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Vera Rich: Introduction to Belarusian Literature

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Introduction to Belarusian Literature

    by Vera Rich

    ( © 1968, 1971, 2005, 2006 Vera Rich)

Part I

The discovery of a new and "different" writer is undoubtedly one of the most exciting events in the life of any lover of reading. The discovery of a whole new literature is incomparably more so. Yet, with the increase of mass-communications and foreign travel, it would seem that the discovery of such new literatures must be left to the archaeologist in the hope that he may yet excavate scrolls or tablets in some hitherto undiscovered tongue (with for preference a convenient equivalent of the Rosetta Stone to aid the decoding), or to the anthropologist, that he may yet record some last traces of ballad and folksong before the steamroller of universal literacy crushes down these vestiges of oral tradition.

The concept of a new and undiscovered, and, furthermore, a written literature, right on our literary doorsteps so to speak, in Europe itself, seems to lie quite beyond the realms of fact – to belong, indeed, rather to the kingdom of Rupert of Hentzau and his fellows, or to stretch back into that saga past when Goth fought Hun in the Vistula forest and the unknown bournes of Reithgothaland lay "somewhere between Poland and Russia."

Yet such lands, and such literatures exist, and if we do not know them, it is because our geographical consciousness still tends to rule off Europe at the eastern frontier of Poland, and to leave the former Soviet Union an undifferentiated landmass stretching eastwards to the Pacific. The new names which appeared in our atlases in 1991-1992 and the unfamiliar flags flying over international conferences, sporting events and pop festivals have, not, largely speaking, found a resonance at the international literary level.

Yet just a century ago, an event took place that made the birth or rebirth of such literatures possible. In 1905, in what would prove a vain attempt to defuse political unrest, Tsar Nicholas II reluctantly granted his empire a Constitution that, among other concessions, permitted, after decades of suppression, the publication of literary works in languages other than Russian. And when, in 1917, that vast imperium began its catastrophic disintegration, there arose upon its ruins a number of new and nationally-conscious states. Just as farther west, when the Habsburg empire died there arose from its ashes "new" nations, Czechs, Slovaks, Croats, Serbs, Slovenes – whose very existence had scarcely reached the ears of those abroad until their sudden emergence at Versailles – so, on the ruins of Romanov power, Georgians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Estonians and many others emerged from the shadows of minority existence and took the reins of statehood into their own hands.

Although, within a few years, the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had, to a large extent, consolidated itself within the old territorial limits of the Romanov empire, the legal status had irrevocably changed. Now it was a Union of Republics, and although the Russian Republic itself, both by its very size and what may be termed historical impetus, would remain the dominant force of this Union, and although the Russian language would remain the official language of the Union, nevertheless the Republics remained as legal entities – constituent Republics of the Union. Two in fact (in addition to the USSR itself) became founder-members of the United Nations. It is to the more northerly of these – Belarus – and its literature, that this collection is devoted.

Part II

In the middle of the last century, it might well have been said that the Belarusian language, and indeed the Belarusian nation itself, had a dim but glorious past, a putative future and an underground existence. Far away, down through the centuries, shone the memories of the old Grand Duchy of "Lithuania-Rus" (Chaucer's Lettow ond Ruse) in which Belarusians and Lithuanians (in the modern sense) had been equal partners in statehood, and in which, until the conversion of the Lithuanians to Latin Christianity in 1386, the Belarusians had been the only literate member of the partnership. (The Belarusians had been converted by missionaries of the Eastern Church in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Although there are traces of an indigenous system of writing before the coming of Christianity to the East Slavonic peoples, it was, as is usual, the conversion with its great need for hagiography, pastoral letters, monastery chronicles and the like that provided the first great impetus towards literary output, some examples of which will be found in this collection).

