An Interview With Lavon Barshcheuski: Our Languages Are Very Close to Each Other
#language & literature
default, Lavon Barshcheuski, Wrocław, photo: Paweł Kozioł / AG, lawon_barszczeuski_portret_ag.jpg
In an interview with Culture.pl, the author of the anthology ‘Nie Chyliłem Czoła przed Mocą’ (I Did Not Bow Before Might) reveals the history of Belarusian literature and its complicated ties with Polish literature. He also explains why some Belarusian writers thought of themselves as Poles – and why Józef Piłsudski could call himself a Belarusian.
Mikołaj Gliński (MG): You are one of the co-authors of an exceptional book. Theoretically, ‘Nie Chyliłem Czoła przed Mocą’ is an anthology of Belarusian poetry from the 15th to the 20th centuries. But it also includes works originally written in at least four languages and representing several literatures. Can you explain your idea?
Lavon Barshcheuski (LB): In his review of the book, Michał Jagiełło noticed that the anthology represented not so much the specific literature of a given nation (and, in this case, the language in which this literature exists is the priority) but a certain literary tradition. It emerged from the contact and subsequent integration of the essential elements of Eastern (Byzantine) and Western (Roman) cultures.
The territory of Belarus, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and, later on, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was a melting pot. The anthology presents works written in Latin, Church Slavonic as well as relics of Polish, Russian and, last but not least, Belarusian literature. Ukrainian and Lithuanian literature germinated in the same, or a neighbouring, area. It is also worth remembering that a rich Yiddish literature developed here. This is exceptional in the history of culture…
I would not say that this is something truly exceptional. Several literatures developed simultaneously in different languages but within the same tradition on the territory of France – which was multilingual in the Middle Ages – and in the area of Scandinavia, including Denmark. Truth be told, this happened under the influence of German literature. But some things are truly unique. I will discuss these later…
Poland & Belarus: Twin Experiences
MG: The first piece of Belarusian literature in the strictest sense is the Belarusian translation of the ‘Book of Psalms’ by Francysk Skaryna, who is an important figure in both Belarusian and European 16th-century culture. What was his role in the history of Belarusian literature?
LB: Doctor Francysk Skaryna was obviously not the first Belarusian poet, as he was not really a poet. He was a titan of the Renaissance, but he was actually rational in his thinking. Skaryna used poetic expression only to make it easier for the reader of the day to understand his thoughts, his interpretation of the Bible as a suprareligious work.
Indeed, the first poet to live on the territory of today’s Belarus was undoubtedly Cyril of Turov, a clergyman and preacher who wrote in Church Slavonic. In the 12th century, during his lifetime, it was the only ‘literary language’ in the Ruthenian principalities. However, his very poetic sermons, prayers and canons are full of Belarusian and Ukrainian borrowings (the mighty Principality of Turov and Pinsk was located in the Belarusian-Ukrainian borderland).
A Belarusian Carnival at Gunpoint
Protestants also played an important role in the early period of development of the Belarusian language covered by the anthology; the first Calvinist and Arian books were published in Belarusian.
The situation in Belarus gets even more interesting with the involvement of Protestants! Although they published books in Old Belarusian at first, they soon switched to Polish (e.g., the Brest Bible from the mid-16th century, translated by Szymon Budny). This is how they demonstrated their distinctness, distancing themselves from both the Orthodox and the Catholic traditions, which were dominated by Russified Church Slavonic and Latin, respectively.
Please don’t forget that in those days, in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, masses in Roman Catholic churches were celebrated in Latin and not in Polish, Belarusian or Lithuanian. Thus, Belarusian Protestants deserve credit for the fact that Polish became the fourth most powerful literary language in this area – following Church Slavonic, Old Belarusian and Latin. Obviously, this was a peculiar sort of Polish, different from the Polish used by poets and writers of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
A Wooden Kalashnikov: Belarusian Artists in Poland
MG: The anthology contains numerous works that we know from Polish literature textbooks. You write that although Baka and Naruszewicz wrote in Polish, their poetics, language, versification, etc. are comprehensible only against the backdrop of Belarusian folklore and literature (especially the Belarusian Baroque) – what an unusual and surprising approach.
