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The Times (UK)
June 30, 2003
Vasil Bykau

Vasil Bykau, Belorussian writer, was born on June 19, 1924. He died of cancer on June 22, 2003, aged 79.

Doyen of Belarussian letters who fought for his country's culture against the Russifying tendencies of its present Government

VASIL BYKAU was the most eminent Belarusian writer of the past half-century, and a founding member and first president of Belarussian PEN. He was one of the few Belarussian writers whose works (in translation) reached the general reading public worldwide.

Yet, ironically for one who was a champion of the Belarussian language, those translations were made not from the Belarussian originals but from Russian versions, with the result that his name is often cited in bibliographies in its Russian form - Vasily Bykov. Ironically, too, the Belarusian President, Alaksandr Lukashenka, observed his passing with a minute's silence and words of praise, appointing a government commission to arrange the funeral. Yet Bykau, a writer who had been passionate about the fight for freedom and independence from the Soviet Union, had found the repressive atmosphere of Lukashenka's regime increasingly stultifying, and had lived abroad for much of the last four years.

Vasil Bykau was born in 1924, in the village of Bychki in the Vitebsk region of what was then the Belarussian Soviet Socialist Republic. During the Second World War and for some year afterwards, he served in the Soviet Army, and his major works of the Soviet period focus on that war (the "the Great Fatherland War" in Soviet phraseology). His books were soon translated into Russian - and hailed as masterpieces of Soviet literature.

The early translations, however, were so inadequate that Bykau felt obliged to produce his own Russian versions of his works, after their first publication in Russian. From these Russian versions, his novels were translated into various languages, with differing degrees of artistic success (the translators, in many cases, being chosen by the Soviet literary establishment on the grounds of political acceptability rather than literary talent).

His literary reputation was established with The Third Flare (1962), and consolidated with such works as The Dead Feel No Pain (1965), Alpine Ballad (1966), The Accursed Hill (1968), The Kruhlanski Bridge (1969), Sotnikau (1970), Obelisk (1971) and Pack of Wolves (1981).

Unlike the vast majority of Soviet war writers, Bykau avoided the grandiose and the stereotypes of Soviet heroes. He focused rather on the individual psychology of individual characters, mixed motives, and the grim realism of war. Nor was he afraid to contrast the stoicism and heroism of the individual soldier with the brutality of the Stalinist regime. As a result, although Bykau was awarded many major Soviet prizes and honours, these did not save him from accusations of defaming the Soviet system, and the attentions of the Soviet censorship, which on a number of occasions demanded often pettifogging changes to ensure political correctness.

The Gorbachev era of perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union, saw Bykau at the forefront of the movement for Belarussian independence and the revival of the Belarussian language and culture which, under Soviet rule, had been downplayed. He became a leading member of the pro-democracy pro-independence Belarussian Popular Front, and of Martiraloh, an organisation set up to honour the victims of Stalin's purges in Belarus.

The first years of Belarussian independence saw a wide range of governmental and non-governmental initiatives on promoting the Belarussian language and the raising of consciousness of Belarussian identity. Bykau played a leading part in this, becoming a founder and president of the new Belarussian PEN-Centre, and also President of "Batskaushchyna" (Land of our fathers) - a cultural organisation aimed at uniting the worldwide Belarussian diaspora with the homeland.

However, the election of Alaksandr Lukashenka as President of Belarus in 1994 saw a reversal of the pro-Belarussian trends of the previous three years. Official policy now focused on promoting ties between Belarus and Russia, down-grading the Belarussian language in favour of the more "cultured" Russian one, and the eventual integration of Belarus and Russia in a "union state" that to patriots such as Bykau seemed in effect the first step to the rebuilding of the Soviet Union.

Government control increased over all aspects of life in Belarus, with freedom of speech and of the press increasingly under threat. Under Bykau's leadership, the Belarussian PEN-Centre tried to resist these trends, hosting in September 1995 an international conference on freedom of expression, and issuing statements of protest at every threat to writers' rights. The regime retaliated with various forms of bureaucratic harassment, culminating in the eviction of PEN from its premises in the Minsk House of Writers.

Yet throughout this campaign to preserve Belarussian cultural identity and political independence, Bykau continually emphasised the respect that he and his fellow activists felt for their Russian neighbours. However - as he stressed in his collection of political and social essays Via Dolorosa (1998) - this respect was for "the Russia of Sakharov", not for the Russia of oppression.

At the end of 1998 Bykau left Belarus under the auspices of Cities of Refuge, an organisation providing a respite abroad for writers who find the situation in their own country stultifying to their creativity. Bykau went first to Helsinki, then to Germany, and finally to Prague at the personal invitation of the Czech President and writer Vaclav Havel. His last work, The Long Way Home, was published after he had already left Belarus.

Back in Belarus the controls intensified. In April 2002 Lukashenka effectively took over the leading literary journals in the country, ordering the replacement of their editors by his own people. On the pretext of fostering new young talents he forbade them to publish several of the leading writers of Belarus, with Bykau's name at the head of that list.

Throughout his sojourn abroad, Bykau constantly stressed that his stay was only temporary, and denied rumours that he intended to seek political asylum. But his health was deteriorating. In March of this year he underwent surgery for cancer and, as soon as he was well enough to travel, he returned to Belarus. In early June, however, he had to be admitted to the Baraulany Oncological Hospital on the outskirts of Minsk for further surgery. There he celebrated his 79th birthday, and there, in the intensive care unit, with his wife Iryna at his side, he died. His last message to his fellow Belarussians, in an interview recorded for the Prague-based Radio Liberty, was "Defend the Belarussian language."

Vasil Bykau is survived by his wife and by two sons.

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