Aliaksandr Adamkovič: the Belarusian voice will keep sounding in diverse Vilnius

Aliaksandr Adamkovič: the Belarusian voice will keep sounding in diverse Vilnius

The Republic of Lithuania is home to about 36,000 ethnic Belarusians, most of whom are concentrated in Vilnius (Belarusian: Vilnia) and its environs. Belarusians are one of the autochthonous ethnic groups in the Vilnius region. However, the national minorities discourse in contemporary Lithuania typically focuses on Poles and Russians, while Jews are mentioned in a historical context. Being the third largest national minority in Lithuania (1.2% of the total population), Belarusians are almost invisible and are usually referred to in a general context of Lithuania’s ethnic policies. ICELDS discusses the current situation of the Belarusian minority in Lithuania with Dr. Aliaksandr Adamkovič, chairman of the “Association of the Belarusian Culture in Lithuania” (Lithuanian: Gudų Kultūros Draugija Lietuvoje, ABCL).

ICELDS: Perhaps, one should look back to the Soviet era to understand the current situation of the Belarusian minority in Lithuania. In post-war Soviet Lithuania, all public manifestations of the Belarusian cultural life were eliminated. Why was it made this way and what consequences did these policies have for the Belarusian community in Lithuania?

Aliaksandr Adamkovič: The occupational Soviet regime which captured Lithuania, in 1944 liberated Vilnius from the Nazi invaders. However, it simultaneously freed Vilnius from Belarusians. Within several years Belarusianness completely vanished from the city’s life, and many people really believed that it would never revive. First, the Belarusian Gymnasium of Vilnia was closed in 1944. Its teachers and students who failed to flee to the West were repressed. It was followed by the total destruction of what has been or could be Belarusian. Belarusian newspapers and publishing houses were liquidated, and the Belarusian bookstore was closed down. Then, in 1945, the Belarusian museum named after Ivan Łuckievič [1] was criminally destroyed. Janka Šutovič, its last director, called it “a shameful process, which lasted from November 1944 to June 1945”.

After the liquidation of the Belarusian legal entities and non-governmental organizations, the Soviet occupiers targeted their repressions on members of the Belarusian community in Vilnius. Nearly everyone who had at least some relation to Belarusian public activities was arrested. Sometimes people were arrested just because they studied in the Belarusian Gymnasium in Vilnia.

The circumstances of Francišak Alachnovič’s [2] murder in March 1944 are still unknown. Many attribute it to the NKVD activities, and I believe that this version is the most plausible one. Rev. Adam Stankievič, the spiritual voice of the local Belarusian community, was one of the last who got arrested. Thus, almost all the Belarusian intellectuals in Vilnius found themselves behind bars.

Many local Belarusians lived in constant fear that the authorities would also come in for them. These people recalled that they were afraid not only of a tap on the door but just of a usual rustle in the apartment. Some prudently decided to relocate from Vilnius to other places. This all had an impact on the minds of Belarusians in Vilnius. Many of them did not confess to their children and relatives that they were in fact Belarusians. They raised their children in a foreign language and culture. When the Belarusian revival began in the late 1980s, Lithuania’s Belarusians first came out of hiding and safely declare their Belarusianness. It was accompanied by many interesting occasions. People who had been living side by side in Vilnius worked together or just knew each other have learned that their neighbors, colleagues or acquaintances were also Belarusians. However, this fact also shows the level of intimidation experienced by these people, as their children did not even know that their parents were members of the Belarusian movement in their youth.

A few families, who in the 1950s tried to adhere to the Belarusian traditions, at that time were living in constant fear. These people met each other only on great holidays, but secretly when there were no unknown people nearby and no stranger could see it. People even recall the cases when people who knew each other from school or social activities occasionally met in the street and just quickly averted their eyes so that no one could even think that they knew each other. I mention these small moments from the life of Belarusian intellectuals in Vilnius to show how hard they lived under the Soviet occupation and how difficult it was just to be a Belarusian in the postwar Vilnius.

In the 1960s, the situation became somewhat better. Many political prisoners returned from the camps. However, there was no social activity. People were just meeting, and families maintained friendly relationships with each other. But no more than that. The most well-known Belarusian personality in the Soviet Vilnius was Zośka Vieras. [3] It was she who was visited by all Belarusian intellectuals from Minsk who were interested in the Belarusian life in Vilnius. And it was only in the 1990s when the Belarusian cultural and social life was revived in the capital of Lithuania.

