Belarusian culture: Still a terra incognita
Review of Alhierd Bacharevič’s Maje Dzievianostyja (My 1990s).
In the European Union’s mass media Belarus is rarely noticed beyond rare mentions, with little analysis, on the post-Soviet country’s President Lukashenka’s authoritarian rule of a quarter of a century. The stereotype of ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’ persists, as though Russia and Azerbaijan were not dictatorships, and the Vatican City State was not an absolute monarchy. Although from the languages of Poland’s neighbors, Belarusian is the closest to Polish, an awareness (let alone any presence) of Belarusian-language literature and culture is deafeningly absent in this country. Since 1996 Belarus has been bound with Russia in an unequal union state, which often translates into little respect of the former polity for the latter. An average Russian citizen tends to see Belarus as a Russian province, and in line with traditional Russian nationalism considers Belarusian to be an ‘uncouth village patois.’ Hence, from this long established imperial Russian perspective there is no Belarusian culture worth mentioning. In 1995 Russian was announced to be Belarus’s co-official language, which pushed Belarusian to the margins. At best a tenth of the country’s 10 million inhabitants speak and read regularly in Belarusian. However, thanks to Belarusian-language lessons of Belarusian language and history in this country’s overwhelmingly Russophone schools, 90 per cent of Belarusians retain a passive knowledge of this language.
What Belarusian culture may lack in numbers it compensates for in sterling quality. Alhierd Bacharevič is the foremost figure of today’s Belarusian literature. The sheer inventiveness, readability and muscular prose of his novels makes him into a writer of a genuinely European stature, and potentially even of world renown. But global publishing houses disregard his books as much as literatures created in smaller European languages, especially if it is not a language of a European Union member state. Fortunately, a couple of Bacharevič’s novels were published in German translations, and one in French. However, his stellar achievement, Sabaki Eŭropy (Dogs of Europe, 2017) that in quality and ambition can be only compared to Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, so far remains available only in the Belarusian original.
The autobiography under review is a portrait of an artist as a young man, and also so much more, including an in-depth peek into the cultural and political ferment of freshly independent Belarus and soon stalled to a standstill by young Lukashenka who tightened the screw ever tighter, then being unsure of the permanence of his intended rule for life. What is more, this book offers a key to a variety of inspirations and experiences, which percolated into Bacharevič’s early novels and story collections. Irreverent views and opinions, which the author expresses freely also belie the common presupposition that the Belarusian regime keeps on a short leash the country’s publishing and culture. Yes, control over the mass media and the stodgy press remains strict, but does not extend in this rigid form over (Belarusian-language) literature. Although I am sure that any direct or revealing remarks on the president and his malleable state ideology are out of bounds. Having said that, the autobiography’s prose observes the most outward principles of the Russifying spelling reform of 1933. Hence, the Belarusian capital is referred to as ‘Minsk,’ not the traditional ‘Mensk.’ But it is more of a slim disguise for a Russophone state official, which enables the author to write freely in the traditional form of Belarusian, best preserved among the Belarusian émigré communities in western Europe and North America.
Uninspiring classes of Belarusian literature seem to have been a plan for paying lip service to national culture, while weaning Belarusians off it for the sake of educating them in cultural, economic and political awe of, first the Russia-dominated Soviet Union, and later, of the oil-producing Russian Federation. When Bacharevič was a secondary school student, for the first time in its history, Belarus became officially monolingual in Belarusian in the brief period between 1991 and 1995. This momentous event and the aforementioned educational slant combined into an explosive mix. Bacharevič was brought up speaking Russian in Minsk, though the vast majority of the capital’s postwar population arrived from Belarusian-speaking areas. (The Belarusian capital experienced explosive population growth. From 50,000 inhabitants in 1944 to half a million in 1959, one million in 1972, and two million in 2018.) From one day to another he rebelled and started speaking and writing in Belarusian. After initial surprise his family, friends and teachers accepted his choice, though some of the latter group were only stopped in tracks from failing or otherwise punishing this ‘nationalist misdemeanor’ by rapid political changes that serendipitously put the miscreant student in the right and temporarily shamed pro-Soviet and pro-Russian pedagogues.
From his early teens, Bacharevič wanted to become a writer. He read and wrote voraciously, and found unceasing inspiration in Franz Kafka, James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov, whose works he read in Polish and Russian translations, when not available in Belarusian. On top of that, he excelled during his German lessons, and nowadays professionally translates literature from this language. Following his passion, against the parents’ better judgement, Bacharevič enrolled at the Maxim Tank Belarusian State Pedagogical University to read for a degree in Belarusian language and literature. The post-Soviet economy was in free fall, but the festival of Belarusian-language freedom and creativity continued, until it was cut short after Bacharevič’s initial two years at this university, due to Lukashenka’s rise to power in 1995.
