Food… and Some Aftertaste of Belarus

A rise of travel food shows is indicative of a renewed appreciation for culinary experiences to help visitors get in touch with a local culture. One day is not enough to treat yourself to a whole range of flavors and my Russian palette knew what to expect from the culinary scene of Minsk. Russians love the exquisite quality of the Belarusian food produce. People with a vague sense of nostalgia for the Soviet Union believe that it is due to higher production standards dating back to this era -in Belarus they seem to be complied with up to this day. Along with the search for linguistic and architectural symbolism, I started craving for a more tangible piece of the Belarusian national identity, i.e., potato pancakes (драники).

Even though this is not distinctively foreign food (it is a popular dish back home), in Russia we think of it as a staple of the Belarusian cuisine. This was why I was hoping to find these potato pancakes distinctively tastier here, in their homeland. I guess in that part of the former Soviet Union, or even the whole Eastern Europe for that matter, we all love our potatoes. But it is incredible how they offer enough culinary space for our distinct national identities. For a taste of Belarusian potato pancakes I decided to go to a traditional local restaurant in Independence Avenue that I had chosen based on the largely positive reviews.

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This is where I had my potato pancakes (драники). By the way, the name of the restaurant is written in Belarusian, which makes sense

Its interior was adorned with traditional towels so I could enjoy another display of the country’s national identity. The waiters were also wearing national costumes. This place might have seemed like a tourist trap, but I could feel a genuine touch of our Slavic hospitality here. I had my драники served with мачанка(honestly I’d never heard this word before), which is a traditional Belarusian stew made with meat. On this somewhat chilly day pork ribs would be perfect for keeping me warm. I decided to wash the calorie-rich dish down with a glass of local beer. I remember tasting one of the best beers in my life here in Minsk six years ago. I have been to quite a few places since but very few beers I’ve had matched up (so far). When my perfectly Instagrammable dish arrived, I had to do what actually hurdles mindfulness – I took multiple photos of my meal to send home and posted one on my Instagram. I was on my own so the only way for me to share my excitement with a larger world was to disconnect from the one around. I couldn’t wait to give the food a try – my lunch was beautifully filling and tasty. The Belarusian national identity seemed more distinct now with those deliciously and uniquely made potatoes! The beer was OK, but I guess at that particular moment I didn’t feel like having another glass.

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An Instagram moment

My elaborate architectural walk left me no time for a proper dinner – I could have tried the famous potato pancakes at another restaurant as virtually every place had them on the menu. All I had time for was to grab a coffee at a lovely place in Independence Avenue. I didn’t see as many coffee shops as I had expected in a place so close to the European Union, though. For my chocolate fix I popped out into a confectionery shop selling the produce by the Kommunarka Factory, one of the largest manufacturers of confectionery in Belarus. My Mum’s internship in Minsk was also in the food industry, but it was a bread-manufacturing enterprise. The sensual smell of freshly made chocolate made me imagine I was up for an ultimate Willy Wonka experience. I got a few bars for my family members and myself.

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I had to make sure I got this chocolate. It is a Belarusian twist on the legendary Soviet Alenka chocolate that every Russian knows well

There was also a coffee shop here and it looked very busy and somewhat chaotic. I was hoping to sit at one of these tables overlooking the night lights of Independence Avenue and reminisce about leisurely coffee breaks on my European travels as well as numerous conversations over a steaming cup with fascinating people on the other side of the Atlantic. Also, it would be another pensive moment enjoying being alone together and contemplate our own thoughts and ideas with some other solo visitors. But it wasn’t meant to happen as before I knew it, the last vacant table got occupied. I was still clinging to the hope of grabbing a seat while I was making my order of ginger hot chocolate and an éclair. While I was watching my hot chocolate being made, I was thinking of Christmas gingerbread till I could smell actual ginger being added to the mix. It jerked me back to my first cold days in the U.S. when a roommate suggested me eating ginger for my cold. Even though I come from a country which is known for extremely cold temperatures, up until then I hadn’t been aware of the medicinal properties of ginger. But while on the other side of the Atlantic, whenever I had similar symptoms, I forced myself to have some ginger tea. Here in Minsk my coffee experience was somewhat rushed as I gulped my steaming cup standing, which I wasn’t sure was completely acceptable. It would have certainly been in numerous coffee shops in the Penn Station area in NYC where I had my long-awaited morning coffees to give me energy after a commune into the City. For my cheese fix I checked out an airport duty-free store where I got some imported cheese from France, Poland and Lithuania at a very reasonable price – I think a few Russians lining up behind me did as well. As I had some time to kill before boarding, I had my final taste of the Belarusian food at an airport café. I had a sandwich with some locally made mozzarella that I washed down with another glass of beer. I grabbed a few bottles to bring back home as well. I spent my final hour in Belarus mindfully enjoying my food and beer and toasting the Slavic food and hospitality!

 

 

P.S.

Well, on this trip to Minsk I have accomplished my goals of contemplating the language(s), architecture and food, which I hope might give my travel writing a new direction. What I did fail though was to describe my adventures on a reasonable amount of pages – sorry about that! I guess at least it shows how one doesn’t have to go too far or be away for too long to come back home with a sizeable story to tell. Of course, it’s much more interesting to explore somewhere at least indistinctly different from home. The feeling of landing back in your bed after a day abroad is too surreal to miss out on!

As COVID-19 restrictions haven’t been lifted yet, a lot of us are now turning into storytellers engrossed in our own mix of memories. On May 9 I remembered Belarus again. This is when we celebrate the defeat of the Nazi Germany in the post-Soviet space. Due to the growing COVID-19 threat, the Russian government chose not to have a military parade to mark the 75th anniversary of the glorious victory, meanwhile the Belarusian authorities decided to go through with the Victory Day celebrations. I don’t think I am not in support of either of these moves. It might have been difficult to find a way to handle this holiday which has such a “sacred” status in this part of the world- the costs we paid for this victory were tragically immense. But I have to admit that watching this parade in central Minsk being broadcast on a Belarusian TV channel made me contemplate not only our ongoing disagreements but also the shared history. Even though it was being celebrated under the red-and-green flag, it struck an emotional chord leaving me feeling happy that regardless of the global health crisis OUR victory has been honored…  Our ancestors were strong enough to rebuild the country and at times renegotiate their own identities following the unprecedented devastation of what we refer to as the Great Patriotic War. I hope now we owe it to them to find a minuscule of strength in us to get back to normality. Once we do that, more travel stories will certainly follow…

Mindful Explorations of Minsk’s Architecture

When it comes to enjoying the mix of Soviet and European architecture in Minsk, I was under no pressure of doing any prior research. With no formal training in the field, I felt that all I had to do was just to let my eyes wander and my mind process my surroundings. I have an affiliation with the subject at hand, though. My first job I’m still holding almost ten years on is with a research journal of Architecture and Construction where I’ve been working as a translator. I’ve mainly dealt with papers on construction materials and techniques, heating and ventilation, water and gas supply, and other aspects which are vital for efficient functioning of various building structures. I felt that articles on the history of architecture (every issue would normally include at least one) provided a breath of fresh air for me, a linguist and a traveler. With more travel experiences under my belt, I started realizing how beneficial mindfulness could be. So I read a book on mindful travelling (just as on travel writing). If we take a moment to pause and contemplate wherever we are, architecture will certainly be there begging to be scrutinized. The German architect Mies van der Rohe called it “the will of the epoch translated into space” and British PM Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us”. These two distinguished individuals with varying degrees of affiliation with the field highlighted its importance as a minefield of visual and factual information. It could indeed provoke mindfulness. Personally, I have already learned a bit more about architecture than I had ever imagined and hopefully have done my tiny bit to contribute to the existing global body of knowledge with my translations of papers by Russian scholars. Nevertheless I thought picking up a book on the history of architecture to make more sense of my surroundings wouldn’t hurt. I happened to do it just weeks before this trip – so yes, a vague attempt at prior research had been made.

Given the amount of shared history with Russia, I was certain about the kind of intersections of architectural styles would come my way in the capital of Belarus. But as that was going to be a short exercise on mindful travelling, I had to search for architectural elements that would cause me to pause. As a well-seasoned traveler and my own travel agent, I take full responsibility for my travelling experiences rather than wait for a place to deliver on my expectations. Even though travel information on Minsk is far more scarce than for some popular destinations, a bit of research helped me to come up with a tailor-made itinerary. Despite a few wrong turns I knew would have to be made, it felt reassuring to have one. So I expected most of my walks to center around Independence Avenue, the capital’s beating heart. Walking is a great physical exercise and the best way to mindfully explore the city!

While I was still on the bus to the city centre, the mix of red and green (the colors of the national flag) on multiple – otherwise pretty ordinary – architectural elements caught my eye. It seemed as a reminder of the country’s pursuit of national identity.

