Chapter 8 Belarusization: from “National Construction” to “Nationalistic Bourgeois Counter-Revolution”

In: The Path to a Soviet Nation
Alena Marková
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The de facto end of the Belarusization policy is associated with the speech of Vladimir Zatonsky, chairman of the Central Control Commission of the VKP(b), that he made at the June 27, 1929 session of the TsK of the KP(b)B. Zatonsky’s report and his sharp criticism of Belarusization initiatives became that threshold that was followed by the ideological reassessment and consistent wrapping up of the Belarusization policy. Belarusization activities were still conducted for some time afterwards, but they were not as intensive and were gradually wrapped up as they no longer had that earlier massive support from the state.

Vladimir Zatonsky’s report On the Study of the Practice of Nationality Work in the BSSR was written on the basis of the findings of an all-republican inspection of the progress made in Belarusization that had been conducted in May and June of 1929 at the order of the Moscow-based leadership. The inspection was conducted by the Central Control Commission of the VKP(b). Such commissions operated in other republics of the USSR as well, they studied the practice of local nationality work there. Conclusions of the inspection had to lay the foundation for a new direction for the development of the all-union nationality policy that was unfolding under the slogans “the Great Break at all the fronts of socialist construction” and “a sharp turn in the entire policy” (“kruty pavarot va ŭsiej palitycy”). The mentioned break meant a reassessment of the previous government-wide and ideological priorities.

The year 1929 was a turning point in Soviet history. That particular year marked the publication of Stalin’s article The Year of the Great Break: For the 12th Anniversary of October that symbolically announced the beginning of a fundamental turn toward authoritarian methods of management in the social, economic, public and political life of the USSR. Joseph Stalin saw the essence of the “break” in the launching of “socialism’s decisive offensive on capitalist elements in the city and in the countryside” the soil for which had already been prepared by the previous development.1 It was specifically the 1930s that marked the beginning of intensive formation of that characteristic totalitarian system that the Soviet Union is notorious for.

The Great Break signified the emergence of ideological differences with the liberal economic policies of the NEP and the wrapping up of relative liberalization in political and cultural life. At the same time, it was the end of the nationality policy in the form it had in that period. The Break actually meant a return to the administrative methods of management that were close to the military communism of the Civil War years. At the same time, massive industrialization, collectivization, centralization, and unification of the education system were initiated.

Zatonsky’s Criticism

Materials collected as a result of large-scale inspections conducted by the VKP(b) Central Commission were analyzed and laid the foundation for new legislative enactments and ordinances. Vladimir Zatonsky’s report was more than a hundred typewritten pages long, not including the numerous annexes. It was compiled on the basis of the materials collected by chairman of the VKP(b) commission and his assistants. The materials had been submitted to the commission by the KP(b)B, the People’s Commissariats, and other organizations.

Zatonsky’s criticism touched upon virtually all aspects of the nationality policy. It would later lay the foundation for an ideological justification of the closure of Belarusization, and therefore it deserves special attention.

Vladimir Zatonsky noted that Belarusian nationalism that had been considered a potential threat before, was now a real threat and was even setting the tone for the entire nationality policy in the BSSR. Here, Belarusian nationalism had not only chosen the “tactics of an open offensive” but its manifestations also did not receive “proper resistance”.2 Zatonsky underscored that in the political life of Belarus “very noticeable is the disproportionately large role of the so-called cultural forces [kuĺturnyja sily] – members of the Academy of Sciences, poets, philologists, and other figures of Belarusian culture”3. They form their worldview using the cultural heritage of Francysk Skaryna, Francišak Bahuševič, or the founders of Naša Niva, and promote their ideas of cultural and historical distinctness of the Belarusian state.

According to the chairman of the TsKK of the VKP(b), the adoption of Belarusian historical and cultural heritage of the pre-October period was absolutely unacceptable as that heritage was not conducive to the liberation of the proletarian and did not share his perspective on class struggle. It had been and continued to be bourgeois. The emancipation of the proletarian became possible only as a result of the cultural achievements of the October Revolution, and for that reason the so-called “theory of continuity” (“teoryja pierajemnaśći”) of cultural heritage was not only impossible but also harmful.

That point was very convincingly explained by Vilgelm Knorin who was referred to by Vladimir Zatonsky himself.4 According to Knorin, the ideology of bourgeois-democratic nationalism consisted of “above everything else conveying the historicity [histaryčnaść] of the Belarusian nation, finding some signs of the national “Golden Age” in the past, conveying the historicity of national writing, finding historical national heroes and resurrecting them in order to create a legend about the national past that would support nationalism today”5 [words highlighted in the original text – A.M.]. However, in that “legend” or in the image of the Belarusian past created in such a manner there was absolutely no place for the struggle of classes, for the struggle of “the oppressed against the oppressors”.6 Therefore, the proletarian had no right to tolerate that “nationalist myth-making” (“nacyjanalistyčnaja mifatvorčaść”) in history and in cultural heritage. The proletarian or, more precisely, “the proletariat and the revolutionary peasantry” had to actively “expose the class nature of “national heroes”, to expose the class content of the myth of the national “Golden Age” in the past by demonstrating the exploitative, class-based undercurrent of those myths and of that myth-making”7. At the same time, Vilgelm Knorin underscored that “naturally, we – communists – are not against heritage but we accept that centuries-old heritage only after it holds up to our class Marxist criticism. We are against the construction of the single non-class history”8. For that particular reason, “a proletarian state cannot turn any medieval monks – representatives of the ruling classes of the past – into icons of a new culture, nationalist in its form and proletarian in its content,”9 Knorin summed up.

As an example of such unacceptable “cultural continuity” Vladimir Zatonsky’s report mentioned The History of Belarus by Usievalad Ihnatoŭski in which, according to the chairman of the TsKK of the VKP(b), that bourgeois trend was manifested in the most vivid way. Besides Ihnatoŭski, almost all well-known Belarusian writers, cultural, public, and political figures came under fiery criticism, including Jazep Liosik, Zmicier Žylunovič, Sciapan Niekraševič, Ivan Luckievič, and others.

