Doroteusz Fionik: Preserving Belarusian Culture in Podlasie
#photography & visual arts
#language & literature
default, Doroteusz Fionik:
Preserving Belarusian Culture
in Podlasie, Celebration of sowing on St Jerzy, Stuwiedzody, 2012, photo: private archive of Doroteusz Fionik, center, #000000, tam_po_majowuj_rosi._obchod_zasiewow_w_dniu_sw._jerzego_2012.jpg
‘In the countryside, I’ve only heard people speaking Belarusian, and it’s almost a literary form of the language’, says Doroteusz Fionik, the director of the Muzeum Małej Ojczyzny (Museum of the Little Homeland) in Studziwody. ‘But this language is also very important amongst the Belarusian elite’.
Janusz Kowalczyk (JRK): You fulfil so many functions simultaneously that it’s hard to remember them all: ethnographer, historian, editor, publisher, cultural animator, conductor of an Orthodox church choir, educator, and curator of the Muzeum Małej Ojczyzny in Studziwody. However, you’re primarily a man who keeps Belarusian culture and traditions alive in the Podlasie region. How much truth is there in the statement that you established your private museum completely by accident?
DF: In 1986, I inherited a house from my great-uncle, Jakub Kondratiuk – my grandmother’s brother. I was 18 years old at the time and a student at the agriculture vocational school, which I had made a conscious choice to attend. Not only do I live from what I grow on my farm, which is about 10 acres in size, but I also treat this work as sport – cultivating the land is my discipline. It gives me not only satisfaction but also organic products for the family table.
JRK: Was this house an incentive for you to create a museum?
DF: I think what shaped me more was the community here in Studziwody. And the house of my grandparents, Krystyna and Grzegorz Sidorski, which was always open to everyone. One can say that the social life (in the best sense of the word) of our village was concentrated there. I grew up in a house where people liked to spend time, sing songs and share stories they knew. These people, like my traditional Grandfather Hrysza, my well-read Uncle Jakub and, of course, my parents Julia and Jan Fionik, had the greatest influence on me.
I had one foot in a traditional village and the other foot in the city. Studziwody, a suburb of Bielsk Podlaski, was a more traditional village than the others, and further away from the city. Each farm here was about 10 acres, and they were inhabited mainly by craftsmen, especially those who produced valenki – traditional winter boots made of felt. I remember the workshop in my grandfather’s house and the customers who visited him. My father continued our family’s tradition of craftsmanship as a tinsmith. The ethos of traditional farming in Podlasie was that every farmer tried to be a craftsman at the same time. Combining two occupations guaranteed stability.
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JRK: We haven’t mentioned yet that you also attended the Higher Orthodox Theological Seminary, and studied history and museology.
DF: It was what I decided to do after graduating from the agriculture vocational school. I spent three years studying at the Higher Orthodox Theological Seminary in Jabłeczna. It’s in the St. Onuphrius Monastery – a special, secluded place with a unique atmosphere. Contact with the monks there as well as visiting lecturers gave me a solid spiritual charge. Later, after returning to Bielsk, I was a catechist in primary schools while simultaneously studying history part-time in Białystok and museology through long-distance studies at the Belarusian State University of Culture and Arts in Minsk.
JRK: Did you establish closer contact with Belarus then?
DF: At that time, I met many members of Belarus’s cultural and academic elite. I didn’t get involved with any political groups at all, because I wasn’t interested. I also got to know the intriguing community connected to the Orthodox Church in Belarus, and our connection has lasted since the 1990s and continues to bring benefits to both sides.
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JRK: The importance of these encounters with Belarus is explained, for example, in the film ‘Siewca’ (The Sower) by Jerzy Kalina, a young director from a Białystok TV station who also works for Bielsat. It’s a wonderful story about your work, following the rhythm of the four seasons – from sowing to harvesting and to the next sowing. You prefer traditional forms of cultivating crops, without machines. Are you guided by ecological considerations?
