History through the prism of literature –
Uładzimier Arłoŭ and some of his contemporaries
History is too important to be left to historians. This is particularly true in a country like Belarus where the nation’s heritage has been suppressed, denied and distorted to an exponential degree during the
19th and 20th centuries. Where historians have failed, it has fallen to writers, far the most important of which are Uładzimir Karatkievič and his natural successor Uładzimier Arłoŭ,1 to restore knowledge of and interest in the nation’s historical heritage. This has, naturally, been an uphill task when, for instance, Arłoŭ’s professor of Belarusian history at university was one of the principal falsifiers of the country’s past, Łaŭrenci Abecedarski, the main author of amongst other things the standard school history textbook, as well as the six volume history of the BSSR and other official publications (Abetsedarskii 1965).2 Arłoŭ in an essay with the evocative title ‘Niby pramień soniečny’ (Apparently a ray of sunshine, 1991),
1 The spelling of Arłoŭ’s first name takes two forms: the Belarusian form Uładzimier that he uses in several publications and in private correspondence, and the form Uładzimir which in akin to the Russian name Vladimir. The pressure to use characteristically Soviet/Russian names is described wittily in an episode of ‘Moj radavod da piataha kalena’ (My family line, for five generations): Arłoŭ 1993, 153-54.
gives a vivid but unsensational description of one instance of the many vigorous attempts to suppress the Belarusian historical heritage by, amongst others, the Orthodox Church and the country’s political leader, Piotr Mašeraŭ, when attempts were made to restore the relics of Saint Euphrosyne of Połacak (c. 1120–1173) to their proper resting place (Arłoŭ 1994a, 325-63 [362-65]). Also in 1994 Arłoŭ published an influential history book, Tajamnicy połackaj historyii (Secrets of the history of Połacak), which over the ensuing decade was revised, and reprinted five times (Arłoŭ 1994b; a Russian language version of it came out in 1995).
2 For an English language response to this travesty of history see the unsigned review (all the reviews were unsigned at that time) in The Journal of Byelorussian Studies, 1966, I, 123-26. For Arłoŭ’s ‘ungrateful’ comments and the reaction to them after Abecedarski’s death in 1975, see Arłoŭ 1990.
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Few would doubt that Arłoŭ’s main contribution to Belarusian literature has been as a
historical novelist, and his first book attracted considerable critical attention, despite the fact that he was at that time a ‘provincial’ writer, at a distance from the literary establishment in Miensk. His works appear to be far less reviewed nowadays, partly, no doubt, because of his outspokenness on a variety of issues.3 He does, however, have a very extensive and loyal readership who appreciate his narrative skill in
3 It is a truly remarkable sign of the strength of his writing and the ‘danger’ of history for those who would erode it, that Arłoŭ is passed over in silence in the latest history of 20th-century Belarusian literature (Hniłamiodaŭ and Łaŭšuk 2002).
bringing the past alive, the elegant yet earthy style and language of his writing, particularly in lively dialogue, and also his sense of often ironic humour deployed in vivid accounts of contemporary life,especially his own experiences as a young man and those of other his friends in Połacak.4 Arłoŭ’s poetry, too, has many admirers. He has also performed invaluable educational work, participating in pictorial and other history books designed to raise the national consciousness of readers of all ages. In any account of contemporary Belarusian literature after Karatkievič and Bykaŭ, Arłoŭ occupies a central place.
4 Best known nowadays for its immense oil refinery, Połacak has a rich medieval history and a tradition of freethinking that has lived on to the 20th century, as, for instance, when a group of Novapołack students wrote a collective letter to the newspaper Litaratura i mastactva, describing the always controversial figure of Vasil Bykaŭ as ‘the conscience of the Belarusian nation’: Novapołacak students 1988.
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Uładzimier Arłoŭ was born in Novapołack on 25 August 1953; his father was a lawyer and his mother a historian. Graduating from the History Faculty of BDU in 1975, he taught history for a year in a local school before working on a trade newspaper, Khimik (The Chemist), becoming in time assistant editor. In 1988 he moved to Miensk and worked for the ‘Mastackaja litaratura’ publishing house before being sacked for ‘publishing doubtful historical and other literature’ together with V. Siomucha and Ryhor Baradulin (Skobła 2003, 658). He also worked in the enterprising literary organization, Krynica (The spring), and became Vice-President of the Belarusian Pen Club in 1989. He was awarded the Lenin Komsomol prize for his first book, and later awarded a Francis Skaryna medal for his writing as a whole.