Vladimir Zatonsky stated that one of the reasons for the increased activity of Belarusian nationalism was the growing influence of affluent layers of the countryside bourgeoisie. Its rise was facilitated by the land reform that had been conducted by Dzmitry Pryščepaŭ, an active national democrat (nacdem). National democracy (nacyjanaĺnaja demakratyja) was accused of excessive idealization of the Belarusian countryside (of “idealization of the beloved straw shoes and linsey-woolsey”) that, in the words of Zatonsky, had “a purely kulak nature”10. “Aspiration for distinctness specifically in the form of ethnographic insularity”11 also seemed unacceptable.

The logic of such thinking now allowed to identify virtually any ethnographic elements of national distinctness with kulak elements and to deem them manifestations of an ideology that was unacceptable to the classes. On the other hand, according to Vladimir Zatonsky, struggle with the “Great Russian chauvinism” was merely a tool used to prevent Belarusian nationalists from accepting everything Russian that was coming from “Red Moscow”.

A report by the chairman of the Central Control Commission of the VKP(b) also contains some interesting remarks about the Belarusian intelligentsia, on the basis of which one can trace changes in the interrelation between the Communist Party and the said intelligentsia. Whereas in the past the KP(b)B was encouraged to closely cooperate with the national intelligentsia, now it was accused of excessive fervor with which it engaged that intelligentsia into “Soviet construction”, including into the nationality policy where the intelligentsia played a “disproportionately large role”12.

Following in the footsteps of Aliaksandr Krynicki, Vladimir Zatonsky developed his own classification of the Belarusian “nationalist” intelligentsia. Aliaksandr Krynicki divided the Belarusian national intelligentsia into several groups. The first group consisted of the intelligentsia that was taking an active part in political and public life. The second group consisted of those representatives of the intelligentsia who were ideologically close to the first group, “took their lead from the petty bourgeois interests” and insufficiently cooperated with the Communist Party. The third group was constituted by the so-called “bottom-level intelligentsia” (“nizavaja intelihiencyja”) that was loyal to the regime (teachers, etc.), and the fourth group – by the so-called “political swamp” (“palityčnaje balota”) (the politically passive intelligentsia).

Vladimir Zatonsky drew a distinct line between the positions of the party and the national intelligentsia. In the BSSR, however, that line was often vague as some influential party members were actively involved in literary and academic activities (Zmicier Žylunovič (Ciška Hartny), Usievalad Ihnatoŭski), and, conversely, some representatives of the Belarusian academic and artistic intelligentsia were members of the Communist Party or at least were aspiring to become members (for instance, Michaś Zarecki, Ivan Šypila, Andrej Alieksandrovič, and some others had the status of contenders for the membership).

According to the new classification, the first group of the intelligentsia was formed by the so-called “tip” (“viarchuška”) that was composed of representatives of intellectual and cultural elites of Belarus. That group was further divided into several subgroups in accordance with the ideological orientation of their members, among which, according to Zatonsky, there were the so-called Easternists (uschodniki), Westernists (zachodniki), and samascijniki13 (translator’s note: samascijniki means proponents of independence).

Westernists (i.e. zachodniki), who occupied the main place in that classification, were divided into supporters of the Lithuanian-German orientation and Polonophiles. Easternists (i.e. uschodniki) were not afraid of Russian cultural influence but fought the Polish influence, which manifested in numerous philological debates with the pro-Western intelligentsia.

The pro-Western intelligentsia that was composed of representatives of the former government of the Belarusian People’s Republic and other public figures had a strongly negative attitude to Moscow. In addition, in order to reinforce its influence it also used those representatives of the Communist Party who, according to Vladimir Zatonsky, were “infected with the Westernist nationalism”14.

Virtually no attention on Zatonsky’s report was paid to the so-called samascijniki, and the last group – the “bottom-level intelligentsia” (“nizavaja intelihiencyja”) that included teachers, high-skilled professionals, and so on – was also mentioned only briefly.

The previous classification of the intelligentsia by Krynicki was now considered obsolete as it was excessively complicated. Besides, the main criterion here was the intelligentsia’s loyalty to Soviet authorities. The fundamental change was that now the entire group of the “higher” (“vyšejšaja”) intelligentsia was considered to be “a single anti-Soviet front” even regardless of its orientation (pro-Western or otherwise). Vladimir Zatonsky underscored that “the nationalist tip of patented representatives of Belarusian culture significantly slows down the pace of the Sovietization of possibly the less skilled but the growing and healthy segment of the intelligentsia”15. Representatives of the Belarusian national intelligentsia unduly occupied the leading positions in state structures and even successfully cooperated with Belarusian communists. Zatonsky’s particular dismay was caused by the fact that “its [the intelligentsia’s] mood is reckoned with. Much attention is paid to getting favorable feedback about the Soviet rule from one of its representatives or another. Writers and other cultural figures in some cases permit themselves to interfere with internal party affairs”16.

Vladimir Zatonsky was very dissatisfied with the criticism of Belarusization that was articulated by some of its participants. For instance, Uladzimir Žylka used Stalin’s official slogan “national in form and proletarian in content” for his own criticism of the outcomes of Belarusization in the state apparatus. Here he explained that outdoor signs and record-keeping were in Belarusian but it was impossible to find actual Belarusians. Zatonsky assessed that utterance as political shortsightedness of the young generation of the Belarusian intelligentsia that advocated for the idea “Belarus for Belarusians” and substituted the notions of “socialism” and “motherland”. In Zatonsky’s opinion, that clearly testified to a lack of understanding of the Communist Party’s priorities.17

Such a “scary” ideological situation that had accompanied the entire previous process of Belarusization was supposed to be remedied by large-scale engagement of the best Marxist theorists into activities on the Belarusian front. In its turn, the young generation of the Belarusian intelligentsia was supposed to learn at such “proletarian centers” as Moscow and Leningrad, and then to unfailingly return to Belarus with new proletarian work practices.18

Individual references to the successes of Belarusization achieved in the areas of culture and education drowned in the uncompromising criticism of its overall outcomes. Conclusions of the VKP(b) Central Control Commission became grounds for the actual closure of the nationality policy and determined the further ideological direction for the political development of Belarus.

