Retracing the path of the first Belarusian newspaper
It was a cold day of November 10, 1906. The air of Vilnius was filled with the odours of burning coal, fallen leaves and the genlte scent of snow, which was just about to start falling. Two men were walking down the street, clutching a sheet of paper and reading it so intensively as if it were a prophecy or a map of the island full of treasures. In a sense, it was. Two brothers, Ivan and Anton Lutskevich, were holding in their hands the first issue of the first full-fledged newspaper in the Belarusian language. Something, this land has never seen before.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Vilnius was a bustling multicultural city, situated on the European outskirts of the senile and weary Russian Empire. For ages, Russia and its conquered provinces had been kept more or less solidly together by brutal force. Uprisings of the suppressed nations, czarist crackdowns and liberalization periods changed each other. Combined with the social unrest, all this finally brought about the first Russian revolution in 1905. The monarchy survived, but had to make some liberal concessions. This, in turn, stirred up various national intellectual circles to activity, which later resulted in the birth of new modern European nations, such as Lithuanian, Ukrainian, and, of course, Belarusian.
“Don’t you think that we want to serve just the aristocrats, or exclusively the common folk. No, never! We shall serve all deprived Belarusian people, we shall try to become a mirror of life, reflecting the sunlight into the darkness”, read the first editorial of Nasha Niva. Until 1905, printing books and newspapers in the Belarusian language in the Russian empire was illegal. No wonder Nasha Niva was like a ray of light for people all over Belarus, especially in small towns and villages. The newspaper spoke their language! It was all the more helpful that the newspaper was published in two versions – one in Cyrillic and another in the Latin alphabet, so that the Belarusians used to reading Russian or Polish could understand it.
Together with Aliaksandar Ulasau, a big amicable man with a splendid moustache and a small country estate, which gave him some financial independence founded Nasha Niva. In Belarusian, “Nasha Niva” means “Our Field”. In the field of Belarusian culture there was a lot of work indeed. Unlike with previous attempts to create the Belarusian-language press, Nasha Niva was not directed against the regime in the first place, but aimed at bringing up the modern nation with the help of information, culture and education. As a result, Nasha Niva became much more than just a newspaper. Soon it has grown into an extensive network of subscribers and correspondents, united most of the prominent Belarusian intellectuals and writers of that time, and largely contributed to the development of the modern Belarusian language. Nasha Niva covered a whole range of the topics and themes, from the elections of the Russian parliament (Duma) to new tips on farming that were borrowed from Denmark. A special place was given to literature. Many young authors, who published in Nasha Niva, later became Belarusian classics, including Maxim Bahdanovich and Yanka Kupala who also was the newspaper’s Editor-in-Chief in 1914-1915.
For Lutskevich brothers Nasha Niva was a tremendously important project, but it was not the only project they managed. Being the founders of the Belarusian social-democratic party Hramada, they were also the driving force behind the proclamation of Belarusian independence in 1918. Without Nasha Niva and its enormous political and cultural influence over the emerging nation, this would have hardly been possible.
However, the Belarusian People’s Republic shortly fell under the heavy steps of Soviet Russia. The communist ideology labeled Nasha Niva a “bourgeous-nationalistic mouthpiece” and locked its remaining copies in secret archives. The circle of Nasha Niva authors literally melted in the merciless fire of Stalinist purges and the two world wars. It appeared like the story of Nasha Niva, as well as of independent Belarus, was finally over. Still, the roller-coaster of history made another breathtaking twist. In 1991 Belarus regained its independence and Nasha Niva revived again.
Similarly to 1906, Nasha Niva was reestablished in Vilnius in 1991 by the group of Belarusian-speaking intellectuals. With the famous literature critic and essayist Siarhey Dubavets as its Editor-in-Chief, Nasha Niva of the 1990’s was more of a magazine than a newspaper, less centered on current events, and more concerned with the large-scale problems of nation-building. It featured sophisticated essays, literary works – both Belarusian and foreign, and became a testing field for ideas of new Belarusian intellectuals.
