“Belarusian” issue in Latvia. Belarusian struggle for recognition as sovereign national minority


Logo of the Latvian Belarusian newspaper “The Voice of Belarusian”

The events in former Russian empire between from 1918 to 1920 were significant and dramatic. Many new nations formed such as Latvia, Lithuania and Poland regained independence. However, a very large nation by population and territory failed to gain national independence and was divided between its captive homeland and three above mentioned new states. Belarusians had large diaspora in Poland and Lithuania, and the eastern part of Latvia had significant Belarusian population.  Among the Belarusians in Latvia a national movement emerged to open and maintain schools for Belarusian children to teach Belarusian language and culture. However, this initiative met resistance from rival national and political groups. Polish minority in Latvia, Russian nationalists and Latvian Latgalian nationalists questioned the sovereignty of the Belarusian minority in Latvia and speculated that large part of the so-called Belarusians in Latvia are in fact Latvians, Russians or Poles to each of their own. This political campaign caused a imposed trial against Belarusian school authority in 1924, closure of the Belarusian schools and significant drop of people calling themselves Belarusians. This was part of the very deep cross-national issues between Latvians and national minorities.

During the free press period of 1918-1934 the newspaper media discussed the national issues very openly. A notable feature when reading Latvian newspapers about Belarusian minority issues is that often term Belarusian is placed in inverted commas marking it as artificial nation that does not really exists. Various writers, politicians and even scholars questioned the existence of the Belarusian minority in Latvia, but not the existence of Belarusians as whole, since there were Belarusians in Belarus itself and a large part in Lithuania and Poland. That was not questioned, however very specific ethnic issues of we will speak ahead existed in Eastern Latvia that allowed these people to question the existence of the Belarusian minority. The bottom point of this “Belarusian” discourse was the reasoning behind state financing for the Belarusian schools. If there were no real Belarusians or their size was insignificant it meant these schools should have been be closed.

To understand the issue, we must observe the demographical data. In 1920 the first national census was held and 75 630 people registered themselves as Belarusians. In 1925 38 010 people called themselves Belarusians. In 1930 36 029 and the final census was held in 1935 and there was 26 867 Belarusians left in Latvia. We see a significant drop in the number of Belarusian minority in Latvia. What happened? One local pro-Russian historian made outrageous claim that Belarusians were deported from Latvia to Soviet Belarus. None of this happened also there was no significant emigration, nor there was high mortality. The core of the issue is seen in next two statistical figures. In 1930 62% of Belarusians were Catholics, 25% were Orthodox and 11% were Old Believers. 64,7% of Belarusians were literates (62,8% among Russians). The issue here was that Belarusians mostly lived in Eastern Latvia known as Latgale. They lived in joint communities with Russians, Poles and Latgale Latvians also not to mention Jews. Latgale Latvians were mostly Catholics just as Poles. The high illiteracy among Belarusians created problem that they could have been easily persuaded into registering themselves as Pole or Russian or even Latvian. This was the issue of the so called “tuteishi” the commoner. It was a person with insignificant or no national identity. His identity was the village or city he lived in and church he belonged to. Catholic churches were often multilingual giving prayers in Latvian or Polish.  If Belarusian nation can be divided in regional branches, then Belarusians in Latvia were part of Western Belarusians who were mostly Catholic with strong ties with Poles. However, as Latgale had high number of Russians they influenced Belarusians quite much. In result, a struggle for the hearts and minds of the tuteishi was fought in Latvia, between national activists among Belarusian, Russian, Polish and Latgalian factions. It was important as the person with low national self-identity could be convinced to join other national groups. Joining one of the groups meant sending children to an appropriate school, being part of the appropriate national society and voting for the appropriate national minority party. In 1920-1934 Latvia, the school financing was a grand issue. Latvia had allowed to host a system of national minority schools in early 1919. Russians, Jews, Germans, Poles and Belarusians had rights for their state supported schools and had their own school authority within the Ministry of Education, formed by people elected by the minority. More people meant more and better funded schools, lesser meant schools were poorly maintained and even closed down.

