The White-Red-White Banner of Polish-Belarusian Literature
#language & literature
small, The White-Red-White Banner of Polish-Belarusian Literature, Ruins in Mir, a lithography by Napoleon Orda, source: public domain, napoleon_orda_mir.jpg
No other nation seems to be as closely connected, or even bound by its writings with Polish literature as that of Belarus. Here is a brief history of Polish-Belarusian belles-lettres.
Although Belarus has been a close neighbour of Poland for centuries, knowledge about its literature is still scant. The recently released anthology of Belarusian poetry entitled Nie Chyliłem Czoła przed Mocą (I Did Not Bow Before Might), edited by Lavon Barshcheuski and published in Wrocław, attempts to alter this state of affairs.
This bilingual Polish-Belarusian anthology comprises poetic works created from the 15th through to the 20th centuries, but many of the pieces were originally composed in Latin, Ruthenian, Belarusian and in Polish – a fact which echoes the exceptional and multi-ethnic character of the historic Belarusian territory. Here, influences of the East grafted on to those from the West, and Latin and Cyrillic cultures found their expression in literature.
The anthology also ushers in the conclusion that it was Polish literature and Polish writers in particular who played a special role in shaping the traditions of Belarusian writing (even if the concepts of Polishness are also somewhat deconstructed in the book). The publication not only provides readers with an overview of the history of Belarusian literature, but is also gives new insights into Polish writings, noting the influences and traditions of the Eastern neighbour in the oeuvre of writers habitually considered part of a homologous native tradition. Voluminous biographical notes allow us to obtain a clearer picture of the Uniate rite of Mickiewicz, and the Polesie muse in Naruszewicz’s work. We also trace Belarusian baroque in the Polish works of Baka and Kniaźnin, while noting the simultaneous influence of Polish culture on Belarusian poets. One of the greatest versemakers among them, Janka Kupała, actually composed his poems in Polish...
Szymon Budny: Belarusian Arianism
An Alternative History of Literature from Poland
The anthology starts with a Lithuanian-Belarusian chronicle from 1446, whch includes the ‘Praise of Witold’. Next, we get a portion of a Latin poem about a bison, authored by Mikołaj Hussowczyk, followed by Belarusian poems of Franciszek Skaryna, hailed the godfather of Belarusian literature, and responsible for publishing the Bible in an Old Belarusian transcription. Extraordinary traces of Polish culture also quickly follow on the anthology’s pages.
It is quite possible that one of the founding fathers of Belarusian literature actually came from the Mazovian region in Poland. Szymon Budny (1530-1593) was educated in Krakow, Italy and Switzerland – and it was there that he first encountered Arian ideals. Budny later created a Calvinist printmaking workshop in Nieśwież, a centre of Calvinism at the time, in a town founded by the Radziwiłł family. There, he published a Belarusian translation of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. Luther’s subsequent work, On Justifying the Sinful Man Before God (1562) was also released in Belarusian. In this edition, Budny became even closer to Arianism, a fact which resulted in him losing the protection of the Radziwiłł family.
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As an Arian, Budny openly propagated an innovative programme, which assumed a democratisation of the state, and he also openly opposed the death sentence. In the area of theology, he rejected Christ’s divinity, and underscored that he was simply a perfect human. These ideas won him many enemies.
Budny was also one of the most prominent scholars of Hebrew of his era – his innovative transcription known as the Nieswieska (Nieśwież) Bible is now considered an important piece of heritage for the Polish language, and a milestone achievement in its history.
Andrei Rymsha was also connected to the Calvinist branch of the Radziwiłł family. He is considered to be the first professional Belarusian man of letters. He also wrote his works simultaneously in Latin, Ruthenian and Polish (among his works in the latter, there is a 2200-verse epic poem entitled Deketeros Akroama describing Stefan Batory’s expedition to Psków). His Cyrillic Chronologia, a fragment of which is included in Barshcheuski’s anthology, first came out in Belarusian in 1581 in Ostrog, Volyn.
