Poland and Belarus are united by national colors, the same heroes in textbooks, the cultural heritage of one state, literary traditions and a common dream of freedom.

Poland has many reasons for solidarity with its eastern neighbor. We were connected with the Belarusians by a common state, the same kings and national heroes, as well as similar values ​​and cultural codes. There are still many common places on the maps of our cultures; the destinies of our countries are incredibly similar. Here we present ten proofs that Polish and Belarusian cultures are more closely related to each other than it might seem at first glance.

1. Colors and symbols

Before we had a common state, that is, the Rzeczpospolita of Both Peoples, Belarus had a Principality of Polotsk, and then the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, in which the Old Belarusian language and culture played a key role. The Statutes of the Grand Duchy were written in this language – it is this state that is considered an example of political independence among today’s Belarusian patriots.

Poland entered into an alliance with the Grand Duchy – thanks to this, Poles and Belarusians today are united by national colors and symbols. The white-red-white flag, which the opposition considers the true symbol of the Belarusian state (unlike the red-green flag originally from the BSSR), is associated with the colors of the coat of arms of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. A banner of this color was already used in the Battle of Grunwald, in which Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania jointly defeated the army of the Teutonic Order. The same colors appeared on the fields of other battles in which the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth participated – for example, in the Battle of Orsha in 1514.

2. Material and cultural heritage of the Commonwealth

Poland and Belarus (as well as Lithuania) are linked by a common state that existed from the moment of the signing of the Krevo Union in 1385 to the partition of Poland in 1795. Unsurprisingly, the two countries have developed a common political and cultural tradition.

The material heritage of the Polish-Belarusian state includes architectural monuments: palaces and castles of Belarusian magnates (Mir, Nesvizh), noble estates and old churches that have survived throughout the territory of modern Belarus.

One of the most important places for the Polish-Belarusian historical tradition is the Old Castle in Grodno. This castle, built on the high bank of the Nemunas, was the residence of the Polish kings: Casimir IV Jagiellonczyk (1484) and Stefan Batory (1586) died here, meetings of the Sejm of the common state were held here. Nearby, in the New Castle, in 1793 the last session of the Sejm of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth took place, which ended the second partition of Poland and symbolically ended the history of our common statehood.

3. Belarusian tolerance

The spiritual heritage has also become a part of the tradition of the common state, and some of the phenomena that we are used to considering Polish – for example, a multicultural and tolerant society – also apply to the history of Belarus. It was on the Belarusian lands that ethnic and religious minorities – Tatars and Karaites – settled. The Reformation (Calvinism and the movement of the Polish brothers) played an important role here; there were numerous Jewish shtetls, where Marc Chagall, Michal Vashinsky, Shimon Peres and Noam Chomsky’s mother Elsie Simanovskaya were born in the 20th century.

The year 1918 can be considered a symbolic date for this multicultural tradition. The ephemeral Belarusian state created at that time (the Belarusian People’s Republic lasted only a few months) had four official languages: Belarusian, Polish, Russian and Yiddish. It was then that white-red-white flags began to fly over Minsk for the first time.

4. Part of an empire, or colonial experience

In the 19th century, the Belarusian lands completely became part of the Russian Empire, and the local culture and identity were constantly under pressure, which increased significantly after the January Uprising. Like Poles, Belarusians had to look for ways to preserve their own identity. And, as in the case of Poland, their native language and culture served as their main assistant in this.

A large role in the first phase of the Belarusian resistance was played by figures of Polish origin, such as Jan Barshchevsky or Francis Bogushevich, who became the first author of his time to use the word “Belarus” and call himself a Belarusian. He realized that the struggle for the native language plays a key role in the preservation of the people. Bogushevich wrote: “Don’t be a pakidaytse, please, find Belarusian, bob nya ўmerli”. The Poles were well aware of this situation (in the Polish lands, which were under the occupation of Russia and Prussia, the situation was exactly the same), therefore, Bogushevich’s books were illegally transported to the Belarusian lands, for example, by Jozef Pilsudski.

The “colonial” experience and the struggle for national identity, culture and language did not end for Belarusians along with the decline of the empire. In the 30s of the twentieth century, a wave of repressions began – Stalin’s purges of the Belarusian intelligentsia and mass executions (Kuropatvas). After World War II, a policy of intensive Russification was applied to Belarus – as a result, after the country’s independence, the Belarusian language and folk culture had to be revived almost from scratch.

5. General literature

Common Polish-Belarusian history is also a common culture, that is, people belonging to two traditions – such as composers Moniuszko or Oginsky, whom both peoples consider theirs. It is especially fascinating to follow the mutual connections in the field of literature.

Thanks to such a general perspective, about which Lyavon Barshchevsky wrote in detail, we can discern the Belarusian tradition in the works of writers who are used to being considered Polish: to see Belarusian motifs in the biography of the Latin poet Nikolai Gusovsky (author of the Poem about the Bison), to notice Belarusian traces in Dzyady ”Mickiewicz, to discover elements of the Belarusian baroque in the Polish works of Baki and Knyaznin. At the same time, we can trace how the Polish culture influenced the greatest Belarusian poets: Vincent Dunin-Martsinkevich, Yakub Kolas or Yanka Kupala, who wrote his first poems … in Polish.