DF: We usually think that ecology just means healthy food. But an important aspect of organic farming is also having the right approach to creating a product. It’s not just about avoiding artificial fertilisers, but also making sure that we rest and gain strength while cultivating our piece of land. Work is usually associated with a loss of strength. But well-planned work leads to an accumulation of energy. For example, during the harvest, when we need to reap grain with a sickle or mow with a scythe, we combine this hard work with traditional singing. We’re encouraged to do so by the beautiful nature all around us and the singing of birds, which isn’t drowned out by the rumbling of machines. We contemplate what’s around us and thank the Creator for it. We begin our work with prayer and end our work with prayer.
Cultivating agriculture – that’s the best way to describe it. For what is the whole harvest ceremony if not a way to worship the Creator? During what we call zażynki, or the first day of the harvest, the first harvested or mown sheaf of rye is placed on the cross. At the end of the day, this sheaf is tied up and brought to the farm, where it’s kept until Christmas. On Christmas Eve, it’s placed at the centre of the house, in the corner under the icon. This sheaf is called a host or a kolada.
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„Siewca” reż. Jerzy Kalina, film dok. 2014 r. Polska
The time of dożynki (the harvest festival) is also important, because the last ears of grain are brought home and stored until the Dormition of the Mother of God. These last ears are blessed in the church, and then a seed from them will end up in the soil during the next sowing season. The circle closes. Traditional farming arranges the calendar for us – we have to keep track of the seasons and dates of our work in the fields, and the ceremonial rites remind us of them.
JRK: When talking with you, it’s impossible to avoid the topic of books. Lying in front of me, I can see ‘Księga Pamięci Żydów Bielska Podlaskiego’ (A Memorial Book for the Jews of Bielsk Podlaski), ‘Kotły na Gościńcu Litewskim’ (Kotły on the Great Lithuanian Route) and ‘Miasto Bielsk’ (The City of Bielsk) – a reminder of the classic work by Professor Józef Jaroszewicz of Vilnius University. You edited all of these books, although this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the books published by the museum in Studziwody. More than 60 issues of the ‘Bielski Hostineć’ quarterly, featuring articles in both Polish and Belarusian, have also been published. Are my Belarusian acquaintances in Minsk wrong when they tell me this language is practically extinct?
DF: As you can see, our activities are twofold: with our publications we try to reach both Belarusians and Poles with our publications. For example, Księga Pamięci Żydów Bielska Podlaskiego is universal and, as experience has shown, interest in it has exceeded all expectations. People from all over Poland, Europe and the world have ordered it. The book has been so successful because, amongst the several hundred memorial books similar to this one that have been published abroad, only a few have been in Polish. Nowadays, publishers come to us for advice on how to prepare such books.
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Now I’ll try to answer your question about the Belarusian language: is it a niche language that’s rarely used? If in Minsk alone, 10,000 per two million inhabitants speak Belarusian, it’s pretty good. But in the countryside outside of Minsk, in small towns and villages, most people speak Belarusian. For example, in the town of Kletsk, I’ve heard only Belarusian spoken everywhere – in shops, at the car mechanic’s workshop, amongst average people – and it’s almost a literary form of the language. But there are also Belarusian elites – a large group of highly cultured people for whom the Belarusian language is really important. There’s also outstanding contemporary literature. However, thoughts expressed by Belarusians in another language – for example, in Polish in the Podlasie region, and in Russian in the Polesie region – don’t stop being Belarusian. Nowadays, one has to get used to the fact that these two languages, Belarusian and Russian, will continue to co-exist. There’s no need to fight against it or interfere with it from above.
JRK: Belarusians on our side of the border don’t speak with each other in Belarusian, but in a dialect. What kind of dialect is it? The Borderlands dialect? The Podlesie dialect?
DF: Belarusians from Bielsk don’t speak with each other in the literary form of the language because that would be unnatural, of course. It’s similar in other regions of Poland, where a living dialect still prevails. As far as Bielsk Podlaski and its surrounding areas are concerned, although the language of the Belarusians living here differs from contemporary literary language, these people should be praised for the fact that they have preserved the language of their ancestors in their daily lives. For it’s the historical Belarusian language that was the official language in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania from the 16th century onwards.