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Беларусь sign near the Minsk airport (Belarus)

My first encounter with one of the capital’s latest architectural must-sees, the National Library of Belarus, happened through a bus window. The diamond-shaped glass building was designed to symbolize the nation’s commitment to acquiring invaluable knowledge through reading. As a linguist, I think it is a beautiful architectural nod to the love of written words. The building was mentioned on the list of the world’s best libraries and internationally acclaimed works. In the attempt to seek out a more informal professional opinion, I mentioned my mindful adventures in Minsk to my student who is an architect. According to her, even though Minsk is a thriving but yet somewhat restraining playground for young talents, the quality of the construction materials used in the city’s latest buildings including that of the National Library is disputable. Well, architecture is an artistic and yet economic endeavor. After all, knowledge is certainly of indisputable value in the knowledge-processing stage when we attempt to make sense of somewhat conflicting pieces of information.

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National Library of Belarus as seen from a bus window

When I got off the bus in front of the train station, I was greeted by the sight of the Gates of the City of Minsk – another photo the 31-year-old me took to trigger my Mum’s memories of a few months of her very early 20s here. I think this particular architectural ensemble was powerful enough to take her back to her own adventures in the city. I wish people back in the Soviet era had had more chances to travel around, though. During my first visit to Minsk in my mid-20s the city felt frozen in that era that our parents are still vaguely nostalgic about.

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Gates of the City of Minsk

This time as I was taking a few wrong turns on my way to Independence Avenue, I could see a visual clash of Moscow and smaller Russian cities and towns. Minsk seemed a crossover of both – dynamic and yet quiet influenced by the common Soviet past that is still sweeping across the whole post-Soviet space. I was happy to be finally standing in Independence Avenue and staring at its enormity. I knew I wouldn’t physically walk those 15 km on this trip! After a few steps I snapped a quick photo of the Government House with the national flag hoisted on top. I knew it was forbidden, but bending the rules a bit seems part of the Soviet and Russian heritage – and mindful explorations as well! I didn’t feel like lingering in this familiar-looking but yet admittedly blatant display of power…

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Government House of Belarus

So I approached a spot that seemed so much more appealing and in no way evocative of the Soviet times. The red bricks of the Church of Saints Simon and Helena contrasted beautifully with the clear blue skies – the most spectacular framing for any piece of architecture! The first half of December 2019 was rather dull in my part of Russia, so I hadn’t seen blue for what seemed like eternity. The construction of the church was funded by a Belarusian Polish landowner and named after his two deceased children. The Roman Catholic Church in central Minsk was closed down a few times and used as a cinema and a theatre till it became an important religious site of the Belarus capital. The sad narrative of the building made me contemplate my geographical location – I was right between Russia and Poland, the first foreign country I’d visited (after Belarus).

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Church of Saints Simon and Helena against the clear blue sky

Even though I’m not at all religious and even far from spiritual, Catholic churches give me reassurance that architectural prowess is capable of creating a sense of serenity and retreat that is painfully missing in our daily lives. I think that was a proper moment I was craving to experience on my architectural pursuit of Minsk – I now felt significantly closer to Europe (or the European Union, to be more precise). I know as a nation, Russia is marginalized from this economic, social and political space. Now that I have hopefully advanced on my way to well-roundedness, various kind of divides plaguing this part of the world seem more discernible. Nevertheless, it is partly in celebration of my romance with it that I sneak into churches for a moment of solemn solitude. Purple ribbons stretching between the sides of the ceiling, intricate vaults, Latin alphabet, Catholic artwork and images of Pope Francis transported me to the sensual and intellectual overload of my European travels. It is usually my gut telling me when it is proper time to exit a church.

While I took another moment to appreciate the sunshine, there was something begging me to linger to examine the church from more angles.
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If buildings truly shape us, what can one’s mind make of the neo-Romanesque Catholic church against the backdrop of the House of Government with a Christmas/New Year tree in the middle of it..? I took my final photo to capture a pensive moment, crossed to the other side of the street and gave the red church on the opposite side of the busy central road another lingering gaze …

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Through an array of more Stalinist architectural pieces, I made my way to the Old Town. To add some vitality to my architectural pursuit, I also noted a few fashionably dressed strangers crossing an intersection along Nemiga Street. Standing between the Holy Spirit Cathedral and Town Hall with a riverfront view stretching ahead felt magical. A few charming decorations made me reminisce about Christmas markets in Europe. This uphill spot was perfect for pausing and contemplating the Polish and Lithuanian influences in Belarus as the cathedral was built in the 17th century, at times of the Commonwealth of the two states.

