I became interested in how to identify myself for the first time at the age of 15, when I was just a young Pole from Hrodna. All my relatives, like me, identified themselves as Poles and Roman Catholics, as I can trace from our family history. In a word, we are “polacy z krwi i kości” (pure-blooded Poles). In our family we always maintain our Polish identity, and answering to usual street bullies’ FAQ: “Hey, you are not Russian or what?”, – I was honored to say: “Yes, I’m not Russian!”.
I learnt the Polish language from my childhood, as in Hrodna we always could enjoy Polish television and radio (by the way, the best movies and cartoons I watched that time were shown by the Polish “Jedynka” [TVP1 – Polish TV channel], since our state television showed those films with a several year delay; Polish news also gave the opportunity to compare it with the Russian and the BTv’s [BT – Belarusian TV channel] interpretations of the same events). Of course, I had also the Polish-Roman Catholic Church and numerous relatives abroad – mainly from Poland (after all, many Catholics had left during Soviet times, and also when Stalin divided the Hrodna region, a lot of relatives were separated: for example, in Krunki, where Socrat Yanowich lives, half of the village are my relatives, and there is a hill from which you can see a Belarusian village, where my other relatives live). Even today, in the Polonia movement – both in Belarus and in the world – there are quite a lot of Krivichs. So it is natural that being a conscious Pole up to the age of 15, I had a good command of Polish, but, unfortunately, my knowledge of Belarusian was very poor, and I could hardly take in it (I think that was not so much because of my Polishness, but because of the vicious anti-Belarusian Belarusian educational system, when the Belarusian language was simply not taught).
Even then I loved Belarus. I still have several poems in Russian about Belarus – on how wonderful it is – though I wrote much more on other topics.
When I was 15, everything changed radically. The search for a future profession led me to journalism. I started to write news stories for the local newspaper “Grodnenskaya Pravda”, It was something about the forest, about New Year trees, which were cut down by evil people. A journalist, who was responsible for the youth page in the paper, was patiently reading my stories and only sighed: “Valera, it’s rather a kind of literature, not journalism“.
And one day she told me that in Hrodna a group of people were creating a school for young journalists and advised me to go there, as they could teach me a bit. I went. That was the famous Hrodna school of young journalists, which operates today and has brought up hundreds of wonderful young people, many of whom became journalists or public figures. The school was organized by Hrodna journalists and social activists. I remember that I filled in my application in Russian, and it was considered by Mikola Markevich. He really liked that I drew comic book characters in the application, and he took me as an intern to his newspaper.
The Hrodna school of young journalists was the first place where I met people who were not teachers of the Belarusian language and literature, but at the same time they spoke Belarusian.
Then, at the age of 15, I got interested in genealogy (and my grandfather mentioned something about our former nobility). And I started to collect all sorts of interesting information about my roots. And at once I was surprised and lost: everywhere I looked , I saw only Belarusian things! And the surname, rare and ancient, is typical for Hrodna and Vilnius regions. And grandfather (by his sword) was an Orthodox Belarusian. And so on and so forth…
Startled, I didn’t know what to do with myself, searching for an answer: “Who am I?” It was exactly the time when “Pahonia” (a Belarusian newspaper, Hrodna, 1992-2001) had been evicted by force from their office. And a guy, who also used to write for that newspaper, invited me to picketing of Hrodno Executive Committee in defense of the newspaper. I went there. That was my first rally (which was a start point for all the following events) There was the editorial stuff of “Pahonia” in a body. A grey-haired man came to me and asked in Belarusian, “Hey, boy, and what language do you speak in your everyday life?” The answer was: “Russian“. And somehow I got ashamed that moment and added quietly: “… and Belarusian, too“. And the man told me: “How come you speak this one and that one – both? Do you have two languages/tongues (a wordplay as there is a single Russian word “язык” for both the notions” language/tongue”)? It’s a snake who has two tongues, not a man. And even then, “yazyk” (the Belarusian word “язык” means “tongue”; a wordplay with a Russian homonym) is to eat, and “mova” (the Belarusian word “мова” means “language”) is to talk. remember!”
I remember – not the man, but his words – forever. I was really impressed. And I had decided to talk only in Belarusian. And I started. And all my classmates, Belarusians by passport, were making fun of me, “You’re a Pole, not Belarusian, so do not talk in Belarusian here“, – they were entirely Russian-speaking.