A Sharp Turn: National Democratism as the Main Threat

In July 1929, the Communist Party of Belarus proclaimed national democratism (nacyjanal-demakratyzm) as the main threat in politics, science, and culture. One could learn about it from the lead article On the Right Bias at the KP(b)B in the National Question that was printed in Zviazda on July 27, 1929. The nationalist threat was rapidly growing, and therefore the article proposed “to direct the main fire at Belarusian offensive chauvinism and national democratism”19.

The article provided a new assessment to the role of the Belarusian national intelligentsia and to its participation in national construction. It was proclaimed that the nationalistically-oriented part of the intelligentsia (“the former fellow-travelers [paputniki] from the top stratum of the old intelligentsia”) “due to the strengthening of the socialist offensive and the deterioration of the USSR’s international situation has distanced itself from us, defected to the enemies’ camp and is now fighting against us”20. For that reason, the Communist Party no longer deemed it necessary to make concessions to and to continue its previous cooperation with the intelligentsia. It was also no longer necessary to “engage” or “attract” the intelligentsia to socialist and cultural construction. Just like it was unnecessary to acknowledge its decisive role in the implementation of Belarusization.

It was also underscored that “it [the nationalist intelligentsia] should not and must not be subject to our party’s decrees that date back to the starting period of socialist and cultural construction in national republics. Anyone who does not understand it, who considers it possible, in the opinion of a narrow utilitarian approach followers, to maintain previous relations with that segment of the intelligentsia, that person does not understand anything about the class struggle that’s been initiated. With that segment of the intelligentsia, only one type of a relationship is possible at this point – the relationship of struggle”21.

Interestingly, in such an acute situation of class struggle it was planned to even accelerate the pace of Belarusization and at the same time to pay additional attention to it. Thus, the article provided a concise account of the main conclusions of the TsKK of the VKP(b) and explained to the general public new directions for ideological development. In an abridged format that article was reprinted in other Belarusian newspapers as well.

The understanding of the essence of national democratism underwent change over a very brief period of time. At the beginning of Belarusization, under national democratism (nacyjanal-demakratyzm) one understood the prevalence of national interests over class interests and the prevalence of the national content of culture over its socialist content. Such an explanation was still relatively neutral. Now, however, national democratism had turned into “an ideology of capitalist elements that were putting up resistance and – under the banner of bourgeois nationalism – struggling against socialist construction”22. Thus, the national element was transforming into a nationalist and even fascist element (national fascism) (nacyjanal-fašyzm). In that context, it was simultaneously acquiring a distinctly negative meaning.

Beginning with that point in time, all “nationalist” manifestations in the area of culture, academic studies, or the education system had to be mercilessly obliterated. The party organizations had to step up their struggle with national democratism and national opportunism. The threat of the “Great Russian chauvinism” that was also mentioned in conjunction with the nationality policy was now stepping back and losing its previous significance. Such ideological trends were characteristic for other republics of the USSR as well.

In the light of new ideological priorities, the Belarusian intelligentsia automatically turned into a carrier of the ideology of national democratism, and subsequently even “national fascism”. Active Belarusian political and public figures, as well as representatives of the intelligentsia who were ideologically close to them were considered to be especially dangerous, and the struggle against them was equated to the struggle against “the kulak and the profiteer [nepman]”23. However, not only the “tip” of the Belarusian intelligentsia was accused of sympathizing with national democratism – that accusation also applied to those party functionaries who directly participated in the development of the Belarusization policy.

The majority of the intelligentsia silently protested against the cessation of Belarusization, the bullying of national democrats, and the artificial imposition of class hatred. However, that dissatisfaction was almost never expressed officially or publicly.

Public civil protests were rare, but such incidents did occur. For instance, employees of the Academy of Sciences, the People’s Commissariat of Land Cultivation, and the Commissariat of Education resigned from their jobs on a mass scale because of the removal from office of the deputy commissar of land cultivation Dzmitry Pryščepaŭ, the people’s commissar of education Anton Balicki, and other individuals who had been listed as national democrats by the KP(b)B.

A strictly secret report written by an informant in May 1930 indicated that many representatives of the academic and artistic intelligentsia “who in private and public life have always spoken Belarusian have begun to grotesquely speak Russian with a mocking grin (the “international” language, as they say). “Let others speak the national democrat language now,” said Čaržynski24 at the BielHiz. That attitude still persists at the present moment (Adamovič, Maruk, Mamčyc, Anichoŭski)”25. In the conclusions of the report it was indicated that the struggle against national democratism was viewed by many representatives of the Belarusian intelligentsia as “a struggle against Belarusization, a struggle against Belarusians in general, and the return of russification”26.

Within the framework of the struggle against national democratism, a kind of a purge was performed at those state institutions, organizations, and higher educational establishments that were most actively involved in Belarusization. The purge consisted of almost a complete replacement of all previous employees and their management. Under that campaign, for instance, it was intended to completely replace the management of the People’s Commissariat of Education and its chapters. It was supposed to be replaced with “party-aware workers” (“partyjna vytrymanyja pracaŭniki”). The purges were meant to take place among the management of Belarusian State University and at the editorial office of the newspaper Savieckaja Bielaruś. At the same time, they were conducted among postgraduate students at higher educational establishments and the staff of newspaper editorial offices.27 In effect, repression was initiated against well-known politicians, scholars, public and cultural figures who had previously taken an active part in Belarusization. That repression meant that they would be expelled from the Communist Party, downgraded, etc. Arrests were frequent, and they were more than once followed by the death penalty.

