Historical Background

Historical Background

SINCE THE LATE NINETEENTH CENTURY, national activists have based their attempts to create an independent Belarusian state based on the Belorussian language, which had been kept alive over the centuries mainly by peasants. The stage was set for the emergence of a national consciousness by the industrialization and urbanization of the nineteenth century and by the subsequent publication of literature in the Belorussian language, which was often suppressed by Russian, and later Polish, authorities. It is ironic, then, that the first long-lived Belorussian state entity, the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (Belorussian SSR), was created by outside forces--the Bolshevik government in Moscow. And it was those same forces, the communists, whose downfall in 1991 precipitated the existence of an independent Belarus, which has been torn between its desire for independence and a longing for integration with newly independent Russia.

The population of the Belorussian SSR was jolted into national awareness in the late 1980s with the occurrence of one disaster and the discovery of another. The explosion at the Chornobyl' (Chernobyl') nuclear power plant in Ukraine not only entailed the physically damaging radiation carried by the winds but also came to represent the toll taken on the country's sense of its ethnic and cultural identity by years of Russification. These two sets of consequences affected both the daily lives of the Belarusians and national politics: how was the country to remedy the two kinds of damage?

Belarus's other disaster was the discovery in 1988 of mass graves containing victims of Joseph V. Stalin's atrocities. Although the revelation of these graves angered a broad spectrum of Belarusians, it actually energized only a relatively small group of activists to try to overcome the country's political apathy. Nationalists saw Stalin's actions as clear proof of Moscow's attempts to eliminate the Belorussian nation and wanted to make sure that such barbarity could not occur again. For them, a strong, independent Belarus was the first step in this direction.


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