The Insanity of Freedom: Aleksandr Feduta on Belarus
default, MSLU students in Minsk, photo: Sergey Bobylev / TASS / FORUM, center, #000000, korytarz-uniwersytet-lingwistyczny-fot-sergei-bobylev-tass-forum-0556258002.jpg
I am writing another book about the Philomaths.
The last one was devoted to Franciszek Malewski – the son of the rector of Vilna University, a brilliant lawyer who attended Hegel’s lectures in Berlin and ruined his academic career by being a member of a secret student society.
The new book will be about Tomasz Zan. After the crackdown on the Philomaths, he is confined in the Orenburg Fortress. While in exile, he creates the first museum and the first library in Orenburg, and meets the great Alexander Humboldt... and he is permitted to return to his homeland, as one of the few.
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You have to reread old documents from the trial of the Philomaths and Philarets; their memoirs, correspondence and diaries. And events from 200 years ago have become the stained glass through which you look at the events of today.
As I write these lines, students are being arrested in Minsk. And I have been reading about people meeting them as they leave the notorious Akrestina detention centre. They are met with applause. They are greeted with flowers. I have been reading about their parents, who are saying: ‘Let them expel my son from the university, he is an honest person’.
And I remember Tomas Zan’s last evening before his deportation. Vilna residents pay him a visit as his friends are helping him pack. They have come to listen to the Philomaths’ songs for the last time. They have come to give a hug to their dear friend (Zan was immensely popular in Vilna). They have come to give him a keepsake, a book, money.
There are rumours that at the Minsk State Linguistic University, it was one of the professors who called the police when students were singing La Marseillaise in a protest against the rigged presidential election.
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The professors in Vilna are also of a different kind. August Bécu, a physician and Juliusz Słowacki’s stepfather, is building his career and thus willingly follows any orders from Senator Novosiltsev. But there is also Professor of Russian Literature Ivan Loboyko, who posts bail for the novice poet Adam Mickiewicz. Professor Bécu is killed by lightning, and Mickiewicz writes about it in Forefathers’ Eve (originally: Dziady).
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The coffin of August Beku at the Rasu cemetery in Vilnius, photo: Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Now, no lightning will strike the Minsk professor who handed over his students to the men at arms, although, who knows?... Lightning is in the hands of God, and only the Almighty knows when to strike. And there is another lecturer at Belarusian State University, one who goes out to the police to defend his students, and they are released. And he himself ends up behind the bars of a prisoner van transporting detainees.
In short, nothing has changed. Two centuries have passed, and when you look into the files of the investigation of the Philomaths, you recognise the story of the here and now. Only the place of action is Minsk, not Vilna; the Republic of Belarus and not the Russian Empire. Otherwise, the essence of what is happening has not changed.
I have come up with the idea of a trilogy about the Philomaths. Malewski bent but did not break; he reconciled himself to reality, reached the rank of Privy Councillor and became the most influential figure in the law-making process in Russia. Virtually every document of the era of Alexander II’s great reforms passed through his hands. No, he was not written about, he was not mentioned, and whenever he was, it was in passing, when the light of his great friend Mickiewicz happened to fall on him. Privy Councillor Malewski remained quite a decent man; you wouldn’t like to refer to him as a ‘collaborator’.
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And there is Zan, a dissident who follows the cultural mission of the educator. No matter where he is, he brings enlightenment and knowledge with him. He teaches an Orenburg Cossack the basics of reading and writing, and he teaches him botany. He sets up a library in Orenburg. He writes plans to better serve readers in the library of the Mining Institute in St Petersburg, where fate has taken him. He returns to his homeland, gets married, has sons.... But the best years of his life passed there, in exile. Zan is haunted by memories. He slowly falls into madness.
And there is Mickiewicz, a voluntary defector. He leaves Russia as a subject of the Empire. He leaves the St Petersburg salons, where he was surrounded by incredible love and fame. Princess Zinaida Volkonskaya, the ‘queen of Moscow muses’, used to eat up his improvisations, and Pushkin would bite his nails in silence while listening as his rival on the heights of Parnassus spun rhymes in French with ease. Mickiewicz is permitted to publish, but only until 1831. After that he becomes a defector. He stays in Paris, where he writes the book of his life the epic poem Pan Tadeusz – whose opening verse about Lithuania will forever confuse his descendants. The poet becomes a revolutionary and dies restless.
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The building in Vilnius, where Adam Mickiewicz, Ignacy Domeyko and other Philomaths were kept in prison, photo: Krzysztof Tadej / FOTONOVA / East News
The Philomaths’ lives have already gone down in history. All we have to do is gain insight by rereading the extant documents and focussing on interpretations of texts, actions and ideas.
And today’s Philomaths of Minsk, will they be remembered?
Their most important writings can be read on the Internet, but how long will the Internet itself last? It turns out that paper lasts forever and, as noticed by one of the characters of probably the most important book of the 20th century, ‘manuscripts don’t burn’. But the Internet is not a manuscript. And we do not know whether it burns, and if it does, then how?
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And will the Internet suffice to preserve the memory of our contemporaries for 200 years?
Time is slipping away, and at an accelerating pace. I am 55. I remember that when I was seven, I had a cold. My temperature went down. I got out of bed and turned on the TV. The only channel that was broadcasting was the Polish television’s First Programme. The film Angelique and the Sultan, starring Michele Mercier, was on. Like all Grodno residents, even the children could understand Polish, so I watched the film.
These days, I do not watch TV. I have enough information from books and the Internet. Newspapers have almost died out. And only memories keep surprising me, making me draw parallels between the past and the present, and sometimes the future.
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On the whole, memory is a strange phenomenon. You want to forget something, but you cannot.
Ten years ago, in December 2010, Alexander Lukashenka for the first time not only dispersed a protest but also imprisoned four of his political rivals. As a member of poet and presidential candidate Vladimir Nyaklyaev’s staff, I was brought under armed guard to the pre-trial detention centre of the KGB of Belarus – the notorious ‘Amerikanka’ prison, built according to the design of a prison in the state of Utah.
I was handed a ‘shield’, a heavy rectangular board made of wooden planks. You place it on the bunk and put your mattress on top of it. So I entered the cell carrying this shield. And I addressed the inmates: ‘Good afternoon’.
They looked at one another. You must be insane to refer to the afternoon when you end up in prison as ‘good’.
In December 2010, we, the political opponents of Alexander Lukashenka’s autocracy, seemed insane even to ourselves. The students protesting against rigged election results are perhaps perceived as insane by many – just as the Philomaths who tried to shake the Empire through self-improvement and enlightenment 200 years ago.
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The yearning for freedom always looks insane. Lukashenka truly does not understand why anyone would care about freedom. He believes people can live without it just fine. But this means one thing: he has definitely grown old. Youth cannot do without freedom.
The Philomaths were young as long as they fought for freedom. And when the fight was over, they grew old. Not all of them. Mickiewicz, I believe, even died young.
Originally written in Belarusian by Aleksandr Feduta, translated from Russian by Natalia Mamul, Sep 2020
Aleskandr Feduta is a Belarusian philologist, literary critic, political scientist and politician. He is the author of literary works and books – in particular, a biography of the philomat Frantishek Malevsky titled Филомат в Империи: Документальная повесть о Франтишке Малевском (A Philomath in the Empire: A Documentary Story about Frantishek Malevsky). In 2010, he was arrested as a member of the headquarters of the presidential candidate of Belarus Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu and recognised as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.