However, union with Poland and the gradual Polonization of the cultured classes, conquest by Russia with her ever-increasing desire for a unified, homogeneous and totally-Russian tradition from Kalisz to Vladivostok and "from the Moldavian to the Finn," and ever-more-severe reprisal measures against any who dared raise the slightest voice against this policy, made the future outlook entirely uncertain. When, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, modern Belarusian literature was born, it must have seemed, to the presiding spirits of literature, that here indeed was a star-crossed, indeed a near still-born infant.

Part III

Modern Belarusian literature, by convention, dates from Vinkenti Rovinski's Travesty of the Aeneid (aka, The Aeneid Inside Out – ed.), written at the beginning of the nineteenth century, in imitation of a similar, Ukrainian work by Ivan Kotlyarevskyy (published 1798). During the early years of the nineteenth century, a number of authors laid what may be called the foundations of the literature. To this period belongs the keen folklorist Jan Čačot, who made two important collections of folk poetry and ballads (Piosnki mesniacze znad Niemna i Dzwiny – "Songs from the Nioman and Dzvina" – 1839 and 1844) which he augmented in the second edition by didactic verses of his own on the virtues of diligent work and abstinence from 'hard' liquor. Another leading figure was Vincuk Dunin-Marcinkievich, the novelist and dramatist, who, in view of the conditions of the time, achieves a really remarkable detachment in his character-drawing. In his long narrative poem Hapon, for example, the villain of the piece, who is the cause of the hero's being sent away into the army, is not the Lady of the Manor, trying as a widow to hold her estates together, in constant terror of a peasant rising (who actually sends him into the army); nor is it the Bailiff (who tells the Lady that Hapon is a potential revolutionary), for he is motivated by unrequited love of Hapon's sweetheart Kaciaryna and believes that once his rival is removed, Kaciaryna will consent to marry him; nor is it the Innkeeper, who only carries out standing orders by reporting to the Bailiff that Hapon wants some drink on credit in order to celebrate his betrothal. Rather, the villain emerges as the system which makes the situation possible. Compared to many works written under comparable conditions in other countries, in which all landlords and their minions are painted in unrelieved black, the characters in Hapon emerge as real living people, with human motivation, rather than as the political lay-figures one encounters only too often.

Another landmark work of this period (dating, apparently, from the early 1840s) is the anonymous mock-epic Taras on Parnassus, the tale of a Belarusian peasant (of the sober and diligent type praised by Čačot), who, after stunning himself in an accident, finds himself transported to Mount Parnassus, where he encounters the gods and goddesses of classical antiquity. This lively tale not only gives fine scenes of Belarusian life, all the more "telling" since they are here magnified to divine proportions; it shows that the unknown author had mastered the traditions of classical literature so thoroughly that he could aptly and wittily adapt them for his own use. It shows, too, through the allegory, the sterility and pettiness of the "approved" literature of the day, and, since the divinities on Parnassus are shown as glorified Belarusian peasants, the implication is that it is with the people of Belarus that the literature of Belarusian should be concerned. As we shall see, this tenet was to become the guiding rule for many generations of poets to come.

Part IV

But, outside the pages of fantasy, life for the Belarusian peasant was no heaven-on-earth. In 1828, when a liberal-minded Catholic priest opened a parish school in his native village of Kroshyn, he found to his surprise and delight that one of the serf-boys who attended it, the 15-year-old Pauluk Bahrym, showed considerable talent as a poet. Within a very short time, as a result of serf riots in Kroshyn, Bahrym was sent into the army for a term of twenty-five years (military service was frequently used in the Russian Empire for punitive purposes, as those familiar with the life of the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko will recall). Although he lived until 1891, Bahrym is not heard of again as a poet after the brief flowering of his talent as a boy in Kroshyn. The one poem of his that survives does so because it was incorporated into a volume of memoirs, Powiett z czasu mojego, czyli Przygody Litewskie (My Times or Lithuanian Adventures) published in London in 1854. The author, the Polish Count Leon Potocki, included in it a description of an encounter with the priest-schoolmaster "Fr Magnuszewski," and Bahrym himself appears under the pseudonym of "Piatrok" (Peter) an "easy" code for his own baptismal name of "Pauluk" (Paul).

