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Professor M.V.Dovnar-Zapolsky

Yakub Kolas: personality and work



Overview

Yakub KOLAS, the classic writer of Belarusian and world literature, one of the founders of modern Belarusian literature and literary Belarusian language. A poet, playwright, prose writer, publicist, translator, teacher, public figure.

The real name of Yakub Kolas is Kanstantsin Mikhailavich Mitskevich. He was born on 3 November 1882 (new style) at the farmstead of Akinchitsy, Minsk district, Minsk province (now the town of Stoubtsy, Minsk region), baptized Orthodox. His parents, Mikhail Kazimiravich and Ganna Yurieuna (nee Liosik), came from a peasant stock of Mikalaeushchyna,12 km from Stoubtsy. Of thirteen children born into the family only nine reached the adult age. His father was a forest warden for Prince Radziwill; mother, a housekeeper. Soon after Kostus (as they called him at home) was born, the family moved to the farmstead of Lastok (also called Sukhoshchyna). In the years 1890-1904 the Mitskevichs lived at the forest homestead of Albuts near Mikalaeushchyna.

The life in Albuts, picturesque landscapes in the neighborhood, and amazing stories told by the passing travellers who, as the writer recollected later, gave him new insights into life--all these left a significant mark in the young boy's heart. He would also listen to Belarusian songs that his mother performed. Of great influence on the boy was his father's brother, Antos, who awakened his first interest in literature. Kostus studied himself the Russian grammar, and during two winters, together with his elder brothers, was educated in the house of the so-called 'director' (the boy who finished the people's school), and then himself finished the people's college in Mikalaeushchyna (1892-1894). In the years 1895-1897 Kanstantsin Mitskevich lived in Albuts, helping his parents in the house and preparing in the meantime for entrance exams to the teachers' college; he did a lot of reading. At the age of about nine, under the influence of Krylov, the famous Russian fabulist, he created his own fable named "The Crow and the Fox". At the age of twelve, he wrote his first verse "O Spring", for which he was rewarded by his father. At this time the young Mitskevich made his first acquaintance with the Belarusian literature (Yanka Luchina's poem "An Old Forest Warden"), which strongly impressed him.

In 1898 he entered the Niasvizh Teachers' College, graduating in 1902. When a student, he took interest in fiction literature: he read works by A. Pushkin, N. Lermontov, N. Gogol, A. Koltsov, N. Nekrasov, L. Tolstoy, I. Hemnicer, T. Shevchenko, I. Franko, A. Mitskevich. He composed verses and fables in Russian, collected material on Belarusian ethnography, and recorded oral folklore. Then he began writing poetry and prose in Belarusian--verses describing nature and the hard lot of the peasantry, the long poems "At the Campfire" and "Fear", which have not survived, and a short article entitled "Our village, the people, and what is going on in the village", his first prosaic work. Of strong influence on the future poet was his college teacher, F. Kudrinski. He approved the literary efforts of the young Mitskevich and drew his attention to a greater importance of his writings in Belarusian. This perfectly suited the aspirations of the writer himself, who noted later, "The Russian language cannot excite in me, while writing, the feelings and colours inherent to the Belarusian language and Belarusian images to the same extent as the Belarusian language does it, having penetrated into my nature with my mother's milk".

The beginning of his labour and social activity falls on the first decade of the 20th century; his literary works become more perfect and diversified in genre; his writings begin to appear in print.

After graduating from the college, in the years 1902-1905, the young teacher worked in the Palesse region, in the villages of Liusina (now in the Gantsavichi district) and Pinkavichi (now in the Pinsk district). He collected ethnographic records and Belarusian folklore. At the same time he also got acquainted with illegal revolutionary literature and was engaged in explanatory conversations with the villagers. Later he wrote, "By 1905, yet I could not orientate myself in all political parties, but I had already been a desperate enemy of the autocracy and was active in this direction". Thus, in November 1905 he wrote a petition from the residents of Pinkavichi to their landlord for confirming their rights to the lakes and arable land. The Governor of Minsk directed the police to check information on "the teacher of Pinkavichi, Mitskevich, who instigated the villagers.." In January 1906, as punishment for his public activity, K. Mitskevich was transferred to the people's school in Verkhmen (now in Smaliavichi district). On 9-10 July 1906 he took part in an illegal congress of teachers in the village of Mikalaeushchyna, at which they discussed issues of reorganizing public education on principles of democracy and decentralization. The congress was forcibly disbanded by the police, and K. Mitskevich, among others, lost the right to work as a teacher.

