University of Waterloo
The First Interview
ZinaGimpelevich. What, in your opinion, is Belarusanness? Where does it come from, what constitutes it, and how do you perceive it?
VasilBykau. Well, if I may use a bit of irony, this is exactly what Belarusans have been fighting for over the past few centuries, without any success. Belarusanness is an imperceptible feeling. But to be serious, the first and most important thing that makes Belarusanness is statehood. Our long history has taught us that the idea of nationhood—what you indicate as Belarusanness – cannot come to life without statehood, sovereignty, and independence. Unfortunately, not everyone among us understands it this way. Our nation apparently does not understand this and thinks that it can achieve this national essence and implement national ideas within a framework of dependency and without democracy. This—again from historical experience—proves to be absolutely impossible. It is an idée fixe and makes a complete fiasco of all national hopes. I have in mind the earlier, traditional, dependent existence of Belarus.
Z.G. Right now I am fascinated by one of Vaclav Havel's latest books, called Summer Meditations. I would like to know your opinion of Havel. Isn't it wonderful that he is a writer, a playwright, and a head of state? A leader who really leads. I am very taken by his ideas about Slovakia. There are many parallels between Belarus and Slovakia, don't you think?
V.B. There are many parallels, of course. It is not really so important, however, that he is a writer. He might have not been a writer. He might have been an artist, an architect, or whatever. What is much more important, in this case, is that he is a member of the intelligentsia. He is not some kind of a party functionary but a leader, educated democratically and nationally. This is very important. When talking about Havel, one should remember that he is a former dissident. This is a polysemantic phenomenon. Nowhere else did dissidents or, as they are called in Russia, «people of the 'sixties», come to power. This has become possible in a democratic country, a civilized European, country despite its communist past. Yes, it is wonderful and it is a matter of great envy for Belarusans especially. Unfortunately, this did not happen with us. Our intelligentsia has a different character. In recent years, despite numerous political mutations, not a single member of the intelligentsia has become a leader. First, it was not allowed to happen. Second, the intelligentsia was not really interested because it had not yet rid itself of its communist mentality. This is a special philosophical category and a mentality particular to the Belarusan intelligentsia.
Z.G. Havel's road, even now, is more likely covered with thorns rather than with roses. What I mean is that the situation with Slovakia has some parallels with Belarus. Havel was against the separation of the two states. At the same time he is convinced that, if the Slovaks want to go, the Czechs should approach the separation positively. It is a familiar and complicated situation, isn't it?
V.B. You are right. The situation is complicated. For countries of the former socialist camp the biggest problem at the end of this century will be the self-determination of nations and people. This problem did not exist earlier because there was no possibility of self-determination. These countries could not separate from the Communist empire, although our lawyers say that there was such a possibility, i.e., Stalin's constitution had an article that allowed republics to separate. No country separated, though, since everyone knew beforehand that it was impossible. Now there is such a possibility, but not for everyone. Following the collapse of the Soviet empire such separations did take place. The countries of Western Europe separated easily due to their history of independence and a wealth of democratic values. While these elements are important, another factor in this situation is national consciousness. Each individual must realize the value of his or her national history and culture. This, coupled with the God-given, if not legal, right to self-determination, creates a strong sense of nationalism. A country can only reach its true potential if it is independent and autonomous. Slovakia is just such a country. Many people say that separation would be impossible and unprofitable due to the level of economic integration. This is true. However, national instincts tell us that we are sacrificing our physical and emotional well being and that, despite these hardships, real happiness lies somewhere ahead in absolute national independence. The experience of the people of the Western countries, who flourished and succeeded, proves this point. All of these large and small nations have bloody histories, and yet they achieved national independence. Germany, France, Norway, Belgium and Luxembourg have shown us that true growth and national realization is possible only through independence. The same applies to the Slovaks. They want, as Americans would say, to take their own chances. History has now given them such a chance. This is what Belarusans want. Why not? There have been many unsuccessful attempts in our history. History led us toward dependence. For many centuries we were under the thumbs of East and West, Russia and Poland, and so on. And what do we have as the result of this so-called integration, this concord? What did we find at the end of the twentieth century following this model? Nothing: we are completely broke. Should we not change the direction of our development and try a direction that has led other nations to success? This is not even philosophy, but elementary pragmatism.
Z.G. This is, of course, from the point of view of a nation. In other words, before we are ready to integrate with others, we have to know where we belong and who we are individually. Now I am a Canadian as well as a Belarusan Jew who grew up in Russian culture. Because of the way I grew up, I knew little about my Jewishness. Sometimes I wish I knew one Jewish language at least half as well as Belarusan, my second language. Nevertheless, I know who I am and I am content. When the moment came that I had to compromise the dignity of my origins or leave my native Belarus, I was lucky to have the choice.
V.B. Well, this is unfortunately the destiny of all our Jews. Since you started to talk about it, I should stress how instructive the history of the Jews has been for us. Last fall I went to Israel and saw that Belarusans can learn a lot from the Jews and the State of Israel. The Jews suffered centuries of dispersion, absolute cultural degradation, assimilation, and most importantly, the national language, Hebrew, was lost. Nevertheless, a renaissance of culture and language is taking place. And it has all taken place in the framework of statehood. Many centuries proved to the Jewish people that, without their own state, nothing was possible. The Jewish people understood that they could not achieve happiness without a state. They achieved their goal. I will not say that it is a very happy or serene place, but it exists nonetheless. This example is very important for Belarusans.
Now, you talked about yourself. My God! In this case I am thinking from the point of view of a nation. When we talk about personal fate, it is often different. I am a Belarusan writer. Under the conditions of the Russian empire, in Soviet times, I lived much better than I do now under this so-called paper sovereignty. Then I was provided with good working conditions and right now I have nothing of the kind. This does not mean, however, that I am ready to justify or agree to that former existence. As we look to the future, we see that the empire's time is gone; this Soviet or Russian empire is, hopefully, the last one. Some Belarusans and other subjects of this empire, however, do not understand and think that this agony can be stopped and that some kind of happiness can be achieved under traditional imperial conditions. This is impossible. The Soviet empire is finished and the Russian empire will soon be finished. The existence of such a pretentious conglomerate of nations is impossible. From the vast and virgin territories of Eastern Prussia, Kaliningrad to Sakhalin and Kura, such existence is not possible due to the economy.
