Belarusians: Two Souls per Capita Harecki deciphered of the enigmatic Belarusian national character.

Isn’t there something mysterious about Belarus and its people? On the one hand, this is undoubtedly an ancient culture which bears clear signs of Indo-European roots. On the other, for most outsiders the country seems to have come out of nowhere, filling a void marshland territory between Russia and Poland. The history of Belarus is an impenetrable labyrinth of changing names and conflicting historical ideas. Today, the country is deeply divided across various lines; yet, still, something holds its people together. Belarusians seem to have an ability to combine the incompatible with genuine ease. They want to unite with Russia and join the EU at the same time. They deplore their authoritarian ruler but still are not ready to trade him for someone else. They have managed to live on the most dangerous crossroads of Europe for centuries without sticking out much.

This enigmatic Belarusian soul; if anyone could solve its riddle it would only be Maksim Harecki, the Belarusian writer, who happened to live in the turbulent first quarter of the 20th century. Having observed his fellow Belarusians and, most importantly, his own inner qualities, Harecki came to an unexpected conclusion.

Every Belarusian has not one, but two souls.

Don’t ask what these souls are. Their shape is different in each case. What counts is the very fact that a typical Belarusian has a double soul, something like two masks which can be worn at the same time.

But before we continue Belarusian soul-searching, let us take a closer look at Maksim Harecki and his time.

Harecki was born in 1893 into a family of land-poor peasants. He was an intelligent child and managed to get a state-sponsored scholarship for studying at the Horki agricultural academy in eastern Belarus. In line with its policy of suppressing dissent in occupied territories, the Russian regime did not allow universities in Belarus (with the Horki academy being the only exception). Nonetheless, Horki became an intellectual hatchery for freethinking young Belarusians. This soon had its influence on Maxim. He began to write stories and reports for the newspaper Naša Niva, the center of Belarusian intellectual thought at the time. outbreak of World War I in 1914 complicated the creative plans of Harecki. He was sent to the Eastern Prussian front as an artillery signaler. There, Harecki was seriously wounded. Having spent some time in hospital, he returned to the front, this time fighting in the swamps of southern Belarus. At some point he got ill and was finally discharged from the army. Maksim Harecki transformed his war-time experiences into the literary diary titled “At the Imperialistic War”. In a nature very close to that of Erich Maria Remarque, Maksim Harecki disdained the senseless war which began amid patriotic jingoism and fanfare but turned out to be an absurd slaughterhouse. “What happened yesterday? I lived, but the former me is gone forever,” he wrote recollecting the chaos and violence of the first fight he took part in.

In 1918 the Belarusian People’s Republic was proclaimed in Minsk by democratically oriented patriots. Communists followed their example in 1919, when the first version of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic was proclaimed in Smolensk. It was a chaotic time with Belarusian territory changing hands between Russia, Germany and Poland many times and seemingly at random. 

Maksim Harecki moved to Viĺnia (Vilnius) in 1919 and was trapped there after the city was occupied by the Polish army, which, at that time, was successfully fighting the Soviets. The struggle resulted in Belarusian territory being severed in two across the middle, with the western part of the country falling under the Polish rule, and the eastern under the Soviet authority until Belarus was reunited as an integral part of the Soviet Union in 1939.

In Viĺnia, Maksim Harecki worked as a teacher at the First Belarusian Gymnasium, editing the newly established Belarusian-language newspapers and writing “The History of Belarusian Literature”, the first work of such kind, summarizing several centuries of Belarusian literature development.

It was also the time when Maksim Harecki wrote his most famous novel “Two Souls”. Its main character, young aristocrat Ihnat Abdziralovič, tries to find his way in the chaotic transitional period when an embryonic Belarusian identity was emerging between the collapse of the Russian Empire and the birth of Soviet power.  It was a time when self-determination was the most topical word in this vast territory.

When Abdziralovič was a small boy, he lost his mother who was murdered by local peasants in an ambush on his father’s carriage. His father, struck with grief and anger, barricaded himself in his studio with cognac and cigars, and seemed to forget about his son. Eventually, he handed him to the supervision of a poor woman from a faraway village. She happened to have her own small son Vasiĺ, a boy of the same age as Ihnat Abdziralovič. The woman tenderly loved her stepson; to her own offspring she remained caring but also rather strict, preventing him from coming too close to the master’s manor.