The struggle against “nacdemaŭščyna” (translator’s note: nacdemaŭščyna is a derogatory term for national democratism) continued later on as well. In 1930, it moved to a new level when in the wake of numerous expulsions from the party and the removal from office of a number of influential representatives of political, academic, and cultural elites, the Joint State Political Directorate (Abjadnanaje dziaržaŭnaje palityčnaje ŭpraŭliennie, ADPU) of the BSSR headed by Grigoriy Rapoport who had been transferred from Moscow “uncovered” a “national democratic, counter-revolutionary, and anti-Soviet organization – the Union for the Liberation of Belarus (Sajuz vyzvaliennia Bielarusi, SVB)”28. In conjunction with the SVB case, 108 people were arrested, the overwhelming majority of whom were former Belarusian esers and renowned representatives of the Belarusian intelligentsia (Jazep Liosik, Sciapan Niekraševič, Arkadź Smolič, Vaclaŭ Lastoŭski, Maksim Harecki, Anton Balicki, Zmicier Žylunovič, Janka Kupala, Jakub Kolas, and others) who had not only taken an active part in Belarusization but sometimes even set the tone for it. According to the ADPU, the main “center” of that fictitious organization was located at the Belarusian Academy of Sciences.

At the proceedings that took place in the course of December 1930 through March 1931 most severely punished were those politicians and members of the Communist Party who had directly and actively participated in the implementation of Belarusization (Anton Balicki, Zmicier Žylunovič, Alieś Adamovič, Dzmitry Pryščepaŭ).29 As a matter of fact, the SVB case signified a shift from the ideological criticism of national democratism that had sounded in the media and at party institutions toward actual repression that was accompanied with expulsions from the party, termination of employment, and social degradation of the leading politicians, state and cultural figures, as well as with their subsequent arrests.

On the basis of the internal use report On the Ties of Some Members of the KP(b)B to a National Democratic Counter-Revolutionary Organization and On Anti-Party Factions in the KP(b)B that was sent to the presidium and party collegium (partkaliehija) of the TsKK of the VKP(b) in February 1931, in March of that same year the Central Control Commission of the VKP(b) adopted the decrees The Case of Belarusian Comrades and On the Case of Belarusian National Democrats.30 The materials of the report that was aimed against specific Belarusian politicians (Čarviakoŭ, Ihnatoŭski, Žylunovič, Adamovič, Balicki, etc.) indicated that those party members had not only stepped away from the “Bolshevik national policy” but had also covered up “counter-revolutionary activities” conducted by national democrats at the Inbieĺkult, the Academy of Sciences, the Belarusian State Publishing House, and at other institutions, as well as in the area of cultural and educational activities.31 Within the KP(b)B itself, those figures had advocated for the “national-opportunistic line” and were “a weapon in the hands of the counter-revolutionary nationalist intelligentsia”.32

It is worth noting that similar criticism of representatives of the so-called “nationalist” wing of the Belarusian Communist Party who actively participated in Belarusization had sounded previously as well. The intra-party conflict between internationalists (Vilgelm Knorin, Aliaksandr Krynicki) and nationalists (Usievalad Ihnatoŭski, Aliaksandr Čarviakoŭ, Zmicier Žylunovič, Anton Balicki) had now become even deeper and moved beyond the limits of intra-party discussions. Under the aegis of a struggle against national democratism, representatives of the “nationalist” wing of the KP(b)B were discredited, and, as a result of the subsequent repression, psychically eliminated in the end.

In 1930, the collective monograph “Science” at the Service of the National Democratic Counter-Revolution came out in which Belarusian Marxist researchers analyzed in detail the impact of national democratism.33 The team of authors or the “brigade from the Marxism-Leninism Department” of the Institute of Philosophy at the Belarusian Academy of Sciences used a number of examples from the field of linguistics, regional studies, museum studies, history, ethnography, art history, and other academic disciplines to demonstrate the harmfulness and danger that had been brought by national democrats to the science, literature, and culture of the Belarusization period. The “brigade” (“bryhada”) of certified Marxists reproached the leading representatives of Belarusian intellectual elites with paying too much attention to Belarusian national distinctiveness (especially in comparison with Russia), as well as to the uniqueness of Belarusian nation-building processes and the distinctness of its historic development. The classless character of the Belarusian countryside came under the fire of criticism, as did the exaggeration of the role of the Belarusian national intelligentsia at the time of Belarusization, and so on.

In line with the new trends, now one had to praise the tight brotherly alliance of the Belarusian and Russian nations. In addition, a reappraisal of the attitude toward the annexation of Belarusian lands by Russia in the 18th century was made. Another, new interpretation of Belarusian history was required. In that history, Russian claims could no longer be considered imperial or occupational as the Belarusian people (just like the Ukrainian one) had been and remained to be a blood-related Slavic brother of the Russian people. The history of the Belarusian nation was closely tied to the history of Russia, and the earlier pro-Western orientation had to disappear. The emergence of a new historical concept was underpinned primarily by the new requirements of ideology, in which political interests were disguised as academic ones.

Cessation of Belarusization. Post-Belarusization Measures and Activities

The end of Belarusization and the 1929–1933 period became the beginning of the first wave of political repression. As a result of the repression and the mentioned ideological shift, Belarusization and the changes it was bringing to society (for instance, intensive promotion of the Belarusian language, etc.) could not penetrate the daily life of large groups of population in a truly profound way. In the course of its implementation, Belarusization was abruptly stopped.

Ideological slogans of a struggle against national democratism were utilized to suppress countryside protests against collectivization. At the same time, that same “struggle” was unfolding in the area of science and education. In the state apparatus, economic, civic, and party structures the Belarusian language was being gradually displaced by the Russian language again.

In compliance with a decree of the Bureau of the TsK of the KP(b)B dated March 8, 1933, record-keeping at the 2nd Belarusian Division was transferred back to the Russian language. Such a decision was justified by the fact that the national composition of the division had changed drastically – its detachments had been augmented with “Russian Red Army servicemen and commanders with technical knowledge due to the reorganization of the division into an assault division”34.

The same situation was observed in the field of education as well. At Belarusian State University where new lecturers from Moscow, Leningrad, and other cities had been placed as “compensation” for the politically unreliable Belarusian teachers, the Belarusian language was no longer a requirement for employment.35 At some pedagogical colleges and new pedagogical higher educational establishments in Gomel, Mogilev, and Vitebsk a number of teachers had refused to teach in Belarusian as early as in the early ’30s. Longer than anywhere else Belarusization initiatives survived at the Pedagogical Faculty of BSU that continued to “set for other structural subdivisions of BSU an example of organizing the entire education and training process in compliance with the policy of Belarusization”, even though in the early ’30s some teachers here had also reverted to teaching in Russian.36 Along with the intensification of ideological struggle against nacdemaŭščyna, further Belarusization activities were being discontinued at secondary, specialized secondary, and higher educational establishments. The previous achievements of Belarusization were offset to a significant degree.