Z.G. It seems as though Russia does not want it either.
V.B. Oh, yes. Russia has had endless separation problems. Chechnya is nothing but agony for the government forces. They think that if they destroy Chechnya others will be paralyzed by fear and, consequently, reconsider separation. Even if it were so, there are economic conditions that make integration impossible. The idea of integration is probably a good one in Western Europe. Integration has achieved a great deal there. But Russia has to solve its poverty problem and deal with its huge economic crisis. It is not true, however, that we need to get out of this crisis or misfortune in one piece. It simply cannot be done. I have known this since the war. When some detachments found themselves in tragic or even catastrophic situations, they tried to get out of the situation in small groups, not with the whole army. I do not know of a single case of where the whole army succeeded.
Z.G. What an interesting thought!
V.B. Thank you. Look, the Baltic States are a good example. They got out from under those Soviet clods and they will do well.
Z.G. They did not have Chernobyl. They also had a quarter-century less time under the Soviets. They have a huge Diaspora in the West, with a strong national identity, while the Belarusan Diaspora is small. There may be an older generation of great patriots, but most of the younger generation are really Americans and Canadians.
V.B. That is our misfortune abroad and in Belarus. Not everyone living in Belarus considers himself Belarusan.
Z.G. This is a very emotional problem and I am sorry to admit that we cannot solve it now. Let us go back, if you do not mind, to you as a Belarusan writer.
V.B. Please, go ahead.
Z.G. What makes Bykau a Belarusan writer? It must be something more than writing only in Belarusan?
V.B. The point is that national belonging has an element of spontaneity. This is an element that everyone carries in his genes. Just being born signifies belonging to a nation. First, the place of birth is very important. Second, the culture is equally important. For me all of this was Belarusan, my place of birth, my culture, and my education. During and after the war, I did not live in Belarus and did not have much contact with Belarusanness. Whether it was during or after the war, I always had feelings about my Motherland, even when I did not feel one hundred percent Belarusan. During the war, when Belarus was under occupation, I was first touched by news from there and by memories. Simple things, such as childhood dreams, are always connected with something in the past that, in turn, is connected with the Motherland. During the fifteen years that I lived outside Belarus, the language flew away from me. I did not use the Belarusan language then because there was no place for it in my surroundings. At that time I had no access to Belarusan literature either. You see, for five years I was serving in the Far East, in Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands. Where could you find Belarusan literature there? Nowhere. Nevertheless, it lived somewhere inside me. When I came back to Belarus, the language came back to me in no time. It was resurrected in me so naturally...
Z.G. This reminds me of Natasha Rostova. Remember how she danced a peasant dance and how Tolstoy admired her national character?
V.B. Yes, I do. This is one point. We must also keep in mind the totalitarianism that existed in Belarus for over seventy years. It evoked not only complacency and the desire to serve—I refer to the intelligentsia—but also awakened protest. Whether the protest was visible or suppressed does not matter. It was always alive in a disagreement or some movement towards freedom. Protest always existed and demanded sublimation in creative works, even if the creative work was not directly connected to politics. Our literature was always socially and politically oriented. It is a pity that we, as writers, did not use our work in the interest of national democracy, since national democracy is, and continues to be, for us, an unattainable goal.
Z.G. Thank you very much. This is a profound insight into your personal Belarusanness. Now here is a related question, probably the most painful one, about the role of language. This is, presumably, both the most important and the most passionate question, is it not?
V.B. Yes, I should say so. When I started writing, I did have a problem choosing a language. I returned from the Army at the end of the 'fifties, knowing the Russian language better than Belarusan. I had forgotten Belarusan. I didn't think much about this. Very soon, however, I understood, and I think I did the right thing since I have never regretted it. No matter how well I know Russian, my native language is Belarusan.
Z.G. I can relate to that. One of my friends at university spoke only Belarusan when we were alone. Once I asked her directly why she did not speak Russian to me. She immediately responded that, if she needed to say something very important, she had to use her native language—Belarusan. Only in Canada did I fully realize what she meant. I guess that whatever little I am doing for Belarusan studies, she triggered in me back then.
V.B. Yes, this is entirely true because there is some kind of a higher will and a person cannot always rule his life the way he wants. There are people, undoubtedly, who are very capable, very bright, very talented, who master foreign languages easily, and therefore the question of native language is not such a problem. Here I mean Nabokov, who wrote first in Russian and then in English.
Z.G. Yes, but there are still two different Nabokovs in this respect. And I, personally, prefer the "Russian" Nabokov. He is much loved in America as an American writer, so my personal feelings do not reflect the general perception.
V.B. What about writers who emigrated recently and write in both languages, English and Russian? They are quite successful—Brodsky, for example.
Z.G. Brodsky is rather exceptional. Although once, at an interview, he also recognized the power of the native language. At least, I understood it this way. He actually said: «What 'hurts' you into poetry or literature is language, your sense of language. Not your private philosophy or your politics, nor even the creative urge or youth.» What about you? Everyone knows that your Russian is masterful. Do you use this language at all in your work?
V.B. I did and still do a lot of my journalistic work for the Russian press in Russian. Concerning belles-lettres, I wrote from the very beginning in Belarusan, though I translated much of my own work into Russian. I did it, not to master Russian, but because I did not have Russian translators at the time. As a matter of fact, I still don't have them, well, not ones that I would be happy with. It is very difficult to translate your own work into other languages, especially from Belarusan into Russian. Bunin said once that the closeness of the languages makes the translator's work more difficult.
Z.G. Do you remember, by chance, what languages Bunin was talking about?
V.B. He had Slavic languages in mind. I think that it is easier to translate from German into Russian than from Ukrainian into Russian. I appreciate this because I know how much it took to translate my own works into Russian. It usually takes me three drafts or three manuscripts to create a literary piece, but it takes at least seven drafts or seven new manuscripts to translate it. Yes, I have to write it over at least seven times in order to make the Russian text closer to Belarusan. It is difficult to find well-qualified translators from Belarusan into Russian, and even harder to find Belarusans who can translate into other European languages. Most translations of my works into European languages were made from Russian. That is why I take Russian translations so seriously and try to make them as close as possible to the original.
