Kinship of homeland and its people heartens those born in Belarus but living far away
Irkutsk trunk and its treasures
In early June, we received a small press release from Alena Sipakova, who lives in Irkutsk, saying that the Irkutsk Association of Belarusian Culture (named after Yan Chersky) Regional Public Organisation had arranged an ethnographic exhibition: Treasures from Village Trunks. The venue was the Regional State Universal Scientific Library (named after I. Molchanov-Sibirsky), at 253 Lermontov Street, which houses an office of the local Belarusian community.
Ms. Sipakova then wrote mysteriously, ‘We are all village-born and our memory keeps bright recollections of our parents’ and grandparents’ homes — with their hand-made towels, straw spiders, embroidered rugs and trunks full of fabric and tablecloths. In the past, every Belarusian village family had a trunk but, over the course of time, these have been replaced by modern furniture. These days, such trunks are kept in back rooms, with their treasures remaining inside. Interestingly, trunks used to be placed out of view, helping them to preserve their treasures until our modern days’.
She explained how late 19th-early 20th century artefacts were collected in Irkutsk, during ethnographic expeditions by the Irkutsk Association of Belarusian Culture staff across the Irkutsk Region. The exhibits are primarily items from everyday life: traditional clothes and other textiles — such as hand made towels and tablecloths. Some were donated by Belarusians from Irkutsk. The exhibition opening featured performances by the bands Lenushka and Kryvichi, which truly complemented the artefacts on show.
Mikhail Lomonosov once said that ‘Russia’s future will involve Siberia’. At that time, no large scale (multi-million) settlements had been made across the Urals. The trend took place only in the early 20th century, when the Stolypin land reform took villagers East. As a result, Siberia was populated mostly by people born in the Russian Empire’s Northern-Western Region. These were not only villagers but those who had escaped the 1832 Rebellion, or who had come to build the Baikal-Amur highway, or to master oil and natural gas mines in Western Siberia. Some simply sought a new home. Many of them were God-driven.
Ms. Sipakova’s letter took five days to travel from Irkutsk to Minsk by train. It reads: ‘Interestingly, trunks used to be placed out of view, helping them to preserve their treasures until our modern days’. Such trunks have helped preserve folk traditions, customs, songs and dances. Belarusians who moved to remote Siberia always tried to keep hold of their original artefacts and to support old traditions while eagerly starting their new lives.
Importantly and interestingly, some of our countrymen born in Siberia and spending all their lives there still view themselves as Belarusian: in their kinship and family traditions. Ms. Sipakova was inspired by these people to send her letter. In summer, she joined her friends from the Belarusian community and the Association’s former leader, Oleg Rudakov, to take part in the 6th Congress of Belarusians of the World forum. Afterwards, she wrote: ‘In spring, the community held a session and Oleg Rudakov — who founded the Irkutsk Association of Belarusian Culture (named after Yan Chersky) and headed it for many years — was replaced by Alena Sipakova’. This text can be easily found on the Internet.
Meanwhile, Ms. Sipakova stresses that the community will never change its focus, with enthusiasts continuing to promote our Belarusian culture in the Baikal area — as they’ve been doing for so many years. There are plans to organise an international festival of Belarusian culture in Baikal — ‘to add strength to the Belarusian movement worldwide’.
Pleasingly, the community witnesses no fight for power and, speaking of its former head, Alena notes that they ‘enjoy friendly relations’. Oleg and Alena have worked together for around 10 years and ‘most of our friends are Belarusians who were awakened by Oleg’. Former military man Oleg Rudakov was born near Polotsk and began his work almost 17 years ago. Meanwhile, Alena reveals that Belarusians demonstrate little interest in joint public activity, preferring to develop their own land rather than gather for meetings. This village-style mentality is neither good nor bad: during the war years, it did not hamper Belarusian partisans from gathering their forces to fight the enemy. Of course, those were war times… Alena notes that one of Irkutsk’s community activists took five years to join, while even seven years were needed for another lady. “In this respect, it’s a true challenge to work with Belarusians — attracting them into the community,” she explains.