Against the background of numerous “detections” or “exposures” of nacdemaŭščyna, any further conduct of Belarusization was already difficult. Now every teacher – either at school or university – could be accused of opportunism or sympathies for national democratism. The official press of that period, for instance, informed that a “national democrat counter-revolutionary group headed by some teachers has been destroyed at the Gomel Pedagogical Institute, national democrats who were in charge of the Slootsk Pedagogical College have been removed … One must remember that all sorts of … opportunists and national democrats now put their main stakes on the youth and use school auditoriums at higher educational establishments and higher technical educational establishments in order to continue their Zinovievist-Trotskyist and bourgeois-nationalist counter-revolutionary sermons. There have been cases when due to a decrease in the class alertness of some managers [kiraŭnictva] those counter-revolutionary elements have entrenched themselves at our higher educational establishments. Exceptional alertness is required in order to uncover and terminate the enemy’s malicious work”37.

At another party meeting on issues of education that took place in Moscow in April 1930 it was decided to eliminate the difference between the education systems in the republics of the USSR that existed at that time. That was the beginning of the unification of national school and education systems on the Soviet or, rather, sovietization basis.38

The 1933 Belarusian Orthography Reform

In line with the decree of the Council of People’s Commissars of the BSSR On the Change and Simplification of Belarusian Orthography that was approved in 1933, Belarusian orthography (morphology, phonetic idiosyncrasies, etc.) were brought to a significant extent closer to the orthography of the Russian language. The decree openly admitted that one of the objectives of the reform was to bring down an artificial barrier “between the Belarusian and Russian languages” that had been put up by national democrats.39 In addition, under the slogan of cleansing the Belarusian language from an inflow of “bourgeois vulgarisms” a number of Belarusian words and terms that had been used up until then were substituted with their Russian equivalents. As a result, the Belarusian language was losing its previous distinctness and the protective barrier against its potential assimilation by the Russian language.

A blueprint for reform was developed by the Institute of Linguistics under the guidance of a commission under the Bureau of the TsK KP(b)B that had been established specifically for that purpose and was headed by chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars of the BSSR Mikalaj Haladzied. The approval of the final version of Belarusian orthography took place in the form of a vote on each point of the changed rules. The sessions lasted from June 29 through July 4, 1933. A small group of academics and writers participated in the sessions as those scholars and writers whose main “handicap” was their belonging to the national democrats group (Branislaŭ Taraškievič, Jazep Liosik, Sciapan Niekraševic, Janka Kupala, and others) had not been allowed to work on the reform of Belarusian orthography and its subsequent approval.40 As a result of the initiated repression and bullying of national democratism, the draft of Belarusian Orthography that they had developed in 1930 was not approved in the end.

In that connection, one can validly believe that the said concept of the reform of Belarusian orthography was developed under the circumstances of the state’s totalitarian approach to science. The key role was played by the ideological contract on the basis of which members for a small group of the Communist Party-approved academics and writers who were “ideologically aware” and loyal to the party were strictly selected.

The essence of the reform was in deliberate assimilation of the Belarusian language. Arguments in favor of changing the Belarusian orthography were in ideological resonance with ideas of the Great Break. At the general meeting of Belarusian writers that was held by the Institute of Linguistics under the Academy of Sciences and the Union of Soviet Writers of the BSSR in January 1933, a number of presentations were made in support of the new orthography reform. For instance, one of the presenters – Andrej Alieksandrovič – pointed out that “the national democrats’ subversive activities were conducted particularly intensely at the linguistics front. The Belarusian counter-revolution has thrown probably its best forces to that front, and institutions of linguistics were, in essence, the main strongholds of counter-revolutionary activities. … National democrats introduced into the modern Belarusian language archaisms from the Metrica of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, from Biarynda’s41 dictionary, from various medieval documents, they fought for breaking the language away from life, from the lingo of the proletariat and the working peasantry, decisively banished elements of internationalism from the language, fought against sovietisms – words that had been born by the proletarian revolution, against words cognate with the Russian language”42. Aliaksandrovič’s position was shared by other writers and figures who had been engaged in the struggle against naсdemaŭščyna.

New rules of the reformed Belarusian orthography came into effect very soon. The reform was initiated on September 15 of the academic year 1933/34 – not even a full month after its approval. The implementation of the reform had not been properly planned. Likewise, specialists and teachers had not been prepared for it.43 Sometimes, the introduction of the new reform was met with protests on the part of some teachers, primarily teachers of the Belarusian language and literature. However, regional and district chapters of the People’s Commissariat of Education required strict compliance with the new decree.44

Deconstruction of Belarusization Achievements at the School System

At the order of the joint plenary session of the TsK and CKK of the KP(b)B that took place in February 1933, the number of Russian schools had to be reviewed with a view to increasing it. Beginning with as early as the academic year 1933/34, the number of schools that taught in the Belarusian language began to gradually decrease. National democrats were accused of groundlessly reducing the number of Russian schools, as a result of which Russian children had to attend Belarusian schools. For that reason, it was planned to begin “the deployment of a network of Russian schools in an amount that would ensure that all children whose native language is Russian are fully covered”45.

The implementation of the orthography reform with a simultaneous increase in the number of schools that taught in the Russian language allows one to consider the academic year 1933/34 the pivotal point in the deconstruction of Belarusization in the field of education. Subsequently, those processes accelerated even more after a law on the mandatory study of the Russian language and literature at all Soviet schools was adopted on March 13, 1938.

