10 Years Without Bykau
On 22 June, ten years will have passed since the great Belarusian writer Vasil Bykau passed away. Bykau’s works have become regarded as masterpieces of world literature. Foreign publishing companies translated his books into more than 40 languages, and the overall copies put out have reached up into the millions. The new film In the Fog was based on one of his books and has already won several awards in Europe.
For Belarus, Bykau symbolizes something more than just a writer. He arose at the beginning of the Belarusian independence, helped the Belarusian Popular Front and publicly and consistently opposed Lukashenka's authoritarianism. His civil activity set an example of civic responsibility which public figures should live by.
Writer of the War
Many know Bykau as a talented writer. His works depicted the war through the eyes of an ordinary soldier – the tragedy of a person and a human soul. He saw the war not from the position of the Communist logistical commissioners, but as a soldier who journeyed through the whole of Europe. It is precisely this, the centring of a person within a moral tragedy, that is found foremost in his books, a conscience choice made to force out the traditional Soviet pomposity of its great victory.
During World War II enemy forces wounded him several times, and he nearly died. His parents even received a letter that Vasil Bykau died in a fight, and the authorities embossed his name on a mass grave obelisk. However, he continued his military service and marched through Europe in a squad in the Red Army. Later, Bykau would say that Stalin took the victory away from the people, as “we achieved victory, but not freedom”.
After the war, Bykau started writing. He published his first book "The Last Fighter" in 1958. In 1965, Bykau published the novelette “No Pain for the Dead”. The Soviet authorities “appreciated” the book. However, “Unknown people” threw stones at his windows, showered his wife with tomatoes and beat the writer. The Communists hated Bykau and tried to do everything to make him emigrate.
Regardless, Bykau survived the harassment and soon the political thaw came. The authorities started giving Bykau state awards and adapting his novels to film. However, everyone knew it was just a game. In the end, it was clear that Vasil Bykau and the Soviet authorities distrusted each other.
Belarus – the Years of Revival
The Belarusian revival started in Kurapaty, the stove where the Soviet authorities committed mass executions of ordinary Belarusians. A prominent Belarusian politician Zianon Paznyak published an article about the discovery of the truth about Kurapaty in 1988, but his article saw the light of day thanks only to Vasil Bykau. He wrote an introduction to the article and pursued its publication.
Approximately at the same time Bykau had become “the Godfather” of the Belarusian Popular Front, the movement that helped to achieve the country’s independence. Bykau protected the Front from the KGB provocations by his personal authority and helped the democrats to get into Parliament. Former MP Syarhei Navumchyk recalls that he got his mandate due to the words of support from Vasil Bykau, which were printed in his promo leaflets.
Later, Vasil Bykau became the member of the BPF Board and the main authority for the Belarusian opposition. However, Bykau defended not only Belarusians. When the Soviet troops invaded with their tanks in Vilnius back in 1991, Bykau supported the Lithuanians in their fight for independence. When the Communists made an attempt to preserve the USSR forcibly in the same 1991, Bykau bravely stood against them.
At the presidential elections in 1994, Vasil Bykau worked as part of the democratic candidate Zyanon Paznyak’s team. They lost the election to Lukashenka.
When Lukashenka arrived on the national stage, the state publishing companies accepted Vasil Bykau’s works more and more rarely. One script idly remained with a publishing company for three years. They say that the KGB monitored Bykau’s phone conversations and watched his every move and state propaganda smeared the writer. The state newspaper "Nioman" called him a “corpse” when he was alive. Bykau used to say he felt no fear for his life, but “cannot write without freedom”. During Soviet times Bykau managed to handle all this, but it caused him great health problems.
In 1998, Vasil Bykau accepted the invitation of the Finnish PEN-centre and went to write first to Sweden, and then to Finland. In 2000, Bykau returned for a short time, but decided to leave again. This time he moved to Germany for two years. The state propagandists rather enjoyed making light of the fact that in his elderly age Bykau emigrated to the country he fought against in his youth.
In 2002, President of the Czech Republic Václav Havel invited Vasil Bykau to live in the Czech Republic. The writer accepted the invitation but did not stay there for long. His health was deteriorating and even Havel’s personal physician could not help. Vasil Bykau decided to return to Belarus until his last days were upon him.
Vsil Bykau passed away on 22 June 2003. Tens of thousands of people came to bid him farewell, with the column or mourners stretching up to 15 kilometres. The official delegation left the funeral when Bykau’s son covered the coffin with the white-red-white flag. Current PM Milhail Myasnikovich attended the funeral, one of the few authorities to do so. Lukashenka did not attend the funeral, while the state TV only briefly mentioned the event. Meanwhile, the Russian television made Bykau’s funeral top news.
Bykau has always remained Lukashenka’s enemy. He defended Belarusian independence while Lukashenka signed unification agreements with Russia. The great writer openly accused the authorities of murdering politicians and journalists. Still, Lukashenka disliked Bykau the most for his position of authority in Belarusian society.
In 2010, more than 100,000 Belarusians signed a petition to name one of the streets in Minsk after Vasil Bykau, but the authorities continue to ignore their request. Even the memory of what many consider to be the greatest Belarusian remains a danger for Lukashenka's regime.