“When my colleagues and I began to revive Nasha Niva in 1991, we had to follow the footsteps of Lutskevich brothers”, says Siarhey Dubavets in his Radio Liberty program “The thing is, that the newspaper was being revived in the still-existing USSR, which was a Soviet sequel to the Russian empire… The whole situation was not much different from 1906.”
After the Soviet Union finally broke up in the late 1991, the newspaper moved from Vilnius to Minsk, the capital of the newly independent Belarus.
In 2000 Andrey Dynko became a new Editor-in-Chief of Nasha Niva, which also marked a rather significant change in the newspaper’s editorial policy. Nasha Niva evolved to a weekly newspaper with a strong interest in politics and other current affairs, although retaining a significant emphasis on culture in general and literature in particular. According to the new concept, Nasha Niva should reflect all sides of life of Belarusian life just like it did in 1906, from politics to sports, from stock prices to art exhibitions. This policy is being continued by the present Editor-in-Chief Andrey Skurko.
When you compare the circumstances in which “the original” and “the renewed” Nasha Niva existed, you will find striking similarities. Today, just as in the 1910’s, Belarus struggles under the authoritarian regime. Back in the 1910’s and now, Nasha Niva, despite its legal status, have always been under the tremendous pressure from the state. In the czarist Russia the issues of Nasha Niva were confiscated on a regular basis. In Belarus, the newspaper struggles under a ban on distribution and subscription. Aliaksandar Ulasau, the Editor-in-Chief of the “old” Nasha Niva, spent two months in prison in 1910 on charges of publishing an article, which was “dangerous to the state order”. In March 2006, Andrey Dynko, the Editor-in-Chief of the renewed Nasha Niva, was sentenced to 15 days in prison on falsified charges – in reality, together with other journalists of Nasha Niva, he was just bringing warm food and clothes to the people protesting in the center of Minsk against the manipulated presidential elections. Among the present staff writers of Nasha Niva most have already spent some time in prison on political charges.
Then and now, Nasha Niva was and remains anything but a lucrative enterprise. Back in the 1910’s Ivan Lutskevich, who was a passionate collector of antiques, could not only make his own living and create a unique collection of Belarusian rarities through his operations, but also struggled to provide additional funding to Nasha Niva. Today, the newspaper has to rely mainly on donations from its readers and sympathizers in Belarus and all over the world, since private firms are afraid to advertise with the free press, fearing governmental crackdowns.
However, some things are also different from 1906. In the early 20th century there was no internet. Today the newspaper’s website www.nn.by is the leading Belarusian-language source of information on the internet. Belarus is independent now, unlike in 1906, when the full sovereignty was something one could barely dare to dream about, let alone publicly write about it. And, finally, the renewed Nasha Niva outlived its predecessor by almost two times, which gives hope that things do change to better, and that the work of people who created Nasha Niva 100 years ago was not in vain.
It was a cold day of September 10, 1939. Anton Lutskevich tried to make his hands warm by breathing on them, but didn’t work. The air, which entered his prison cell through the iron bars, was filled with the odours of burning coal, fallen leaves and the sharp scent of snow, which had already started to fall. Anton thought about his brother Ivan who died of tuberculosis in the Polish mountain town of Zakopane in 1919. Could they imagine, walking down Vilnius streets back in 1906, that everything would turn out that way? That all their precious dreams, Nasha Niva, independent Belarus, their friends and their lives, will be swept away by the bloody communist tide? Anton knew that Gulag would be his next destination, and realized he might never make it back home. “This will probably be a very long winter”, he whispered. Their field might not sprout for a long while, despite of all the seeds which had been planted there. “I guess we’ll just have to wait for another spring to come”, Anton thought and closed his eyes.
By Ales Kudrytsky for the ODB
Andrey Dynko after being released from prison
Democratic activists openly reading the Nasha Niva in one of Minsk central streets
By Ales Kudrytsky