Spring of inspiration
[b]The existence of diaspora (from Greek, meaning ‘dispersion’) has influenced international policy worldwide for many centuries. It initially denoted those Greek citizens who migrated into newly conquered territories and was a symbol of the great power held by those united by a love of their homeland. Today, the activity of Armenian, Chinese and Indian diasporas worldwide shows that their economic and political support for their homeland is no less significant than that of official foreign ministries[/b]
Of course, the number of Belarusians is fewer than that of Chinese or Hindus. Nevertheless, fate has scattered them abroad and these ‘sons of their Fatherland’ are often found supporting the interests of home — from every corner of the world. They may not desire to return to their homeland, having settled comfortably in their new homes, but they maintain a spiritual thirst which grows only stronger with time. The more successful we become, the greater our self-esteem, driven by personal successes and thoughts of our kin.
Naturally, any process has its pioneers. In gathering and preserving Belarusian customs, we can’t but mention Valery Nikolaevich Kazakov: a Russian and Belarusian writer, writing in both languages. He comes from a village near Chausy but has lived in Mogilev since before his army days and is now a retired Colonel and an Acting State Advisor of the Russian Federation, of the first class.
In fact, like others, his intent search for the cultural and spiritual legacy of Belarus is inspired by his desire to understand his roots, to better know himself.
MAGIC CRYSTAL OF NEW POLITICAL NOVEL
The mutual interconnection and dependence of Belarus and Russia has always been and will remain central to our understanding of each other. It matters not that Russia is so much more influential worldwide. Mr. Kazakov always stresses (in major interviews and private conversations) that he is proud to be Belarusian. His strong devotion to his roots is especially touching, as he once worked within the Security Council and the Administration of the Russian President. As a state official, he walked among the Russian power-elite. Moreover, he is famous as a brilliant prose writer in Russian literature. Accordingly, we might wonder why he feels a continuing material and spiritual need to pursue his Belarusian past. His yearning to do so shows that Belarus has much to be proud of.
It seems only right that we should diligently collect information on our cultural legacy, as Mr. Kazakov is doing. His treasures include books by Skorina, Slutsk sashes and ancient manuscripts from all over the globe. Impressively, he now aims to open a museum dedicated to Belarusian partisans — as we’ll discuss later.
Even at our first meeting, I could see his belief in the idea that Russia has as much to learn and gain from Belarus as vice versa: we are a source of spiritual unity. Mr. Kazakov views today’s political, economic and cultural rapprochement of Belarus and Russia through this prism, rather than through that of oil and gas.
Of course, such views aren’t surprising and it seems that any resident of Bryansk or Smolensk regions who doesn’t greatly distinguish themselves from their brothers in Gomel or Mogilev regions thinks in the same way. It’s rare to hear such acknowledgment of the unity of our spiritual roots from those who think of themselves as the elite of Russia, controlling financial, raw material and information inflow. Money was the prevailing guide during the ‘gas’, ‘meat’, ‘milk’ and other trade wars, which signify the establishment of big Russian monopolies on the market.
Four years ago, in the midst of economic disputes and trade wars, when our relations were being ‘heated to the utmost’ by the blue flame of Gazprom, I recalled Mr. Kazakov’s prophetic words: ‘The most vital fact is that an independent Belarusian state has appeared almost within the territorial frames of Belarusian national identity. History has given the Belarusians a unique chance to build their home without external dictatorship. I believe that our nations will settle their relationship themselves. A union is somewhat like a marriage: a spiritual and physical rapprochement. Therefore, this union is impossible without reciprocity, without our reciprocity. If the nation takes part in this, the union definitely has a future’.
Now, the newly elected President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, has announced that the CIS is an absolute priority of Russia’s foreign policy. He calls the Union State of Belarus and Russia a model of integration, providing a matrix for the Customs Union (which is already becoming a wider-scale Eurasian Union).