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Arłoŭ’s first book was a very promising start that displayed many of the features of his later fiction, notably the mixture of historical and contemporary themes, with the majority of the latter
infused with a sense of history and the neglected national heritage. Edited free of charge by Michaś Stralcoŭ5 and introduced by a leading Belarusian historian Jaŭhien Lecka, Dobry dzień, maja Šypšyna (Good day, my Briar-rose, 1986) consists of fourteen short stories concluding with a novella; the latter, ‘I viartaliś my...’ (And we returned...), is one of the most interesting items in the book. The central character, Raman Hałubovič, is a nationally conscious young Belarusian who inspires the other characters: a somewhat disorientated girl, Janina; a writer Vasil Maksimavič; and museum director Biaspierstych. The story’s theme is spelled out in an excerpt from Raman’s diary:
5 There is certainly some affinity between Arłoŭ’s disorientated though thoughtful contemporary characters and those to be found here and there in Stralcoŭ’s prose.
...the past can punish us for ignoring it even more terribly. We ourselves can turn into the Present, without a Future, and, thus, always remain the Past.
(Arłoŭ 1986, 45)
Even more striking, however, is the very first diary entry: ‘If people around you are asleep, that means you have not awoken them’ (Arłoŭ 1986, 45). He is clearly an authorial character, steeped in the history of his country, and the story shows just how difficult it is to preserve and propagate a national message when those in power are determined to suppress any patriotic feelings as ‘nationalism’. In the novella Raman and his young friends attempt to celebrate Christmas in the traditional way but are halted by official vigilantes (družynniki) and arrested. Vasil Maksimavič uses his influence to get the young people freed, and the episode turns into a defining moment for him, arousing distant memories:
I returned to my village, to my childhood on a Christmas evening with this same straw star and with ancient songs beneath the shimmering scattering of stars in the night sky. When, in what century had it been? Will it really only remain in books and films?..
(Arłoŭ 1986, 148)
Later this writer will support his young friends’ protest at the proposal to use a fine old 15th-century church as a store for mineral fertilizers. ‘I viartaliś my...’ ends tragically with Raman’s premature death, but each of the main characters has been inspired by his clear and unswerving belief in the need to preserve national honour and history in the face of official opposition and indifference. An important part of this lies in the Belarusian language, and already in his first book Arłoŭ shows great skill in differentiating the various narrative voices and points of view, avoiding a direct authorial voice. Together with his sometimes wicked satirical humour, and ability to characterize by poignant contrast (for instance, of Vasil Maksimavič with the boorish Bazyl) all lend Arłoŭ’s inspiring novella flair and readability.
Several of the short stories in this first book also deserve mention. ‘Troje nad Atłantydaj’ (Three above Atlantis) features Kastuś, a less confident version of Raman, who is a beginning writer beset by doubts as to the value of his work:
Why do you write? Who needs your history, your great princes and bloody battles, your swallowing of the dust of archival manuscripts which have lain for centuries as dead material and which after you will again interest only the rats? Who? A handful of young men like you with their museum?
(Arłoŭ 1986, 85)
In the book’s title story Usiasłaŭ tells his beloved, Šypšyna, about his namesake, the 11th-century Prince Usiasłaŭ the Bewitcher, explaining the latter’s name,
and hoping that future generations will not need to have it explained to them.6 Finally may be mentioned ‘Maŭklivy manałoh’ (A wordless monologue), which is a concise, at times laconic, but historically rich little story about an ancient peasant carving of St Peter. The ‘point of view’ is the statue’s and the events and characters of the statue’s history are shown, with great skill, at one remove. This story, no less than the others mentioned so far, shows Arłoŭ’s easy handling of historical material in a variety of genres and formats, revealing in this case, as in so many others, the parlous security and presentation of Belarus’s cultural riches.