Z.G. You have answered Zora Kipel's question about who really translates your works into Russian when she raised it this year at the Canadian Association of Slavists. May I ask you a related question? When you are writing in Russian, for you personally, would this piece of work also be Belarusan or has it already become Russian?
V.B. Do you mean my writings or translations?
V.B. As I have already said, I always write my prose in Belarusan. However, I write a lot, and a few books of my journalistic works—reviews, articles for journals, and newspapers—were published in Russian. I don't know how to describe them. Let us say I am writing a review in Russian about the work of some Russian writer. It seems that this work of mine could be considered Russian. I want to say, however, that this is not entirely true, because the authorship of a Belarusan writer asserts itself in such work. Even when I am writing a review of work that I like and respect, let us say, that of Grigory Baklanov, my presence as a Belarusan remains an issue. And this fact, somehow, brings my work in Russian into Belarusan literature.
Z.G. Thank you. Now I have another burning question that needs to be answered. In the fifth volume of your collected works, there is a picture of you and Solzhenitsyn. This picture is from the early 'seventies. In the picture both of you have similar expressions, as if you are ready to start a fight, not with each other, but with anyone or anything that interfered with your understanding of the world. We know that both of you engaged in this fight, but from different directions. You were friends then. A few years ago Solzhenitsyn wrote an article where he expressed strong and unsolicited opinions about Belarusans and Ukrainians. By your reaction I see that you are familiar with it.
V.B. Yes, I am.
Z.G. I am sorry for the note of provocation in this question, [Bykaű nods] but how do you feel about this article and its author now?
V.B. I have great respect for Solzhenitsyn. I admire what he had done for our liberation from communist totalitarianism. I admire what he did to uncover and root out this curse that we have had in our history. He has a talent for this and, most importantly, the courage. Of course, I supported him at that time as much as possible. He has my respect now, as well. The article you are talking about is called «How Should We Build Russia». Despite the fact that it has a lot of good, even great, ideas, I cannot accept it completely. Strange as it is, I think that while continuing to be an anti-communist, Solzhenitsyn has given up his former democratic position. The people, whom he appears to side against—non Slavs—cannot accept this. Ukrainians and Belarusans also do not agree with the reanimation of the Russian empire under any banner. It does not matter whether re-animation is proposed under the communist banner (which is entirely out of the question), under the monarchist banner, or any other. We are standing up for the most sacred right of any nation: self-determination. Solzhenitsyn may contend that, under Russia, this would be a statehood based on democracy rather than communism or monarchy. This may or may not be correct. If one considers the amazing metamorphosis that has taken place recently with both Russian communists and democrats, one sees how their democratic idea has taken on an imperialistic tone. With this in mind, Solzhenitsyn's well-intentioned idea will turn out differently. Nevertheless, we (meaning: national patriots) do not share this idea and, therefore, cannot accept Pan-Slavism, or any other concept that calls all nations—Slavs or non-Slavs into a so-called single family. Our historical experiences indicate that such a "family" will not bring happiness.
I have thought about it for a long time. Mankind on its micro level, or in family life and private relations, worked out the most important postulates of existence long ago. Let us take contemporary Christian civilization, wherein, for example, it is very bad to kill a person and it is unacceptable to steal. No one will ever reject these values; however, these values seem to be ignored at political party and State levels. It is bad to kill a person, but it is fine to destroy a nation. This notion works well with the masterful political arrangement of civil conscience. That is what Germans did to Jews during World War Two, and it is what is happening in Russia in relation to Chechnya. And Russian democrats, the most spiritual and educated people, consider it to be the right thing to do for the sake of a higher purpose.
Z.G. There is no such purpose.
V.B. Exactly. At last we understood and established that the highest right, God's blessing on Earth, is human life. Everything else should be set aside, for the sake of a person and his life. In practice we find different ways to avoid this issue. Right now we talk a great deal about human rights and make numerous declarations. While these discussions take place, Chechens die in their war with Russia and minority groups in Estonia lose their voting rights. The international community considers such occurrences to be within the scope of Estonian and Russian internal affairs. It is impossible for a conscientious person to understand why these things are happening. It is because of such incidents that unification with Russia does not make sense for Belarus.
Z.G. Thank you so much for your most heartfelt answers. Since we have spent so much time discussing your political, national, and moral positions, let us connect them again to literary questions. Our late Aleś Adamovič once called you a historian of the war proletariat. Your first non-battle piece, The Raid (Ablava), appeared in 1989. My question is, why that year? For me, personally, 1989 signifies the year in which the impact of the Chernobyl incident on Belarus was revealed. It was the year when people around the world began to realize that Belarus was the country that had suffered most from that catastrophe. Is it a coincidence that in this year, when Litaratura i Mastactva published the first map of areas affected by Chernobyl, you turned to civilian topics?
V.B. It was not so much the year as the advent of Perestroika. When Gorbachev came to power, all kinds of changes began.
Z.G. In 1986 I directed a workshop in Russia for Canadian students. That was my first visit after seven years of living in Canada. Everyone was repeating «Perestroika», but, to be honest, I did not notice any changes then.
V.B. At that time it was moving in the upper echelons of the political realm, but it was also noticeable in the press. It started slowly with a parallel struggle against communism. We achieved the abolition of Article Six article in the Constitution regarding the leading role of the party. This was achieved at a great cost to all democrats, first of all, of course, to Russian democrats. In terms of literature, the most important opportunity was the possibility of looking at undeveloped themes. Such undeveloped material for Belarusan and Soviet literature came out of the 'thirties. At this point, I consider this period to be even more tragic than the war years. The war, despite hardships and bloodshed, was characterized by some kind of political wholeness or, as Evtushenko put it: «Never before or after the war, were the aspirations of the people and the party so much alike as they were during the war.» During the thirties there was a flood of ideological, social, materialistic and economic matters to be addressed. There was complete anarchy. It is enough to say that, in our country, which is predominantly agrarian, the peasantry was ruined. This class was destroyed economically, socially, and physically by collectivization, repression, and so on. None of these issues was illustrated in literature. During this period authors were subject to punitive measures. Their works were also suppressed and disappeared. After the war nobody wrote about, talked about, or admitted remembering that period. In the second part of the 'eighties, a generation of writers was dying out and the new generation knew nothing about the 'thirties. Those who lived under repression and were rehabilitated in the camps were afraid to touch these years. These writers were broken people and did not write about their private torments. They simply erased the memories from their lives. A few poets did write about these times, especially Hrachouski, but in general... I decided that, since I was not repressed and my childhood memories of those years were still clear, it was my duty to write about that time. Thus The Raid (Ablava) and later The Blizzard (Stiuza) appeared. Have you read The Blizzard?
