[b]Vyacheslav Bondarenko explores the history of our people and our country [/b] Not long ago, he was known as a radio DJ and music critic in Belarus and Russia but then he appeared on TV as a talk show host. On top of that, Vyacheslav has for several years been secretly writing about 19th-century literature and the history of WWI. His papers have now been published and appear regularly in Minsk and Moscow. Europeans have also become acquainted with this historian, who studied philology at University. How does one man cope with so many roles? Mr. Bondarenko speaks about his many-sided career: Art is as essential to me as air.
Not long ago, he was known as a radio DJ and music critic in Belarus and Russia but then he appeared on TV as a talk show host. On top of that, Vyacheslav has for several years been secretly writing about 19th-century literature and the history of WWI. His papers have now been published and appear regularly in Minsk and Moscow. Europeans have also become acquainted with this historian, who studied philology at University. How does one man cope with so many roles? Mr. Bondarenko speaks about his many-sided career: Art is as essential to me as air.
Does publishing literary papers bring enough money to pay for food, clothes and travelling?
As regards finances, I’m satisfied with the money I’m paid for my books and papers, which is sufficient to allow me to travel.
How do you find time to write so much and work on radio and TV? Can you describe your usual working day?
My days are diverse and very busy with filming and working on scripts. Of course, I do my best to devote as much time as possible to my family. Sadly, I don’t meet friends as often as I would wish as I have a very tough schedule.
You once mentioned that little is said about the history of WWI in Belarus, although you have published several books on the topic. Why is it necessary to speak about a war that took place a century ago?
My interest in WWI began with a photo of my great-grandfather. At his graduation from Military College he was photographed for his relatives in a new uniform and, several days later, he went to the frontline. In my childhood I often asked my parents about the strange young man depicted in the photo and about his uniform but they hesitatingly replied that it was the uniform of a railway worker. So I had to grow up quickly to conduct my own research. That photo has become the most precious in my collection. My archive now consists of numerous photos, some of them worthy of being exhibited in a museum. Some photos I’ve inherited, while others were bought or given to me. Each time I look at a photo and see a person whom nobody knows any longer, I feel my heart misses a beat. I then wish desperately to take this photo and warm it in my hands — as if it were a chick that had fallen from its nest. I don’t know what it is that moves me — probably the same impulse that makes people want to take care of abandoned graves. There are no political dividends to be gained from that war now. It’s far from being as significant as WWII or a struggle for independence… And yet, the heroes of WWI defended the Russian Empire. These were our grandfathers and great-grandfathers… Among the military pilots there were 27 Belarusians, although the total number of our countrymen participating in the war reached just 400. Four regiments of Minskers fought against the Turks on the Caucasian frontline, while many worked in businesses which had been evacuated from Belarus deep into Russia and Ukraine. I consider it my duty to preserve the memory of these people.
You’ve also written a number of books about the history of Minsk. I have read that the capital of Belarus still has many places related not only to the deeds of underground workers from WWII, but also WWI. Tell us please what you’ve discovered recently.
A building opposite the British Embassy, at 34 Karl Marx Street, housed a command staff of the Western Front. The commandant worked there. Initially, that was Alexey Evert who was a military leader of little talent but with a sure-fire tactic: he spent his entire time in Minsk and constantly asked for help. In June and July of 1917, Lieutenant General Anton Denikin commanded the Western Front. He was a landmark personality in the history of Russia and Europe.
We also know an interesting fact related to the Europe Hotel. During the years of WWI, it was one of Minsk’s hotspots. The Russian Empire had a dry law, which dictated that alcohol could be sold in Category One restaurants only — which meant the Europe Hotel. This is a respectable hotel now but I think its guests would be interested to know about its past.
There is a monument to a WWI officer in the centre of Minsk. At that time, the man was known as Konstantin Mitskevich but, later, he became the People’s Poet of Belarus — Yakub Kolas. After the war he left the army and became a teacher. He did not like to remember the war.
This year, Belarus is celebrating a sad date: the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Great Patriotic War. Last year, you produced a film about this period in our history — Hero-Cities. This suggests that your interest goes further than WW1 only, is that right?
The last world war greatly influenced the fate of Belarus. However, it was fought not only in our country but also in hero-cities all over the former Soviet Union. Our film crew visited each of these hero-cities. In Volgograd, we wondered how its residents survived during the Battle of Stalingrad. The staff of the huge local military museum was unable to answer our question clearly. Nobody had shown any interest before. We had to study the archive documents and found out that a strict law operated in Stalingrad. According to that law, all those who looted property from abandoned homes were executed. We found lists of people who had been executed; among them were many housewives and teenagers. We made dozens of similar discoveries in each city. Some cities were true martyrs because the war destroyed them completely — for example, Kerch (only 30 people remained there at the time of its liberation). I’m impressed most of all by our Brest Fortress. It can be appreciated best in solitude and silence, on a cool grey day. However, in 1941, this was a hot spot of the war when Soviet soldiers fearlessly defended it against the fascists for a long time.
The war is a theme that is now widely used in tourism. Do you view this as a promising development?
This type of tourism has always been well developed in Belarus. Many of our tourist sites are war memorials — Khatyn, the Mound of Glory, Brest Fortress, Stalin’s Line and Buynichi Field near Mogilev. We could also bring back to life the sites of the knights’ battles from the time of Vitautas, as well as the early 18th-century Northern War, the 1812 Napoleonic campaign and, of course, WWI.
What has pushed you — a restless researcher — to start writing and to host a TV programme?
To be accurate, I now combine writing with my work on radio and TV. I always want to try something new. I am not interested in standing still.
Do you consider yourself to be a public figure since you appear on TV and radio or would you prefer to keep your face inside the covers of your books?
I hope TV audiences will appreciate my work. As regards my books, I think the best of them are yet to be written.
By Viktar Korbut