Belarus and Belarusian in the University Library : the September 2015 Slavonic item(s) of the month

Belarus has a small but steady presence in the University Library, with over 1800 items published in Belarus held here already and a dozen or so more added every year.  The primary language is Russian, with Belarusian a sizeable minority.  This post looks at the language divide in our holdings and at some recent acquisitions.


Covers of books in the library of P.F. Hlebka contained in the recently acquired bibliography of his collection (C210.c.2092)

Of the books produced in Belarus held by the University Library, fewer are in Belarusian (750) than in Russian (950).  To a certain extent, this is a reflection of the Library’s collection development policy which focuses on material in languages taught in the University.  Russian is the main Slavonic language to be taught in Cambridge, and Belarusian is not taught, although Belarus and its culture and history do feature postgraduate and post-doctoral research.  The division of languages in our Belarusian holdings is also, however, to a degree representative of language use in Belarus itself.

Belarusian and Russian are both official languages in Belarus.  The 2009 Belarus census (data from showed that the two languages were at that point almost neck and neck in usage.  As native tongues, Belarusian and Russian between them accounted for over 90% of the country’s 9.5 million inhabitants, with over 5,000,000 native Belarusian speakers and just under 4,000,000 native Russian speakers.  The census also asked recipients to name any non-native languages known fluently.  Belarusian had 1,280,000 responses for this and Russian 1,300,000.  The CIA World Factbook section for the country, however, suggests that Belarusian is now very much in the minority, giving Russian as the native tongue of an eye-popping 70.2% of the population against a very low 23.4% for Belarusian.

The University Library’s holdings in Belarusian date mainly from the last 100 years. The pace of accession was very slow until it picked up in the 1960s (a decade represented by 60 Belarusian books) and then peaked in the 1980s (261 books).  Figures since then have waned, most sharply between the 1990s (203) and the 2000s (50), but the figure of 39 books acquired so far this decade hints at a small revival.  In all decades, these books made up fewer than 50% of our accessions from Belarus itself, with Russian standardly the main language.  This largely continues to be the case to this day. A recent batch of arrivals has included the books detailed below, beneath the image which shows the covers of three of the arrivals.


The covers of three books discussed below (L-R item 3 under Belarusian, item 3 under Russian, item 2 (scaled down!) under Belarusian)

– Selected works on Belarusian grammar and lexicology by the renowned philologist A.M. Bulyka (C204.d.2137)
– A large-scale book of writings dedicated to Iazap Drazdovich (1888-1954), the Belarusian artist and scholar, accompanied by selected works by him (C201.b.7545)
– A bibliography of the 3867-volume library of the Soviet Belarusian poet and dramatist P.F. Hlebka (C210.c.2092).  The volume includes a section of reproductions of the covers of books within the collection (some are shown in the illustration towards the top of the page).
– The selected works of Frantsishak Bahushevich, a major figure in 19th-century Belarusian literature (C204.d.2134).  Before the acquisition of this volume, Bahushevich was represented in our collections only by a 72-page book of poems produced under a pen name (756:33.d.95.211).

– Belarusy v evropeiskom soprotivlenii (Minsk, 2015) – while the Belarusian partisans’ role within their country is fairly well known, V.P. Pavlov examines in this book the role played by Belarusians in resistance organisations in other countries across Western and Eastern Europe, including resistance work within prisoner of war camps (C204.d.2140)
– Five volumes of catalogues of the 17th-century (888.c.730) and 18th-century (888.c.731(1-4)) rare books of the Radziwill collection held by the Iakub Kolas Central Academic Library in Minsk.  These lovely books provide detailed descriptions of hundreds of books, accompanied by facsimiles of notable title pages, provenance marks, and so on.
– Finally, Dokumental’naia pis’mennost’ Velikogo Kniazhestva Litovskogo (C210.c.2138) by A.I. Grusha, which looks at the introduction of the use of written documents as records of transactions and ownership in the Lithuanian Grand Duchy, whose territory included modern-day Belarus.

Mel Bach

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