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Preserving the Memory of Skaryna. Belarus / Aleksandr Grusha 

For Belarusians, Francysk Skaryna is not just an endearing historical figure, an object of sympathy and affection. He is not just a popular character spoken about without giving him much thought. He is not even just a “national hero“, whose name constantly resounds in everyone‘s years and whose achievements are undeniable. He is one whose image is ideal, devoid of any shades or half-tones. His great talents and deeds are beyond doubt.

The image of Skaryna is one of the most significant objects of socially organized collective memory in Belarus. The memory of Skaryna has always been characterized by distinctive purposes and narratives, canonical texts, memory places and omission zones, specific cultural forms and practices.

In the very first years of its existence, Soviet Belarus became a society of memory, a country united by the image of Skaryna. Almost from the beginning, the commemoration of this remarkable figure acquired a public official character. Being virtually perfect, his image became an object of collective memory. Such an image was convenient. As Skaryna hailed from Belarusian Polotsk, there was no need to share him either with the Poles, or with the Lithuanians, or with the Russians. His image was also in line with the developing Soviet ideology. After all, Skaryna did work for the good of the ordinary people. Besides, he produced the printed word, viewed by some as a means to foster “the liberation of the working class“. For these reasons, his image was just what was needed for a compelling heroic tale. Skaryna‘s image also had a special prestige. A look into the far-off age in which he lived naturally led to an idea about the long history of the Belarusian people. Moreover, Skaryna was a scholar: he had a university education and a scientific degree. In other words, such an image could both fittingly represent Belarus to the rest of the world and rouse the patriotism of the Belarusian nation.

As an object of collective memory, the image of Skaryna emerged in the humanist environment of the Belarusian intelligentsia. It was actively formed by the Institute of Belarusian Culture, the first scientific institution of the young Republic of Belarus, founded in 1922. When the institute was reorganized into the Belarusian Academy of Sciences in 1928, it was the latter that further led the research of Skaryna‘s life and activities and organized memorial events in his honour.

In the third decade of the 20th century, the portrait of Skaryna in Soviet Belarus served to strengthen the national identity, as well as to inform the development of the state and the social transformations in the society.

It was necessary not only to create and display the memorial image, but also to preserve it, to remind people of it, to represent it in a certain way and to form a special canon of remembrances around it. The year 1925 marked the 400th anniversary of the first book with a known release date produced by Skaryna in Vilnius (at that time it was believed that The Little Traveller‘s Book had been published later). The anniversary was to be celebrated with grandeur. The Institute of Belarusian Culture formed a special Skaryna commission to prepare a plan for the celebration of the 400 years of Belarusian print. In accordance with the plan, special anniversary committees were to organize and run the celebrations; Belarusian cultural institutions, printers‘ trade unions, schools and other institutions were to actively participate in celebratory events. The plan included various other commemorative actions such as publishing a brief overview of Skaryna‘s life and activities for schools, printing his portraits, giving his name to some educational and cultural institutions, mounting memorial plaques in his honour in Minsk and Polotsk, issuing a collection of scientific articles and a booklet about him, and building a monument to him in Polotsk.

The anniversary was celebrated in the entire country. Scientific and popular articles on Skaryna were printed in journals and newspapers. A conference organized by the Institute of Belarusian Culture and the Belarusian State University became the most important anniversary event, not even mentioning its scientific significance. The proceedings of the conference, The 400 year anniversary of Belarusian print (400-лецьце бeларускага друку) came out in 1927 (the year 1926 is indicated on the publication).

At the time of the celebrations, a number of artifacts related to Skaryna and celebrating his memory appeared in Minsk. 10 books published by Skaryna were bought by the Leningrad bibliophile Valerian Komarnitski. They were given over to the Belarusian State and University Library (the then name of the National Library of Belarus). In December of 1926, they were exhibited at the anniversary exhibition. Since that occasion, the exhibition of his books became a necessary element of the events devoted to Skaryna and anniversaries of printing. Thus emerged a field of the presence of Skaryna in our days. In 1926, one of the main streets of Minsk was named after Francysk Skaryna.

In the third decade of the 20th century, the image of Skaryna was embodied in art and theatre. The portrait by the painter Yakub Kruger and the bust by the sculptor Adam Brazer were exhibited at the First All-Belarusian Art Exhibition in 1925 in Minsk. To mark the 400th anniversary of Belarusian print, the first play about the printer, Skaryna, Son of Polock (Скорина – сын из Полоцка) was staged in Minsk in early 1926. It was written by Mikhail Gramyka.

Towards the end of the third decade, Belarusian national and cultural aspirations were restrained under the pressure exerted by the Communist Party. For such as Skaryna, whom one of the party‘s leaders called “medieval monk“ and “representative of the former ruling classes“, there was no place either in the state ideology, or in the propagandist proletarian culture. The party feared the Belarusian people holding Skaryna in remembrance. Any tribute to his image was perceived by the authorities as an expression of nationalist bourgeois politics incompatible with the Soviet ideology. The recent celebration of the 400th anniversary of Belarusian print was dubbed “a noisy nationalist demonstration“. As the subject of Skaryna was prohibited in the fourth decade of the 20th century, nobody in Belarus wrote about him anymore.

