This File Last Updated: 2009/12/10

Vasil Bykaŭ: Belarusian Writer and Patriot

(Васіль Уладзіміравіч Быкаў; name also spelled: Bykov; Vasil' Bykaw)

Fiction Writer

Note: Cyrillic Belarusian and any other special character sets on this page are in Unicode (UTF-8) font encoding.

Go to   [   Vasil' Bykaŭ   |   Belarusian Writers   |   Famous Belarusians   |   A Belarus Miscellany Topic List   ]

Search the A Belarus Miscellany Web site

Vasil Bykaŭ: Belarusian Writer and Patriot

By Vera Rich

"His life is like a potted history of Belarus." So said Judith Vidal-Hall, editor of Index on Censorship, on hearing of the death of Vasil Bykaŭ, the most eminent Belarusian novelist of our time. Her comment was well founded, as a brief resume of his biography shows.

Bykaŭ was born on 19 June 1924 in the village of Bychki in Vitsebsk Oblast of the Belarusian SSR. After an education interrupted by poverty, he served in the Soviet Army during World War II and for about a year afterward. That service provided themes for his writing for decades to come. The "Great Patriotic War" was a popular theme for novelists throughout the Soviet Union. Most of their work, however, was thematically crude, focusing on grandiose plots and stereotyped characters: valiant Soviet soldiers and partisans, treacherous collaborators, evil Nazis. Bykaŭ, however, probed the psychology of "ordinary" soldiers caught up in the horror of an extraordinary situation, and did not shrink from revealing the grim realism of war and the brutality and horror of the Stalinist regime.

His stories immediately won wide popularity in Belarus and were soon translated into Russian. His literary reputation throughout the Soviet Union was established with The Third Flare (1962), and consolidated with subsequent works such as The Dead Feel No Pain (1965), Alpine Ballad (1966), The Accursed Hill (1968), The Kruhlanski Bridge (1969), Sotnikaŭ (1970), Obelisk (1971), and Pack of Wolves (1981).

Yet this "union-wide" reputation was not without its snags. The early Russian translations were, in Bykaŭ's opinion, inadequate, so that eventually he felt obliged to produce his own Russian versions of his works, after their initial publication in Belarusian. These Russian versions were then translated into a number of Western languages. Again, the literary quality of these versions was not always satisfactory. Moreover, the author's name was given on these works not as Vasil Bykaŭ, but by the Russian form "Vasilii Bykov." As a result, "Bykov" was widely assumed abroad to be a Russian author writing in Russian -- a particularly galling fate for a Belarusian patriot like Bykau.

The popularity of Bykau's work with its readers did not, however, save him from the attentions of the Soviet censors and guardians of political correctness. Often the censorship forced him to make pettifogging changes, while critics accused him of "defaming the Soviet system." At the same time, the literary establishment could not ignore the quality of his work, and, as time went by, he was awarded a number of top Soviet prizes and honors.

Then came the era of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Under the relaxations permitted in the name of glasnost and perestroika, Bykaŭ was soon at the forefront of the Belarusian patriotic and cultural revival, becoming a prominent member of the pro-democracy, pro-independence Belarusian Popular Front, and of Martyraloh, the organization established to honor the victims of Stalin's purges in Belarus. When Belarus became independent, these activities intensified: Bykau became founder and president of the new Belarusian PEN Center, and also president of Batskaushchyna (Land of Our Fathers), the cultural organization uniting the Belarusian diaspora with the homeland. But the election of Alyaksandr Lukashenka as president of Belarus in 1994 meant that such pro-Belarusian initiatives no longer had the approval of the ruling powers. Official policy now emphasized the "indebtedness" of Belarusian culture and traditions to Russia, the Belarusian language was de-emphasized and the more "cultured" Russian promoted. Belarus was politically committed to "integration" with Russia in a "union state" that to patriots like Bykau threatened a loss of not only political independence for Belarus but also its national and cultural identity.

Government controls intensified and freedom of expression came increasingly under threat. Under Bykau's leadership, the Belarusian PEN Center fought these trends, issuing formal protests against the harassment of writers and editors and, in September 1995, hosting an international conference on freedom of expression. The government retaliated with various forms of bureaucratic harassment, and eventually evicted the PEN Center from its office in Minsk's Writers' House. The government's pressure increased, however, and at the end of 1998, Bykau left Belarus under the auspices of the "Cities of Refuge" scheme, which provides refuge abroad for writers for whom the political situation in their own country is suffocating their creativity. He went first to Finland, then to Germany, and finally to the Czech Republic at the personal invitation of then-Czech President Vaclav Havel. What was to prove Bykau's last work, "The Long Way Home," appeared while he was already abroad.

Meanwhile, in Belarus, Lukashenka put in his own appointees as editors of the leading literary journals and issued them with a list of writers whose works they must not publish -- with Bykau's name at the top. Bykau constantly stressed, however, that he was abroad only "temporarily" and was not seeking political asylum. However, his health was declining, and in March he was operated on for cancer. As soon as he was sufficiently recovered, he returned to Belarus.

Soon, though, he had to be hospitalized again. He died on 22 June [2003], the anniversary of the outbreak of the German-Soviet war that played such an important role in his literary work. His death posed a problem to the regime. Lukashenka found it necessary to express his condolences, but his message bore a subtext of political disapproval. The minister of culture attended the funeral ceremony but left when Bykau's family insisted on removing the Soviet-style "official" Belarusian flag from the memorial hall. Bykau's coffin was borne to its final resting place [Miensk's Eastern Cemetery] under the traditional -- and currently outlawed -- white-red-white flag of Belarus.

Vera Rich is a London-based freelance researcher.


The preceding article is an excerpt (and reformatted) from the following online source:

Go to   [   Vasil' Bykau   |   Belarusian Writers   |   Famous Belarusians   |   A Belarus Miscellany Topic List   ]

Search the A Belarus Miscellany Web site

Original content and overall form ©1996-2010 by Peter Kasaty : All Rights Reserved. Last Updated:  2009/12/10
Quoted Text, Graphics, Links, and Linked Content belong to their respective owners.