Photo: Emily Volbert / www.youthmedia.eu, (by-nc)
Just like with the Matroshka doll: There is a litte Russia - Belarus - almost inside of it. Not quite.

Russian Letter

Dear Elena,

Russian people know almost nothing about their western neighbour. During history lessons at school all of us are told that Belarus is a former Soviet republic and that nowadays it remains our strategic partner in terms of international relations. In Russia, many of us have heard about the project of the Union state of Russia and Belarus. Some of us even know that although only about 10% of the total Belarusian population are Russians, almost everyone there communicates in Russian, at least at home.

I don't think Russians really perceive Belarus as their neighbour. They are far more aware of the similarities between Russians and Belarusians than the differences. For example, both Russians and Belarusians are Slavic nations; Russian is a national language in Belarus and is used by many people there. But despite these similarities, Belarus is an independent state, and of course it has some special characteristics of its own because of this. I mean, people in your country are trying to save and develop their national language and traditions. For them their differences from Russians are obvious, for people here, they are not. Few Russians are aware of the national identity of Belarusians.

The territory of modern Belarus was periodically divided between Russia and Poland. In the 20th century Belarus became part of the USSR. I guess that was one of the most dramatic periods of your history because the creation of the new Soviet state populated by Soviet people badly affected your national identity. Still, for about 200 years in total (the Soviet period and before that the Russian Empire) our people lived in one country and only for the last 20 years has Belarus been independent. So we really must have a lot in common.


Nadya Sporysheva

is a third-year student at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. She studies international relations and economics. Her major is German economics. Nadya was one of the winners of the Russian History Competition "A Man in History. Russia - The 20th Century" in 2007 with a work about repressions in the USSR in the 20th century.

That is why I appreciate the experience of visiting Belarus. I was there this summer and I would say that there are a lot of traits typical of this country and its inhabitants which we cannot get acquainted with by staying in Russia.

People in Belarus respect the places where they live. Cities in Belarus are much cleaner than in Russia. This applies not only to the capital but also to the regional centres, small towns and even villages as well. There is an old proverb that says: cleanliness doesn't mean that people sweep very often, it means that they don't litter. I guess this is quite true for Belarus and its citizens. In the underground there is nearly as much advertising as in Moscow but I have not seen any ads posted without permission which is typical of the trains in the Russian capital. I think this proves that Belarusians really try to take care of the place they live in.

Another interesting issue I noticed is TV in Belarus. In our country such programs usually focus on negative information, for example, catastrophes and terrorist attacks. In Belarus they are devoted to issues which are important for common people without any political tinge. For instance, one of the news items I saw dealt with new methods people in the agricultural sector use to improve productivity. I wonder if this is always the case with TV in your country or whether I just happened to see these news items.

The widespread stereotype that the income level of Belarusians is lower in comparison with Russia is false, in my view. Maybe salaries are not very high, but a lot is done to improve the way of life. The construction sector is highly developed and mortgage terms are favourable for buying apartments. Maybe you know that the modern symbol of Moscow is a huge business centre called "Moscow-City", whereas the most famous contemporary building in Minsk is that of the National Library. This detail is also important. This means that getting knowledge is more important for your people than consumption. Moreover, the authorities realise this fact and try to create new opportunities for academic work.

The majority of us believe that your country is one of the poorest in the whole of Europe and that potatoes are the main product people produce and consume there.

I could list many more differences of this kind between Russia and Belarus but the conclusion is obvious. I believe that governments, at least in European countries, tend to take different measures aimed at improving their citizens' lives. Russia has more opportunities because it is objectively one of the richest countries in the world. Still Belarus is far better at using its opportunities. In my view it depends mainly on people and their attitude to the environment. Consumerism is not typical of Belarusians as they think about their future. Many people in Russia speak about creating an innovative economy. In your country much more is done in this respect although it is harder due to lack of people, territory and resources. I am not sure whether it is wholly due to common people but still we can learn a lot from you.

By now Russians just have few stereotypes concerning Belarus. For instance, the majority of us believe that your country is one of the poorest in the whole of Europe and that potatoes are the main product people produce and consume there. Of course, this is a kind of joke for me personally but many Russians really think so. I mentioned clean cities above – our people think that Belarusians live in a country where littering is strictly punished. But I guess that such laws are similar to those in Russia.

Moreover, some people here believe that Belarusians are envious of Russian wealth. That is why they have chosen their unique way of development and try to find a balance between Russia and the EU. I am not sure this is true, because according to my experience people in Belarus are mainly hard-working and not envious at all. Perhaps you could comment on this?

I hope that your response to this letter will help me better understand your country. It is quite important because Russians can really learn a lot from the experience of our closest neighbour. The main issue is that we must think more about our future, try to save more for our children and create an atmosphere which is comfortable for living.