In 2005 Zina Gimpelevich from the University of Waterloo published “Vasil Bykau: His Life and Works”, the only biography of Vasil Bykau in English. Before he died, Bykau wrote an autobiography “The Long Road Home”. To this day, it remains a text in search of its translator.
Viciebsk Region – the Land of Artists and Terrorists
Viciebsk city hosted one of the most famous avant-garde art schools of the 20 century counting amongst those who walked through its doors such famous names as Marc Chagall and Kazimir Malevich.
But recently it has become famous as the terrorist capital of Belarus, as supposed organisers of 2011 explosion in Minsk metro originated from there. In addition, explosions occurred in Viciebsk also in 2005 and 2012.
The west of the Viciebsk region appears more supportive to democratic opposition. It has a sizable Catholic population and uses Belarusian language more widely, while the eastern region maintains a more “Russian” area.
Although quite industrially developed, the region suffers from high labour emigration, as Russia offers salaries significantly larger when compared to domestic companies.
Cities to Any Taste
Apart from Viciebsk city, several major cities with their particular identities are located in the Viciebsk region. Polack is the most famous of them – the oldest city of Belarus, first mentioned in chronicles in 862 AD. Polack served as the centre of the first form of Belarusian statehood, the Polack princedom, which subsequently joined the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
Navapolack (or New Polack), the city that lies right near Polack, is the young industrial city that emerged only in 1958 as an industrial complex. One of the two Belarusian refineries that play a significant role in the Belarusian economy and politics are found here.
Another old city, Orša, first mentioned in the chronicles in 1067, is famous the birthplace of prominent Belarusian writer Uladzimir Karatkievič. Today, however, it has became famous mostly for an unusual concentration of prisons. A famous phrase says “In Orša there are three prisons and not a single university”.
Land of Lakes and Artists
The region has a significant tourist potential thanks to its natural conditions – the abundance of lakes. Braslaŭ's lakes attract many tourists as a popular resort destination in Belarus. This is a complex of large lakes in the northwestern corner of the region on the border of Belarus, Lithuania and Latvia.
People around the world might know Viciebsk for another interesting page of its history. In the beginning of the 20th century, it became one of the centres of European art avant-garde. Such famous artists as Kazimir Malievich and Marc Chagall taught at the art school and created several of their masterpieces there.
Viciebsk city has the oldest tram lines in Belarus, and one of the oldest in Russian empire. They were launched in 1898, a year earlier than in Moscow and a full nine years earlier than in Saint-Petersburg.
The Capital of Terror
Viciebsk, along with the Minsk region, presents a divided region when it comes to political views. The results of presidential elections show strong support of democratic and nationally oriented opposition in the west of Viciebsk, and low support in the east of the region. The same concern linguistic preferences – west of the regions speaks more Belarusian than the east of it.
The west of the region has a significant Catholic population and belonged to Polish republic until 1939, while the eastern part is orthodox and joined Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic earlier.
It appears as the most “Russian” region of Belarus, as the share of Russians here appears the largest of all Belarusian regions – 10.2%. The region has close ties with Russia, because relatives of many families have lived in Russia since soviet times or work there now.
Viciebsk city has retained some elements of civil activity. Civil campaign Naš Dom (Our Home) deals with all kinds of local policy issues and includes such famous figures of Belarus civil society as Valer Ščukin and Volha Karač.
Viciebski Kurjer presents a currently rare example of regional independent newspaper that still exists. Though it is registered and printed in Russia, local activists bring it to Belarus and spread among the citizens. This process sometimes turns into a kind of adventure, as local authorities try any means to prevent the distribution of the newspaper.
Viciebsk region governor, Aliaksandr Kosiniec, has been quite unremarkable during his stay in office since 2008. He has PhD in Medicine and previously held a position of the rector of Viciebsk medical university and then deputy prime-minister.
In recent years, Viciebsk became famous also as a terrorist capital of Belarus. Dzmitry Kanavalaŭ and Uladzislaŭ Kavalioŭ, the supposed organisers of the 2011 terrorist act in Minsk metro both come from Viciebsk city. The explosion killed 15 people and injured 203, and both organisers were sentenced to death. Earlier, two explosions occurred in Viciebsk in 2005, when around 50 people were injured. And most recently, in November 2012 another explosive device went off near a Viciebsk KGB building. Shortly afterwards, a woman was detained and accused of this act of terror.
The Deserted Region
The region has quite poor soil and cold climate, so agriculture is not its strong point. But unlike Western Belarus, the east of the Viciebsk region has a more developed industrial sector, especially its oil and chemical industry.
The Naftan refinery based in Navapolack is one of two Belarusian refineries that live on cheap Russian oil and thus contribute considerably to the Belarusian state budget. The plant was involved in an illegal scheme of export of solvents, which Russia subsequently demanded to stop.
As perhaps each of eastern regions of Belarus, Viciebsk has a serious problem of emigration of workforce. Drivers, builders, and simply men with hands are needed in thriving large cities of Russia, where they can get as much as 10 times the salary that they would get back home. In the villages, where income sources are more limited, one can sometimes hardly find a few young men, as they have all moved to Russia in search of an income.
Such an economy negatively impacts families, which remain separated for long periods of time. Emigration remains a major regional social and economic problem, to which government has no solution for so far. The regions risks to turn to the periphery and source of labour of Russian megalopolises if the business climate does not improve.