On 1 September 1906, the Vilnia-based Belarusian newspaper Nasha Dolia (Our Fate) published his poem "Our Native Land", in which the author called his country "a poor land", "a God forgotten land". This was the poet's first printed work, in which he used his pen-name, Yakub Kolas, for the first time (later he also used other pseudonyms, such as Taras Gushcha, Karus Lapats, K. Adzinoki, K. Albutski, Andrei the socialist, Tamash Bulava, Ganna Grud, Mikalaevets, Lesavik, and more). On 15 September 1906, Nasha Dolia published a short narrative called "Freedom", about the arbitrary rule of the tzar's police, the first prosaic work of the writer to appear in print. At the same time he begins actively working as an author for the Belarusian newspaper Nasha Niva (Our Field), also published in Vilnia (Vilnius). New forms appear in his works. With the allegorical narratives called "Life's Fairy Tales", marked by deep philosophical insights, he enters a higher level of literature.

In winter 1906-1907 Kolas lived with his relatives at the forest homestead of Smaliarnia, where he opened, without official permission, a private school. Then he began to compile a school book entitled "Second Reading for Belarusian Children". In 1907 he again came to Vilnia, for several weeks headed an essay department at Nasha Niva, but was forced to leave the town at the police' demand. In early 1908, for a short time, he taught at a private school in the village of Sani (now in the Talachyn district). On 15 September 1908, he was sentenced to three years of imprisonment on charges of activism in the All-Russian Teachers' Union, which purposed, as was declared by the court, to liquidate the existing social system in the Russian Empire (he was also charged with compiling an appeal to teachers, though this was written by the other man whom he did not name at the court). Kolas served his full term in prison in Minsk.

Behind prison bars, Kolas continued to write poetry and succeeded to send it outside. Many of his works of that time bear motives of liberation from social and national oppression:

Peasant--yet honour is remaining,
I bend, until the due hour comes,
Silent, still silent, uncomplaining...
But soon I shall shout forth, proclaiming:
'Ready, my lads, take up your guns!'
(from the poem "The Peasant", 1909, trans. by Vera Rich)

In the 1910s Kolas turns to large literary forms with philosophical interpretations of life -- he begins work on his lirico-epic poems, "The New Land" and "Symon the Musician".

His poems and stories written at that time were published in the newspaper Nasha Niva. In 1909, his first book, "Second Reading for Belarusian Children" came out at the Belarusian Publishing House (exactly named "The-sun-will-look-in-at-our-little-window-too Press") in Saint-Petersburg. The book included poetic and prosaic pieces describing nature, fables and tales about animals, poems and stories on moral and ethic themes and dedicated to the hard life of the villager. The first collection of his poems, "Songs of Sorrow" was published in Vilnia in 1910. In the book the author creates a poetic image of the Belarusian peasant who, despite social hardships, believes in the rebirth of his native land, who speaks of his powerless destinity, and yet has self-respect and strives for better life. These early works of Kolas were highly appreciated by Maxim Gorky, the prominent Russian writer.

After release from prison, between September 1911 and 1914, Yakub Kolas practised teaching: for several months, without official permission, he taught children of railroad workers in the township of Luninets; in 1912-1914, after getting a certificate of political reliability, he taught in the village of Kupiatsichy near Pinsk, and then at the parish school in Pinsk. This time left a significant mark on Kolas' personal life. In August 1912, at the farmstead of Smolnia near the village of Mikalaeushchyna, he first met another prominent Belarusian writer, Yanka Kupala, thus beginning their life-long friendship. In June 1913 Kanstantsin Mitskevich married Maria Dzmitrieuna Kamenska, a teacher of the railroad school in Pinsk, with whom they had lived for over thirty years and had three sons.

