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Alaiza Pashkevich – also known as ‘Auntie’ – was the first female Belarusian poet. She was also ...
2020-11-26 09:00:00

Our Sisters’ Auntie
The Life of Alaiza Pashkevich

Lake Strustra in Belarus
Our Sisters’ Auntie
Our Sisters’ Auntie
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Be bold enough to speak your own language

The individual in the white suit interrogated the female university students: “Who ordered you to assemble here?” “Who brought the materials?” “Who planned it all?” The investigation dragged on, and the girls asked whether they could go to the toilet. The man determined that 19-year-old Vera was the ringleader; he told her to stay, but let the others go. The students moved away calmly, later breaking into a run, escaping through the doors. The man in white demanded that the dean call and order them to return, but only one was persuaded: Angelika. That’s when the people in masks appeared, and an unmarked Geely drove up to the building. The two women were pushed in, and the Chinese-made car moved off through the streets of Minsk. As they drove, the officials, whom the Belarusians call karatiely (‘punishers’), kept asking Vera and Angelika whether they had boyfriends, and joked that they were so pretty but had caused problems for themselves. They were searched only when they got to the police station. Hour after hour passed, and near evening a report was prepared, charging the women with “participation in an illegal mass gathering” (article 23.34 of section 1 of the Administrative Offences Code of the Republic of Belarus). Both signed the statements that had been prepared for them, in the hope that they’d be released, but the policeman ordered them to take out their shoelaces. And the Geely reappeared, this time to take them to the Okrestina detention centre.

“They didn’t open the gate for a long time,” Vera recalls, “until somebody asked: ‘Who are you delivering?’ The driver said: ‘Politicals’.” When they got inside, people shouted at them: “Rubbish!” They were threatened with expulsion from university, and that their parents would be sacked. Later they were shoved into a tiny cell called a stakan (‘drinking glass’). Such a space usually recalls a solidly built phone box and is installed in police vans or courtrooms, though they can also be made of concrete and sheet metal. Angelika couldn’t take it and became hysterical. The chief jailer didn’t care; in fact, he threatened her with a transfer to a psychiatric hospital, though in the end he called a doctor. She gave Angelika Corvalol, a tranquilizer popular in the Soviet Union, and then the women were taken to a three-person cell. At night, more ‘politicals’ joined them: Ksiusha, Sasha and Masha. They consoled each other and joked that they hadn’t yet been charged with the corruption and banditry that the authorities had committed. In the morning they were all taken to court. Outside the building, their classmates were already waiting with a lawyer; even the dean, who earlier had so zealously helped the police, was there. But the judge turned out to be a regime man, and sentenced each of them to a fine of “25 base units”, meaning 675 roubles, the equivalent of £200. The crime detected in Vera and Angelika’s behaviour, which required the intervention of the state apparatus of violence par excellence, had occurred on 1st September 2020 during Knowledge Day. It was said to consist in writing quotes from national classics in the courtyard of the Philology Department of Belarusian State University. Using blue chalk, the students inscribed: Meitse smelasts usyudy golasna kazats pa-svoimu (‘Be bold enough to speak your own language – loudly, everywhere’).

Alaiza Pashkevich, photographer unknown
Alaiza Pashkevich, photographer unknown

Bura idzie (‘A Storm Is Coming’)

The author of these words, Alaiza Pashkevich, had to demonstrate no less courage when fighting against an oppressive system for a decade. She is remembered as a writer of poetry, stories and commentary, published under the nom de plume Tsyotka (‘Auntie’), and today has come to be described as the first female Belarusian poet. Pashkevich was a true daughter not only of her land, but also of her time – the beginning of the 20th century – and her works must also be read in the context of the events that took place on the territory of today’s Belarus and the centres where Belarusian patriots gathered, meaning Vilnius, St. Petersburg and Moscow, but also Lviv and Kraków.

At the time, it didn’t take much to become an enemy of the Russian Empire: in the case of the Belarusians, it was enough to speak your own language outside your home village or town. This language – known as muzhyk- or peasant-speak, and also as boor-speak – was prohibited by the authorities. The Belarusian elites, who looked toward St. Petersburg, also avoided it, often mocking it. After the January Uprising, it was impossible to conduct lessons in ‘the local language’, and all the more so to publish anything, and even after 1910, when in St. Petersburg schools teaching in Polish, Lithuanian and even Czech were once again legalized, the list of 12 accepted languages still didn’t include Belarusian.

