Belarusian Homer

The Yakub Kolas square in Minsk is an enormous free space, which is extremely popular with pigeons, skateboarders and exhausted shoppers of a nearby department store and marketplace. On sunny days people spend their time here, under the shade of birches, enjoying the breeze, which occasionally refreshes them with splatters of water from the nearby fountains. A bulky black statue overlooks this urban oasis. A bronze-cast bold man is propping up his chin, as if he were daydreaming. This is Yakub Kolas - the writer and poet, the square is named after. 

 In Belarus, Yakub Kolas is sometimes compared to Homer. Indeed, the two major works by Yakub Kolas, his epic poems “The New Land” and “Simon the Musician” can be compared to “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey”. Similar to “The Iliad”, “The New Land” describes a long and exhausting struggle, however, this struggle takes place not under the walls of Troy, but in a Belarusian village on the verge of the 19th and 20th centuries, where a poor family desperately strives to acquire a piece of land in order to gain self-respect and become independent from greedy and arrogant landlords. “Simon the Musician” is a story about a traveler and a kind-hearted musician Simon, who, like Odysseus, gets into plenty of trouble until he finally reaches his goal, which, in his case, is freedom of creation.  

Yakub Kolas’ real name was Kanstantsin Mikhajlavich Mitskevich (1882-1956). He was born into a big family of 13 children, in a village near the town of Staubtsy. His father Mikhal was a forester, who worked for Duke Radzivil and rented a piece of land from him.
Yakub Kolas wrote his first poem when he was 12. His father was so glad and proud of his son that he even rewarded him with a ruble. Later in his famous poem “The New Land” (is now being translated into English) Yakub Kolas will describe the life of his own family. If yes, maybe then it should be a different paragraph, otherwise I see no connection) It is a real encyclopedia of authentic rural Belarusian life, which guides you from Christmas to Easter, from winter to summer, takes you along to apiaries, harvesting, hunting… The whole year passes in front of your eyes, as you read it.
The main character in Kolas’ “The New Land” poem, the father of the family Mikhal, is obsessed with an idea of purchasing a piece of land. “To buy some land, to get a place of your own, in order to escape the landlord’s fetter” – this is a prosaic translation of one of the most famous lines from “The New Land”. In the end of the poem, Mikhal dies and we don’t know if the family ever managed to reach their goal.
Soviet ideologists had no problem with the image of a poor peasant family struggling with greedy landlords. It was the family’s desire to take possession of its own land, which was problematic. After all, the very idea of the right to private property was seen as illegitimate by the communist doctrine. Nevertheless, the poem was so powerful that it instantly became a classic and even entered school textbooks. Today, the main character’s wish to live on their own piece of land is also understood as metaphoric to the nation, which strives for independence.
Having graduated from a seminary, in 1902-1905, Yakub Kolas worked as a teacher in the region of Palesse in southern Belarus. He taught children, conducted ethnographic studies, and collected interesting examples of folklore. At that time the Russian empire was fermenting with revolutionary ideas, and so did Yakub Kolas. He even helped the residents of the village he worked and lived in to write a petition to their landlord, demanding the right to use a lake and some fields for their needs. Police reacted immediately. The young troublemaker was ordered to leave the village.
In 1906, Yakub Kolas participated in an illegal convention of free-thinking teachers. The gathering was dissolved by police, and Yakub Kolas for a while lost the right to work as a teacher. He described this period of life in the novel “On the Crossroads”, one of the first major novels of Belaurisian literature. The book is autobiographic and includes a story of a poor young teacher’s unrequited love for a girl from a noble family, who refused to get engaged with an educated peasant. Maybe his disastrous experience explains why, unlike many other poets, Yakub Kolas is not known as someone who wrote passionate poems about love. Actually, the only short love poem he wrote, tells us a story about a girl, who takes her beloved guy’s dirty socks and brings them to the river to wash. Quite an exotic love confession, isn’t it?
In 1908, Yakub Kolas was sentenced to three years in prison for his “revolutionary activities” (he participated in the work of an unofficial liberal teachers’ association). Yakub Kolas served the sentence at a notorious prison of Minsk,Valadarka, which provided free bed and breakfast to many prominent political prisoners until our days. It was shut down only in 2008 after the collapse of one of its towers.