Do you remember Pushkin’s ‘magic crystal’ through which the great poet saw his free-ranging novel? I believe that Mr. Kazakov, like all true writers, also boasts the gift of prophetic imagination. No mysticism or supernatural powers are needed to make a great writer. Rather, we need to study and understand life; this is a writer’s greatest power.
MALICE OF POWER AND STRENGTH OF NEW PROSE
Last March, Mr. Kazakov was visiting Minsk as the authorised representative of Vladimir Putin (a candidate for the presidential post). He had no particular power to influence Belarusian-Russian relations but, even during those hectic pre-election days (when literature can hardly have been at the forefront of his mind), he found a minute to drop into our editorial office, presenting me with his new book on the Russian state machine. He is often called a founder of the ‘new political novel’ or new prose writing, drawing inspiration from real characters in government, exploring how people are transformed by power. His investigations allow us to better understand contemporary life.
This is how he views his writing mission:
Those who read my books can’t suspect me of any love for power. My position is obvious. In my books, I try to show what happens when someone gains power: how their soul and world outlook changes. How does a ‘normal’ person with good intentions become a corrupt official? How are decisions taken at top Russian state level? How do they appear and what mechanism stands behind them? One of my books is entitled ‘Temptation of a Head of Desk’; I’ve included fragments entitled ‘From Batura to Batura’ — about my native Mogilev.
During one of my visits home a decade ago, I was pleasantly surprised by the city’s transformation. I was told that Batura was responsible. I’ve never attended local authority meetings in Mogilev, regardless of my position in Russia. However, at that time, I got to know the Governor and I can say that Boris Batura (then Governor of Mogilev Region) is a unique person among those surrounding the Belarusian President.
Would you call Putin a single-minded person regarding Lukashenko?
I think that’s true as regards major messages. They are both believers in a strong state. I’d like to answer your question more widely, by tackling the nature of power in general. The more I observe those transformed by power, the more I understand how difficult it is for sincere people to be in power. A classical western example is Machiavelli’s ‘Sovereign’: a book filled with cynicism and mean spiritedness. It’s easy to become such a ‘sovereign’ as he described but more difficult to be a true leader in our contemporary world.
Why do strong states sometimes wish to dominate?
Genuinely strong states have no need to dictate to anyone. It’s pleasant to be friends and work with strong states. As soon as a strong state begins to dominate others it is scorned and called ‘miserly’. A truly strong state is that which respects its partners.
There is much speculation on Mr. Putin’s behaviour towards Belarus. Some say that he is willing to give us economic preferences now but will ‘twist the screws’ later. It’s a common stereotype, especially promoted by the opposition…
I’ll remind you of his statement that passing speculation won’t affect integration processes with Belarus. I asked Mr. Putin about relations with Minsk and he responded clearly, saying, “All conflict on television and mutual reproaches are already in the past.” Our two nations each have their own history — a difficult history; however, this history has shaped us today. If we speak about relations with Russia we mean our genetic proximity and shared spiritual feeling.
Do you think Belarusians don’t view their nation as being ‘great’ — as Russians do.
You know, I haven’t noticed that Belarusians feel themselves part of a small nation. States may be small or medium-sized but Belarusians just see themselves as ‘normal’.
How do you think we’ll achieve equality within the Eurasian Union, since Russia holds 90 percent of its economic assets?
I don’t think that anyone in Russia is encroaching upon the independence of Kazakhstan or Belarus. We’ve already created a single customs space but no one has noticed, although we’ve seen rising trade turnover. The President of Belarus is one of the founders of the Eurasian Union. We should pay less attention to certain stories about one ‘eating’ the other. Belarus has been ‘consumed’ for thousands of years but most of those who have tried have broken their teeth. It is a self-sufficient European state with its own historical fate and contribution to the legacy of European civilisation. Without Belarus, there would be no Europe as we know it.
The type of leadership popular in Europe has been under debate.