So it’s no surprise that Pashkevich’s poems were immediately designated as crimes, though the author herself made it easier for the Tsarist police to make this decision. “Khrest na svabodu” [Cross to Freedom], written by Auntie on the threshold of the 1905 revolution, can be read as political agitation. Already in the first words – “We don’t wonder at the red sky in the east – that’s what’s needed” – she refers to the “bloody Sunday” that she looks on with the eyes of her compatriots. And at the end she attests clearly that: “The nation will hear a voice from heaven: we don’t need the Tsar anymore.” 3000 pamphlets bearing the verse – of course without the name of its author – were published and scattered in Vilnius, which at the time served as the informal capital of Belarus. The gendarmes began an investigation. The way the circle tightened around Pashkevich was accurately presented in the miniseries Khrest milosierdiya [Cross of Mercy]. In what may be the last film ‘made in the USSR’, we observe how her colleagues and sympathizers were detained. Fraternal, or in this case sororal, assistance was brought by members of the Polish Socialist party from Vilnius, and by Lithuanians. Auntie maintained contact both with a future member of the Comintern, the communist Vincas Mickevičius-Kapsukas, and with the later prominent social-democrat politician Steponas Kairys. Structures were prepared that were ready to take power in Belarusian lands. Various possibilities were considered: from autonomy as part of an empire, through establishment of an independent state, to creating a communist entity (not defined any more clearly). As the few source documents indicate, Auntie was one of the main members of the Belarusian Socialist Assembly, and together with Aleksander Burbis she formed the nucleus of the Vilnius chapter of this party. They were not deceived by the declarations of the central authorities or the increasingly gloomy mood in society, and broadened their activities even further.

For their headquarters they chose the psychiatric hospital in Naujoji Vilnia, where Auntie worked as a nurse, and there further pamphlets were prepared – mainly her poems, and in addition to the aforementioned piece, National Revolution and Under the Banner were printed. Also significant was that they managed to raise a 100-member paramilitary unit, and as reported by Nasha Niva, the publication of the Belarusian socialist party, in the autumn of 1905 the formation scuffled with the Tsar’s gendarmes. At the same time, Pashkevich visited complementary party centres in St. Petersburg and Minsk, and travelled to Moscow, where in April 1905 the All-Russian Union for Women’s Equality convened. In the end, the Tsarist security services tracked her down. Informed that they were preparing to arrest her, she left Russia under an assumed name.

Viera bielarusa (‘Faith of a Belarusian’)

Alaiza, also known as Heloiza, and to her mother as Anielka, was born in 1876 on a farm not far from Staryya Vasilishki, the birthplace of Polish singer Czesław Niemen. Depending on the perspective of her biographers, her father was “Belarusian nobility”, a “rich peasant” or a “burgher”. The last term is what Auntie herself used, and years later it was seized on by Soviet historians, as it fit with the proletarian image of the poet. But most likely those who describe her noble roots are correct. In her home, Polish was spoken, and the children were raised in the Roman Catholic faith. Her brothers Vaclau and Yazep graduated from a military school and served as officers in the Tsar’s army, though everything indicates that they organized meetings of socialists in their Vilnius apartment. The future poet also had three sisters: Sofiya, Stefaniya and Karalina.

Alaiza’s first teacher was her grandmother, who taught her to read and write – in Polish, we can suspect. The talented girl continued her education under the care of a private teacher, after which her parents sent her to live with her sister, who taught at a girls school in Vilnius. There, a tragedy occurred. The older sister fell ill with tuberculosis and quickly died, and the younger one developed a nervous condition and was brought home in grave condition. When the teen’s health improved, she decided to return, but her father had no intention of letting her go. She left anyway, against his will, thus losing her support. In Vilnius, to survive, she gave lessons and received a scholarship for outstanding students. Accounts of those times have been preserved from friends who helped Alaiza, filling her pantry when she fainted from hunger. This period culminated in her receiving a certificate authorizing her to teach arithmetic, but the 18-year-old dreamed of higher education, so this wasn’t enough for her. From the perspective of a century later, it’s hard to assess her motivations. Some biographers say Pashkevich decided to become a doctor, and for this purpose moved to St. Petersburg, but without completing the programme of a boys’ secondary school, including Greek and Latin, she couldn’t be accepted as a student. It’s a fact that she arrived in the city on the Neva, and there, to meet the formal requirement to receive permission to live in the city, she signed up for nursing courses with the renowned doctor and educator Peter Lesgaft. Her report card indicates that she wasn’t the best student, and even had to repeat a semester. But it’s known that at that time she was also tackling the programme of the renowned Imperial Alexander Lyceum, passing the exams with flying colours – with the exception of Greek, which for unknown reasons she didn’t take.