After World War II, an attitude towards Belarus, a republic deserving some of the credit for the victory against Nazism, grew more tolerant. Its search for national identity was now permitted as a manifestation of Soviet patriotism. Skaryna was remembered again. Now he was called a colourful representative of the cultural history of Eastern Slavic nations, the originator of Belarusian literary language, a luminary and patriot of his country.

Another stimulus to restore the name of Skaryna to its former reputation came from fictional literature. Inspired by patriotic feelings, Mikhas Klimkovich created a dramatic poem, while Mikola Sadkovich and Javgen Lvov wrote a historical novel (later published in many successive editions). The novel became a target of criticism, resulting in a discussion organized in the Academy of Sciences of the BSSR in 1948. It is this discussion that gave the main impetus to eventually clearing Skaryna‘s name. The official ideology now defended Skaryna and even employed his name in propaganda, proclaiming book printing to be a manifestation of the working-class spirit.  Since the end of the fifth decade, scientists, writers, artists, sculptors, theatre play directors and journalists set out to create passionate images of Skaryna the first printer, the great humanist and the patriot. In 1960 his name appeared on the pages of a school textbook.

The creation of canonical texts on Skaryna had a significant impact on science. An increasing number of Belarusian scientists in different fields took interest in Skaryna‘s personality and activities and in research of his legacy. Skaryna studies, once emerged, were active, systematic and were carried out in several areas: Skaryna‘s historiography (Marat Batvinik), his life, activities and environment (Mikalay Aleksiutovich, Valiantsina Chepko, Georgy Galenchanka et al.), the languages of his publications (Mikhail Sudnik, Arkadzy Zhuravsky, Vladzimir Anichenka, Mikhail Bulakhav, Aliaksandr Bulyka, Aliaksey Parukav, Lev Shakun et al.), his worldview and his ethical, aesthetic and other attitudes (Aleksiutovich, Vladzimir Konan, Siamion Padokshin  et al.), literary heritage (Sciapan Aleksandrovich, Viktar Darashkevich, Aliaksandr Korshunav, Viachaslav Chamiaritski), book publishing (Galenchanka, Korshunav), book design (Viktar Shmatav). Skaryna studies were further advanced by the publication and the compilation of a catalogue of his books (Korshunav). The image of Skaryna had to correspond exactly to the dominating ideologhemes. To this purpose, some of Skaryna‘s activities and views were glossed over, stretched or, vice versa, diminished and discredited.

Representations of Skaryna given in visual arts were that of great, powerful, solemn and self-sacrificing figure. He was portrayed as a learned man of the Renaissance (Zair Azgur, 1947; Ivan Akhremchik, 1953; Siamion Gerus, 1967; Vasily Sharangovich, 1971, et al.), educator, originator of print (Isak Davidovich, 1968), luminary scholar (Anatoly Zaicav, 1966; Ilya Nemagay, 1966; Aliaksey Marachkin, 1978, et al.), enlightener (Lazar Ran, 1957; Piotr Sergievich, 1960; Eduard Astafyev, 1978, et al.), and printer craftsman (Aliaksey Glebav, 1954, 1967; Siargey Vakar, 1964). Skaryna the luminary became the protagonist of a documentary (script by Ilary Barashka, 1963) shown in 1978 in Hrodna, and of a play by Ales Petrashkevich, That Which is Written Remains (Написанное остается), which came out in Minsk in 1979.

Under the influence of artworks, fiction, numerous scientific and popular publications, exhibitions of visual art in cultural and educational institutions devoted to Skaryna, the narrative of his memory became part of the cultural environment of various societal strata.

1967 marked the 450th anniversary of Belarusian printing. In contrast to the jubilee celebrated in 1925, this occasion was devoted to the publication date of Skaryna‘s first book. The activities of a publisher now were celebrated like the most important events of the revolutionary movements and the history of the USSR, even such as the Great October Socialist Revolution.

A ceremonial meeting devoted to the anniversary took place in the Belarusian State Philharmonic Hall. It was attended by party members, Soviet civic servants, industrial workers and executives, writers, artists and scientists. Among the participants were the first persons of the state such as the Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the BSSR and the Secretaries of the Central Committee of the Belarusian Communist Party, as well as the President and the Vice President of the Academy of Sciences of the BSSR, national artists, other representative of creative intelligentsia, guests from nine Soviet republics. Professor Antonín Florovský, a famous specialist in Skaryna studies, was invited to the anniversary celebration from Czechoslovakia. The Academy of Sciences of the BSSR held an anniversary session. A scientific conference was organized at the Faculty of Philology of the Belarusian State University.