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The festive Old Town

After a short walk amidst cozy cafes and quaint buildings, I ended up on the Svislach River embankment where I paused for a bit more. There seemed to be some construction works going on further uphill.

Before rethinking my itinerary, I watched a few swans swimming in the river and enjoyed some unobstructed views of the sky turning grayish. I backtracked to cross a footbridge to get to the Island of Tears. Here one can find a very moving architectural ensemble that commemorates the Belarusian soldiers killed in the 1979-1989 Soviet-Afghan war. Profound somberness of such memorials causes one to lament and resent wars. This is when architectural prowess is capable of striking the most profound chord.

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A very touching monument commemorating the dead

Engrossed in a mix of pensive sadness and contemplation, I was looking at a statue of a crying angel against the sky which was turning spectacularly pink. Suddenly, a thought of my two dear friends from Afghanistan I met back in the U.S. brought a smile to my face as well as profound vitality to the scene. It might sound corny, but I hope that the warmth of human bonding is capable of making us forget countless pieces of contradictory information of war conflicts between our nations and come together to empower each other instead… The sunrise over the Minsk skyline with only one visibly tall building somehow reminded me of my pensive walks around Manhattan and a memorable promenade along a New Jersey bay– a lovely crossover of memories…

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A magnificent sunset with a statue of a crying angel on the right stirring a mix of emotions and memories

As the evening had magically arrived, past a little park I made my way to a shop selling local linen that I had promised to get for Mum. During the preliminary investigative stage I had certain doubts about whether I would be able to get to this place as it seemed a bit too remote. A pensive walk through past countless facades of buildings on both sides distracted me, so I got a bit lost. I decided to backtrack to the city’s beating heart, Independence Avenue. Street lights and festive illumination added more charm to this wide avenue which seemed somewhat busier now as people were crowding at a metro station. I took a moment to pause and rest my feet at a bus stop overlooking another example of Stalinist architecture, the Palace of Republic.

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Palace of Republic in the distance, a venue for the concert I came here six years ago to see

That was a venue for the concert of my favourite British boyband I came here six years ago to see. I was sitting looking at its officially-looking façade and reminiscing about how awkward it was watching a pop concert in its interior adorned with Soviet-era symbols. Enough for the memories – I still had to buy some linen. For that I had to get lost in a maze of an underground passage to cross to the other side to the imposing building of the GUM Department Store, the largest one in Minsk. It caused another crossover of memories – the scale of the building reminded me of Macy’s in New York City and its style brought me back to my post-Soviet childhood and to a much more humble but similarly shaped store in my home town in central Russia. As I entered the first floor, I was astonished by a lavish display of traditional Belarus folk embroidery.

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Belarus is a largely rural country and these towels convey a somewhat romanticized image of a village. It looked like another pursuit of the country’s national identity which radiated a sense of coziness and homeliness. I got a few traditional linen towels (рушник) which have their own distinct pattern depending on a region where they were made. My late grandmother who lived in a village very close to the Ukrainian border used to have a similar one on display in her house as well…

This whole shopping experience offered a sense of nostalgia instead of habitual impersonality of modern shopping centers. On my way back to the bus station a few lovely shopping displays caught my eye. For a moment I wished it were snowing to add extra magic to my walk along the avenue…

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A festive shopping display…

I rested my feet one last time facing the Church of Saints Simon and Helena. Against the dark sky it had a slightly Gothic vibe – it had to be one of the highlights of my mindful exploration of the city. The final brushstroke to my architectural pursuit of Minsk were the Gates of the City – I took another picture for Mum. The timetable at the bus station once again reminded me of how closer I was to the European Union – there were buses coming from or going to different places in Poland and Lithuania. I took one last look at mostly Stalinist architecture on my way to the airport…

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Goodbye, Minsk!

 

Linguistic Adventures in Minsk

Arriving in the capital city of Belarus about 90 minutes later was really a breeze as there was no passport control or anything else I could see or hear to make me feel that I was somewhere even remotely foreign. Well, except for that welcoming sign reading Мiнск (in Belarusian). A photo I took of it got my Mum excited. She asked me to say hello to the city for her.

