Yanka Kupala: personality and work


Yanka KUPALA, the classic writer of Belarusian and world literature, one of the founders of modern Belarusian literature and literary Belarusian language, People’s Poet of Belarus, the spiritual and moral leader of national rebirth in Belarus. A poet, playwright, publicist, translator, and public figure.

The real name of Yanka Kupala, as registered at birth, is Ivan Daminikavich Lutsevich. He was born on 7 July 1882 (new style) on the farmstead of Viazynka, Minsk district, Minsk province (now the village of Viazynka, Maladzechna district, Minsk region). His parents, Daminik Anufryevich and Bianigna Ivanauna, came from a minor gentry background, with the distinctions of the gentry class but close to the villagers in their economic status and mode of living. The Senate of the Russian Empire did not confirm the noble origin of the Lutsevich family. Though Ivan was recorded as nobleman when baptised at the Catholic church of Radashkovichi, later however, according to official documents, he belonged to the lower-middle class. The economic status of the Lutsevichs sharply deteriorated in the 1870s when the family was transferred from the farmstead of Piaski (also called Lazaraushchyna or Lutsevichi; now in Uzda district, Minsk region), where they had been living since the 17th century. (Until then, the Lutsevichs, though they had no perpetual land as a gentry paying money rent, but they had a manor on terms of free use.) Afterwards, Daminik Lutsevich was obliged to hold land on lease. The family had many children, and they often moved from place to place. Ivan, the eldest son in the house, was his father’s main helper.

Since childhood the future poet had been interested in Belarusian folklore. He began reading rather early, craved for knowledge, yet his parents had no means to give him a complete, systematic education. The boy actively learned many things by himself. Between 1888 and 1890 he was taught by travelling tutors, studied at the people’s school in Senno, and then at the private preliminary school in Minsk. Only at the age of sixteen he was able to finish a complete course (two classes in one year) at the people’s school in Bialaruchi.

Between 1895 and 1904 the family lived on the farmstead of Selishcha (now in Lagoisk district, Minsk region). The acquaintance with Z. Chakhovich, the owner of the neighbouring estate, a participant in the Uprising of Kalinouski, deeply affected the young man’s worldview. Ivan often used his rich library, which also contained illegal literature, mainly about the people’s revolt of 1863. This acquaintance stimulated the development of national self-awareness in the young man and awakened his interest in the Belarusian past.

During six years (1902-1908) in order to support the family after his father’s death in 1902, Ivan had not only to work on his homestead but was also looking for jobs in other places. He used to be a home tutor, a steward at the landlord’s manor, a manual labourer, and for three years he had been working as an assistant brewer. This was the period of his first literary attempts.

The novice poet would read a lot, particularly liking the writers close to ordinary people and who wrote about their life and work. Of especial interest to him were the works by N. Nekrasov, A. Koltsov, M. Lermontov, T. Shevchenko, A. Mitskevich, Yu. Slavatski, M. Kanapitskaia, V. Syrakomlia, E. Ozheshko, and more. Later Maksim Gorki made a strong influence on Yanka Kupala.

The first poems, sentimental and romantic, were written in Polish (1902), but very soon the poet realised that his native Belarusian language was the only environment in which he could express in the best way his thoughts and aspirations. Writing in Belarusian was a very courageous decision at that time. The Belarusian language was banned, and book publishing in Belarusian was impossible. Ya. Kupala wrote in his autobiography, “In 1904 the Belarusian leaflets and revolutionary brochures in the Belarusian language came into my hands. This finally decided me as a Belarusian and that my only mission was to serve my people with my whole heart and soul”. This awareness also came from the acquaintance with the 19th-century works of the Belarusian authors F. Bagushevich and V. Dunin-Martsinkevich.

The earliest among the poet’s well-known works in Belarusian, “My Destiny” (June 15, 1904) expresses psychological sentiments of an ordinary man, his oppression, and predestination of the course of his life. On May 15, 1905 the Minsk-based Russian newspaper Severo-Zapadny Krai (The North-Western Land) published the poem “A peasant”, the first printed work of the poet, which touches upon the topics of human dignity and self-affirmation of the labouring villager.