The newspaper Nasha Niva regularly published Kolas' poems dedicated, as a rule, to various aspects of Belarusian village. His book entitled "Tales" came out in Vilnia in 1912. His short stories, "The Gift of the Nieman" and "The Thick Log" and the book of stories in verse called "A Man Lost" were published in separate editions in Saint-Petersburg in 1913. The main topic in these works is the life of Belarusian peasantry; the main character is the villager with his sorrows, customs and habits. Another book of stories with a wide thematic range, "Native Pictures" was published by the Belarusian Publishing Association in Vilnia in 1914. The prosaic pieces written by Kolas at this time were close in their theme, ideology and image structure to his poetry. In 1916 the publishing house "The sun will look in at our little window too" printed his dramatic work, a short play called "The wine-glass could do anything in the world" with a sub-title, "The tragedy of recent time from the countryside life".

During the First World War in 1915, with the front line approaching, Yakub Kolas and his family evacuated to Moscow province, where he was summoned to the army. After graduating from the Alexander's Military College in Moscow in 1916, he served in a reserve regiment in the town of Perm. In summer 1917, in the rank of sub-lieutenant he was assigned to the Rumanian Front, but shortly afterwards received leave for illness and joined his family in the town of Oboian (now in Kursk region, Russia). As a teacher, he was allowed to quit the army and worked as a school instructor and teacher in the town of Oboian and its environs.

His poetry of this period bears antiwar motives and expresses the poet's suffering over the fate of Belarus in new historic conditions after the war and the 1917 Revolution, calling simultaneously for constructive labour for the better future of his native land (the collection of his poetry, "Repercussions" published in Minsk in 1922). He continues work on the poems "The New Land" and "Symon the Musician", and tries his hand as a playwright. One of the examples is a play called "Antos Lata" (1917, first staged in Minsk in 1918), in which the author shows the tragic destinity of a villager who once had a household but ended up "at the bottom" after having lost his land and everything. The crucial time between the February and October revolutions of 1917, and the writer's thinking over the future of Belarus are illustrated in his play "On the Road of Life" (1917, staged in Minsk in 1921).

The first half of the 1920s is a very productive time in the life of Yakub Kolas, his literary work and official career. In 1921, summoned by the government of Soviet Belarus, he returned to Minsk. He worked for the scholarly-terminilogical commission at the People's Commissariat of Education and the literary commission for collecting oral folklore at the Institute of Belarusian Culture, lectured at the Belarusian Teachers' College and at the teachers' courses in Slutsk, and taught Belarusian at the Belarusian State University.

The collection of his short stories, "Life's Fairy Tales" appeared in print in Kaunas in 1921. These provide insight, in allegorical form, into the history and life philosophy of Belarusians as a nation and their place among the neighbouring peoples, as well as address important social, political, moral and ethic issues, and express the human attempt at understanding the mysteries of life and nature.

In the first half of the 1920s Kolas finishes his large epic works he had begun ten years earlier and in which he created a broad picture of Belarusian life in the late19th and early 20th centuries and gave his views on the ways of national evolution.

The long poem "The New Land", published in a separate book in 1923, is considered an encyclopedia of Belarusian peasant life at the turn of the centuries, in which the author provides philosophical insight into the whole epoch in the life of Belarusian people. He poeticizes the spiritual power and moral greatness of the toiling man, his eternal dream of becoming a master on his own land. The work depicts the daily country life in colourful detail and portrays the typical Belarusian characters. The beautiful images of Belarusian countryside show Yakub Kolas as an outstanding artist of landscape.

In 1925 the literary journal Polymia (The Flame) published the third edition of "Symon the Musician", the work that throws light on the role of art and artist in the life of the common person and reveals the author's esthetical views. Here he speaks of the national origin of art, the destiny of great talents from the lower strata of society, and the spiritual rebirth of the nation. The tragic and dramatic motives intermingle here with optimistic and life-asserting tunes. The author shows the young Belarusian as a conscious creator of his own fate, who is striving for the spiritual rebirth of his native land. He highlights the uniqueness of national development in Belarus and hopes that the spiritual power and creativity of its people will be stirred to greater activity.