Z.G. No, I read The Raid, and The Blizzard is my priority reading now.
V.B. You will see that The Blizzard is mainly about the war, but shows the impact of the 'thirties. This is a small novella. I also wrote a few short stories about this period. You see, I turned to this topic because I was afraid that it might otherwise disappear, not only from our history, but from our art, as well.
Z.G. It is a great accomplishment on your part and one that is much appreciated by your compatriots and people around the world. I am saying this not in flattery, but knowing that Western readers always name Vasil Bykau as one of the most popular contemporary Slavic writers. On my part I promise to translate your interview into English and make it available for English readers. Thank you very much for your time and patience.
V.B. You are welcome.
The Second Interview
Vasil Bykau, a writer who is recognized all over the world as a Belarusan classic writer, granted me an interview on 20 October 1996. Igrew up loving his short stories and short novels, and my admiration for this humanist, thinker, writer, human rights activist, this person who not only preaches morality but lives by it, is hard to measure. I was fortunate to meet him first in 1995, and our second meeting took place a year later. This time we met as close friends, and his wife immediately started to ply me with food. My protests that I was staying with my uncle and aunt (a typical Belarusan village woman who feeds me constantly) did not help.
Our conversation quickly turned to the exciting political events of October 1996 which occurred in Belarus. And for good reason: the Belarusan parliament had refused to approve the new constitution proposed by the Belarusan president, Aliaksandar Lukashenka, and was also opposed to the date for a referendum called by him. (Lukashenka had chosen a meaningful day: November 7th, the anniversary of the October revolution.) The president then gathered an enormous forum of supporters whom he bought off with promises and gifts. These followers showed the parliament that they would support Lukashenka's undemocratic actions and ultimately the members of parliament had to compromise their principles.
Lukashenka considers Vasil Bykau to be his Number One enemy and prohibits the Belarusan media from mentioning him. Currently the writer's connection to the world is through the foreign media. Therefore our conversation, which was intended to be on literary topics, first took a political direction.
* * *
V.B. Our opposition is built on a democratic base. That is why all of our hopes lie entirely in the West. And we are getting good coverage. Journalists have been coming from Germany, France, England, Sweden, Finland, and the States.
Z.G. Europe reacts more quickly…
VB. Yes, the Germans, especially, do not deny us their attention. Also, today I have an interview with a Finnish journalist. Imagine! Yesterday Lukashenka took offense at the U.S. Ambassador and complained that in Washington our Belarusan Ambassador has been received coldly. He said, "I will receive the US Ambassador so kindly here, with such warmth, that he will be suffocated in my embrace." He said it with such cynicism, in the manner of a common hooligan....
Z.G I am afraid that Mr.Lukashenka is not a psychologically healthy person. Unfortunately, to say it figuratively, the Belarusan head—its intelligentsia—knows this, while the Belarusan body, its people, do not.
V.B. You are quite right.
Z.G. Let us hope that Belarusan politics will change for the better in the future.
Dear Vasil Uladzimiravich, I could listen to you for hours, but since the Finnish journalist is coming soon, would you mind if we switch to literary topics?
V.B. No, I don't mind, go ahead.
Z.G. First, I have to apologize for not knowing your latest works. I just came to Belarus and it is close to impossible to get Polymia* in Canada.
V.B. It is not easy to get this journal here either, but I will give you my spare copy.
Z.G. Thank you very much. As you are probably aware, the PEN International submitted your works for consideration by the Nobel Prize Committee in Literature. We did not succeed this year, but we hope to have more luck next year. After all, Boris Pasternak was a candidate several times before he was chosen by the Committee.
V.B. Oh, no, I don't think that my works fit the requirements. I understand that the Committee is more interested in poetry, like this year, when they chose this wonderful, abstract poetry by Szymborska. I guess poetry is easier to read, to get used to, to be inspired by. I am a realist, there is nothing vague in my work. No, I do not think anyone should bother.
Z.G. I know plenty of people who feel differently. The real problem is the lack of good translations of your work into English, and as a result, not enough literary criticism. Those translations that are available – it seems that your works would be better off without some of them.
V.B. Oh, yes. I know this process well because I translate myself. It is such a difficult task, in my case in particular because I translate into Russian. It is easier to translate from French into Russian than from Belarusan into Russian. That is an absolute truth. Bunin noticed it a long time ago, when he wrote that it is close to impossible to translate from related languages. Not a single translator is able to achieve the same effect as in the original text. When I translate my own work, I too cannot get the exact meaning, simply because I do not know the Russian language the way a Russian writer would. But my situation is unusual. I am the author of the original text and I am free to make changes, while a translator does not have this privilege.
Z.G. Vasil Uladzimiravich, your Russian is so impeccable that most readers think of you as a Russian writer. As a matter of fact, this year I had a discussion with a respectable Canadian Slavist who declared that I had overestimated your Belarusanness and that your major works are written in Russian.
V.B. I wonder whether by now he has changed his mind….
Z.G. I am working on a paper that I hope will help to do so.
V.B. Sounds promising.
Z.G. In my paper, besides the general theme of a national idea and its evolution in the short story genre in your literary works, I hope to develop some specific sub-themes in connection with Mickiewicz's literary tradition. I noticed that all literary critics are in concord with naming him as a genius in transforming character. I, personally, tend to think that in these terms Mickiewicz did not represent anything but part of the literary tendencies of his times. The new element in his work is the drastic transformations that his characters underwent because of their sudden visualization and acceptance of national consciousness. Your work gives a similar impression. Of course, in your battlefield stories this transformation usually happens under the extreme conditions of war; it is, however, always there, and a transformation most commonly happens under the influence of a nationalist idea or some other social or civic issue. May I ask for your comment on this matter?