From this time the author began using the pseudonym Yanka Kupala instead of his official name, Ivan Lutsevich. The pen-name Kupala refers to the folk festival of summer solstice, Kupalle, related to the quest for the magic flower of happiness, which the poet understood as the pursuit of better destiny and bright future.

On May 11, 1907 Nasha Niva (Our Field) published Kupala’s poem “To the Reaper”, which became his first appearance in the Belarusian-language press. Thereafter his works were regularly published in this newspaper. The main themes of his poetry of that time were the wretched life of the villager and the beauty of his native land. Kupala was a Romantic poet, yet he also contributed to the ideas of revolutionary renewal, connecting the ideals of national rebirth with the radical revolutionary reforms.

During this time he produced the poems “In Winter”, “To Nobody”, “A Cripple”, and “The Payment of Love”, based on real facts from the life of the Belarusian villager, proving the author’s love for romantic heroes and bright extraordinary events, as well as the dramatic poem “The Eternal Song”, a hymn of peasants’ yearning for happiness.

“The Flute”, Kupala’s first collection of poetry written in 1905-1907, and the poem “The Payment of Love” were published in Saint-Petersburg in 1908. These lyrics express in elegiac form the villager’s perpetual complaints over his hard lot and the expectations of the common people and of the poet himself as an exponent of their thoughts and sentiments. The book included for the first time the poem “And, Say, Who Goes There?”, which played an important role in the formation of the Belarusian nation, being an unofficial hymn of Belarus for many years. “The Flute” was twice confiscated by the authorities. On the occasion of the book’s appearance in print, the Belarusian publicist and literary critic, U. Samoila, wrote about its author, “The sun of fresh and genuine poetry looked into the window of a dark, poor, yet large house of the Belarusian people! So let he be for Belarus like Shevchenko was for Ukraine!.. ”

In 1908 and 1909 Yanka Kupala lived in Vilna (Vilnius), contributed to Nasha Niva, and worked as librarian in a private library. During this time he produced the poems “To Pilipauka” and “Why” based around the tragic events from the life of the Belarusian villagers.

In the years 1909-1913 Kupala studied the theory and history of literature at the Cherniaev General Education Courses in Saint-Petersburg, where he made acquaintance with the best representatives of Russian intelligentsia and revolutionary youth, was a member of the Belarusian Scholarly Literary Circle, a cultural educational organisation of Belarusian students at St. Petersburg University. In 1910 Kupala’s works became known to Maxim Gorky, who showed great interest and genuine admiration for them. In summer 1912, a memorable meeting of Yanka Kupala and Yakub Kolas happened; until then they were little acquainted with each other, yet they well knew each other’s literary works. This acquaintance gradually turned into friendship between the two great men of letters.

In 1910-1913 Kupala produced the romantic poems “The Gravemound”, “Bandarouna” and “The Lion’s Grave”, based on folklore, and the dramatic poems “A Dream on the Mound” and “During the Halt”, in which he showed himself as an exponent of national romanticism. These works are permeated with deep philosophical thoughts about the past and present of the poet’s native land.

The second book of poetry “The Minstrel”, revealing the poet’s romantic attitude and his suffering over the fate of his native land, was published in the autumn of 1910. The third book “On Paths of Life” was published in 1913. In addition to works of clear patriotic and civil orientation this included the masterpieces of Kupala’s philosophical, landscape and intimate lyrics. In these books Kupala calls for struggle against social and national oppression.

Besides, Kupala began working as a playwright. His first endeavours in this field were rather successful and laid the beginning for the Belarusian national comedy and drama. The comedy “Paulinka” and the theatre farce “Prymaki” ridicule the vulgar routine life of the lower ranking nobility. The characters of Paulinka and her beloved boy, Yakim, represent new ideas appearing in the village life. The drama “The Ravaged Nest” shows the hard destiny of the landless peasantry after the Reform of 1861 and their pursuits of better future.

