When the Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for literature at the end of 2015, I exhaled in excitement and slight disbelief. The whole country seemed to freeze, fearing this was a massive prank. Despite the ridiculous accusations of her being pro-Russian, one thing became clear: Belarus was finally getting recognized in the world, and there is now hope that I will no longer need to use code words like “Lukashenko” and “dictatorship” to explain where I am from.
I was eight years old when I first went abroad; farther than to Bialystok (Poland) to the west and Crimea to the south. Being the only family member to speak at least some English, I was left with no other choice but to be engaged into each and every conversation- from dealing with the reception staff about a broken air conditioner to setting up dates for my cousin. All these conversations had one thing in common — my origin. By the age of 13, I had more than ten different options of explaining what Belarus was without mentioning Russia, but the sad truth was, the only way for people to get a vague understanding of it was still to hear the R word. “It is located between Poland and Russia”, I sighed giving up. “Oh, Russia, I know Russia!”
The idea that I don’t exist had been eating me up for years, and I had been fighting to finally be seen until I gave up realizing that the borders of Soviet Union may have collapsed 24 years ago, but just about the same amount of time is still needed for the borders in the mindsets of people to fall.
I’ve grown a thick skin when it comes to men calling me Natasha when hearing that I speak Russian, but it is still devastating to watch TV shows which creators see this part of the world as one big country. Yes, it breaks my heart every time when I decide to rewatch Friends and see one of the extras leave for Minsk, which, according to the series, is in Russia. Frankly, I always skip this episode, and tell myself that it was in 1994.
In 2016 though, ignorance is a choice. I usually find it pretty amusing when foreigners adamantly persuade me that I, unlike them, know nothing about the country of my origin. I’ve been struggling with the national self-consciousness going back and forth for seven years – this is the time I have been living outside Belarus – but I know exactly where I came from. Approximately a month ago, I met a Spanish guy at a party. I’m not positive if it was three beers I’d already downed or his extremely repulsive attempts at telling me what was wrong with Belarus, alongside teaching me how to be a proper Belarusian, but our mutual friend had to literally pick me up and carry me away as I was one step from throwing my beverage – Hollywood-movie style – in his Spanish douche face. I think it was Pushkin who said “I despise my Motherland, but it is vexing if a foreigner shares this notion”. I tend to be a little (or a lot) snobbish when it comes to certain things, and I don’t know what I should have expected from a guy who had Christmas ornaments in his beard.
There are not that many ways of pissing off a Belarusian. We are known for being extremely patient (like, come on, we’ve been brooking Lukashenko for more than 20 years!), but hardly any Belarusian will remain calm if you call them Russian, and absolutely everyone will lose their temper when hear “Belorussia”. I cringed twice when I was writing it, let alone whenever I hear people actually say it. Apparently, there is even a Wikipedia article about “the proper naming of the Republic of Belarus in the Russian language”. However, Russian media doesn’t seem to give a damn that it’s been twenty years of Belarus, while Russian people find it incredibly amusing to trigger off this linguistic war.
It took me a long time and way more of the famous Belarusian patience to teach my English-speaking friends to use “Belarusian” [ˌbel.əˈruːsɪən] rather than “Belorussian” [ˌbel.əˈrʌʃ.ən]. Call me arrogant, but the latter is more offensive to me than “you look at him like an unmilked cow” — the comment I received from my best friend’s sister recently.
Like the majority of Belarusians, I came from a Russian-speaking family. There is something grotesque about the fact that the only time I spoke Belarusian full-time was when I was doing an internship in Warsaw (Poland) more than four years ago. “Why don’t you speak Belarusian to your friends?” is easily the most frequent question I’m asked. And honestly, I don’t have an answer. After all, what can you possibly ask from the country where even the president doesn’t speak it?
In my defence, I do read books in Belarusian, and I have Belarusian-speaking friends. When I was a pretentious teenager, I thought it was very cool and respectful of me to talk with them in Belarusian, which I had been doing up until I got lazy and grew out of it. When I was back from Poland I spoke the hideous mixture of Belarusian and Russian, which actually can be considered the third and unofficial national language of Belarus. More and more people, both hip teens – like me back in the day – and young adults, switch to the Belarusian language to distinguish themselves from Russians, but there is still a long way to go.
A couple of years ago I set myself a challenge to come up with a phrase in Belarusian that would consist of words that have no similarities with any other language. Don’t tell anyone, but I still haven’t found the perfect sentence, so I just trick people into thinking that the Google Translate-like “There is a pen in a cup, and the kettle is wearing heels” is a full-value meaningful expression.
All jokes aside, being a Belarusian has its benefits language-wise. Growing up 16 km from the border with Poland, watching cartoons in Polish and going to Bialystok every other weekend, made it impossible not to understand the Polish language almost perfectly. The same goes for Ukrainian, and it is a real brain-breaker for every Russian-speaker, when I talk in Belarusian, and my friends from Ukraine answer in Ukrainian. This is one of the strong bonds we share.
Who could have guessed that my nationality would poke a nose into my love life too. After all, marrying me won’t give you a green card — it can get you a night in a police van or 15 days in prison though, if you are into this kind of stuff. But, surprisingly, a lot of guys get really excited when they find out I’m a Belarusian. Like, I’m a unicorn they never believed existed. I mean, only the mental get hyped-up by that, but even my mom admits that “mental” is my thing. Anyway, at some point between talking politics and answering a bunch of questions from basic to ridiculous and back — throughout my expat and dating career I clearly understood how celebrities must feel being asked the very same things over and over again — I can’t help but wonder if the guy is actually interested in me, or if he uses my background to fill the gaps in his knowledge of the ex-Soviet Union world, or simply does Eastern Europeans for the story.
I’m currently spending my holidays in my hometown, and two days ago I was out on a date with my first Belarusian in 7 years. Sitting in a newly-opened yet scarily tacky Soviet style small café with repellent orange walls, being eaten up by nostalgia and holding on to a drink to get through the night, I started to slowly realize why Belarus is so invisible to the developed world, and why those who know of its existence, talk about visiting it with the same enthusiasm I talk about going to Disneyland. The thing is that time has frozen here. Belarus is like a time-capsule, where a lot of things happen but nothing really changes. The TV still translates concerts from the 90s, wine in a cafe with garlands all around the bar has an after-taste of vinegar, the security man drinks cognac disguised as tea during his night shift, and your thirty-year-old date talks about his poor life in Belarus and the stupidity of the Belarusian language.
Nevertheless, at the Nobel Prize ceremony, the Belarusian language was spoken. It may have been just a couple of sentences, but these were the words that had been so much needed to be heard for decades. Now Belarus exists. And we seem to finally be closer than ever to stepping out of the shadow of Russia. A lot of men will still call us Natasha and refer to us as Russians, just because. But it is no longer invisible for those who are worthy, and despite all the criticism that fell upon Alexievich, 2015 was the year when thanks to her, Belarusians could be proud of who they are for the first time in many, many years.