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I like to delve into documents from the 16th century: charters, statutes and certificates of births, deaths and baptisms. I understand them completely. It gives me pure joy to know that we still speak this 16th-century language. This is how people from Polesie – from Brest to Pinsk and Turów – talk to each other. The whole southern region of Belarus communicates like we do in Bielsk and its surrounding villages. In short, we belong to the Polesie-Podlasie linguistic and cultural sphere.
JRK: Interactions between the Podlasie and Polesie regions have become a fixture in your museum’s calendar. Many folklore groups, from both Poland and Belarus, have hosted each other. There are also joint creative initiatives during which groups involved in folk art from both sides of the border have a chance to meet each other. In the film ‘Siewca’, for example, we can see a re-enactment of old wedding traditions – with a bride from Polesie and a groom from Podlasie.
DF: This is one of the main things we do. We try to reconnect the human and cultural ties that were broken in the past, and this staged wedding revealed one of the possible spheres of action. It wasn’t done for show, or to be broadcast on TV. The director had the chance to film one of our previously planned events. I can mention other examples: for 10 years, we’ve been cooperating with the Tur Association of artists from the Brest region. We’ve worked closely with them to organise many outdoor events and sculpture workshops in Podlasie. Integration across borders also happens during the Podlasie-Polesie Meetings in Tradition, organised by our museum since 2004.
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We try to make sure that Belarusian children from Podlasie can meet with their peers from Polesie. Our group from the Żemerwa Folklore Studio visits various villages near the towns of Kobryn, Drahichyn, Ivanava and Pinsk. We’re generously offered accommodation in houses where children can come into contact with each other, which allows them to discover that they’re not very different. They speak the same language and sing the same songs. This is the best possible way to nurture traditions and reconnect the bonds that were severed in the past.
JRK: It’s interesting to see how your family works together in your projects and initiatives. For example, your sister leads the band Żemerwa. Will you tell us what this name means?
DF: A cheerful group of laughing, singing children. ‘A żemerwa has just passed’ is something people say in Bielsk Podlaski at the sight of a group of young people, and sometimes even older people, walking down a street. In 2003, my sister Anna Fionik created a singing group from the participants of our annual summer workshops. She found this word in a dictionary of Podlasie Belarusian compiled by Mikołaj Wróblewski; it had previously been unknown to us, but it seemed adequate for such a group of children and youths. Over 50 people have already been involved in our Żemerwa Studio of Traditional Folklore of Podlasie Belarusians – it has served as an important means of preserving tradition. All of these people have stayed in touch with us to this day, although some are already doing things on their own and don’t regularly participate in our concerts or performances.
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Amongst the people involved in Żemerwa, some have gotten married. At their weddings, the rest of the band gave them beautifully embroidered shirts as gifts. Just like in the old days, when a young married couple used to be given embroidered towels; it’s a traditional ritual that’s presently being revived.
We’ve released about a dozen records. The point of these albums isn’t to show off our voices or music, but to link the material to a specific place and people. Take, for example, the album Pieśni Białoruskiej Wsi Husaki (Songs of the Belarusian Village of Husaki). It contains archival recordings from 1972, as well as the same songs sung by the young voices of Żemerwa. We learn how to sing these songs from older performers. We write down their songs, stories and knowledge of traditional dances. The most valuable education is this type of direct contact. If there are archival recordings, that’s also good. We learn the unique Belarusian dialects of specific towns, as well.
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JRK: Which of the objects in your museum, or perhaps in the open-air heritage park, do you think is the most interesting?
DF: The Kondratiuk family home represents the traditional residential interiors of this region from the 1920s. My great-grandfather didn’t return from exile, but my great-grandmother and her children managed to return, so she tried to rebuild the house. Its interior is filled with exhibits which are part of the typical furnishings in a cottage of that time. There are two functioning hand looms there. Towels, carpets and bedspreads can still be made on them. The house also has a collection of paintings by Anatol Krawczuk, a folk painter from the village of Krzywa. He died this year at the age of 97 – he painted until the very end of his life. The house is situated on a square where there’s an outdoor sculpture gallery, which resulted from open-air sculpting workshops organised together with the Tur Association.