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A welcoming sign in Belarusian and English

That tiny trip was already becoming one of a kind – neither had I ever got to see my Mum and another country on the same day nor had she ever had any connection with the place I had visited on any of my overseas travels. Well, unlike my Mum who spent a few months in Minsk as a student, I had to remember I was actually abroad as I had to get some local money… That seemed quite an easy thing to do as the language barrier didn’t even exist in reading (so far). On my way to the city centre I started studying some billboards as the first visual cues to give me some feel for the city’s character and identity. They were all in Russian (so far)…

Through the course of that short day I chose to pretend I was a researcher on a mission to investigate the capital city’s languagescape. I expected ethnographic methods would be suited for the task. Before embarking on field work, I found myself grappling with a dilemma facing a lot of researchers. Should I weed through a great amount of scientific data to gain a wide range of perspectives on the issue? Should I simply go with my gut? Or finally, should I strive to strike a balance between the two and make a well-informed judgment relying on a variety of available internal and external sources? After all, I chose to examine some studies on Belarus’s language use and policies as well as resulting linguistic identities prior to my trip.

It is a common belief that every sovereign state claims its own identity largely by means of its national language. It is definitely not so straightforward for a lot of nations including Belarus. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it was the last former Soviet state to pass on the language legislation. According to the controversial 1995 referendum sponsored by President Lukashenko, Belarusian and Russian are its official languages. Does that mean the country is bilingual? Belarus is referred to as the most “Russified” former Soviet state and its language policy as “quasi-bilingual” as the Belarusian language mostly serves a symbolic function. For instance, most legal documents are published in Russian and since the 1990s Russian has been gaining growing recognition in the Republic of Belarus. Some scientists refer to this scenario as “post-imperial” , i.e., when the language of the former dominating political power remains significant but is no longer a language of political allegiance. It seems obvious that Belarusians no longer want to be seen as “Russia’s younger brother”. As some poll data suggests, there has been less support for the Belarus-Russia union state in the last decade. Currently there are three distinct political movements in the country: Belarusophones, Russophones and official Belarusian State Nationalism that emphasizes the importance of maintaining the relations with Russia as well as the other CIS countries. According to the Republic’s President Lukashenko, Belarusians own Russian just as much as Russians. There was no reason why any attempt had to be made to suppress it, which might essentially involve Belarusians rejecting a part of their “soul”. Besides, Lukashenko still seems nostalgic about the former Soviet Union and the Russian language has been a linguistic glue holding its nations together. Despite a strong emphasis on state nationalism, Lukashenko has been consistently reported to diminish the role of Belarusian as associated with the language of the opposition. Thus, when in 2014 on the Republic’s Independence Day President chose to deliver a part of his speech in Belarusian (what he hadn’t done since 1994), he truly “stunned” the nation. Some political commentators argue that this speech might have been indicative of Lukashenko’s urge to claim autonomy from Russia in response to the annexation of Crimea.

In the recent decades there have also been a few studies exploring linguistic identities and language attitudes of around 10 million people living in the country. In contrast to the 1990s census data, some independent poll data from 2009 revealed that even though an overwhelming majority identified themselves as Belarusians, a more significant proportion reported Russian as their native language. Also, only a third of those who identified Belarusian as their native language claimed to use it at home while the majority reported speaking predominantly Russian. Interestingly, in some other surveys that offered the option “mixed language” a sizeable proportion of the participants reported to use it. However, the younger cohort seemed to prefer Russian. It must be noted that the surveys were conducted in Minsk. The numbers could have been somewhat different in smaller cities. A mixed use of Russian and Belarusian had to be adopted by former rural residents moving to bigger cities for career opportunities following the World War II. It is called as “trasianka” (“low quality hay” in Belarusian). This term has been a subject of scholarly debate as it has a certain negative connotation and is largely associated with a low social status and education level both by Russian and Belarusian speakers. President Lukashenko has been criticized by the opposition for using “trasianka”. It is argued that it is for fear of speaking this stigmatized language variation that Belarusians refrain from speaking pure Belarusian.

An early version of Belarusian was utilized in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. This formerly largest state in Europe comprised Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, some parts of Ukraine and what is today the Republic of Belarus. In the 17th century Polish started gaining momentum. While being ruled by Russia, the area continued to be dominated by the Polish culture up until 19th century. It was around the same time when the western borders of the Russian empire were being russified that the standard Belarusian was considered a dialect of Russian. In terms of linguistic proximity Belarusian and Russian are compared with Scots and English, Wallon and French, Low German and High German. The knowledge of Belarusian is barely mentioned as essential to “Belarusianness”. Belarusian classes are rarely offered as part of a school curriculum and 85% of books are published in Russian. However, a sizeable proportion of Belarusians are willing to improve their knowledge of Belarusian culture and history.

