The Godfather of Belarus

Francišak Bahuševič, the man who brought a nation to life with a twist of his pen.

If one had to name the most puzzling mystery of Belarus, what would it be? The answer is surprisingly obvious. The very name of the country is the strangest riddle of all. How, when, and why did this land come about to be called Belarus?

This man on the faded 19th century photograph might know the answer. His name is Francišak Bahuševič. By a mere twist of his pen he determined the path of the entire Belarusian nation, which, in his time, was still a nation-to-be. In his book “Dudka Bielaruskaja” (‘Belarusian Pipe’) Bahuševič not only openly called his fellow countrymen “Belarusians” but also filled this definition with a feeling of pride. This was enough to turn the tide. The next generation of intellectuals built up on the momentum Bahuševič had created. As a result, slightly more than half a century later, Belarus became an independent country for the very first time in its history. As Valiancin Akudovič, prominent contemporary Belarusian philosopher, said in his interview to “Belarusian Atlantis”, the programme aired on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “The God created the Universe, Bahuševič invented Belarus.”

Francišak Bahuševič was born in 1840 in Svirany, a small farm estate near Vilnia (Vilnius). His father was one of the country’s numerous petty aristocrats. A coat of arms and a family tree – that was about all that made the Bahuševič family different from common peasants.
The memory of the 1831 anti-Russian uprising was still vivid at that time. It was a bold attempt to overthrow the rule of the Russian Empire, which it had bestowed upon the eastern part of Rzechpospolita, the united state of the Polish Kingdom and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, after its partition in the late 18th century.
The Russian Empire crushed the 1831 uprising. It not only repressed former insurgents, but also strangled freedoms (most notably by shutting down Vilnia University, the breeding-ground of dissent) and began to instil the pro-Russian ideology. Belarusian people were declared to be merely the branch of the Russian family, the so-called “younger brother”. Belarus was described as the “ancestral Russian domain”. In all official documents of the Empire the country was called “the North-Western Land”. However, the crackdown and brainwashing did not prevent the intellectuals of the land from breeding ideas of freedom, equality and national independence. All this resulted in another uprising of 1863-1864. The insurgents wanted to throw off the rule of the Russian Tsar, abolish the slavery of serfdom, and insure the peoples’ right for self-determination.

By the start of the uprising, Francišak Bahuševič had already graduated from Vilnia gymnasium in 1861 and enrolled into St. Petersburg University where he studied physics and mathematics. However, two years later he was expelled after participation in the students’ protests. He returned home and worked as a school teacher in the village of Dociški. He embraced the 1863-1864 uprising with excitement. The young teacher immediately joined the ranks of the insurgents.

However, the uprising did not succeed to defeat the prevailing forces of the Empire. In one of the skirmishes Francišak Bahuševič was wounded. In order to escape repressions after the uprising had been crushed, he went into hiding and, eventually, moved to Ukraine. There Bahuševič managed to enrol into the famous Law Lyceum in the town of Nežyn. After graduation he spent some time working in Ukrainian and Russian courts. After amnesty had been granted to former insurgents, he was finally able to return to Vilnia. There he worked as a lawyer. Bahuševič made his priority to help out peasants and the city’s poor during their trials. There, in Vilnia, Bahuševič also felt the urge to write. He published two books of verses “Dudka Bielaruskaja” (‘Belarusian Pipe’) and “Smyk Bielaruski” (‘Belarusian Violin Bow’). He wrote them in the Belarusian language – the very same way people of the Vilnia region spoke. It is also noteworthy that Bahuševič used Lacinka, the Latin Belarusian alphabet. At that time, it was prohibited to publish books in Belarusian language in the Russian Empire. That is why both books were printed in Krakow (under the rule of the Habsburg Empire) and Posnan (under the Prussian rule).

