Rise of a Nation: Siarhiej Dubaviec on Belarus
default, Demonstration of the new Belarus, Independence Square, Minsk, 16th August 2020, photo: Tatiana Zyankovich / EAP / PAP, center, #000000, bialorus_minsk_pap.jpg
The highly respected Belarusian journalist tells us about 2020’s changes in his home country, and how they reminded him of Belarus and Poland’s shared history…
When the pandemic struck in March this year, Belarusians went into self-isolation en masse, since there was no official lockdown.
I got an idea. I took Stanislau Shumsky’s book In Battles and Prisons, and started translating, dictating and video-recording it with my own comments (https://www.svaboda.org/a/30764158.html). In this way I wanted to provide my self-isolated readers with another, parallel reality, so that people could feel the immensity and infinity of life.
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Shumsky is a Belarusian nobleman from the Braslau district who voluntarily signed up with Napoleon and fought in the Russian campaign with the Grande Armée. He later served as the marshal of the Vilnius Governorate, took part in the November Uprising of 1831, was imprisoned for his involvement in Szymon Konarski’s court case and deported to the wilds of Russia.
I was attracted by how Shumsky reported only his first-hand experience. His memoirs are largely in tune with the now popular genre of oral history. Besides, his life encompassed the experiences of both the Kościuszko Uprising and January Uprising (the latter led by Kalinouski in 1863-1864). This was the time when the modern political nation of Belarusians was being born.
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It all goes back to the childhood that Shumsky spent in the estate of Dąbrowa near Stary Sącz, six miles away from Tarnów. This is present-day southern Poland, which hosted Belarusian nobles who fled their native land after the partition of Poland. Presumably, it initially became home to the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania. And this is where a new history began.
This is an estate on a small river, the Dunajec, which turns into a huge river in the spring when the snow melts in the Carpathians. I still have childhood memories of entire houses floating down the river with people on their roofs, floating cattle, various utensils, children in prams and huge trees, uprooted by the flood.
And while I was reading about his childhood, his studies at Vilnius University and the Napoleonic War, the presidential election was held in Belarus. That was the point in Shumsky’s life where confrontation with the Russian occupation government happened.
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And here my parallel realities merged into one. The same moods, the same plots, fear and joy, the same behaviour of the authorities and their opponents who are first prosecuted, then arrested and finally killed.
I could physically feel the affinity between Belarusian history and Belarusian destiny. We are witnessing the same situation as the one over 200 years ago, when the first sprouts of the new nation were germinating. Later, Kalinouski announced his new Belarusian political doctrine: ‘Only then, my people, will you live freely: when there is no Muscovite over you.‘
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Today a million people took to the streets of Belarusian cities and towns under white-red-white flags to demand the same thing: to live in a free, independent, true and big-hearted country.
Today, as in the days of Count Muravyov, the Governor General of the North-western Krai of the Russian Empire, the authorities’ policy rests on the same pillars: the Russian language and schooling, the Russian church and bureaucracy, prisons and military force. Nothing has changed or will ever change in their behaviour. Murder, torture and lies. They have nothing else to offer.
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After all, something new can emerge only on the other side of the barricade. If a nation, united as never before, liberates itself from dictatorship, it will finally be consolidated. Our country, the best in the world, which has suffered millions of losses during its lifetime and created its own unique culture, deserves this.
To conclude with my favourite musical form of rondo, let me just mention that Shumsky died at the age of 80 not from natural causes, but because he contracted cholera, the pandemic of his time.
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Originally written in Belarusian by Siarhiej Dubaviec, Aug 2020, translated by Natalia Mamul, Aug 2020