Polish, Ruthenian, Latin
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It is noteworthy to observe that even if the gentry of Lithuania (which was the same as Belarus) underwent an intense process of Polonisation at the time, and Polish was dominating Ruthenian, there were still at least two other languages which were functioning at the time – Latin and the Church Slavonic language. A poem by J.K. Paszkiewicz, included in the anthology, is evocative of this fact, which its famous incipit, ‘Polska kvitnyetch latchinoyu, Litva kvitnyetch rushchinoyu’ (‘Poland blossoms with Latin, Lithuania blossoms with Ruthenian’). Yet, the Ruthenian language was soon almost entirely eradicated from public life in the Great County. Adam Pomorski explains what happened to the Belarusian language of this period:
The conversion of Belarusian writers into Polish was a result of the catastrophic 17th-century wars, which cost the County and Lithuania half of their population, including a majority of the gentry. In Lithuania, the destruction of cities resulted in an extremination of Ruthenian intelligentsia. Under the rule of August Mocny, in 1697 the parliament of Warsaw passed a decree which withdrew Ruthenian from the official language list of the Great County of Lithuania. The Old Belarusian language was previously used not only by populace – kings of the Jagiellonian dynasty used it in their private correspondence. Thus, in the 18th century, there were only two official languages in Belarus – Polish and Latin.
Thus, the elites gave up Belarusian in an almost natural way. At the time, first efforts are also made with respect to Belarusian tradition which have a two-fold aim. Defending the mother tongue from Polonisation on the one hand, while trying to also protect it from fossilisation under the influence of the Old Church Slavonic language on the other. The reformer and one of the first Belarusian authors, Vassily Chiapinsky (a representative of Połocczyzna gentry) also acts in this direction.
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Another significant item of languge heritage from this period is Dzionnik by Teodor Yevlashevsky (1546–after 1606), a kind of diary, and according to the contemporary literary scholar, Późniak, a piece written in a ‘style of narration, filled with living elements of polonised language, typical of the Polish-Lithuanian-Belarusian gentry from the provinces, of whom Yevlashevsky was both a defender and a chronicler’.
The critique of Polonisation of the Lithuanian and Belarusian gentry can be be found in another significant piece from this period – a political sattire entitled The Speech of Ivan Myeleshka, the castallan of Smolensk in the Warsaw parliament…1589
The influence of Polish culture at this time was indeed significant. According to Późniak, Belarusian poetry of this period was very often based on Latin and Polish works. Poems created at this time matched Polish prosody (with the accent on the second to last syllable). Poems written in this style were authored by Rymsha, Leon Mamonich, Afansyi Filipovich. The Polish-Belarusian tradition was soon taken as far as Moscow, by the famous Symeon Połocki.
Symeon of Polock & Belarusian baroque
Jan Chryzostom Pasek
Symeon Polotsky is undoubtably the most prominent Eastern Slavic poet of the 17th century. He was born in Polotsk in 1629, and studied at the Mohyla College in Kiev, and then at the Vilnius Academy. His poems written in Polish and Latin come from this period. Soon afterwards, in 1656, Symeon settled in Polotsk and took his vows in a monastery. Here, during a period of 8 years, he gathered a group of poets arround himself and created what was later called the Połock school of Belarusian baroque (in Belarusian and Church Slavonic)
Yet, the most important was still to come. After the Polish army took over Polotsk (which then became Połock) in 1664, Symeon moved to Moscow. There, he postulated that Latin be made part of the schooling programme (which was very controversial for the traditionalist Orthodox officials), and he promulgated examples of baroque school poetry with a Polish-Lithuanian convention of syllabic verse. According to the editors of the anthology, Symeon actually imposed this Polish-Latin convention on Russian poetry, which it became the dominant form until Lomonosov’s reforms in the 18th century.
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The borderland character of Belarus, a place where various influences blended together, facilitated the creation of macaronic pieces with elements of Polish and Belarusian present in one piece. Franciszek Rysiński was one of the authors who wrote such pieces.