Such a story may be taken as an archetype of the fate in store for those who attempted to write in the Belarusian language, a language against which sterner and sterner measures were taken until its use for any literary purposes was finally forbidden completely, and Belarus became merely the "Northwestern Region" of the Tsar's empire.

Part V

Yet the story was not over. The Belarusian land with its poor and often marshy soil had bred in its people the twin virtues of determination and perseverance, and, however harsh the reprisal measures against it, Belarusian literature survived. The works of this period all bear on their title pages the names of foreign cities – though it is not entirely clear whether the manuscripts were actually smuggled abroad for publication – and the finished books smuggled back again for illegal distribution – or whether they were printed in secret by clandestine presses at home, and the names of foreign cities added as a disguise for the printer, just as the authors themselves concealed their identity under a pseudonym. Thus the "father of modern Belarusian literature," Francishak Bahushevich, who wrote under the pseudonyms of "Matsiei Burachok" and "Symon Reuka spad Barysava," had his first collection of poems Dudka bielaruskaja (Belarusian Pipe) produced (or allegedly produced) in Cracow in 1891 and his second collection, Smyk bielaruski (Belarusian Bow) in 1894, was attributed to Poznan (cities then under Austro-Hungarian and Prussian rule, respectively).

But in 1905 things changed dramatically. A spirit of revolution was abroad within the Russian empire, and, although its immediate aims were frustrated, the first cracks began to appear in the monolith of absolute power. In St Petersburg a representative assembly, the Duma began to take its first tottering steps in the direction of constitutional government. And throughout the empire, ethnic minorities were at last able to publish openly in their mother-tongues – although still subject to the control and sometimes arbitrary whims of the censors.

In these circumstance the first Belarusian newspaper Nasha Dola (Our Fate) – was founded. This soon fell a victim to its editors' outspokenness; after a few issues, the censors forced it to close. Its successor, Nasha Niva, was more moderate in tone, and managed to survive through nine years of more or less stringent control, until the outbreak of the First World War.

Nasha Niva means "Our Field," more properly, "our ploughland"; and, indeed, it was the fertile field in which literature of the time could take root and grow. So much so that its name came to embody the early 20th century Belarusian literature renaissance, and the chief literary movement of the time is now known to literary historians as: Nashaniustva, – in other words, Nasha Niva-ism.

Part VI

"And the good Lord, looking down from the height of heaven, had pity for the land of Belarus, and said:
Let there be Belarusian literature! And, behold, there was Nasha Niva!"

Like all its kind, the epigram quoted above has its measure of truth, in addition to the usual measure of cynical exaggeration. Belarusian literature does, indeed, appear to have been created overnight, by and through Nasha Niva. The group of earnest young writers (formal studio photographs of them exist, complete, if memory serves me correctly, with potted palms) did, in the course of a very few years, create between them the basic requirements of a literature: poetry, drama, essays, short stories, and novels. Each used several pseudonyms, partly to confuse the censors, partly to give the impression that their numbers were greater than in fact they were, thus hoping to attract still more aspiring writers to what was obviously a flourishing project. But although Nasha Niva and its adjunct, the Belarusian Publishing House in St Petersburg (whose name translates picturesquely as the Sun-will-look-in-at-our-little-window-too Press) could create literature in the sense of spilling upon the public consciousness so many thousand words per week/month/ year, the establishment of a newspaper and of a publishing house (however quaintly named) cannot of themselves create more than an output of verbiage. The picture gained from what one may call the "folklore" or "legend" of Nasha Niva is of a group of dedicated young men and women, sitting at their desks, conscientiously and by schedule "writing literature" – Mr A. a novel, Mr B. an epic, Mr C. a drama and Miss D. a lyric, according to a pre-assigned plan of what a "literature" should contain.