Kupala also showed himself as a translator. Before 1913 he translated from Russian into Belarusian works by I. Krylov, A. Koltsov, and N. Nekrasov; from Ukrainian, T. Shevchenko; from Polish, A. Mitskevich, M. Kanapnicka, W. Syrakomlia, and the plays “The Village Girl” and “Courtings” by V. Dunin-Martsinkevich. Thanks to Kupala’s works of Petersburg period, Belarusian literature began penetrating into European cultural space. The urgent problems of the day were shown in them with deep philosophical understanding, on high artistic level, and with regard to national cultural characteristics.

Between October 1913 and August 1915 Kupala again lived in Vilna, worked at the Belarusian Publishing Association, and contributed to Nasha Niva; as an editor of this newspaper he was subjected to legal prosecution by the tsar’s authorities. He participated in the arrangement of literary meetings with the Russian, Lithuanian and Polish writers; maintained friendly relations with the Lithuanian cultural figures: the poet L. Gira, the composer S. Shymkus, the painter and composer V. Churlenis. In 1914 he met the Russian poet V. Briusov, whom he regarded as his teacher and who later translated some of his verse into Russian.

The motives of national rebirth and safeguarding the native language became increasingly expressive in the literary works of that time. Kupala’s publicistic writings called for better social conditions for the broad masses and touched upon the issues of national self-consciousness. In 1913 in the article “Why is Our Song Crying?” he gave his view on the principles of contemporary Belarusian literature, that is the need for national idea, democratism, and orientation to the high artistic level of European literature. In the article “And Yet We Live!..” he polemised both with the Polish nationalists, who thought of Belarus as part of Poland, and with the local chauvinist Black Hundreds, who treated the country as a “true Russian land”, and showed the achievements of the Belarusian national rebirth and cultural movement. In his article “Do We Have the Right to Reject Our Native Language?” Kupala referred to his native language as the people’s highest value. At this same time the masterpieces of his love lyrics and a cycle of his anti-war poetry “The Songs of War”, echoing the beginning of the First World War, appeared in print.

In summer 1915, with the German troops approaching, Nasha Niva ceased publication and Kupala left Vilna.

From September 1915 Kupala lived in Moscow, where he studied history and philosophy at the Shanevski People’s University. In January 1916 he married Uladzislava Frantsauna Stankevich. Soon afterwards he enlisted in the army; he served as a seniour worker in a roadmaking squad of the Warsaw Road Communications District in Minsk, Polatsk and Smolensk. Throughout the year of 1918 Kupala lived in Smolensk. From July he was a supply agent at the Food Committee of Western Region and traveled extensively around the Smolensk, Orel and Kursk provinces. In autumn 1918 he applied to the department of art history at the Smolensk Branch of Moscow Archaeological Institute. The life conditions and the war did not stimulate the creative process. From the mid-1915, and for over three years Kupala wrote no poetry.

The Revolution of 1917 and the Civil War, 1918-1920, gave birth to the motives condemning violence, anti-humanism, and class hatred. At the end of October 1918 after a long literary silence Kupala wrote the poems “For My Native Land”, “On the Road”, “The Song”, “To My People”, and “To the Rally!”, revealing his disillusionment in the Revolution and concern for the Belarusian people, calling on them to unite and to decide their fate themselves.

From January 1919 Kupala permanently lived in Minsk; for a time he worked as a librarian at the institution of the People’s Commissariat of Education. He continued to stay in Minsk during the Polish occupation (August 1919 – July 1920), and in early 1920 he endured a severe disease. After the Red Army came, he was an editor at various Belarusian publications, an assistant head at the literary publishing department of the People’s Commissariat of Education, and contributed to the magazine Volny Stsiag (Free Banner).

In 1919-1920 Kupala wrote many publicistic works. In the article “The Cause of Belarusian Independence in the Past Year”, etc. he provided insight into the ways of the Belarusian people to national self-determination, promoting national revolution as an ideal that could make possible for each people to become master of their own fate, as opposed to social revolution. Kupala’s vision was marked by democratism, anti-violence, and assertion of humanistic spiritual values. At this time he also wrote some of his poems and translated “The Word about Igor’s Regiment” and the workers’ hymn “The Internationale”.

