Belarusian Literature – Famous Authors and Their Masterpieces
The origins of the Belarusian language and literature date from the early Middle Ages. Literature emerged in the 10th century as a direct consequence of the development of the written language. The principal centres for the promoting the spread of writing were Polotsk and Smolensk (Russia), where the first forms of Slavic historiography developed through ecclesiastical and monastic chronicles. During the era of the Kievan Rus, the foundations of Belarusian literature were laid in conjunction with the Russian and Ukrainian literature and language. Outstanding examples of this period include the “Speech by Ioan Polozky”, the “Life of Euphrosyne of Polotsk”, the “Life of Abraham of Smolensk” and the “Works and teaching” of Kirill of Turov.
Between the 14th and 15th century, Belarusian literature broke away from pan-Russian literature, at a time when the Belarusian territory belonged to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Ruthenian was the official language. All Lithuanian statutes were recorded and published in this language.
Books have been printed in Belarusian since the 16th century. The first book to be printed in an East Slavonic language was a psalter in Belarusian. This was printed in Prague in 1517 by Francysk Skaryna. The name Skaryna is firmly anchored in Belarusian history, thanks to his achievements in the spheres of enlightenment, the art of book printing and book dissemination.
Francysk Skaryna was succeeded by Wassily Tiapinsky, who was a famous humanist and enlightener. The only remaining book of those he issued is the “Evangelium” (Gospel) which was printed in both Church Slavonic and Belarusian. In the foreword to this book, he mentions his special affinity to the Belarusian language.
Between the 16th and 17th century, baroque syllabic poetry and dramatic art (Simeon of Polotsk) emerged, influenced by Polish culture. In the 18th century, the Belarusian people – and in particular the upper class – were heavily influenced by the ruling Polish noblemen. This meant that for a while the significance of Belarusian writing lost importance. It wasn’t until the end of the 18th century that Belarusian literature experienced a revival and was rediscovered. The first romantic works were written in the vernacular, which had a strong impact on the modern Belarusian language. Examples of such literature are the satirical poems by Vikentsi Ravinski and Jan Barszczewski and poetry by Pauluk Bagrim and Yan Chachot (Jan Czeczot).
The beginning of the 19th century saw the advent of romantic literature, which was inspired by the lively language of folklore. The most prominent exponent of this genre was Adam Mickiewicz, who was born in Belarus but who wrote in Polish. To this day, scientists from both countries argue as to which country the poet should be ascribed to.
Around the same time, Vincent Dunin-Martsynkevich appeared on the literary scene. He is recognised as the founding father of modern Belarusan literature. His works include not only lyrics and drama but he also wrote stage plays. Family members and local farmers all took part in his village theatre.
Another factor which had an effect on the development of Belarusian literature was the appearance of the first, legal newspapers, such as ‚Nascha Dolja‘ (‘Our destiny’ and ‘Nascha Niwa’ (‘Our homeland’). These newspapers were published in Vilnius at the beginning of the 20th century, which at that time was considered to be the centre of Belarusian intellectuals. The best Belarusian prose writers gathered around these newspapers and had their first extracts printed in them. These newspapers therefore published works by many Belarusian men of letters including Janka Kupala (Yanka Kupala), Yakub Kolas (Jakub Kolas), Tetka (Ciotka, Alaiza Pashkevich) and Maxim Bogdanovich (Maksim Bahdanovič), all of whom are now ranked as belonging to the golden age of Belarusian literature. More recent Belarusian literature is a composition of different structures and incorporated different genres and styles such as impressionism and symbolism, romanticism and modernism. During the First World War, the dominating subject in literary works was patriotism
After the revolution of 1917 and the formation of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Belarus (BSSR), literary life was concentrated on the magazines “Maladniak” (Belarusian: young people) and “Uzvychch” (Belarusian: upturn). The authors and poets of the younger generation were: Vladimir Dubouka (Uladzimir Dubouka), Tsishka Gartny (Ciška Hartny), Kuzma Сhorny and others. In the 1930s Belarusian intellectuals were subjected to the mass persecution and political repression of the Great Terror or Great Purge. The night of 29th to 30th October 1937 was catastrophic for Belarusian literature, as 23 young poets were shot.
During the Second World War the publishing of literature and satire was particularly important and patriotic works were instrumentalised in the battle against the common enemy. Notable examples are the poems “Iranian Diary” by Pimen Panchanka and “The Brigade Flag” by Arkadi Kuleshov. The novels “The Milky Way” and “Search for the Future” by Kusma Tschorny are among the highlights of Belarusian prose during the war years.
In the post-war years, the subject of war was reconsidered and confronted. The novels and short stories by Ivan Schamiakin, Mikhas Lynkou and Ales Adamovich bear witness to this. But the unrivalled master of war prose was Vasil Bykau, who wrote more than a hundred literary works on the subject. His highly authentic prose is characterised by his own experiences on the front.
Historical novels are extremely popular in Belarus and one of the best authors in the field is Uladzimir Karatkievich. His novels are set in different periods of Belarusian history from the Middle Ages up to the war years. Uladzimir Arlou is a well-known contemporary author, who also writes about historical topics.
It was not until the end of the 1960s that it became possible to explore social and political issues of the recent past on a literary level. For example, in a trilogy, Ivan Melezh portrayed a profound picture of the inhumane agricultural collectivisation of the 30s. Rygor Baradulin (Ryhor Baradulin) has made a name for himself with his philosophical poems and has twice been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Innovative, contemporary authors include Ales Rasanau, Adam Globus (Adam Hlobus) and Andrei Khadanovich, all of whom are talented translators. A well-known book in German-speaking countries is “Minsk: the sun city of dreams”, by Artur Klinau. In this work, the qualified architect combines the characteristics of a tour guide with autobiographical elements and personal memories and compares the Belarusian capital to Utopia.
A major sensation in modern, Belarusian literature was the Nobel Prize awarded in 2015 to the authoress Svetlana Alexievich (who actually writes in Russian) … “for her polyphonic opus which immortalizes the suffering and courage of our times” (Die Zeit). She has been honoured on several occasions for her documentary prose about life in soviet and post-soviet society. In 2013 she received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. Svetlana Alexievich writes in a personal style of her own. She travels around the country and talks to people about subjects which are of concern to them. She then transforms these conversations into awe-inspiring masterpieces, in which her style alternates between journalism and belletristic. Among her most important works are “The Unwomanly Face of War”, “Boys in Zinc” (Afghanistan and the results), “Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future”, “Second-hand Time: the Last of the Soviets” and others.
One of the most important literary events is the Nefarmat Literary Festival, which takes place every year in Minsk. This includes many performances in which authors, musicians and other artists take part, in addition to numerous literature readings.
Modern literary life is centred in Minsk. Nearly all important literary events are organised by the Logvinau publishing house. The publishing house came into existence in 2014 as a private initiative of some Belarusian publishers and authors and aims to promote Belarusian literature and make it more widely known. Since the Russian language dominates in daily life, the idea is to revive the Belarusian language through literature. “Logvinau” is a combination of bookstore, publishers and a venue for literary exchange. Authors, readers and critics are able to meet regularly and exchange opinions at numerous events organised by the publishing house.
“Logvinau” has acquired renown beyond the national borders and is a regular participant at book fairs in Leipzig, Frankfurt, Prague and Warsaw.