The most recent thing I’m proud of is the Studziwody panorama. It’s a large woodcarving by Anatol Turkow, president of the Tur Association. He’s one of the best Belarusian woodcarvers. He lives in Kamyanyets, 60 km from Bielsk – which is already abroad. I assigned Anatol some historical themes, and he came up with the artistic concept. The panorama presents a particular kind of story about Studziwody, carved on huge oak boards. It’s a historical topographic map, a relief that doesn’t resemble a print but rather the matrix for it. There are various figures connected with the history of this present-day suburb of Bielsk. For example, members of the Siehieniewicz family – outstanding people, social and political activists, and patrons of culture in the 16th century. There’s also a plaque dedicated to Professor Emilian Adamiuk (1839–1906), an eminent scientist, ophthalmologist and professor at the Imperial Kazan University. There’s also a story carved into the wood about a lawyer named Feliks Trojanowski, a member of the Great Sejm, who lived in Studziwody. Athough Studziwody is a small place, it has a great history.
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The second house, a bourgeois residence, came to us in 2003 from Poniatowskiego Street, which is in the city centre. This wooden house has fascinated me since my childhood. Built in 1820, it was sinking into the ground. The owners planned to completely demolish it, but I felt it needed to be saved. I managed to transport it to the museum on Sosnowa Street. Its owners also agreed to carry out archaeological excavations. It turned out that a cultural layer nearly two metres deep lay hidden beneath it: lots of pottery and other objects from the 15th century onwards. So, now we have a house, as well as an archaeological exhibition inside it.
In the house, there’s also the Polesie Gallery containing ethnographic objects as well as works by two folk artists from Polesie: Mikołaj Tarasiuk and Iwan Supruńczyk. Studziwody is the only place outside of Belarus where works by these artists can be seen. In the bourgeois house, we also have a library named after Father Grzegorz Sosna. It was established in 2006 after the death of Grzegorz’s father – at that time, he was the parish priest in Ryboły, where he also created the Baćkauszczyna Museum of Material Culture. He was my teacher, both in an academic sense and in life. He was the founder of an unofficial school of Orthodox Church history in Poland. He wrote reference books, monographs from many parishes, and an encyclopaedia of Orthodox clergy in the 19th and 20th centuries. A few years before his death in 2016, he donated his library and archival collections to various places, including our museum. It was natural for this library to be named after Father Grzegorz.
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JRK: The question arises as to whether such impressive sowing will bear fruit. Will your children take up a similar challenge?
DF: In my opinion, our initiatives have already built a bridge between generations. My children are my joy. My wife Elżbieta and I have created a home for them where they can enjoy music and singing in their own language, inherited from our ancestors. And we have a very open home. The association’s office is located here, and we welcome guests. There’s a large barn next to the house where theatrical performances and concerts are sometimes held. During workshops it also serves as a dining room. Various people pass through our house all the time. Not only Poles and Belarusians, but also Russians, Latvians, Austrians and French people. For my children, it’s natural to have contact with diverse people. We carry out all our projects with our children. They participate in everything voluntarily, without being forced to. My wife and I follow the same path through life. For us, faith is important: the Eastern Orthodox Church gives us a mystical way to live, both in our everyday life and on festive occasions.
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My oldest son, Maksym, has just graduated from high school and is going to study at the University of Warsaw’s Centre for East European Studies. He’s a bibliophile, plays the bagpipes, and sings in Żemerwa, an Orthodox church choir and the well-known band Schola Węgajty. My younger children are also musical. My son Eliasz plays the drum and is also learning to play the clarinet; he likes farming. My youngest child, ten-year-old Taisa, sings and plays the violin. When someone asks my daughter what she wants to be when she grows up, she says: a veterinarian and an archaeologist… I see myself in my children, only in different forms. And each of them is a unique creation of God.
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