V.B. First of all, I should say that as a writer I align myself with realism. My prose is always about real facts of being, and it is entirely dependent on and interwoven with public and national life. In the process of historical development every nation goes through many circumstances: sometimes a sudden conflict, sometimes a gradual change. As far as the Belarusan nation is concerned, one might say that, starting from the fourteenth century, (again, as in any nation), there were a number of these conflicts. Cataclysms on a European scale, wars, and social upheavals took place, and all of this naturally influenced national self-awareness. I cannot say that I intended to illustrate these changes of national self-awareness because until very recently the Belarusan nation belonged to "the great family of Soviet people". Nevertheless, in an indirect way, on a subconscious level, I am sure that these ideas were somehow expressed. Let me use the example of Armenian poetry. As I one day discovered for myself, Armenians do not have joyful poetry or merry music. Everything there is very sad, heart-wrenching, about misfortune and grief. All of this is justified by the history of the Armenian people. You see, something of this kind also happens in Belarusan literary art. It seems that I illustrate these feelings in my work as well. That is, my military prose has its own characteristics which are undoubtedly connected with common features of the Second World War, the European war. My latest work features new motifs, connected, of course, with earlier ideas of national rebirth. This is not always expressed directly, but more in a mediated way through certain associations. They are noticeable, and I feel them, though they are not always formulated openly.
Z.G. There is one small, but visible feature that attracts attention, even in your first novellas and short stories. In each piece of your fiction at least one of your protagonists is of Belarusan origin. This protagonist is usually the one who enjoys the author's sympathy and understanding.
V.B. This is natural. In my writings, this sympathy is shown through the language; my prose, as you know, is first written in Belarusan. (So, naturally, one of the heroes is Belarusan.) My battle stories are a bit different in this respect, though, because people of so many nations took part in the war. I did it consciously for that reason, but one, or several of my heroes, were always Belarusans even there. This is, of course, an author's prerogative. At the same time I should say that all kinds of misunderstandings could arise surrounding the notion of nationality. Thus, one of my main heroes, a rather unpleasant personage from the novella The Dead Feel No Pain (Miortvym nie balit), by the name of 'Sachno', was taken by many to be a Ukrainian. Actually, the family name Sachno is of typical East European origin. It could equally be considered Belarusan, Polish or Ukrainian. Although there is nothing within the story that reveals Sachno's origin, some Ukrainians considered him a Ukrainian, and on this basis claimed some kind of national discrimination. I don't think there are any grounds this accusation.
Z.G. I don't think so either. I love this novella, and I am really sorry that, because of all the accusations, your readership was not able to enjoy it until almost twenty years after it was written. Regarding your early and latest works, I have one more question to ask. Most of your earlier works are rather long, although they are often on the border of the short story genre, a tale, or a novella (a short novel). I once counted the number of words in The Dead Feel No Pain, and they exceed 66,000. Some of your stories that have been published in Polymia in 1995–96 have 5-to-6,000 words. They all have the typical unexpected ending of the short story genre and they usually portray one single event or one aspect of a personality. The difference in length, however, has become apparent lately. Could you please comment on these changes in the length of your prose works?
V.B. My latest are three rather lengthy short stories, On Chornyja Lady (Na Chornych ladach), Before the End (Pierad kancom), and Poor Folks (Biednyja ludzi).
Z.G. Yes, I know those stories. They were published in late 1994. Each of them is a very powerful artistic work and could be considered as a classic of the genre. Even their length is classic. According to Edgar Allan Poe, a short story should be read at one sitting. And each of the above fits the requirement because none of them exceeds 8,200 words. Yellow Sand (Zouty piasochak), published the following year, has more than 9,000 words. I am referring to the other series of short stories published at the end of 1995. The number of words in seven of them varies from 1,400 to 2,000.
V.B. Yes, you mentioned them as a series. I wrote those stories as war episodes with no intention of developing them into a tale. This year I published a lengthy tale and translated it into Russian. In Russian I even called it a short novel. It is entitled Give Me Some of Your Loving, Soldier Boy (Pakachaj mianie, saldacik). This is about the last day of war and the first day of victory. It was just published in Polymia and I will give you a copy. This is my latest publication.
Z.G. Thank you so much. What about your journalistic work this year? Have you spent as much time on it as in 1990–1995?
V.B. No, actually I haven't. And this fact is connected with our new leadership. You probably know that I was practically cut off from all forms of Belarusan media. Television is one example. You know how important the media are nowadays. Until recently I didn't know how to escape their attention, television people were always after me, but today I am not allowed—literally—over the threshold of any Belarusan television studio. So, as we say in Belarusan, "There is nothing bad without something good." This way, you see, Belarusan television has turned its back on me. In two days, however, I will meet with the television people from St. Petersburg. They called and asked me to take part in their special program on the academician Dmitry Sergeevich Likhachev. I know him well and have a lot of respect for him. It will be my pleasure to give an address in his honor. Moscow television stations are different, though. I simply refuse to cooperate with them, unless it is an independent station like NTV, for example. This is a small, independent station, and our PEN club even presented them with the Aleś Adamovič award, for their good journalism. This is more or less my present state of affairs with regard to television media. I used to work with The Moscow News some time ago, and was even a member of their editorial board, but recently I stopped. I handed in my resignation under the pretext that it was hard on me. You see, right now, under our present conditions if one is working for the free press… The government is after you to the point, as we say, that they won't let you die in peace. My relationship with the press in Belarus is not much different these days. I work only with very few publishers now, mainly, with Polymia.
Z.G. Let us hope it will all change for the better.
V.B. With the way everything is developing right now, I don't think we have any grounds for such hopes.
All of this could be more or less tolerable from my point of view. After all, I am not a bureaucrat, I am not interested in any kind of career, I am not interested in any favors from the government. But the economy is in such terrible shape. It is getting worse and worse each year. There are no real economic reforms. And our leadership is only thinking of a return to socialism.
