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The last idealists of Europe

21.01.2014  |  Society   |  New Eastern Europe,  
The last idealists of Europe

Heloisa Rojas Gomez interviewed Uladzimir Kolas, the director of the Belarusian Humanities Lyceum, about its history, current situation and goals.

HELOISA ROJAS GOMEZ: Is the fact that you are the director of the Belarusian Humanities Lyceum a coincidence?

ULADZIMIR KOLAS: This is the result of our political authorities’ slyness; it was a kind of bad joke. Our institution, the Belarusian National Lyceum of the Humanities, was initially informally called Kolas’ Lyceum because I was its founder. When in 1994 the political situation in Belarus changed and Lukashenka came to power, the process of re-Sovietisation and re-centralisation began and also our Lyceum soon became a target. The political authorities intended to include the Lyceum in their sphere of influence and to separate me from it, since I was a pro-independence activist. They therefore decided to rename our school the Jakub Kolas Belarusian Lyceum after an important 20th century Belarusian national writer. In this way, when people would informally talk of the Kolas Lyceum, it would be associated with the figure of Jakub Kolas and not with me. I greatly respect this writer; I am happy our Lyceum bears his name, but it was a state decision.

The state began to interfere with the Belarusian Humanities Lyceum soon. However, during the 1990s political transformation, you briefly enjoyed independence, since you constituted a rather informal institution with the aim of promoting Belarusian culture. How did you conceive this idea and what were the first steps?

I conceived this idea because I, like many others, was unhappy with our school as a pupil and as a teacher. Although I graduated from the University of Foreign Languages in Minsk and the Moscow Film School, my first job was as a school teacher. That is how I gained experience in this field and how my disappointment regarding the school system grew. Back then, my colleagues and I had several talks on this topic; we used to discuss the state of sovietisation of Belarus and the absence of Belarusian language in the public sphere. All the intellectual and artistic elites of Belarus were not happy with it; we wanted to find a solution to this problem. In order to reintroduce our native language into everyday life it was necessary to start with schools and back then, in the capital Minsk as well as in other major cities, there was not a single Belarusian language school. I was particularly inspired after a mid-1980s visit to Poland, where I was shooting a movie. I was in the Bialystok region in Poland, where the Belarusian minority had many schools and two lyceums in Belarusian language. I was impressed by people who spoke Belarusian fluently, who were not sovietised and naturally functioned in their native language. At that moment I had the vision of such a school in Minsk based on those I had seen in Poland and in France. Of course, at the beginning this project was not ambitious: we founded just a Sunday school. People attended our lessons and were interested and enthusiastic. Some of our lecturers also were deputies in the Belarusian Parliament. The minister of education finally got interested in our programme and this is how we acquired the status of a state school. 

You did not match the “new” system introduced by president Lukashenka because, paradoxically, you were not part of the “old” Soviet system anymore. Who were you?

My colleagues and I belonged to that social group that in Soviet times was called the intelligentsia. Some of us were scholars or writers; others worked at the Academy of Science or university. There were also members of the Communist Party, but that membership was not ideologically meaningful, it was a necessity. In the USSR, joining the Communist Party was inevitable for those who wanted to have a career. Moreover, the Communists of the 1980s were different from Stalinist-era ones. In those transformation years, many of my colleagues became members of the Popular Front, the Belarusian anti-communist party. We shared a commitment to the national idea. We were not driven by the desire of making a career through the Lyceum and we were independent and supportive of each other. When the Ministry of Education proposed we enter its structure, we accepted but were determined to oppose attempts to control us.

So you were ready to go underground?

Yes, and it happened. The state authorities aimed at depriving us of our independence. Initially, they wanted to merge us with other schools. They ordered inspections, but everything was impeccable. So they changed our structure. Starting as an educational centre (the BGAKC) with branches in other towns, in 1997 we ended up as a National Lyceum, renamed the Jakub Kolas Lyceum. My “status” was weirdly modified too: I was to become nominally vice-director, practically remaining director. My downgrading was a strategy designed by the Minister of Education to let our school continue functioning, since the deputy prime minister wanted to liquidate primarily me. However, when the state administration changed, things worsened. I remember vividly how my colleagues and I were summoned one day to get to know the future director of our Lyceum. She was a typical Soviet-looking middle-aged lady with a pompous hairstyle and long sharp nails. She did not speak Belarusian and was not from Belarus. And then our protest started, but the decision was made: the Council of Ministers signed the liquidation of our Lyceum in 2003. Both teachers and pupils were proposed to transfer to any prestigious school they wanted; however, the majority stayed. We started that school year in the street because the building of our Lyceum was surrounded by special forces not to let us in. Since then, we have had classes in different buildings, from a Catholic church in Minsk to private flats, but never for a longer time.

Studying at the Belarusian Humanities Lyceum today is difficult for several reasons, among others because its final diploma is not recognised. Consequently, the pupils have to take Belarusian or Polish state exams externally. Who are the children and parents who decide to undertake such a difficult journey?