In prison, Yakub Kolas began to write his second major poem “Simon the Musician”. Simon, a young village boy, is shunned by everyone, including parents, for his love for music and beauty. He travels around the country meeting all kinds of people and constantly getting into trouble. The poem ends with Simon falling asleep on the grave of his beloved girl Hanna. Why did Yakub Kolas create such a tragic end? It could perhaps be explained by his mood. The poet finished “Simon the Musician” in 1918, shortly after the Bolshevik coup. He couldn’t help noticing that the hero of the time was not a kind-hearted musician, but a person with a weapon and no mercy. In this new world, there was no place for such Simons.
In the 1920’s, the Soviet regime pursued its “the liberal policy of “Belarusification”. The Belarusian-language education developed rapidly, the cultural life boomed. Inspired by these developments, Yakub Kolas rewrote “Simon the Musician” in 1925. In this new version Simon wakes up and raises Hanna from the dead by playing his violin. Yakub Kolas began to believe that art and beauty would be able to revive the country. 
However, if Yakub Kolas decided to rewrite his poem again a decade later, he would have probably created an even more pessimistic finale, than the first one. The blood-soaked 1930s had taken their toll on Yakub Kolas. On one hand the Soviet regime showered him with various prizes, honourable and lucrative positions, generous pensions and tempting stipends. On the other hand, the poet lived under constant threat of being arrested. He was accused of all kinds of “deadly sins” a Soviet poet could commit, including “propagating the class-free Belarusian nation”, “idealising wealthy peasantry”, “exaggerating the role of intellectuals”, etc. In 1930, Yakub Kolas was forced to go through the humiliation of public self-condemnation for his “mistakes”. Despite this, his uncle and his brother-in-law were arrested. The persecution reached its climax on February 6, 1938, when secret service agents searched Yakub Kolas’ home, while the poet’s face was pressed against the wall and hands lifted.
By some miracle, the authorities hesitated to authorise his arrest – probably because of Kolas’ tremendous popularity. Still, the poet became hostage of the totalitarian system. While speaking out against the repressions would have been equal to a physical suicide, remaining silent was going to be a suicide for Kolas as a writer. Yakub Kolas had to accept one Stalin prize after another, taking it from the bloodstained hands of people who repressed and murdered not only his relatives, but also hundreds of his colleagues and hundreds of thousands of his native people. Nevertheless, Yakub Kolas participated in official public life, adapting in his works a “social-realistic” style, and quietly residing in his house in Minsk. There, he sowed grain on a small plot of land, which reminded him of his childhood in the countryside. Yakub Kolas never criticised the regime publicly, at least not until Stalin’s death. Only in 1956 the poet wrote a letter to the Communist Party leadership, voicing his concern over the suppression of the Belarusian language in public life.
How can the silence of Kolas be explained? What did he think about the brutal purges? Was Kolas a coward? Or maybe a talented but cynical careerist? Perhaps, he decided (by no means groundless) that any protest would be senseless and disastrous not only to him personally, but also to the whole Belarusian culture? After all, Kolas was one of a handful of people, who were allowed to do at least something to keep up the existence of Belarusian culture in public life.
We still have no idea about what was going in Yakub Kolas’ mind – he left no notes about that. The recollections of his contemporaries are the only source that may shed some light on his feelings. While studying them, Siarhey Dubavets, one of the prominent modern Belarusian essayists and literary critics, noticed one interesting thing. He points out the passage by a literature scientist, Stsiapan Alexandrovich, who described the last day of Kolas’ life in the following way:
 “On August 13, 1956, after breakfast, Kanstantsin Miklhailavich asked his driver to bring him to the forest. They went down the Moscow highway and turned left, to the hill covered with tall pines, with a grove of strong birches at its feet.
He walked around a bit, as if he was looking for mushrooms in green moss or in bushes. Then he set down on a stump. The sun was still summer-bright, but once in a while cold wind drifted in, so the poet had to look for shelter in a ravine near the birches. He lied down on a dry hummock, and noticed a big anthill under three birch-trees. He sat there for a while, withdrawn from reality, observing the ants’ bustling. Then, without saying a word, he stood up, strolled around some more, sat into the car and went home. With difficulty he climbed up to his small studio, had a little snack, and, suddenly, felt unwell.
At 1.20 p.m. his heart stopped beating…”
Now, says Siarhey Dubavets, anyone familiar with Minsk’s topography and surroundings, would immediately recognise that the pine-tree hill must have been Kurapaty - the place, where massive executions took place during the Stalin times. Somewhere here, where Yakub Kolas lied down on the grass, the skulls with bullet holes were buried. Many of them belonged to Yakub Kolas’ colleagues, executed on October 29, 1937 during “the night of the murdered poets”. Yakub Kolas couldn’t have helped them, despite all his power. After all, a national poet in the Soviet Union was nothing more than a tiny ant, one of the many millions building the anthill of the great Utopia…


By Ales Kudrytski