Introducing Belarusian Wikipedia: An interview with Volha Sitnik

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Volha Sitnik in 2011. She is one of the most active contributors in the project, many years now.

Belarusian Wikipedia is a robust project. Although Belarusian Wikipedia has few users, in comparison with other Wikipedias, it has a good amount of dedicated contributors, and it is very productive version of Wikipedia. Many new articles are written per day, on various topics regarding Belarus and the world.

Belarusian Wikipedia is having more than 228,000 articles, while there is also a Belarusian Wikipedia in Tarashkevich orthography (Belarusian Wikipedia is in the formal orthography, Tarashkevich is in the older one) with more than 80,000 articles. However, Belarusian has only 627 thousand pageviews as of January 2023, due to the Russification in the country.

Thus, I decided to interview Homelka (Volha Sitnik), in order to introduce Belarusian Wikipedia to the Wikimedians’ community, but also because she is a very productive Wikipedian. She has done more than 185,000 edits in Belarusian having written more than 9,000 articles. She writes regularly in Belarusian, since September 2009.

As a first question, typical of Wikipedians’ interviews, tell us a few things for yourself.

Hello, my name is Volha Sitnik. I am 40 and I am Belarusian and have lived all my life in Belarus, now in the capital – the city of Minsk. I have an engineering background, but I have been a housewife for many years and have three children. On Wikipedia, I am active mainly in the Belarusian section and Wikidata, but I also make minor edits in other Slavonic sections and upload photos to Wikimedia Commons. I have been an active editor for almost 15 years and an administrator of the Belarusian section for over ten years. Well, I’m also one of the three most active editors of our section. I like to write about the geography of Belarus and ancient manuscripts related to Belarus or Spain.

How did you began to be engaged on the Wikimedia movement and Wikipedia at general?

I’m the kind of person who became an encyclopedist as soon as I could read, that was back in the late 1980s. Since then, I love encyclopedias and their style of presenting information. So I just had to wait until mankind comes up with Wikipedia, and come there. When I gave birth to my first daughter, I had free time for a hobby and I became an editor, first in the Russian section. But when I saw a very modest number and quality of articles in the section in my native language – Belarusian – I gradually moved there and now this is my main place of effort.

Interesting. You remind me my childhood years, as I similarly read again and again an encyclopedia at my home when I was five to six. As we know, Belarusian language is compared often to the Irish language in Ireland, given that Russian has been much more dominant in government, in the public sphere, etc. although not in the scale of Ireland where English has supplanted virtually everything. Does Belarusian has a strong presence on the internet, outside of Wikipedia?

Yes, the Belarusian language is often compared with Irish because of the obvious parallels of their destinies. First of all, the situation is complicated by a lot of pressure from Russia, but also due to the fact that now there is a big conflict between the state and society. It so happened that because of the friendship between our and the Russian government, in some way, the Belarusian language became the language of opposition and sometimes even protest. And, of course, because of this, repressions directed against the opposition are sometimes applied to him. But a large number of people are working to reduce such pressure from the state, including by creating the largest possible amount of neutral content in the Belarusian language on the Internet. Inside Belarus, people record texts and videos about culture, sports, ancient history, cuisine, science or travel, but not about social and political life, so as not to provoke an attack. Well, those who left the country emphasize their belonging to Belarus and the Belarusian society, use the Belarusian language in life and in the media space already in a full range of topics and issues. It can be confidently asserted that the percentage of the Belarusian language in the communication of Belarusians on the Internet is much higher than in real communication.

Now let’s go to the community. How it is the climate there, and how much is your size at general?

So, we have a not very large backbone of two dozen people who are quite actively communicating with each other inside and outside Wikipedia, but in the last few years almost exclusively online, because offline meetings pose some threat from law enforcement agencies, unfortunately, plus not everyone has free time and opportunity to come in person. Of course, there are several times more active participants, but many of them, apart from Wikipedia, do not show themselves at all in non-Wikipedia communication with other editors, for personal reasons, temperament, or all the same risks of an active civic or public position in our country. The point is not that the authorities are persecuting Wikipedians, but rather that social inaction, the position “I am out of politics” is officially encouraged and approved. Therefore, any vigorous activity to unite people is already a risk.