Z.G. But Lukashenka is in Moscow now. As far as I understand, he was informed that if he expected Russia to cooperate with Belarus, economic reforms similar to Russia's would have to be introduced immediately. I've heard some interviews with him and saw an article in the paper where he swears he will introduce all the necessary economic changes.
V.B. Yes, they have developed grand plans, but all of them are only on paper, a kind of "old Soviet paperwork art form".
Z.G. Do you anticipate any changes?
V.B. Unfortunately, there is no way. How could the economy improve? With the help of foreign credit? But this year already foreign credit has been cut and the International Monetary Fund as well as the United States ceased helping simply because reforms have not taken place. The whole issue rests with some fundamental concepts, like private property, for example. And our president, who grew up as a communist and still thinks like one, cannot allow the idea of private property to be accepted. There is no privatization of the economy, but at the same time a raging privatization is taking place in his administration. All of the best buildings, houses, construction, as well as heavy and light industry are under their control. The administration has expropriated them as their own private property. At the same time the most profitable institutions were taken over by Russia—taken as debt payment for natural gas and oil. And now, in addition, Lukašenka has gone to Moscow and, while I do not know the details yet, it seems they agreed that Moscow will take over the Belarusan railways. This is what is going on. What kind of improvement can we expect from such things?
Z.G. Is there a chance that when they have enough, the leadership will want some sort of a democratic order, if not for themselves, then for their children?
V.B. Not a chance. They have grabbed enough from generations to come and keep their funds in German and Swiss banks. I am afraid that you underestimate the Mafia character of both the Belarusan and Russian bureaucracies. Who paid for the war in Chechnya? Who financed it? It was financed by Western banks. I don't know the details, but the fact is clear that all these years the Chechens were oppressed by Western money. And all of this has been disregarded somehow by Westerners. Russia does not have any means other than what it receives from the West. The fact is that no one knows where this money from the West goes at all, everything is top secret, exactly as it was before under the Soviets. The general public in Russia also knows nothing about the distribution of Western money.
Z.G. I think that you are right in many respects. At the same time the whole process depends completely on the type of institution that provides funds. As far as I know, the World Bank has experience working with corrupt countries. They work with Mexico, for example, and this country has experienced all kinds of Mafia corruption.
V.B I should tell you that our Mafia, both Russian and Belarusan, can give lessons to any experienced corrupt regime. We had parliamentary elections, and Western observers came. There were about sixty of them. Most of them were undergraduate students from European universities. Our bureaucrats managed to arrange the whole matter in such a way that the observers did not find any infringements, despite the fact that not a single word, not a single act, was performed according to democratic laws.
Z.G. I understand that today, when Lukashenka's people have all the power, this is possible. I've heard that his personal guard numbers 3,000 professional soldiers.
V.B. That number is correct.
Z.G. It is outrageous: he practically has his own personal army. Do you know that the president of the U.S. has only a little over thirty people in his personal guard? Anyway, right now Lukašenka can really do as he pleases. Two years ago, however, in the presidential elections, Belarusans had a fair chance to choose a leader. At that time there was a good professional forum of foreign observers from all over the world. I was among them as a representative of the Canadian chapter of Helsinki's Human Rights Watch, and I can swear: that time Belarusans voted freely for today's unfortunate choice.
V.B. You probably do not consider an old Stalinist postulate that is still in practice in this country: "It is not so much how people vote that is important, but how those votes are counted." In order to have democratic elections we should first of all have multiparty committees. What results can we expect now that the committees are formed only from his own people?
Z.G. There are no two ways about it…. Vasil Uladzimiravich, I just saw the clock and realized that this Finnish journalist is coming soon and I still have not covered many of my literary questions.
V.B. All right. What would you like to discuss?
Z.G. I believe strongly that a literary act which is unique to a certain part of the globe is at the same time a part of a common world literary process. The era we live in is called 'post-colonial culture.' Keeping in mind that the Belarusan language is used by a minority in its own state and that this notion of otherness is present in Canada between Anglophones and Francophones, and in the United States between African Americans and whites, just to name a few, it is seems that Belarus fits the description of post-colonial culture well. There is a common element that unites and separates all these cultures. This element is a national idea and its representation. Could you please comment on the "otherness" and this element of national idea in the literary process of Belarus?
V.B. Again we have to keep in mind that in the course of our history, all kinds of differences appeared together with a kind of galvanization of a national idea. This most recently took place at the end of the last century in connection with the weakening of tsarism, and that took place simultaneously in Russia with the emergence of some democratic processes. The idea of national independence was in the air throughout the whole empire. In Belarus it was reflected in the literary works of Francishak Bahushevich (Maciej Burachok) and Maksim Bahdanovich. The process of national awakening was relaxed during the First World War and flared up again with the formation of the BSSR in the early 'twenties. At that time, the national awakening was very strong, but it was also very short-lived. Stalin's government not only stopped this process, but also made sure that the participants in this movement were destroyed. A new wave of national renaissance started in 1991 following the declaration of Belarus as an independent state. It was this moment in time when some national tendencies surfaced which could be compared to Adam Mickiewicz's tendencies towards national freedom. By this I mean a free and democratic national statehood that could never exist under any empire. What is happening today is quite different. All that we took in the beginning to be a true renaissance of the national idea turned out to be false. The reason for that is that somehow we do not have enough democratic—and at the same time nationally—aware forces who could develop a national identity. Everything in our life started to skid, to freeze, and—in connection with the new dictatorship in the leadership—is practically about to come to a halt. All of this is clearly reflected in the general cultural situation as well as in Belarusan literature. Was that the main point of your question?
Z.G. You are always on the mark. May I ask you how all of this is reflected in your personal literary mood? Is it connected with some thematic changes?