Historians like Aivars Stranga argue that Belarusians did not need their own schools as there were too many schools for other minorities and Belarusian schools were purely a caprice of a poet and social democrat leader Rainis who was very friendly with Belarusians, and to appease him, the right-wing parties approved at least one of his active demands. However, Belarusians were a large sized minority in 1920, their language was independent from Russian and Polish, however it was under a great pressure. In early 1920s Belarus there was an upsurge of the national Belarusian culture and language, however Stalinist policies became oriented towards Russian culture and inclusion, so over the years the usage of the Belarusian language within Belarus was severely weakened. In Lithuania and Poland, the national insecurity was on a larger scale and growing feud between Poles and Belarusian and Ukrainian minorities created grand issues for Belarusian education. Latvia as country with less territorial issues with Belarus and more liberal education laws could have been a haven for Belarusian national education as Belarusian activists and Rainis hoped. However, this proved to be a futile,  because the issue of how to determine who is Belarusian proved to be a complexity.

The Latvian Statistical authority was aware of that but they refrained to make tuteishi a statistical entity. The authority also knew about claims that Belarusians are not a sovereign nationality, although it refrained from such speculations and indicated that Eastern Slavs in Latvia must be divided between Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians, while admitting it’s a great challenge  to draw a clear line between Russians and Belarusians because of tuteishi presence. In so the mistakes were made or sometimes intentional ones. Statistical authority complained that it had sent low grade students to eastern parts that were unable to precisely determine the nationality of the people they interviewed. There was also presence of actions from local national organizations who issued leaflets like the one saying: “Who speaks Polish very badly, but prays in Polish is a Pole! Tell them you are Pole”. In other events, the persons who collected data on local tuteishi themselves talked in them into associating with one of the nationalities.

To illustrate this situation we take a look on small parish of Istra near Belarusian border. In 1925 there were 3 411 Belarusians, 1 475 Russians, 1 260 Latvians and 114 Poles. In 1930 a grand shift happened there were now 6 179 Russians and 296 Poles. Belarusian majority dropped 258 people and Latvians were 924 people. In 1925 the general population was 6 320 and in 1930 7 759 people. But, that was not result of major Belarusian emigration from the parish. 746 of the counted Russians were Catholics. Some had prayer books in Latvian and Polish. So, what had happened that Belarusian majority became Russian and Polish and small part of Latvians also gave up their nationality.


The nationality shift in Istra parish

To look more generally the size of the Russian and Polish minority from 1920 to 1930 generally increased not by natural means. In 1920 there was 124 746 Russians, in 1930 201 778 Russians. In 1920 there was 54 567 Poles and in 1930 59 374 Poles. While fertility rate played its part it, when comparing the downsizing of the Belarusians it was clear that these two minorities boosted their size on expense of Belarusian weak national identity.


Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians in Latvia according to census


Poles in Latvia from 1897 to 1930

The main implication here is that this weak national identity was effectively hindered on purpose by prominent politicians and factions. Among the critics of the Belarusian school autonomy was Polish national leader, deputy in Saeima (parliament) Jan Wierzbicky, the right wing Latgalian nationalist Francis Kemps and his counterpart, Jezups Trasuns. Latgalian nationalists strived for national cultural autonomy of the Latgale region, some even political. Often they were in conflict with Poles and Russians over many issues including schools. They viewed Belarusian schools as another attempt of degrading Latgalians. They also truly claimed that one part of Belarusians are just Polonizied or Russificated Latvians. Similar assertions were made by certain elements of Russian minority, however Russians had no joint political opinion as they were divided in multiple rival factions, some more liberal, and others nationalistic. Latvian nationalists primarily based in Riga and nationalist elements in various state authorities including the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Interior viewed Latgale as danger zone of threats from ongoing Polonization and Russification and Latgalian separatism. In their view, they had sacred mission to educate and illuminate the “dark Latgale” to became more Latvian. In so they viewed Belarusian schools as a threat to Latvian Latgale and result of Polonization and Russification of the Latvian people. They highlighted the poor standards in the Belarusian schools, poor Latvian language and indicated that Belarusian language itself is poorly taught and is more Russian than Belarusian. This claim had two sides – it was low funding and low education of the Belarusian teachers, then again, the question is how qualified were these critics to determine linguistic differences between Belarusian language, its dialects and Russian language.

