Belarusian National Identity: Navigating the Soviet Period with Yakub Kolas' "New Land" (1923)

Sun10  Apr12:55pm(10 mins)
Umney Lounge


Céleste Pagniello


The complexity of Belarusian national identity has been at the forefront of world politics since August 2020, when the country’s sixth presidential election saw long-time president Alexander Lukashenko declare himself victor over his decidedly more popular opponent, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, igniting resistance across the country that continues to this day. This complexity, however, is rooted in the country’s past, most often in its entanglement with its powerful neighbour, Russia, from whom Belarus struggles to differentiate itself. In the midst of this long conflict comes a particular work of Belarusian literature: Yakub Kolas’ “New Land”. Describing a peasant family’s struggle to buy its own land, “New Land” is an encyclopaedia of pre-revolutionary life in Belarus, celebrating the Belarusian peasants and the beauty of their land. It represents, however, a notable paradox: completed in 1923, it does not reference the new Soviet state at all. While its title celebrates the “new”, the body of Kolas’ text more often turns to the “old”, engaging in reflective nostalgia towards pre-revolutionary Belarus. This paper seeks to answer the following question: what explains the centrality of “New Land”, a putatively apolitical celebration of the beauty and simplicity of life in Belarus, to the project of Belarusian national identity? It aims to demonstrate that his identity, encapsulated within Kolas’ poem, is intimately intertwined with the Belarusian land itself.

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