Uladzimer Arlou discovers the past, present and the future of Belarus in his books
With his thick beard, he looks like a Bronze Age bison hunter, or a Viking wearing a sweater instead of a hauberk. Uladzimer Arlou is one of the most talentedcontemporary Belarusian authors, with his literary interests ranging from poetry to historical thrillers.
Uladzimer Arlou was born in 1953 in the ancient Belarusian city of Polatsk. The maternity hospital where he was brought to the world was situated some hundred steps away from Sofia cathedral. When the mother of Uladzimer showed her newborn son to his father, who was standing under the windows of the hospital, the white towers of Sophia were probably the first thing the boy saw. “Possibly, this has predetermined my destiny”, the author says.
As a child, Uladzimer dreamt of becoming a diver, pathoanatomist, journalist, and spy. Instead, he went to Minsk to study history at the Belarusian State University. Uladzimer says he is thankful to his alma mater – not for the knowledge of history it gave him, but for the understanding that the objective information about the past is not something one should look for at a Soviet university.
One night, at a student party, Uladzimer’s friends played a game – each one had to write down 10 names of prominent historical figures. When they compared their results, they have found a number of Japanese shoguns, but not a single Belarusian person. “It was a moment of truth for me”, says Uladzimer Arlou. “For the first time I was painfully confronted with the scale of our historical unconsciousness”.
The novels and stories of Uladzimir Karatkevich, which were published when Aroul was still a student, became a revelation for him. “Owing to the books by Karatkevich I began to discover the true history of Belarus, the history any European nation could be proud of”. As a Polatsk native by birth, historian by education and author by vocation, Uladzimer Arlou made a pledge to fight the national amnesia, which turns Belarusians into faceless population.
The first works of Uladzimer Arlou appeared in student underground publications “Blue Lantern” and “Milavitsa”. The publications resulted into the first acquaintance with “plainclothes literature critics” (all issues of the illegal magazines were confiscated by KGB). Upon graduation, Uladzimer Arlou worked as a teacher, journalist and editor at the publishing house “Mastatskaya Litaratura” in Minsk.
His first official publication, a set of stories “How do You Do, my Dog Rose” was published in 1986. More than 30 books of Arlou were released within the next two decades. Uladzimer Arlou proved to be a skillful promoter of the Belarusian history, with a talent of presenting it in a popular way. His first bestseller “Where Our Ancestors Come From” laid out the basics of the Belarusian history for children and teenagers. However, it immediately ran into problems. The freshly printed copies of the books’ first edition got arrested after someone had complained to the Presidential Administration. Allegedly, Uladzimer Arlou stirred up the national hatred between Belarusians and Russians by showing the Russian Tsar Peter the Great not as a daring reformer, but a butcher of the Belarusian people during the Great Northern War (1700-1721). It took the whole year and several highly positive reviews written by well-known historians from the Belarusian Academy of Sciences to get the book onto the shelves of bookstores. “Where Our Ancestors Come From” has been reprinted three times since then, and was even included into the official school program, remaining there until the recent ideological purge.
In 1997 Uladzimer Arlou was fired from “Mastatskaya Litaratura” for “publishing historical and other dubious literature”. This hasn’t upset him – moreover, he was happy to dedicate more of his time to writing and publishing new “dubious books”. “Kraina Belarus” (‘the Country Belarus’) became a real gift of Uladzimer Arlou to the nation. Never before the history of Belarus has been presented in such a splendid way. A thick colourful volume is an exciting encyclopedia of the Belarusian past, beginning with the age of dinosaurs and ending with the declaration of independence in 1918.
The Belarusian regime never favoured Arlou, but couldn’t help liking his new book. A sales assistant of one of the state-owned bookshops told a story, which happened shortly after “Kraina Belarus” arrived in their store. A couple of people with Presidential Administration IDs in their pockets came storming into the bookshop, asking whether “Kraina Belarus” is already on sale. “It was probably a bad idea to order the book”, thought the assistant, but, surprisingly, the officials ordered a dozen copies of the book “for official matters”. What these “official matters are”, is not a mystery either. President Lukashenka presents “Kraina Belarus” to the winners of international school and student competitions together with a medal, a diploma, and a collection of his speeches. “I hope that Aliaksandar Lukashenka has left one copy of this beautifully printed book for himself”, says Uladzimer Arlou. “Perhaps, he won’t read the text, but I hope he will find a minute-long break from his important state duties and examine its 2000 illustrations. Maybe he would understand that Belarusians have a history of a European nation, which could serve them as a pass into the future”.
Arlou is a keen promoter of the “Polatsk mentality”. Polatsk, which used to be a capital of the most mighty Belarusian principality on the verge of the 1st and 2nd millennium, was also a cultural centre of the land at that time. “I enjoy the profecy by Vasil Nyamchyn, Belarusian astrologer of the 16th century, who said that in the 21st century Polatsk would first become the spiritual and then maybe even the administrative capital of the country”, says Uladzimer Arlou. That is why, when asked which book he is the most proud of, Uladzimer Arlou names his “Mysteries of the Polatsk History”.
Uladzimer Arlou is also famous for his travel essays, which are collected in three books “Ladybug from the 5th Avenue”, “Bite off the Head of a Crow” and “The Hannibal’s Elephants”. “There is Belarusian as well as Gipsy blood in my veins”, says the writer. “Perhaps, this is the reason why travels occupy one of the first places in the hierarchy of my values”. As a historian and a writer, he travels both in space and in time. “One of the most valuable conclusions, which I drew from this experience, is that the world has merely changed its appearance since the times of Ancient Greeks and Romans. The man, however, hasn’t changed a bit since then”.
By Ales Kudrytski
For the Office for a Democratic Belarus
Photos by arlou.org, ODB