Fabijan Šantyr: “The national revival will never die”

Kanstancin Kasiak. Originally published in Belarusian by Budzma

The Spanish radio network Cadena SER recently published hitherto unknown documents from the archives of the Granada police headquarters relating to the circumstances of the arrest and execution in 1936 of the playwright and poet Federico García Lorca. These documents are the first official admission of the Franco regime’s culpability in the poet’s death. Despite the fact that many prominent Falangists, among them the founder of the movement himself – José Antonio Primo de Rivera, respected his work, Lorca was shot for his leftwing views and support of the republican government. The place of his burial is still unknown.

Fabijan ŠantyrIn the 1930s many Belarusian writers shared a fate similar to Lorca’s. The only difference is that they were shot not by conservative Falangists, but by red Bolsheviks who killed not only their “class enemies”, but their leftwing supporters as well. Spaniards often regard Federico García Lorca as a symbol of Franco’s terror; for Belarusians there is a man who could equally well symbolize the Bolsheviks’ reign of terror – Fabijan Šantyr, one of their first victims in Belarus. Lorca’s life has been well researched and only the newly revealed circumstances of his death can cause any kind of sensation now. Šantyr, however, is still virtually unknown to his compatriots. The poet himself is a sensation.

Fabijan Šantyr was a Belarusian leftwing social and political activist and writer. He was born into the family of an artist in Sluck on 4 February 1887. His restless character developed while he was still a young man. He took part in the Social Democrats’ revolutionary activities. He tried his hand at various crafts and, looking for a better life, travelled a lot. On one occasion he found himself in the small town of Kapyĺ; here he met Ciška Hartny, who went on to become a well-known writer and the head of the first government of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR). In the early years of the twentieth century there was an active group of Social Democrats in Kapyĺ. They spread their revolutionary agenda among the local population and took part in protest actions. Members of the group read both underground and legal literature, and practiced writing prose and poetry which appeared in a magazine they themselves produced, called “Holas nizu” (The Voice from Below). A number of significant writers emerged from this circle, including Ciška Hartny, Alieś Hurlo and Fabijan Šantyr.

In 1905 Šantyr was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for his revolutionary activities in the Kapyĺ district. While in prison he remained steadfast in his convictions, and with even greater energy plunged himself into a programme of self-improvement. He read avidly, primarily books on law and pedagogy. After his release he successfully used the knowledge he had acquired in that way to find work as a private tutor and lawyer; both jobs provided him with a steady income.

At the start of the First World War in 1914 Šantyr was drafted into the Russian army and served as an administrator of the military hospital in Babrujsk. In 1916 he occasionally travelled to Minsk and always visited the Belarusian House there – a place where youth activists gathered in the evening. He also frequented the Belarusian bookshop – the first of its kind – that had been established by Anton Liavicki (better known as the writer Jadzvihin Š.) and Aliaksandr Ulasaŭ. In the Belarusian House Šantyr was introduced to such prominent Belarusian activists as Arkadź Smolič, Jazep Liosik, Maksim Bahdanovič and Alieś Harun. At one of the evening parties there Šantyr met Liudvika Sivickaja (literary pseudonym Zośka Vieras) who soon became his wife and comrade in the political struggle.

The bookshop provided Šantyr with access to books by authors who are nowadays regarded as pillars of Belarusian literature, e.g. Jakub Kolas, Janka Kupala, Francišak Bahuševič, Maksim Harecki and Ciotka. He read, analysed, and honed his own writing skills. In Belarusian history Fabijan Šantyr is known first and foremost as a poet; however, he was also an able speaker and essayist.

In the immediate aftermath of the Russian revolution of February 1917 he became one of the leaders of the left wing of the political party known as the Belarusian Socialist Assembly (Bielaruskaja Sacyjalistyčnaja Hramada), heading its regional committee in Babrujsk. Šantyr was by now more and more involved in the political life of Belarus as a whole. He participated in various forums and meetings, promoted his ideas and disputed with opponents, and played an active role in the First All-Belarusian Congress. According to the Bielaruskaja Rada newsletter, Šantyr gave a “beautiful speech, full of sorrow and tenderness” at the ceremonial opening of the Congress. When on 16 December the delegates were debating the vital, but divisive question of the future of Belarus, he called on his fellow participants: “When we are told to abandon our motherland – I don’t understand that… Assimilation means slavery. Why have you all come here? – You have all been guided by your sense of national awareness. The national revival will never die.”

In addition to his political and literary work, Šantyr was also engaged in the theoretical elaboration of issues connected with the Belarusian national renaissance. His political views of that time can be defined as leftwing in form and national in substance.

In 1918 a private printing company in Sluck published Šantyr’s essay The Necessity of National Life and Self-Determination for Belarusians. In it the author raised the question of Belarusians as a distinct nation in its own right. This may sound strange and naïve to us now, but then it was a timely and challenging question: many neighbouring nations viewed the existence of a separate Belarusian ethnos as a complete fabrication.

Šantyr concluded his theoretical and historical reflections in this work with a thought that was radical and brave for the time: only a truly Belarusian government “on territory which has been Belarusian since time immemorial, will be able to guarantee its people a normal, civilised life based on long-established national foundations”.

During his short life Fabijan Šantyr was arrested many times, by both the Russian tsarist authorities and the Bolsheviks, despite sharing many ideological convictions with the latter. He held various positions in post-revolution Belarus: head of the Smolensk office of the Belarusian National Commissariat, employee of the Military Commissariat for Sluck County and for Minsk Province, and the Special Supply Commission for the Western Front. He was a regular contributor to the newspapers Dziannica and Savieckaja Bielaruś. He reached the high point of his career when he was appointed Commissar for Nationalities in the Provisional Government of the BSSR. There, together with Ciška Hartny, Jazep Dyla, Aliaksandr Čarviakoŭ and other “nacdemy” (National Democrats) he strove to shape the kind of independent politics that would be oriented entirely towards Belarus. Šantyr actively protested against the division of Belarusian territory and the cession of its eastern part to the Russian Federation. For that the Bolsheviks never forgave him.

In February 1920 he was drafted into the Red Army, but very soon after, on 29 May, was executed for “counterrevolutionary” activities. The place of his burial is unknown; neither do we know whether the bulk of his manuscripts has survived somewhere. Nevertheless, he deserves to be remembered and respected for sacrificing his life for the future of his motherland and its people.

Fabijan Šantyr’s own words to his compatriots from almost a century ago are an appropriate epilogue to this story: “Even if I succeed in arousing in only one of them a passionate love for our forgotten, destitute country, and a desire to work hard on its fields for a better future for our hapless brothers, I’ll be happy.”

Translation: Ihar Ivanoŭ, translation editor – Jim Dingley.