V.B. In my works, the following reflects it: you know, I am not a historical writer, but recently I have started to develop historical themes, taking them from both the collectivization and the pre-collectivization periods. As you know, under the totalitarian regime our historiography was "terra incognita". In other words, our official history started in 1917, and whatever happened before that was interpreted from the point of view of Bolshevik historians. All of this was a history of uprisings, and Belarus was no exception in this representation of historical politics. These historians covered the uprisings, but from only two points of view. The first considered only to what degree this or that nation was interested in overthrowing the autocracy. The second, whether that nation intended to join its 'great' brothers, the Russian people. But the fact that during the course of our history Belarusans were several times at war with their 'great' brothers over independence was never mentioned. This was during the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, when Belarus was part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Belarusan was the state language. These historians would not recognize this fact, but forged evidence that, until the end, with the third partition of the Kingdom of Poland (1795), when Belarus as well as Lithuania were part of this federation, they all enjoyed the equality and privileges of independent statehood. It turns out that there are many such lacunae in Belarusan history. Some of our writers, one of them, being, Uladzimir Karatkievich, have tried to cover these gaps. The most interesting time for them was the nineteenth century, (for example, Kastus Kalinouski's revolt and some of the earlier periods of the century). Belarusan writers, however, were the first to research these historical facts and bring them back to the people, but, of course, in artistic forms. I wrote On the Black Ice about one actual event. This is a short but very dramatic page of our history. Its action takes place in 1919 when one invader—at that time it was Poland—was leaving Belarus and another, the Bolsheviks, were coming in from the East.
Z.G. I presented a paper on this story in Poland last year and it was well-received there.
V.B. Today, as has been the case for most of our history, we have very healthy relations with Poland.
Z.G. I wonder whether you have a favorite Belarusan historical figure that you wish to portray in your future works?
V.B. There are many interesting historical figures in Belarusan culture. I have, however, no inclination to become a historical writer.
Z.G. Is it because you do not romanticize your heroes?
V.B. This is true. I am inclined to an objective type of writing with neither idealization or an underestimation of the human spirit. My first task is to personally understand the epoch, and then to bring it to the reader. And what I am most familiar with is what happened during the period of my own life time. In addition, a well-known or even less-known historical figure, in order to be portrayed properly, requires a lot of careful research, not the poetic method of a writer.
Z.G. In relation to what you just said, I should probably not bother you with a question about the Golden Age.
V.B. What do you mean?
Z.G. Milosz once said that Mickiewicz was driven by the idea or a dream of a Golden Age. Remember, Dostoevsky also portrayed it in the Dream of a Ridiculous Man. Should I bother a realist such as you, with a question about whether you have such a dream for Belarusans?
V.B. Yes, I suppose that only people with an unspoiled poetic nature can be unconditionally passionate about the idea of a Golden Age. Mickiewicz, or Dostoevsky to a lesser degree, could have done it, but for a more sober person, a realist, or an analyst as I try to consider myself, this idea seems to be impractical. My personal experience has taught me that each idea remains an idea so long as it is not actualized. And certainly, one may have something like the Golden Age in one's consciousness, but to work for this idea alone is not the most desirable task for a contemporary artist. First of all, because as I have already mentioned, in reality it is not achievable. Furthermore, in a realistic creative art it is more important to analyze what one is familiar with, its surroundings, to utilize one's experience. I consider it to be both more interesting and more advantageous for both myself and the reader.
Z.G. In other words, your attitude is more 'Chekhovian', according to which a writer's main task is to raise a question, not to solve it, although I personally find a lot of didactic and pedagogical elements in your works, in particular your last stories where you clearly come up with answers.
V.B. That is probably so, it seems to be this way, although it happens against my wishes. I do not want to preach to or lecture the reader; this is a most thankless task for a writer. It is much better when the reader himself comes to a conclusion. I also think that the most rewarding task of art in general, and literature in particular, is to raise a question. I never intend to provide a complete answer to the questions I raise because I consider such a thing to be the prerogative of a narrow-minded person or a charlatan. I understand, however, having worked for so long (whether one wishes to admit it or not) in the sphere of Socialist Realism, that the system as a whole has influenced me as much as other writers and artists of our times.
Z.G. Tolstoy, Gogol and Dostoevsky were not influenced by this system: their writings, however, are full of didacticism.
VB. This is true. From time to time I have been reproached for some excessive positivism in my works; it must be there. If God granted me another life, I would try hard to avoid this. The common practice in contemporary post-modernist writings of introducing many literary styles and devices into a single chapter also leaves room for improvement.
Z.G. What does the future hold for Belarusan literature? By this I mean: who do you like the most among young Belarusan writers?
V.B. There are plenty of capable people among our young writers. First of all I should note that most of them are moving away from realism and trying to practice literary methods that were not available to us in the past. For example, many writers are influenced by the Magic or Fantastic Realism of Jorge Luis Borges. Most of them are simply copying his style. Among those who continue the traditions of Realism there is a young realist, Fiedarenka, who writes beautiful short stories and short novels. He is my favorite. Among the historical writers there is Uladzimir Arlou. He is exploring historical themes that are interesting and applicable to our days.
Z.G. I would like to ask you about the current perception of the typical Belarusan concept 'tutejshyja' (the local people). It has been present since Prince Igor's time, when Belarusans were trying to protect themselves from numerous invaders and colonizers by pointing out that, since they are 'just locals', they are no danger to powerful newcomers. Is this notion in practice as much today as it was in the past?
V.B. I don't think so. What is happening now is very untraditional. Actually, in some sense we are witnessing a tragedy right now. First of all, because the concept of nation is being destroyed. In fact, we already do not have a nation. Earlier, the concept of the people was connected first of all with peasants. Language and culture were generated by this class of people for many centuries. This century brought a combination of wars, totalitarianism, urbanization, and many other conditions which resulted in the complete destruction of the peasantry. This process accelerated in the 1930s because of the collectivization. Today we do not have peasantry as a class. I know that you've been to Belarusan villages and have seen for yourself who occupies them today. These are just settlements populated mainly by old people who still remember their own culture. Our younger people went through the Soviet educational system with Russian as the main language. They do not have much understanding of traditional Belarusan culture. Belarusan cities are absolutely cosmopolitan and Russian-speaking. They are populated by a combination of Belarusans of peasant origin and people springing from many areas of the former Soviet Union who resettled in Belarus for various reasons at different times. As a result, Belarusan culture is lost in the cities, but a new, common culture has not yet been acquired. The one that governs the cities now is just pop musical culture that has no national roots. It has neither Russian nor Belarusan origins. We have numerous rock groups right now, and this is the only kind of culture that our youth is interested in. I understand that this phenomenon has taken place all over the world. Here, however, it is extremely popular. None of the traditional art forms—classical music, visual art, theater, literature—can compare to it in popularity. On the one hand I understand, and this is natural, that if a new form of culture fascinates the world, people must develop a need for it. There is no sense in fighting it. Some time ago Russophiles were trying to fight rock music with Christianity, Russian Orthodoxy, and even Pan-Slavism. Nothing came of it and at the time, as I said, fighting was not the right approach. On the other hand, this process should be allowed to develop as with any other art form, and at one point it may be replaced by another art form that appears and is seen to be worthy. This replacement, as well as any speculation on this topic, lies far beyond our reach and should be studied by futurists and other cultural workers. This is for the next generation to decide.
