A poet, publicist and a playwright Yanka Kupala (1882-1942) is rightfully celebrated as one of the harbingers of Belarus national rebirth. He vigorously advocated Belarusian independence, native language and folklore, and his works were legally banned on several occasions. The circumstances of his death are very suspicious, making him a possible victim of Stalinist purges.
He was born under the name Ivan Daminikavich Lutsevich to parents of gentry background, but their noble origins were not confirmed by The Senate of the Russian Empire. Ivan was the eldest son and had to assist his father in raising the family’s modest budget. By their way of life, Lutsevich family belonged to lower middle class and could not afford proper schooling to their children. Being literate, Ivan used every opportunity to absorb information about Belarus literature, poetry and history. He read and attended classes by private tutors when he had a chance. Finally, as a teenager, he received some state education in Minsk, Senno and Bialaruchi. His national zeal was decisively awakened in 1904. In the autobiography, the poet recalls:
“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”.
After an initial attempt to write in Polish, Ivan Lutsevich adopted the pen name Yanka Kupala and embraced his national language. His pseudonym itself relies on Slavic summer solstice festival, Kupale, about which you can read the text on our website. Kupala published his first Belarusian song “A peasant” in Minsk newspaper Severo-Zapadny Krai (The North-Western Land) in 1905. Like many other songs he wrote, this one pays respect to the hard life of the laboring villagers. In his songs, Kupala sympathized with the toil of common men, described the beauties of Belarus landscape and called for national pride and awakening. His involvement with the newspaper Nasha Niva (Our Field), where he will later become an editor, started in 1907. The paper was printed in Belarusian language and published works of National Romanticism. Kupala’s style fitted well with the paper’s mission and a number of poems such as “The Eternal Song”, “A cripple”, “To the Reaper” reached wide readership. It motivated Kupala to publish the first collection of poems in 1908. Under the name “The Flute”, this book was issued in St. Petersburg and soon banned by the authorities, mostly due to the song “And, Say, Who Goes There?”. This is the most translated of all Kupala’s poems, which is considered an unofficial anthem of Belarus:
And, say, who goes there? And, say, who goes there? In such a mighty throng assembled, O declare?Byelorussians!And what do those lean shoulders bear as load, Those hands stained dark with blood, those feet bast-sandal shod?All their grievance!And to what place do they this grievance bear, And whither do they take it to declare? To the whole world!And who schooled them thus, many million strong, Bear their grievance forth, roused them from slumbers long?Want and suffering!And what is it, then, for which so long they pined, Scorned throughout the years, they, the deaf, the blind?To be called human!
And, say, who goes there? And, say, who goes there? In such a mighty throng assembled, O declare?
And what do those lean shoulders bear as load, Those hands stained dark with blood, those feet bast-sandal shod?
All their grievance!
And to what place do they this grievance bear, And whither do they take it to declare?
To the whole world!
And who schooled them thus, many million strong, Bear their grievance forth, roused them from slumbers long?
Want and suffering!
And what is it, then, for which so long they pined, Scorned throughout the years, they, the deaf, the blind?
To be called human!
This song was just the beginning of Kupala’s troubles with the officials of the Russian Empire. Under his editorship, the whole newspaper Nasha Niva was legally prosecuted until the outbreak of World War I. However, famous Russian literary figures such as Maxim Gorky held Kupala’s work in high regard, and he was well accepted in the intellectual circles. He used his influence and readership to oppose those Poles and Russians who thought of Belarusia as part of their countries. During the WWI, Kupala served in the army and hardly wrote any poetry. Sources disagree on his acceptance of 1917 Revolution, some claiming that he was optimistic and the others that he was skeptic and anti-Soviet from the very beginning. He certainly kept writing about the national cause, publishing the book “Heritage” in 1922. During the 1920’s he was involved in founding of several Belarusian cultural institutions and received the title of the National Poet of Belarus in 1925. At the same time he was fiercely criticized by the Soviet authorities as the national democrat and bourgeois ideologist. He was interrogated and some of his works were prohibited. This largely broke his spirit and he attempted suicide in 1930. In the same year the newspaper Zviazda (The Star), the official organ of the Belarus Communist Party, published Kupala’s “letter of repentance”, where he makes excuses for earlier ideas and promises to take part in the building of the socialist society. Today it is usually regarded as a forced statement. Although Kupala indeed switched to socialist realism and was even decorated by the Order of Lenin in 1939, he stayed under constant supervision of the regime. In 1942, he reportedly fell down the staircase in Moscow Hotel and died from the injuries. Many consider this death an actual murder, but it cannot be proven.
The legacy of Yanka Kupala is vast, and he is honored by a separate field in Belarusian literary studies, called Kupalaznaustva (Studies of Yanka Kupala). Huge number of schools, theatres, and other cultural institutions are named after him. Places in which he lived and worked are commemorated by monuments and memorial houses. For the occasion of 120 from the birth of Yanka Kupala, a coin was issued by the Belarusian monetary fund. His fame and recognition are not confined to his native land, since a monument of Kupala is erected in New York and a library in Port Allegro, Brazil, bears his name. His park in Minsk, set as a featured image of this article, is a place of annual manifestations in his honor.