Not really knowing how to make himself into a writer, in 1993 Bacharevič joined with friends to form a punk rock group Pravakacyja (Provocation). On the go, they learned how to play instruments and sing, and they did perform highly inventive and iconoclastic Belarusian-language lyrics, repeatedly showing the proverbial middle finger to stodgy practitioners of state-approved BelLit (Belarusian literature). Under the intellectual leadership of the outgoing middle-aged philosopher and literary critique Valiancin Akudovič, young adepts of poetry and prose, intent on breaching the Soviet-time limits formerly imposed on literary expression, formed a Bum-Bam-Lit avant-garde movement in 1995. Bacharevič was one of its leading members, and somewhat of a star. Punk rock and irreverent literature in Belarusian in the context of the growing Russifying-cum-political pressure made many of Bum-Bam-Lit’ers into leading figures of today’s Belarusian culture. The movement sustained them, while the former constraints were rapidly re-imposed by the regime making them aware of their own principles and what they did not want to be. Quite symbolically, at this important crux, Bacharevič dropped his given name Aljeh, or the Belarusian version of the Russian Oleg, in favor of his nom de plume Alhjerd, adopted in memory of the famous Grand Duke of Lithuania, Algirdas (Olgierd). In the cultural and political move away from Russia, a historical continuity of Belarus with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was emphasized, the latter commonly posed as an ‘early Belarus’ in Belarusian history textbooks to this day. Not surprisingly, Bacharevič’s punk rocker’s leather jacket and rucksack bristled with pins with the Pahonja (‘Chase’) coat-of-arms and the white-red-white flag of the Grand Duchy, which used to be official national symbols of the short-lived Belarusian National Republic (1918-1919) and of pre-Lukashenka independent Belarus.
Through concerts given by Pravakacyja across the country, Bacharevič got to know the denationalised (Russified), desperately impoverished and feverishly changing Belarus of the initial post-Soviet decade. Subsequently, first loves morphed into marriages, and ‘normal life’ began taking its toll on dreams, music and literature. The dilemma whether to acquiesce to the regime for the sake of secure employment or to follow one’s own path despite all odds fed into the symbolic representation of Belarus as a concentration camp in Bacharevič’s first – in many ways quite Kafkaesque and with elements of cyberpunk – novel Saroka na šybienicy (‘The Magpie on the Gallows,’ 2009). The writer’s long-suffering parents supported him in his – seemingly eccentric and impractical – choices, father driving a taxi, mother working in school and securing unlikely venues for her son’s punk group to practice. After graduation, Bacharevič taught Belarusian language and literature in school, but that was not for him. He wanted to write. So, as in the case of his school posts, which he tended to abandon in a quick succession, his mother organized him a job as a journalist in the newspaper of the Minsk Tractor Works (MTZ Minski Traktarny Zavod). Fortunately, this newspaper retained one page in Belarusian. Even better, the enterprising post-Soviet editor made this throwback from the Soviet times into a genuinely interesting periodical (such a rara avis in today’s Belarus), which did not shy away from covering controversial political and social issues, and dabbed in a bit of investigative journalism. Numerous times Bacharevič resigned from this secure journalist post wishing to earn a living as a writer, and as many times the editor patiently accepted him back. These experiences were woven into Bacharevič’s linguistic thriller, Dzieci Alindarki (‘Alindarka’s Children,’ 2014), on a bravura escape from a concentration camp, set up with a subsidy from Moscow, for curing children from the ‘illness of speaking Belarusian.’
The autobiography’s last chapter is a homage to night, or long and adventurous walks – after public transport ceased plying – from gigs in the Minsk downtown to Bacharevič’s block of flats in the capital’s peripheral bedroom quarter of Šabany. The tedium of walking for hours on end inspired his rock songs and early stories, and never ceased to generate wee hours mis-adventures. Only later, did the author begin to uncover the darker suppressed history of this place. It used to be wartime Europe’s easternmost German death camp, Maly Trostinez (or Mały Traścianiec in Belarusian), organised in the territory of the Karl Marx Kolkhoz. Finally, the Lukashenka regime’s sheer political oppressiveness and constraints imposed on culture, including the deepening Russification of the public space, made Bacharevič emigrate to Germany in 2007, not unlike the mother of Alindarka’s children who makes an appearance at the novel’s end.
Fortunately, both for the writer and his readers, after the night dawn broke. Bacharevič continues to write and even was able to take residence back in Minsk, beginning in 2013. For better or worse, at present, the mainly Russian-speaking capital of Belarus is also the world’s largest concentration of Belarusian-speakers, who dub their capital Mensk. The notional 10 per cent of active Belarusian-speakers in Belarusian society translates into 200,000 of them in Minsk. Despite the odious political situation, it is still the best place for the writer to spin his Belarusian yarn, at least as long as the regime keeps from impinging on the freedom of literary imagination. During the 2010s it did not.
Мае дзевяностыя Maje Dzievianostyja (My 1990s). Alhierd Bacharevič.
Minsk, Januškievič 2018.
Tomasz Kamusella is a Reader in Modern Central and Eastern European History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. His latest monograph Ethnic Cleansing during the Cold War: The Forgotten 1989 Expulsion of Turks from Communist Bulgaria was published by Routledge in July 2018.