6 The names of both these characters are quintessentially Belarusian, Šypšyna being the name of one of the nation’s most potent symbols, the brier-rose celebrated by Duboŭka, Karatkievič and others.
If Dobry dzień, maja Šypšyna was a highly promising début, Dzień, kali ŭpała strała (The day when an arrow fell), published two years later in 1988 became, in the opinion of several commentators, the book of the decade. It contains two novellas and six stories. The novella of the title is a historically convincing description of the Połacak lands during the Teutonic invasion, relating events drawn from the Lithuanian Chronicle. The hero is Prince Uładzimir of Połacak, presented by Arłoŭ as a positive figure embodying striking features of heroism, wisdom and political astuteness, as, for instance, when he comes to an accommodation with the invaders, in order to reposition and reinforce his resources for further protection of the lands over which he rules. It may be noted at this point that historians take a great interest in and debate publicly Arłoŭ’s fiction, which follows a strong patriotic line, not endorsed by all
writers. For instance, an older historical novelist to be considered later, Leanid Dajnieka (b. 1940) depicts Uładzimir in a basically negative light.7 More important, however, from a literary point of view, than historical perspective, is the way history is actually presented. Dajnieka is a good example of traditional historical writing, whereas Arłoŭ, a more skilful psychologist and stylist, chooses to present historical events through particular details and subtle thought processes, avoiding all panoramas and broad brush pictures. In this respect his approach to great events, mutatis mutandis, might be compared to that of Vasil Bykaŭ.
7 See, for instance, his novel, Śled vaŭkałaka (A trace of the werewolf, 2001): Dajnieka written at about the same time as Arłoŭ’s, 2001. It may be noted incidentally that Dajnieka, unlike Arłoŭ, is discussed thoroughly in Hniłamiodaŭ and Łaŭšuk 2002.
Returning to the novella, Prince Uładzimir comes alive in Arłoŭ’s work. He has no doubt in the rightness of his cause, but none the less thinks about his position and duties in several passages of indirectly reported introspection such as the following reflection on the heritage he is defending, somewhat as the contemporary writer is trying to preserve it, although there is, of course, no hint of such a parallel in Arłoŭ’s novella:
Beyond him [...] lay the land of his forefathers. Beyond him were the merchants and craftsmen, and the ignorant peasants from the estates and remote villages. Beyond him stood the Cathedral of St Sophia built by Great Prince Usiasłaŭ and the bookish wisdom collected in monasteries and churches. If these alien forces reached the Połacak holy places, if they began to burn books and revise the manuscripts according to their own tradition, his predecessors would rise from their graves, and the land itself would rebel.
(Arłoŭ 1988, 20)
The novella’s title comes from a waking dream of Uładzimir as he reflects on his place in the world and in the history of his country. In quoting this central and deeply reflective passage, it is worth mentioning that its sententiousness is only one side of ‘Dzień, kali ŭpała strała’; the novella is also rich in lively dialogue and offers a variety of credible characters. History is really brought alive, even in the thoughts of a worried leader:
A person is not born of their own will, thought the prince lying sleepless. But when he has come into the world he must understand his destiny, and always hold onto that invisible arrow which flies for days and nights, showing each one his path. It flies on until it falls. Then only the memory of a man will remain. With some, for a year, with some others for ever and ever. But he is capable of rejecting this memory, so long as what he has planned is brought to pass.
The people must feed their master. Euphrosyne lived in order in order to sow the seeds of book learning. But he has come to defend the Połacak lands. The time will come and the Knights of the Cross will break their spine.
Without noticing it, the prince said the last words aloud.
Above the forest there rose the purple shield of the sun.
