There is a lovely park in the centre of Minsk on a bank of the winding Svislach River. Walking down its mosscovered lanes under the shade of maples and limes, you will eventually reach a fountain. Bronze-cast naked girls send their flower garlands swimming in the water. This symbolizes Kupala, the pagan-rooted Midsummer Night celebration in Belarus.
Even today, the holiday is a major event, with groups of young men and women jumping over fires (purging themselves of the influence of evil forces), swimming in lakes and rivers under the star-lit sky and then going on a search for the magic Paparats- Kvetka (fern flower), which is said to blossom on Kupala night only. Even though biologists say that fern doesn’t produce flowers, there is at least one person, who has proven to be a real treasure-seeker, who might have found Paparats-Kvetka. His name is Yanka Kupala – a poet, after whose name this park in Minsk was called.
By some nearly mystical coincidence, the poet, whose real name was Ivan Lutsevich, was born on a Midsummer Night of 1882 in Vyazynka, a small village near Minsk. His parents were one of many impoverished noble families, who worked on the land that they rented from more well-off aristocrats.
Kupala helped his family on the field, and also worked as a tutor, clerk, and a brewer.
Feeling the itch of creative writing, he first published a couple of sentimental poems in Polish language but, eventually, switched to writing in his native Belarusian. His first Belarusian language poem “Muzhyk” (‘country man’) was published in 1905. This was a monologue of a peasant – a man, who is disrespected and humiliated by everyone but who, at the same time, feeds the whole country.
Kupala’s early poems in their form very much resembled folk songs. They were also a voice of social protest against injustice. Of course, Czarist censors could hardly accept such titles as “The Song of a Free Man”. They qualified many of Kupala’s poems as "anti-state," since reading it, "one cannot but notice an open ncouragement of obviously rebellious actions." Since 1907 Yanka Kupala’s poems and articles began to appear regularly in the weekly newspaper Nasha Niva. In 1908, he even moved to Vilnia (Vilnius), where Nasha Niva’s office was situated.
Kupala’s first book “Zhaleyka” (‘folk flute’) was published in St.Petersburg in 1908. Soon it was confiscated by censors who described it as “anti-state propaganda”. In 1914, Kupala became Nasha Niva’s editor-in-chief.
Kupala also proved himself as a talented playwright. He wrote a comedy ”Paulinka”, which is now the visit-card
of the major Belarusian state theatre (also named after Yanka Kupala). Each season opens with “Paulinka”. While “Paulinka” is an entertaining show, Kupala’s other play – “Scattered Nest” – is a tragedy showing the life of a struggling peasant family that looses its land. Written in 1913, the play tells a story of people who face the tough choice between silent endurance and joining “The Grand Convention”, the gathering of all Belarusians who discuss how they want to live –a metaphor of future Belarusian independence.
In the 1920s, when the prospects for real Belarusian independence were becoming increasingly vague, many Belarusian intellectuals embraced the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic as a chance for the nation to continue its development, albeit within the Soviet Union. Anxious to win the people’s loyalty, the Soviet regime at that time pursued the policy of “Belarusification”. Belarusian-language newspapers were published, Belarusian-
language schools were established throughout the republic, and Belarus was even allowed to found its own
Academy of Sciences (where Yanka Kupala eventually found a job). He also went on writing poems, although censorship methodically banned those of them which appeared to be critical of the Soviet regime.
In 1922, Kupala finished a tragicomedy play “Tutejshyja” (‘the locals’), that tells a story about life in Belarus during the turbulent times of World War I, when Belarus changed hands between different occupying powers – Polish, Russian, German and even experienced a short period of independence. The main character, Mikita Znosak, is a typical Belarusian living in Minsk, who despises his Belarusian roots and tries to adjust to every new power like a chameleon.
The official critics accused Kupala of “bourgeous sentiments” and “opposing the dictatorship of proletariat”
in his play. Today, “Tutejshyja” is just as politically sharp and topical as it was at that time, and this is one of the reasons why it is not really welcome on stages of state-owned theatres in the present-day Bealrus. More than 80 years after the play was written, there are still too many Mikita Znosaks in the government, it seems.
In 1922, Kupala and a number of other Belarusian poets attempted to found a “Vir” writer association. When the secret services began to check the prospective members of “Vir”, all of them were given negative characteristics. Kupala was described as “Belarusian chauvinist”. The association was declared illegal.
