Belarusians in Latvia

Illustration from pre-war literal youth journal "Jaunais Cīrulītis"

Illustration from pre-war literal youth journal “Jaunais Cīrulītis”

One of the Slavic nations, besides Ukrainians and Poles  that Latvia shares a common past and future are Belarusians. Latvia and Belarus have common border and cultural and ethical roots. In Latvian the Belarussian is spelled as “Baltkrievs” and not without a reason for the Belarusian ethnic origins come from 5 to 6 century when Ancient Slavic tribes migrated from Central Europe to the lands present day Belarus where the ancient Baltic tribes lived. Various Slavic tribes the kriviči, dregoviči, radmiči moved to lands inhabited by augstaiši, jātvingi, galindi and latgalians slowly assimilating them until the 10 century. The Duchies of Polotsk and Smolensk used old Belarussian language and had political and trade contacts with ancient Latvian tribes. At the 13th century old Belarusian duchies were integrated into  Grand Duchy of Lithuania where Belarusian noble elite played important role. Old form of Belarusian language was used in official jurisdiction of the Lithuanian duchy. No wonder the original Belarus coat of arms was derived from the coat of arms of the Lithuanian duchy. Majority of Belarusian historians consider the Lithuanian Grand Duchy as the state of Belarusians while Lithuanian counterparts tend to disagree.

For various reasons on 16th century the therm “White Russia” or “White Ruthenia” was derived. Consequently people living in it and talking in language different  than in Russia and Ukraine became known as Belarusians. Sadly on the same time after Lithuania united with Poland, Belarusian nobility was slowly removed from the ruling elite. Country had to go trough many destructive wars between Russia and Poland. After the full inclusion into Russian empire the Belarusian nation went into silent decay.

As mentioned the ancient Latgalain rulers had connections with Duchies of Polotsk as early as 12th century. Merchants traveled across river Daugava they called Dvinsk. Larger number of Belarusian settlers came to Latgale when it was under Polish-Lithuanian rule. Either Belarusian nobles or peasants. It’s known that the town of Jēkabpils originated from settlement of refugees of the Orthodox Old Believers, that came from Vitebsk and Smolensk  that may be Belarusian origin. Belarusian migration continued under the Tsarist rule in bordering areas. As Latgale was part of Province of Vitebsk the entry was less restricted than to other parts of present day Latvia.

On 1897 the All Russia National Census concluded that in six districts of the Province of Vitebsk – Ludza, Daugavpils (Dinaburg) and Rēzekne a 66 thousand Belarusians and 63 thousand speaking Belarusian lives in this area. Some Latvian historians and demographers however argued that this amount was boosted by local Poles and Latvians calling themselves Belarusians for their own reasons.    Another crucial factor was the so-called “tuteiši” – people who had no perception of their national identity and simply described themselves as locals or Catholics or Orthodox. Latvians, Poles, Russians and Belarusians not to mention the Jews lived in Latgale side by side and often were prone to assimilation.  As we know today the once national identity is not derived from genes or family roots, but by state of mind and education.  Latgale was ethically and religiously  mixed with a very complicated social structure. For these reasons people in Latgale often had difficulty choosing their national identity.

After Latvia gained independence on 1918, various national census held in 1920, 1925. 1930 and 1935 showed inconclusive results. On 1920. the first national census still counted Russians and Belarusians together, however to distinguish them  Russians were called as “Great Russians” (Lielkrievi). In result according to interpretations 75 thousand Belarusians lived in Latvia on 1920. However, the 1925 census counted now just 38 thousands. Without proper understanding some historians as Viktors Guščins made a claim that a massive Belarusian deportation was organized by Latvian authorities. Since there were no documented proofs of such action taking place the “Belarusian Deportation” is just another of the Guščins wild fantasies. On 1935 just 25 thousand Belarusians were counted. This rapid decrease was dictated by many reasons. Firstly as the Latvian Statistic Authority admitted they often lacked knowledge to determine who is Belarusian and who is not. Some Belarusians were counted as Russians or Poles or even Latvians. Another problem was the low literacy of the Belarusian farmers as some data shows only some 63% of them knew how to read. In same matter Russian and Polish farmers especially in Latgale had this litercy problem. Another factor was the constant Latvian national policy of trying to absorb some nationally unsure Latgalian people as Latvians in same matter as Poles and Russians tried to do same. During the twenties and thirties Latgale was a constant cultural, ideological and  diplomatic battleground to make Latgale more Latvian free from foreign influence. In this matter many Belarusians lost their national identity.

