Have you ever tried to learn a foreign language with the help of a distant learning course? Then you should have noticed, how difficult it is to begin speaking and writing fluently without any native speakers around. It takes a lot of determination and many long hours in the library. Bearing this in mind, one can’t help but admire Maxim Bahdanovich. Having lived his whole life deep in the mainland Russia, he not only learned Belarusian on his own, but also became one of the corner stones of Belarusian literature – this stone, which, at a closer look, shines like a precious jewel.
Actually, Belarusian language wasn’t quite foreign for Maxim Bahdanovich. He was born in Minsk on December 9, 1891. However, on the dawn of the Czarist rule, the intellectual circles of Belarus preferred to speak Russian, looking down on their own “folksy dialects” with despise. This was also true for the western Belarusian city of Hrodna (Grodno), where Maxim Bahdanovich spent his early childhood. At the age of 5 Maxim went to the Russian city of Nizhni Novgorod with his father and two brothers (his mother died shortly beforehand). Where, in 1902, Maxim Bahdanovich enrolled into a gymnasium.
Later Maxim Bahdanovich looked back at his life in Hrodna as the happiest years of his life. Perhaps, these memories fed his interest for Belarusian culture. Maxim’s father, Adam Bahdanovich, was a professional teacher and a passionate folklorist, who collected and analyzed Belarusian folk culture masterpieces, which, in a way, also influenced his son’s interests. However, the father was not a supporter of Maxim in his cultural endeavors. Adam Bahdanovich was an average man for his time, influenced by the Czarist propaganda. For him, the Belarusian folklore was nothing else but a deviation from the Russian culture, which aroused his curiosity, but not admiration. In his study “Remains of the Ancient World-view among Belarusians” published in Hrodna in 1895, Adam Bahdanovich wrote that “it would be fair to put Belarusians, according to their spiritual development, lower than their brothers from the great Russian family”. No wonder, the father couldn’t approve his son’s interest in “Belarusian stuff.” He valued Belarusian culture as a folklorist, but didn’t take it seriously. Adam Bahdanovich was indeed convinced that he was ensuring his son’s future success by keeping him away from his unpromising passion, but in hindsight he simply suppressed his talent.
Without his father’s approval and support, Maxim studied the Belarusian language on his own – by analyzing dictionaries, ethnographic notes made by his father, and by reading the few available books and old prints. Eventually, Maxim began to write poems in Belarusian. He engaged into a letter exchange with “Nasha Niva,” the first and only Belarusian-language newspaper of that time, published in Vilnia (Vilnius).
In the beginning, some editors of “Nasha Niva” wanted to “bury” Maxim’s poetry in the archives. For them his poems seemed too “decadent,” as opposed to the “social” poetry that was so popular at that time. Maxim Bahdanovich described the beauty of life, rather than the daily struggles of people. It made him somewhat of a stranger in the Belarusian literary community. Most of these poets stylized their verses as folk songs. Bahdanovich, however, instead of rehashing the folklore, brought it to a new artistic level. Moreover, he even found pleasure in describing urban landscapes, admired the winding streets of Hrodna and brownstone churches of Vilnia. This was so unlike other poets, who openly disliked crowded multicultural cities and praised the village as a cradle of the Belarusian nation.
Fortunately, other editors of “Nasha Niva” recognized the talent of Maxim Bahdanovich right away and stood up for the young poet. The good taste gained victory, and Maxim Bahdanovich became an author of “Nasha Niva” in 1907.
Passionate unrequited love may break one’s heart, but for a poet it also fuels his talent. In Yaroslavl, where his family moved in 1908, Maxim Bahdanovich got acquainted with Anna Kokuyeva, daughter of a well-off Russian nobleman. She became Maxim’s first big love, which, as some literature scientists believe, inspired him to write a poem “Veranika” as well as many other verses.
In 1911 Maxim Bahdanovich visited Belarus on an invitation from “Nasha Niva”. By this time his talent was already undisputed. When the famous Professor Shakhmatov from St. Petersburg University inquired to “Nasha Niva” about naming a prospective candidate for a chair in Belarusian studies, the newspaper proposed Maxim Bahdanovich. He was excited – even more so since Anna Kokuyeva was going to study in the St. Petersburg conservatory. However, Maxim's father ruined his plans by prohibiting him from going to St. Petersburg, and suggesting that the son enroll in the Yaroslavl law lyceum instead. Maxim protested, but had to bow to his father’s will.
He found refuge in poetry. Maxim Bahdanovich challenged those who, similarly to his father, believed that Belarusian language was poor in vocabulary and didn’t have enough forms of expression. He deliberately tried complex poetic forms, and grew very fond of writing sonnets in Belarusian. Maxim was striving to prove that the Belarusian language was just as suitable for poetry as any other.