The 18th century also resulted in an original Belarusian translation of Molier’s The Doctor in Spite of Himself by Mikhal Chitseirksy. A Polish-Belarusian macaronic school drama, Kamedyja, was also authored by Kajetan Moraszewski during this period.
According to historian Bohdan Cywiński, the Enlightment was a time of the deepest and most general polonisation of the culture of the Great Lithuanian County. Never before or after did the culture of the nation’s elites identify so strongly with Polishness. On the other hand, as Cywiński notes, never before or afterwards was Polish culture so dominated by scientists, writers and artists who came from the Great County territories. Among the figures named by Cywiński, there is M.K. Radziwiłł 'Rybeńko', Józef Baka, the Ogiński family, Marcin Poczobutt-Odlanicki, Franciszek Bohomolec, Adam Naruszewicz, Tadeusz Kościuszko, and Franciszek Kniaźnin.
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The Polonisation of Belarus took place mostly through the intermediary of the education system. What is important is that at the time one could not find any prominent Belarusian figures who would choose Russification over Polonisation. A strong and effective Russification of Belarus would take place later, in the 19th century.
Many of those who have permanently inscribed themselves in the history of Polish literature ought to also be considered part of the Belarusian literary tradition. Lavon Barshcheuski says that the latter would need to be considered in more broad terms, as an area of inspiration...
...delimiting and marking boundaries, as well as a precise description of the Belarusian tradition with respect to Polish literature is a matter of future studies, and many discoveries certainly await researchers, influencing the wider understanding of mainstream literature of the both nations.
Such a double status within the domain of Polish literature is shared by not only the obviously Polish-Belarusian Mickiewicz and Syrokomla, but also the earlier authors, such as Józef Baka and Adam Naruszewicz. So, what does their 'Belarusianness' consist of?
Priest Baka, or the witty Belarusian macabre
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Józef Baka was born in the area of Minsk, and studied at the Academy of Vilnius, where he also spent the majority of his life. Baka’s literary immortality and the place he has within Polish literature are the result of a single book, entitled Uwagi rzeczy ostatecznych i złości grzechowej (Remarks on the Final Things and the Sinful Anger), and mosly the second part of the oeuvre entitled Uwagi śmierci niechybnej (Remarks on Inevitable Death). It comprised grotesque little verses, connected with simplistic rhymes, and pertaining to the significant theme of death.
Barshcheuski remarks that the oeuvre of Baka always fascinated Poles, but also embarassed them. It was also highly influential for some of the greatest poets, from the Philomath society and Mickiewicz, through to Leśmian, Gałczyński and Rymkiewicz. Barshcheuski explains that many of the characteristics of Baka’s creativity become more readable with reference to the Belarusian tradition – its folklore, its language, phraseology, paremiology, ethnography, versification, and the aesthetics of Belarusian baroque of the Sas period. There are also very clear echoes of Baka’s master in poetry, Dominik Rudnicki.
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The latter cultivated the poetic grotesque style in the early 18th century, but he composed his verses in Belarusian. A lecture of his small poem entitled Wyprawa Grzybów na Wojnę (The Mushrooms’ War Expedition) gives the impression of a connection with Polish 20th century literature, or, more precisely, a children’s rhyme of similar subject written by Jan Brzechwa. Could it be that Brzechwa read the Belarusian poems of the 18th-century author?
The language hodge-podge is even greater if we remember that at the time much writing in Belarus and Poland was composed in Latin. Highly refined Latin verse was authored by Michał Korycki (Mihalis Corytius) – a renowned Latin poet of the Enlightenment, professor of philosophy and rhetoric in Collegiae in Minsk, Sluck, Warsaw, Nieśwież and at the Academy of Vilnius (where he taught Adam Naruszewicz, among others).