The discontent against Belarusian schools grew steadily in 1922 and in 1923 during budget proceedings turned into open attack. Polish deputy Jan Wierzbicky made a statement that after the war, by his surprise, some people he knew before have turned into Belarusians. According to him, some people from Polish intelligentsia, and former Russian tsarist officials and army officers who had no occupation and didn’t know the state language are creating an artificial nation called Belarusians in Latvia. Francis Kemps proceeded and claimed that Belarusians even physically look like a “pure Latgalian tribe” and called for closure of the Belarusian school authority and remove 395 661 Ls support for Belarusian schools and leave just 18 000 Ls support. He made claims that only 5% of the so called Belarusians know the  Belarusian language other 95% speak in Russian or Latgalian. He called to close 11 Belarusian schools since by his words only 2-5 Belarusians are studying there. While Rainis of the Social Democratic party went on tough defense for the Belarusian schools, the Russian fraction was against the closure of the schools as whole, but offered to make precise statistical survey of Belarusians in Latvia to determine how many schools and money they really need. Kemp proposal was turned down. The Russian political view was divided. The main Russian newspaper in Latvia “Сегодня” that was liberal and social democrat leaning and owned by Jewish businessmen was more neutral towards this issue. While more nationalistic Russian newspaper funded by Polish businessmen “Рижский курьер” raised issue that while Russian schools are poorly funded, for some reason the state wastes money on Belarusian schools, while Latgalians have proven that Belarusian population in Latvia is insignificant. Francis Kemps already in 1922 made first firm claims and demands against Belarusian schools in Saeima.

The heated debates raised hostility in Latvian press and echoed the words of these politicians. Francis Kemps published headline article in the main newspaper “Jaunākās Ziņas” on February 4 1924 where he explained his views, but also accused the leader of the Belarusian society Kanstantin Ezavitau of being communist. Konstantin Ezavitau was a member of the government of the Belarusian Peoples Republic in 1918-1920 that opposed the Soviet Russia. Ezavitau filed a lawsuit against Kemps and Kemps was sentenced for 2 weeks in prison.

The view of the Belarusians themselves was expressed by Ezavitau himself in the monthly journal of the Ministry of Education that sparked Kemp’s anger. Ezavitau gave throughout scientific explanation why Belarusian nation and language are real and gave large number of sources including Russian sources. Ezavitau claimed that denying Belarusians is within the Polish and Russian interests who have placed claims and occupied the Belarusian lands. The Polish and Russian nationalists in Latvia are raging campaign against Belarusians to hinder the opening and maintaining their schools. Ezavitau also revealed the core issue – because of rising number of Belarusians – Polish and Russian schools close and becomes Belarusian. Because, of this the Poles and Russians seek to get these schools back. And they do this by influencing the dark uneducated Belarusians to force them to give up their nationality.

The campaign against Belarusians has reached its climax in 1924. In one Belarusian school in Kapiņu parish, the school inspector found a map called “The map of Belarus”. In the map, the eastern border areas of Latvia were included in the Belarus raising suspicions of separatism. Years before, in Poland and Lithuania, Belarusian activists were placed on trial because of accusations of separatism. The map was sent from Polish Vilnius. What followed were multiple arrests of the Belarusian teachers and activists also some ethnic Ukrainians who wanted to work with Belarusians. The Belarusian school authority was temporary closed down. The Belarusian gymnasium in Ludza was closed. Some official newspapers like Police Herald enthusiastically claimed since there were arrests then its means there is crime and will be proven in court. However, the prosecution failed to prove the intent of separatism. The map was simply a mistake as it was meant to be called “The Map of the Ethnographic borders of the Belarusian nation”. The case was dropped and all accused were released. But, the damage was inversible.


