Zmitser Bartosik has won three prestigious literary awards in Belarus this year – the Jerzy Giedroyc Literary Award, the Ales Adamovich Award and the Maria and Alexander Stahanovich Award – for his book The Master and His Talking Sparrow. In the column Self-Portrait Attempt, we talk to the author about his youth, work as a writer and private life.

Aramais Mirakyan
Aramais Mirakyan
Journalist, translator, writer

On his family and childhood

I was born in the town of Rybinsk, but my family has no relation to it. My mother comes from Nizhny Novgorod. My grand-grandfather was a merchant, a millionaire, but he was killed during th revolution. Another grand-grandfather was killed in World War I. It probably happened in the territory of present-day Belarus, but I don’t have exact information. My father’s family are Poles from Odesa.

My parents have a close relation to theatre. My mother is an actress, my dad is a director. My dad’s profession became a great tragedy for his family – all wanted him to be a civil servant, but he chose theatre. It’s awful, isn’t it? (Laughs)

My parents met at the Rybinsk theatre. I was born in this beautiful town on the River Volga, but I don’t remember it. When I was one year old, we moved to wonderful Velikiye Luki, but I don’t remember it either for the same reason. We then moved to Zlatoust, and you can guess...

My first memories are about Ust-Kamenogorsk – my first love, kindergarten, school. We traveled across Kazakhstan with my parents. I think I know this country pretty well.

We came to Belarus when I was in the third grade.

On ethnicity

I am of mixed origin, but I don’t feel my roots belong to one particular country. My character embodies a lot of Russian vices – indiscipline, laziness, love for alcohol. The only vice I don’t have is the imperialist mentality. Belarusians differ from Russians in many ways – they don’t tend to be overfamiliar, they don’t use the informal ‘you’ after a second glass. Belarusians are very polite. I have talked to probably a thousand of people as a journalist. I remember being shown the door just once.

On the Belarusian language

I didn’t learn the Belarusian language at school. I learnt it after the army. In 1991 or something I could read, in 1992, I was able to speak. Firstly, I became interested in the area where I lived. Secondly, in the 1990s, the most interesting things in media were in Belarusian. Krynitsa, LiM and Nasha Niva helped me look at the country in a new way. What is the most interesting is that only I and my former classmate Kanstantsin Zalatakh speak Belarusian at class reunions, though both of us were freed from studying Belarusian!

On his favourite Belarusian town

My parents and I were on tour in Hrodna. The town, its non-Soviet architecture and non-Soviet spirit fascinated me. While my parents were busy with rehearsals, I bought a map and enjoyed the town. I found a lot of beautiful buildings, so different from buildings in Homel, where we lived. The Bridgettine Convent, the Old Castle, the synagogue, plenty of old streets…

On a culture shock from the Belarusian countryside

I was an actor in a film based on the novel Foreign Motherland. Filming took place in a village. It was a culture shock for me. It was like another dimension. It’s like in Vysotsky’s song:

I’d like so much
To leave my home
And find myself at the top, in the depth,
Inside and outside, where everything is different!

Everything was really different. It wasn’t the Soviet Union! A Soviet boy, a townie, comes to the Belarusian countryside with its different smells, different sounds, different landscapes and an old Catholic church, black with age.

As soon as I saw the Catholic church with tiny windows and an incredible atmosphere inside, I realised that Belarus is not less romantic than France with its Notre-Dame. I heard Belarusian around me, the language I had heard only on the radio and in Belarusian literature classes before. It was alive in the village! It really impressed me.

On his failed acting career

I was a student of the Nizhny Novgorod College of Acting for 18 months. After 18 months, I was expelled for being unfit for work. Yes, this exact wording. To be short, I was found untalented. I am grateful to my teacher for it. Being a bad actor is worse than being a bad journalist. A bad journalist can hide himself behind his characters, but where should a bad actor hide behind? (Laughs)

On military service

I served in a construction battalion in Vologda. Most soldiers were from the Soviet Central Asia and the Caucasus region. Different things – good and bad – happened during the service, but compared to what I hear about the Belarusian army today, my construction battalion was the Queen’s Guard. It was impossible to imagine officers robbing soldiers or inciting suicide!