Yet nothing could be more remote from the truth. Among the Nasha Niva group we find the names of the novelist Tsishka Hartny, the literary critic Anton Novina, the poets Janka Kupala, Jakub Kolas, Zmitrok Biadula, and Maksim Bahdanovič, that enfant terrible who insisted on publishing his works under his own name (and not, as was the Nasha Niva rule, under a pseudonym) and who introduced into Belarusian poetry many of the "classical" verse-forms of Europe. We find, in fact, the names of the great masters of Belarusian prose and poetry, so that Nasha Niva begins to appear more the kind of spontaneous literary group found in all countries and literary traditions rather than the earnest committee of legend.

Part VII

What then was the essence of "Nasha Niva-ism," the concepts and ideals that bound its writers together? In one word – Belarus; an awareness of their country, her lands, her people, her folklore, her history, her future. There is surely no aspect of Belarusian life that cannot be found in their pages. "A peasant, a dull peasant I," sings Kupala, and this is far more than the literary device of first-person monologue; it embodies a profound psychological self-identification beautifully expressed in the seemingly simple verse-form of the kyrielle. "I love our land," sings Kanstancyja Builo, and it is the voice of them all. "Pictures beloved of my native country" are "gladness" and "pain" not only to Yakub Kolas, but to each and every one of this group. The harsh, yet lovely whiteness of winter, the sudden bursting of spring, night-fires in the summer pastures, the migrating birds of autumn – these are the very essence of Nashaniustva. The folklore is there too; wood-elves, rusalki and – in the works of Biadulia, even the old pagan gods – people the woods and forests with mystery. The past is also there – the historic past of the old monastery chronicler and the girls in the Radziwill girdle factory, together with that other "past" which exists only in folk-memory – the "past" of strange heroes and dark, near-nameless deeds, done in the mists of antiquity "a century or more" ago. Here too is a people "many million strong," whose "spirit" is "atremble," on the march, demanding the right "to be called human"! And, in this poetry, implicit, yet to the discerning eye, self-evident, emerge those symbolic patterns by which government controls might be deceived, and which were to colour Belarusian poetry for ever with potent and evocative overtones from the days of its birth. Thus night or winter symbolized the forces of reaction and oppression, the young bride awaiting her bridegroom is Belarus awaiting independence. (In Biadula's lovely A winter tale, these two motifs are beautifully integrated into the lovely picture of the Sleeping Beauty in her palace of ice, while the bridegroom who is to awaken her is now no fairy-tale prince, nor even some symbolic peasant-figure; it is the reader himself who must "call her by name" and bring spring, i.e., liberation, to the frozen world.) Wild geese migrating (as in Irish literature) symbolize exiles, whether political or economic, and (again as in Irish), Easter is inextricably linked with the idea of national resurgence. As a result, the literature, and in particular, the poetry of the Nasha Niva period exists on several levels of interpretation, and although it would be untrue, and, indeed, misleading, to state that every description of a girl on her wedding-eve is "really" about Belarus (any more than it would be true say that every Kathleen praised in song is "really" Ireland, or every rose is "really" England) nevertheless, the symbolism of Nasha Niva has bequeathed the Belarusian language, and in particular to its poetry an aura of connotation that, in its economy, can be compared perhaps only to Chinese.

Part VIII

As has already been stated, Nasha Niva was an early casualty of the First World War (its editor, Yanka Kupala, passing his wartime in an army roadmaking squad, a circumstance doubtless attributable not so much to Tsarist incompetence but to the time-honoured military principle of a job for every man, and every man in the wrong job!). War passed into Revolution, and the forces of Revolution signed its separate peace with the Central Powers. Unlike her southern neighbour, Ukraine, Belarus had not yet made her bid for self-determination, and so was not represented by a separate signature on this treaty, but by March 1918 the independence movement was in full flood, and on March 25th (traditionally, in Belarus, the first day of spring), the Belarusian National Republic was proclaimed in Minsk.