In the end she also managed her courses with Lesgaft, and decided to return to Vilnius. It was 1904, she had received her nursing certificate, she still couldn’t apply for higher education, but she had made valuable acquaintances. In St. Petersburg at the time, semi-legal or completely underground national associations and organizations were operating, and Alaiza was accepted into them. From the accounts that have been preserved of people who knew her there emerges a picture of a young woman who wasn’t the most beautiful and was quite stout, though in moments of euphoria, captivating not only in her speech, but also in her flesh, which was transformed. At those times – this observation appears in almost all accounts – she shocked people with her beauty. And precisely in such moments of inspiration, reciting snatches of her poems, in an aura of heroism and sex appeal, she took the conspiratorial circles by storm. Poetry was the most important weapon in her arsenal. So after returning to Vilnius, Pashkevich appeared as a person with no small knowledge on the subject of the nations inhabiting the western borderlands of the empire. Her heart inclined toward leftist movements, and simultaneously, she was deeply convinced of the need to fight for the Belarusians’ identity, so it’s no surprise that in Vilnius, too, she joined the circles of the rebels. They also included a supporter of Bakunin, Magdalena Radziwiłł, who said of Auntie: “a cultured person, and at the same time, an anarchist”. Years later, this daughter of a Belarusian noble and a Polish duchess founded an illegal school. But for now, her work on behalf of musicians and ‘the locals’ had to take on a different form, and Alaiza Pashkevich saved herself by fleeing from the gendarmes.

Skrypka bielaruskaya (‘Belarusian Violin’)

Auntie was first and foremost an artist of the word, and outside her hospital work and setting up schools, her life played out in and through literature. But her works, aside from the aesthetic context, must also be examined against the backdrop of feminist and political-historical phenomena. From an artistic perspective, Pashkevich’s numerous poems may seem to be less important today; to grate a bit with their somewhat excessive musicality, close to folk art; to wear on you with their rustic or political metaphor. As an example, let’s take the last stanza of one of several poems translated into Polish, “To the Village Women”:

Oh women, oh villagers,
Oh flowers, oh wilting ones!
Oh you lilies, you voiceless ones
You birds without wings!

It’s different with her prose. In particular, her accounts of travels in southern Europe, Finland and Sweden still sound fresh. Unfortunately, none of these texts, created toward the end of the 19-aughts, exists in Polish literary circles, although – toutes proportions gardées – they can be compared to the canonical Images of Italy by Pavel Muratov, written at about the same time. This comparison shows not only the author’s craft as a narrator, but also her broad knowledge. Her texts written during travel through Scandinavia on foot are marked by an additional sting of commentary. Pashkevich was also a creator of the first Belarusian primers, and ran the publication Łuczynka, where she sought to entertain her young readers, rather than boring them with pathos – stating that peasant children would have plenty of time to cry later, and should glean knowledge with a smile.

The collections of poetry A Storm Is Coming, Faith of a Belarusian and Belarusian Violin gain in significance when we look at them as a manifestation of feminist activity, though this doesn’t mean we should speak about them only because they were written by the first female Belarusian poet – or that they would have no value if penned by a man. It must be acknowledged that Pashkevich adjusted her literary milieu to the aesthetics of the people, attempting to insert new content into her rhymes and tales – not only revolutionary content, but also female and lyrical. Here, too, we get to the quintessence of her work as a poet, which makes her the symbolic mother of all later Belarusian woman poets. In the history of the simple folk of Polesie or the Vilnius region, it was the women who were the transmission belt that passed down tradition. They sang it, or grandmothers melodeclaimed it to their granddaughters, mothers to their daughters, in the peasants’ language. Auntie mixed poetic elements into this form, while not significantly changing the medium itself. In this way she also contributed to the introduction of “the boorish language” into the poets’ salons. Additionally, as a consummate innovator, she gave a voice to those “voiceless lilies” and “birds without wings”, so that not only the world, but they themselves could think of themselves as poets, and didn’t have to seek means of expression in Polish or Russian.

