Can poetry in translation reimagine a free Belarusian–Ukrainian bridge?

Ukraine in 2022. Photo by Stanislav Krupař, used with permission.

Belarus is both a victim of and a tool for Russia in its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Can poetry and translation establish a fragile bridge between Ukraine and Belarusians who oppose the autocratic regime of Belarusian president Lukashenka?

Global Voices (GV) interviewed Belarusian activist, singer, poet and translator of Ukrainian literature, and also GV contributor, Aleś Plotka (who uses the artist name of Baisan) to explain how a new book project he took part in might build new ties between the literary worlds of Belarus and Ukraine in the current context of war, autocracy (in Belarus) and often destroyed cultural bridges.

The book, called “Bloodlands 20/22 Belarus/Ukraine,” consists of about 20 poems and texts in Belarusian, and two texts in Ukrainian dedicated to the Belarusian revolution of 2020 and Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. It also includes translation into Belarusian of prominent Ukrainian authors such as Vyacheslav Levytskyi, Lesyk Panasiuk, Angie Siveria, Ivan Semesyuk, Tanya Rodionova. Finally, it adds 40 photos by Ales Piletski for Belarus, and by Czech photographer Stanislav Krupař for Ukraine.

The interview took place in English over email and is edited for style and brevity.

For more on events in Belarus in 2020, read Global voices’ Special Coverage Belarus In Turmoil

Belarus in 2020 showing the opposition white-red-white flag. Photo by Ales Piletski, used with permission.

Filip Noubel (FN): Belarusian and Ukrainian languages and literatures suffered from Russian colonialism for several centuries in the Tsarist and later Soviet empires. Are they now building a bridge of their own?

Aleś Plotka (AP): Indeed, now is the time to build bridges of both Belarusan [Plotka prefers to use this spelling] and Ukrainian literatures towards the rest of the world, and as a priority to the West. It doesn’t go very easily, as people, even intellectuals, are quite lazy, and many of former experts in Soviet studies prefer not to go deeper into the modern, post-colonial development of former Soviet republics.

The main surprise for us is that the West, which has great academic programs of post-colonialism, is brave enough to reflect on its own colonialism, but prefers not to apply postcolonial lenses to Belarus or Ukraine. Even though those two countries faced and are still face the worst type of imperialism. This situation is in fact much more brutal: while India was colonized, London never tried to establish a message saying Indians are actually Brits, which is exactly what Russia is doing, denying the existence of Belarusans and Ukrainians.

The book “Bloodlands 20/22 Belarus/Ukraine” tries to look at both countries as part of one process — something that is not very mainstream. It combines two countries in crisis in their decolonial phase that are still very different. Indeed bilateral relations are very difficult, as Belarusan territory was used by Russian troops to attack Ukraine in 2022. And although there are Belarusan combatants fighting for Ukraine, railway guerillas inside Belarus to deter the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and those who help as volunteers, as I do, my passport remains the second most hated in Ukraine. Thus joint actions in culture are hardly possible in the nearest future.

Belarusan culture is not given media attention now, unlike in 2020 [during the mass protests in the country]. Our presence in Western studies is very moderate, but scholars such as Simon Lewis and Nelly Bekus should be mentioned. The most Westernized voice of Belarus is the poet Valzhyna Mort, who describes Belarus through the language of American studies and narratives. Other poets and researchers who write about Belarusan culture in reference to feminism, ethnography include Hanna Komar, and the poet Tony Lashden. There are also stand-alone “ambassadors” who integrate Belarus into particular contexts such as Max Shchur in the Czech Republic, Dzmitry Plax in Sweden, Tatsiana Zamirouskaja in the US, but they don’t form a community.

FN: Belarus as a state is both a victim and a tool of Russia's aggression in both Belarus and Ukraine. As a Belarusian poet living now in exile how do you frame your own post-colonial identity?

AP: A Belarusan from Ukraine. Those who understand the region will get what I mean from this simple phrase.

Ukraine in 2022. Photo by Stanislav Krupař, used with permission.

FN: How did this idea of a photo and translation book come about and what do you hope it can bring to Belarus, Ukraine and other places?

AP: Well, it was not exactly planned from the beginning. I met Belarusan photographer Ales Piletski and a wild Czech war-correspondent, Stanislav Krupař, who spends most of his time in Eastern Ukraine in Donbass. The texts were all ready on my side, including a couple written in Ukrainian and five translations of Ukrainian poets. It all just happened very organically, as there is no space for artistic egocentrism here for all three co-authors. The same goes for our London publisher Skaryna who somehow just appeared and did everything very fast.