Alena tells us of her Belarusian roots, saying, “I was born in Irkutsk but my mother is Belarusian. Moreover, her parents were Belarusians. My grandmother’s parents moved to the Irkutsk Region from Belarus in the late 1920s. My grandmother spoke Belarusian with an accent but sang Belarusian songs with my grandfather. As a schoolgirl, I joined Lenushka folk group. After we grew up, our mother began teaching us Belarusian family songs and we, in turn, started composing stylised Belarusian folk verses. At an Irkutsk conference, Oleg Rudakov heard us. He approached our mother and invited us to join the community. I began my active participation in the organisation in my student years and now work in a hospital.”
Ms. Sipakova visited the homeland of her forefathers in 2001 for the first time, touring Belarusian villages and noticing no difference to villages in Siberia. During the Minsk session this year, she told all those present that it’s vital to study the life of Belarus and investigate its history, believing that this strengthens our ties with the nation, our roots and the Motherland. Really, this is true: the trunk of folk treasures unveils much of value for our souls and minds.
Belarusians’ village-style attitude towards life is unusual: as an acquaintance of mine once joked, ‘we strike root either on tundra glaciers or hot desert sands’. “I feel fine everywhere, as I can work and am not afraid of working,” Belarusian Nikolay Kryskovich told me enthusiastically on visiting our editorial office. He’s an active member of Altai’s Belarusian community and is proud of his unique skill in growing apple, prunes and grapes under cold weather conditions; few succeed in this enterprise.
Meanwhile, some people feel nostalgia; perhaps guided by a special gene. It can strike successful businessmen and tired housewives alike, regardless of age or status: many become eager to turn to their homeland. Sadly, not all enjoy the social status or finances to allow travel to Belarus — especially from remote corners, such as Russia’s Primorie Region or the Pacific Ocean shore (where Belarusian communities are found). The next best thing is for them to meet and talk, exchanging news and crafts. It’s questionable whether Irkutsk’s Belarusians would have been able to arrange an ethno-exhibition if they had acted alone. The establishment of Sunday schools, Belarusian house-museums, centres and homesteads is the result of joint work. Moreover, Belarusians worldwide love to celebrate Kupalle, Dazhynki and Kolyady, while organising Belarusian festivals, exhibitions and other cultural events; hundreds take place annually — mostly through the efforts of Belarusian communities abroad. Really, our joint work is strong!
While welcoming participants and guests of the Congress of Belarusians of the World, the Head of the Homeland Association of the Belarusians of the World, Alena Makovskaya, recalled the first meeting, which took place two decades ago. Life inspired our countrymen to gather, in protecting their interests, when the USSR split and millions of Belarusians were suddenly divided by state borders. Belarusian diasporas struck root in former USSR republics in the 1990s, notes Alena, telling us, “The first session gathered over 1,300 delegates from abroad. At that time, the issues of cultural building and national revival were acute and, to settle them, the first session took place. The organisation was then headed by Radim Goretsky, with Anna Surmach leading the Council.”
The Homeland is still joined by its friends and, looking back to past years and former achievements, its activists have outlined further plans as part of the project The Belarusian Nation under Conditions of Globalisation. Former sessions have also focused on the preservation of Belarusians’ presence in the world and the strengthening of our national identity. The topic remains acute and, as Ms. Makovskaya supposes, “It’s probably impossible to solve all problems in just twenty years. We’ve probably failed to realise all our plans. National features are becoming extremely valuable as we expand our universal culture. With this in mind, more energy and strength are needed to preserve and develop Belarusian identity. The Belarusian state should join efforts with its people, as the Belarusian diaspora is an integral component.”
The session gathered not merely Belarusians but all those working to preserve, strengthen and expand Belarusian presence worldwide. “We come from different countries and represent different generations, with different outlooks and conditions of work. Moreover, we share different views on life,” says Alena. “However, we are united in being Belarusian; this is the key.” She believes that our sense of Homeland contributes to Belarusians’ consolidation within the country and abroad, sharing language, culture, history and nationhood. Belarusians from all over the globe shared their achievements at the session, focusing on acute problems of today’s world and especially those relating to the diaspora. Discussion remained polite and tolerant, with each opinion heard and valued. If we fail to reach a common understanding, then who will believe in our tolerance — so often mentioned as Belarusians’ defining feature.
