Staunton, September 4 – Of the roughly 2,000 leading writers and scholars Stalin liquidated in the 1930s and 1940s, one in four – some 500 – were from Belarus, five times the share of the population of that republic in the USSR, Svetlana Gavrilina says, a major reason why Belarusians like her “didn’t know their own literature.”
That must be remembered, the Belarusian writer says, whenever anyone says that Belarus has never had an independent culture but is simply a branch of the Russian or Soviet Russian one. Stalin wiped it out, killing off those who wrote in Belarusian, Yiddish or Polish (kasparov.ru/material.php?id=5F51D617BF3D3).
That dismissive attitude continued in post-Stalinist times. Russian language specialists had to choose a second Slavic language as part of their training, Gavrilina recalls. They could choose Czech or Polish but never Belarusian (or Ukrainian). Ethnic Belarusians weren’t able to read their own national literature or its branch in the emigration. That was banned.
That contempt for Belarusian and the Belarusian nation extended far beyond the borders of the Soviet Union. The author of these lines decided to become a specialist on nations in the USSR after one of his professors, asked what he thought about Belarusians, said that he felt about them the same way he felt about any other “backward, peasant, anti-Semitic people.”
As a result of the heroic actions of the Belarusian people who have come out against “the last dictator in Europe,” many people not only in Belarus but in Russia and the West are finally recognizing that Belarusians are a nation with a rich and complicated history, fully deserving the attention that they have always lavished on other more powerful states.
As they do so, they need to explore not only the political aspects of that history but the cultural and intellectual ones as well. Sadly and indicative of the problems they face, those who want to do so will have to begin by turning again to a two-volume work published more than 60 years ago: Nicholas Vakar’s Belorussia: The Making of a Nation and his separate bibliographic volume (Cambridge, 1956).
Despite all that has happened in the intervening decades and the awarding of a Nobel Prize to a Belarusian writer, Vakar’s work remains the most comprehensive guide to a national culture that Stalin sought to extirpate from the face of the earth and that all too many people as a result have neglected.