ICELDS: Thus, on the wave of the perestroika and re-establishing of Lithuania’s independence Belarusian activists had to start nearly from scratch. What has been done during this time?

AA: When Belarusians started to openly gather, the very first question was: “What do we want and need here?” As I said, there was nothing Belarusian in Vilnius at that time. Subsequently, the minimum and maximum set of tasks were identified. The maximum set of tasks included the revival of the Belarusian school, the opening of the Belarusian TV- and radio-broadcasts, production of the Belarusian newspaper, the opening of the department of Belarusian studies at the university, the revival of the Belarusian museum, and restoration of the active Belarusian social and cultural life.

I can say that almost all these ideas have been accomplished except for the museum. Not everything has been done as it was initially planned or designed. However, the tasks were implemented, and Belarusians got involved in the active public life of the capital of Lithuania.

During this time, monuments on the graves of the prominent Belarusian personalities were constructed or renovated. Several streets in Vilnius are named after prominent figures of Belarusian culture, including Janka Kupała, Jakub Kołas, Alaiza Paškievič (aka Ciotka), Francišak Skaryna, etc. More than ten memorial plaques were opened to such figures as Francišak Skaryna, Kazimir Svajak, Francišak Bahuševič, Janka Kupała, Jakub Kołas, Vacłaŭ Łastoŭski, Ryhor Šyrma, Branisłaŭ Taraškievič, Kastuś Kalinoŭski, Piotra Sierhijeviič (currently stolen), rev. Adam Stankievič, Natallia Arsieńnieva, Maksim Harecki, etc.

There are weekly programs in the Belarusian language: Vilenski sšytak (English: Vilnia notebook) is broadcasted at the Lithuanian TV and Tutejšy čas (English: The local time) – at the Lithuanian radio. The Vilnius Francišak Skaryna Gymnasium (Lithuanian: Vilniaus Pranciškaus Skorinos gimnazija) with the Belarusian language of instruction successfully operates and develops. The Belarusian language department had been working for about 25 years at the Lithuanian University of Educational Sciences; it trained teachers of the Belarusian language for Lithuania and Belarus.

Unfortunately, we still lack the Belarusian Museum in Vilnius, but Belarusians should blame themselves for this. Also, the Vilnius city municipality has an idea to create the Belarusian Cultural Center. It must include the museum and the information center, as well as provide premises for the work and development of civic organizations. It is possible that this idea will be implemented.

ICELDS: Belarusians are an integral part of the Lithuanian society. However, when it comes to political participation, one can hardly remember any politician in independent Lithuania, except for Vaclav Stankevič, who has publicly declared his or her Belarusian ethnicity. Why did it happen and what caused this political low-key role?

AA: Answering this question, I want to return to the previous one. Unfortunately, political activities were not among the tasks that the Belarusian community initially identified for itself at the beginning of the revival. It is difficult to answer why it happened. Probably, at that time on the wave of the revival all enjoyed the most wonderful moments of the Belarusian history in Vilnius. The majority of the activists at that time were engaged in purely social activities. Gradually it became inertial, and Belarusians focused on social activities at the expense of active participation in political life. Of course, it was a somewhat romantic time, and people were living in this atmosphere. And, as everyone knows, romance and politics do not intersect.

While analyzing now these 30 years, I see that all real efforts of the community were hurled into social and educational issues. Belarusian activists had neither time nor energy to tackle other things. I also want to stress that some activists (heads of public organizations of the Belarusian minority) did not want to engage in politics. It was easier for them to sit and complain, as these tactics helped them to raise funding.

My current observations of the situation point to the fact that Belarusians are not a dead horse and many political parties in Lithuania need them. But if Belarusians did not demonstrate any initiative, how can a party involve them in its activities? Thus, I think it is a matter of time when Belarusians are in the domain of Lithuania’s politics. Now politicians at various levels demonstrate their interest in the activities of the Belarusian community. Even during elections, many candidates invite Belarusians to their pre-election meetings. How the Belarusians will be able to use this? I think they will. The old generation of romantics is being gradually replaced by more pragmatic youth who, as I believe, will prove themselves in politics.