The writer's themes increasingly widen at this time. He turns to the life of Belarusian intelligentsia and its spiritual searches in the early 20th century. He creates the so-called Palesse series: two prosaic works called "In Ouback Palesse" (printed in Vilnius in 1923) and "In the Depths of Palesse" (printed in Minsk in 1927) that were later included in the trilogy "At the Crossroads", the writer's major work. The play "The Strikers", about the Belarusian intelligentsia joining the political struggle, was printed in 1925. The subject is based on the events of the first illegal congress of teachers in Mikalaeushchyna. The long narrative "The Expanses of Life", dedicated to the young generation of the 1920s and dealing with the problems of their spiritual development, education, culture and aspiration for changes, was published in 1925.

The second half of the 1920s - 1930s is the time of Kolas' social activism and recognition of his achievements, but also a very difficult period in his life, with the events that badly affected his psychological condition and negatively influenced his future work. On 18 October 1926, Yakub Kolas was awarded the title of the National (People's) Poet of Belarus and entitled to life-long pension. From 1928, an academician at the Belarusian Academy of Sciences; from 1929, the academy's vice-president and presidium member. In 1927-1929, a candidate member to the Central Executive Committee of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic; 1929-1931, a member of the Central Executive Committee; in 1935-1938 he took part at the 1st All-Belarusian Congress of Soviet Writers, and in 1935 at the 1st All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers in Moscow, at which he was elected to the governing board of the writers' unions. In 1935 he spoke with a proposal at the International Congress for the Defense of Culture in Paris.

At the same time, from the mid-1920s Kolas was constantly under the eyes of Soviet repressive organs. In 1925 his house was searched and he was interrogated for the 'November Case' against the 'counter-revolutionary organization' in the Slutsk district. In the 1930s the pressure on Kolas especially increased. He was openly accused of being a 'national democrat' for advocating the ideas of classless society in Belarus; his works were accused of idealizing the life of wealthier farmers and overestimating the role of the intelligentsia. In 1930, Kolas was forced to publicly repent of his political 'errors'. His close relatives--Jazep Liosik, uncle in maternal line, public and political figure, and his wife's brother, Aliaksandr Kamienski--were arrested and subject to repression. On 6 February 1938, his house was again searched for arms and the writer was forced to put his hands up and face the wall. He was threatened with arrest, but the higher Soviet authorities did not sanction this, probably because of the bard's wide popularity and people's love.

According to the literary critics, M. Matsiukh and M. Mushynski, who were Kolas' biographers, the writer found himself in a difficult situation in the late 1920s - early 1930s, being fully dependent on ideological purposes of the Communist Party and the totalitarian system. The horrors of forced collectivization of land, the collapse of traditional values in the village, the total control over all aspects of social, political and spiritual life, the factual ban on freedoms of speech and expression, and a large-scale repression against the national intelligentsia--all these negatively affected Kolas as an author. He found himself a hostage of the anti-human system and an involuntary propagandist of Socialist Realism, a set of political demands though pronounced as an esthetical category.

In 1926 Yakub Kolas started a long poem entitled "On the Roads to Freedom" about the hard life during the First World War, which resulted in protests and discontent among the masses and their positive attitude to Bolsheviks during the 1917 revolutions. The poet constantly reflected on the poem, continued his work in the 1930s and '50s, but did not complete it. Another theme of the 1930s was the collectivization of farms. The main character in his rather schematic novella called "The Renegade" (1930-31, published in 1932) after long doubts comes to conclusion about the advantages of a collective farm over an individual household. The writer also describes the dramatic events of the First World War, by showing the 'soldier's truth' in the play "War Against War" (1927-31, latest edition 1938), and the events of the Civil War in the long narrative "The Marsh" (1933). In 1940 he started a long poem called "The Fisherman's Hut" about the life of Belarusians in Western Belarus at the time it was part of Poland and their struggle for their rights. He also productively worked as a translator from Russian, Ukrainian and Polish (A. Pushkin's "Poltava", several works by M. Lermontov, A. Mitskevich, T. Shevchenko, P. Tychina, R. Tagor etc.).

During the Second World War the poet lived in Kliazma near Moscow, then in Tashkent, and then in Moscow. In his verses (the books of poetry "We'll Revenge" 1942 and "The Voice of the Land" 1943), the long poems "Trial in the Forest (1942) and "Retribution" (1943-44), as well as in his publicistic writings he praises patriotism and bravery of Soviet people and reveals anti-human nature of fascism. In 1944, Kolas was awarded the title of the Honorary Academician of Belarus. At the end of 1944 he returned to Minsk.