They are not only opposition members. Even some oppositionists decide to send their children to standard state schools because, as many of them claim, one dissident in the family is enough. In fact, at our Lyceum there are ordinary people. Their parents are physicists, engineers, businessmen, teachers and university professors, but also proletarians. However, all of them clearly see what is going on in our country and they want their children to enjoy school. This is important because the situation in schools in Belarus today is awful; the pupils know nothing, the teachers do not care and there is a lot of bullying. It is a Soviet school system and like everything else in the Soviet Union it is just a simulation. The children at our Lyceum are conscious of it so they try doing their best or go back to “normal school”. They also develop purely human interests and solidarity towards each other and genuinely enjoy going to school. When they finish, they are well-prepared for university; they have university professors already at our Lyceum and we are closer to a university system than the state schools. Our pupils become well educated with good perspectives for the future. Of course, some parents are afraid, but still there are others who consider our Lyceum worthwhile.

Why do the authorities still tolerate you?

I don’t know and I wouldn’t like to know. Of course, we could reflect on it and guess. In fact, the state authorities’ hostility to Belarusian culture and language is not natural; they are forced to behave this way because they are responsible for subsidies, the prices of energy and gas coming from the East. So they have to show and demonstrate their loyalty. On the other hand, they also understand that if really nothing of Belarusian culture remained, they would also be nothing.

Belarusian culture is the solution to the “weak identity” problem among today’s Belarusians. Your Lyceum’s primary goal is to revive Belarusian language and culture according to a nation-building project. How to interpret your activity in the 21th century, when nation-building processes are criticised and the nation itself is defined as an imagined community by Benedict Andersen?

It is uncomfortable to work for national revival when everyone deconstructs nations. Yes, we are late by about 100 years, but I think that this deconstruction of national identities is one of the biggest mistakes of our times. It is a pity that countries are losing their national charm, their national aura. Here in Poland, for example, people are still “Polish” to me and this is fascinating. I don’t like megalopolises looking like Babel, soulless multicultural spaces where foreigners don’t feel like strangers. I myself love feeling “foreign”. In the Soviet Union, I had a very hard time in this sense. I could not go abroad, like the vast majority of USSR citizens, and I felt imprisoned. Now, Belarus is becoming a little bit like Europe; yes, there is a certain beauty in it. Nevertheless, wherever you go things are similar and because of this I think we lose something.

To differentiate peoples and make a nation you first of all need a language. How do you introduce children often coming from a Russian-speaking environment to Belarusian?

It is not a problem. The major difficulty is to make our pupils speak Belarusian among themselves. When they come from Russian-speaking surroundings, the switch to Belarusian demands some effort. But we have a very positive atmosphere at our school, which is connected with Belarusian, so it comes more naturally to them. To pass from one language to the other is not difficult, you know it yourself. What makes this whole process tough in our country is the fact that Russification went too far. In order to change the situation, very little effort would be needed, because virtually everyone has a passing knowledge of Belarusian. If there was political will and a clear state decision, Belarusian could be re-introduced and spread quickly. This is why Lukashenka is playing with this situation, artificially freezing it. If the government would start the process of Belarusianisation, we would be in Europe. Such a process is necessary precisely today, since there is a big difference between the first generations of pupils and the last ones in terms of Belarusian language ability.

I would like to ask you about what is sometimes called the decadence of our civilisation. During informal talks with some of your colleagues, I heard that in recent years studying at your Lyceum has become a sort of brand because of the myth of the 21th century’s national heroes created around it. This results in a sort of commercialisation of the Lyceum. What do you think of such a phenomenon?

Maybe what you asked about can be observed, but I don’t care. I would continue my work even if the Lyceum became a brand. We started from scratch, and we have grown since then. When you have an idea, you start to establish what is meaningful and valuable and try to give the idea body. We try to organise things, to create the most comfortable atmosphere possible for pupils and their parents and strive for our goal, no matter how much our work lost in content for others or became a myth. In the beginning of the 1980s, we were animated by true enthusiasm, by a new kind of Romanticim linked with Belarusian national revival. Now it is the opposite: our society is apathetic. The only thing remaining of Perestroika-era Romanticism is the dream of Western standards. Everybody wants to have a car, house and good job. So language, history and identity are things most people do not care about.

The Belarusian Humanities Lyceum clearly defies this trend: are you the Romantics of the 21th century?

Yes, we are the last idealists of Europe.

Reference

The Jakub Kolas National State Lyceum of the Humanities is a secondary school based in Minsk with branches in several other Belarusian towns. Today, it is banned in Belarus. In order to obtain a recognised school diploma at the end of their studies, the students take Belarusian and/or Polish state exams. Eminent Belarusian scholars and writers currently teach at the Lyceum, which is renowned for its high level of education. Recently, teachers and pupils of the Lyceum came to Poland for the ninth time to devote two weeks to culture and unconventional schooling. The Lyceum was hosted in Warsaw with the support of the Club of Catholic Intellectuals and the Polish government.

Uladzimir Kolas is the director of the Jakub Kolas National State Lyceum of the Humanities, an independent institution suppressed by local authorities devoted to promoting Belarusian culture and language. Kolas was educated at the University of Foreign Languages in Minsk and the Moscow Film School and has worked as a teacher and film director.

The interview was originally published at New Eastern Europe

 

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