However, it would be a mistake to say that Bahdanovich was only interested to write about pure beauty. Many poems by Bahdanovich were no less political than beautiful – even now, almost a century after they have been written, they sound surprisingly topical for Belarusians. For example, in his sonnet titled “In the Sands of Egypt’s Land” Maxim Bahdanovich writes about a seed, which was found in an ancient Egyptian grave. Despite being several thousand years old, the seed sprouted. “This is your symbol, my forgotten native land”, - wrote Maxim Bahdanovich, foretelling the rebirth of the nation.
Another great example is “Pahonia,” perhaps, the most famous poem by Maxim Bahdanovich, and one of the last ones he wrote. In the early 90’s it was seriously considered as a possible national anthem – until the regime of Lukashenka adopted the refurbished version of an old Soviet one. “Pahonia” is the ancient symbol of the Great Duchy of Lithuania, a horseman with the bared sword. In his poem, Maxim Bahdanovich is looking at “Pahonia” bás-relief on Vastrabramskaya church in Vilnia, watching the horseman, who is “not to defeat, not to stop, not to hold back”. One can’t help thinking Bahdanovich wrote a prophecy. In 1918 “Pahonia” became the national coat of arms of the newly established Belarusian People’s Republic, then banned by Bolsheviks, but in 1991 re-established as the symbol of the independent Republic of Belarus. Today, “Pahonia” is officially banned in Belarus – thus history repeats itself. But when you read the poem of Bahdanovich, you firmly believe that “Pahonia” will be back – because it is simply "not to stop.”
In his poems Maxim Bahdanovich defended beauty’s right to exist. His blank verse “Apocryphal” imitates the Gospel style. It tells about Jesus Christ returning to Earth, and visiting Belarus. Everyone in the land was busy with work, and only a singer came to Jesus and told him that he was ashamed of doing nothing. But Jesus set the singer’s mind at ease by reassuring him that the song is something that accompanies people throughout their lives. This thought is supported by a parable about a farmer, who was working in the field, and saw a cornflower in the grain. He knew the grain could have risen where the flowers grew, but decided not to pull the cornflowers up, because they filled his heart with joy. “It’s good to be an ear of rye, but the one who is born as a cornflower is truly happy. For why would we need ears if there were no cornflowers?”
In 1914, in Vilnia “Vianok” (‘garland’) the first book of Maxim Bahdanovich was published. He dreamt of publishing more books of his poetry, and even moved to Minsk in 1916, but his plans never came true. Tuberculosis was tightening its grip over the poet. “Don’t wonder that my writing is like a child’s – I write in bed. The temperature is running at 40°C and 39,5°C as usual” he wrote in a letter to “Nasha Niva”.
In 1917 Maxim Bahdanovich went to the city Yalta on the shore of the Black sea – and never came back. He exchange letters with his father, but their relations were somewhat strained. For some reason, Maxim's father couldn’t find time to visit his son, even though he was living in Simferopol, fairly close to Yalta. “Meanwhile Maxim was living out his last days in complete loneliness,” bitterly wrote Adam Bahdanovich after his son’s death.
Anna Kokuyeva, the beloved of Maxim Bahdanovich, married another man; but, as her son later recalled, the book of the poet's poems was one of the things she kept close to her in the last years of her life. Despite many tragic moments in his life, Maxim Bahdanovich created poetry, which radiated with a mixture of light sadness and heartwarming optimism. In his short 26 years, which were given to him, Maxim Bahdanovich created so many unprecedented masterpieces that not only enriched, but also shaped the future of Belarusian literature.
If you go up to the top of the majestic Opera building in Minsk, you will see the place where the monument to Maxim Bahdanovich once stood, a tall man, cast in bronze, holding a small bunch of cornflowers in his hand, looking at the looming church towers of the old city. Now this place is empty. A new fountain for the present Belarusian regime that will be built in front of the Opera, has greater value than the author of “Pahonya,” whose monument was dismantled. Allegedly, it will be moved into the shade of a nearby park. Still, no matter how long Minsk authorities are looking for a place for Maxim Bahdanovich, he has already found his rightful place not only in schoolbooks, but also in the hearts of Belarusian people.
by Ales Kudrytski
Poems by Maxim Bahdanovich translated by Vera Rich can be found at
Maxim Bahdanovich's mother
Cover of the first and the only book by Maxim Bahdanovich
Moving the monument to Maxim Bahdanovich during the reconstration of the Opera and Ballet Theatre in Minsk