LB: The co-author of the anthology, Adam Pomorski – an excellent translator of Belarusian and German poetry, among other things – provided a substantive answer to this question. In an interview with Joanna Szczęsna for the Gazeta Wyborcza (Electoral Newspaper) daily, he formulated it as follows:
The baroque is a tradition shared by Polish and Belarusian poetry. This is especially true of the popular Sarmatian baroque: the famous ‘Totentanz’ (Dance of Death), an eschatological grotesque and didactic poem from the early Baroque period, was translated from German into Polish at the beginning of the 17th century. This gave rise to a whole grotesque ‘poetics of end times’ in Polish literature, developed under the influence of the Silesian Germans. The grotesque macabre works in the century of wars reached as far as Ruthenia and mingled with local, so to speak, carnivalesque folklore. It was used in 17th- and 18th-century educational practice by the Jesuits, who drew on local popular culture. This is how the phenomenon of the grotesque developed by the Belarusian Jesuits emerged and was transferred back to Polish literature.
I cannot express this any better. However, I can share an anecdote. Well, a few weeks ago, in the manuscripts and collections department of the Princes Czartoryski Library in Kraków, I came across a manuscript of a previously unknown, anonymous work of 19th-century Belarusian-language literature under the Polish title Wiersz Ruski O Religii I Obyczajności (A Ruthenian Poem about Religion and Good Morals). This is a piece of narrative poetry (206 verses) of a religious and didactic nature, in which you can trace motifs from the above-mentioned ‘poetics of end times’.
Rise of a Nation: Siarhiej Dubaviec on Belarus
MG: Belarusian folklore played an important role in the history of Polish literature: it laid the foundation for Polish romanticism. One could say it was the second language of the philomaths. Jan Czeczot, who inspired Mickiewicz’s interest in local folklore to a certain extent, wrote in Belarusian himself; the anthology presents his Belarusian works alongside those written in Polish. Who was Czeczot, and what was his role in the development of Belarusian literature?
In fact, Jan Czeczot is the second (after Jan Barszczewski) person known by name to have written poetry in Belarusian in the 19th century. Like most of his fellow philomaths of the time, he considered himself a patriot of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which means he was a ‘political Pole’. In line with this tradition, there emerged an entire trend in poetry in the Belarusian language modelled on folk songs. In fact, folk songs have always been in abundance here. In the late 20th century, the Belarusian Academy of Sciences published a collection of Belarusian folklore in 50 thick volumes. More than half of them comprise folk – or ‘lower-class’, as the philomaths would say – songs, poems and ballads.
MG: Based on the anthology, one can conclude that early-modern Belarusian literature developed in the Polish-Belarusian cultural borderland. It would be difficult to specify the national identity of many influential Belarusian writers; I mean Czeczot, Rypiński, Barszczewski, Korotyński, Dunin-Martsinkevich... Is it at all possible to say whether they were Polish or Belarusian?
LB: Before the demise of the January Uprising, the absolute majority of the nobility of Belarusian origin dreamt of the rebirth of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, so they referred to themselves as Poles – not in an ethnic, but in a political, sense (there was no definition of a ‘citizen of the commonwealth’ at the time, but that was the point). But after the collapse of the uprising, some of our nobility no longer believed in the possibility of the rebirth of a common state. Frantsishak Bahushevich, who once fought in the uprising, wrote something akin to a manifesto for Belarusians in 1891. This manifesto became the preface to his collection of poetry Dudka Byelaruskaya (Belarusian Fife).
MG: Importantly, these men of letters were bilingual. Another 19th-century Polish Belarusian writer, Vincent Dunin-Martsinkevich, a friend of Syrokomla and Moniuszko, amongst others, wrote some of his works in Belarusian and others in Polish. What was the reason?