The preface to Bahuševič’s book “Dudka Bielaruskaja” became a manifesto of the whole future generation of intellectuals, who aspired to Belarusian cultural and national independence. Francišak Bahuševič wrote: “My dear brothers, children of our motherly land! By offering you my work, I must speak to you a bit about our lot, about the ancient language of our fathers, which is being labelled as the “peasants’ tongue; however, its real name is the “Belarusian language”. I used to think this way myself – that our language is merely peasants’ tongue. However - God bless the people who taught me to read and write – I have been to many places since then, have seen a lot, read a lot: I realised that our language is just as decent and noble as French, German, or any other.”

In the times, when not only printing books in Belarusian, but merely mentioning the word “Belarus” officially was forbidden, this was a bold idea to  declare.
There were many peoples, who lost their native tongue first, like a person on a death bed, who suddenly goes dumb; then they went still completely. Do not abandon our Belarusian language, so that you don’t perish!” Today, this phrase by Bahuševič can be found in all native literature textbooks used by Belarusian school pupils.
The titles of the books by Bahuševič, “Dudka Bielaruskaja” (‘Belarusian Pipe’) and “Smyk Bielaruski” (‘Belarusian Violin Bow’) were deeply metaphoric. “There is a violin bow; someone might get a violin; we have got a “Pipe” already. Perhaps, we would manage to make some music!” he wrote. What began like a solo performance, soon turned into a big orchestra when other writers followed the steps of Francišak Bahuševič. By doing so they shaped Belarusian literary language as well as the people’s mentality and national idea.
Although the kernel of the idea by Bahuševič seemed to be indisputable, the form in which he packed it was not liked by everyone. For example, in the early 20th century his aesthetics already seemed somewhat outdated. In his verses, Bahuševič addressed mostly rural population. He described typical Belarusians as downtrodden peasants: “Our fellow man is stupid as a crow”. As realistic as they were, these verses could hardly provide creative inspiration for the nation. Bahuševič shunned aristocracy and despised urban life:
“I don’t like the city (called “gorod” in Russian)

For it is too crowded and there’s too much stench.”

No wonder, that Vaclau Lastouski, prominent Belarusian intellectual of the first half of the 20th century, finally pleaded: “Enough of these straw roofs! Enough of these wretched peasants in bast shoes! Enough of that misery! Look, how much beauty is around us! Let’s praise this beauty!”

Modern philosopher Valiancin Akudovič points out that at the time of Bahuševič there was another potential “project” of the Belarusian idea – that of Adam Mickievič. Adam Mickievič wrote in Polish about his native Litva – which, in fact, was at the very heart of the Belarusian land. Unlike Bahuševič, Mickievič described it as a deeply romantic, poetic and heroic country. A similar approach was adopted by Uladzimir Karatkievič, one of the most prominent Belarusian writers of the second part of the 20th century. For a present-day reader the romantic adventurers of Karatkievič’s characters are much more appealing than the naive peasants of Bahuševič.
Siarhej Dubaviec, prominent Belarusian intellectual and essayist, debates the notion that Bahuševič “invented” Belarus. He points out to the result of the census, which was conducted in the Russian Empire in 1897 (six years after the first book by Bahuševič was published). According to the census, 5,9 million people in Belarus described themselves as “Belarusians”. This happened in the conditions when the very name of the country was prohibited and the national culture was actively suppressed. Still, 74% of people wrote that their native language was Belarusian. Moreover, 43% of aristocrats also declared that they were Belarusians, let alone the rural population, which signed as Belarusians almost unilaterally.

Of course, the slim book by Bahuševič could not have possibly influenced these enormous masses. Most of these people never saw “Dudka Bielaruskaja” and hardly even heard about it. Francišak Bahuševič did not invent, or even discover Belarus. He was simply the first one to connect important dots on paper. Bahuševič voiced and articulated the idea which was already in the air at his time. However, he did it so vividly and directly that it became plainly obvious: Belarus became Belarus.

By Ales Kudrytski for the ODB