Monument honours Kolas

The 130th anniversary of the birth of Yakub Kolas is celebrated this year. Meanwhile, 40 years ago, a famous sculpture ensemble appeared in the square named after the People’s Poet, created by Zair Azgur. The sculptor captured the essence not just of the poet, public figure and academic but of the man he knew so well
By Olga Yevmenova

They met in 1924, when Azgur was completing his studies in Vitebsk. It was a highly unusual occurrence for a modest student to be asked to create a bust of such an important figure. The work was destined for Vitebsk’s Local History Museum. Azgur described that first meeting in his memoir That Which We Remember...: ‘I saw the famous and favourite People’s poet for the first time in front of me and looked at him as at a miracle. … I sculpted fast, but was very nervous. I dropped clay and a piece fell onto Yakub Kolas’ shoulder. I was embarrassed and apologised a lot but he understood my state and suggested that we take a break. He told me that literature is an art requiring a calm mood and that it might be the same for sculptors. The main thing is not to be anxious while working’.

The bust was completed and approved by the family council, on which sat another famous poet: Yanka Kupala. “From then on, Azgur remained friendly with Kolas and his family,” explains Yelena Koren, a research officer at the Memorial Museum-Studio of Zair Azgur. In his memoir, Zair wrote of Kolas: ‘There was something of the ‘peasant’ in him: healthy and, I’d say, earthy. Sometimes, Kolas appeared moody and, even, withdrawn. Then, I thought how difficult his life experience had been — journeying through Belarus, prisons, the Underground movement, war, hunger and other tests’.

While Kolas was alive, Azgur sculpted him several times, including for the group for the square in 1960 — four years after the writer had died.

Ms. Koren, looking at the monument, we can hardly say that Kolas and Azgur were friends. There’s no feeling of a personal relationship.

That wasn’t the aim of the sculpture and Azgur didn’t tend to portray people in that way; he usually created generalised portraits set against a specific historical time.

On either side of the monument to the writer Zair placed heroes from his books: Grandfather Talash, his son Panas, Symon the Musician and Hanna. Were living models used?

The image of Grandfather Talash is completely authentic, as Azgur knew the legendary partisan. The granddaughter of artist Valery Altufiev, Valeria, modelled for Hanna. We have no information on the others.

Phoning Valeria Sergeevna, I ask about her modelling for Hanna and she agrees to meet me at Yakub Kolas Square so that I can truly compare. I ask her how old she was, looking at the girl of bronze, and she tells me, “I was 15-16, at high school. I’d known Zair since childhood as my grandfather’s cottage was near his. In summer, we gathered together.”

Did you have such braids?

Hanna has shorter ones. I’ve always had long hair. Her figure is also not fully mine. I remember Azgur saying, ‘rural girls can’t have such elegant legs’. He added more clay to the calves and heels, saying ‘Now, these are the legs of a rural girl’.

Was it difficult to be a model for Azgur?

We chatted as he worked and I posed just 2-3 times. After that, there was no need for my presence. He was a great anatomist! This is important for a sculptor. 
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