Although this first initiative was short-lived, and indeed, hardly noticed in the world at large, it had an enormous effect on future history. For Lenin and his Bolshevik colleagues decided to counter it by establishing a Belarusian Soviet state, closely linked to, yet formally distinct from Russia. Accordingly, on January 1, 1919 the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic was officially proclaimed in Smolensk – a city just to the east of today's Belarusian frontier. From that date onwards, the Revolutionary Wars give the next few years a confused picture of conquest and reconquest, invasion and counter-thrust best left to the military and not the literary historians.

However, when the smoke of war clears, we see the former Russian empire replaced, not by a single Soviet Socialist state but by what – at least in theory – was a Union of formally equal partners. In fact, both by sheer size and by what may be termed historical legacy, the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic was the dominant force – so much so that, unlike its smaller partners, it did not, until the dying days of Soviet power, have its own "head of state" distinct from that of the whole Union.

However, the new-fledged Belarusian SSR did not include the entire ethnic Belarusian territory. The Belarusian lands were partitioned, with the western territories going to the reborn Polish state, leaving a number of Belarusian writers now living beyond the new frontier. Within the Belarusian SSR, the literary scene of the 1920s was an exciting one of currents and cross-currents, of literary group at logger-heads with literary group, as poets, playwrights and novelists sought, each in his own way and through his own talent to adjust himself to the new post-Revolutionary situation, to come to terms with the unpalatable fact (as had the English Romantics before them) that no Revolution can produce the millennium overnight, and to set about the new problems of the creation of a culture "socialist in content and national in form" - a phrase adopted by Stalin in his report to the Sixteenth Party Congress in 1930, but actually coined some years earlier by the "Excelsior" group of writers in Minsk. Even to read the names of these groups gives an immediate picture of the busy activity of Belarusian literature in this period: Excelsior, Revival, Vitaism…

But this period of activity was followed by one of quiescence; the years of plenty by years of dearth. The "Stalinization" of culture throughout the Soviet Union proved particularly to creativity and works of the imagination; in retrospect, it seems that the censors were more fearful of the covert symbolism that might lurk in poetry and imaginative fiction than of overtly critical prose works. Many writers abandoned poetry entirely, notably Biadulia, who produced in these years a lively and spirited autobiography. Others turned to translation work, or to the relatively uncontroversial field of children's literature. Some fell victim to Stalin's purges, and their works vanished in to oblivion, until they were 'rehabilitated' (all too often, alas, only posthumously), 'thaw' of the mid-fifties. Even the great Yanka Kupala, since 1924 'People's Poet of Belarus', sank into virtual inactivity. His one major work of this period was the long narrative The Fate of Taras, written in 1939 to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the birth of the Ukrainian national poet, Taras Shevchenko, the author, incidentally, whose life and works have undoubtedly had more effect on Belarusian poetry than any one other non-Belarusian.

The Second World War produced, at first, no great changes in the Belarusian poetic scene. True, under the terms of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, Western Belarus was detached from what had been Poland and incorporated into the Belarusian SSR, bringing with it a number of writers who had developed their talents under Polish rule – notably among them Maksim Tank. However, when, in June 1941, Hitler launched an attack on his erstwhile Soviet ally, Belarus suffered the first onslaught. A number of prominent Belarusian writers perished during the war years. Others, who at the end of the war found themselves beyond the frontiers of the Soviet Union, decided to remain there – a prudent choice, since Stalin deemed that all such people (whether prisoners or slave-labourers of the Nazis, or fighting for the Allies in the army of General Wladyslaw Anders) were potential spies, traitors, or at the very least, dangerous carriers of capitalist ideology, who, if they returned must be sent to the gulag, if only as a precautionary measure.

The War left Belarus a two-fold literary legacy. On the one hand, there was a considerable output of emotional but simplistic "patriotic" writing (common to all countries in a war situation, and which, except for the greatest, normally raises a blush of embarrassment under peacetime conditions). In addition, it provided a setting and framework within which, for several decades to come, Belarusian writers could explore those complexities of the human psyche that form the foundation of enduring literature.