Between 1921 and 1930 Kupala actively participated in the literary, social and cultural life, in particular in the foundation of the Belarusian State University, the National Theatre, and several publishing houses, worked in the commission for establishing the Institute of Belarusian Culture. He was elected a full member of this Institute, which was reorganized into the Belarusian Academy of Sciences in 1928. He also headed a literary-art section of the scientific terminological commission at the People’s Commissariat of Education. In 1924 and 1925 he was a technical editor at the Belarusian State Publishing House. On June 10, 1925 the Council of People’s Commissars of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR) awarded Yanka Kupala, the first among Belarusian writers, the honorific title of the National Poet of Belarus, with a right to a lifelong pension and relieving him of all the positions in order to build favourable conditions for his creative work. From 1928 Kupala was a full member of the Belarusian Academy of Sciences; and from 1929, of that of Ukraine.

The book “Heritage”, which included poetry written between October and December 1918, appeared in print in 1922. The book was entitled after the programme philosophical-patriotic poem of the same name. All the works are here linked by the thought about the destiny of the Belarusians at the turning point in history, showing the tragedy of the revolutionary events that brought new trials to the native land. The poetry book “The Unknown”, which included verse written predominantly in 1919-1924, came out in 1925. The poem of the same name “The Unknown” deals with national construction in Belarus and the spiritual self-determination of the Belarusian people. The book “Fading”, with poetry written mainly before 1915 and in 1918-1919, was published in 1930.

The tragicomedy “Tuteishiya” (The Locals), written in 1922, voices an idea of Belarusian national independence both from the West and from the East, denouncing opportunism and national nihilism in a high satirical form.

Beginning in the second half of the 1920s Кupala was openly persecuted as one of the so-called natsdems (national democrats). In May 1930, Zviazda (The Star), the official organ of the Belarus Communist Party, issued an article in which Kupala was denounced as “an ideologist of bourgeois national rebirth”. Kupala’s relatives were dispossessed of their property as kulaks (better-off peasants), yet they avoided deportation to the North. In the summer of the same year Kupala was summoned to the GPU, or State Political Office, to be interrogated in the concocted case against the Union for the Liberation of Belarus, slated for the role of the leader of this mythical organization. In November, Kupala was again giving evidence at the GPU. During the interrogation he showed fortitude and dignity, as was admitted even by the investigators, and declined the accusations against himself and the others. Persecution by the repressive organs and the poor psychological condition resulted in his attempting suicide on November 20, 1930. In December 1930 Zviazda published a so-called “letter of repentance”, written, according to many researchers, from dictation, in which the poet was forced to accept his “mistakes” and “harmful looks”, and in which he promised “to do his best for the socialist construction”.

Later Kupala was repeatedly elected a member of the Central Executive Committee of the BSSR and a delegate to the BSSR Supreme Council and the Minsk Town Council; he was one of the editors of the BSSR Constitution text, participated in various committees for celebrations and commemoration of the classic authors of Russian and other national literatures, participated in many literary conferences and congresses. In May 1934, he was elected to the Union of Soviet Writers. The impression was created that he actively participated in public life, yet this only served as a mask for the authorities to cover the policy of moral terror conducted by the Stalinist regime against Kupala.

Kupala’s literary activity slowed sharply and it was not until the mid-1930s it again revived, with the Liaukouski Cycle. As to the poems “Over the River Oressa” (1933) and “Barysau” (1934), written in the style of socialist realism, their artistic value was not adequate to the poet’s creative potential. The collection of poetry “The Song of Construction”, in which Kupala showed the process of construction of new forms of life, was published in 1936. “To an Order-Bearing Belarus”, the collected works of Soviet period, appeared in print in 1937. Apart from these, in the 1930s Kupala translated Pushkin’s poem “The Bronze Horseman” and a number of poems and verses by T. Shevchenko.

