians abroad are to go, as are works from the past, including a reprint of the collected works of Janka Kupala, the national poet.

Kupala in Soviet times was simultaneously honoured and censored; the new, nine-volume edition would have been "augmented" by works banned in the Soviet period. In all 71 titles are to go, and although they will formally be replaced by 36 others, some of the "replacements" are works which would normally not figure on a publisher's list (such as brochures for admission to professional training colleges) or seem likely to require extremely small print-runs.

Other ministries appear to be following suit: the ministry of education has already suspended production on a university mathematics textbook. One of the president's arguments against the Belarusian language is that it is somehow "unsuitable" for scholarship - though, as a former state farm-manager who speaks only Russian he is hardly in a position to judge!

The referendum seem to have evoked ethnic and linguistic hostilities in a country where, until now, such phenomena have been notably absent. A few days ago, Adam Maldzis, head of the Skaryna Centre for National Education in Minsk, was walking with a visiting western scholar. The two were hassled by Russian-speaking thugs who told them roughly to speak Russian. "It is none of your business what we are speaking," Professor Maldzis told them. "But it soon will be!" one replied.

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