There’s one thing Belarusians of today do regularly: rolling their eyes and quietly despising the questioner, they explain that Belarus is not Russia. Nor it’s any of the other neighbourhood nations.
Why? Because people are different here. You feel that when you cross the border, when you meet a Belarusian in a foreign land, when you watch them debate and express their feelings.
This is a national character: it’s visible and relatively stable because it changes slower than the outside world.
1. Peace as the highest value
People are often defined by the values they hold. Belarusians of the twenty-first-century value peace above everything else. Poor standard of living and the questionable form of government fade before the risk of war.
You can spot that belief in common toasts for the peaceful times, in the lyrics of Belarusian hymn, in people of older generations replying to every sensitive question with the notion that all is fine as long as we’re not at war.
Unlike many nations across the world, Belarusians never had the ideas of messianism in their mentality, never felt like they have to bring a different way of living to other nations.
They never rushed to extremes, never felt they are special and destined to save the world. You won’t even find heroic epic in Belarusian folklore, in spite of it being one of the richest in the world.
The reasons for the modern Belarusians being so tranquil is often attributed to the many wars they fought in despite not initiating them. The premise, however, lies even further than that.
2. The locals
If Belarusians throughout their history never cared much for making the whole world a
Catholic German communist happy place, what did they care for? The exact place they were born in, their family, their nearest.
Sometimes that extrapolated to the whole country, but most times, it did not. Loving the piece of ground where they were born at is reflected in countless songs, myths, and proverbs. It’s shown in the fact that Belarusians migrated very rarely until the twentieth century.
When asked where they were from, Belarusians would reply that they are “the locals”. This attitude is heavily integrated with the indifference to the national, social, and political causes which continues to this day.
It’s the well-being of the piece of ground that you stand on that matters most, the well-being of your family and friends. It’s that mentality that is often blamed for the vagueness and ambivalence of Belarusian national identity.
However, it’s also that mentality that is given credit for the very existence of Belarusian national identity: separating oneself from whatever was happening beyond one’s village made it impossible for both Poles and Russians at different times to overwhelm and take over the Belarusian culture.
Not only do Belarusians lack a feeling of national superiority, they historically respect other nations and their culture. During the times of the Great Duchy of Lithuania, Belarusians, Lithuanians, as well as Ukrainians, Jews, and Tatars lived together in peace.
They shared different religious views, had different traditions, and often spoke different languages, yet that was never considered a problem. That idea of effortless tolerance lived on. For example, Belarus is a rare place where anti-semitism was never a thing.
Not all is that shiny today: Belarusians are not that high up on the international rankings of tolerance. That, however, is attributed to the influence of the Soviet times, where everything different and foreign was considered an enemy.
Considering the long history of cohabitation before the seventy years of Soviet Union, it makes sense to assume that Belarusians will go back to their better qualities.
Patience is a quality that’s often thought about first when talking about Belarusian character. Numerous anecdotes tell us that Belarusians can “suffer through” anything.
To understand that quality, we have to go even further back in history, to the times when people started living on the territories of modern Belarus.
From the ethnographic point of view, the locations where the Belarusian ethnic group formed and developed was not an easy “feeding” landscape: it’s the one that required work and patience.
There were no immediate gratifications: to survive, you had to work and be patient. However, loads depended on the weather, so together with patience, Belarusians developed a fatalistic approach to life.
5. Traditionality and conformism
Patience and fatalism are just one side of the mentality coin: traditionality and conformism are the other. In the conditions of harsh and risky agriculture that Belarusians practiced, every novelty was unwelcome and too risky to try.
Therefore, labour required not so much learning and experimenting but steadily repeating what’s been done for generations before. This sort of practical conformism extrapolated to how Belarusians valued patterns of behaviour, values, and beliefs.
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Traditionalism became a huge part of Belarusian mentality and that is partly what made Belarusian culture survive. When Christianity was brought to Belarusians, people didn’t give up pagan traditions; when communism took over, a mix of pagan and Christian traditions emerged.
Many such traditions are still alive today.
6. The drama is real
Partly due to the harsh reality that Belarusians lived in, they developed into a pessimistic nation with a rather dramatic attitude to life. Many researchers of Belarusian ethnicity and folklore point out the abundance of dramatic, hopeless songs.
Many classic Belarusian authors point to the same thing about the nation’s oeuvre. A happy life is not a value that is respected in Belarus: both now and in the past. It’s the modest standard of living that is appreciated.
Modern research shows that Belarusians still generally feel that indulging themselves is inherently wrong. It’s more culturally appropriate to whine and show the outside world how abused they are – just how it used to be for centuries of harsh labour.
7. Individualism and collectivism
Nations are often researched in terms of whether they prioritize collective values (e.g., Asian countries) or individualistic values (e.g., Western world). Belarus is where these two mentalities meet in an almost 50/50 proportion.
It all started when Belarusians would settle down quite far from each other because of the marshy and wooded landscape. In most cases, every family had to count on just themselves to survive.
At the same time, it was important for peasants to be “like everyone else”. When possible, people helped each other, it was acceptable to give advice to the conversational partner before he or she faces a problem.
This is something that still exists and flourishes in Belarusian society. During Soviet times, the premise of being like your neighbour turned into a more damaging behaviour of not standing out.
For a good reason: the ones that stand out suffered; the ones that attracted too much attention did not survive. The mentality of modern Belarusians in that sense is quite puzzling: they report to prefer collectivistic values, and yet are often introverted, unable and unwilling to work in a team.
They continue to connect the two worlds of collectivism and individualism.
It’s important to realize that however you feel about Belarusian mentality, it’s exactly what made the nation survive – against the odds. And, unlike many others, it survived not at the cost of other nations.
Quite the opposite: in a calm manner, getting through all the horrible things that have happened during the last centuries, distracting themselves from reality through fantasy and humour, Belarusians lived on and may even become a happier nation at some point.
As we remember, mentality changes slower than the outside world.
Text by Alina Gorbatch