Greetings from Moscow and looking forward to hearing from you!


Photo: Katsiaryna Syramalot / www.youthmedia.eu, (by-nc-nd)
"I think we are more patient during life than Russian people", a summer scene in Belarus.

Belarus' Answer

Dear Nadya,

Thank you very much for your letter, I read it with great interest. In my turn I will try to answer the questions posed by you.

Russia and Belorussia... Union State... History... it is very difficult to gather all my thoughts together. Now we actually know very little about it all. Many people do not know the history of their families, nor that of the state as a whole, not to mention the stories of other states.

In your letter you said that the Belarusian and Russian peoples have much in common, because for a long time they formed part of one state, the USSR. But I do not agree with you here, because in principle, our people have never been one nation. The fact that we lived in one country does not mean that we were united. When we will look back on our history, only the last 80 years are peaceful, but the rest of the time we fought, only under the current situation it is hushed up.

And as for the Union State, many people only know the name of this political project - the Union of Belarus and Russia. By and large our people do not think of it as something real. Some people even, for fun or seriously, call this union "the inflated lion", a myth that is felt merely "above".

It seems to me that for a Union it would have been necessary to create a common currency. Sometimes there were attempts to introduce one, but the parties had disagreements and so it came to nothing.

And by the way, I don't think that the Soviet period had a negative effect on the identity of the Belarusians, but the Russian Empire had a more lasting one. Namely the Russian Empire began to "purposefully stifle" the national consciousness of the Belarusians. An example is the legend of Susanin, who was celebrated for leading a group of anti-Russian "Poles" deep into a forest, where they died. But if the story is true, the victimes were citizens of the Rzeczpospolita, a union of many nationalities - so they were probably our ancestors. The Russians wanted us to see the Rzeczpospolita as an enemy, when in fact it's part of our heritage.

And if for Russian people Alexander Suvorov is a national hero, for the Belarusian nation he is more of an "executioner". When Russia suppressed the Belarusian revolts led by Kalinovsky and Kostyushko, over 100 thousand people were killed, mainly Belarusians and Poles.

All these stories are basically historic facts, but they are differently presented in historical sources and can be treated in many different ways. Therefore it can be difficult to draw definite, objective conclusions from all this.

It is insulting that in Russia people consider Belarusians to be envious of Russian wealth.

Russian and Belarusian people were always different from each other. And historically, Poles, and today Lithuanians are closer to us than Russians. During the 14th century parts of today's Poland, today's Ukraine and Belarus made up the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The ancestors of the Belorusian people were a kernel of this state and its statutes are written in an old Belarusian language.

Some believe that for Russia Belarus was always a buffer zone.

elenaElena Sermaksheva

studies in her fourth year at the International Sakharov Ecological University in Minsk. She participated in the project „Chernobyl – memory for the future“. As a member of the Belorussian Scouts Association she regularily spends her summers working in the summer camps on the Neman River.

Today, our peoples - Belarusians and Russians - differ both in mentality and in language. Concerning mentality we are more measured and quiet and more tolerant to other people, faith, and religion than the Russians. And I think we are more patient during life than Russian people. When it comes to language, Ukrainians are closest to us in this sense. For example, for a Belarusian arriving in Ukraine, it is possible to talk safely in the Belarusian language and not to be afraid that people will not understand us. But, unfortunately, in Russia almost nothing of our Belarusian speech will be understood.

It is insulting that in Russia people consider Belarusians to be envious of Russian wealth and suggest that that is why we have chosen such a path of joint development. I believe that each of our countries is self-sufficient and envies the other – there simply is no sense in that; especially because our own history isn't less rich.

I was in Russia last winter. Yes, the country is huge, but people remain people, sociable, benevolent. And exceptions – they after all always have existed and always will.

As a whole, it seems to me, people are adjusted to each other not aggressively, and are even friendly with each other. I think this goes both for Belarusians and for Russians. Many of us are connected not only through the idea of the Union State, but through a large number of relatives – Russian people on Belarusian soil, and Belarusian people on Russian soil.

If we want to call ourselves citizens of the world, it is necessary to respect any culture in the world, even a small tribe living deep in the woods.

Greetings from snowy Minsk!

<table class="profileBox_right">\ <tbody>\ <tr>\ <td>\ <p><strong>This initiative is supported by:</strong></p>\ <p><a href="http://www.eustory.eu"><img class="smallimageright" style="border: 0px none; float: right;" src="UserFiles/File/ABOUT_US/PARTNERS/eustory.gif" width="120" height="68" /></a><span style="line-height: 20px; -webkit-border-horizontal-spacing: 0px; -webkit-border-vertical-spacing: 0px; font-size: 12px;"> </span></p>\ </td>\ </tr>\ </tbody>\ </table>Elena.

IN -1022 DAYS