Belarusian poet reflects on memory, mass graves and resistance to Lukashenko

For nearly 27 years, citizens of Belarus have lived under the thumb of Alexander Lukashenko, who is considered Europe’s last dictator. In her poetry collection Music for the Dead and Resurrected, Belarusian poet Valzhyna Mort explores collective memory, a history of both horror and joy, and how to memorialize those buried in mass graves.

It's not a history of violence that makes the nation. It is love for each other, says Valzhyna Mort

In her poetry collection Music for the Dead and Resurrected, Valzhyna Mort writes about memory as something that can reopen a wound or act as an inoculation. 'This song, my daily dose of radiation or vaccination,' she writes in her poem, Music Practice. (Tanya Kapitonava/Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

In Valzhyna Mort's grandmother's house in Belarus, the radio always had to be on. 

"My grandmother, who was the survivor of the 20th century, had this pathological relationship with the radio. It had to be always on and nobody could speak over it ... because of wars," said Mort, a Belarus-born poet and translator.

"World War Two was announced on the radio — its beginning and its end."

Her grandmother was born in the 1920s, to a large farming family. Her first memory was the Bolsheviks removing the roof from her family's house so they could no longer live on their farm. Her grandmother lived through the era of Stalinist purges, and then became the only member of her family to survive the Second World War. 

"She told me the full story of her life every single day," Mort said. 

A 1917 photo of Bolshevik fighters receiving mission orders in Smolny, near Petrograd. During the October 1917 Revolution, the Bolsheviks overthrew Alexander Kerensky's Provisional Government and replaced it for a soviet one, leading to the establishment of the Soviet Union. The October Revolution marked the beginning of the spread of communism in the twentieth century. (TASS/AFP via Getty Images)

But her grandmother's house was also full of music. "On the radio, there was a lot of music … Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Chopin, Mozart. So it was always a kind of a soundtrack to our lives," she said. 

Music and her grandmother's stories are both woven through her new poetry collection, Music for the Dead and Resurrected. It explores a century of state violence in Belarus and the role music plays in splintering the silence created by repression. 

This soundtrack really is a hello and goodbye to the ancestors killed too early.-  Valzhyna Mort 

The music on her grandmother's radio was more than just a soundtrack. It also helped "dilute" the intensity of her grandmother's stories so she could cope with them — like "a pill or a vitamin that has to be thrown into a glass filled with water so that it could be diluted in order to be consumed," she said. 

Mort said she always has a soundtrack in her head while she writes poetry. 

"This soundtrack really is a hello and goodbye to the ancestors killed too early, to the legacy of violent deaths in the family, to this realization that you are the product of a single survivor," she said. 

"There is a great need in me to say hello to them and to say goodbye to them. But these words, hello and goodbye, they won't do."

When she was growing up, Mort practiced accordion for several hours a day. In her poem Music Practice, she explores how music entered her life.

The poem, 'Music Practice' is in Valzhyna Mort's new book, Music for the Dead and Resurrected. 2:38

Mort's grandmother was adamant that she learn to play music. "The only memory she had of her father was that he was a musical man, and that he liked playing instruments and singing to her before he was drafted into the war ... between the Soviets and the Poles, for [Belarus's] Western territories, where he drowned when retreating because he didn't know how to swim," she said. 

"Nothing is left of him but the memory of his musicality and his death."

Memory and mass graves 

For Mort, music is one way of honouring the dead — the dead who were never properly buried. 

In her poem Rose Pandemic, she writes: 

From one hospital-white key to the next, 
I carry my dead in order to tuck them into 
these shrouds woven from sound. 

I bury them, properly, one by one, 
inside the piano-key coffins.

Several of the poems in Music for the Dead and Resurrected are about Kurapaty, a mass burial site on the outskirts of Minsk. 

"It should perhaps resonate with some recent news in Canada, too," Mort said. 

It is still not known how many people are buried at Kurapaty. The people buried there were killed during the Stalinist purges that took place in the late 1930s and early 40s. 

"It is still not permitted to address that history directly," she said. 

