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Stories and ideas

Zbigniew Herbert. A witness to his time

A special selection of essays dedicated to the life and writings of Zbigniew Herbert from New Eastern Europe.

September 1, 2018 - New Eastern Europe

Belarusian culture: national, European, post-Soviet

I dare say the Soviet cultural project is unlikely to survive in Belarus for another 20 years. The fact that there are artists working in Belarus today who represent the European or national layer of Belarusian culture is a result of the disintegration of the earlier mechanisms.

In June 1987 a group of enthusiasts wanted to prepare an exhibition at the Vitebsk regional library in Belarus. It was dedicated to Marc Chagall – a native of Vitebsk who was widely recognised in the West. However, in that summer attitudes towards Chagall in his hometown was somewhat ambiguous. First of all, a large exhibition of his art had been earlier held in Moscow. Secondly, a well-known magazine Ogoniok (Огонёк) had already published his work which aimed at rehabilitating the artist.

September 1, 2018 - Victor Martinovich

A change from within

Belarus is said to be Europe’s last dictatorship. Yet, even in this post-Soviet state there are people who are changing the country from the inside: bringing authorities to account, fighting to reduce the consumption of plastic and re-designing the public spaces together with local residents.

Walking along Praspiekt Niezaliežnasci, the main avenue in Minsk, it is easy to imagine yourself back in the Soviet Union. The avenue, built in the 1950s, spans 15 kilometres with vast spaces and Stalinist architecture. But do not be fooled by the first impression. A 15-minute walk from the city centre to Kastryčnickaja Street will bring you to quite a different Mink: one with building walls full of colourful graffiti, hipster fast-food restaurants and Berlin-like bars. Even though it might not be obvious at first sight, Minsk has changed a lot in recent years and many of those changes are thanks to its active citizens.

September 1, 2018 - Natalia Smolentceva and Varvara Morozova

Hello, generation Lukashenka

Thousands of Belarusians are now coming of age but have only known one leader of their country. Little is known about the Lukashenka generation. But these are young people who soon will determine its country’s future. A recent online video depicts a young man playing the piano accompanied by a singer who performs in Chinese. The interior of the room has a rather solemn appearance: the camera pans to a framed photo featuring the Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife in the company of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and his youngest son Kolya – the same person playing the piano. After the song, the teen stands up and reads out a prepared text in Chinese. In February this year, the Belarusian ambassador to China posted the video on Twitter calling Kolya “the most famous Belarusian teenager in China”.

September 1, 2018 - Hanna Liubakova

Exclusion in Belarus: pieces of discrimination

Discrimination in Belarus has its peculiarities and nuances. But in general, its origins lie within the common attitudes of the patriarchal world where people are still divided into a “majority” and “minority” group.

In April this year, one of the schools in Gomel, a city in the south-eastern part of Belarus, hosted a meeting of residents at the residential building number 18. The issue that brought the people together was the total lack of facilities for those with special needs. Andrey Antonenko, a resident, uses a wheelchair and needs a platform stairlift to leave his apartment. The day before the meeting, 106 people voiced their opposition to the installation of the stairlift in the main entrance hall of the apartment bloc.

“And how are we to live?! How are we supposed to move furniture?” the neighbours asked resentfully. “And the noise? That thing will make noise!”; “How much space will it take up?”

September 1, 2018 - Tanja Setsko

The disease of the Romanian health care system

Romania’s healthcare system is seriously ill. A combination of poverty, corruption and the remnants of communism, exacerbated by the mass amounts of doctors moving abroad after the country joined the European Union in 2007, has led to a system that leaves patients in dire straits.

It was the middle of the night when Roxana Popescu’s phone woke her. Her aunt on the other side of the line sounded concerned. “She told me she was at the Bucharest University Hospital with my 26-year-old cousin, Catalin,” Popescu says. “He was in a coma.” A long story preceded this alarming and undesirable phone call – a story that, in many ways, demonstrates what is wrong with Romania’s healthcare system, and in a broader sense mirrors what is happening in a society that is attempting to liberate itself from its communist past.

September 1, 2018 - Fieke Snijder

Public involvement in urban development: The case of Novosibirsk

In Novosibirsk, the involvement of the local population in urban development and decision-making has been on a rise in recent years. It is related to the activity of local civic organisations and their effort to promote participation and dialogue between the authorities and the local residents.

"So, what actually is the city of Novosibirsk? First, it’s the winter. It’s just eternal winter and frost. Second, there are 30-40 wooden houses inhabited by dozens of people. Third, there is a lonely snow-covered tram without glass in its windows that runs through the city, through its one and only street." (The description of Novosibirsk by a local punk band called SPiD).

Cold, darkness and mountains of snow, one cannot provide any better impression of mid-January on the journey from the Novosibirsk airport. Peering through the taxi window at the other traffic on the renovated roads, we try to understand to what extent the city has changed over the last decade. People are talking about new shopping malls, restaurants and cafés, and what you can buy and where you can spend your money. We look at the places that have stayed the same – Lenin’s monument in front of the Opera Theatre, Heroes of the Revolution Square and the constructivist House with Clock, museums and libraries in the city centre.