This new genre of reflective World War II literature was initiated by the novelist and short-story writer Vasyl Bykau, of whom The Times (of London) was to write in its obituary:

    "Unlike the vast majority of Soviet "war" literature, Bykau avoided the grandiose and the stereotypes of Soviet heroes; he focused rather on the individual psychology of individual characters, mixed motives, and the grim realism of war. Nor was he afraid to contrast the stoicism and heroism of the individual soldier with the brutality of the Stalinist regime. As a result, although, Bykau was awarded many major Soviet prizes and honours, these did not save him from accusations of defaming the Soviet system, and the attentions of the Soviet censorship, which on a number of occasions demanded often pettifogging changes to ensure political correctness."

In spite of the censors, Bykau's innovative approach rapidly brought him best-seller status - and inspired other authors to choose a war setting for their works. The popularity of the theme with Belarusian readers and writers had a number of strands. Firstly, the wartime setting itself clarifies and simplifies the issues involved. In the face of a life-or-death struggle for the survival of individual or community pares away the non-essentials; both reader and writer can focus on the fundamentals of the human condition. At the same time, what Soviet historiography termed the "Great Patriotic War" was largely immune to the all-too-frequent rewriting of "official" Soviet history, which could overnight convert yesterday's hero into today's villain (and which at each such change swept into oblivion works, whether of fact or fiction, which had taken the now-incorrect "line"). Moreover, although, naturally, the ordinary Belarusian citizen was only too aware of how many of his or her own circle – relatives, friends, work-mates – had perished… to most of the population it came as a huge shock when, in the mid-1960s, official statistics were at last published, and revealed that one quarter of the population of Belarus had been lost. Part, at least, of the continuing popularity of war stories among both writers and readers was surely a desire to pay tribute to the missing "every fourth one!."

And finally, for authors unwilling to compromise their careers by criticising the current Soviet reality – nor their consciences by praising the all-too-often fictitious "achievements" claimed by the propagandists, choosing a war theme meant that they could produce a work which was politically acceptable ("good" Soviets versus "evil" Nazis) yet which avoided the dilemmas and dangers inherent in contemporary themes. One should not suppose, however, that all Belarusian authors who chose war themes were playing for political safety. As The Times (of London) noted, Bykau draw clear (but politically hazardous) distinction between the individual soldier and the regime. Others challenged the official interpretation of World War II history on a point that was never overtly stated – and yet well understood in literary circles – the holocaust of the Jews. The Soviet historiographers did not deny that Jews had perished at the hands of the Nazis; they took the line, though, that they had been killed – not because being Jews, but simply as soldiers or partisans or hostages, or known Communist activists – or simply as civilians who unfortunately were in the wrong place at the wrong time… and in no way different from their gentile fellow soldiers/partisans/hostages/Communists/civilians. But Belarus had been part of the heartland of East-European Jewry – and for centuries Belarusians and Jews had lived side-by-side. The Belarusian authors of "war" stories were not, however, prepared to ignore the fate of their former symbiotes. During the 1960s and 1970s, a number of major prose-writers wrote unequivocally of the fate of the Jews – making it clear that, for example, to openly proclaim oneself a Jew was tantamount to committing suicide (Lidzia Arabiey; also see her short story, "Памяць" – ed. ) and that the Nazi extermination policy included Jewish children no less than adults (Ivan Shamiakin).

This focus on the War did not, of course, mean that other themes and genres were neglected. The famous literary "thaw" in the Soviet Union of the mid-1950s had its effect in Belarus as elsewhere. Literary journals were founded or refurbished, new poets took up their pens, old names suddenly appeared in print again. As death claimed the last of the Nasha Niva authors, others were waiting to take up the torch. Varied in theme and outlook, from satiric humour to the traditional bitter-sweet of melancholy, from the fields of Belarus to the planets and back again, each issue of literary journals such as Polymia and Maladosc promised and brought something new, something different. Even after the fall of Nikita Khrushchev (October 1964), this new impetus did not come to a halt. In particular, a new generation of younger poets, Viartsinski, Ipatava, Semashkevich and many others brought a new fluidity and mastery of language, and a fresh and more intimate approach to their subjects whether traditional or modern.