LB: The answer to this question follows from the answer to the preceding question. At some point, the nobility was depicted in the works of these authors as Polish-speaking, while ‘the mob’ spoke Belarusian. However, Dunin-Martsinkevich started to change this tradition as early as the mid-19th century. In his play Idylya (Idyll), the noblewoman Julia Dobrowiczówna starts speaking ‘the peasants’ language’. By the way, the music for the opera Sielanka (originally: Idylya) was composed by Stanisław Moniuszko together with the composer Konstanty Krzyżanowski of Minsk.
MG: Bilingualism is related to the issue of the transcription of the Belarusian language. Today, it is written in a variant of Russian Cyrillic, but there were times in history when Belarusian was also written in the Latin alphabet (Belarusian written in this way is very similar to Polish). Why is Cyrillic used nowadays?
LB: And the poem I came across in the Kraków archive is written in the Latin alphabet. The nobility writing in Belarusian considered the ‘Polish Latin alphabet’ the only proper option.
Moreover, in the 19th century, the language of instruction at schools in Belarus was either Russian or Polish (after 1864, Polish-language schools could only be private). As a result, graduates used the alphabet they were taught at school when writing in Belarusian.
But there are other examples. For example, Belarusian Tatars used the Arabic alphabet in their prayer books and scriptures written in Belarusian. There are also several texts written by Belarusian Jews in Belarusian using the Hebrew alphabet. Thus, as you can see, the Belarusian language has historically been written not in two alphabets but four.
10 Treasures of Polish-Belarusian Architectural Heritage
MG: And what about Cyrillic?
LB: Since 1912, Nasha Niva (originally: Наша Ніва; Our Field), the most influential weekly legally published in Belarusian, has been released in only a Cyrillic version, for financial reasons. And this tradition has been dominant to this day – although, for example, Uladzimir Arlou, an excellent Belarusian poet and the winner of the first edition of the European Poet of Freedom award, published his last volume of poems in versions using two different spelling systems.
I believe that in the future, the Belarusian Latin alphabet will regain its popularity.
The links between Belarusian and Polish literature are deeper and have often taken an unusual form. For example, Dudka Byelaruskaya (Belarusian Fife), a volume of poetry by the most renowned 19th-century Belarusian poet, Frantsishak Bahushevich, was published in Kraków in 1891 (any printing in Belarusian was forbidden in Belarus at the time).
The White-Red-White Banner of Polish-Belarusian Literature
standardowy [760 px]
‘Dudka Biełaruskaja’ (Belarusian Fife) by Franciszak Bahuszewicz, publishing house: The Belarusian Institute of Hasp. and Culture, 1930, photo: National Library Polona
Also, a young Józef Piłsudski is said to have been involved in smuggling the volume onto the territory of the Russian partition. When arrested by the Russians for the first time, Piłsudski, in response to a police officer’s question about his nationality, stated that he was Belarusian... He was smuggling a book that contained the aforementioned manifesto of Belarusian identity. After the Polish army entered Minsk in 1919, the marshal addressed the audience on Cathedral Square in Belarusian, which he was fluent in.
MG: The bilingualism of Polish-Belarusian writers has been a constant feature of Belarusian literature. Yanka Kupala, the greatest 20th-century Belarusian poet, debuted with poems written in Polish. Why did he become a Belarusian writer?
LB: Bienigna, his mother, could never understand this, because she believed that true poetry could be written only in Polish. However, this was determined by the fact that Ivan Lutsevich (Kupala’s real name) came from a very impoverished noble family, grew up among the ‘mob’ and had to perform physical labour beginning in childhood. He had problems with Polish-speaking noblemen. Finally, he became part of the Belarusian, rather than Polish, intellectual milieu.
Emotional Pierogi & Loaves of Literature: Polish Digital Poetry
MG: The 20th-century history of Belarus and Belarusian literature was largely tragic. In Poland, whose literature also suffered greatly, massive human losses were associated with wars. In the case of Belarus, however, repressions resulting from the Bolshevik terror lasted virtually for the entire Interwar period. What was the attitude of the Bolshevik authorities towards the Belarusian language and identity?