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Julian Krzyżanowski gave Naruszewicz the above moniker. The historian did not have a high esteem of Naruszewicz’s talent, but he did note his tendency to employ baroque means of expression and connected this trait to the poet’s Belarusian origins. Barshcheuski seems to confirm this remark when he says that:
Naruszewicz’s lyrical works were exceptionally marked with a conceptual temper and a baroque richness of the tongue. The formal gesture of blending Polish and Belarusian was often pushed by him to the extreme, bordering on illegibility.
In an audacious and subversive flash of wit, in a note on Naruszewicz included in the anthology, Barshcheuski even claims to discover the pioneer traits of surrealist imagery.
Franciszek Dionizy Kniaźnin
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Similiarly to the aforementioned author, Franciszek Dionizy Kniaźnin was also included in the anthology. Born in the town of Vitebsk, he was the most important representative of the Polish sentimentalist trend, next to Franciszek Karpiński. F.D. Kniaźnin derived from polonised gentry of the Smolensk region. (A cousin of Franciszek who came from the Russian-influenced part of the family also became a prominent representative of sentimentalism, albeit its Russian version). The editors of the anthology note that a special interest in Belarusian folklore found its expression in a 'mix of languages which became a rule for this poet of the Enlightenment period, a principle that not all of the baroque authors would have dared to adopt'.
According to Barshcheuski, Kniźnin was not able to bear the public misery of Poland’s partitions and the downfall of the Kościuszko Insurrection – he ended his days in quite madness, cared for by his friend and poet, Franciszek Zabłocki in Końskowola near Puławy
The Romantics discover Belarus
This entire period is also the time of a ceratain sleep, or even collapse of of literature written in Belarusian. It is not reborn until the 19th century, and this is largely thanks to Polish writers. National identity issues are also problematic issue in this area. 19th century Belarusian literature is certainly a phenomenon of the borderlands and one that engages the multi-lingual character of its authors, which the individual national identity of specific individuals is very difficult to settle in a univocal way.
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In the early 19th century, Belarus is discovered by Polish romantic poets connected to the University of Vilnius as a treasure-trove of archaic folklore. Belarusian seems to be the second language of the Philomaths in Vilnius, a language which their members are familiar with since their childhood years spent in the provincial areas of Lithuania.
In Vilnius, Jan Czeczot not only authors Polish but also Belarusian poems, such as Jedzie Nasz Milenki Adam (Our Lovely Adam is Approaching), or Immianinnaye Vinszavannie (with choruses that imitate folk songs). Belarusian folk songs would be collected by Czeczot throughout his life, and later released in Vilnius in Polish translation.
Tomasz Zan, also a Philomath, also employed Belarusian folk elements in his early works (including in the ballads Cyganka, Świteź Jezioro, Kolęda). But what was fascinating and yet familiar to the Philomaths of Vilnius is bound to seem either very provincial or strange his contemporary Poles, who would not make this otherness part of the canon of Polish literature. Only Mickiewicz proved capable of changing this state of affairs.
Mickiewicz as a Belarusian writer
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It was under the influence of his Philomath colleagues that Adam Mickiewicz – hitherto a classicist – began to take interest in Belarusian folklore and to write Romantic ballads, such as Świteź, Rybka, To lubię (I Like This), Lilies, and Dudarz (Bagpipe Player), openly drawing on folk legends. In the first edition of Ballady i Romanse (Ballads and Romances), the footnotes to many of the ballads often give a straightforward reference that the work is a transcription of a country song.
It is somewhat a paradox, that even though Mickiewicz referred to Belarusian folklore, he spoke of it as if it was Lithuanian (meaning a certain culture rather than a nation). But, along the lines of Barshcheuski’s and Pomorski’s deduction and proof, Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve) was created in an aura of Belarusian beliefs, myths and legends, interpreted in accordance with Romantic ideals of folklore and stylised as a forefathers’ epic poem.
According to the scholar, the influence of Belarusian tradition could in fact go back much further, and not be limited to the local folklore and stories. Barshcheuski suggests that there were other factors strongly influencing the aesthetics of the ballads:
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The Jesuit tradition of Polish-Belarusian baroque which goes back into the Sas epoch of the 18th century and the 17th century. With its love of the grotesque, of witty macabre – not without the imprint of priest Baka – impossibilia and a language hodgepodge, which is far from any linguistic correctness, and which is rich in folk additions, idiomatic expressions, sayings, and mutual linguistic borrowings, and even puns on proper names.