Ihnat Abdziralovič grew up into a sensitive and rather melancholic young man, who experienced perils of both love and war and lost contact with his arrogant father. On the one hand, as an intelligent person, he noticed that the wealthier strata of society treated the rest in a way that could not always be called truly human. On the other hand, he was still unable to  fully associate himself with the common folk or with the newborn Belarusian intelligentsia;, educated peasants’ sons and daughters aspiring for the independence of their land. Abdziralovič still claimed that his motherland is “ the whole of Russia” but apparently did so more by inertia, without truly believing his own words.

On a visit to Krupki, the village of his father (now exiled) whose manor was demolished by the revolutionary peasant mob, Abdziralovič visited his friend who taught at a local elementary school. There, he noticed a boy playing in class with pictures – gazing at photographs ripped from a photo album.

“What are you doing?” asked Abdziralovič.
“Nothing, I swear to God, not a single thing…”
The pictures tumbled down to the floor. The boy lowered his gaze.
Abdziralovič picked up the photos and was stunned. He saw himself (as a small boy), as well as the image of the person people said, “…this is your father”. He also saw a couple of other acquaintances who used to visit his father from time to time.
“For an eternal memory about the happy times which we have spent in our dear, cosy Krupki…” he read on the back.
“Taukač is teasing the masters,” the children cried out to each other. “His dad fetched a beautiful book with people in it as the master’s house burned down.”
Inside him, variegated feelings billowed and rolled down like one big unpleasant clew.
One soul said “I don’t care… I don’t care…”
Another soul bitterly hurt and remained silent.”

Like Abdziralovič, other people he is confronted with are similarly double-souled, each in his or her own way. His love, Aĺia, the daughter of a rich city landlord, enjoyed Abdziralovič’s company but also grew tired of his melancholia and passivity, becoming more and more attracted to a haughty duke. The duke himself was an arrogant type, but he tried to ride the wave of Belarusian self-determination when he felt that the moment was right. Alia’s father, Makasey, was projecting the appearance of a respectable gentleman while desperately trying co conceal the fact that he initially came to the big city barefoot and as a poor peasant’s son looking for work.

On a short visit to Moscow, in order to be examined by the military medical commission, Abdziralovič became caught up in the revolutionary vortex. The city was full of people shooting at random, with Bolsheviks fighting the remnants of the old regime.

“Friend or foe”, he thought with some shame or regret. “I don’t know who is friend or foe to me. I am observing some strange neutrality and fool them all as well as myself”.

In Moscow, Abdziralovič stumbled upon his stepbrother Vasiĺ, worker at a local factory, and who was now taking part in skirmishes on the Bolshevik side. Abdziralovič was happy to find a kindred spirit, the more so because his stepmother was on her deathbed and eager to see her dear Ihnaĺik. The mother sent away Vasiĺ on some pretext and when he was gone she divulged the truth of his birth to Abdziralovič. He, not Vasiĺ, was her real son. She swapped them during their childhood, wishing a better, aristocrat’s fortune for her peasant son. Ihnat was Vasiĺ, and Vasiĺ was Ihnat.

But, in spite of the significance of the news, it didn’t affect Ihnat Abdziralovič too much.

“Well, now I know about my mother’s mystery, but what has changed in my thoughts and in my feelings? Nothing...”  deliberated Abdziralovič. However, a careful onlooker would notice that even if his mother’s death might not have changed anything in his attitude to his relatives and friends, it at least altered his views on the shifting patterns of life. Harecki wrote about Abdziralovič, statingt “…he used to be somewhat detached, apart from common folk, from peasants and laborers; he observed this revolutionary storm as if it was a major fire in a village – that is, the way only a detached onlooker could do. Previously, when he saw how on every railway station, on each milestone and, the closer to the front the more catastrophically the life of the great empire perished, which was created by the bloody calluses and sweat of these people; when he saw the last remnants of consciousness dying all around along with the last hope that this clod would, in the last moment, catch on some little twig and not be broken into miniscule pieced at the bottom of a hill; when he used to think about what was happening around him, he again placed himself away from the people’s misfortune, on the other side of the damned line. He only clasped his hands in dismay once in a while, like a kind-hearted person seeing others’ trouble. Now he was changed in a sense that, having heard his mother’s confession, he kind of felt himself part of these people, from which he used to stand apart… Now he scrutinized every injustice with special pain, even though he still remained, to please his character, just an observer and a quite thinker”.