It’s difficult to draw parallels, as each personality reflects their time and country. De Gaulle reflected the will of the French while Alexander Lukashenko is a personality for today’s Belarus. The same is true of Putin for Russia. Of course, Putin isn’t the man he was four years ago; he is now notable for his wisdom and deliberation — as proven by his articles. I’ve read these as a voter and as a writer closely connected with sociology and political science.
Putin’s articles are finally showing the foundations on which a strong and independent state can be built — friendly to its neighbours. I’ll be very glad to see this, as I’m a Russian Belarusian, as I’m proud to declare. I’m both a Russian and Belarusian writer. Belarusian has been and remains my native language.
FAMILY TREE FROM GEDIMINOVICHI
“We have much in common,” continues Mr. Kazakov. “Even the wars which occurred between Lithuania (of which Belarus was once part) and Muscovia have brought us closer. If you look at the family tree of Russian noblemen of ancient standing you see that they either came from the Murza or Gediminovichi — originating from our lands.”
How do Belarusians living in Russia feel?
You know, I’m slightly concerned about this. Twenty years ago, according to the population census conducted in Russia, 1.2m people called themselves Belarusian; a decade ago — there were 816,000 and, at last year’s census, only 512,000 identified with being Belarusian. We’ve lost almost 800,000 people. They didn’t die or leave; they just stopped identifying themselves with Belarus. Assimilation is natural of course; this problem exists in Russia, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland.
We need a state programme to support our countrymen — similar to that in Germany, Israel and Poland. We can offer ethno-cultural assistance rather than financial help, promoting contacts. We should show contemporary Belarus to the grandchildren and great grandchildren of those who once left Belarus. Our diaspora is actively working on this; I dream of the time when a Belarusian House will appear in Russia and a House of Belarusians from Abroad will open in Minsk — available for Belarusians from all over the globe.
A western diaspora of Belarusians exists, with its own attitude and leaders but these are Belarusians. You can’t even imagine how many Belarusian treasures are kept abroad. If we tackle this ‘issue of return’, much could be found. The most insulting aspect is that, somewhere, our spiritual treasures lie unclaimed. Unique collections of Belarusian artefacts appear in Vilnius and, sometimes, no one is really interested. Although we can’t reclaim these valuable items we can at least see their beauty!
Copies may be made, while other artefacts can be brought for exhibitions or as part of cultural exchanges. This should be done not only through state structures; a public initiative should also exist. I once visited priest Alexander Nadson — Director of the Belarusian Library and Museum (named after Frantsisk Skorina) in London, who showed me the greatest heritage: rare ancient manuscripts and Slutsk sashes, as well as the rarest collection of books.
I was lucky to meet ethnic Belarusian Boris Kit, who lives in Germany and has already celebrated his 101st birthday. He’s a unique person, having worked for NATO in the USA. All those involved in space research consider him to be a genius. His legacy will live on after him. Has anyone collected his works, thoughts, remarks and scientific works? I must admit that the idea haunted me during my visit.
Recently, the Board of Directors of the Belarusians of Russia Federal National Cultural Autonomy gathered, discussing the creation of the Partisans of Belarus Memorial Complex. It won’t be a single monument but a grand complex dedicated to the partisan movement. Nothing similar exists anywhere, so Belarusians from Russia are ready to raise funds to help erect this memorial.
It’s about time we did so, as WWII history seems to be being rewritten. We may forget who defeated whom and who attacked whom. Finally, we should agree a single understanding. Partisan brigades were a mass movement not only during WWII. Kastus Kalinovsky was also a partisan. When Napoleon made his retreat, he left few villagers alive. This has been a common trend since the 12th century. If a moment of choice comes, we’ll strain every sinew because we are Belarusians. The Belarusian diaspora in Russia initiated the idea of the complex and we’ll create it.
Thank you, Mr. Kazakov!
Interviewed by Nina Romanova