Coming back to your initial question, I should underline once again that at present Belarus is in a very sad situation. An old, traditional, I should say, Christian, culture is being destroyed and, with it, our nature disappears.
Z.G. Uladzimir Karatkievich once paraphrased an old saying: "One soldier alone is not a warrior at the battlefield" into "Even one is a warrior". He said it in relation to our Belarusan language and culture. Probably after today's chaos we should expect some new and positive changes for Belarusans?
V.B. Without any doubt they will come in the social, productive, and—one can hope—political areas of life. In these areas, changes will come sooner or later. In terms of positive changes for the culture, I am doubtful, especially when there is a lack of independent statehood and sovereignty. Under such conditions Belarusan culture can easily be swallowed up by some other culture. I do not know what kind of culture there will be, a Russian national type or a Western cosmopolitan type, or some other kind. Everything is possible. You see, a weakened culture, one which history has not given a chance to develop and express itself fully, is condemned to perish. And the first symptom of this process is a loss of language. In our times, as you know, the Belarusan language has reached its last frontier. That is why the Belarusan Peoples' Front set out, first of all, to revive the Belarusan language. But they've met with lack of understanding on the part of the public who say that a sausage on their table is much more important than the question of language. Second, it is our dictator who continues to repeat that we are perfectly fine with the Russian language.
Z.G. His own Russian is far from satisfactory, and I am not sure whether his Belarusan is much better. He seems to speak 'trasianka' (some kind of hybrid of Russian and Belarusan), as one of my aunts does who is from southern Belarus.
V.B. Here is a core of misfortune in our modern culture. The Belarusan language culture has almost ceased to exist and, at the same time, many Belarusans do not have a full command of Russian-language culture. It is hard for a person who grew up in Belarus and is not involved in languages professionally to lose his Belarusan accent, and not only accent, but grammar and vocabulary which are different in Russian, as you know. And you are right, our president exemplifies all of this fully.
Z.G. This otherness in Belarusan and Russian cultures is especially peculiar in comparison to this notion in other parts of the world, let us say, in India or Africa, where it is also represented racially or visually. In appearance Russians and Belarusans are very much alike, and any sign of otherness is apparent only with the first syllable that is pronounced. At the same time, living under the same roof for some time (even if it is the leaking roof of the Soviet Empire), created many bridges with many people of that former empire. One such bridge, naturally or unnaturally, was that of the Russian language. In Belarus, because of its special geographical, political and social conditions, the reality of 'otherness' exists to much less a degree than anywhere else, even in comparison to other countries in the former Soviet Union. I guess I am coming up again with the idea of a Golden Age. But do you see the possibility for a peaceful and fruitful coexistence between the Russian and Belarusan cultures, this particular otherness, under some favorable conditions some time in the future?
V.B. Well, I will try to explain my point of view here. I do not accept the idea of hostility between two cultures. I understand that an enmity can appear between economies or politicians, between different ethnic groups. Organically there are no contradictions between cultures—if you are thinking of democratic and humanitarian cultures. Russian culture, especially in the nineteenth century, was formed under the influence of Western ideology, and carried a tremendous democratic impact. That is why it was completely acceptable emotionally for Belarusans. We all grew up loving Russian culture, starting with Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov and many other humanists of that century. Cataclysms and negative feelings of 'otherness' had never existed between the two cultures (let me include Polish culture here as well). It developed only when an ideology of a political or religious character was introduced by the authorities. The Belarusan territories were always a point of conflict between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. At the same time, in Belarus there were periods when different religious denominations lived together peacefully. They represented different expressions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. But all of this was on a lower level, among the people. The hierarchy fought continually. In terms of cultures, of course, they interacted, and a more developed culture had more influence and would often win, but in a democratic, humanistic way. This is natural justice and one should simply accept it. Another issue altogether appears when a culture becomes a victim of an ideology, be it secular or religious, and then a willful political invasion of another culture or cultures takes place. In such cases a fight takes place and the suppression of the politically weaker culture occurs. We had such an experience for a period of seventy years with Soviet culture which (although most of our Russian colleagues do not want to admit it) was based on Russian culture. The Bolsheviks did not take Asian or Tartar or any other culture for their foundation, but Russian. Another issue is that they used only the part that was beneficial to them. They discarded without pity whatever seemed to be in their way. The part of Russian culture that submitted to them was used as a means to suppress the other national cultures. Of course, this statement relates less to the nineteenth century and more to the period after the Revolution, when a significant part of Russian culture was serving Bolshevism. After the war this tendency to suppress or even to replace the native, local culture spread to Western European cultures, Polish, East German, Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, and many others. Several of these cultures have no Slavic origins, but that did not matter to the oppressor. And we witnessed how powerfully this policy imposed itself on Slavic cultures, Belarusan in particular. This matter should be given more attention by cultural and educational workers.
* * *
At this moment we were interrupted by the Finnish journalist. I thanked Vasil Bykau for his time and for accommodating my unexpected visit. He kindly assured me that he was happy to see me and that in the future I was welcome in their home at any time. That was a very generous gesture because in general Bykau is known as an extremely private but straightforward person who will never say a word he does not mean.
In conclusion, I would like to try to explain to the reader Bykau's pessimism and some of the bitterness in his 'cry of home' for his native language. The nostalgia he experiences can only be compared to the painful loss of children whose parents have survived the same catastrophe. The reader should imagine that this catastrophe could have been avoided and so, the feeling of personal guilt by a survivor is hardly bearable. At the same time, as the reader can understand, even from our interview, Bykau's idea of nationhood stands far above any common nationalism.