Barshcheuski remarks that the language of a young Mickiewicz posed a problem for his contemporary critics. Reviewers from Warsaw and critics from the pseudoclassicist milieu accused Mickiewicz of violating Polish language and rendering it barbarian. Franciszek Morawski accused Mickiewicz of over-using provincial elements (coming from both the Ruthenian and the Russian languages), and even sketched out an analogous vision of a hypothetical ballad author in the Wielkopolska region who would include regional German elements in his poetry. With time, the accusations of Morawski turned out to miss the point, as Mickiewicz became a classic of Polish language. Today, these remarks can make us realise the truly innovative and pioneer character of his work. They also prove that mutual influences and exchange between cultures have a very powerful creative potential.
If all of this was not enough, Bohdan Cywiński draws attention to one more thing. Apart from the aforementioned Belarusian elements of the aesthetics and imagination of Mickiewicz’s works he considers the specifically Belarusian Uniate faith (and not the Latin-Polish religious tradition) to be crucial for his oeuvre. It is said to have been best expressed in the poet’s early Dziady drama:
The religious mood of the dziady ritual, its orthodox Church character is beyond any doubt, and each staging of this great piece of Polish drama which adapts it to the Mazovian or Zhmudz tradition is bound to fail.
The works of Mickiewicz have become a significant elemrnt of the Belarusian literary tradition, and a point of reference for future authors. Pan Tadeusz (Sir Thaddeus) was translated into Belarusian a few times, which often also resulted in interventions by the censors. In the 19th century, Wincenty Dunin-Marcinkiewicz attempted a translation, and in the 20th century the translators of this oeuvre into Belarusian were Bronisław Taraszkiewicz, Piotr Bitel, and Yazep Shiemyazhon. Other works by Mickiewicz were translated by some of the best Belarusian poets: Janek Kupała, Jakub Kołas and Maksym Tank.
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After all, Mickiewicz did write in Polish. Meanwhile, the middle of the 19th century was a time when contemporary literature began to be released in Belarusian. What is interesting is that it is partly created by Polish writers or those whose national identity is not possible to settle definitely. These writers were usually bilingual, and often trilingual, and they created their works in both Belarusian and Polish, inscribing themselves in the history of literature of both countries.
One such author was Jan Barshcheuski (1794 or 1796 – 1851), born into the family of a Greek Orthodox priest in Morohy. He wrote both in Belarusian and Polish. Yet, he created his most important four-volume work, The Nobleman Zawalnia, or Belarus in Fantastic Tales, in Polish. Much like Czeczot and Mickiewicz, Barshcheuski also attempts to translate the Belarusian original material.
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Wincenty Dunin-Marcinkiewicz, nowadays considered a founding father of contemporary Belarusian literature, also wrote in two languages. In some of his pieces the languages intertwine. Such was the case in the Polish-Belarusian libretto called the Peasants’ Idyll, later used by Stanisław Moniuszko in his opera Idyll which premiered in Minsk in 1852. In his later pieces, which he created in Belarusian, the realistic convention begins to take over. This is how his pieces called Wieczarnicy and Zawarozany are composed. His most famous piece is called Szlachta pińska (The Pinsk Gentry), and the piece entilted Zaloty (The Courtship) is also held in high esteem.
Tadeusz Łada-Zabłocki is also considered to be part of the Belarusian school of poetry, even though he wrote in Polish. In 1835, he was trialled and sentenced to exile in the Caucaus Mountains, which also makes him part of the Caucausian Polish poets’ group.