In 1924 Kupala finished his major poem “The Untitled”, which praised Belarus’ fight for independence and called upon people to continue their struggle until Belarus becomes completely free. Nevertheless, in 1925 Kupala, as part of official “stick and carrot policy” was awarded the official title of “People’s Poet of Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. Increasingly critical of the Bolshevik regime, Yanka Kupala wrote his “Anniversary Moods” (1927), dedicated to the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution. He praised the events of the Bolshevik coup with such exaggerated pathos that it closely bordered on mockery. Such creative boldness irritated the Soviet regime, which, it appeared, was running out of carrots, and more and more inclined to grab a big stick.
In the 1930s the period of “Belarusification” came to an end. Stalin launched a massive campaign of repressions, which swept away most of Belarusian intellectuals. Kupala, as all other major Soviet authors that were still alive, was forced to write poems full of praise to the Communist regime glorifying the “builders of the socialism”. In Belarus, a mock trial of the so-called “Belarus Liberation Union” was launched. Of course, there was no such anti-Soviet organization in reality; the whole process was made up as a pretext to eliminate or intimidate into full submission Belarusian intellectuals.
After long and brutal questionings Kupala was so worn out, physically as well as mentally, that he made an attempt to commit suicide. Recovering in hospital after his suicide attempt, completely broken, Kupala signed the so-called “Open Letter from Y.Kupala”, in which he renounced his national ideas. After that, the old Yanka Kupala vanished.
In the 1930s, the poet wrote pro- Soviet poems and articles, which, with some exceptions, had a rather questionable artistic quality. However, this was exactly what the Soviet regime needed. In 1941 Kupala was awarded the Lenin Prize for his 1930s’ “creative work”.
During World War II Kupala was evacuated to Moscow. On 28 June 1942, he died under mysterious circumstances.
All we know is that he fell down from a high marble staircase in the “Moscow” hotel.
There are three versions of the poet’s death. The official version claimed it was nothing more than an unfortunate accident. Allegedly, the poet fainted (some other sources claim he was drunk), leaned on the handrail and fell down a the flight of stairs.
According to another version, the NKVD (the predecessor organization of the KGB) was responsible for Kupala’s death. There have never been thorough investigation into his death – or if there was, its results have never been made public. Perhaps, some ugly truth is still being hidden? After all, the poet was indeed repressed and harassed by KGB agents, who spread information (either by mistake or deliberately false) that he kept contacts with Nazis in the occupied Belarus. It was claimed, the Nazis renamed one of the Minsk streets after him. In reality, though, the street in question was named after Ivan Lutskevich, one of the founding fathers of Belarusian independence in 1918. The original name of Yanka Kupala (Ivan Lutsevich) was nearly identical, except that it lacked “k” in the last name – a minor detail that was easy to overlook.
The third version argues, that it was another, though now successful, suicide attempt by Yanka Kupala.
Throughout the whole creative work of Yanka Kupala, in his most powerful poems, you will find a motive of a kurgan.
Kurgans are ancient graves, where our ancestors and their treasures are buried. Such kurgans are found in abundance in Belarus. In his poems, Kupala climbed kurgans, revealed their treasures and revived old heroes buried there.
Perhaps, Kupala indeed found the magic flower of Paparats, which, according to the legend, grows on top of a kurgan?
This is what Siarhey Dubavets, a prominent Belarusian literary critic, writes about Kupala: “The idea of uncovering treasures, which lie buried in kurgans, is greatly attractive to people. And it’s a real miracle when a magician appears and shows them the treasures which they don’t see, even though they literally stand on them. The enormous emotional heat, energy of his works stirs and awakens people’s minds. His simple words reach people’s hearts and remain there forever”. Yanka Kupala was the founder of a new Byelorussian literature – its architect, who shaped its appearance for many years to come a trailblazer like Shevchenko in Ukrainian and
Mickiewicz in Polish culture. Belarusian intellectuals often call the Belarusians “nation of poets”. Of all Belarusian poets Kupala is, undoubtedly, the greatest – not only because of the quality of his talent, but also because his poems helped build the nation and shape its conscience.
And, Say, Who Goes There?
by Yanka Kupala (translated
by Vera Rich)
And, say, who goes there? And,
say, who goes there?
In such a mighty throng assembled,
And what do those lean shoulders
bear as load,
Those hands stained dark with
blood, those feet bast-sandal
All their grievance!
And to what place do they this
And whither do they take it to
To the whole world!
And who schooled them thus,
many million strong,
Bear their grievance forth, roused
them from slumbers long?
Want and suffering!
And what is it, then, for which so
long they pined,
Scorned throughout the years,
they, the deaf, the blind?
To be called human
The Mitskevichs’ house in Vyazynka outside Minsk
The monument to Yanka Kupala in Minsk Themonument to Yanka Kupala in Minsk
A fountain in the parc named after Yanka Kupala