In 1937 Kupala again found himself in the list of repression victims, but the local repressive organs, though they appealed to the higher authorities for his arrest, received no sanction. At the same time simultaneously, in January 1939, Kupala was decorated with the Order of Lenin. In October the same year he attended, with the group of Belarusian writers, the People’s Congress of Western Belarus, which adopted the declaration for the inclusion of Western Belarus into the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. In 1941 Kupala was awarded the USSR State (Stalin) Prize of first degree for his book “With My Heart”, which included the poem “The Destiny of Taras”, a poetic description of the life of Taras Shevchenko, the prominent Ukrainian poet, and the poems glorifying the Soviet life, written in 1937-1939.

During the Great Patriotic War the poet lived in Moscow, and then in the village of Pechischi near Kazan. In his poetry and publicistic writings of that time he called for struggle against the Nazis and expressed confidence in the victory over the enemy. The articles with the poet’s signature were posted in the newspapers Pravda, Izvestiya, Krasnaia Zvezda, and the like. Kupala was a presidium member of the Pan-Slavic Anti-Fascist Committee, and took part in various public actions against the invaders. In June 1942 he left for Moscow to participate in the celebration of his 60th birth anniversary. On 28 June he tragically died in unexplained circumstances, having fallen into the staircase opening at the 10th floor of Hotel Moskva.

In 1962 the urn with the poet’s ashes was taken to Minsk to be buried at Military Cemetery.

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Yanka Kupala’s life was full of trial and hardships. Yet his high virtues of a man, citizen and artist–honesty, humanism, love to his people and his native land, allegiance to the main idea of his life, that is the national, social and spiritual liberation of all people, artistically reflected in his works–these remained unchanged and unquestioned in the course of time. Kupala ranks among the greatest writers of world literature, who are destined to deeply cognise their time, people and history, and express this in a sparkling manner peculiar to them alone.

One cannot but agree with the Belarusian literary critic who told of Kupala’s work in the following words, “Kupala’s creative output is a chronicle of life of the Belarusian people, reflecting their ideology and poetic vision at the turning points in the history of the first half of the twentieth century. It is remarkable for deep national character and artistic originality.”

Tvardovski’s vision of Yanka Kupala is also very accurate, “A lyric of striking talent, the Belarusian bard, who expressively revealed the soul of his country and whose poetic nature represented the creative power of his people.”

The sonorous adjectives that are often heard in reference to Kupala as a great people’s poet, a prophet of national rebirth, and even founder of the nation are proved to be quite appropriate here. Kupala ranks among those prominent writers whose works, being of perpetual value, make up the classics of national and world culture.

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Kupala’s work and his role in the national rebirth of Belarus have been highly evaluated by his descendants.

His literary legacy is studied by a special field in Belarusian literary studies known as Kupalaznaustva (Studies of Yanka Kupala).

His works were repeatedly issued in single editions. The collections of his works were published in 1925-1932 (in six volumes; the first ever collection of volumes in the history of Belarusian literature), 1928-1940 (four volumes), 1952-1954 (six), 1961-1963 (six), 1972-1976 (seven), 1995-2003 (nine).

Many of Kupala’s verses and poems are included in school curriculum in Belarusian literature. In the years 1959-1965 the Kupala Literary Prize was awarded for works of poetry and drama; and from 1965, the Kupala State Prize of Belarus.

In Minsk there is the Yanka Kupala State Literature Museum, which has four branches: the “Akopy” in Lagoisk district, the “Yakhimaushchyna” in Maladzechna district, the Kupala Memorial Reserve “Viazynka”, where the traditional Kupala festivals of poetry are held each year, and the “Liauki” in Orsha district.

The poet’s name is attached to the Literary Institute of the Belarusian Academy of Sciences, the National Academic Theatre in Minsk, the University of Grodno, a village in the Glusk district, a village in the Pukhavichi district, a number of collective farms, libraries, schools and streets in many towns and villages throughout Belarus.