An important role in the history of Belarusian 19th-century literature was also played by Polish writers who wrote in Belarusian, and who gathered around the Kurier Wileński newspaper. Adam Honory Kirkor and Władysław Syrokomla were among them. The latter often employed Belarusian motifs in his poems, and he also wrote in Belarusian. Two of his poems remain, Dobryja Wiesci (1848) and Użo Ptuszki Piajuć Usiudy (1861).
Wincenty Korotyński, Syrokomla’s secretary and apprentice, also played an important role in this early period of moulding the character of contemporary Belarusian writings. Much like Artomiusz Weryha-Darowski, he was a bilingual writer. Korotyński is considered the author of two anti-Tsar verses, which were promulgated throughout the January Uprising in the form of pamphlets.
Belarusian anti-serfdom literature
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In the outpour of writers who derived from the gentry and thus felt connected to Poland, Baranowicz Pauluk Bahrym (1812-1891) stands out. He is considered the first Belarusian poet to derived from the peasantry, and he has made history with the one piece entitled Zayhray, Zayhray, Khlopcha Maly. In 1828, after an anti-serfdom rebellion Bahrym was forced into exile. Unfortunately he was also condemned to silence for the rest of his life. He spent the last decades of his life back in his native village where he worked as a blacksmith, but never wrote anything again.
The motif of serfdom reiterates in Belarusian literature during the period of the January Uprising (1863), which met echoed with great might across Belarusian territory. One of the most significant actors of the uprising in Belarus was Kastuś Kalinouski. He was also an important man of letters whose engagement influenced the shaping of Belarusian national identity. Born in Podlasie, Kalinouski was one of the most radical participants of the January Uprising, and in 1861 he founded a newspaper called Muzhitskaya Prauda in which he persuaded peasants to rebel against Tsarist authority. Kalinouski was hanged in March 1864 in Vilnius. During his imprisonment, he wrote Notes from Under the Gallows as well as a poem called Maryś Czarnobrewa (Black-Browed Mary). After his sentence in which he was called a nobleman was read out under the gallows, he is supposed to have yelled out: ‘There is no gentry in Belarus, we are all equal!‘
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The failed January Uprising led to a deterioration of the situation of Belarusian. Russian authorities forbid its use in printed form. Since then, Belarusian prints were published almost solely overseas, often using the Latin and Cyrylic alphabet, in cities such as Geneva, London, Kraków, Lviv and Poznań.
It was the city of Kraków that saw the publication of some of the most important Belarusian authors in the late 1880s and early 1890s. The short stories of Janko Łuczyna (Jan Niesłuchowski) were published there, as well as the folklore album of Adam Hurynowicz and a collection of writings by Franciszak Bahusiewicz (Franciszek Boguszewicz).
Bohdan Cywiński notes that these authors have a few things in common. Firstly, they share a fascination with the folk tradition, understood not only as an aesthetic phenomenon, but as the fruit of a social awareness, shaped by difficult life experience. Secondly, they were all trilingual but made the strong decision to create and speak only in their mother tongue, even if this meant limiting their potential audience. Thirdly, all of these authors shared either Polish or strongly Polonised origins.
Among those authors, the most significant role for the history of Belarusian literature was played out by Franciszak Bahusiewicz. He had taken part in the January Uprising, and later worked in courts in Ukraine and Russia. After the amnesty of 1883, he moved to Vilnius, where he frequently performed the role of an ‘advocate of the Belarusian people’ gratuitously defending the rights of the people in various public affairs.
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Having published, under the pseudonym Maciej Buraczok, a collection entitled Dudka Białoruska in 1891, he became the godfather of modern Belarusian poetry. The introduction to this collection is now considered a manifesto for Belarusian identity. According the Lavon Barshcheuski, it was Bahusiewicz who was the first to declare ‘We are Belarusians’. He demarcated Belarusian territory and pointed out its borders – for him Belarus stretched from the Dźwina to the Prypeć and from the River Bug to the city of Smolensk. Apparently, Marshal Piłsudski himself was engaged in the transport of Bahusiewicz’s book from the Kingdom onto Belarusian territory.
