Key moments from past year
[b]What will we remember of 2012? What facts and events from our country’s life will attract the most attention from future generations? We can only guess... Time and historians will sift all that we view as important today,analysing each aspect. Of course, the end of the year always inspires such speculation [/b]Alexander Kovalenya, of the Belarusian National Academy of Sciences’ Department for Humanitarian Sciences and Arts, and a doctor of historical sciences, gives us his opinions.Can we use the past to guide our future? It might seem incredible but this is what historians do. Many are found at ancient Neolithic or Bronze Age settlements during summer digs. However, Professor Kovalenya prefers to study little known pages from the Great Patriotic War. His doctoral thesis was devoted to the origin, structure and activity of pro-German unions of youth in Belarus from 1941-1944. One of his colleagues explains, “This is the first fundamental work here or abroad to be devoted to the investigation of a politically acute problem. Until recently, it had failed to be scientifically explained.”
Alexander Kovalenya, of the Belarusian National Academy of Sciences’ Department for Humanitarian Sciences and Arts, and a doctor of historical sciences, gives us his opinions.
Can we use the past to guide our future? It might seem incredible but this is what historians do. Many are found at ancient Neolithic or Bronze Age settlements during summer digs. However, Professor Kovalenya prefers to study little known pages from the Great Patriotic War. His doctoral thesis was devoted to the origin, structure and activity of pro-German unions of youth in Belarus from 1941-1944. One of his colleagues explains, “This is the first fundamental work here or abroad to be devoted to the investigation of a politically acute problem. Until recently, it had failed to be scientifically explained.”
Before discussing historical science or sharing thoughts on the most remarkable events of the past year, Mr.Kovalenya takes us back to Belarus’ past. The National Academy of Sciences’ Archaeological Museum has an exhibition entitled ‘Development of Archaeological Science at the Belarusian NAS’. It’s the only such show here or abroad, presenting the most interesting artefacts discovered by Belarusian archaeologists on our territory. Among them are mammoth bones, arrow heads, coins and, even, whole ancient settlements. The museum is worthy of its own article and artefacts from the exhibition were collected when Mr. Kovalenya headed the Institute (from October 2004). The museum opened in 2007, on the eve of the 1st session of scientists — although Belarusian historians were eager to see it open earlier, in the 1930s (when the Institute of Belarusian Culture — a predecessor of the Academy — was operational).
Mr.Kovalenyajoins me at the History Institute’s beautifully decorated Hall of Sittings — now headed by his pupil, Vyacheslav Danilovich.
Mr.Kovalenya, why do you love history?
I’d like to say that I’ve inherited my passion from my ancestors but, sadly, I know little of them. I remember my mother’s father,Zabelo Alexander; he headed a village council and was a highly educated and respected man. With writer and genealogist Anatoly Statkevich-Cheboganov, I’m researching the roots of this noble family.
My grandfather’s wife,Yustina, was from a wealthy family but my father was a simple man. He graduated from the Mozyr Pedagogical College and then worked in the Kopyl District for some time. I was born in Kopyl in 1946. My father’s business and his participation in the partisan movement inspired my interest in history: Alexander Kovalenya is still remembered in the village of Sadki — where our large family lived — as a teacher, an elementary school head and a partisan. My father was respected by all; he received two orders, showing how highly he was appreciated.
I’m also known in the district — but not as the Belarusian NAS’ academic-secretary, a doctor or a professor. I’m known as a son of the teacher. Young people from neighbouring villages were taught by my father and, as I was told at a scientific conference in Kopyl, he is still remembered widely. I’ve been recognised as an honourary citizen of the district.
Words of memory and history are close in their meaning...
I grew up with people having first hand memories of the war. All my teachers took part and wore great-coats. This also sparked my interest in history. They’d come from the frontline and their high spirits and determination were transferred to us children. I remember excursions to battle fields, where we’d put the graves of our countrymen in order. Later, during my studies at Minsk’s Construction College and my time with the airborne troops, war became a key theme. I’ll always remember one of my commanders (a war participant) who wrote a poem about the Sapun Mountain. He read it to me with deep feeling.
Did you ever wish to join the military?