The authorities continue to allow further expression of Skaryna‘s image. In 1967, a street in Minsk was given his name (the former Skaryna Street had been renamed back in 1933). The construction of a monument began in Polotsk. The meeting held to mark the beginning of the construction was opened by the First Secretary of the Polotsk Committee with further speeches given by the Vice President of the Academy of Sciences of the BSSR Kandrat Astrakhovich (Kandrat Krapiva), and by representatives of the governments of the USSR and the BSSR. To the sound of the national anthems of the USSR and the BSSR, a white cloth was taken off the memorial rock at the place selected for the future monument. The latter was built in 1974. The unveiling was attended by the Chairman of the Supreme Council of the BSSR, Belarusian people writer Ivan Shamiakin. In other words, that which had been intended 50 years earlier, was accomplished in 1974.

Skaryna‘s 500th birth anniversary, celebrated in 1986–1990, became the culmination of the effort to preserve his memory. The celebration coincided with a profound crisis of the Soviet system, with the aspirations of the new national and political elites to revitalize national culture and achieve the independence of the Belarusian state. The new national and political ambitions led to corresponding changes in the image of Skaryna. It now had to endow the new aspirations with special significance. Skaryna‘s name became a political resource and, as such, was sacralized. Here is a quotation from a 1990 periodical: “As a Belarusian prophet, Skaryna proclaimed the equality of his nation with other world nations. […] In the today situation, which is threatening for the existence of Belarusian culture, we must turn to Skaryna‘s authority and assure ourselves and others: here is our Baptist“.

The first Skaryna readings were organized in 1986 by the Janka Kupala Institute of Belarusian Language of the AS BSSR. The readings, which took place at the Yakub Kolas Central Scientific Library of the AS BSSR, were accompanied by an exhibition devoted to the portrayal of Skaryna in visual arts.

In 1990, people of different social and age groups were united by celebrations of Skaryna’s 500th birth anniversary. The capital, Minsk, and Skaryna’s home city, Polotsk, became the main locales to hold the commemorative events.

The occasion was marked by a jubilee session of the AS BSSR as well as a ceremonial meeting at the State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet opened by the Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the BSSR and followed by a concert. Other events, such as a press conference and several exhibitions, were held in Minsk.

A state award established in 1989 became a mark of the appreciation of Skaryna’s achievements by the authorities. It was the Francysk Skaryna Medal, the earliest of present-day Belarusian awards, first granted in 1990.

In 1990, the new school year in all educational institutions of Belarus began by a Skaryna lesson. This meant radical changes in ideology – earlier, a school year would have started by a lesson devoted to peace and to the Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin.

The field of Skaryna‘s today presence was expanding. In 1988, his name was given to the Gomel State University. A memorial plaque to Skaryna was unveiled in 1989 in Minsk in the street named in his honour (before that, it had been called, as it is called at present, Akademicheskaya). In 1991, the most important avenue in Minsk, the present Independence Avenue, was given Skaryna’s name. A park in honour of Skaryna’s 500th anniversary was laid out in Polotsk. A tender for the project of a monument to Skaryna in Minsk was opened in 1989. To preserve the printer’s memory abroad, it was decided to build a monument to him in Prague and to mount memorial plaques in Cracow, Prague and Padua.

The late ninth and the early tenth decades were the most fruitful ones by number of scientific studies, their scope and scientific quality. More than a hundred and a half scientific works on Skaryna were published by Belarusian authors both in Belarus and abroad. Among these works are monographs (by Galechanka, Yevgeny Nemirovsky, Shmatav, Ignat Dvarchanin, Bulyka and others), scientific articles, conference proceedings, an album of Skaryna‘s engravings, a collection of his works, a collection of documents on Skaryna‘s life and activities, a bibliography of writings about him, a facsimile of Skaryna‘s Bible, an encyclopaedia about him (the first personal encyclopaedia in the world book history and book science). It was the time of Skaryna‘s historiographic triumph.

The memory of Skaryna is a focus of many tributes in Belarusian public sphere. At present, streets or lanes in almost all regions of Belarus (except Hrodna) and in almost a half of district centres bear his name. In general, names of streets in almost 90 Belarusian localities are related to him. He is especially revered in Polotsk: there is his monument; a street, a square, an avenue, a school and a library carrying his name; a polygraphic company “The legacy of Francysk Skaryna“. Monuments to Skaryna have also been erected in Minsk (two of them: one was unveiled in 1999, another, in 2005, even though it had been made in the end of the 20th century) and in Lida (1993). The Order of Francysk Skaryna was established in 1995.

At present, the image of Skaryna serves to foster patriotic youth education, the legitimization of Belarus in the community of European countries, the dialogue with other states, contacts of the East and the West, the unity of Belarusian and European cultures.

Today Belarus is getting ready for the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Belarusian print in 2017. The National Library of Belarus plays an important role in the preparation for the celebrations. It collects digital copies of Skaryna‘s publications; publishes its books in the form of facsimile; popularizes the image of Skaryna in the society, especially among the younger generation; carries out creative projects related to Skaryna, alongside other institutions; organizes exhibitions of Skaryna‘s books, including those kept abroad.

The country is waiting for an occasion to employ the official image of Skaryna in strengthening Belarus in the international arena. One wonders what canon of Skaryna‘s memory will be offered to us in 2017.