Ihar Babkou, the contemporary 21st-century Belarusian philosopher, employs the term ‘homeless intellectuals’, when describing the cultural and national identities of figures such as Czeczot, Syrokomla, Dunin-Marcinkiewicz, Łada-Zabłocki, Barshcheuski and Rypiński. The state of being homeless is of course a metaphor connected to the decline of the cultural phenomenon that was once constituted by Lithuania. The void it left behind remained empty for a long time. Babkou concludes that:
The brand ‘Belarus’ appeared as an answer to this savage homelessness imposed onto these authors by history. The real author of this brand was Franciszak Bahusiewicz.
The Nasza Niwa genaration
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Founded in 1905 in Vilnius, the Belarusian newspaper Nasza Niwa appeared for no longer than 10 years, but it encompassed the entire period of Belarusian culture. Its editing team comprised nearly all of the most prominent writers and creators of Belarusian culture – Ivan and Anton Lutskievich, Vaclav Ivanouski, the poest Janko Kupała and Jakub Kolas, the writer Alazya Pashkievich and Vaclav Lastouski (later a Prime Minister of the Belarusian People’s Republic).
Polish culture remained an important context and a significant alternative of the emerging Belarusian identity. The most important among Belarus’ 20th-century poets, Janka Kupała, made his debut in 1905 with verses written in Polish. He converted to Belarusian under the influence of Bahusiewicz and Dunin-Marcinkiewicz’s books. According to Lavon Barshcheuski, Kupała blended the tradition of Polish 19th-century poetry (Mickiewicz, Słowacki, Lenartowicz, and first and foremost Syrokomla and Konopnicka) and the fascination with folk ballads and the neo-Slavic traditions of the Russian symbolists. Bohdan Cywiński adds that when reading the 1913 Kurhan piece, one is also submerged in the main current of a universal reflection of European neo-Romantic authors.
We find ourselves even closer to Western Europe when reading the pieces by Maksym Bahdanowicz. This prematurely deceased, modernist poet of the early 20th century came from a peasant family. His father was a Russified Belarusian folklore scholar. Bahdanowicz created for only a decade, before dying of bronchitis in 1917. He was the one to implement the findings of European modernism (Paul Valery was among his inspirations) into Belarusian poetry. He stylised some of his works in accordance with Persian and Japanese poems, and he imitated folk Serb songs. The aesthetics of his poetry bordered between symbolism and impressionism.
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In the case of Jakub Kołas, the second most important 20th-century poet of Belarus, we are back on the trail of the Polish-Belarusian literature. Suffice it to say that Kołas’ real name was Konstanty Mickiewicz. His major work, a great poem praising the life in Belarussian countryside was entitled Nowa Ziemia (1911-23) and it manifests much affinity with Pan Tadeusz.
When commenting on the poets of the Nasza Niwa milieu, Cywiński notes an extraordinary transformation which occurs in comparison to the pieces written only some thirty years earlier by Bahusiewicz:
There, the lyrical subject of the poem, or the protagonist of the novel was unchangingly the suffering peasant. Now, the same role is taken on by a city worker, and then, more and more frequently – an artist, philosopher, or a member of the intelligentsia.
The influence of Nasza Niwa and the strength of the formula of Belarusian identity that it promoted is also proven in the choices of Źmitrok Biadula (1886-1941). Born as Samuił Płaunik to the family of a Jewish lessee, he began at the age of 13 with poems in Yiddish, only to later decide to subject his talent to the Belarusian language. This was a result of the influence of Nasza Niwa, as well as Biadula’s awe with the verses of Kupała. Authoring impressionist novels, Biadula prooved to be of special merit in the field of prose.
Belarusian writers in the BSSR...
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The end of World War One, which brought Poland its long-awaited independence signified a failure for Belarus’s efforts towards an autonomous state. This failure was definite with the signing of the Riga Treatise in 1921. The territory of Belarus was divided between two completely distinct countries – the Second Polish Republic, and the Belarusian Socialist Soviet Republic.