6. Mickiewicz and Polish romanticism of Belarusian origin

Perhaps the most interesting phenomenon in literature is the phenomenon called “Polish romanticism.” As is known, this trend was initiated by Mickiewicz, who published the collection Ballads and Romances (1822), in which folk motives played an important role. Much less often people remember that these were the motives of the Belarusian population of Novogrudok and the surrounding area. Mickiewicz’s ballads are often written under the influence of the local (that is, Belarusian) oral tradition, woven from legends about a city that has sunk under the sea or about water mermaids and legends about wandering musicians.

Mickiewicz’s friends, philomatics, were also interested in local folklore: many of them grew up on Belarusian culture, and some, such as Tomasz Zan and Yan Chechot, declared poetry in Belarusian at a meeting of philomatists.

The Belarusians are still trying to understand whether Mitskevich wrote anything in Belarusian. So far, the only text written in Belarusian by the poet can be considered a note that he allegedly left on the margins of the encyclopedia: “Na Bożym sudzie, usim u sraku budzie!” Sounds like a prophecy!

7. Common heroes: Kastus Kalinovsky

Poles and Belarusians also have common heroes, such as Mickiewicz or Kosciuszko. One of the most interesting personalities in our common history is Kastus (Constants) Kalinovsky.

This nobleman from Svisloch was the publisher of the first Belarusian-language newspaper (“Muzhitskaya Pravda”). A participant in the January Uprising (which in Belarus is called the “Kalinouski Uprising”), he was arrested by the Russian authorities, tried and sentenced to be hanged in Vilna.

His last words, addressed to the official who read the verdict, who called him a “nobleman”, sounded: “We have no nobles, we are all equal!” Kalinovsky was buried in a common grave on the territory of the fortress. His steadfastness in the struggle “for our and your freedom” is still considered an example of selflessness and patriotism, and “Letters from the Gallows” written in prison remain one of the main texts on the all-Belarusian dictations.

In 2019, Kalinouski’s remains were officially reburied – the presidents of Poland and Lithuania, as well as a delegation from Belarus, took part in the ceremony.

8. Belarusian alphabet, or difficult Polish-Belarusian moments

Belarus, like Poland, has long been squeezed between stronger neighbors. Sadly, in the case of Belarus, one of these strong neighbors was Poland. While for the Poles, the revival of Polish statehood after the First World War became the fulfillment of an old dream, for the Belarusians it meant another division of their lands (according to the Riga Treaty, western Belarus became part of the Second Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic was created in the east).

Belarus, like Poland, has long been squeezed between stronger neighbors. Sadly, in the case of Belarus, one of these strong neighbors was Poland. While for the Poles, the revival of Polish statehood after the First World War became the fulfillment of an old dream, for the Belarusians it meant another division of their lands (according to the Riga Treaty, western Belarus became part of the Second Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic was created in the east).

Throughout the interwar period, the Polish authorities tried to assimilate the Belarusian minority (ranging from 1.3 to 1.9 million people), but faced resistance. Bronislav Tarashkevich is considered a symbol of this resistance, as well as the tragic choice faced by the Belarusian intelligentsia.

This outstanding linguist, translator (he translated, among others, Homer and “Pan Tadeusz”) and the author of the grammar of the Belarusian language was a member of the Sejm in the Second Rzeczpospolita. For his activities in defense of the Belarusian minority in Poland, he was arrested, and in 1933 he was forced to leave for the BSSR, where several years later he was shot during the Stalinist purges.

An important merit of Tarashkevich is the normalization of the rules of the Belarusian spelling and language norms in general (the so-called “Tarashkevich”). This alphabet is still used by Belarusian patriots: it is considered the opposite of the Soviet version of the language – “People’s Commissars”.

9. People of the borderlands

A mixed population still lives on the border between Belarus and Poland, whose customs emphasize the close connection between the two peoples. Despite all the difficulties of the twentieth century (refugees, purges, repressions), they have preserved their traditions and carefully cherish them. While Poles in Belarus live primarily in the west of the country, in Poland, Belarusians live mainly in the east, in Polesie – in Bialystok, Bielsk Podlaski, Hajnovka. Important centers of Belarusian culture in Poland are the Sokrat villa in Krynky or the Museum of the Little Homeland in the Studivody village near Belsk. Now, however, Belarusians live all over Poland and take an active part in Polish cultural life.

10. “Walls” and “Solidarity”

The common Polish-Belarusian history continues, and the influence of the two countries on each other is visible even across the borders that separate Belarus from Poland and the rest of the European Union. Common musical themes and motives can be traced in the work of the Belarusian bard Dmitry Voityushkevich, who in Belarusian and Polish sings songs to the verses of the Polish poet Rafal Voyachek. Another example of the interaction of two cultures is the video clip of the group N.R.M., recorded with the participation of Polish artist Pavel Althamer.

Perhaps, thanks to such active cultural contacts, one of the main songs of the Belarusian protests in August 2020 was the “Walls” of Jacek Kaczmarsky in the Belarusian translation of Andrei Khadanovich.

This song, which became the anthem of Solidarity in 1980, was performed forty years later at the entrance to the Gdańsk Shipyard by Jacek Kleif. Nasta Nyakrasava sang the song in Belarusian against the background of a poster with the inscription: “Salidarnasts”. It is difficult to find a better confirmation of the close connection between Belarus and Poland. Or maybe this is the beginning of a new stage?

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