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Vintsent Dunin-Martsinkevich: personality and work



Vintsent DUNIN-MARTSINKEVICH, the classic author of Belarusian literature, one of the founders of new Belarusian literature and dramatic art, poet, theatrical figure, public man.

He was born 4 February 1808 (new calendar) at the Paniushkavichi grange, Bobruisk district, Minsk province (now in Bobruisk district, Mogilev region) into the noble family of Yan (Ivan) Dunin-Martsinkevich and Martsiana nee Niadzvedzki. The boy, named Vintsent Yakub, was baptized at the Parish Catholic Church in Bobruisk.

In the 17th century, the writer's ancestors possessed the estate of Martsinkevichi in the Smolensk province. The family had its own coat-of-arms called "Lebed" (Swan) and enjoyed the rights of the nobility. Vintsent's parents, however, did not have their own land and rented the Paniushkavichi grange from their brother-in-law, Stanislau Bogush-Sestrantsevich, an archbishop of Mogilev, later a metropolitan for Roman-Catholic churches in the Russian empire. It should be noted that Dunin-Martsinkevich had to repeatedly confirm his noble origin in order to settle various personal and family affairs as the bureaucratic system of imperial Russia demanded this.

Vintsent's boyhood years are little documented. He lost his father early. It was thought that in 1824 he finished the district school in Bobruisk but, according to some new data, in 1819 he was sent to Saint Petersburg in care of S. Bogush-Sestrantsevich, a highly educated man, Slavonic scholar, writer, member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, who personally supervised his education. The story tells that the young Dunin-Martsinkevich entered the Medical and Surgical Academy in St Petersburg but abandoned his studies because he could not stay in the anatomy room.

From the mid 1820s, Dunin-Martsinkevich lived in Minsk, worked as an assessor in the land court, a clerk in the criminal court, a translator for the Ecclesiastical Catholic Consistory, and had a post at the Assembly of the Nobility.

In 1831, he married a lawyer's daughter, Yuzefa Baranovska, with whom he had seven children. In 1840, he purchased a small estate of Lutsynka in the Minsk district (now the village of Malaia Lutsynka in Volozhyn district, Minsk region), where he settled after leaving the public service.

The data exist that in the beginning of the 1840s Dunin-Martsinkevich served a steward on the estate of Shchaury in Senno district, Mogilev province. Later he travelled through the whole Belarus as an agent handling the affairs of his clients, for he had experience of work with legal documents. He spent a lot of time in Minsk, where he was active in social and cultural life.

In this period Dunin-Martsinkevich started his literary activity. His first works were written in Polish. He wrote texts for the musical comedies "Musicians Contest", "Magic Water" and "Jewish Recruitment" (staged by the Jewish Amateur Theatre in 1841), in which  he raised the topic of the recruitment as an impediment to the happy life of the Jewish family. The music was composed by Stanislau Maniushka. The writer himself participated in composing music; sometimes he performed as an actor in his plays (for example, he played the part of an old Jew in the operetta "Jewish Recruitment").

In the mid-1840s, Dunin-Martsinkevich began to collaborate with the publishers. In 1846, his libretto to the dramatic opera "A Village Girl" (later renamed "Idyll") was published in a single book in Vilna. The music was composed by S. Maniushka and K. Kzhyzhanouski with the participation of V. Dunin-Martsinkevich. In addition to dramatic dialogues and monologues, the work contains many arias and duets, choral pieces and dances. "Idyll" is a fundamental work in the development of the new Belarusian literature. While the lords are here speaking Polish, the villagers for the first time in a literary work speak in Belarusian. Dunin-Martsinkevich showed himself as an advocate of social peace and moral self-development. He ridiculed the nobility's arrogance and their blind love for everything French but at the same time he created a type of a kind landlord who through his love for a village girl (eventually she appeared to be a disguised lady) began to love the villagers and wanted them to love him too. The idealisation of the reality did not prevent Dunin-Martsinkevich from portraying a typical peasant character. The true hero in the play was not a landlord but a villager, Navum Prygavorka, a village head who supervised the work of the peasant serfs. This character was very important to Dunin-Martsinkevich; he used the name of this personage for his pseudonym. "Idyll" was very popular in Belarus; the text was rewritten and spread in manuscript copies, reviews of the work's theatrical performance appeared in the press. The opera was first staged at Dunin-Martsinkevich's theatre in Minsk in 1852; the part of Navum was played by the author himself.

