To be is Not to Be. Some Words about Vaĺancin Akudovič, Philosopher Who Does not Exist.

Vaĺancin Akudovič is wearing a cord jacket, solid-looking glasses, and a silver-haired beard. He enjoys books, hiking, coffee, and does not shy away from something stronger once in a while. As he addresses the public in his soft voice, there is hardly anyone in the audience who would doubt that the gifted speaker is made of flesh and bone. Nevertheless, Vaĺancin Akudovič does not exist.
At least, so he claims.

Vaĺancin Akudovič is a philosopher. Not a very typical occupation in today’s Belarus, to say the least. His ideas seem grotesque on the verge of absurdity, but his analysis of reality is so down-to-earth, that some call it cruel. His books are philosophical manifestos which read like thrillers. One could be tempted to call Akudovič “a Belarusian Umberto Eco”. The urge for such a comparison becomes almost irresistible if one takes a look at the philosophers’ photos - the resemblance is nearly startling.

“Throughout my life I have been fascinated by the phenomenon of niama (Belarusian for ‘non-existence’),” says Vaĺancin Akudovič.
What does he want to imply? Let us try to decode the philosopher’s way of thinking.

We do not know why we come to this world, what the meaning of life is. But, at least, we more or less get the feeling of what to be is like. But what is it like not to be?

We all live, but some day we will not. And, even if there is something beyond life, there will probably never be another me anymore. If we exist, then only for a very short time; basically, we are born and destined for non-existence.
There is more.

“The deeper I dug into the man, the less I found,” admits the philosopher. “I believe there is nothing but existential vacuum inside the man”. He believes that “I” is just a phenomenon of grammar. According to Akudovič, the man is nothing more than an empty place which is filled with all kinds of  phenomena - physical, biological, social, cultural, existential, etc. “I am only the things which are me; in reality, there is no such thing as “I” at all,” claims Akudovič. 

This philosophy might seem to be rather tragic but Vaĺancin Akudovič does not make an impression of a desperate mind. Rather than being sad, he is curious. Akudovič attempts to solve problems of non-existence, and, side by side, takes a closer look at Belarus. The philosopher’s point of view about his native land and its people is enraging to some home-grown nationalistic conservatives. Despite tender love towards Belarus and its culture, the Belarusian-speaking philosopher Akudovič is merciless: “Belarus will probably never be Belarusian-only”.

Akudovič belongs to the generation, which directly contributed to the rebirth of Belarusian independence. However, his contemporaries - intellectuals, politicians, and cultural actors, still dream about Belarus where every citizen speaks the Belarusian language, praises the glorious time of the Great Duchy of Lithuania, and disdains the totalitarian Soviet past. But what does one see today? Belarus remains largely Russian-speaking, and the state ideology is rooted in the Soviet legacy.
“The fact is that we have failed to implement our national dream in the course of the last century, while conditions for doing so were very different, and sometimes rather favourable,” writes Akudovič. “Eventually, one couldn’t help stumbling upon an idea that there might be something wrong with that dream”.

He compares modern Belarus with an archipelago of small Belarusian islands lost in the sea of Russian culture. “I have been trying to persuade the nationally engaged public for a long time that the idea of the totally Belarusian Belarus is not vital. Moreover, we must get rid of this utopia as soon as possible if we want to keep Belarusian idea at least partially alive”.

However, Akudovič is even more sceptical about Belarus being Russian-only, or anything-only, to say in general.
“The way I see it, we will soon have to agree, that the Belarusian nation can only be founded on social values.

When we abandon the tempting illusion that any single national, religious, cultural, ideological or any other model can dominate here and understand our unity in the interlacement of differences, then, possibly, we will do away with the confrontation of everyone with everybody, and will direct our energy not into the fruitless resistance, but into the unfolding and securing of everything that each of us values,” Akudovič writes. 
Akudovič explains the stubborn ignorance of Belarusians towards their national culture with the fact that this is a nation of village people. For a long time, the Belarusian language was mostly spread in rural areas of the country, while cities were rather cosmopolitan. In the 1960s, when peasants finally got the right to own a passport, the village began to migrate in masse to urban areas. However, this did not make the city more Belarusian - quite the contrary. “Having settled in the city, the village shed its Belarusian features and began total self-Russification. It was the only way to improve its social status and quality of life. This was a very natural process, because the whole essence and tradition of village culture is aimed at improving life as such”.

“However, this is where the other, blank side of a coin appeared,” notices Akudovič. “Having taken over the country, the village turned it into a single industrialized collective farm. The village way of thinking gives absolute preference to social values, plainly ignoring culture, including language. The fundamental principle of village power is to “Live Better”. Anything which lies beyond the ontological sphere of life as such can not be included into a villager’s discourse. He finds the issue of a nation completely abstract and thus not worthy of his attention and responsibility”.

“I have recently realized, quite unexpectedly, that what I treasure the most (after my kids) is my native tongue,” writes Akudovič. “I value Belarusian language even more than freedom and independence of my country. Why? Perhaps, both existence and non-existence talk to me in Belarusian only (and refuse to use any other language). Now knowing that, you can easily imagine how uncomfortable I must feel in the present linguistic situation in Belarus. At the same time, I fully realize, that even in most favourable conditions this situation will not radically change, and the Belarusian language will probably never dominate. All this means that we have no other way out of the situation but to get rid of the aversion of the Russian-speaking towards the Belarusian-speaking and vice versa. To put it short: you shall love other’s language as you love your own. Intellectuals could become “living examples” of this attitude for the whole society. Peaceful coexistence of different languages (just as religions and denominations) would be so natural for Belarus! Any other way would be artificial”. 

In Belarus, wannabe-intellectuals are abundant, but true thinkers are rare. Akudovič admits that he used to be courted by local politicians. “Politicians used to actively consult me, probably, in order to have me, as a philosopher, explain them Belarus. They wanted to know what they should pay attention to in order to succeed. However, behind all these enquiries there has always been only one desire: would I help them to win power? Since I am not a liar, I told the politicians that they would not see a victory any sooner than they would see their ears without a mirror. As a result, politicians soon lost interest in philosopher Akudovič. Today’s politicians are, by the most part, the very same politicians of yesterday. They know what to expect from me and try to stay away. They are a bit afraid of me, I think”.

Well, maybe Belarus is just the right place for such a philosopher? After all, Belarusians are the people, who, to a large extent, do not exist - and not just in the minds of many people in the West. Belarusians themselves have constantly had trouble realizing not only who they are, but the very fact that they do exist as a people. “Maybe, it is our destiny to come into existence through niama, non-existence, which we have been nurturing in ourselves for a thousand years?” asks Akudovič. “Just think about all the empires, peoples, cultures, which have boasted their victories and wealth, but have been swallowed by the sinister “nothing” in the course of the history? Not a trace of them has remained. But we - just look at us! Collectors of losses and defeats, we cross into the third millennium. Possibly, we will state our “Great Niama” as the most reliable way through time and existence”.

by Ales Kudrytski for the ODB