Here we come to Karpavič; former peasant, monk, impostor and now Bolshevik authority of a mediocre scale, an acquaintance of Vasiĺ. Being first introduced as a side character, this sinister figure grows in prominence as the book evolves. Karpavič gives the impression of a simpleton, which provides the perfect disguise for his cunning and cynicism.

“Ivan Karpiačonak Harščok, or Karpavič (so he was called by everyone after he has seen the world) belonged to this old and sizeable flock of people from Belarusian village, still awaiting their own writer,” writes Harecki.

Despite being quite clever, Karpavič was still despised by his more intelligent Bolshevik comrades even after he joined the ranks of the big city’s anti-Tzar activists. “They sensed that he belonged to the kind of self-taught people who, even though may some day reach the summits of fame in arts, politics or any kind of science, would still forever remain flawed in their foundations and, as a result, easily fall to the very bottom of human reason. By some miracle, these people are able to combine in their soul ultimate humanism and the worst kind of misanthropy, chemistry and alchemy, Marxism and chiromancy; they believe all of that equally earnestly. Their gods like to pick a quarrel with each other, throw each other off their thrones and create unimaginable mess in the heads of their worshipper. These gods are usually very numerous, but there are times when all of them are gone; at this moment people of such kind throw all kinds of unexpected curves”.  

“I won’t confess this to a single soul,” Karpavič thought quietly, “but I feel that I could belong to any party with just the same sincerity.”

In the concluding chapters of the book, Karpavič becomes a mighty Bolshevik leader of the town called N. He accumulates power through bloody means, disgusting both Vasiĺ and Ihnat Abdziralovič. The book ends with an eerie scene – the pompous funeral of Karpavič. He had his neck slashed with a razor by his aide who turned out to be a secret agent of the pro-Tzar forces abroad and, by coincidence, an old army colleague of Abdziralovič.

The whole town joins the funeral procession which has a feel of an absurd death fest.

“The black anthill of people waving red banners with menacing writings on them poured out to the street. Far away from here an open coffin with the dead body floated on the shoulders of laborers. Catafalque bowled along behind. The sound of the march grew stronger and gripped the soul with the sensation of something sad, solemn, and predestined.”

Karpavič turned out to be a miniscule personality with the potential to become a great and brutal force. Here Harecki discovers one of the most dangerous types of people with a double soul. These people can truly fulfill their potential only by dragging everyone around them into a bloody abyss. While people like Abdziralovič and Vasiĺ are searching for their true soul, Karpavič and his ilk are slowly shedding all signs of humanity. Karpavič is a prototype for all major and minor dictators ruling Belarus and its people in Maxim Harecki’s time as well as in the future.

In Polish-ruled Belarus, Maksim Harecki was arrested and imprisoned in 1922 as an alleged “Bolshevik agent”, which was a common pretext used by the occupying regime to punish pro-Belarusian activists. Under public pressure, he was released and was able to escape to the Soviet part of Belarus, which at that time seemed to be flourishing under the communist policy of Belarusification.  

However, a person like Maksim Harecki had practically no chance to live through the times of Stalinist rule. In 1930, after the moderately liberal 1920s came to their end, Maksim Harecki was arrested again – this time by the Soviet secret service. He served his sentence in exile in Russia. In 1938, he was arrested once again and was executed by firing squad. It was the darkest time of Stalin’s repressions, the bloodbath which swallowed most of Belarus’ intellectuals. Still, even today the great soul of Maksim Harecki remains a bright star on the Belarusian sky.

By Aleś Kudrytski (ODB)