Vitovt’s Dreams, or Theater of One Historian

He is one of those people that would be called “self-made” in the west. Back in the 80s there were rumors that in Minsk there was a guy who spends all his time in libraries looking through incunabulas and then writes historical novels…
He is one of those people that would be called “self-made” in the west. Back in the 80s there were rumors that in Minsk there was a guy who spends all his time in libraries looking through incunabulas and then writes historical novels…

Vitovt Charopka is an extraordinary person, people believe (and not only those who know him closely). He has a number of historical books, mostly fiction and semi-popular, but there is suddenly an erotic work “Erotogenic Zone” or a purely post-modernistic book “Full kerkeshoz”. He recently has had his new book of essays “Fates in history” published, with detailed and original descriptions of fates of great and prominent public figures from Evfrosinia Polotskaya to Kastus Kalinowski. Nearly all copies have been sold out. But Vitovt’s comment was rather odd:

— History books are often deceitful. We did not live at that time, so we have to restore the things we know very little about. You got to have a huge talent like that of Leo Tolstoy to make it sound true. When I read a historical novel I can’t erase a smile off my face. How does the author know what Napoleon felt before Waterloo? “Bosh of a fiction…”

— Excuse me, but Dumas-senior said history was like a nail in a wall for a writer: you have it there to put whatever you like on it. These are myths about time and epochs.

— Korotkevich, who is called the main myth-maker of the country, was very meticulous about the real people that made history. They are always in the background, they are only used to support the protagonists. A great name of history may easily be made even greater or dragged into mud… And few would have enough guts to justify those names…

— So how do you manage to remain objective?

— I never try to hush up anything. When I was writing about Janusz Radzivil, I wrote about the schools he opened and his support for Supraslsky Monastery. But I also wrote about his impaling people and cutting off their arms. General Valery Vrublevsky was almost a holy man, as he was a companion-in-arms of Kalinowski’s, a friend of Marx and Engels’, while his idols were Don Juan, Tamerlan and Attila. He would get money from his mother, go to Nice or Cannes and gamble there. In a word, objectivity is my own experience. I once turned my ankle when I was traveling. I could not walk and had to spend the night in a half-demolished hut in the open air. I imagined I was one of the insurgents back in 1863, but they had it much worse. Now I know what people feel under the circumstances. So I can use Apostle Paul’s words: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” (1 Corinthians, 13–12).

— But many people you write about are quite questionable historic figures: many are unsure whether they are Belarusian, or Polish, or Lithuanian princes…

— What do you mean “our” princes and “someone else’s”? Those people lived here in Belarus. They built castles and churches, they protected this land from Tatars, Swedes and Muscovites … They developed laws… They could have been called any names — Litvins, Belarusians or Rusins, they had no passports then. When an athlete wins medals for this country, we never look into his or her passport, we are proud of the person for the achievement.

— Did any professional historians ever attack you for you stories?

— Oh, yes, it did happen. They once called me a “Boogeyman Dressed Up as a Historian” in the magazine “Literature and Art”. I don’t care much… I’m half historian and half writer. Historians call me a writer and writers believe I’m a historian. I belong to a camp in the middle. My official status is a Belarusian with no job. I’m not Dan Brown; I don’t get $40 million per book.

— I once criticized Dan Brown for plagiarism, I called him a chameleon and temporizer, a pathetic primitive craftsman, but the critic Anna Kislitsyna objected that it takes much talent to lie in way so that millions of people buy his works.

— “The Satanic Verses” by Salman Rushdie also sells pretty well, but there are some taboos. You can’t offend people’s faith, such books are targeted at trashy feelings. Plebs loves it when the great ones go back to rags. Should I write “The da Vinci Code” a la Belarusian? It is not serious, although there are many secrets and need to be unveiled. It is often hard to determine the share of the truth that is useful and healing, but there is no way deeper into the dark, or else you get mad. I disagree with Pushkin, who said we were lazy and disinterested… It is human to be curious.

— Was it your natural curiosity that stands behind your historic research?

— I often skipped classes when I was young to walk around Minsk. I would go to the old town, the place where I lived for real. The old part of the city often came to me in my dreams… many of my stories are taken from dreams. It is sometimes good to be able to run away, and your work, your book seems a perfect place for a getaway. The present is not good enough for your flight, but you may create your own worlds filled with knights, a different approach to ladies and attitude to lives… I love making myself the hero of my novels, I even talk to myself… This is a one-man show…

— So you are a professional man of letters?

— I can’t be sure, because my books don’t feed me. I have to sacrifice something, though. In 1991-1993 I was out of job, I very often worked on empty stomach, but it was the time when I collected enough materials for my book “Leaders of the Grand Duchy”. On the other hand, I seem to need more than other people. I used to participate in rallies back in 1986 when they were going to demolish the building where the first Belarusian theatrical performance had been held. I used to write letters to newspapers to return the Cathedral Church to believers… This is why I am glad the authorities have started to understand what historical heritage really means. The city hall has been restored, the hotel “Europe” is being rebuilt now… History and writing have become more than a hobby for me. This is my calling. I could do some other things, I guess, like clean streets — what else can I do? — but I will linger for a month at the most. I will feel empty and have enough free space for vodka. I have sacrificed so much, I have spent my whole life in libraries for some good reason, and I will never going to give it up.

by Lyudmila Rubinova
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