After the 9th form I entered Lycée. One day there was a meeting with Belarusian writers: Vasil Bykau, Ryhor Baradulin, Liavon Barshcheuski, and Viachaslau Rakicky. Vasil Bykau, unfortunately, did not manage to come because he was sick. We were sitting in a big hall, and the guests were telling us something. Then it was time for questions from the audience. And we, together with my friend – Andreyka Shalaginau, sent a note with only two words: “Zhyvie Belarus!” to Ryhor Baradulin. He was looking through all the crumpled pieces of paper, took ours, read it… He raised his eyes to the audience and started surveying the room carefully. When our eyes met, we raised our right hands with clinched fists, and he even brightened up, smiled and raised his hand, too. It was such a silent conversation. Then, after the meeting, we were talking with him for a long time, took a picture to remember. (Next time, unfortunately, we met each other only at the funeral of Vasil Bykau, but Uncle Ryhor recognized me, took my hand and said: “Let me hold your hand“, – and we were standing like that near the grave, and also there was Niakliayeu. Together with my friend Volga Shved we brought a little soil from Hrodna Vytautas’s Church (fara Witoldowa) and Kalozhy; and Ryhor said to Uladzimir: “This guy has brought some soil from Hrodna – let him stay with us“).
But all that was later. Namely, after the meeting at Lycée, both, Andreyka and me, we have decided to talk only in Belarusian. Later he gave up, but I kept my word. It has been eleven years already, since I became a Belarusian-speaker. At first it was very difficult, since I didn’t know the language and did not have any support. In my spare time I used to study dictionaries (first, by Grabchykau, and later by Stankevich, and Lastouski, and others), I was copying out all the unfamiliar words and learning them by heart. Also I used to read a lot of linguistic literature and later also ethnographic literature. And that’s the way how I’ve learned the language.
The situation with support was more difficult. To be more precise, there was no support, but a lot of aggression from the side of my relatives, the Poles. It was very hard for them. I even stopped communicating with them for a while. But later they got used to my choice, and life returned to normal.
It was the time of my radical Belarusian nationalism, which, however, was not completely Belarusian. Books (mainly historical) gave me information about Litva and Litvins. That was how I felt – being a Belarusian-Litvin. I used Belarusian Lacinka (Latin Script), my slogan was “Zhyvie Litva-Volia” (“Vivat Lietuva-Freedom“). In Hrodna there was a big cohort of Litvins, and it seemed to us that Litvinship was sure to revive.*
For quite a long time I had been participating in various Belarusian organizations, including those which had nationalist character. However, I’ve never joined any political parties on principle, because I think that not only members of the BPF Party (Belarusian Popular Front) should use the Belarusian language, but also ordinary Belarusians. Once, in Yakushovka near the memorial stone to Kalinouski, I took the oath of allegiance to Belarus – under Young Front and White Legion flags.
In 2001, I undertook a barefoot journey from Hrodna to the Gate of Dawn in Vilnius. On the Hill of Three Crosses I administered the oath of allegiance to Belarus from two my friends. It was a beautiful sight: I, dressed in camouflage, was reading the text of the oath created during my pilgrimage; my friends on bended knees were repeating the words after me, and a local Belarusian girl, a really beautiful one, Marina Glebik, was holding the white-red-white flag, which guys later kissed and then all of us exclaimed: “Zhyvie Belarus!“. Several Lithuanians were even scared and quickly streamed away from the Hill.
That pilgrimage to the Gate of Dawn gave me peace in my heart and spiritual power, and I walked away from radicalism. I have understood a lot. Since that time my life has become more peaceful (though I didn’t cease my social activities or radicalism, but my views changed a lot).
It was time when I came back to the question: who am I? But it got rather human and spiritual in character, and not exclusively national. I’ve started to explore – via ethnographic trips, regional studies, literature, photography, talks with local people – Hrodna and Hrodna region, which I was and am amorous of.
At the same time, and I realized what is my real nationality: I am Hrodnian. Yes, first of all, I am Hrodnian, and only then a Pole, or a Belarusian, or a Litvin. I feel that I belong to this land, this sky and the sun, these stars and this Neman. I belong to the local people, that were divided by history and fate, torn into different pieces – Belarusian, Polish, and Lithuanian; although they are a single whole. Precisely this nation has given the world Ozheshko and Mickievich. This region, including Bialystok and Vilnius, is my homeland. And it’s fate is most vividly reflected in the fate of three brothers from Vilnius: one of them became a great Polish public figure, the second was a great Lithuanian, and the third was a famous Belarusian personality. All the nations are equal here, so why should I consider them foreign? I don’t deny my Polish roots or whatever else; I consider Lithuanians my brothers. And I live by my Belarus.
All the regions – Hrodna, Bialystok, and Vilnius – are kindred to me today; and I don’t care about national boundaries and political definitions.
I am Hrodnian.
*The Grand Duchy of Lithuania and its people: one never should confuse the residents of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania with the modern Lithuanians. Hence their name is Litvins (not Lithuanians).
The original text was published in Arche: Пра маю нацыянальнасьць
Translated by MA