The theatre of Dunin-Martsinkevich, an amateur theatrical company created by the writer, existed through the 1840s and 1850s. It was the first Belarusian national theatre of modern type. The company comprised over 20 persons, including the writer, his two daughters, his son and the representatives of Minsk intelligentsia. Also, the peasant choir from Lutsynka participated in the performances; there was an orchestra. The theatre's repertoire included mainly the plays written by Dunin-Martsinkevich. The audience and the theatre critics marked the outstanding actor skills of the playwright. The theatre supported the traditions of popular art and was distinguished for its democracy. Immediately after the first production of "A Village Girl", the theatre was forbidden to perform but continued doing so illegally, staging plays in different towns in Belarus until 1856.

Dunin-Martsinkevich's children - daughter Kamila and son Miraslau - received popularity as talented pianists already at young age in the late 1840s, giving concerts in Minsk, Vilna, Kiev and Warsaw. The father was concerned about their further education and in 1851 he petitioned the throne's heir, Grand Duke Alexander Nikolaevich, for their free enrollment in the Paris Conservatory but his request was refused. Later Miraslau studied at a musical institute in Warsaw. Kamila even wrote music.

In the 1850s, Dunin-Martsinkevich lived chiefly in Minsk. In 1854, his wife died. Later he married Maria Grusheuska. The writer often visited Vilna, where he met with many figures in culture and science. In 1854, he travelled in Palesse. Several times he visited Shchaury. Also, he had wide contacts with the Minsk intelligentsia: poets, musicians, artists, publishers.

At this time his poetry collections "Gapon" (1855), "Evenings and the Madman" (1855), "Taking Interest? Read!" (1856), "A Belarusian Piper, or a Little of Everything" (1857) were for the first time published in Minsk. These included short stories and narratives in verse about the life of the villagers, written not only in Polish but also in Belarusian. The poem "Gapon", the writer's first work written entirely in Belarusian, describes the conventionality of the class division in society. The Belarusian poetic stories "Zmitser, Stupid but Sly", "Kupala", "Shchaury Harvests" etc. bear clear folklore motifs. Among the Polish-language works the most significant are the narratives "The Slavs in the 19th Century" dedicated to the struggle of the southern Slavs against the Turks and "The Writers' Concerns" about the hard lot of a writer, his material and spiritual concerns, happiness from the people's support. In addition, the books contain verses in Polish and Belarusian.

These publications had a resonance. The Petersburg-based magazine "Fatherland's Son" issued a favourable review entitled "Belarusian literature" dedicated to Dunin-Martsinkevich's books. The Belarusian critic and local specialist Uladzislau Syrakomlia gave several reviews in the Warsaw and Vilna press, in which he called Dunin-Martsinkevich "a phenomenon noteworthy from the point of view that Martsinkevich was the first who took the Belarusian Pipe of our People into his intelligent hands and with this created a song that the people understood".

In 1857, Dunin-Martsinkevich wrote a Belarusian ballad "A Grass Flower, the Brother and Sister", in which the author again used a folklore subject, and "The Folk Tales, Navum's Stories", including the versed stories "A Wicked Wife", a condemnation of immoral conduct and profligacy, and "Halimon at the Coronation" dedicated to the feast on the enthronement of Alexander II who promised to give the people their long-awaited liberties. It was not until the mid 20th century, when these works were published in the Soviet magazines "Belarus" and "Polymia".

