Polish schools in Belarus are hostages of Sovietized officials

Polish schools in Belarus are hostages of Sovietized officials

One can speak about the division of the Poles of Belarus and Lithuania into two different sub-groups of the Polish nation only from the second half of the 1940s, following the end of World War II and the demarcation of the current borders in this region of Europe. Focusing in his text on the situation of the Polish minority in Belarus, our expert Dr. Kiryl Kascian demonstrates how the state education policies can influence a certain group of the population in a long-term perspective.

There are Poles in Belarus, but Polish schools are nearly absent

According to the most recent population census of 2009, Belarus is the home of 295 thousand ethnic Poles who constitute 3.1% of the country’s population. Almost 80 percent of them reside in the Hrodna region, where the proportion of ethnic Polish population amounts 21.5%. It is worth mentioning here that in accordance with the legislation of Belarus belonging to any ethnic group is a voluntary choice of each individual.

So many ethnic Poles should seemingly need at least several dozen schools with the Polish language of instruction. However, there are only two such schools in today’s Belarus – one in Hrodna and one in Vaŭkavysk. Moreover, there were no Polish schools in the post-war Belarusian SSR. This not only distinguished Soviet Belarus from Soviet Lithuania, but also points out the different contents of the relations of the Soviet republics with the central authorities in Moscow. The Soviet authorities closed the last Polish school in Hrodna in 1948.

Why did it happen? It is hardly possible to give a straight answer. It is appropriate to refer to the opinion of a Polish Professor Zdzisław Winnicki. He speaks about the so-called “evacuation” of the Polish population in 1945, which gave the Soviet authorities formal grounds to claim that no Poles were left in Belarus. At the same time, Winnicki mentions that the population censuses detected several hundred thousand ethnic Poles in the Belarusian SSR. However, due to various objective and subjective reasons not every ethnic Pole wanted and was able to leave Belarus after the end of World War II. And this is the case of not only the Belarusian (and Lithuanian) Poles, but also of the Polish Belarusians. The Stalinist regime certainly had data on the total number of Poles in Belarus and on the exact numbers of those who left for Poland. In addition, a reference to censuses is absurd, since the first post-war Soviet census took place only in 1959, i.e. during the so-called Khrushchev thaw. Winnicki further states that “the Belarusian Poles did not want to immediately become Soviet people and did not want to get Russified”. Therefore, he argues that the Soviet authorities “first wanted to make Belarusians from the Belarusian Poles, because there was no need to convert Belarusians into the Soviet people, since the Belarusian would be a Soviet person anyway”.

Poles and Belarusians under the Russification hammer

However, this opinion of Winnicki is a deliberate and rather rude attack against the Belarusians which echoes the policies and discourses of the Russian Empire, where Belarusians were denied the right to be treated as a distinct ethnic group. First, it is unlikely that any ethnic group voluntarily wanted to get Sovietized and consequently Russified. Second, the entire population of Western Belarus, which until 1939 was a part of Poland, had to adapt itself to the post-war Sovietization under the late Stalinist regime. Third, the framework policies towards the use of languages in the education system of the Belarusian SSR were designed in Moscow.

To understand this, it is enough to recall Khrushchev, who in early 1959 in Minsk declared that “the sooner we all start speaking Russian, the faster we shall build communism”. The practical effect of this setting was that in the late 1980s there were no Belarusian-language schools in the major Belarusian cities. After the 1995 referendum, the approach of the Belarusian authorities towards the use of languages in the education system is largely based on the same Soviet patterns. The experience of independent Belarus is perhaps unique in its absurdity. Thus, the statements by Winnicki about the goals of the Soviet authorities to convert Belarusian Poles into Belarusians are absurd to the same extent as the statements by a MEP Valdemar Tomaševski who argued that “the broadcasting of the Belsat TV in the Belarusian language Russifies the Belarusian Poles“. However, let’s go back to the Polish schools in Belarus.

The revival of Polish education in Belarus

The period of the national revival of the late 1980s – early 1990s resulted in the launch of school classes in Polish followed by the opening of the two schools with the Polish language of instruction in the mid-1990s – secondary school No. 36 in Hrodna and secondary school No. 8 in Vaŭkavysk. Three aspects should be emphasized in this regard.

First, the construction of these schools and their infrastructure was financed by the Republic of Poland. However, they operate within the framework of the state education system of Belarus. Second, as of the 2017–18 school year, only 840 students studied in both educational institutions. Two thirds of them attended the school in Hrodna, and one third – in Vaŭkavysk. However, this tiny number of schools cannot provide everyone with the opportunity to study in Polish. At the same time, we are not talking about the schools where Polish is taught as an additional subject or the language courses organized by public, religious or commercial organizations, since these forms of education are primarily aimed at acquisition of the Polish language, rather than on the realization of constitutional norm, which requires the state to guarantee the freedom to choose the language of upbringing and instruction in accordance with the law. Third, the creation of these two schools in independent Belarus is a positive dynamic if compared with the Soviet period. However, this result cannot be called a full success. For example, due to several reasons the representatives of the Union of Poles of Belarus failed to establish a school with the Polish language of instruction in the town of Navahrudak.

Polish schools in Belarus: the less, the better?

It might seem that these two schools should not be a burden for the Belarusian authorities in charge of education. But that’s not how it turned out! In April 2018, it was reported that only two first classes were to be opened in the 2018-19 school year in the secondary school No. 36 in Hrodna. Despite the appeals of the parents, the Hrodna educational officials tried to explain the limitations by potential technical problems involving two-shift education process and the organization of elective classes.

Representatives of the officially unrecognized Union of Poles of Belarus interpreted this fact as another limitation of the possibilities of learning Polish language imposed by the authorities. However, this strategy of official bodies was not a new one, since similar problems occurred in previous years. Nevertheless, the Belarusian authorities made concessions and accepted everyone interested. As a result, 84 first-graders were admitted, divided between three first classes. Some commentators argued that it was a halved achievement of Stanisław Karczewski, Marshal of the Senate of the Republic of Poland, who in Summer 2018 discussed this issue with the central authorities in Minsk and local authorities in Hrodna.

His success halved after it was announced that only one first grade class with just 18 students was to be formed in the secondary school No. 8 in Vaŭkavysk. Since 31 applications were filed, thirteen children were deprived of the opportunity to receive school education in Polish. At the same time, the school in Vaŭkavysk did not face this problem before. The authorities typically explained their decision by the limited sanitary facilities of the school building, although the school director emphasized that the school had all the possibilities to accept all interested first-graders.

Problems of the Polish minority in Belarus as a relic of the Sovietized thinking of the officials

The said restrictive measures are typically explained by the decisions from above. The activists of the officially unrecognized Union of Poles of Belarus speak about the hatred or non-acceptance of manifestations of Polishness by the present authorities of Belarus. They also claim that the long-term targeted actions of the authorities are aimed at the Russification of the Polish youth in Belarus. One can agree with these statements, but only in part.

At the same time, it is worth noting that representatives of the officially unrecognized Union of Poles of Belarus unwittingly contribute to the Russification, since they use Russian language for their communication with the authorities (it can be concluded from the answer of the education department of the Lieninski district of the city of Hrodna, obliged by law to respond in the language of the appeal). Of course, the use of the Belarusian language by Polish minority activists would hardly change anything, but the choice in favor of the Belarusian language to communicate with the authorities could be an additional manifestation of their determination to struggle for their rights.

It is worth to remember that the split of the Union of Poles of Belarus in 2005 was in fact a partially successful attempt by the Belarusian government to bring the country’s largest public association under its control. Therefore, when analyzing policies of the Belarusian officials towards the country’s Polish minority during the last two decades, it is difficult not to agree with Valdemar Tomaševski, who in 2010 underlined that “Belarus has a problem with freedom of assembly, which is a part of the human rights domain. We speak about the organization that represents minority, and from this perspective we can speak about minority issues. But only in this perspective“.

Indeed, by limiting the enrolment of students in the schools with Polish language of instruction in Hrodna and Vaŭkavysk, the Belarusian authorities create problems for themselves from nothing. Therefore, the main explanation of this approach by the Belarusian authorities seems to be the relics of the Soviet-style thinking of the officials in charge of education and state ideology, who act within the vertical power structure, which does not always welcome and encourage ground-up initiatives. At the same time, in the major cities of Belarus parents often find themselves in a similar situation, when they wish to ensure their children the right to study in the Belarusian language guaranteed by the constitution of the Republic of Belarus.

Note: This text was prepared in cooperation with InBaltic.

Image: © Andrzej Tichomirow

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