(Arłoŭ 1988, 24)
The other novella in Dzień, kali ŭpala strała is ‘Čas čumy’ (The time of the plague, 1986) featuring the medieval Belarusian poet Mikoła Husoŭski. In particular, it concerns the two years he spent in Rome, having gone there in 1518 as a member of a Polish-Lithuanian diplomatic mission, and being commissioned by the Pope of the time (Leo X) to write a poem (in Latin) about his native country. Carmen de statura feritate ac venatione bisontis (known in Belarusian as Pieśnia pra zubra [The song of the bison]) is, as well as being a fine example of late Latin poetry, a richly detailed source of information about many aspects of 16th-century Belarus, from folklore to historical events great and small, as well as the country’s flora and fauna, and Arłoŭ draws extensively on this material in his novella. As always, however, people occupy centre stage: in this case, Husoŭski, a young girl with whom he falls in love Donna Francesca, his adviser and benefactor Erasmus Vitellius who is a patron of the arts and civil servant, and a pompous minor poet Strozzi who brings some comedy with his attempts to put Husoŭski in his place, absurdly accusing him of simply copying Virgil; Husoŭski, a proud and patriotic man, gives as good as he gets. Erasmus encourages his Belarusian friend to persevere with his poem, despite several difficulties, but at a moment of high tragedy Erasmus dies of the plague in 1522. Arłoŭ’s novella succeeds excellently in bringing both medieval Belarus and the Eternal City alive. It is, moreover, as so often with this writer, not difficult to read some symbolism into the text: does the plague at one level represent the plague of neglect and destruction that has so afflicted Belarus over the centuries?
The Roman Church emerges in a rather worse light in the story that comes next in the book, ‘Misija papskaha nuncija’ (The mission of the papal nuncio, 1984), the story of a papal emissary’s attempts to browbeat and outwit a freethinking Belarusian scientist, Kazimir Łyščynski (c. 1634–1689). Arłou brings both of them alive through some compellingly vigorous dialogue, and, as always, the historical background is unobtrusively but faithfully reconstructed. All the prose in Dzień, kali ŭpała strała is historical, and in ‘Piać mužčyn u leśničoŭcy’ (Five men in a woodcutter’s hut, 1985) the period is that of the anti-Russian uprising of 1863-64 led by Kastuś Kalinoŭski (1838–1864). The times are parlous for
the revolutionaries, and their discussions about the best way forward lie at the heart of this compelling story, based on real people. Perhaps the most memorable view is that enunciated by Ludvik Zviaždoŭski nicknamed Tapor (the Axe) (1825–1864). He believes uncompromisingly that ideals can only live if people die for them. Even as they fail in their endeavour, the rebels’ deaths will help others to realize ‘that they are not a herd but a people’ (Arłoŭ 1988, 191). The story ends as the remaining four collect their weapons and set out from the hut.8
8 One of Karatkievič’s best known novels, Kałasy pad siarpom tvaim (Ears of corn under your sickle, 1965) is about this uprising, as is his play Kastuś Kalinoŭski: Śmierć i nieŭmiručaść (Kastuś Kalinoŭski: Death and immortality, 1963-80). For some information in English about these two works see McMillin 1999, 271-74 and 257-58, respectively.
The 1863-64 uprising is chronologically the latest of the events of the seven or so centuries Arłoŭ has treated fictionally, having begun with the 11th century and Prince Usiasłaŭ the Bewitcher.
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Arłoŭ’s next book was of poetry, and it was followed by a major bilingual study of perhaps the most important figure in early medieval Belarusian culture, St Euphrosyne of Połacak whose controversial nature has already been referred to in connection with Arłoŭ’s essay of 1991, ‘Niby pramień soniečny’. The granddaughter of Prince Usiasłaŭ of Połacak, she was born Princess Pradsłava, but in her youth rejected marriage, taking the veil as Euphrosyne in a convent of which her aunt was abbess. Later she founded her own convent and, eventually a monastery. A great educator she has left a lasting monument in the magnificent Church of the Holy Saviour in Połacak. In Jeŭfrasińnia Połackaja / Evrosiniia Polotskaia (Arłoŭ 1992a) we are given a lively and yet scholarly account of the life and works of Belarus’s patron saint, as well as the intriguing story of the disappearance and search for her holy relics, particularly the exceptionally fine cross that was made in 1161 by Łazar Bohša. This is followed by a translation of this study into Russian, made by Arłoŭ himself. A valuable addition is the Saint’s Žycije or Life in its original language and in a modern version, as well as a prayer of 1946 for the Belarusian people. Although not fiction, this book is an excellent example of Arłoŭ’s skill as a popularizer of history.
