Every Monday evening, an airy contemporary art gallery in central Minsk is filled with a language rarely heard on Belarus's streets: Belarusian.
An average of 240 people pack the premises of the gallery, dubbed Ў after a character that only exists in the Belarusian Cyrillic alphabet, for a free course to practice and fine-tune their skills in the official language. Since 1999, use of Belarusian has dropped dramatically in favor of Russian.
“We have our own language but most people here don’t use it,” says Veranika Famina, an actress who has been attending “Mova Nanova” – or “Language Anew” in Belarusian – since it launched in January 2014.
But many Belarusians are now taking an increased interest in their native language to assert their country’s own identity and culture apart from neighboring Russia. Mova Nanova and a growing number of unofficial linguistic initiatives are taking Belarusian beyond the school classes that it's often isolated to and back into the public sphere.
“For young people, speaking Belarusian is cool. They feel more Europe-oriented,” says translator Iryna Harasimovich at the cafe at Ў, which showcases work only in Belarusian and English. “Belarus has historically been a pendulum between East and West and that’s only become more blatant due to the situation in Ukraine.”
A preference for Russian
Led by the self-described authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, for two decades, Belarus has been dubbed as the last dictatorship in Europe by several Western governments. The former Soviet republic of 9.5 million people shares close economic ties with Russia, with which it forms a customs union, and has an open border and common air defense network.
Mr. Lukashenko has previously derided his native Belarusian – which is similar to Ukrainian and Polish – as a “poor language,” saying that unlike Russian nothing lofty can be expressed in it. In 1995, shortly after taking office, he controversially elevated Russian as an official language alongside Belarusian.
Interest in the Belarusian language has correspondingly dipped over the last couple decades. According to Belarus’ 2009 Population Census, 60.8 percent of Belarusians declare the language as their mother tongue, down from 85 percent in 1999.
The decline can be attributed to several factors, according to Paula Borowska, a contributor to Belarus Digest. The number of Belarusian-only language schools have dropped over the past decade. University lecturers can choose which language they teach in, but most often opt for Russian. State television and newspapers are predominantly in Russian.
But Lukashenko raised eyebrows when he gave a rare speech in Belarusian in July, just shy of Belarus’ Independence Day – which some analysts felt carried a political message.
“Lukashenko’s most recent speech in the language shows, first and foremost, that he is very concerned about Russia's actions in Ukraine, which may be replicated in Belarus one day and threaten his rule,” says Joerg Forbrig, director of the Fund for Belarus Democracy and an Eastern Europe specialist at the German Marshall Fund. “Given such gloomy prospects, he reasserts Belarus' independence and appeals to the public under the banner of Belarusian-ness.”
So far, "nothing really has changed" regarding Belarusian's official use, says Ms. Borowska. But demand to learn the language continues to climb among the public.
Mova Nanova, which touts itself as apolitical and simply a way to celebrate Belarus’ distinct identity, has spread to eight cities and towns in Belarus – in addition to Kiev, Krakow, and St. Petersburg. It will be opening in three more locations in the fall. A similar course, Movaveda (“Language Knowledge”), sprouted up in May.
Every week, well-known Belarusian figures from a myriad of fields – whether poets, engineers, or doctors – present at Mova Nanova, give new vocabulary in their respective occupation, and rely on group participation. One evening, attendees cluster in small groups to compose a poem in Belarusian.
Still, it can be a struggle to organize an unofficial initiative as basic as language learning in Belarus, where much is tightly regulated. “The biggest challenge for [the Mova Nanova course] is not to find a teacher, but a place,” says Alesia Litvinouskaja, a linguist who co-founded Mova Nanova along with journalist Gleb Labadzenka. “We don’t use state-run premises, where we’re not welcome, but independent ones.”
With no funding, the initiative relies on the public: Belarusian businessmen donate chairs and participants, who sometimes come with their whole family, prepare tea and coffee.
Ms. Famina, the actress, has always considered Belarusian her native language, but when approached by a Belarusian TV channel for an interview a few years ago, realized she could not actually speak it freely.
With her newfound Belarusian skills, Famina, a mother of two, organized a traveling puppet theater play for children entirely in Belarusian. “I want to show children that we are an independent country,” she says, “and we have our own language, and we should keep it that way.”