Yanka Kupala has been extensively portrayed in art. Many sculptural, musical and cinematographic works, paintings, and poetic pieces are dedicated to the poet. The monuments to Kupala are erected in Viazynka, Akopy, Radashkovichi, Liauki, and Minsk. The commemorative plaques are attached to the houses in which Kupala lived at different time – in Liauki (Orsha district), Viazynka and Yakhimaushchyna (Maladzechna district), the villages of Sennitsa (Minsk district), Staraia Belitsa (Senno district), Bialaruchi and Kosina (Lagoisk district), in the towns of Marian Gorka, Barysau, Maladzechna, and Kapyl. A number of paintings dedicated to the poet’s personality and work were assembled in the album “Yanka Kupala in the works of Belarusian artists”. Many art exhibitions were dedicated to the poet’s jubilee dates. A commemorative coin was released specifically on his 110th birth anniversary. The composer V. Pomazau produced the vocal symphony “Yanka Kupala”. The poet’s life and creative work were portrayed in the documentary chronicle “Аnd Cried the Cuckoo”, the television films “A Bow to My People for their Songs”, “Never Have I Died”, and “Mass for Kupala”.

Kupala’s works have inspired many composers. M. Churkin produced the opera “The Ravaged Nest”. The poem “The Lion’s Grave” laid the ground for the opera “Masheka” by R. Pukst and the symphony “Poem-Legend” by Ya. Glebau. Based on subjects from “The Gravemound” and “The Lion’s Grave” Ya. Glebau also produced the ballets “The Darling” and “The Gravemound”. I. Luchanok wrote the poem-legend “Gusliar” based on “The Gravemound; G. Garelava wrote the symphony “Bandarouna”; Yu. Semianiaka, the music comedy “Paulinka”. The popular vocal instrumental ensemble “Pesniary” performed an opera parable “The Song of Fate” with Kupala’s verse. The poet’s lyrics were also set to music by M. Aladau, M. Antsau, A. Bagatyrou, K. Galkouski, A. Grynevich, M. Matsison, S. Palonski, A. Pashchanka, R. Pukst, L. Ragouski, A. Sakalouski, A. Turankou, U. Terauski, Ya. Tsikotski, M. Churkin, L. Yampolski, and more.

Kupala’s dramatic pieces were staged in many theatres. His plays “Paulinka” and “The Ravaged Nest” and the poem “The Lion’s Grave” were made to films.

Yanka Kupala has won international recognition, as is testified by a broad public resonance his works received in many countries, being translated into nearly a hundred languages. The poem “And, Say, Who Goes There?” was translated into 82 foreign languages, including the most widespread, such as English, Arabic, Italian, Chinese, German, Russian, French, Hindi, Japanese, and more.

The commemorative signs in honor of Yanka Kupala outside Belarus speak of his world-wide esteem. His monument stands in New York’s Arrow Park; another one is in Moscow. The commemorative plaques are placed in Saint-Petersburg, Smolensk, Kislovodsk, the village of Pechischi near Kazan and the village of Sofino in Moscow Region (Russia), Vilnius (Lithuania), the village of Gaspra near Yalta (Ukraine). Kupala’s name is attached to the steamships in the Dunai and Volga Steamship Companies. His name is also given to the school and street in Dushanbe (Tadjikistan), a library in Kharkov, streets in Kiev and Zaporozhie (Ukraine), Tashkent (Uzbekistan), Tbilisi (Georgia), Riga (Latvia), Nizhni Novgorod (Russia), Bialystok (Poland), and more. In 1932, the poet’s name was attached to the library in Port Allegro, Brazil.

The centenary of the poet was celebrated under the aegis of UNESCO.

In 1996, the Yanka Kupala International Fund was established.

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

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The website “Archives of Belarus” presents a virtual exposition of 116 documents on Yanka Kupala, among these are 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 Kupala’s life and creative work. The materials are in Belarusian, Russian and Polish.

The source materials were selected from the holdings of the seven 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 Belarusian State Archives of Scientific Documentation, the State Archives of Minsk Region, the National Historical Archives of Belarus in Grodno–and the Kupala State Literary Museum.

The survey of documents and the article on Kupala’s 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 Kupala’s first editions with annotations and quotations and the survey of archival collections on Kupala in Belarus and abroad.

The examples of Kupala’s 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.