From Belarus, you could learn nothing. We still, ourselves, do not know what to do with our lessons. - Valzhyna Mort

Asked what Canada might be able to learn from Belarus about how to reckon with the discovery of a burial site and how to properly honour the dead, Mort replied, "From Belarus, you could learn nothing. We still, ourselves, do not know what to do with our lessons."

A man lights a candle on April 4, 2019, outside Minsk at the Kurapaty memorial site where the Soviet secret police shot and buried thousands of victims during the late 30s and early 40s. The number of deaths are uncertain. 'It is still not permitted to address that history,' says Valzhyna Mort. (Sergei Gapon/AFP via Getty Images)

However, she sees a resonance between the education system in Belarus and Canadian residential schools. 

"For us, too, school was the weapon of suppression, of oblivion, of the creation of oblivion through language, through history that was taught in the school. Other languages and stories were forbidden in the schools," she said. 

The stories of the dead — the stories of her ancestors — are not part of the official history she learned in school. Her family members exist on the margins of history, "perhaps even outside of its borders, the permanent refugees that are not permitted to enter history," she said. 

"But in writing their stories into language, into poetry, I'm not trying to place them into history. Rather, I'm trying to free them from history altogether. I'm trying to create some kind of music that would surpass all of that."

'The country is held hostage by a self-elected man'

Despite the horrors she survived under Stalin, Mort said her grandmother still had a "kind of religious feeling" for the dictator. "She was enamoured with him, like a lot of people were," she said. 

"One could see it in the metaphor of an abusive family, in which an abused wife would still say that she loves her abusive husband … and that metaphor stands today for Lukashenko, too."

Alexander Lukashenko was elected president of Belarus in 1994. It was the country's first free election after the fall of the Soviet Union — and so far, its last. 

It took me a long time to revisit my own assumptions about kindness and solidarity, rather than lone survival.- Valzhyna Mort
People attended an opposition rally to reject the presidential election results and to protest against the inauguration of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk, Belarus, Sept. 27, 2020. (Reuters)

Lukashenko has claimed electoral victory in five subsequent elections, despite widespread concerns about vote tampering and the intimidation of opposition leaders and journalists. He is often described as Europe's last dictator. 

In 2020, when Lukashenko claimed another electoral victory, after 26 years in power, Belarus erupted in protests. 

"The country is held hostage by a self-elected man and his military henchmen," Mort said. 

"There's a lot of fleeing from the country, but as the hijacking of a plane has shown, even fleeing from a country does not make one safe."

A 'lullaby for a newborn nation'

Mort said the protests in Belarus are about more than just one election. They're about Belarusians claiming "the agency of citizens." 

"They were protests to show, to say, 'I matter, I'm alive, I have a voice,'" she said. 

Mort believes Belarusians are just now learning to trust each other, and to see strength in kindness rather than violence. 

"Growing up ...  it was always the bully who was admired," she said. "It took me a long time to revisit my own assumptions about kindness and solidarity, rather than lone survival."

The protests have demonstrated a "great sense of solidarity between people," she said. "We saw each other for the first time in that kind of a light."

Music has also been a key part of the protests. Some protesters have been arrested for singing the Belarusian lullaby Kupalinka, which was originally written by a poet executed under Stalin in the 1930s.

Mort calls the song a "lullaby for a newborn nation."

"It's not a history of violence that makes the nation. It is ... love for each other, that comes often out of mourning, out of that sense of loss and violence that one inherits," she said. 

"Then the only way to respond, the only way to continue is through taking care of each other."

About Valzhyna Mort

Valzhyna Mort is a poet and translator born in Minsk, Belarus. She is the author of Music for the Dead and Resurrected, Factory of Tears and Collected Body. Her most recent collection, Music for the Dead and Resurrected, is a finalist for the 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize. She is also an assistant professor of English at Cornell University. 

Excerpts of Kupalinka in this episode come from performances by Aleksei Kiseliov and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and Treta Mominka. 

* Written and produced by Pauline Holdsworth.

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