When it comes to Belarusian Russian, some linguists believe that its “nativisation” in Belarus led to a new variety as was the case for different versions of English. Due to the extensive influence the Russian media has had on it, Belarusian Russian has not been recognized as a “legitimate national variety of Russian”. More than 40% of print media is in Russian and no more than 15% of airtime is devoted to Belarusian-language programs. The view of Russian having a “homogeneous standard variety”, which was customary back in the Soviet Union, seems to be another stumbling block for this variation. Obviously, it has its own distinct phonological and lexical features. Lexicographers insisted on including forms that had previously been regarded as “substandard” in dictionaries, which sparked a debate on the literary norm in the post-Soviet era. Now that a large proportion of media is Internet-based, Moscow-based scholars have less control over standard Russian use. The Belarusian Russian has fewer English borrowings and some variations in political and legal terminology.

As can be seen, people of Belarus seem divided on what it means to be Belarusian and which language or variation defines them as a nation. Therefore language does not straightforwardly fit into the intricate tapestry of the Belarusian identity. Overall, Belarus presents a remarkably new phenomenon in the recent history of the Russian language in the CIS countries. This country also serves as a unique example of how contingent issues of language policies and emerging linguistic identities are.

So what kind of discoveries did I make through the course of my field work in Belarus? I believe that doing a bit of research on the country’s linguistic, political and cultural landscape enabled me to reevaluate my own attitude to it. I hate to admit that in a way as a Russian I used to patronize this small neighboring state as they sometimes do younger siblings. I would even describe my attitude as somehow inspired by despicable colonial policies of the past. Before my second short trip to Belarus, I was mainly interested in the way MY language was spoken there. As non-native teachers, we often resent natives claiming ownership of languages we teach for a living. In this line of work some of us have to renegotiate our professional and even personal identities again and again. At some point, we might start (un)consciously distancing ourselves from our first languages. But there is someone/something constantly reminding us of where we come from. A simple conservation starter “Where are you from?” sometimes dampens the excitement of interacting with native speakers making us, non-natives, feel that we are trodding on THEIR land. Even though some professionals manage to train themselves to gracefully stay afloat in the ocean of a foreign language, our (hopefully not so distinct) spoken and writing accents will always be there as a badge of otherness. Both natives and non-natives are contemplating their identities as English is gaining an unprecedented momentum as an international language. It is thus no longer surprising to hear conversations between non-native speakers that are anything to each other (passers-by, colleagues, friends, spouses, parents, etc.) in diverse corners of the world. Even though these polyphonies of sound as well as at times bizarre wording and phrasing might still make some natives cringe, I believe our “Englishes” are as legitimate as our unique identities. All I know is that after spending almost a year in an English-speaking country and engaging in countless conversations, I am back with at least an elusive sense of global citizenship as well as a renewed appreciation of my native language that I grew up speaking.

So is the way my first language is spoken in Russia different from the one in Belarus? I wish I had asked myself this on my first visit here. But I don’t think at that point of my career I was up for the challenge. That trip had a totally different agenda as I came to Minsk to see my favourite British boyband in concert. Those lads were responsible for fuelling my passion for English which back then I had no idea would enable me to do so much more than just understand their song lyrics. Here I was six years later doing some eavesdropping in the streets of this same city on a mission to observe actual linguistic behavior of Belarusians. Before ever coming to this neighboring country, I knew that there was one very famous Belarusian –the Republic’s President Lukashenko – who sounded remotely different to me. Even though I was listening hard throughout my day in Minsk, on the phonological level nothing stood out for me. Besides, unlike during ten months away from home, not even once had I been asked “Where are you from?” Could it be because my interactions were limited to a money-exchange kiosk, a restaurant, a Soviet-style department store, a café and a bus station and the airport? Or is Russian truly a pass beyond the national borders? Finally, was I too focused on the differences or were the samples and research environment too random and uncontrolled? It was only content analysis of those snippets of conversations that revealed the word “Belarus” and a few references to its different regions. Other than that, there wasn’t anything about what I heard to make me aware I wasn’t actually in Russia.

As the Belarusian language still seemed nowhere to be heard, I kept scrutinizing random billboards around me in the attempt to at least see some. Unlike those on my way from the airport which were all in Russian, a few in the city centre were in a mix of Belarusian and Russian (in that particular order). The symbolic significance of the former struck me in Independence Avenue (Minsk’s most central street). There I saw an imposing building of the House of Government with a Belarusian flag on top and a massive sign only in Belarusian that read “З Новым годам i Нараджэннем Хрыстовым” (“Happy New Year and Merry Christmas”). In Russian that would have been “С Новым Годом и Рождеством Христовым”, which is not significantly different and thus easy to decipher for a Russian.