On his career

After the expulsion from the university I worked as a surface grinding foreman. I found the job creative in many ways. I carefully ground everything I was given and enjoyed it. I also worked a scene shifter at the Homel theatre.

On his way to Belarusian studies

It was 1991 when I began to get involved, so to say, into the Belarusian context. I read history books and fiction to become a strong supporter of Belarus’s independence a year later. Once I learnt about a Belarusian studies programme in Vilnius. I also worked there, earned my living with a hammer drill. (Laughs)

I met Siarhei Dubavets in Vilnius, and he suggested I write something… I wrote travel essays about Nizhny Novgorod, and it was the beginning. It was another culture shock when I saw my scribbles turned into neat letters printed in a newspaper.

On celebrating New Year’s Eve in prison in 1994

Psychologists say men stay the same age throughout their life. You die at the same age you were born. Siarhei Dubavets once said my age is five years old…

In 1993, gas guns were very popular. I wanted to play Belmondo a little. I carried a pistol in Vilnius, but no one attacked me. I went to visit my father at a theatre festival in Vologda and got awfully drunk there. I decided to conduct an experiment and see what effect gas has on animals. I shot, which was probably heard all over night-time Vologda…

A cat ran away in a second, and I heard “Don’t move” behind my back. Instead of raising my hands, I decided to fire back like the real Belmondo. My last shot hit one of the police officers. They knocked me down, beat and took me to a police station, where I crashed out happily. My father managed to come to an agreement with the policeman I injured. As a result, at 2am, I was released on my own recognizance. At 4am, I was on a train from Vologda…

My father said that by no means should I appear in Vologda or Homel, where I was registered.

I happened in May. I remained Vilnius until New Year holidays. I decided to celebrate New Year’s Eve with my mother and friends. As soon as I arrived in Homel, I got a phone call saying that I had problems with my passport. I went to the resident registration office, where they arrested me immediately and sent to a detention centre. I was told that Vologda police officers were on their way to Homel to escort me to Vologda. Homel policemen said: “You spoilt them the New Year’s party, so they will beat you all the way to Vologda, but it’s not our problem.” It was New Year’s Eve 1994, and I was waiting for escorting officers from Vologda. My mood was far from being festive.

What happened later was my Belarusian New Year’s fairy tale. My mother took my articles and went to the city’s chief prosecutor. She said: “What’s going on? He’s such a good boy! Did he kill anyone? Look how he loves our Belarus!” This beautiful man scolded his subordinates for delivering a person to Vologda policemen without the prosecutor's sanction, as if we still lived in the Soviet Union. He promised my mother that I would be released until the midnight.

I already changed a few cells, talked to everyone and made friends when I heard 15 minutes before the midnight: “Bartosik, get your stuff and go!” They wished me a happy New Year and said they’d give me a lift to the downtown. The new year began when I was in the back seat of a police car, behind bars.

I am walking down the street, unshaved, smelling of jail, but I am the happiest man in the town on this New Year’s night.

After the holidays, I went to the prosecutor. He showed me the map of Belarus and said: “You can live wherever you want within these borders. But don’t even look at Russia!” It was then that I understood how big Belarus is. I felt the transparent, as if non-existent Belarusian-Russian border with my spinal cord. Belarus saved my life! It didn’t turn me in!

On prize money for winning the Jerzy Giedroyc Literary Award

Part of the money will go to the book’s editor Siarhei Dubavets. It was his idea to write this book. Another part will go to the family of my friend, local ethnographer and historian Ales Yurkoits, who is now in jail on no grounds.

On his creative plans

I work on a new book. It’s a trip again, but this time it’s a nostalgic trip back to the 1960–1970, across the sites related to Belarusian writers. It will feature a lot of jokes and funny stories, many stories about Baradulin, Karatkevich, Taras, Herchyk...


Photo on the cover

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