Nevertheless, the real consequences of the said official steps did not manifest immediately. As late as in the academic year 1938/39, only 6.6 percent of all 5th through 10th grade pupils studied at Russian schools. The rest of the pupils (93.4 percent) attended schools whose language of instruction was Belarusian. Their number began to decline beginning with the academic year 1939/40, when only 88 percent of the pupils attended Belarusian schools.46

Such a relatively stable situation was to a significant extent underpinned by the success of the preceding Belarusization activities, especially in the field of secondary education. Belarusization here was often met with support from Belarusian teachers and population. Therefore, now schools were not in a hurry to transfer their teaching activities to the Russian language. The number of Belarusian schools began to decline substantially only beginning with the academic year 1937/38, in parallel with an increase in the number of mandatory hours for the study of the Russian language and literature. At Belarusian secondary schools in the cities the number of those mandatory hours was 1,720 hrs. per year, and in the countryside – even 1,734 hrs. per year. At the same time, the number of mandatory hours for the study of the Belarusian language and literature at Russian secondary schools in the cities was only 1,320 hrs. per year, and in the countryside – a mere 1,292 hrs. per year. Thus, substantially fewer hours were allocated for the study of the Belarusian language as compared to the number of hours for the study of the Russian language.47

A sad fate also awaited those school textbooks whose contents contradicted new ideas of the existing from time immemorial friendship of all Soviet nations that walked shoulder to shoulder towards the bright socialist future. Beginning with the academic year 1930/31, the majority of those textbooks along with geographic maps were excluded from academic curricula, and in the course of 1937 – destroyed in compliance with Order No. 33 A List of Literature that is Subject to Confiscation from Public Libraries, Educational Establishments, and Book Stores by the Main Department of Literature and Publishing House Affairs of the BSSR dated June 3, 1937.48 The rest of the textbooks were rewritten (out of a total of 54 textbooks on the academic curriculum, 11 editions were removed, 18 textbooks were fully rewritten, and the rest were meticulously revised). According to the party leadership that closely monitored the contents and volumes of academic curricula, the content of the destroyed textbooks was overly closely connected to the Belarusian national element and absolutely insufficiently reflected the belonging of Belarus to the USSR.

One of the flaws of those textbooks was also the fact that they did not properly reflect class struggle and the victory of the socialist public order (sacyjalistyčny hramadski lad) over the capitalist order.49 Besides, the textbooks contained a number of statements that could not pass the subsequent censorship. In particular, in a geography textbook for the junior grades of secondary school by Michajla Hramyka, for instance, it was written that “here in Belarus, there are virtually no villages with paved streets, and in the cities not all the streets are paved with stone. But there are countries where not only cities but also villages never see impassable mud in the autumn. Such villages can be found in Germany, France, England, and in other lands where people are wealthier and have more awareness [boĺš sviadomyja]”.50

The press of that period and first and foremost the periodical Asvieta (The Education) that had been renamed to Kamunistyčnaje Vychavannie (The Communist Education) in the spirit of the time was teeming with articles that criticized all national democratic elements in school textbooks and curricula. According to the editor’s office, the previous name The Education (Asvieta) was overly neutral and did not properly reflect that period of ferocious class struggle. Neither did it reflect the class principle in education.51

The outburst of criticism was also fueled by the fact that a number of the authors of the textbooks, including the historian Uladzimir Pičeta and the majority of other renowned representatives of the Belarusian intelligentsia, belonged to the group of the bullied supporters of national democratism.

Beginning with the academic year 1932/33, the subjects History of Belarus and Geography of Belarus that had been studied separately at the time of Belarusization, became components of the school subjects History of the USSR and Geography of the USSR. In line with the decree On Textbooks for Elementary and Secondary School adopted in 1933,52 there was a unification of teaching materials, which later on became an excuse for excluding from textbooks all potentially unhelpful or undesirable elements of national distinctness.

Belarusization in the Post-Belarusiazation Press

Despite its de facto closure, Belarusization continued to live in the media discourse of that period, and it occupied a significant place there even for several years after Zatonsky’s devastating report. The already mentioned article in Zviazda On the Right Bias at the KP(b)B in the National Question (1929) underscored the exceptional character of Belarusization and even set the objective of “enhancing the pace of Belarusization”53. Front pages were teeming with articles like Let us unflinchingly implement Belarusization. Let us decisively strike at the saboteurs of the party’s nationality policy, at all those who have a “lukewarm” attitude to implementing directives on Belarusization, Let us unfold Belarusization with all persistence!, The one who is not conducting Belarusization is aiding class enemies. By way of decisive implementation of Belarusization let us deliver a harder blow to national democratism, etc.54

As early as in 1931, a report by the well-known party functionary Mikalaj Haladzied was published in Kamunistyčnaje Vychavannie. In his opinion, manifestations of national democratism were a result of acute class struggle. National democratism was dressing up in national attire and using national ideas, and in doing so it eventually discredited Belarusization. However, the nationality policy had to continue forging ahead at an accelerated pace.55 The methods of its implementation had to become different now, though. For that particular reason, chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars of the BSSR called for stopping the agitation for the Belarusian language. Instead of that, he proposed to evaluate the already achieved results of the implemented party directives, and “if unconscientious attitude of some worker toward that crucial directive of the party and the Soviet government is detected, we’ll have to punish them good. The ones who fall behind get beaten up, as they say”56 (sadly, taking into account the initiated bullying and persecution of those who were suspected of sabotaging state interests, those words were not too far from reality any longer).

Over the course of 1929–1933, the majority of references to Belarusization in the official press were limited to various ideological statements and discussions of the essence of class struggle. Now one could rarely come across factual or statistical information on the progress of Belarusization that articles used to teem with before.57

Public acts of repentance by the leading representatives of the Belarusian intelligentsia and top government officials became a sign of the times. Those acts of public self-flagellation, however, were not committed at one’s own initiative. They were usually required by the party ideologists who persistently demanded that the so-called “proletarian self-criticism” be stepped up.58

It is worth recalling, for instance, a letter by Usievalad Ihnatoŭski, a member of the TsK of the KP(b)B, that was published in Zviazda on September 28, 1929. The well-known statesman and scholar acknowledged “ideological mistakes and actual shortcomings” that he had made in his History of Belarus in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries.59 Ihnatoŭski also published a similar letter entitled I Acknowledge without Reservation my Profound Guilt toward the Party in that same newspaper on December 12, 1930.60

Shortly afterwards, on December 21, 1929 the newspaper Rabočy (The Worker) published a statement by Zmicier Žylunovič.61 The article under the typical title My Mistakes and Their Root Causes was then reprinted in Zviazda. The writer and statesman publicly repudiated his earlier views and condemned his own activities. He explained in detail his decision and criticized his creative work at the same time. Žylunovič noted that his nationalistic mistakes had been caused by his close cooperation with “national democratic surroundings”, as well as by insufficient connection with the working and peasant masses. Zmicier Žylunovič promised that in the future he would rectify the mistakes he had made so as to meet the interests of the party that he considers to be of the highest priority.