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З Новым годам i Нараджэннем Хрыстовым” (“Happy New Year and Merry Christmas”), Independence Avenue

Further along the avenue I could see more Belarusian on numerous plaques. Their language was becoming more challenging to decipher. I failed to understand what exactly distinguished individuals who used to live in those buildings were famous for. Their names were clearly prominent in the Belarusian culture but totally unknown to me.

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A street sign for Independence Avenue (in Belarusian)

Continuing down the avenue after a few wrong turns, I sent a photo of the Minsk Circus building (Цырк) to an amazing American lexicographer and a teacher of Russian and French I met back in the U.S. I am sure on her future trip to Belarus she will have an engaging linguistic adventure of her own. Actually, a little glimpse of French also caught my eye as my promenade took me to the Svislach River Embankment just a bit off Independence Avenue. The French flair of a billboard that read “Minsk vous attend” (Minsk is waiting for you) might help in promoting international tourism here in Belarus. I saw a few billboards in English as well that were probably from the 2nd European Games held here earlier in 2019. Everything else I encountered – from restaurant and café menus and other billboards – was in the language we and Belarusians call our own.

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A restaurant menu (in Russian)
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An advertisement sign for a chocolate factory (in Russian)

A patriotic sign that read I heart Belarus could have been both in Russian and Belarusian as these words are identical in both languages.

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I heart Belarus (the same in Belarusian and Russian)

The last final brushstroke to my version of the Minsk linguascape were a few airport announcements in Belarusian, Russian and English. That was once that I had got to hear the former being spoken, even if in such a dry and impersonal tone. I caught myself thinking that it sounded like a mix of Russian, Ukrainian and Polish. In spite of multiple misunderstandings of varying scale, we still seem historically and linguistically intertwined in this part of the world. I concluded my field work with an eavesdropping session at an airport café – two waitresses at the bar spoke just the way their counterparts would back home…

On this trip what I realized was that the Belarusian identity was tangibly there in visual symbols. The Russian language was living and breathing as an essential part of it.

I think that living in such a vast country we might sometimes overlook the fact that Russian is a lingua franca in such an expansive area of the globe. It is truly fascinating how we don’t have to go too far beyond our enormous home country to be able to find engaging playgrounds for our eyes, ears and minds. As much as we crave for novelty while travelling, trips like this with no major linguistic misunderstandings are somewhat comforting. I must concur that “Belarusianness” is a blurred term to define indeed. Should I set out on conducting a full-scale study of my own, I will have to dive deeper into research data and probably go on another trip here. I am not sure about it yet – my own identity as a language teacher and a researcher is still evolving and so are my travelling motives and agendas. It was my teenage crush on a member of that British band that first brought me to Minsk. Now this feeling that had been feeding my curiosity for English is long gone. What remains is a much more profound feeling towards languages and my curiosity about how they shape our identities. I realize I might have to negotiate mine again and again as I hopefully explore more external and internal sources of knowledge and enlightenment. I surely don’t mind a lot more field work in the process!

 

References
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Duchy_of_Lithuania
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trasianka
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/28/-sp-russian-belarus-reclaims-language-belarusian
https://www.rferl.org/a/shocking-belarusian-president-speaks-belarusian-lukashenka/25443432.html
https://carnegie.ru/commentary/67939
https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/linguistic-anthropology/ethnographic-methods/F8894FE65BAF468EDE14DACDC5EB06E0
Bekus, Nelly (2010): Struggle over Identity: The Official and the Alternative “Belarusianness.” Budapest: Central European University Press.

Crystal, David (2003). English as a global language. (2n d ed. First ed., 1997), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Giger, Markus and Sloboda, Marián (2008): Language Management and Language Problems in Belarus: Education and Beyond. In Multilingualism in Post-Soviet Countries, ed. Pavlenko, Aneta. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters, 41-65.

Norman, Boris (2010): Russkij jazyk v sovremennoj Belarusi: praktika i norma. Russkij jazyk (6), 8-15.

