The Men We Choose

Maryja Martysevich is a prominent young Belarusian writer and translator. In the essay that appears in her book, ‘Dragons Fly for Spawning’, Martysevich presents a rather critical and non-traditional view of Belarusian men and a personal reflection on what she thinks is the cause of most Belarusian past and present troubles. The essay was written in the aftermath of protests that erupted in March 2006 following the rigged presidential elections. Maryja Martysevich also runs a popular blog and, in a truly post-modernistic nature, marks her main ideas with a ™ sign.


The Men We Choose
I like men a lot, especially Belarusian ones. The reason of my fondness towards Belarusian men can be easily explained: throughout my entire life I have been non-pragmatically and irresistibly attracted to losers™. There is something ineffably touching in the way they muffle themselves up in their scarves, smiling guiltily, charmingly giving way to their inferiority complexes, hesitant to make the first step, stand up to their beliefs, find their place under the Sun. All this enchants me. It makes me think.
‘For I’m a muzhik, a stupid muzhik(1)’. Ever since I was a child, I understood the word ‘muzhik’ in the refrain of this poem not as a class but as a gender definition. Somehow I don’t think that Yanka Kupala was urging his people to cast off the yoke of oppression. The same goes for authors of other classic texts which we had to learn by heart in order to pass exams in Belarusian literature; the texts which we still see in our restless, retrospective dreams. It seems to me that these authors merely presented their worldview and comprehended the truth that they had been pre-programmed for a failure in both their creative work and life.
The last 200 years have proven that Belarus is mission impossible. All the more so, one admires the heroes who believe and rise in spite of everything (‘What if something comes out of it?’). However, unlike Hollywood heroes, they do it in order to lose, and to die losing. The best men in our history are members of Vilnia (2) Belarusian gymnasium’s rugby team who, exhausted and covered with mud, fixing their broken pince-nez, are leaving the field where they have been smashed by the team from Eaton. The only thing we have left, sitting on the stands, is to be moved with this sad finale.
Chronologically, it was Pauliuk Bahrym (3) who became the first loser of modern Belarusian literature. As an adolescent, he was recruited into the Russian army after someone found a notebook with his Belarusian-language poems. Later he became a taciturn blacksmith whose most successful project was some banal girandole. However, the model loser was described by Frantsishak Bahushevich (4) in his poem, ‘Things Will Get Bad’. Considering the new cultural situation of that time the title appears to be highly emblematic. The poem’s main character, poor Alindarka, who happened to be born in March, saw this as a mystical reason for all his bad luck. A woman christened Alindarka in a river; his strange name was given to him by misunderstanding; he committed no crime but landed in prison. The poem ends with the words “Thank God, he was released, the same day he was once christened”. A looser is a thread hero of the Belarusian socio-cultural space, beginning with Kastus Kalinouski (5), who failed in everything. Some say the history is written by the winners. The history of Belarus is an exception, because it was written by the losers™ (its short version (6) had been written by one of the cult losers, Vatslau Lastouski). Our unofficial classics are all losers. These are sweet tubercular patients Maksim Bahdanovich(7), Ihnat Kancheuski (8), (Branislau Tarashkevich (9), Maksim Haretski (10), Frantsishak Aliahnovich(11) who died violent death, Uladzimir Dubouka (12), new Bahrym, Siarhey Hrahouski, who was born in the village of Nobel but went through GULAG and never visited Stockholm; Jewish-Belarusian poet Arkadz Heine, who died in 1942 in the Holocaust, and a multitude of others who were losers to such an extent that nobody knows anything about their fate – those buried in Kurapaty (13), the Belarusian Valhalla. However, the sum of their misfortunes has created the context of our existence, and this is their major success.