The extent of the Belarusian ethnic borders that in 1918-1920 was claimed by Belarusian Peoples Republic. Number 2 is Ilūkste district of Latvia also claimed by Poland

In 1925 the national census was held. The drop of people calling themselves Belarusians significantly dropped and dropped even more in following years. Belarusian newspapers like “Голас Беларуса” called for national mobilization among Belarusian and remove the pro-Russian and pro-Polish elements. Meanwhile the schools continued to close down. In 1925 there was 35 Belarusian schools, in 1934 16 schools and in 1936 just one school.

The press’ tone towards Belarusians softened after 1924. Some authors condemned the trial and campaign against Belarusian national movement. Others because raising national hostility with Poles in 1930-1931 openly called Belarusians a victim of the Polish nationalism. Authors like Dr. phil. Ernests Blese who before was critical towards Belarusian schools now called to help and improve them in struggle against Polonization.

However, the decline of the Belarusian minority seemed irreversible and the Kārlis Ulmanis’ authoritarian regime in 1934 liquidated all minority school authorities. The dream of Belarusian national revival in Latvian diaspora reached a solemn end. In following decades of the Soviet occupation, Belarusians became the second largest minority in Latvia. But these people were immigrants from Soviet Belarus. The Soviet Belarus went through harsh Russification that was more effective in Belarus than Ukraine. The result being present day Latvian Belarusian minority speaking Russian and only a very small number of them use Belarusian as their home language. This happened because there weren’t any Belarusian schools in the Soviet Latvia and most Belarusians went to Russian language schools. Also as the Belarusian language lost its prominence in Belarus itself, the people in Latvia saw no reason to learn it. In 1994 in Riga Belarusian school, named after the national poet Yanka Kupala, opened its doors and works till this day. The Belarusian society in Belarus is divided in two conflicting national identities. The majority has a post-soviet identity that associates itself with its soviet past and sees Moscow as their primary ally. They speak Russian while still associate them as Russians. The current regime of Alexander Lukashenko represents this majority.  The other minor part, a large part of them are young people and people with higher education and better skills in Belarusian language associate themselves with more older past of Grand Lithuania Duchy that joint Lithuanian-Belarusian state, they also associate with Belarusian Peoples Republic and their symbols. Their orientation is Warsaw, Kyiv, Vilnius and Western Europe. This divide has made grave difficulty for outside observers to understand Belarusians, their culture and language. The problem is seen in plain sight when people argue if Belarusians are Byelorussians, Belarus is Belorussia, as well as should we call the capital city Minsk or Mensk as in proper Belarusian. And this is a very an issue within Belarusians themselves.

That being said Belarusians were and are the one of the most complicated nations in Europe with a fluid and divided national identity. Being at the crossroads between Europe and Russia has created such issues. In 1920-1940 Belarusian nation was also at the crosspoint between conflicting political and ethnic factions and evidently lost the struggle. While they were recognized as sovereign nation they lost the battle for schools and minds of the uneducated people and significantly lost their prominence. It needed a grand effort in education to turn large masses of tutieshi to Belarusian identity and keep this identity solid. Belarusians lacked resources and state support to do that. The issue of Belarusian identity and campaign against the Belarusian schools is one of the less known parts of the Latvian and Belarusian history.

Selected Sources:

  • Голдманис M. «Белорусский» дискурс в латышской прессе (1920−1934): эволюция представления о белорусах как о самостоятельном национальном меньшинстве. Латыши и белорусы: вместе сквозь века: сб. науч. ст. Вып. 5 / редкол. С.П. Кулик [и др.]. – Минск: РИВШ, 2016.




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