September 1, 2018 - Yulia Oreshina and Olesya Shvets

A barbarian in the besieged city

Zbigniew Herbert felt suffocated in communist Poland where he lacked a creative atmosphere. Travelling inspired him and provided him an opportunity to write on a variety of topics beyond social realism. Yet, in the end, he simply could not live without Poland. He disliked communist Poland, but it was still Poland – his homeland.

Zbigniew Herbert is one of those writers that everyone has heard of but very few have read. People in Central and Eastern Europe had high hopes that he might win the Nobel Prize in Literature, but it never happened. Perhaps it was because two Poles (Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska) were already awarded the prize during that period. Be that as it may, now 20 years after the writer’s death, it is worth looking back and examining this outstanding figure from a different perspective: as a deep poet, a sophisticated essayist, a profound thinker, a dissident and an Eastern European barbarian who saw the garden of Western culture in his own way.

September 1, 2018 - Andriy Lyubka

Herbert, who looks at the cathedral tower

Lviv, the city of Zbigniew Herbert’s childhood, is a chapter that has never ended. It is something that once and for all acquired a metaphysical form for him. Herbert resolutely separated it from the chapter of his life almost immediately after leaving the city. Yet, the poem "My city", written in his notes in the 1950s, has a dedication: “For my city, in which I will not die…”

“Sir, don’t miss the strawberries or currants,” says a black-haired, middle-aged woman reasonably and calmly without yelling, which is unusual for this type of market. She sits on a low bench, opposite house number 55 on Lychakivska Street in Lviv. There is a whole bunch of baskets and pots with all sorts of berries in front of her: from the deep dark raspberry to the half-transparent, as if illuminated from the inside, red currant. Next to her is a late-blooming, assertive and impatient lilac. There are so many lilac branches that the woman cannot keep them all together. The lilac breaks loose and it seems that the saleswoman is paying less attention to the customers and rather speaking to the blossom inside that fragrant cloud, soothing and lulling it.

“Come on, lilaaac” she stretches the word. There is a lot of green and white one step farther: shaggy bundles of green onions sway between blocks of cheese, like the coast grass flowing between the dried up white stones at low tide. The water receded long, long ago.

“I thank you Lord, for creating such a beautiful and sundry world,” wrote the poet Zbigniew Herbert – who was born here, in Lviv.

September 1, 2018 - Ostap Slyvynsky

Herbert and the East

The burial of the USSR became a personal culmination point for Zbigniew Herbert after a long and painful process of dealing with the trauma of communism and losing his hometown. Thus, the nostalgia after Lviv became a hidden but recurring theme in Herbert’s works.

An interesting collage can be found in the Zbigniew Herbert archives at the National Library in Warsaw. Most likely Herbert made it in December 1991. He glued his own photograph onto a picture he cut out of a newspaper which depicted the signatories of the Białowieża Treaty which led to the dismantling of the Soviet Union. The photograph included such figures as Leonid Kravchuk, Stanislav Shushkevich and Boris Yeltsin. They were the leaders of the Ukrainian, Belarusian and Russian Soviet republics, respectively. In the photograph they were depicted as if they were posing for the camera after signing the document, applauding each other.

September 1, 2018 - Walery Butewicz

A nomadic writer

What interested Herbert the most were diversity and human beings. To understand them he was constantly deepening his knowledge, travelled to many places, all to experience different cultures and meet new people.

Zbigniew Herbert wrote many collections of poems and essays. Yet, there is one book that he never wrote, even though he should have. Or maybe he wrote such a book, but not literally. Not as a titled volume, but as many single pages. As a matter of fact, he was fully aware that many of his anthropological and sociological texts remained in drafts and excerpts. In his 1965 essay titled “Mr Montaigne’s journey to Italy” which was published in Tygodnik Powszechny a year later he admitted: “When a moment comes that my body will have only enough strength to fix the pillow under the head, I will have no choice but write a large piece of work, that is a book and not a collection of drafts, which will be titled: Introduction to the theory of journey.”

September 1, 2018 - Kinga Gajda

Rediscovering a Jewish Wrocław

The oldest piece of evidence of Jewish material culture in Wrocław goes back as early as 1203. Jewish life flourished there until it was brutally destroyed by the Holocaust. It was reduced further by post-war emigration and the infamous March of 1968 which pushed the majority of Jewish residents out of Poland. Some of them returned after 1989 and are now reviving the Jewish community. Thus, you can hear Jewish prayers in Wrocław today.

Wrocław is an extraordinary city. Its uniqueness lies not only in its charm, vitality and openness, but its extraordinary history, which is part of the history of Poland, the Czech Republic, Germany and Austria. It is also the capital of Silesia, a region where the European East and West meet, diffusing, enriching and inspiring one another. It is also a city where the memory of previous identities was often erased – as it did not serve the new nationalist, exclusiveness, which would doom the city’s past for centuries of silence and falsehood. Such was the case in Germany during the time of Bismarck and even more during the period of communist Poland.

September 1, 2018 - Aleksander Gleichgewicht

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