In times of crisis, art should be pragmatic. All the profits from this book go to the rehabilitation center “Lanka,” organized by Belarusans in Ukraine. One can also donate. Our aim is very practical: To help wounded international combatants in Ukraine (mainly Belarusans). Although if, as piece of art , the book inspires readers, we would be happy too.

Asked to select a poem of the book that embodies the project, Plotka chose the following one, co-translated with Corinne Leech, which talks about the city of Bucha, the place of a major massacre of Ukrainian civilians by Russian troops:

Пушкін ідзе па Бучы,
Падпальвае ад галавешак намарадзёраны Chesterfield lights,
Адкідвае кійком раз’ябаныя цацкі з-пад ног.
На бакенбардах асядае попел, як асядаюць ныркі пасля ўдару.
Забаўная гульня словаў, ці дадуць рады перакласці яе мае прыхільнічкі-французікі?
Навокал спрэс знаёмы пейзаж і любыя сэрцу персанажы.
Вось горцы робяць партрэты ва ўвесь рост,
Зараз гэта хутчэй, не трэба плаціць мастаку, толькі музяку падабраць для роліка.
У канцы вуліцы нехта цягне матрас за край. Бродскі, стопудова.
Осccпадзе, хто так цягне, лепш бы ты сапраўды не выходзіў са штаба.
Вось едуць танкі з Беларусі,
На траках – пялёсткі ружаў цвятаеўцаў і ахматаўцаў.
Наліплі на гліну і гной.
На жоўты пясочак так бы не наліпала.
Недзе ўдалечыні (чу!) чуваць дрон, чужы,
Падлятай бліжэй, саколік, паглядзі на мяне,
Здымай, здымай мяне, дрон са старушкі Еўропы!
Я буду ўдумліва глядзець у гарызонт,
Буду слухаць хор згвалтаваных.
А вы будзеце расшыфроўваць мой позірк і мае думкі,
Рацыяналізаваць зло і разбірацца ў душы маньяка,
А я вам суну тупа сотку,
Як Кацюшы Маславай.
Не згубіце.
Добрыя ж грошы.


Pushkin walks through Bucha

Pushkin walks through Bucha,
Lights his looted Chesterfield blue with hot logs,
And kicks smashed toys from his way with a cane.
Ashes land on his whiskers, just as kidneys go down after a punch is landed.
What a funny game of words, can my froggy-groupies deal with translating it?
Familiar scenery and heroes dear to the heart are all around.
The highlanders are making full-length portraits,
This is fast nowadays, no need to pay the artist, just choose a music vibe for this Tik-Tok upload.
Someone at the end of the street is dragging the mattress by the edge [1]. Fo shizzle, that’s Brodsky!
Gosh, who is draggin’ like this? You’d better have stayed at HQ, indeed [2].
Here are the tanks coming from Belarus,
You can see rose petals of Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva fan-clubs on their steel tracks.
Stuck to shit and clay.
They won’t stick to the yellow sand [3].
An alien drone is heard in the distance,
Come closer, hawkeye, look at me,
Film, film me, Old Europe’s envoy.
I will be staring at the horizon thoughtfully,
Will be listening to the choir of the raped.
And you will be decrypting my thoughts and my look,
Rationalize evil and figure out the details of the maniac’s soul,
And I’ll just slide a bill into your mouth,
Like to Katiusha Maslova [4].
A fast buck, no?
Don’t lose it.

29.04.2022 Кyiv

Plotka also provided the following notes for context:

[1] Joseph Brodsky's colonial poem “On the Independence of Ukraine

[2] Joseph Brodsky's magnum opus poem “Don't leave your room

[3] Vasiĺ Bykaŭ‘s drama about repression “Yellow sand”

[4] Leo Tolstoy last novel “Resurrection

Belarus in 2020. Photo by Ales Piletski, used with permission.

FN: As a an artist using Belarusian yet living in exile, do you see a parallel Belarusian culture developing? What are its main challenges? Do it somehow trickle back to Belarus? What are its most interesting expressions?

AP: Belarusan culture now exists in two versions: émigré and underground inside Belarus where people experience the most brutal repression since the Stalinist purges of the 1930s. The relationship between these groups is our main challenge. I think that the most interesting expressions of current Belarusan art are those which will be discovered only later, which are now inside, but can’t be seen or heard. One can study and read in English a “Czech Dreambook” as an example. I say this honestly because of this inability to share and discuss our work together. I don’t feel myself limited and obliged to shut the fuck up while speaking about my colleagues, and I send my respect to artists of the underground, and state that their work, unknown for now, will shine someday.

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