Cultural dialogue supports mutual understanding, and helps us achieve common goals. However, misunderstandings are also possible. Poet Maxim Bogdanovich said, ‘conflicts are inappropriate while we jointly travel to the stars’. However, what happens to those strive not to the stars but crawl amidst insults or ambition? Sadly, some heads of Belarusian communities (in different cities and foreign regions) lack sympathy with each other, failing to find common views. Such an approach is harmful and a waste of effort, with personal ego placed above common benefit.
Minister of Culture Boris Svetlov’s speech at the Congress of Belarusians of the World was pierced with a desire to build cultural ties and expand co-operation with communities and diaspora representatives abroad. On welcoming delegates and guests, he congratulated our foreign countrymen on their chance to ‘breathe their native air’, saying, “We view the diaspora — which unites Belarusians and their heirs — as an integral part of the Belarusian nation.” He emphasised that everyone is different — as are their fates. “Some left Belarus in difficult times and others moved away in joy. Among Belarusians of the world and our citizens are many non-ethnic Belarusians. Several communities have been actively liaising with Belarusian state organisations for a long time while some Belarusians of the world express criticism towards this. However, I’m convinced that they all love Belarus as their own Motherland; they love it through their parents, our language, traditions and culture. Our culture is truly rich!”
Mr. Svetlov noted that the development of national culture is a focus of state policy, with professional artistry enjoying significant state support in Belarus. Budgetary money finances state museums, libraries and educational establishments. The state also supports theatres, parks of culture and cinemas. “In the post-Soviet space, only Belarus has preserved so many educational establishments; all receive state support,” the Minister stressed. The Culture of Belarus and Castles of Belarus state programmes aim to support our legacy, while another aims to revive the traditions of Slutsk sash production, making national souvenirs.
The Belarusians Worldwide programme is currently being prepared and a draft law ‘On Belarusians Abroad’ is ready. However, Mr. Svetlov asserts that the state never stops its work with Belarusians living abroad — even without these important projects. Activity is supervised by the especially established Republican Centre of National Cultures, which provides Belarusian communities abroad with national costumes, musical instruments, and presentation and video materials, in addition to fiction books, guides and decorative-and-applied art pieces. Artistic teams from Belarus regularly take part in shows and, with state support, organise frequent exchanges; Belarusians in Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and the Baltic States are most active in this respect.
Last year, courses were run to help the diaspora in enhancing its qualifications and to enable artistic personalities to exchange their experience. Sadly, the country fails to widely support their countrymen abroad — as is done by most foreign states. Mr. Svetlov notes, “However, we are moving towards each other and working together, which helps us to resolve numerous problems, while participating in the Homeland’s cultural life and activities. We are proud to do so.”
In recent years, Belarus has been proud to unveil the reconstructed Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre, Mir’s Castle Complex, the Radziwills’ Palace and Estate (in Nesvizh), Mogilev’s Drama Theatre, Grodno’s Regional Puppet Theatre, Rumyantsev-Paskevich Palace (in Gomel), the Yanka Kupala National Academic Theatre and the Children’s Philharmonic (in Minsk). The cultural establishments of several agro-towns have been revamped and a single state list of historical-cultural treasures has been compiled, with the Ministry of Culture promoting a range of new projects. “One of our priorities is the development of international cultural co-operation and the representation of national artistic achievements abroad. Days of Belarus are organised worldwide, while we accept Days of Culture from various foreign states. Moreover, our Belarusian Diaspora is actively promoting cultural projects; it’s wonderful that Belarusians abroad do not forget their roots and are not ashamed of their national culture. Pleasingly, they never lose ties with their Motherland, rather establishing cultural and business ties with Belarus’ administrative regions. In this way, our friendship is strengthening. Thank you for this!”
By Ivan Zhdanovich