For example, currently, I am a member of the board of the Vilnius branch of Lithuanian Sąjūdis. This political movement made Lithuania independent and defends the country’s independence today. The movement includes tens of thousands of people and has branches throughout Lithuania. I even highlight that Sąjūdis wrote an appeal to support the Kurapaty defenders and filed it to various political structures in Lithuania and Belarus. Currently, we have several projects aimed at the support of Belarusianness in Lithuania. And our common anger is the Nuclear Power Plant near Astraviec. [4] Sąjūdis will continue to protest against its construction.

ICELDS: Nevertheless, Belarusians have two representatives at the National Communities Board (Tautinių bendrijų taryba) acting under the Department of National Minorities of the Republic of Lithuania. How do these two persons represent the Belarusian community, and what is the actual effect of their participation in Board for the Belarusian social and cultural life in Lithuania?

AA: The members of the National Communities Board are elected once in four years. Belarusians have two members because the statute of the Board guarantees this representation for each ethnic group in Lithuania whose number ranges from 10,000 to 100,000. Representatives are elected by civil society organizations. Unfortunately, the representative supported by the Association of the Belarusian Culture in Lithuania quickly forgot about it and does not do even the necessary minimum. However, I assume that the Board does not decide anything, and its role is purely symbolic.

ICELDS: It is known that not all Belarusians in Lithuania support the current authorities in Belarus. How does this political situation affect the relations between the Belarusian minority in Lithuania and the Republic of Belarus?

AA: Unfortunately, Belarusians in Lithuania also became divided along political lines. There are organizations that support Lukashenka’s course and cooperate with the Belarusian Embassy. There are also those who are in the opposition to the authorities of Belarus. I would not say that the relations between the organizations representing these two political segments are bad. Yes, there are many points of disagreements. However, currently, we manage to keep good neighborly relations.

The relations with the organizations from Belarus are contentious. I would like to ask many civil activists on the Belarusian side of the border just one question – where are the houses on Žygimantų 12 in Vilnius once owned by the ABCL, and how the ABCL lost them? [5]

However, at that time they showed neither interest in the former conflict, nor the willingness to understand. When we start to explain something, they just stop talking to us. Hence, the question arises why they fully believe in the version of one side and completely ignore the arguments of the other party. More importantly, they do not even want to think through and understand the case. Unfortunately, many Belarusian opposition groups fear the ABCL and do not want to cooperate with us. This avoidance is perfectly visible also among the Belarusian media.

Nearly nothing from the rich Belarusian cultural life in Vilnius is covered in the Belarusian media. There are also some other aspects which can be observed. For instance, the members of the Razam Solidarity Movement often come to Vilnius to celebrate an event or a date. But they have never asked the ABCL to join them. Their events would have been more massive and would attract the interest of the local Belarusians. But it does not happen.

In 2018, the ABCL celebrated its 30th anniversary. It gathered guests from different countries and high-ranking Lithuanian officials, but there was no one from Belarus, except for a few individuals. Thus, we as Lithuania’s Belarusians see and feel we have a total avoidance of us by our compatriots from the kin-state, without a distinction whether they represent the authorities or the political opposition.

After this, the World Association of Belarusians Baćkaŭščyna wonders why the number of Belarusians abroad decreases. However, this organization also disregards and rejects us. Moreover, this process did not start today. Already in the late 1990s, several famous Belarusians from Vilnius were excluded from its Grand Council without even being informed. Believe me, these people still have hard feelings for the Baćkaŭščyna. The last congress of this organization in July 2017 was characterized by total disregard of the Belarusians from Lithuania. If several people had not persistently asked about their participation, they would not have been there (of course, except for one person from the previous ABCL leadership). Following the conflict with its previous leadership, the ACBL was completely ignored. It turns out that there are “necessary” Belarusians and “unnecessary” ones. I believe that this situation does not contribute to the preservation of Belarusian communities in foreign countries. But some individuals do not have even any moral right to talk about Belarusians abroad if Belarusians were divided into the “right” and “wrong” once according to the very ambiguous criteria.

However, I see that the Belarusian minority has a chance to be preserved in the Republic of Lithuania. Of course, the number of persons belonging to it will drop significantly in the future. However, the Belarusian voice will be heard in diverse and multicultural Vilnius.