At the same time, it seems to me that we were able to create a very good climate for communication and helping each other. As a woman, I must say that from the very beginning, I was treated very well: not a gentlemanly top-down “she’s a girl”, but a completely equal treatment of the same member as other people in the community. We, as in other sections, have more men, but I’m not the only female person :).

Tell us a few things particular in Belarusian Wikipedia.

Sometimes it seems to me that the Belarusian Wikipedia is an island of introverts. Almost everyone in our community, when choosing between writing an article or discussing some community rules or norms, chooses to edit articles. Because of this, we do not have very developed pages with conversations, rules and so on. But pretty high quality articles in the main space. We have patrolling and all new edits are checked and approved/rejected almost online, we have really good wikiification of articles, connectivity between them and navigation between articles and topics. We also provided ourselves and our readers with a pretty good category tree. And my special pride is that we do not have a single article about taxa without an automatic infobox with full taxonomy.

And, in my opinion, we have a pretty good ratio of the size of the section in terms of the number of articles and the growth rate of new articles. Often in large sections, the growth of new articles slows down, but we have kept a stable level of monthly new articles for several years, and if not very fast, but it really grows all the time

Yes, I have observed similar patterns regarding the community forum in Uzbek Wikipedia, where WikiStipendiya marathon has resulted in a massive influx of new contributors there. In Greek Wikipedia you can see entire discussions (they are very much) about many things, but we also go well on new articles and have a good quality standard for our pages, although we have undocumented articles, pages needing fixes and the such. Where do you attribute that feature of Belarusian Wikipedia?

Specifically, in the Uzbek Wikipedia, they bit off such a big piece that they cannot chew it for many years. If you press the Random Article button on them, then it is easy to see that most of their articles do not have any categories or blue links inside, because ten years ago they downloaded the state universal encyclopedia just as it is, but did not have participants, resources and desire to put these articles in order. We were afraid of a similar fate, so we filled articles with bots very precisely and carefully, mainly these were settlements of Belarus and neighboring countries, plus water bodies from the same territories. We do have a lot of manual edits of individual articles. And quite a few articles on local topics that don’t even have an interwiki. But at the same time, we also try to write articles only on significant topics. And, of course, each of our articles is like a beloved child in a large family: after saving the edits of the first author, someone else will almost certainly look into it and correct the spelling, punctuation or design.

Volha Sitnik (Homelka) and Wikipedia’s founder Jimmy Wales, Esino Lario, Italy, Wikimania 2016.

I know it. And in Greek, we will correct many new articles. While regarding bots, we used them once only in 2005-06 to assist us on some new articles (around 600). Now let’s go to another question: As we know, Belarusian Wikipedia have a very low amount of pageviews, just the one fifth of English and of course, much fewer pageviews than Russian. Where do you attribute this?

Everything is very simple here. The vast majority of Belarusians speak and write in Russian, they have the Russian language in their Google settings and, first of all, they are shown the Russian-language section.

I know it. Do they use Belarusian (at least some) alongside Russian, and generically, does exist a trend towards speaking Russian or not?

As for the quality, I know for sure that we have a really high level of article quality. First of all, most active editors are very experienced calm people who happily and without difficulty comply with our standards for writing articles and using sources. Secondly, due to the relatively small influx of new edits, we can actually review them in their entirety and fix what isn’t good enough. I’ll also note that for the past few years I have often seen on social networks how some people’s complaints about the poor quality of wiki articles (usually the Russian section is meant by default) are sent to the Belarusian Wikipedia with assurances that there are even not so many articles, but their quality is really good.

The Belarusian language is mandatory studied at school by all citizens of Belarus, so it is at least understood, but rarely used in oral communication, inside Belarus this is a meager percentage. More often in writing, especially after the protests of 2020 and even more so after Russia’s massive invasion of Ukraine. Many speakers promote the idea of starting small – install Belarusian on devices, use the first link to the Belarusian Wikipedia, try to write something in Belarusian on social networks at least sometimes.
But in Belarus there is no higher education in Belarusian at all, and this greatly hinders progress.