Woolhiser, Curt (2011) “Belarusian Russian”: Sociolinguistic Status and Discursive Representations. In: Rudolf Muhr (ed.): Non-dominating Varieties of Pluricentric Languages. Getting the Picture. In memory of Prof. Michael Clyne. Wien et. al., Peter Lang Verlag

Woolhiser, Curt (2014) “The Russian Language in Belarus: Language Use, Speaker Identities and Metalinguistic Discourse”. In The Russian Language Outside the Nation, ed. by Lara Ryazanova-Clarke, 81-116. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

The Last Trip of 2019 (Minsk)

Could someone like me – a linguist and a traveler– have asked for a better way to wave goodbye to 2019 than suddenly getting a chance to go on a little trip? With only one day at my disposal, I could have chosen to enjoy a quick break exploring more of the beauty and glory of our capital city. Sounds pretty amazing, right? There are tons of absolutely wonderful things you can do in Moscow. But too much work and self-reflection pushed me into being a bit more adventurous. That was when I remembered my quick trip in 2013. Have you ever travelled abroad for a day and got back home a little over 24 hours later? That was exactly what I did back then. Instead of taking two trains and spending a total of 20 hours on the road, this time two short flights were all it took me to get to a neighboring country – not foreign enough for a Russian to have to get a visa, but still different enough from Moscow to please both a linguist and a traveler.

As someone teaching and attempting to do language research, I knew on this trip I would be able to reflect on the uniting and divisive power of Russian (my mother tongue) as well as to ponder on emerging national identities in what used to be the immense Soviet Union (my country of birth). In the attempt to become a more mindful traveler, I was also hoping to treat my eyes to an engaging mix of the Soviet and European architecture and my palette to familiar but remotely foreign food. Sounds like too much for a day, right? Well, in a nutshell, that was exactly what I had enough time to do in mid-December in the capital city of Belarus. That trip was also short enough for an aspiring writer to describe on a reasonable number of pages. Also, with this story I am going to wrap up 2019 hoping for more work, self-reflection and a few engaging trips in 2020!

That was how I conceived the beginning of my Minsk story if I had got to write it in 2019. I’ve read a few books on travel writing telling me how powerful those opening lines and paragraphs should be to draw my readers in. This hook wasn’t meant to come about in 2019… So, as I am writing this in 2020 already, I am being reminded of how life has a way of changing our agendas, travelling plans, story beginnings and so much more. About two months ago those first news reports on the rapidly spreading virus didn’t disrupt my life at all. A few weeks later, scaremongering in the media culminated into a mix of confusion and despair. Finally, it all seemed disturbingly real as so many trips (including my own) had got called off and whole countries (including those I was hoping to travel to later this year) had gone into lockdown. As reports of growing numbers of people affected by the virus kept coming in, travelling was already the last thing on almost everyone’s minds. I think the moment I knew I had to start this travel piece was when my own country had got shut down. Amidst the escalating COVID-19 pandemic, I am starting to realize that my own quick trip to Belarus would be off the table now. Sadly, we have been isolated not only inside our national borders but also inside our own homes for a while now. Anyway, I would like to think of that last trip of 2019 as only my latest one. I just don’t want to give in to panic and call it the last opportunity I’ve ever had to travel!

Of course, like a drug that one can never go off, travelling has a way of giving us withdrawal symptoms. As it is no longer our choice whether to go anywhere or not, it might feel as if we had never set foot too far from our homes. With this story I am also going to remind myself (and a few readers if I am lucky) that travelling is a privilege. In order to celebrate the fact I’ve had it multiple times, I might finally get to write about all those trips I’d had before the day I boarded a plane for Minsk, Belarus. Just about 20 hours later I was to land back into the comfort on my own bed…

Unlike a lot of places in the world, travelling to Belarus is a breeze for a Russian thanks to the Commonwealth between our countries launched in 1996. Even though you are actually travelling outside Russia, there is no need to worry about getting a visa or forgetting your foreign passport at home. Well, in Russia we all have a “domestic” passport and a “foreign” one for travelling overseas. The only issue I had on my way was finding the security-check point (there is a special entrance for those travelling to Belarus which took me a while to locate). After I had finally made it to my gate, there was some time to do what any traveler loves – people-watching. As crowds of passengers around me were lining up for their flights, without even looking at the flashing flight information screens, I could see and hear that a lot of people weren’t probably going anywhere outside of what used to be the immense Soviet Union. In fact, my country of birth only lasted till I was around 3 years old. In 1991 the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was formed as if in the attempt to piece together whatever was left of that shattered glass. Certainly over the years there have been disputes about the membership in the organization as some states were not willing to join or withdrew their participation later. Despite a few wedges between all of our nations that are still tangible to this day, there is some sense of commonality that explains why people from the CIS countries who might look and sound different are quite familiar rather than foreign to a Russian. I might get to one of these countries one day as most of them don’t require a visa either – that for sure would make for another story!