ICELDS: The Vilnia dialects played a key role in the development of the modern Belarusian language because the first normative grammar of modern Belarusian language by Branisłaŭ Taraškievič was based on the dialects of the regions of Minsk and Vilnia. What can be said about the current situation of the Belarusian language in Lithuania?

AA: The Belarusian language in Lithuania is represented on two levels: the modern Belarusian literary language and the language of the autochthonous population which spoke and still speaks it. We can say that these two versions of the language exist in the parallel worlds and usually do not overlap. Although the local population is very Polonized, it managed to preserve the Belarusian language which is used mainly for its own needs. When they are “in public”, they speak Russian, Lithuanian, Polish, but not Belarusian.

Another important problem is the identification of this language. Unfortunately, the autochthonous population largely does not want to link it with the Belarusian language. Very often they find a hundred excuses not to recognize that this language is in fact Belarusian. I also noticed that the local Polish dialect is often misrepresented as this “simple” language (Belarusian: próstaja mova). This is more typical among the younger generation. Thus, there is a terminological confusion of local Belarusian and Polish dialects. Despite similarities, they are still different.

In my view, one of the biggest problems is that this Belarusian dialect is analyzed by the people who do not know the Belarusian language. As a result, they find elements of Ukrainian, Serbian and other languages in it. It only strengthens the concept that the “simple” language is not a dialect of Belarusian but a mixture of different languages. Before that, the language was absent in the discourse, while the local population was identified as speakers of a local Polish dialect. I believe that this trend can not only distribute the information about the “simple” language but also contribute to the self-identification of the local population who can start asking themselves whether they were really the Poles.

The biggest paradox is that the destruction of all public manifestations of Belarusianness started in the Vilnius region at the beginning of the Soviet occupation, as I mentioned above. At this time, it coincided with the beginning of the intensive Polonization of the region. Sometimes the Roman Catholic Church is being blamed for the Polonization of the local population. I believe that this assessment is not fully correct. The Roman Catholic Church indeed contributed to this process, but it could not teach its believers a literary Polish language, Polish history, literature, and culture.

Thus, the creation of a wide network of schools in the Vilnius region with the Polish language of instruction was one of the most important factors to accomplish this process in postwar Soviet Lithuania. It was launched in 1948 by the order of Vladas Niunka, the then Minister of Education and deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Lithuanian SSR. When Belarusians asked him for permission to open Belarusian schools, the minister suggested them to go to Belarus. Thus, we see that this network of Polish schools has slowly done its job.

However, the vitality of the Belarusian dialects of the Vilnius region is remarkable. Despite centuries of decline, oppression, and persecution they survived and can be heard today.

Interview conducted by Dr. Kiryl Kascian

Image: Former houses on Žygimantų 12 in Vilnius once owned by the ABCL. © Źmicier Karačun.


[1] Ivan Łuckievič (1881-1919) was one of the key figures in the Belarusian national movement in the early 20th century and initiators of the proclamation of the independent Belarusian Democratic Republic in 1918. The Vilnia Belarusian museum was created in 1921 based on his private collections related to the history and culture of Belarus.
[2] Francišak Alachnovič (1883-1944) was a Vilna-born Belarusian writer and journalist. He is the author of a memoir book “In the claws of the GPU” (Belarusian: U kapciuroch GPU) which is based on his seven-year prison term in the Gulag.
[3] Zośka Vieras (real name: Ludvika Sivickaja, 1892–1991) was a Belarusian writer and a prominent figure of the Belarusian cultural movement. She had been continuously living in Wilno/Vilnius from 1923 until her death.
[4] The Belarusian Nuclear Power Plant is a multi-reactor nuclear power plant which is being constructed under the agreement with the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation ROSATOM in the district of Astraviec (Hrodna region). Its distance from Vilnius is just about 50 km. Lithuania sees the Belarusian NPP as a threat for its security and is the most pronounced critic of its construction and launch.
[5] In the 1930s, these houses in the central part of Vilnius were owned by the Belarusian Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception. In 1991, by the decision of the Vilnius municipal administration, this property was transferred to the Belarusian community. Since 1998, the houses were registered as the ABCL property. Following a “no-cost” property exchange in the 2000s, the headquarters of the ABCL was relocated to an apartment in a Soviet-time house located outside of the city center. This situation caused the conflict and a court case between the previous and the current leadership of the ABCL.

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