Very interesting. In Ukraine instead after the invasion the switch has been significant one year now, but it is good that Belarusians begin to use more the language of their country. Do you receive support from the state?

No, absolutely no.

Are there any Wikipedias with whose the Belarusian community cooperates? For example, the other Belarusian Wikipedia in Tarashkevich orthography?

The separation of the two Belarusian Wikipedias was not bloody, but I would not call it absolutely calm either. Therefore, it took several years to bridge the gap between us and now we communicate normally with our neighbors, as we call them. Yes, we sometimes communicate personally on non-Wikipedian occasions, just like Wikipedians, and also discuss some issues regarding the language, news, the emergence of some new sources of information in the public domain, well, something like that, it happens in the current mode, in our and their chats, so no special coordination is needed for this. As for communication with some other communities, the main thing is that it is really bad with communities in Belarus now, but there were some insignificant contacts, unfortunately, some of them stopped their activities within the country and sometimes even the organizers were forced to emigrate abroad. I also need to add that sometimes a person is active both on Wikipedia and within a certain community. And then there is no need for any kind of cooperation between communities, because all coordination and cooperation simply goes through this person like a bridge.

So you mean that promotional activities (workshops and such stuff) have stopped recently?

At least two years have completely stopped inside Belarus, first due to covid, and then because of the current agenda. And abroad they are trying to do something specifically to attract people to the Belarusian Wikipedia, but these are rare initiatives that have little effect on the content and quality of Wikipedia. Literally now they are trying to make an event in Poland, of course, none of the participants from Belarus will go there (visa, tickets, time – this is expensive and irrational in terms of cost-benefit ratio). And I know from experience that even if they get together, well, they will write 10-20 articles. I sometimes write 10-15 articles a day. Not even sometimes, but quite often. Perhaps some new member will come, but the likelihood of this is small, since Wikipedia definitely does not need advertising, whoever wants to will come and so, we are glad to everyone. Perhaps if there was a request from people, not editors, that is, there would be several dozen people in nature who really want to start or have already started editing Wikipedia, but are experiencing some specific difficulties, then I would go to them . But now it’s the opposite, I have to go and do “cold sales”, instead of my own life, unfortunately.

I understand. Before concluding the interview, a last question: Which are your expectations for Belarusian Wikipedia in the future, and what points do you believe that Belarusian should improve the most in the coming future?

I think that for the renaissance of the Belarusian language, we need only three things: make it the only state language, make at least one or two universities with the Belarusian language of education, and force all officials to take the state exam in Belarusian at least once every two or three years. It requires political will, and that says it all. This dream is both real and impossible at the same time. Belarusian language of Schrödinger.
As for the Belarusian section of Wikipedia, of course, I would like our work to be noticed at the level of the Ministry of Culture, at least to be given a commemorative diploma, we honestly deserve it. My dream is also that Belarusian archives, museums, libraries actively scan their collections and upload them directly to Wikipedia, we will figure out what to do with this wealth. In the meantime, until fantasies can be fulfilled, we will continue to work every day step by step in order to write not an encyclopedia about Belarus, but a universal encyclopedia in the Belarusian language about everything significant in the world.

Very interesting. I am confident that this will happen a day. You have already shown that despite the prestige of Russian you are going great, and a change in the state status of Belarusian (between 1991 and 1994, there was an attempt to improve the status) will improve a lot the status of Belarusian language and Wikipedia. Take as an example, the improvement of Ukrainian Wikipedia.

Ukrainians are now paying a very high price not only for the Ukrainian language to be truly respected abroad, but also for Ukrainian citizens to choose it instead of Russian. But we all hope for the best, in Belarusian there is a huge array of text and sound information of various directions, so I am sure that it is definitely not in danger of extinction.

Concluding, I admire the work of the Belarusian Wikipedians as a whole, including Homelka’s. They keep a beautiful and national language alive despite the problems that Belarusian language is facing, which make the contribution of Belarusian fellow Wikipedians really important. All of them keep Belarusian robust and more present on the internet.

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