LB: After the short period of Belarus-isation carried out in the Belarusian Soviet Republic between 1924 and 1929 by the nationally aware Belarusians who joined the Communist Party, Moscow reversed its policy. The young Belarusian intelligentsia were subjected to the harshest form of Stalinist terror. It was extremely easy to search for and arrest ‘enemies of the people’ in a republic located next to ‘bourgeois Poland’.
In the mid-1930s, the Belarusian language was being banned from offices, party committees, university education, the army and the police... Beginning in 1938, there was a ban on the production of feature films in Belarusian and Ukrainian in the Soviet Union. At the same time, in the Second Polish Republic, the Sanation policy was also aimed at the complete elimination of the Belarusian language, although Belarusian activists were not physically exterminated...
Belarusian Music Promoter Dmitri Bezkorovainyi Inspired by Don’t Panic We’re From Poland
MG: One of the most tragic threads running throughout the 20th-century history of Belarus is the fate of the poets of the so-called Executed Renaissance. In the anthology, you mention Stalin’s decree of 15th September 1937, which was made public only recently. So, Stalin sentenced 103 notable people, most of them writers, to be executed in a Minsk prison. Some of their poems are published in the anthology.
LB: The absolute majority of those executed were loyal to the Communist authorities, and even believed in the Communist utopia. But Stalin had a plan to intimidate the Soviet population in the face of the total economic disaster of the communist system. Therefore, he constantly demanded that the NKVD provide lists of people who could be accused of anti-Soviet activity. Tens or hundreds of thousands of people became victims. Alleged ‘nationalism’ was a convenient excuse. Virtually anyone who spoke more than just Russian (or Georgian, since Stalin was Georgian) could be labelled a nationalist. This is how such lists were compiled. Later, a list of Polish officers staying in the camps of Kozielsk, Starobielsk and Kharkiv was drawn up in the same way...
The situation of the Belarusian language was certainly a little better in the part of the country which belonged to the Second Polish Republic in the Interwar period.
In the 1920s, Belarusian literature developed dynamically in the Second Polish Republic. In time, increasing numbers of Belarusian activists were accused of cooperating with the Bolsheviks (in part, Polish intelligence had grounds for such accusations, but only in part). The activity of the Belarusian minority also encountered difficulties in the fields of culture and education. Beginning in 1935, nearly all Belarusian social organisations were banned on the territory of the Second Polish Republic.
Phantom Snapshots from the Polish-Belarusian Border
Let us also recall that Czesław Miłosz was expelled from the editorial office of Polish Radio in Vilnius for, amongst other things, inviting the Belarusian choir directed by Ryhor Szyrma, a great lover of Belarusian folklore.
Two great figures, the ‘radically leftist’ Maksim Tank and the politically neutral Natallia Arsenieva, emerged as Belarusian poets on the territory of the Second Polish Republic. There were several eminent Belarusian essayists and literary critics, such as Uladzimir Samoyla, Ihnat Kancheuski and Anton Luckievich. Prose writers and playwrights had no presence.
MG: Yanka Kupala’s life also ended tragically. Harassed by the Bolsheviks in 1930, he attempted suicide, and then, completely broken by the repressions, he signed the so-called open letter from Yanka Kupala renouncing national ideals. To this day, the circumstances of his death have not been confirmed. According to the official version, he fell down a stairwell in Moscow in 1942.
standardowy [760 px]
Janka Kupała, 1930, Wikipedia.org, the cover of the collection of poems ‘Szliacham Zyccia’ (The Trail of Life), 1913, photo: Янка Купала / Wikipedia.org
During World War II, activists from the collaborative government of the Belarusian city of Minsk (by the way, this was none other than… Bolesław Bierut, who managed the finances at City Hall) made an (unsuccessful) attempt to name a Minsk street after Kupala. This information certainly reached the ears of NKVD agents, maybe with help of Bierut himself. However, the FSB’s Moscow archives are still secret. Therefore, we can only speculate about different versions of the circumstances around Kupala’s death.