I did! I even entered Military College but, after studying for a while, I realised that I disliked hiking and living in barracks. I enjoy freedom. Science has no rules so it’s a paradise for anyone eager to learn something new; force produces nothing. Your soul is the most essential element, alongside a methodical approach and some creativity. Wonderfully, the History Institute is filled with a spirit of artistry.
Is the same true of the museum?
Just look at the books our Institute has published recently. Among them is Belarus’ Archaeological Legacy — a richly illustrated album depicting our findings, includingdetails on the place, time and those who discovered them. This mini-encyclopaedia honours the country and its scientific historians. Its release is the event of the year — to be long remembered. In 2009, the first volume of the Great Historical Atlas was published; we are now completing a second volume and are starting work on the third and fourth. The series is a landmark, as our neighbours lack similar editions.
This year, we organised an international scientific-practical conference entitled Republic of Belarus — 20 Years of Independence. Not long ago, a collection of materials was published: a serious edition for researchers, written by experts in history and politics. The conference gathered chairs from all over the Republic, with each participant contributing to our research of recent history.
Interestingly, the Academy’s Institute has its own chair of recent history. We organised the conference jointly with the Academy of Management — under the President of the Republic of Belarus. It was the first such major event of its kind. Among our other recent achievements is the launch of the unique seriesHistory of the Belarusian State. A second volume is soon to be released.It throws light on the origins of our nation, describing its development, and looks at Belarus from its Russian Empire days until 2010. It’s the first such profound study and a true achievement. Each school and university should have a copy. I speak with authority, having a teaching diploma. I also lectured at the Belarusian Maxim Tank State Pedagogical University for a long time.
Is it difficult to write about modern history?
Yes, since we cannot give any ‘final words’: our heirs will be better placed to do so. We must try to be objective, with ascientific approach. It’s not like writing fiction, since each word and date is important. It’s also difficult to ‘write history’ when those who took part are still alive. We’ve done our best to describe everything in detail, avoiding exaggeration or underestimation. We need to put aside our own individual points of view, creating a blank sheet of facts and objective analysis. Time will show whether we’re right about social trends. Really, great ideas can be seen from a distance. We also need to demonstrate what’s been achieved so far.
I’ve travelled a great deal through Belarus recently and have seen how beautiful our cities and villages have become. People’s eyes are shining. Over the past 20 years, we’ve acquired a new view of ourselves and our neighbours; we are now more bold and brave. Don’t you love our agro-towns? They’re different and people treat them differently. They represent a trend forwards. Our desire to nurture the agro-complex allows Belarus to be among the few European states supplying its own domestic food needs to the full. We’re also exporting high quality agricultural products. I believe that our agricultural industry is in a good state. Of course, rural areas have problems yet to be tackled but progress is evident.
This year, over 10 tonnes of grain and corn were harvested. Do you consider this worth remarking upon?
Definitely! All citizens should be proud of this achievement by our agricultural workers. I’m convinced that the figure would have been higher if the weather had been kinder. I remember when 1,500kg per hectare was a record; now, 4,000kg is the norm. Our Snov farm collected 9,000kg — so the sky is the limit. Our soil isn’t perfect but high harvests show that we boast a profound culture of grain growing and developed infrastructure. This has been achieved by our people, with help from talented scientists. Of course, we illustrate such achievements and landmarks in our books. One classical author wrote ‘ploughs are the starting point’and it’s true. Our nation is built from agriculture upwards, although we’re now highly intellectual and cultured. We’ve overcome all obstacles thrown at us through history.
We all know that Belarus is situated at the geopolitical crossroads, at the centre of Europe. Global spiritual processes generate new energy here. Dozens of wars have affected our territory, killing people and destroying their achievements, hampering our progress. According to some estimates, around a hundred conflicts have passed through Belarus. However, we’ve managed to retain so many national traditions — even more than our neighbours. We boast our own view of the world and paths to harmonious existence. We believe that tolerance and open heartshelp us flourish,rather than obstinacy or ‘double standards’ (as observed in some countries). We’ve preserved our language, culture, traditions and spiritual and material treasures — despite many art works, books and precious archives being taken out of the country during cruel times of war. Morality was absent during the period of German occupation. We even risked losing our Belovezhskaya Pushcha, since its trees were steadily being cut. We sometimes fail to tell our foreign friends and coming generations of our spiritual strength but we should be proud of it. The History Institute is working to promote this approach.