In the early 1920s, the new communist state with its capital in Minsk seemed inviting with its possibilities of development and work for the good of its own nation – which was not as easily found in the Second Polish Republic. Cultural and social activists were slowly returning to Minsk. In 1923, Maxim Harecki and Arkadź Smolicz returned there with their families. In 1927, one of the most prominent independence activists, Wacłau Łastouski also moved to Belarus, having believed in the propaganda promises of communism. From 1919 to 1923, Łaustouski had been Prime Minister of the Belarusian Republic, a state which was not avowed by the Soviet Union. In 1930, Uładzimir Żyłka also returned there, even if he had no illusions as to the nature of the Soviet country.
One experience was shared by the entire generation of Belarusian authors who decided to build the soviet country. It was a court trial completely put on for show by the secret Soviet services, wherein charges were pressed against an non-existent Union for the Liberation of Belarus. A total of 108 persons were arrested in 1930, and accused of participation in the conspiracy as well as attempting to break away pieces of the Eastern Belarusian territory from the USSR. Among those arrested were Wacław Łastouski, Alaksandr Ćwikiewicz, Jazep Losik, Arkadź Smolicz, Jan Sierada, Anton Balicki, Źmicier Żyłunowicz, Usiewaład Ihnatouski, Alaksandr Adamowicz, Janka Kupała and Jakub Kołas. In 1931, the main accused figures were sentenced to 10 years in labour camps.
The real finale of the entire affair had to wait until 1937, when the OGPU prepared another expurgation, murdering over 150 Belarusian intellectuals, and many poets among them. Aleś Dudar, Mojsze Kulbak, Walerij Marakou, and Todar Klasztorny were among those killed on the night of 29th October 1937. Wacław Lastouski was arrested in 1937 on the charges of being a ‘Polish spy’. He was executed by Bolshoi oppressors in 1938. The Soviet Belarus forbid any mention of Lastouski’s name in any published form through to 1986. The title of the anthology I Did Not Bow My Head Before Might was taken from one of his poems. See the full list of Belarusian intellectuals murdered on 29th October 1937
Overall – according to Barshcheuski – in the year 1938 only 10 Belarusian poets survived either without being imprisoned or in the ‘golden cage’ of the Stalinist regime (Janka Kupała, Jakub Kołas, Arkadź Kulaszou).
Kupała, who was also accused of participating in the non-existent union conspiracy, attempted to commit suicide in 1930 due to the chicanery. He lived and created for a further 10 years. He died in Moscow in a supposed accident in unresolved circumstances.
...and in Poland
The situation of Belarusian writers in Interwar Poland was perhaps better but it was not at all easy. Belarussians had representation in parliament, but after the May assassination, rule became increasingly tough.
After Hramada’s trial in 1928, the deputy of Polish parliament, Bronisław Tarasziewicz, was imprisoned for communist activity. Taraszkiewicz had authored the first Belarusian grammar for schools textbook and the first orthographic manual still used today. While in prison, he translated fragments of Homer’s Illiad into Belarusian, as well as all of Pan Tadeusz. In 1931, he was arrested once again, and in 1932 he was sentenced to eight years in prison. In 1933, he agreed to travel to the BSSR, where he was executed in 1938 as part of the Stalinist expurgatories.
A communist activist who was also born in the Pilkowszczyzna area, Maxim Tank (Jauhien Skurko) was also arrested numerous times and imprisoned in Poland. In Vilnius, he was responsible for editing the Belarussian column of Poprostu (1935-36) magazine, and at the time, the experience of Polish avant-garde poets was close to him.
Prison was a frequently recurring motif in the biographies of Belarusian writers who lived in the Second Polish Republic. Radical communist activists found themselves there – such as the author of the futuristic collection Biełarus, Leopold Radziwicz, or the author of prison poetry Aleś Słahub, who wrote a collection entitled Autumn in Prison. Other prisoner-poets were Pilip Piestrak and Mikoła Zasim.
Originally written in Polish, 19/12/2014; translated by Paulina Schlosser, 22/12/2014
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