Zmicier Žylunovič’s public repentance was accompanied in that same newspaper issue with the editor’s article The Victory of the Bolshevik Implacability that informed that Žylunovič had been one of the key ideologists of national democratism in the KP(b)B and for a long time had challenged the Communist Party with “his national democratic line, a line that is not Bolshevik, a line that is anti-party”62. For that reason, Zmicier Žylunovič’s public repentance was assessed as a clear victory of the party ideology. At the same time, it was noted that the statement of that statesman did not remove the need to continue the struggle against national democratism and therefore must not make the public less alert. Finally, that same article underscored that that confession was just the first step toward forgiveness as the party would demand evidence of loyalty again and again in the form of new expressions of self-criticism, practical activities on combating nacdemaŭščyna, and so on.63

The mentioned editor’s article vividly demonstrated the party’s reappraisal of its earlier priorities pertaining to the Belarusian national intelligentsia. Such public confessions were written by other well-known statesmen and party functionaries (among them, for instance, was Aliaksandr Čarviakoŭ who on December 27, 1929 published in the newspaper Zviazda the appeal Let Us Expose Our Mistakes with Bolshevik Self-Criticism and Harden Our Ranks Even More to Fight for Socialism64), as well as representatives of the artistic intelligentsia (Jakub Kolas, Janka Kupala, Zmitrok Biadulia, etc.)).

Forced self-criticism was emanating first and foremost from the party members who were representatives of the so-called nationalist wing (nacyjanaĺny ŭchil), whereas the majority of the artistic intelligentsia who publicly repented were not members of the party. Confessions and pledges of loyalty to the authorities were characteristic primarily of writers. The majority of them were not seriously subjected to repression. The leading party functionaries, on the other hand, were not rescued even by public repentance from expulsion from the party, arrest, and sometimes even suicide under the pressure of merciless circumstances.

Indigenization (korenizatsiya) that was conducted by the People’s Commissariat of Education of the BSSR also came under the fire of criticism. As it was noted in Sielskochoziajstviennaja Gazieta (The Agricultural Newspaper) on September 27, 1929, the People’s Commissariat of Education “in its reports with particular satisfaction reported not the growth of the proletarian layer at higher educational establishments but rather an increase in the total number of “Belarusians””65. Specifically those “nationalist aspirations” and the “opportunistic essence” of the People’s Commissariat now came under sharp public criticism. The replenishment of staff at the Academy of Sciences, the People’s Commissariat of Education, some higher educational establishments and academic research organizations with Belarusians who had no proletarian class affiliation was considered to be sabotage perpetrated by national democrats.66 Now priority had to be provided not to the national but to the class aspect of indigenization. As a result of the arrests made in the late ’20s and early ’30s, the number of Belarusians who worked at a number of state and party organizations decreased. The leading positions that had been vacated in such a manner were now being filled primarily with Jews and Russians.

The cessation of the Belarusization policy occurred as a result of a change in the ideological climate, when in conjunction with the Great Break announced by Joseph Stalin the danger of “local nationalism”, “opportunism” and counter-revolution by representatives of national democrats began to be viewed as one of the main dangers. The threat of national democratism and of the right opportunism provided a pretext for the virtually complete cessation of the processes that had been initiated within the framework of Belarusization.

Dangerous trends of the mentioned petty bourgeois nationalism (malaburžuazny nacyjanalizm) consisted of excessive attention that had very recently been provided to Belarusian national distinctness in all of its manifestations. In the light of the new ideological priorities, those trends had to be eradicated. National awareness (nacyjanaĺnaja sviadomaść), on the other hand, that had recently been appreciated so highly and nurtured so diligently was now considered to be a manifestation of counter-revolutionary national democratism.

The most significant achievements of Belarusization were in the area of secondary education where the nationality policy was conducted most successfully. In the area of specialized secondary and higher education, processes of de-Belarusization began as early as in the early ’30s, simultaneously with a change in the ideological climate of the epoch. The state apparatus also witnessed a tendency for a gradual return to the Russian language; at the same time, the Belarusian language began to be displaced from public discourse. The main proponents of Belarusization – outstanding representatives of the Belarusian intelligentsia and the authorities – fell under persecution as a result of a brutal ideological campaign launched in the late ’20s and early ’30s.


Quoted from: Platonov, R. P., Pered krutym povorotom …, 7.


Platonov, R. P. – Stashkevich, N. S. – Ges, A. N., “Tak nachinalas’ natsional’naia tragediia. Nabliudeniia i zamechaniia iz oblasti natsional’noi ideologii. Iz doklada predsedatelia Komissii TSKK VKP(b) V. P. Zatonskogo na zasedanii Biuro TSK KP(b)B v iiune 1929 goda,” Nioman, no. 9, 1992, 126.


Ibid., 126–127.


See: Knoryn, V., “Prabliemy kuĺturnaj revaliucyji,” 3–17, see also: Knoryn, V., “Ab rašajučych ‘drobiaziach’ u vialikim pytanni …,” Asvieta, no. 3, 1928, 3–12; no. 4, 1928, 3–11.


Knoryn, V., Za kuĺturnuju revaliucyju. Zbor artykulaŭ, Miensk 1928, 79–80.


Ibid., 80.




Ibid., 81.


Ibid., 80.


Platonov, R. P. – Stashkevich, N. S. – Ges, A. N., “Tak nachinalas’ natsional’naia tragediia …,” 141.




Ibid., 142–143.