The political-historical viewpoint is not limited to revolutionary activity; Auntie’s poetry was living. The period after World War II seems to be the most important, particularly the 1970s, when Soviet literary scholars prepared collections of her poems, and the literary press printed articles devoted to her essays. How should this interest be explained? During the Great Terror, through 1938, at least a dozen very promising Belarusian writers were exterminated, and contemporary scholars came to even call this period “the Executed Renaissance”. The cultural sterilization was completed during the war, when the Nazis exterminated the Jewish artists and humanists working on behalf of the local national identity. The ‘carpetbaggers’ from Moscow appeared in the ruins and undertook what they understood to be the proper reconstruction. Reaching back to the classics, including Auntie’s work, they somehow also overinterpreted biographies and creative legacies so they would fit better with Soviet ideology. The 1990s were supportive of a new openness, though soon a new-old star would begin to shine on Belarusian lands.

Zhyvie!

Alaiza Pashkevich also wanted to become an actor, and in Lviv, where she studied philosophy part-time, she tried her hand in the theatre school. It didn’t work out, and she was rejected for her “unsuitable physical conditions”. She returned to her dreams of the stage in Kraków, where she attended lessons with Nuna Młodziejowska-Szczurkiewiczowa, and after returning to Belarus, around 1913, she joined Ihnat Bujnicki’s troupe. The Great War began soon after, and Auntie decided that the chance had come to achieve the dreams of an independent or autonomous country. So with this greater enthusiasm, she set up schools where the national language was taught, and the authorities, which thus far had suppressed such activities, turned a blind eye. But in the end, the spectre of defeat was hovering over the empire, the enemy forces were approaching Vilnius, and the chaos in the region was multiplied by a typhus outbreak. It was then that Pashkevich learned that her father had died and part of her family had fallen ill. She set out to help them, and caught the disease herself after arriving. It was the start of 1916; the infection spread like wildfire and a few months short of her 40th birthday, Auntie died.

Later, memory of Alaiza Pashkevich, known as Auntie – as we have already mentioned – was fuelled by various forces, and even in the extensive Polish anthology of Belarusian lyric poetry, there’s just one of her pieces. While monuments to her have been set up in the 21st century, literary competitions have been named after her, conferences are held annually in academic centres, and in places related to her life successive anniversaries of her birth have been celebrated, it was enough to read a single sentence by someone who appeared to be a classic, sanctified by tradition, to end up in a stakan. Fortunately, there is a growing group of people who, like Vera and Angelika, aren’t afraid to fight for their truth, while guarding the living memory of the outstanding poet.

“On 8th March, the League of Women in Belarus celebrates, laying flowers at the commemorative plaque on Alaiza Pashkevich Street in Minsk,” wrote feminist and historian Nina Struzhinskaya. “And then we go have a beer.”

And we raise a toast:

Zhyvie Belarus!


Selected bibliography:

Barszczeuski L., Bo nasze języki są sobie bardzo bliskie! [interview], Culture.pl, 21st December 2014, https://culture.pl/pl/artykul/lawon-barszczeuski-bo-nasze-jezyki-sa-sobie-bardzo-bliskie-wywiad (accessed: 2020.09.30).

Nastushevich S., Ispolzowaniye istoricheskoi khronologii w izucheniyi biografiyi Aloyzy Pashkievich [thesis], Grodno 2017, https://biblioclub.ru/index.php?page=book_red&id=461550&razdel=264 (accessed: 2020.09.30).

Nasza Niwa, Eto plevok w litso zhenskomu dvizheniyu [interview]. Nasza Niwa, 7th March 2019, https://nina.nn.by/?c=lr&i=226581&lang=ru (accessed: 2020.09.30).

Nie chyliłem czoła przed mocą. Antologia poezji białoruskiej od XV do XX wieku, ed. Barszczeuski L., Pomorski A., Wrocław 2008.

U BDU na studientak filfaka wyklikali AMAP za tsytaty klasykau na asfaltse, Radio Svoboda, 3rd September 2020, https://www.svaboda.org/a/30819000.html (accessed: 2020.09.30).

 

Translated from the Polish by Nathaniel Espino

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