On March 25 1918 the Belarusian Peoples Republic was proclaimed. It had diplomatic relations with the Republic of Latvia and some even took the BPR citizenship. However, the republic was steamrolled by the Bolsheviks and Poles. Part of Belarusians came under Soviet rule with its own Belarusian Soviet Republic. Other part was ended up in Poland and Lithuania. Both countries especially Poland was in uneasy relations with the national minorities. Latvia on the other hand issued a minority friendly laws allowing to form own native language schools. Belarusian intellectuals living in Latvia saw a great chance to start a Belarusian national revival. However, this seemed harder than expected.

On 1922 The Belarussian school authority was established. Baltic Germans, Jews, Russians and Poles already had their own. As much as 40 state funded schools and 2 gymnasiums were opened.  A special courses for Belarusian teachers were made. However, the Belarusian schools had various problems mostly because of the low number of school children. Only 40% of school age children actually attended because of poverty and even lack of shoes. In Daugavpils 19 teachers worked with 86 students in Ludza 5 teachers with 50-60 students. However, it was common sight for many national minority schools such as Jewish schools and others. The national Latvian forces in parliament and press always made a negative discourse towards minority schools calling them “a useless spending of state money” and hostile to Latvians. Even greater was the cross minority rivalry for funding for their schools and school children. Polish and Russian national minority forces were annoyed by the existence of the Belarusian schools and started a campaign against them as early on 1923 resulting a political farce.

Konstantin Jezovitov - the leader of the Belorussian national movement on 1920-1940

Konstantin Jezovitov – the leader of the Belarussian national movement on 1920-1940

Russian and Polish newspapers started to spread propaganda that there is no such nation as Belarusians, but they are just confused Russians or Poles used by ex Tsarist officers who claim themselves as Belarusians. The Latvian press especially the Latvian Latgalian press pick this up and started to write word Belsrusian in commas. In their hypocrisy the Latvian newspapers had no problem writing about Belarusians in Poland or USSR a real nation. On 1923 in the Latvian parliament the “Belarusian”  question was officially discussed. Polish deputy Jans Veržibskis accused the Belarusian national leader Konstantin Jezovitiov and others of intentionally devising a nation called “Belarusians”   to gain national state support and new carrier grounds at the expense of Poles and Russians. The Latgalian deputies Fricis Kemps and Jāzeps Trasuns picked up the subject and agreed that there are no Belarusians but instead accused the Poles of attempting to assimilate Latvians. In their view Belarusians were Latvians mislead by the Poles. Belarusians got themselves into cross national crossfire.

The whole 1923 was spent in arguing between both sides. Konstantin Jezovitov wrote a defending publication outlining the Belarusian history and culture. Fricis Kemps answered with  a strong worded publication that caused a lawsuit where Jezuvitov managed to prove him guilty of personal insult. Then on 1924 the anti-Belarussian campaign reached its height. In the Kapiņu parish Belarussian school a school inspected saw a map showing Belarusian borders including parts of Russia, Lithuania, Poland and Latvia. This was reported to Ministry of Education because the school inspector believed these borders signify the future state of Belarus taking away Latvian lands. Latvian Secret Police had Jezovitovs and other Belarusian activists on their watch-list.  Partly because of alleged conections with the radical leftist forces and Belarusian organizations outside Latvia. Two years before on 1921-1923 both in Poland and Lithuania a trial was made against Belarusian organization “Gromada” that was accused on plotting uprising against the Polish state. Knowing this the Latvian Secret Police made a suspicion that Belarusian organization “Batjaukaščina” of being separatist force.