This new impetus survived what have now become known in Soviet History as the Years of Stagnation, under Leonid Brezhnev and his successor-gerontocrats Yury Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko… Then, ironically, just as a new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, proclaimed his liberalizing reforms of "Glasnost-Perestroika-Demokratizatsiya" ("Openness-Restructuring-Democratization"), a new tragedy struck Belarus.

Back in 1926, the poet Uładzimier Duboŭka had symbolized Belarus in a manner that posed a considerable problem for the translator… He saw the country as a wild briar-rose, which would survive the attacks both of the wind which threatened to blow it apart and the weeds which threatened to choke it… Or rather, "weed"… For Duboŭka named a particular weed which was hard to render into English… The "botanical name" Artemisia, recalling the Greek virgin huntrress goddess had connotations of grace and beauty that did not fit the context, the demotic "mugwort" was a comic demon from C.S.Lewis's Screwtape Letters. The plant's cultivated near relative - "wormwood" was another Lewis demon, with additional loaded and inappropriate connotations (a prison on the outskirts of London - and the Biblical "gall and wormwood"). But could the translator reasonably keep the Belarusian name? It seemed hardly possible… an obscure word that - without a footnote - would have no significance to the outside world! Until, alas, 1986; for the name of that weed was also the name of a town just across the frontier with Ukraine, a town near which there was a nuclear power plant…Chernobyl… And on the night of 25/26 April 1986, the wind was from the south-east… An estimated seventy per cent of the fallout from the wrecked power-station came down on Belarus, seriously contaminating a quarter of the country's territory, with consequences for the long-term health of the population that still, almost 20 years after the accident, are still constantly being revised - upwards.

And so – 1991, and the collapse of the Soviet Union – and Belarus found itself an independent state. For Belarusian literature, this meant, among other things, the return to the literary canon of authors such as Natallia Arsieńnieva, Vintsuk Advazhny, Ryhor Krušyna, and Aleś Sałaviej – emigres whose work had long been proscribed in the Soviet Union. As early as 1992, Tuha pa Radzimy was published in Belarus – a thick anthology appeared, containing not only works written in exile, but also the works of the emigres written before they left their homeland – but which, once they left, was deemed by the ideologues inappropriate for Soviet eyes. (The appearance of this book so soon after independence strongly suggests that work had begun on assembling it even before the final disintegration of the USSR). A Belarusian chapter of the international writers' organization PEN was set up with, appropriately, Vasyl Bykau as its first chairman, and other Belarusian writers began to appear on the world literary stage, notably Valzhyna Mort, winner of the "Crystal Vilenica 2004" poetry prize at the Vilenica poetry festival in Slovenia.

Today, as the centenary approaches of the founding of Nasha Niva, and the literary upsurge it generated, one may safely say that Belarusian literature, born in adversity and nourished in hardship, has grown to fruition and can well take its stand as a worthy member of the literatures of Europe – and, indeed, the world.

    Vera Rich, London

    25.III.1968 / 24.VI.2005

Copyright © 1968, 1971, 2005, 2006 Vera Rich

    The preceding was originally published (in a longer version) as the Introduction to Like Water Like Fire, 1971, but was extensively revised and updated in 2005.

    This Introduction was also included on the CD-ROM, Belarusian Literature in English Translation (2005). (Compilation: © National Commission of the Republic of Belarus for UNESCO, 2005. © Yanka Kupala Central Public Library (Minsk, Belarus), 2005. © Sviatlana A. Skamarokhava, 2005.)

    The content of the CD-ROM is also available (in part) on the Internet: Belarusian Literature in English Translation: Introduction.




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