This may be the place to mention briefly his other two main non-fictional history books, both of which appeared at the turn of the 21st century: Dziesiać viakoŭ biełaruskaj historyi: 862–1918 (Ten centuries of Belarusian history: 862–1918, 2000), a large-format, well illustrated book, comprises some eighty-seven more or less discrete articles many of which had already appeared in the
liberal periodical press over preceding years. As so often happens, religious history is far the most contentious part, although there is, of course, nothing in this very useful compendium to begin to compare with the Russian-language history book specially written for the Advanced School for the Militia, for example.9
9 For a review that highlights the difficulties of writing about religion even-handedly see the notice in Arche: Shteinman 2000. This journal, incidentally, is famous, or notorious for its critical reviews.
The other large-format book, designed for young schoolchildren, is Adkul naš narod (Where our people comes from, 2000). Its twenty-nine chapters are mostly divided into smaller sections and concluded with a series of questions and tasks relating to the material presented. In a country that has special histories for the militia, and books that attempt to present Russia as the source of all benefits for the Belarusian nation, such a book as Arłoŭ’s deserves a mention that it would certainly not be granted in a country where history is not such a seriously distorted and controversial subject.
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Returning to Arłoŭ’s work in historical and other fiction, the next book after the Euphrosyne compilation (published in the same year) was Randevu na manieŭrach (Rendezvous at manoeuvres), a collection of stories and novellas, the first of which, ‘Kala dzikaha pola’ (Near the wild fields, 1987), describes the moment at which the celebrated 12th-century East Slav literary monument, Slovo o polku Igoreve (Igor’s tale) was being conceived. It ends with a short excerpt from the Tale and, like several other of Arłoŭ’s stories, is well supplied with annotation, to clarify the names of ancient Slav gods, variant spelling of names and so on. As always, the aim is to entertain and instruct. The intriguingly named title story of this collection, with annotations of Latin and French expressions, is set in the Russian suppression of Kalinoŭski’s Uprising, and depicts an assignation of love between Miss Ludovika and a Russian officer which breaks down comically on politico-linguistic grounds. It provides a good example of the humour that is frequently not far from the surface of Arłoŭ’s writing. Having explained why he has been examining people’s letters, the officer cannot understand his companion’s dismay:
‘Miss Ludvika, it seemed to me that you... Are you feeling ill?.. Thank God... Some water perhaps?.. Good, but in that case I allow you only a little sip. I do not like the colour of your face.
Perhaps we could finally drop this theme?.. What happened to those three... Miss Ludvika... Do you insist? Alright then, if you insist... War has its own laws. Terrible laws, Miss Ludvika. These people [the anti-Russian insurgents – ABMcM] knew what they were in for...
What is the matter with you?! God, our evening began so wonderfully...
What did you say?! How do you want me to understand
your words? Madam! How do you permit yourself to speak to a Russian officer?! How dare you?!’
(Arłoŭ 1992b, 190)
Perhaps the most interesting work in this collection, however, is the novella ‘Sny impieratara’ (The Emperor’s dreams, 1990) set in 1812. At the centre of this intriguing tale are Napoleon and a mysterious woman in white (conceivably representing Belarus itself). Again, this time to the French Emperor, a woman is the source of unfamiliar and unwelcome words, as in the following short extracts:
The light touch of hands... A glass of burgundy. The green shadows are thickening and becoming almost black. The bird of night lowers itself onto the city.
She does not pull her hand away, does not avert her eyes, but begins to say amazing, completely unexpected words.
‘My emperor, you have spilled so much innocent blood...’
He is spilling innocent blood?
‘but God will forgive you if you free my people.’
Had he not freed her people?
‘My emperor... You have freed the peasants in the duchy of Warsaw. Now in our provinces they are also awaiting liberation from serfdom.’
What, still more...
‘My emperor... Do not forget that the glory of the strong lies in the freedom of the weak...’
‘My emperor... You are greeted everywhere as a liberator, but many of our nobility live in the depths of the countryside and fear this liberation, as the devil fears the cross.’
She is, after all, [thinks Napoleon] allowing herself too much. It probably seems to her that she is carrying out some great mission. Well, tonight she could say anything she wanted.
‘My emperor, if you forget your words, if you do not restore our freedom, the Almighty will curse you...’
