Writing Freedom

Writing Freedom

Vasil Bykau: WWII veteran, famous author and dissident, praised by people and hated by their oppressors

He was first buried in 1944. One day a postman brought an envelope to the relatives of the junior lieutenant Vasil Bykau, which contained a letter telling them about his death on the battlefield of the WWII. His name was even inscribed on the obelisk near Kirovograd in the list of the buried soldiers. Miraculously, Vasil Bykau returned home, with two wounds and a full load of bitter war memories. This was how his story of fame and suffering began.

Vasil Bykau was born on the 19th of June, 1924 in the village Bychki in the North-Eastern Belarus. As the WWII broke out, he volunteered for the Red Army. Bykau fought in Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Austria.

He first published his writings in 1947 describing the war the way he saw it from the trenches, not the way it looked like from the bunkers of the Soviet generals. He wrote about soldiers, officers and common people on both sides of the front. Remarkably, his characters were neither heroes nor villains, but humans in the first place, forced to make a tough choice. Their real enemy was often hiding not across the battlefield, but within themselves. From his very first page, Bykau remained faithful to the existentialist approach. Any war, according to the writer, is the “borderline condition”, offering a horrible alternative between the animal-like desire to remain alive and the need to remain human, often paying the deadly price in return.

In 1965 the Belarusian literature magazine “Maladosc” published Bykau’s story “Dead don’t hurt". In 1966 it appeared in the liberal Soviet magazine “Novy Mir”. The story told about a group of wounded Soviet officers trying to break free from the pursuit of nazi troops near Kirovograd in the winter of 1944. Bykau described the chaos of the escape and the cruelty of the KGB officers, supervising the group. He pictured a captive German soldier who seemed to be more human than some Soviet commanders. In the 60s, all this was equal to the bomb explosion. In the Soviet Union, it was simply unthinkable to write about the war the way Bykau did. The massive campaign of harassment began. Literary critics “lambasted” the writer in major Soviet newspapers. Someone threw stones in his windows during the night. Almost every day Bykau was summoned for talks to KGB or Communist party headquarters in Minsk.

Despite of all the critics, many people sensed that it was Bykau who told the truth. Belarusian writers collected more than 80 signatures under the petition demanding to stop the harassment of the author. His talent and fame forced the Soviet regime to allow his works to be published. Bykau kept writing, trying to outwit his censors. Then, a different approach was used – along with censoring his works, the regime started to pelt Bykau with all kinds of state awards in order to tame him and create the illusion that the writer is not persecuted.

Bykau embraced the period of democratic changes in the late 80’s. He eagerly joined the democratic movement and supported the cause of rehabilitation of the victims of the Stalin’s bloody rule. Meanwhile, after some years of political warming, the ice age of Lukashenka began in 1994. The new political regime boycotted Bykau. The publishing of his works was suspended. The manuscript of Bykau’s new books “Sciana” (‘The Wall’) had been collecting dust on a shelf of a state publishing house for three years, until it became the “people’s book” – enthusiasts collected money and published it privately.

“Sciana” is the collection of Bykau’s short stories, dealing with the whole range of typically Belarusian troubles. The story “Sciana”, which also gave the book its title, tells about a prisoner, who applies enormous efforts to break the wall of his cell. However, having accomplished that, he finds himself in a prison’s courtyard, surrounded by another wall with gallows nearby. „Living in a prison, like dying, had no sense“, — concludes the author. In another story, “Zhouty Piasochak” (‘Yellow Sand’) Bykau addresses the issue of Stalin’s repressions. A secret police wagon is taking a group of prisoners to an execution site. All of them have different histories and personalities. None of them is dreaming of freedom, even when the wagon gets stuck in the mud, and the guards make the condemned get out and push the car forward.

State-owned Belarusian newspapers cracked down on the writer the way they did three decades ago. Some publications were even written by the same authors, old enemies of Bykau. Exhausted by the persecution, Bykau accepted the invitation of the Finnish PEN-Center and went to Helsinki in 1998. Two years later he moved to Germany. Pushed away by the government of his motherland, Bykau was given a possibility to live in the country against which he fought half a century before.  

Why did the new regime bully the author, who had long since become the “people’s writer”, whose works found their place in school textbooks? Bykau mercilessly criticized the government of Lukashenka. He disgusted the regime, which silenced Stalin’s repressions and treated people with just as little respect, as the Soviet one. “He [Lukashenka] doesn’t need Bykau,” wrote the author in 2000. “He has a disciplined and powerful cohort of his own authors who write his biographies. They write about him, describe his life. This is all he needs. He has no understanding for anything beyond that. Everything Lukashenka and his regime do is directed towards the full liquidation of the country’s sovereignty. He has absolutely enslaved the country”.

The support of Bykau, who remained the undisputed moral authority for many people in Belarus, was an enormous boost to the democratic opposition and to anyone who refused to believe the official propaganda. If Bykau said that things were black, then they simply couldn’t be white as the regime claimed.

In 2002 Vasil Bykau moved to the CzechRepublic. The author explicitly pointed out that it wasn’t a political exile – he merely asked the Czech government to give him the right to live and work in the country. Vaclav Havel answered that CzechRepublic would be honored to host the writer.

Cancer did what the bullets failed to do. It was also in Czech Republic, where Vasil Bykau had his stomach tumor removed. An old soldier, Bykau was used to looking into the face of death without fear. In 2003 he returned to Belarus. Shortly afterwards the writer died in the oncology hospital in Barauliany near Minsk.

The regime of Lukashenka, which had ousted Bykau from the country, cynically tried to capitalize on the author’s death. The retired police general Mikalay Charhinets, head of the infamous regime-faithful Union of Writers, attempted to orchestrate the funeral ceremony and even tried to prevent Vasil Bykau’s coffin from being wrapped into the banned white-red-white national flag, but was quickly shoved aside. On the way to his final rest, Bykau was followed by over 50,000 people, but ignored by the president. “Unfortunately, this was a person who didn’t accept the policy, which Lukashenka implements today in Belarus”, said the president in an interview after Bykau’s death.

For Vasil Bykau freedom was the main problem of his literary work, the main moral and physical value, given to every living being. Perhaps, this is what angers his old and new enemies the most. After all, freedom is something all oppressors hate – and fear.


Young Vasil Bykau in Romania, 1944

People came to say the last good bye to the great writer (Bykau’s funeral, Minsk 2003)

Ales Kudrytski


More information about Bykau:




“An Unhealing Wound”, story by Bykau in English: http://knihi.com/bykau/rana-eng.html

Photos by bykau.com