Eight Belarusian schoolteachers were accused of treason, with them Jezovitov, A Jakubecky, V Korcius and others. The case against the “Belarusian national separatists”  were orchestrated by negative publications in the press and resulted the closure of many schools. Jezovitov spent in prison 11 months as only one of the accused. On 1925 the trial took place and resulted in fiasco. Latvian Secret Police failed  to prove the existence of the “criminal separatist” organization. The witnesses were mostly agents or hostile Russian schoolteachers. It turned out that the map that caused the process actually showed the Belarusian ethical borders not state borders. Although Konstantin Jezovitov was an ex officer of the Belarusian Peoples Republic his separatist actions could not be proved. In the end all accused were found not guilty resulting a heavy strain on Belarusian national movement.

In the following years Latvian politicians were forced to accept the fact that Belarusians live in Latvia and deserve their schools. Belarusians did made hostile opposition in return, and praised the Latvian state support. Nationalist pressure on Belarusian schools  still continued on 1925 local Latgalian newspaper celebrated the closure of the Belarussian  gymnasium in Ludza. However, as the national and diplomatic relations with Poles and Poland worsened especially on 1931, Latvians now accused Poles of inciting hate between Latvians and Belarusians.

Belarusians had many supportive Latvian friends like Rainis the famous Latvian poet and leftist leader.  With his help Belarusians could find their schools and enter politics within the social democratic party ranks. Later, more intellectual Latvians acknowledged the Belarusian national movement. Cultural developments were on the go despite low funding and other problems.

Kārlis Ulmanis authoritarian regime limited the Belarusian national cultural activities while the Soviet Occupation destroyed it completely.   During the Nazi occupation 0n 1943 48 601 people within Latvia were called as Belarusians. The sharp increase can be explained by the flow of people from German occupied Belarus, who either were moved against there will by the Germans or moved by themselves.  Some Belarusians served in Latvian SS Legion some resisted the Nazis. Konstantin Jezovitov was arrested by Soviet SMERCH and died in captivity on 1944.

Belorussian national activists with the first flag of Belarus along with flag of Ukraine and Latvia in 1990.

Belarusian national activists with the first flag of Belarus along with flag of Ukraine and Latvia in 1990.

After the start of the second Soviet occupation people from Belarus, just as from Ukraine and Russia came to Latvia to settle for a new life. Belarus was utterly devastated by the war and soviets pushed to build factories that needed large amount of workforce. In result between 1959 t0 1989 about 120 Belarusians lived in Latvia. Most again settled in Latgale and Daugavpils, while others moved to Riga and other centers. On 1989 43 thousand Belarusians lived in Riga. Large part of Belarusians still lived in rural areas. However, because of the lack state support towards Belarusian language education some 36% of Latvian Belarusians knew the Belarusian language. Same difficulty they had with Latvian  resulting that many were placed in mass of immigrants simply described as “Russians” or “Russian-speakers”. However, not always the lack of native language skills signify the loss of national identity as common for Belarusians, Jews, Poles and Ukrainians.

In same manner as other national minorities Belarusians founded their cultural societies during the events of 1988-1992. On 1988 November 27 the Belarusian cultural society “Svitanak” that gathered established members of society and culture. A Belarusian Primary School is working in Riga, and many cultural activities are taking place. Unfortunately, from the early start the independent state of Belarus was taken over by post-sovietic authoritarian regime with more emphasis towards  Russia, as Russian language is most used in Belarusian majority country. Latvian politicians for economic reasons have often ignored the political situation in Belarus. Some parties have eagerly expressed support towards Ukrainian national movement while praising Alexander Lukashenka. In result the Belarusian opposition considers Lithuania and Poland as more supportive towards their cause rather than Latvia. According to 2012 census 4,1 of Belarusians live in Latvia making them second largest national minority. Only above 600 of them use Belarusian language at home. The bad effect of the Russification policies is clear, but in the spirit of the changing times can be overcome as the Belarusians is a nation of a historical value and legacy.

Selected Sources:

Apine, Ilga. (1995) Baltkrievi Latvijā. Rīga. 1995.

 Jēkabsons Ē. Белорусы в Латвии в 1918–1940 годах (Baltkrievi Latvijā 1918.–1940. gadā) //Беларуская дыяспара як пасреднiца ў дыялогу цывiлiзацый. Матэрыялы III Мiжнароднага кангрэса беларусiстаў. Мiнск: Беларускi Кнiгазбор, 2001

http://www.svitanak.lv/

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