(Arłoŭ 1992b, 101-02)
This historical mystery story ends with her appearance to him as he lies sick and depressed:
At the dressing table with her back to him sat the woman in white.
Fear makes his body immobile and weightless.
The woman begins to turn her head slowly.
(Arłoŭ 1992b, 135)
The second half of Randevu na manieŭrach comprises a number of stories, including the already mentioned highly ironic account of five generations of the narrator’s family, ‘Moj radavod da piataha kalena, abo sproba paźbiehnuć vyhnańnia’, where names play a part in the process of Russification or, alternatively, in the assertion of national identity and values. Arłoŭ is particularly sharp when depicting self-opinionated stupidity, as in the following exchange:
‘Undérstand, writer? ¡No pasarán!, as comrade Allende used to say, blessed be his memory. Alright, don’t take offence. My fa-mi-ly line for five gene-ra-tions... What does that mean – for five generations? What’s it about?’
‘About genealogy,’ I reply.
‘Well, that’s bloody fantastic, old chap!’ – for some reason my neighbour is overjoyed. ‘It has nothing to do with males.’
He thinks for a moment and, as a result of some mysterious calculations praises my intention:
‘And in general, you know, it’s high time you did something like that, for the people.’
He starts telling me some ancient story about a woman who was a gynaecologist and plumber, and then yet another story about a gynaecologist and two Georgians, and it dawns on me that my neighbour has clearly muddled genealogy with gynaecology. To inspire me to create a new literary work, he additionally pulls out of his pocket and sets out on the table a pack of pornographic cards.
(Arłoŭ 1992b, 239-40)
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Uładzimier Arłoŭ is a many-sided writer at the height of his powers. A subtle stylist who is also capable of describing contemporary events and people with devastating realism, a profoundly educated historian whose novels and non-fictional studies have done more than anyone else to keep alive the tradition and reality of the national conscience and identity without which there can be no political or spiritual independence.
Belarus needs far more people to follow this writer’s inspired example of relating past and present, and of seeing the vital importance of a well understood and appreciated past for a nation to have a worthwhile future as a sovereign state. Arłoŭ is indeed a vital figure in contemporary Belarusian literature, and his importance is hard to exaggerate.
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No other Belarusian authors come near to the significance of Karatkievič and Arłoŭ in the field of historical prose, but several have also written novels and novellas on historical themes, some of them very talented, and this aspect of their work will be reviewed here. They are, incidentally, very far being the only writers who write about history: Kanstancin Tarasaŭ (b. 1940), Leanid Dajnieka (b. 1940), Volha Ipatava (b. 1945), Hienrich Dalidovič (b. 1946), Vitaŭt Čaropka (b. 1961), Andrej Fiedarenka (b. 1964) and Aleś Paškievič (b. 1972). It is a good sign, foreseen by Arłoŭ himself, that not only the older generation, but also younger writers are deeply interested in their country’s past and the propagation of knowledge about it through literature.
Abetsedarskii, L. and others, 1965, Istoriia BSSR (two vols) (Miensk: Izdatel’stvo Akademii Nauk Belorusskoi SSR).
Arłoŭ, Uładzimir, 1986. Dobry dzień, maja Šypšyna (Miensk: Mastackaja litaratura).
------, 1988. Dzień, kali ŭpała strała: Apovieści i apaviadańni (Miensk: Mastackaja litaratura).
------, 1990. ‘“Sovershenno sekretno” abo adzin u troch ipastasiach (Natatki niaŭdziačnaha vučnia)’, Ksieraks biełaruski 1: 25-35.
------, 1992a. Jeŭfrasińnia Połackaja: Evrosiniia Polotskaia (Miensk: Mastackaja litaratura).
------, 1992b. Randevu na manieŭrach: Apovieści, apaviadańni (Miensk: Mastackaja litaratura).
------, 1993. Moj radavod da piataha kalena: Ese (Miensk: Baćkaŭščyna).
------, 1994a. Piać mužčyn u leśničoŭcy: Apovieści. Apaviadańni. Ese (Miensk: Mastackaja litaratura).
------, 1994b. Tajamnicy Połackaj historyi (Miensk: Połymia).