In the second half of the 1850s, Dunin-Martsinkevich translated from Polish into Belarusian the poem "Pan Tadeush" written by the Polish poet of Belarusian origin Adam Mitskevich, an epic picture of life in Belarus in the early 19th century. This was the first translation of the famous work into another Slavic language. It was planned to be published in Vilna in 1859; the first two parts (tales) out of twelve had already been printed and even bound, but in the last moment the censorship did not allow its appearance (formally because the text was set in Latin script) and almost the whole edition was destroyed. Dunin-Martsinkevich, trying to save the publication of his translation of "Pan Tadeush", explained this situation to the Main Censorship Committee: "Of a hundred peasants in our provinces you can probably find ten who can read Polish and, on the contrary, there is hardly one peasant for a thousand who knows Russian. So, when a Belarusian work is printed in Russian letters, you can just lock it in a chest, for... the upper class...will not take a peasant book in their hands, and peasants, even if they are fond of reading, cannot satisfy their wish without knowing the Russian letters". (At that time the Belarusian language was not officially used for over a century and a half. The old tradition of Cyrillic writing and printing was then interrupted and the Latin alphabet was normally used in those few publications in which the Belarusian language was still present). The censors from Saint Petersburg were however inexorable. Only in 1907, on the basis of the surviving material (four copies have survived) Dunin-Martsinkevich's translation was issued by the Belarusian Publishing House "Zagliane sontsa i u nasha akontsa" (literally translated as "the-sun-will-look-in-at-our-little-window-too") in Petersburg.

A historical narrative in verse "Lutsynka, or the Swedes in Litva", written in Polish in 1857 and published in a single book in Vilna in 1861, poeticizes the courage and heroism of the Belarusian ancestry in the struggle against the invaders. This was Dunin-Martsinkevich's last book published during his lifetime.

Dunin-Martsinkevich was close in views to the noble revolutionaries of the early 1860s. In 1861, on the way to Warsaw together with U. Syrakomlia he gave patriotic speeches in different towns and villages. The writer's activity attracted the attention of the police; he was even expelled from the town of Kouna (Kaunas). In the patriotic and democratic spirit Dunin-Martsinkevich brought up his children. The writer and his family were connected with the national liberation movement and supported the participants in the Kalinouski Uprising of 1863-1864. The resolution of the Provisional Field Auditing Commission, a punitive body that carried out reprisals against the insurgents, reported that "Martsinkevich is guilty of not educating his family in the spirit of allegiance to the government and therefore cannot be regarded himself reliable in political respect". 

Two photos of Dunin-Martsinkevich survive which were taken in the early 1860s by the famous Minsk photographer A. Prushynski. One of them, a group portrait, shows among the other people taken together with the writer and his daughter Kamila, many persons wearing an insurgent uniform - a coat with a stand-up collar and dark horizontal stripes on the breast. The other photo shows Dunin-Martsinkevich alone in this coat. But this uniform was strictly forbidden and non-compliance with the ban symbolised the participation of its wearer in the patriotic movement. In 1861, the police made a list of participants in the political demonstration in Minsk who sang the forbidden revolutionary hymn. No.1 was Kamila Dunin-Martsinkevich and No.2, photographer Prushynski. Insurgent A. Sventarzhetski recollected that Lutsynka was one of the main centres of the uprising in the neighbourhood of Rakau.

The authorities suspected Dunin-Martsinkevich of being an author of anti-government publications, particularly a propaganda pamphlet called "The Conversation of an Old Man" which condemned the tsarist rules and called on the villagers to support the liberation movement. In 1864, he was arrested and was kept in the castle prison in Minsk for more than a year. Though the main accusations against him were not proved, a heavy fine was imposed on Dunin-Martsinkevich and his family, their property was partly confiscated (with a limited right of use) and the writer was forced to stay in Lutsynka under police surveillance with no right of leaving the place. The writer's daughter Kamila was exiled for ten years to the town of Solikamsk in the Urals.

