Meet the Belarusian Poles
In order to investigate the attitude of the Polish minority in Belarus towards political involvement, we visited the city of Lida, a quiet town in western Belarus. Not only is Lida famous for its beer, it is also home to a significant Polish community that continues to promote its culture and traditions, although not so much in public.
According to the latest census, the Polish minority in Belarus comprises around 295,000 people. But according to various estimates, from the official government census figures to to the unofficial totals given by the Poles themselves, this number could be almost twice as high. In Soviet times Polishness was associated with Catholicism, although nowadays there is a more liberal attitude towards the link between religion and nationality. Even the Polish priest we met in Lida admits that he is not responsible only for the Polish community, but for the whole Catholic community in his parish.
Lida has one of the highest proportions of Poles and Catholics in Belarus. It is a charming city in the west of the country, lying 160 kilometres away from Minsk. Out of the population of about 100,000 people, around half are members of the Catholic Church, with 40% also declaring themselves to be Poles. Nevertheless the Polish language is not heard very much on the streets of the city. Rather Polish culture and tradition is cultivated in the Dom Polski 'Polish House'.
Polish activists in Lida
The Polish House is involved in several activities related to preserving Polish traditions, language and culture. It is not supported by either the Belarusian or Polish governments, with the latter only contributing to the construction of the house itself, not including furnishings. These were provided by the Association of Poles in Belarus (Zwiazek Polaków na Bialorusi, ZPB), who also established a Polish library and are involved in organising many cultural events. Under the auspices of the Polish House four musical ensembles are active. Young Poles can also go to the Polish school, which is located in the same building.
Despite the Poles not receiving any support from official institutions in Belarus, there are also no restraints or obstacles from the government in Minsk. Many Poles are very active in social and cultural life, and some are also involved in political life. They are involved in city institutions, the local council, while some were even candidates in the parliamentary elections.
The ZPB activists say that as Belarusian citizens they should be involved in the life of their country, since they live there and must not become isolated from its affairs. Also the local Polish priest is content with how community affairs are developing, although he underlines that he speaks for the all of the Catholics, not only the Polish part.
Speaking of the Catholic Church
Nevertheless, even despite the fact that certain Polish individuals do not distance themselves from politics, neither the ZPB activists nor the Catholic priests are keen on speaking about political topics. Even the metropolitan Bishop's office once announced that clergymen ought to stay out of governmental matters and focus instead on formative and spiritual matters. They said that it is not really their field, and that they wish to stay out of what they consider a somewhat dangerous field to get involved in. The priests are rather engaged in community work, while the activists teach, organise events, and promote Polish music, theatre and literature.
This is why the motto of the Polish House in Lida is the quote from Boleslaw Prus, a Polish writer: "Real patriotism does not mean to love some kind of an ideal motherland, but it means to love, work on, and work for real elements of the motherland - the soil, the society, the people, and their resources".