Are Belarusians and Russians the same people?

April 12, 2018 10:34
Belarus' move to change the official Chinese translation of the country’s name has aroused suspicions that it is trying to dissociate itself from Russia. Photo:

The government of Belarus recently published a statement on its official website noting that the official Chinese translation of “Belarus” should be “白羅斯” (or White Rus’) rather than “白俄羅斯” (White Russia).

According to the statement, the clarification was necessary because the old Chinese translation had given many Chinese people the wrong impression that Belarus is part of Russia, when indeed it isn’t.

The statement, which immediately went viral, aroused suspicions that it could be part of Belarus’ secret agenda to dissociate itself from neighboring Russia under President Vladimir Putin.

And that begs the question: Are Belarusians and Russians the same people or not?

The answer is “yes” and “no”; it is a bit complicated.

True, like the Ukrainians and the Russians, the Belarusians also belong to the same ethnic group known as “East Slavs” or "Rus'”.

Back in the 9th century A.D., the three peoples formed a kingdom known as the Kievan Rus’ in the area encompassing the present day Kiev in Ukraine.

However, the Kievan Rus’ went into decline, and later the entire region was overrun by the ferocious Mongol invaders. Nevertheless, the area to the north inhabited by the ancestors of today’s Belarusians was, miraculously, spared from the Mongol invasion.

The Mongol invasion in the 13th century has proven a watershed in the history of the Belarusians. While the Kievan Rus’ in the south was conquered by the Mongols, who would continue to rule the region for the next two hundred years or so, the Rus’ in the north, or the early Belarusians, were culturally and territorially intact.

And in the centuries that followed, the early Belarusians began to integrate culturally with the Lithuanians in the Baltics, and gradually became different from the Ukrainians and the Russians, who were still under Mongol rule at that time.

In fact, the term “Belarus” has its origin in the archaism “Belaya Rus’”, which literally means “White Rus’”.

The Belarusians have been referring to themselves as the “White Rus’” because the word “white” denotes cultural and ethnic purity; they believe the bloodlines of their Russian and Ukrainian counterparts were “contaminated” by the Tatars through interracial marriages under the Mongol rule.

The term “Belarus” is also directly translated into “White Russia” in the German language, and what we Chinese did was only follow what other cultures had already done.

I think Minsk’s initiative to change the official Chinese translation of the country’s name, no matter what its intention might be, is a good thing.

Over the years, many books on modern Chinese history have referred to leaders and members of the “White Army” which fought against the Communist “Red Army” led by Lenin in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution as “White Russians”.

As a result, many readers have mistaken the “White Army” and “White Russians” who fought in that civil war for the “Belarusian army” and the “Belarusians”, when in fact they were hardly related to each other at all.

And so changing the official Chinese translation of “Belarus” can definitely help to avoid confusion.

The White Army, which mainly consisted of those who remained in the Czar’s family, former Russian aristocrats, die-hard monarchists, pro-western liberals, capitalists and big landowners, was eventually defeated by the Red Army in 1922.

In the aftermath, many of its soldiers and officers fled to Manchuria, where a lot of them were recruited as mercenaries by local Chinese warlords.

Among them was the notoriously brutal Marshal Zhang Zongchang, who recruited nearly 5,000 “White Russians” to fight alongside his own troops against other warlords.

These “White Russians” would later prove highly capable, well-trained and ruthless warriors in the Chinese civil war between the 1920s and '30s. They also helped Marshal Zhang build the first military armored train unit in China.

Perhaps little known is the fact that some of the “White Russians” eventually took refuge in southern cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong, and became owners of restaurants specializing in the Rus’ cuisine.

It is said that the Borscht soup, which Hongkongers are so familiar with today, was actually introduced in our city by these “White Russian” refugees.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 5

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal