Uladzimir Siamionavich KARATKEVICH, a classic writer of Belarusian literature, a poet, prose writer, playwright, script writer, publicist, translator.
He was born 26 November 1930 in the town of Orsha, Vitebsk region, Belarus. His father, Siamion Tsimafeevich (1887-1959), finished a vocational school in Orsha, earned a living at a young age, worked in the treasury area, was a clerk in the tsarist army, and after the October Revolution served in the finance institutions. His mother, Nadzeia Vasileuna (1893-1977), nee Grynkevich (among her relatives were clergymen, clerks, teachers), after completing the Mariinsky high school in Mogilev taught for a time in school and then was a housewife. The family had three children: son Valery (1918-1941), daughter Natallia (1922-2003), and son Uladzimir.
The family was noted for high intelligence. In the words of Karatkevich himself, in childhood he was in many ways influenced by his relatives. He was greatly affected by his maternal grandfather, Vasil Yullianavich Grynkevich (1861-1945), a man of rich experience, a witty story-teller, from whom his grandson Valodzia heard many tales and folk legends and learned to love nature. “The nature phenomena still interest me more than some of the books”, admitted Uladzimir Karatkevich in a mature age. The family had a home library. Valodzia learned to read at the age of three and a half and wrote his first verse, according to his relatives, at the age of six. In childhood his talents manifested in a passion for painting that he pursued his whole life and that he had an absolute pitch for music; for a short time he studied in a music school.
In 1938, Valodzia entered a school in Orsha. On completing the third year in summer 1941, he went to Moscow to visit his elder sister Natallia, who studied there in a college of chemical technology. Then the Great Patriotic War began and Valodzia could not return home. Together with other Moscow children he was evacuated into the Riazan region and then Molotov (Perm) region in the Urals. He made several attempts to run to the front. Later he knew that his parents managed to evacuate and lived in the town of Chkalov (Orenburg) in Russia. Only in August 1943 his sister brought him to their parents. The family, however, made their part of contribution to the Soviet war effort. In October 1941, Valodzia’s elder brother Valery died on the front. Valery’s wife Olga, who remained in the Nazi-occupied area, was killed by the occupiers.
In summer 1944, Uladzimir Karatkevich together with his mother moved to recently liberated Kiev, where his relatives lived. The short staying in Kiev left a deep imprint in his memory. It was here that he took first interest in history, influenced by the great monuments of the old town on the Dnieper and the excavations carried out by archaeologists. Later, under the impression of those times, Karatkevich wrote a novella called Listse Kashtanau (The Foliage of Chestnuts).
In autumn 1944, the family returned to their home town of Orsha. In late 1946, they began to live in their own house, into which Karatkevich would often come later to create his works. He would dedicate to this town and its people the verse “Orsha” expressing his sincere love for the native places that “…probably will not disappear even with my life”.
Another hospitable place for his creativity was the house of his relatives in Ragachou built by his grandfather Vasil in 1914. Here he had a separate room into which he would often come to find a piece of mind, and brought his friends and colleagues. In Ragachou he designed and wrote many of his famous works. The importance of these places for Karatkevich is even sometimes compared with what Boldino was for Pushkin.
In 1949, Uladzimir Karatkevich finished a secondary school and entered the Department of Russian Philology at the Taras Shevchenko State University in Kiev. He was interested not only in literature (classics of world literature, the Ukrainian, Russian, Polish and Belarusian authors) but was also keen on history, primarily Belarusian. Here he got acquainted with many works on the national liberation uprising of 1863-1864 that had long interested him. According to the family legend, one of Karatkevich’s descendants – Tamash Grynevich (Grynkevich) – was shot in Ragachou for participating in the uprising.
In Kiev, Uladzimir Karatkevich continued to write poetry in Belarusian and Russian and tried his hand in Ukrainian and Polish. In his student papers he elaborated on several literary topics: the works of Pushkin, Bagdanovich etc. At this time he conceived a plan of a great historical work intended to show in detail the events of the 1863-1864 Uprising. And in summer 1950, he created the first version of his famous novella, The Wild Hunt of King Stakh, a historical detective, the events of which take place in the1880s.
In 1951, the Orsha-based newspaper “Leninski pryzyu” published his two poems, “A Canal Will Be Here” (in Russian) and “To Yakub Kolas” (in Belarusian). In summer 1952, under the impression from his trip to Viazynka, a home place of Yanka Kupala, Karatkevich wrote an essay called “Viazynka”, which he sent, together with his letter, to Yanka Kupala’s wife, Uladzislava Frantsauna. At the same time he sent a number of his early works (tales, verses, stories) for review to Yakub Kolas.
In 1954, Uladzimir Karatkevich graduated from the University. His diploma work on the theme “Tales. Legends. Traditions” produced an ambiguous response, and only due to the efforts of the academician A. Bialetski and teacher A. Nazarouski, he received the highest mark. The chances for further research were however limited. Only later Karatkevich managed to enter correspondence courses in postgraduate study. In the years 1954-1956, he taught the Russian language and literature in the village of Lesavichi, Tarashchany district, Kiev region in Ukraine.
In July 1955, the magazine “Polymia” published his verse Masheka (The Shaggy Wolf) dedicated to the hero of Belarusian legends. According to Karatkevich, this event became a turning point in his life, when he finally turned his attention to literary activity, and historical themes occupied a considerable place. In the same year, Karatkevich’s essay “Viazynka” was published in the book on the life and work of Yanka Kupala.
In autumn 1955, Karatkevich participated in the conference of young writers in Minsk, which gave a high assessment of his poetry. In 1955, he started a regular correspondence with the chief editor of Polymia, the future people’s poet of Belarus Maksim Tank, an elder colleague with whom he shared his creative plans and thoughts.
In 1956, Uladzimir Karatkevich returned to his home town of Orsha, where he taught in high school No 3 until 1958. Apart from intensive work at school, he tried to engage in research; he started a scholarly dissertation on the literary representation of the national liberation uprising of 1863-1864, but he failed to finish it.
This was a time of fruitful work for the writer. In 1956, Karatkevich wrote a legend called Matsi Vetru (Mother of Winds) dedicated to the events of the anti-feudal uprising at Krychau in 1743-1744, about which he heard from his grandfather Vasil. In 1957, he wrote a play, Mlyn na Sinikh Virakh (A Mill in the Blue Swamps), whose heroes are the Soviet resistance fighters in the Second World War (televised in Belarus in 1959, first published in 1988). In the same year he finished a novella, U Snegakh Dramae Vesna (The Spring Sleeps in Snows) about the student life in the early 1950s (first published in 1988).
In April 1957, Uladzimir Karatkevich won the official recognition of his colleagues; he was admitted to the Union of Writers of Belarus. Despite this fact, the Orsha-based Leninski Pryzyu published several critical articles in which Karatkevich was accused of taking an excessive interest in history, disrespect for the heroic daily life of the Soviet people, pessimism, and isolation from the reality. The verse “Vadarod” (Hydrogen) was sharply criticised. Here the author, though he recognized the great potential of nuclear power in peaceful purposes but, according to his opponents, largely overestimated its danger. Various conferences were organised for the readers; angry letters were sent to the capital. In February 1958, however, the republic-level newspaper “Zviazda” published an article in support of the young author.
The first book of his poetry Matchyna Dusha (Mother’s Soul) came out in 1958. In the same time he finished the novella “The Wild Hunt of King Stakh” and wrote the play “A Little Farther from the Moon”, which was never published, about the fate of a man who suffered from Stalin’s regime.
In 1958-1962, Uladzimir Karatkevich studied in Moscow, first at the advanced literature courses and from 1960 at the cinematography courses.
At this time, another collection of his poetry, Viacherniia Vetrazi (Evening Winds, 1960) and a book of prose, Blakit I Zolata Dnia (The Blue and Gold of the Day, 1961) were published. The latter one included a number of stories and two historical novellas, Sivaia Legenda (A Grey Legend) about the people’s uprising in Mogilev region in the 17th century and Tsyganski Karol (The Gypsy King), set in the second half of the 18th century, about the upheavals in the life of the Belarusian nobleman Mikhal Yanouski, the local gypsy ‘monarch’ Yakub Znamiarouski of Lida, and the ‘republicans’ who opposed him. Then he wrote his first novel entitled Leanidy ne Vernutstsa da Ziamli, in which the life of the intelligentsia and the relations between the novel’s characters (descendants of the insurgent in the 1863 uprising and the tsarist officer) are shown through the prism of historical events. The novel was published in Polymia in 1962 under the title of “Nelga Zabyts” (Impossible to Forget). At this time Karatkevich became interested in cinematography and actively worked on scripts for feature films and documentaries.
The 1960s was a a fruitful time for Karatkevich, when his talent unfolded most powerfully. From 1962 he constantly lived in Minsk; the time began when the young writer could totally focus on his work. In 1964, his novella The Wild Hunt of King Stakh was published for the first time. In the 1960s, he also wrote novels, Ears of Rye under Thy Sickle (1962-1964, published in 1965, a special edition in 1968), a large-scale work about the events on the eve of the uprising of 1863-1864, Christ Has Landed in Garodnia (1965-1966, published in 1972) devoted to medieval Belarus, and a number of other historical pieces – the play Kastus Kalinouski (1963, published in 1980), the novella Zbroia (The Weapon, 1964, published in 1981) about Kalinouski’s insurgents, and the legend Laddzia Rospachy (1964, published in 1968) about the tragic events of the war with Moscovia in the 17th century and the bravery of the Belarusian warriors.
Uladzimir Katratkevich made a lot for the Belarusian cinematography. He wrote scripts for the documentary films “The Witnesses of the Eternity” (1964), “Memory” (1966), and “Be Happy, the River” (1967). In 1967, a fiction film “Christ Has Landed in Garodnia” was made from his script. An ‘excessive’ attention, in the view of some ideological inspectors, to the ‘macabre medieval ages’ became the reason why the film was ‘put on the shelf’ and came to the public only many years later in 1989.
In 1969, a collection of his poetry “My Iliad” came out in print. In 1970, a book of prose “Chazenia” was published, which included the novella of the same name about the young intelligentsia in the Far East in the 1960s, several stories on historical and contemporary topics, and “Tales of the Amber Country” devoted to Latvia.
Undoubtedly, a central place in Karatkevich’s heritage is occupied by the Ears of Rye under Thy Sickle, actually the first Belarusian historical novel. According to the author, the novel’s plan matured for twelve years, and “the outset of the novel came to mind on 7 August 1959 near Aziaryshcha in Ragachou region”. In Ragachou the author wrote many of the novel’s pages. “With this book I tried to pay debt to the Dnieper, the people of the 1863 uprising, to Belarus”. The author thought this work would become the first part of the trilogy providing a broad picture of the people’s struggle for freedom, but did not manage to realize his plans in full. The novel, published in Polymia in 1965, met a positive response from the readers. It was highly estimated by most critics. But there were negative responses, too. The author was reproached of showing the nobility, rather than the peasantry, as the main acting force in the novel. In preparing the book edition, he was demanded to remake the work. Karatkevich strongly refused to change the main conceptual accents in the novel. At the meeting of the Union of Writers, he was supported by Ales Adamovich, Yanka Bryl, Nil Gilevich, Genadz Kisialeu, Adam Maldzis, Ivan Navumenka and other writers. The novel was published in a single book, but the author had to divide the first part of the trilogy into two books and accept some of the reviewer’s remarks. On the theme of the 1863 Uprising Karatkevich worked in the course of his whole life, dwelling on the topic in many of his poetic pieces, stories, dramatic works, publications and, according to one researcher of his life, spreading the ‘cult’ of Kastus Kalinouski.
In the late 1960s, Uladzimir Karatkevich met with his future wife, Valiantsina Branislavauna Nikitina, who was his associate and assisted him in many ways. She was a historian, with a scholarly degree in history. Before she met Karatkevich, she had taught in a teachers college in Brest. After moving to Minsk, she worked as a research assistant at the Institute of Cultural Studies, Ethnography and Folklore at the Academy of Sciences of Belarus, studied the issues of the traditional and national culture, went on many ethnographical expeditions, often accompanied by her husband. In 1990, for her participation in preparing “The Collection of Historical and Cultural Monuments in Belarus”, together with other authors, she was awarded the State Prize of the BSSR.
Uladzimir Karatkevich was fond of travelling. One may surely say that he travelled through the whole Belarus. (“I love all places in Belarus. And I know all of them.”). He visited many places in the Soviet Union and in Poland; on the invitation from the Slovak colleagues, together with his wife, he visited Czechoslovakia several times and was very impressed by its nature and historical monuments. “Life is impossible to invent. It can only be reproduced”, – wrote Karatkevich and he followed this principle in both his historical works and journalistic articles, as well as his essays and sketches on regional studies.
The 1970s were marked by new achievements in Karatkevich’s literary career.
A noticeable work in the writer’s heritage is The Land Under White Wings, an essay about Belarus, its history, nature and culture, written originally in 1971 for the Ukrainian readers and published in a single book in Belarusian in 1977. Following Karatkevich’s example, this image became deeply rooted as a symbolic name for our country. The Foliage of Chestnuts, a novella about the young boys and girls in the first years after the war, was written in 1972. Photo albums “Belavezhskaia Pushcha National Park” and “Memory of the Belarusian Land” were published in 1973 and 1979 respectively, with text written for both books by Uladzimir Karatkevich. A collection of stories and novellas, The Eye of the Typhoon was published in 1974 and a book of historical works, From Past Ages in 1978.
In the 1970s, Karatkevich did not stop his work on dramatic pieces. In 1973 he finished the script for the feature movie “The Red Agate”. He also wrote works for the theater. His historical play “The Bells of Vitebsk” (written in 1973, published in 1977) is devoted to the events of 1623, the time when the Union of the Orthodox and Catholic churches was established on our land. In 1978, the play “Kastus Kalinouski” was staged at the theatre (in 1973 Karatkevich wrote a libretto to the ballet of the same name). In 1982 Karatkevich wrote a social-historical drama “Kalyska Chatyrokh Charaunits” (staged in the same year), in which he turned to the childhood and youth of Yanka Kupala. The events of the Krychau Uprising of 1743-1744 are depicted in the tragedy “Mother of Storms” (1982, published in 1985, performed in 1988).
Karatkevich also wrote for young readers; his book “Tales” was published in 1975.
The continuity of different ages is embodied in another famous work by Karatkevich – an adventure and detective novel, The Dark Castle Alshanski, in which a detective plot, social-psychological and historical aspects, and colourful human characters are closely intertwined (1979, published in a single book in 1983).
In the course of his whole literary activity Uladzimir Karatkevich worked as a publicist and journalist. He created works on Frantsysk Skaryna, Kastus Kalinouski, Yanka Kupala, Maksim Bagdanovich and such world names as George Byron, Anton Chekhov, Mikhail Sholokhov. The themes for his numerous stories, essays and articles were the places in Belarus and other countries. These are old Vitebsk, Turau, Mstislavl, Vilnius, Kiev, also Latvia, Belarusian Palesse… He was also interested in the spiritual heritage of the world’s peoples. An example is the story “The Great Shan Yan” in which he turned to the history of Old China. Karatkevich completed many translations from Latvian, Lithuanian, Georgian, Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, Slovak, Czech, Turkmenian; he wrote a number of critical articles on the issues of literary translation. Among his friends were the Ukrainian, Polish, Slovak, Bulgarian, Lithuanian and Latvian writers.
Karatkevich always stayed in the thick of events. His various contacts were many friends, writers, artists, cinema men. His close circle included the famous Belarusian writers such as Yanka Bryl, Vasil Bykau, Rygor Baradulin, Adam Maldzis and many others. But he could also find common language with the people whom he met on numerous trips and expeditions, fishermen, foresters… Karatkevich showed himself in the field of education. In the second half of the 1970s he began to work on Belarusian television where he had his own programme called “Heritage” devoted to the history and culture of Belarusian land.
The late 1970s – early 1980s were the years when Karatkevich’s talent received international recognition, but was also a time of great personal trials.
In 1980, in connection with his 50th anniversary Uladzimir Karatkevich was awarded the ‘Friendship of Nations Order’. To mark this date, a book of his select works was issued in two volumes. In1983, he was awarded the Ivan Melezh Literary Prize for his novel “Impossible to Forget”.
In his personal life Uladzimir Karatkevich suffered an irreplaceable loss. In 1977, his mother, Nadzeia Vasilleuna, with whom he had long lived together, died. In 1983, his wife Valiantsina Branislavauna, died from a severe disease. Uladzimir Siamionavich suffered enormous grief. His own health was undermined but he continued his trips. In one of them, his disease worsened and on 25 July 1984 at the age of 54 Uladzimir Karatkevich died. He was buried at Eastern Cemetery in Minsk.
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Uladzimir Karatkevich is probably one of the most brilliant figures in the Belarusian literature of the second part of the 20th century. His talent, deep erudition and patriotism served as a basis for his creative literary achievements.
“There is only one way to bring up a man to love his national culture: to cultivate pride in his people and its history”, – said Uladzimir Karatkevich. He is often termed the ‘father of Belarusian historical romanticism’. A researcher of Karatkevich’s life and works, Andrei Verabei, calls him ‘the classic of Belarusian historical fiction’. He compares his role in Belarusian literature to that of Walter Scott for the English and Henryk Sienkiewicz for the Polish and particularly marks his achievements in creating a highly artistic historical prose.