The last twenty years of life (from the mid 1860s to the mid 1880s) Dunin-Martsinkevich spent in Lutsynka. He lived here in solitude and only seldom visited Minsk. During this time he wrote a lot but all his attempts to publish his works failed. In 1866, he wrote a Belarusian comedy (or a farce-vaudeville as the writer called it) "The Nobility of Pinsk". This is considered the best work of Dunin-Martsinkevich. The play  ridicules the haughtiness of the minor nobility, their fear of the authorities, and the unjust court system. Only in 1917, "The Nobility of Pinsk" was staged by the First Belarusian Society of Drama and Comedy at the town theatre in Minsk. In 1918, the play was first published in the newspaper "Volnaia Belarus" (Free Belarus).

In 1868, Dunin-Martsinkevich wrote in Polish the poem "Over the Islach River or the Medicine at Bedtime" (the author called it "the story of Navum Prygavorka"), in which the vanishing idyllic life on the farmsteads of the minor nobility is opposed to the new reality with its cynicism and thirst for money. The work was first published only in 1894, already in Belarusian translation.

In the Belarusian and Polish speak the characters in the satirical comedy "Matchmaking", written by Dunin-Martsinkevich in 1870. The work continues the theme of consumerism and unscrupulousness typical of the coming capitalism. The Polish texts were translated into Belarusian in the early 20th century by Yanka Kupala; in 1915 "Matchmaking" was staged by the Belarusian Musical and Theatrical Circle in Vilna. The play was first published in the newspaper "Volnaia Belarus" in 1918.

In 1876, the police resumed their surveillance of the writer, which had recently been abandoned, this time in secret. The pretext was a small private school that existed in the mid 1870s in Lutsynka without official permission, in which the writer's daughter Tsezarina taught children from the neighbourhood.

At that time, according to the recollections of a Belarusian writer Sh. Yadvigin, then a student at the school, the master of the grange wrote a lot and kept his manuscripts in a large chest. But most of his writings have not survived.

Dunin-Martsinkevich died on 29 December 1884 (new calendar). He was buried in the cemetery at Tupolshchina near Lutsynka.

* * *

With the passing time, Dunin-Martsinkevich's works and personality have become increasingly important for the Belarusian culture.

For a long time, until the new archive records shed more light on his personality, Dunin-Martsinkevich was regarded as a noble revolutionary, liberal, advocate of Sentimentalism, a weak and inconsistent man inclined to idealize the life. In the last decades however the literary critics managed to see him anew as an author and citizen.

The literary critic and historical editor G. Kisialeu notes: "We got accustomed on the basis of his works to see the Belarusian poet weak and sweetish ...But there is the other Dunin-Martsinkevich, who is a staunch fighter for the national culture, a democrat who called for attention to the villager and rose to the level of the most progressive people of his time".

"Let them speak whatever they want, but it was me who first dressed the poetic beauty of our villagers in the garments of folk aesthetics, brought it onto the life stage and preserved in a number of works of domestic literature, and that is what I am proud of", - wrote Dunin-Martsinkevich.

During his whole life Dunin-Martsinkevich stayed in opposition to the tsarist authorities though he tried to avoid open conflict. The complex environment of the epoch and concern about his large family forced him to hide his aspirations and to search for a compromise, especially after the suppression of the 1863-1864 uprising.

The role of Dunin-Martsinkevich as a founder of new Belarusian literature is highly important. G. Kisialeu calls him the first Belarusian professional writer. Dunin-Martsinkevich "was professional not in the sense it afforded him the means of subsistence (most probably it caused him losses) but because he believed this to be the main thing in his life". The researcher of the writer's legacy Ya. Yanushkevich calls him the first classic author of new Belarusian literature. Furthermore, Dunin-Martsinkevich stood at the origins of the new national theatre - he was not only a playwright but also a theatre manager, director and actor.