Albom.pl Archival Photos from the Polish-Belarusian Borderlands – Image Gallery
MG: What was the fate of the Belarusian language and literature after World War II?
LB: After the war, Belarus was completely devoid of its own intelligentsia: those who survived the Stalinist purges and Nazi occupation of Belarus either had to emigrate or were transported to Siberia. The absolute majority of Jews fell victim to the Holocaust. The old intelligentsia, who felt an affinity to their native land, were replaced by people brought in mostly from rural Russia. This obliterated Belarusian as a language of instruction at schools and universities (from 1963, schools offering instruction in Belarusian could be found only in the countryside).
Censorship in Belarus was also very ruthless. Some freedom was allowed only when writing about the Great Patriotic War. The outstanding prose writer Vasil Bykau, who fought against the Germans, emerged against this backdrop. His legacy is a model of Belarusian existential-philosophical prose. His novels, novellas and short stories have been translated into over 50 languages.
MG: The theme of imprisonment (and exile) is an important motif in Belarusian literature which runs through the whole anthology. What is the situation of the Belarusian language and writers working in Belarusian today?
LB: It was in December 2014 that the Frantsishak Alyakhnovich Prize was awarded for works written in prisons under the Lukashenka regime. In total, there are already more than 10 winners who have already been granted this award. The Belarusian Frantsishak Alyakhnovich was probably the first to have ever written about the Stalinist Gulag. His novel In the Claws of the GPU (originally: 7 Lat W Szponach GPU) was published in Polish as early as 1934; the first Belarusian version was published a little later.
Belarusian Music Promoter Dmitri Bezkorovainyi Inspired by Don’t Panic We’re From Poland
MG: Is valuable literature currently being written in Belarusian? Which authors’ works are worth reading today?
LB: Between 2007 and 2011, the College of Eastern Europe in Wrocław published a series of 11 books entitled Belarusian Library which can be considered representative. In Polish bookstores, you can find poems by the already-mentioned Uladzimir Arlou, Uladzimir Niakliayeu, Vera Burlak and Andrei Khadanovich, political detective novels by Alyaksandr Lukashuk and interesting novels by Ihar Babkou, Natalka Babina and Artur Klinau...
standardowy [760 px]
Andrej Chadanowicz during the 'Grand Duchy of Poetry' meeting of poets , Miłosz Festival, Kraków Tempel Synagogue, 2011, photo: Paweł Ulatowski
There are large print runs available of non-fiction works by the 2012 Angelus Prize winner, Svetlana Alexievich, who studies Homo sovieticus (her last publication is entitled Secondhand Time). [Secondhand Time won the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Belarusian Nobel Laureate Alexievich Discusses Polish Influences
Viktar Martsinovich’s novel is in the process of being published. Martsinovich is one of the most interesting figures in contemporary Belarusian prose. I am speaking only of Polish translations. But, in fact, if an intelligent Pole could learn to read Cyrillic, she or he would be able to read Belarusian without translation. After all, our languages are very close to each other.
Lavon Barshcheuski is a Belarusian publicist, literary critic, translator, public and political figure. He is one of the founders of the Belarusian Humanitarian Lyceum, later closed by the authorities, and is Honorary Chairman of the Belarusian PEN Club. His Belarusian translations include the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Kant, Goethe and Schiller, as well as, when it comes to Polish authors, Wyspiański, Schulz, Mrożek, Iwaszkiewicz and Miłosz. In 2008, together with Adam Pomorski, he published an anthology of Belarusian poetry spanning the 15th to the 20th century titled Nie Chyliłem Czoła przed Mocą (I Did Not Bow Before Might).
polish culture in belarus
Interview conducted in Polish by Mikołaj Gliński, Dec 2014, translated by Natalia Mamul, Sep 2020