After the war, from the mid-1940s to his last days Yakub Kolas worked at the Belarusian Academy of Sciences. He was a prominent public figure: a Deputy of the Supreme Soviets of the USSR and BSSR, a member of the Central Committee of the 20th, 21st and 22nd Congresses of the Communist Party of Belarus, a member of the All-Union Committee for State Prizes in Literature and Arts, a deputy chairman of the Pan-Slavic Anti-Fascist Committee, a chairman of the Belarusian Committee for Peace, and a member of the Soviet Committee for Peace--and this was not a formal work. Yakub Kolas always responded to problems of individual citizens and defended the Belarusian nation as a whole. In 1956 he wrote a letter to the government in which he expressed his concern about the condition of the Belarusian language and proposed measures to defend the national language.

Kolas' literary work in the second half of the 1940s received official recognition. In 1946, he was awarded the USSR State (Stalin) Prize of 1st grade for his war poetry and in 1949, the USSR State (Stalin) Prize of 2nd grade for his poem "The Fisherman's Hut".

In the 1950s, being a scholarly editor, he took part in the preparation of the first edition of the Russian-Belarusian Dictionary (1953).

In 1954 he completed his novella "At the Crossroads", about the events of 1906-1911, which became part three of the Palesse trilogy bearing the same name (the first two parts "In Outback Palesse" and "In the Depths of Palesse"). This trilogy, one of the first Belarusian novels, represents a broad picture of social and public life in Belarus during the 1905-1907 Revolution and in the years afterwards. The work, based on autobiographical material, presents a gallery of portraits of the national intelligentsia, the common people, and the Rebirth Movement members, and illustrates the current life of the peasantry and other social classes. Here the author appears as a master of psychological analysis and a landscape artist who created many beautiful images of Belarusian nature.

On 13 August 1956, Yakub Kolas died at his writing desk. He was buried at Military Cemetery in Minsk.

* * *

Yakub Kolas lived a remarkable life. His main qualities--honesty, deep national character, willingness to help in a difficult situation, thoroughness in all matters, loyalty to his own principles and standing for his personal views, love for his homeland and people, concern about the national independence of Belarusians, promotion of the Belarusian language, and protest against any kind of human oppression--these greatly affected his work, thus making a significant contribution to the national and world literature. The most important of his creative achievements include a diversification of genres in Belarusian literature, a use of a variety of important topics in poetry and prose, enriching of poetry with philosophical and landscape lyrics, linking the lyric and epic forms, laying grounds for the Belarusian novel and Belarusian children's literature, philosophical insights through allegorical accounts, and developing of standards for Belarusian literary language.

As early as in1920, Yakub Kolas was already named as a Belarusian classic by "A History of Belarusian Literature", written by the prominent Belarusian author and literary critic, M. Garetski, and published in Vilnius.

"Yakub Kolas entered the world literature as a 'Belarusian Homer', an author of national Iliad and Odyssey--these are the associations that come to mind when thinking of his "New Land" and "Symon the Musician"...The name of Yakub Kolas, one of the greatest peasant bards, a creator of beautiful Belarusian landscapes, and an original philosopher, sounds very reasonable among the classic authors of world literature," told the Belarusian literary critic, M. Tychyna.

The poetess and translator from Great Britain, Vera Rich, gives a high assessment of Yakub Kolas' poem "The New Land". She compares this work to ancient Roman tragedies and Shakespeare's tragedies and histories. "Without works like "The New Land", thinks the poetess, the world literature would have been much poorer".

* * *

Yakub Kolas's work and his role in the national rebirth of Belarus have been highly estimated by his descendants.

His literary legacy is studied by a special field in Belarusian literary studies known as Kolasaznaustva (Studies of Yakub Kolas).

The collections of his works were published in 1928-29 (in two volumes), in 1952 (seven), in 1961-64 (twelve; the first scholarly annotated collection of his works), 1972-78 (fourteen). The publication of a complete set of his works, in twenty volumes, started in the year 2007.

Many of Kolas' works are included in school curriculum in Belarusian literature.