Dunin-Martsinkevich was one of the first who showed Belarusian peasants as the main characters in his works. He was also among the first to write many works in the Belarusian language, which at that time neither had an official status nor was well developed as the language of belles-lettres. "Belarusian literature at that time, after a long period of decay, almost did not exist, and it was Dunin-Martsinkevich who laid the foundation, raising the language of peasants to the literary level", wrote G. Kisialeu. The literary critic V. Ragoisha calls Dunin-Martsinkevich's work "a feat of courage". "...At the time of Dunin-Martsinkevich, especially in the first half of the 19th century, when the medieval serfdom still ruled in the Russian empire, when the social oppression was increased by the national yoke, when several centuries of Polonization turned into no less violent Russification - you had to possess the foresight as well as courage to declare openly in the press that the Belarusian peasant was as noble as a landlord or a tsarist official, that his "plain language" was as human as the Polish or Russian, that "there is no land as our dear Belarus!"

According to the Belarusian literary critic A. Loika, Dunin-Martsinkevich came into the history of Belarusin literature as the author of "Gapon". "The poem Gapon is a turning point in the fate of the pre-revolutionary Belarusian literature and a determining work in the literary fate of Dunin-Martsinkevich. It is the work for which our literature received a wide attention, which declared a common man as a main hero and the attention to the peasant village as the main aesthetic principle, announcing the aesthetic value of the peasant life, folklore and the peasant language, the Belarusian language. Gapon played a role of a manifesto in new Belarusian literature, its first democratic, ideological and aesthetic credo".

"Although Dunin-Martsinkevich's democracy and national character were limited by his noble origin, the traditions he laid were highly meaningful for the whole posterior Belarusian literature", - says G. Kisialeu. 

* * *

The prominent figures in Belarusian art and culture often turned in their work to the image of Dunin-Martsinkevich and his legacy.

A statue of the writer is erected in the village of Malaia Lutsynka, Volozhin district, Minsk region and a memorial plaque is placed on the site of his house. In Bobruisk, a bust of Dunin-Martsinkevich is erected in front of the theatre building and a commemorative sign is attached to the local Catholic church. In present days, a bust of the writer (by sculptor Yu. Platonov) has been raised on his tomb instead of the older cross. The image of Dunin-Martsinkevich is placed on a medallion, commemorative medals, stamps and postcards; a coin is released in his memory.

To celebrate the 175th anniversary of the writer, an exhibition was opened at the Palace of Arts in Minsk to present nearly 160 works of graphics, painting, decorative art, sculpture and posters dedicated to his personality and work, which were contributed by more than a hundred artists. 

The name of Dunin-Martsinkevich is attached to the Regional Theatre of Drama and Comedy in Bobruisk; the streets in Minsk, Molodechno, Ivenets and the village of Piarshai in Volozhin district bear his name. The Dunin-Martsinkevich literary museum was opened in the Piarshai school. There are plans to erect the writer's monument in Minsk and a museum in Lutsynka.

In 1984, all works by Dunin-Martsinkevich were published in a special edition. In 2007, the first book of a two-volume Collected Works of Dunin-Martsinkevich, which includes his poetic and dramatic works both in original language and in Belarusian translation (if the work was written in Polish), was issued. Also, the comedy "The Nobility of Pinsk" was printed in five European languages in a single book.

Dunin-Martsinkevich's works are included in school curriculum. 

His plays "Idyll", "The Nobility of Pinsk", "Matchmaking" were staged in many professional and amateur theatres. "The Nobility of Pinsk" was televised.

Belarusian composers take inspiration from Dunin-Martsinkevich's works. G. Vagner produced an opera based on "The Nobility of Pinsk" and P. Pukst composed music to its theatrical production. U. Kurian created a musical setting for "Idyll" at the Kupala National Academic Theatre. I. Luchanok and Z. Yautukhovich wrote songs based on the writer's poetry.

The attention to Dunin-Martsinkevich's personality and legacy is seen both in Belarus and abroad. His works are translated into German, Russian, Ukrainian, Polish and Latvian languages. The writer's legacy was studied by the Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, English, German, Lithuanian, Slovak and Yugoslav scholars.

In 2004, the Fifth Rakov Readings on the topic "Vintsent Dunin-Martsinkevich in the Slavonic Literary Relationship" took place in the village of Piarshai, Volozhin district near Marstsinkevich's Lutsynka.

The 200th anniversary of the writer was celebrated in Belarus at international level under the aegis of UNESCO.

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