Well, here is the time we have to live in. Midday break in a school, only girls remain in the classroom. We shuffle aside chairs and tables in order to make space for a class disco, and, generally, think positive. The boys, pale-faced and red-cheeked, with their eyes like cornflowers and hair like flax, with their IQ potentially equal to 130, with flat-footedness, curvature of the spine, and other reasons to avoid obligatory military service, read about their general defeat from school readers. They take it for granted, the same way they learn from textbooks about their inborn lack of iodine; they absorb their failure with the first swallow of port wine in the school backyard. A Belarusian is a loser™, there is no escape. Loser™ is a universal karma of every man who bears the tax duty stamp Belarus, it embraces the intellectual sphere as well as everyday life. While listening to their poems, cleaning up their socks scattered over the floor, or listening to their speeches during political campaigns, you understand that them being losers has a genetic cause.
I personally do not know any Belarusian man who would be perfect enough to earn his creator a decent mark in a labour education class.
In the Belarusian language, the word ‘Svaboda’ (‘Freedom’) has a feminine gender. Moreover, its synonym – ‘Volya’ – is a popular woman’s name. On 20 March 2006, when Aliyaksandr Milinkevich (15), another charming loser, had finished his speech on the October Square, the crowd was addressed by his wife, Ina Kulej. It became immediately clear who was the real master of their village house somewhere in the Shchuchyn region. ‘That’s a presidential candidate we needed!’, someone said. ‘Why don’t women run for president in our country anyways?’ Still, there will never be matriarchy in our country. It also means that there will never be a revolution in Belarus. One meets a pregnant friend, put a hand over her belly and asks her ‘Who are you expecting a girl or a loser?’
However, this incompleteness, this creative neglect of form and contents conceals some kind of bashful sexuality. It arouses the same kind of libido which can be described by a verb ‘shkadavatsi’ which in a Belarusian dialect means ‘to take pity’. In the post-war years, it took my grandfather Ihnat about twenty-four hours to walk thirty kilometers along the Palesse railroad after his work shift. At home, he collapsed into the hands of my grandmother Maryja. Another grandfather, Anton, was appointed to revive a collective farm somewhere in the Pastavy region after the war. There he had a love affair with a woman working as agronomist. This resulted in the grandfather’s expulsion from the Communist Party. Ashamed, he returned home, as a burden to my grandmother Zoya. When both grandfathers became old, they described their relationships with wives with the same phrase: “Her whole life she took pity of me”. Freudian logics of Belarusian women of all generations can be written upon local valentines as “I pity you, therefore I love you”. Today, when you meet him at home after work, this manager of wooden plough and scythe, you tousle his hair, kiss him into his mat, and tell him as usual: “Howdy, my dear loser!”
March 25, 2006
Translated by Ales Kudrytski
1 A quote from a popular poem by Yanka Kupala, a prominent Belarusian poet, see more
 ‘Muzhik’ is a Belarusian word which has two meanings – ‘peasant’ (old-fashioned) and ‘man’ (informal).
2 Vilnia – traditional Belarusian name of Vilnius.
3 Pauliuk Bahrym – Belarusian poet, who was conscripted into the army as a convict-soldier for a term of twenty-five years. He was not heard of thereafter as a poet and died in 1891.
4 Frantsishak Bahushevich – Belarusian lawyer and poet, who published in Krakow his book of Belarusian-language poetry ‘Dudka belaruskaya’ in 1891.
5 Kastus Kalinouski – leader of the 1863-1864 uprising against Russian rule on Belarusian lands. The uprising was crushed, Katus Kalinouski was hanged in Vilnius. 
6 ‘A Short History of Belarus’ – one of the first popular books about Belarusian national history, written by Vatslau Lastouski, prominent member of national independence movement, who was murdered during Stalin’s purges.
7 Maksim Bahdanovich – Belarusian poet, read more about him here
8 Ihnat Kancheuski – Belarusian philosopher and poet, author of the programmatic philosophical essay ‘Along the Eternal Road’.
9 Branislau Tarashkevich – Belarusian politician and linguist, creator of the first modern Belarusian grammar (1918). Executed during Stalin’s purges.
10 Maksim Haretski – prominent Belarusian prose writer and literary critic. Executed in 1937.
11 Frantsishak Aliahnovich, Belarusian writer, famous for his accounts of being arrested by Soviet secret services. Killed by an assassin in Vilnius in 1944.
12 Uladzimir Dubouka, Belarusian poet. He spent 27 years in Stalin’s concentration camps.
13 Kurapaty – site of mass executions during Stalin times near Minsk.

14 Aliaksandr Milinkevich, opposition candidate during the 2006 presidential elections.