Having been lucky enough to spend time on my placement not just in Russia, but other Russian speaking countries, it had been fascinating to see the differences in the culture of countries that share the same language. During my year abroad, I briefly visited Ukraine and Azerbaijan, however, I spent the majority of my time in Russia and Belarus. There I have learned the differences in the culture, politics, food, and people’s attitude towards one another.
For most of history, the area of Belarus has existed as a part of another state, whether that was the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union. Before 1991, Belarus had only seen independence for one year, between 1918-1919 until it was once again swallowed up by the USSR.
However, since the collapse of the USSR, Belarus has been able to flourish as an independent nation, and with it, a growing sense of patriotism within the population. Because of the closeness that Russia and Belarus shared throughout history, much of the Belarusian-Russian culture is intertwined, however, Belarus has many unique traditions that Russians don’t have.
Belarus has its own unique language. As a country between Poland and Russia, its language is like a fascinating mixture of the two. While everyone in Belarus speaks Russian, Belarusian is taught at schools, and the language appears everywhere outside like on street signs and on the Metro, and more people are learning Belarusian today than they did years ago.
Even I have picked up a few Belarusian words while riding on buses like “The next stop is…” and “Be careful, the doors are closing”. I hope that I don’t mix up my Belarusian vocabulary and my Russian vocab in my next exam! But learning Russian is fascinating when I can understand such languages like Belarusian, Ukrainian and even a bit of Polish. It just shows how many doors it opens up for you.
Russian food and Belarusian food are similar. In fact, most Eastern European foods originated from one source at some point, with each country taking its own version of it. There is often a stereotype in Russia that Belarus loves its potatoes. This is true, the Belarusians can make anything out of potatoes, including vodka! Its most popular vodka is called “Bulbash”, coming from the Belarusian word “Bulba” meaning potato.
So, when it comes to Belarusian cuisine, many of the foods revolve around this food. Like “Draniki”, a delicious meal which can only be described as a potato pancake. Or “Sashni”, which is a potato cutlet filled with cream cheese on the inside. Or “Tsibriki”, which are like potato balls filled with melted cheese. Of course, not every dish is made of potatoes, but the best ones are. And of course, quite a lot of meals in Belarus have originated in Russia, but their unique dishes that can only be found in Belarus are something to be proud of.
Of course, Belarus celebrates many of the same holidays as Russia, like Orthodox Christmas and New Year, epiphany, and many military-related holidays. However, Belarus has its own unique holidays and traditions.
Like Kupalle, celebrated all night on July 6th, an ancient holiday dedicated to the sun and based on close contact with nature, similar to our summer solstice celebrations in the West. But it is more important in Belarus and widely celebrated, with the rituals including singing, dancing and traditions such as fire-jumping and night swims.
Or Maselnitsa, a holiday connected with the end of winter and the start of spring. There is a big scarecrow that represents the winter, which then is burnt in the fire. While I am in Belarus I try to get involved in as many of these types of traditions and holidays as possible, just to experience the world in a different way.
I have heard that people in Belarus have almost a certain Germanic mentality. Calm, hard-working and orderly. But the people are really nice and welcoming, especially to foreigners. They are also proudly patriotic and will get offended if you call them ‘Russian’. Even if you pronounce the word ‘Belarusian’ as ‘Bela-Russian’ this will upset them, as the correct pronunciation should be ‘Belarus-ian’, as they are trying to present themselves as their own unique country.
Historically, the name Belarus means “White Russia”, the true origin of this is unknown, with some speculating that it is because it is the only part of the Kievan Rus that wasn’t conquered by the Mongols. And during the Soviet times, Belarus was called Byelorussia. But after 1991, Belarus wanted to forge its own path, separate from the Russians. So, learning about the relations and attitudes between the two close countries is fascinating.
Every time I tell someone that I am living in Minsk, they ask “isn’t that in Russia?” Far from it. You may have seen the TV show Friends, and the character David said he was moving to ‘Minsk’ which he mistakenly says is in Russia. However, Belarus, although a fraction of the size of Russia, has just as many cultural traditions and unique foods for you to definitely pay a visit if you are ever in the area!