The term samascijniki is used by Vladimir Zatonsky in his report, see: Platonov, R. P. – Stashkevich, N. S. – Ges, A. N., “Tak nachinalas’ natsional’naia tragediia …,” 143.


Ibid., 143.






Ibid., 144.


Ibid., 145.


“Ab pravym uchilie ŭ KP(b)B pa nacyjanaĺnym pytanni,” Zviazda, 27.07.1929.






Platonov, R. P. – Stashkevich, N. S. – Ges, A. N., “Tak nachinalas’ natsional’naia tragediia …,” 123.




The person referred to is the literature scholar and remarkable cultural figure Uladzislaŭ Dziaržynski.


“Nastroi ŭ hramadstvie (hartajučy staronki dakladaŭ ‘sakretnaha supracoŭnika’),” in: R. P. Platonaŭ (ed.), Staronki historyji Bielarusi …, 177.


Ibid., 181.


Platonaŭ, R. P., Bielaruś u mižvajenny pieryjad …, 137–138.


Kasciuk, M. P. – Ihnacienka, I. M. – Vyšynski, U. I., Narysy historyji Bielarusi, 148.


Łatyszonek, О. – Mironowicz, Е., Historia Białorusi od połowy XVII do końca XX wieku, Białystok 2000, 159–160.


Platonaŭ, R. P., Bielaruś u mižvajenny pieryjad …, 144–145.


Ibid., 212.




Vaĺfson, S. J. (ed.), ‘Navuka’ na službie nacdemaŭskaj kontrrevaliucyji, Miensk 1931.


Quoted from: Lyč, L. – Navicki, U. Historyja kuĺtury Bielarusi, 290.


Andrejeva, J. H., Historyja narodnaj adukacyji …, 75.


Ibid., 76.


Materyjaly k dakladu ŭrada BSSR XI zjezdu savietaŭ, 202–203.


Lyč, L. – Navicki, U. Historyja kuĺtury Bielarusi, 277.


Ibid., 293.




Pamva Biarynda (died in 1632) was a remarkable east-Slavic scholar, translator, publisher, and engraver.


Quoted from: Lyč, L., Reforma bielaruskaha pravapisu 1933 hoda …, 18.


Lyč, L. – Navicki, U. Historyja kuĺtury Bielarusi, 293.


Andrejeva, J. H., Historyja narodnaj adukacyji …, 140–141, 189.


Quoted from: Andrejeva, J. H., Historyja narodnaj adukacyji …, 189.


Siańkievič, H. R. – Truchan, A. V. – Citok, Z. M., Narodnaja adukacyja i piedahahičnaja navuka …, 317.


Ibid., 323.


Lukašuk, A., “421° pavodlie Haloŭlitu,” 76, 78–91.


Platun, A, “Kul’tstroitel’stvo v BSSR za 40 let,” Prosveshchenie natsional’nostei, no. 1, 1931, 18.


Hramyka, M., Pačatkovaja hieahrafija, Miensk 1928, 13 and many other examples.


“Za kamunistyčnaje vychavannie,” Kamunistyčnaje vychavannie, no. 1, 1930, 4.


Andrejeva, J. H., Historyja narodnaj adukacyji …, 193, 198.


“Ab pravym uchilie ŭ KP(b)B pa nacyjanaĺnym pytanni,” Zviazda, 27.07.1929.


Zviazda, 15.12.1929; Rabochii, 6.1.1929; Zviazda, 23.11..1929 and others.


Haladzied, M., “Ab nacyjanaĺnaj palitycy, ab nacyjanal-demakratyzmie …,” 14–17.


Ibid., 17.


See, e.g: Materyjaly da spravazdačy Centraĺnaha kamitetu KP(b)B: Da XIII Zjezdu KP(b)B, Miensk 1930; “Ab kuĺturnym budaŭnictvie BSSR. Pastanova abjadnanaha plienumu TsK i CKK KP(b)B,” Kamunistyčnaje vychavannie, no. 3, 1932, 12–22; Niekraševič, A., “XVI zjezd UsieKP(b) ab nacyjanaĺnym pytanni,” Kamunistyčnaje vychavannie, no. 9–10, 1930, 81–87; Itohi i bližejšyja zadačy praviadziennia lieninskaj nacyjanaĺnaj palityki ŭ BSSR …, Miensk 1934; Harunovič, A. – Budzinski, S., Nacyjanaĺnaja palityka kamunistyčnaj partyji, Miensk 1930; “Rezaliucyja Plienumu TsK KP(b) – kastryčnik 1930 h., pryniataja pa dakladzie tav. Hieja ‘Ab nacyjanaĺnym pytanni’,” in: Š. A. Budzin (ed.), Nacyjanaĺnaje pytannie (Vybranyja pastanovy Kaminterna, UsieKP(b) i KP(b)B …, 304–314.


See, e.g: Materyjaly da spravazdačy Centraĺnaha kamitetu KP(b)B: Da XIII Zjezdu KP(b)B, 124–130.


Platonaŭ, R. P., Na krutym pavarocie …, 83–84.


Ihnatoŭski, U., “Ciažkuju vinu pierad partyjaj pryznaju biezahavoračna,” Zviazda, 12.12.1930.


“V TSK i TSKK KP(b)B (Rabochii. 29 dekabria 1929 g.),” in: R. P. Platonaŭ (ed.), Na krutym pavarocie …, 178–184.


Quoted from: Platonaŭ, R. P., Na krutym pavarocie …, 177.


Ibid., 177–178.


Čarviakoŭ, A. R., “Baĺšavickaj samakrytykaj vykryjem svaje pamylki i jašče boĺš zahartujem svaje rady dlia baraćby za sacyjalizm,” Zviazda, 27.12.1929.


“Artykul u ‘Sel’skokhoziaistvennoi gazete’ ab pravaapartunistyčnych i nacyjanalistyčnych skaženniach u dziejnasci Narkamasviety BSSR, ‘Politika i liudi’, 27 vierasnia 1929 h.,” in: R. P. Platonaŭ (ed.), Na krutym pavarocie …, 143.


Javorski, A., “Padrychtoŭka navukovych kadraŭ …,” 33.

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