Uladzimir Karatkevich has become one of the spiritual symbols of the modern Belarusian revival. His active life position, the conscience of a patriot and citizen, whose main concern was about the fate of the Belarusian people, often caused criticism and discontent among the ideological ‘guards of the order’. Some of his works were published many years after their creation and many were published posthumously. Yet the contribution of Uladzimir Karatkevich to the development of Belarusian literature and the awakening of the people’s historical memory is unquestionable. His literary output received high recognition among the readers both in Belarus and abroad.
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With the passing time, increasingly more people show interest in Karatkevich’s personality and work. A tribute to the writer and a high estimation of his writings by descendants can be seen in many spheres of the society’s life.
In 1984, Uladzimir Karatkevich was posthumously awarded the Yakub Kolas State Prize of Belarus for his novel “The Dark Castle Alshanski”.
A collection of his verse under the memorable title “I Was, I Am, I Will Be”, prepared for publication by the author during his lifetime, came out in 1986. The Collected works by Uladzimir Karatkevich were issued in eight volumes in 1987-1991. His novel “Ears of Rye under Thy Sickle” is included into school curriculum in literature. His works have been translated into more than twenty languages, including English, French, German, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Ukrainian and others.
Karatkevich’s plays have been staged in many Belarusian theatres. The Belarusian National Opera and Ballet includes the opera A Grey Legend (composer D. Smolski, libretto by Karatkevich) in their repertoire and Uladzimir Soltan’s interpretation of The Wild Hunt of King Stakh, awarded with the State Prize of Belarus. A number of feature films, television and radio performances were made after Karatkevich’s works.
A documentary “I Was, I Am, I Will Be”, several video films and a number of monograph publications have been dedicated to Karatkevich’s life and work.
There is the Uladzimir Karatkevich Museum in Orsha. The papers and documents relating to his life and work are on display at the Museum of People’s Glory in Ragachou and the Regional Museum in Vitebsk. At the initiative of the writer’s followers, expositions are held at the vocational college of electronics in Minsk, the boarding school for builders in Molodechno, and high school No 8 in Orsha.
Monuments to the writer are erected in Orsha, Vitebsk and at the writer’s grave in Minsk. The commemorative plaques are attached to the house in Orsha, where the writer lived in the late 1950s and in Minsk, where he had an apartment. The streets in Orsha, Vitebsk and Ragachou bear the name of Karatkevich as a tribute to him. His name is given to a high school in Orsha, the Foundation for Assistance to Young Writers, and the Mastaskaia Litaratura Publishers Prize.
In connection with the 80th anniversary of the writer’s birth, the Culture Minister of Belarus adopted a special programme to celebrate the event. The plans have been made to open the writer’s monument in Minsk and to publish his collected works in 25 volumes. Under process is the work on a serial film based on his novel “Ears of Rye under Thy Sickle”. The plans are to shoot a documentary, to organize a number of concerts and exhibitions, to issue a commemorative envelope with an original postage stamp devoted to the writer, and more.
The outstanding classic of Belarusian literature is honoured beyond the borders of our country. His name is given to the Belarusian Sunday School in Tallinn and the Public Library of the Literature of Estonia’s Peoples. The monument to the writer is soon to be unveiled in the Ukrainian capital Kiev.
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The Archives of Belarus website offers a virtual exposition of 240 documents on
Uladzimir Karatkevich, including the writer’s autographs, textual records, excerpts of his
works, photographs, sound recordings, and film fragments. The documents are organised by
seven topics illustrating various aspects of Karatkevich’s life and creative work.
The source materials are selected from six Belarusian archives–the Belarusian State Archives-Museum of Literature and Art, the Belarusian State Archives of Films, Photographs and Sound Recordings, the National Archives of the Republic of Belarus, the National Historical Archives of Belarus in Minsk, the State Archives of Vitebsk Region, and the Local State Archives in Orsha.
The survey of documents and the article on Karatkevich’s life and work are prepared by teamwork of the Belarusian Research Centre for Electronic Records with the assistance from the Department for Archives and Records Management of the Republic of Belarus.
The examples of Karatkevich’s poetry in Belarusian and in English translation, as well as the English version language of the famous novella King Stakh’s Wild Hunt can be found on a separate website Belarusian Literature in English translation, the project implemented by the Yanka Kupala Central Public Library with the support of the National Commission of the Republic of Belarus for UNESCO.