Scientist-historians don’t just dig up the past; rather, they work for the future, promoting our rich historical-cultural legacy and achievements. Every year, we organise dozens of events countrywide; this year, I attended 46 conferences, delivering speeches. We’re eager to share our knowledge. InKopyl, the local history teachers and school heads talked to me for an hour and a half, discussing the Kopyl District’s rich history, among other subjects.
The conference Kopyl: History from Ancient Times to Modern Days wasorganised jointly by the History Institute and the District Executive Committee — dedicated to the 360th anniversary of the town’s acquiring the Magdeburg Right. It had three sections, hosted by the gymnasium, museum and District Executive Committee. Each attracted crowds who stayed late into the evening. Related materials will soon be published, as is now usual following a conference. In Kopyl, schoolchildren also gave speeches and we awarded those young people who have done most to study their local history. Our Institute expressed its gratitude, inspiring young people’s further interest.
Interest is also being seen among those with no professional connection to history — such as businessman and writer Anatoly Statkevich-Cheboganov. Not long ago, he was awarded a ‘Patron of Books’ diploma by the Information Ministry. Representatives of the Belarusian diaspora in Russia have shown interest in his seriesI’m Your Son — Chronicles of the Belarusian Gentry,which has been on show at our Embassy.
It’s no secret that we’ve a different outlook these days, concentrating on facts and the contribution of Belarus to world development. We should be remembering all the talented people who were born here and there are a great many — including Kazimir Semenovich who, 260 years ago, proposed the idea of a multi-stage rocket.
To arouse people’s interest in their native land, Anatoly Vasilevich has been writing books — distributed all over the world — and giving reports at scientific conferences. It’s wonderful but I think we should have a hundred or more such fundamental researchers. With Mr.Vasilevich, we’ve decided to establish an organisation (perhaps public) to study family trees. We hope that the history of our homeland will be viewed differently as a result. Presenting his books at the National Library, he spoke of setting up a fund to co-ordinate such activities. Some have money and the desire to learn more about their family tree, while others are capable of working with archives and some have journalistic talent, being able to write about history, interviewing eye witnesses.
It’s a good idea and we’ve already discussed it several times — including at an international conference in Polotsk. A researcher’s approach envisages the publishing of a document but scientists are interested in analysing data. How do these two aspects interrelate? A great job will have been done when we manage to analyse everything published.
As far as I know, the History Institute is doing much to study our historical legacy, studying documents. Our scientists pin great hopes on foreign archives...
There are about 600 books on the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in our archives, uniting materials which shed light on the Medieval period of Belarusian history. We’ve published eight books so far, with the ninth being prepared — all accompanied by commentary. We plan to publish around a hundred editions on the history of our modern territory. We’ll be objective, avoiding hypothesis or speculation. Afterwards, we’ll be able to prepare fundamental works — all based on facts. With the Department for Archives and with help from Vladimir Adamusho, we’re working on this now, aiming to publish objective editions. Let our heirs judge us. We need to uncover an important layer of documents. Interestingly, when we arrived in St. Petersburg to continue studying the Belovezhskaya Pushcha’s history, we discovered documents wrapped in splintin the 17th or 18th century and since unused.
History is a living science, with our understanding adapting as new documents are discovered. We still have many documents to study, so the work of the History Institute is unique: all papers are being verified and commented upon by professional historians. Those employed at higher educational establishments have no time to work in archives, since they sometimes need to lecture 800 hours a year. The History Institute is proud of its work with foreign archives, although such trips do not always bear fruit. If we’re lucky, a discovery can be made in just one day — as when we are digging.
We’re ‘ploughing a virgin field’ and are proud to do so. We wish to present our history in a way fitting for an independent state, giving a national view. Otherwise, there is no need for historians. Why should the state allocate funding if not for our historians to write our national history?
We don’t work in isolation, liaising closely with Ukraine and Russia. Already, several agreements have been signed with the Moscow State University, the Institute of Slavic Studies and the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of General History. We also co-operate with Siberian historians. This is how our history is being written.
By Ivan Zhdanovich