In 1959-1965, the Yakub Kolas Literary Prize and from 1965, the Yakub Kolas State Prize of Belarus were awarded for works of literary criticism and prosaic works.

The name of Kolas is attached to the Linguistics Institute and the Central Scientific Library at the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus, the National Academic Drama Theatre in Vitebsk, squares and streets, schools and libraries in many towns and villages throughout Belarus, and a major printing house in Minsk bears his name.

There are the Yakub Kolas Literary Memorial Museum in Minsk (with a branch including the memorial manors in Akinchitsy, Albuts, Lastok, and Smolnia) and the literary ethnographic museums in Liusin and Pinkavichi. The Kolas Reserve in the Staubtsy district includes a memorial art complex "Kolas' Path" with over fourty wooden sculptures based on the writer's works. The memory of Kolas is also preserved in many school museums in villages throughout Belarus.

The monuments to Yakub Kolas are erected in Minsk, on the square bearing his name and at Military Cemetery, in his home village of Mikalaeushchyna, in the town of Navagrudak,Grodna region, and in the village of Ploskae, Talachyn district, Vitebsk region. The memorial room is at the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus. The commemorative plaques are attached to the buildings in which the writer lived and worked at different time. Yakub Kolas has been portrayed in the visual arts by L. Asiadouski, I. Akhremchik, M. Budavei, Yu. Gerasimenka, T. Ignatsenka, Ya. Kulik, M. Kupava, I. Rei, U. Stalmashonak, V. Sharangovich, L. Shchamialeu, A. Yar-Krauchanka, and more. His portrait is placed on postcards, stamps, and a coin dedicated to his 110th birth anniversary. His lifestory was taken as the basis for the films "The People's Poet" (1952), "Yakub Kolas" (1962) and "Uncle Yakub" (1982).

Yakub Kolas' works have been extensively represented in theatre, music and cinematography. The plays based on his trilogy, stories and novellas were staged in many theatres. Yu. Semeniaka composed an opera based on his poem "The New Land"; Yu. Bagatyrou, the opera "In the Dense Forests of Palesse" based on his long narrative "The Marsh". Many of Kolas' verses were turned into songs. In 1929 the long narrative "The Expanses of Life" was adapted into the film "A Song of Spring" (directed by V. Gardzin). In 1960-1961 his trilogy "At the Crossroads" was filmed under the title "The First Trials" (directed by Ul. Korsh-Sablin).

Yakub Kolas' works are known in many countries. His writings, mainly poetry, have been translated into over 40 languages, including English, German, French, Spanish and Chinese. His literary output and his role in literature are studied by Slavic scholars in Great Britain, Austria, Germany and Italy. Of especial importance are the translations of his works into Slavic languages--Russian, Polish and Ukrainian. Three collections of his works have been published in Russian. The writer's name is well-known in the countries of the former Soviet Union. A steamship and many streets bear his name. A monument to Yakub Kolas and Yanka Kupala is expected to be erected in Warsaw, Poland.

Belarus hosts regular international conferences on Yakub Kolas that result in the publication of a collection of papers entitled Kalasaviny.

The centenary of the Belarusian bard was celebrated under the auspices of UNESCO.

In 1996, the Yakub Kolas International Fund was established.

In 2007, the Republic of Belarus celebrated at national level the poet's 125th birth anniversary.

* * *

The website "Archives of Belarus" presents a virtual exposition of 164 documents relating to Yakub Kolas, including the poet's autographs, original works, text records, documentary photographs, drawings and plans, and sound recordings. The documents are organised by six topics illustrating various aspects of Kolas' life and creative work. The materials are in Belarusian, Russian, Polish and Latin.

The source materials were selected from the holdings of seven state archives in Belarus--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 Belarusian State Archives of Scientific Documentation, the State Archives of Minsk Region, and the State Archives of Vitebsk Region--as well as the Kolas State Literary Museum.

The survey of documents and the article on Kolas' life and work were prepared by teamwork of archivists from the Belarusian Research Centre for Electronic Records with the assistance from the Department for Archives and Records Management of the Republic of Belarus.

The English page is abridged from the Russian version, which additionally offers the covers of first editions of Kolas' books with annotations and quotations and the survey of archival collections related to Kolas in Belarus and abroad.

The examples of Kolas' poetry 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.

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