Mateusz Marczewski, The Circular Lakes of Belarus

Near Polotsk in Belarus, there are several dozen bodies of water with a regular circular shape. They are holy lakes, mystical places of worship of the pagan tribe of Krivichi, who inhabited these areas in early medieval times. For them, a circle symbolised a closed cycle of the transmigration of souls – rebirth and perpetual existence – therefore their temples were usually set up as circular structures. Lakes were considered their natural prefigurations. Round water surfaces were like windows one could use to see the future, breaking the linear structure of time. Some centuries later, when Christianity was well established in Belarus, circular lakes did not lose their exceptional status, although their function did change. Now, if one looked really close, the water revealed the shapes of sinful churches and villages drowned by God. The lakes thus became a screen for the past and a cautionary place, warning against religious disobedience.

All of this is true, at least according to the tales recounted by Mateusz Marczewski, which underpin the meaning of his book’s title. Although they comprise a significant portion of the book, it is not an ethnographic study of folkloric beliefs as the author is mainly interested in the complicated, multifaceted staying power of such elements of the past in the present. He scrutinizes the places he visits as if he were gazing into the mirror‑surface of a circular lake, trying to make out what’s underneath the surface of everyday life, and listens to the tales of his guides to hear what is left unsaid. Tracking these disguised symptoms of the past is a starting point for a description of contemporary Belarusian identity, or – in a wider, more essential sense – an attempt to reach the essence of Belarusian‑ness.

It is quite difficult to seek this Belarusian differentia specifica, a fact proven by the historical context, outlined in subsequent chapters of this book. Geopolitics is of course the first obstacle – for Belarusian lands are a transitive space, which saw (and still sees) clashes between Eastern and Western influences. It is beyond any doubt today that the former gained a considerable advantage – it is sufficient to mention the year 1991, when after declaring independence, almost 70% of citizens of the republic declared Soviet citizenship. It is also not inconsequential that the only two moments of renaissance of Belarusian language and national culture were strictly overseen by outside agents: in the 1920s, Belarusian‑ness was used by the Bolsheviks, and in the 1940s, the initiative was taken over by the Nazis. In both cases, the notion of the Belarusian nation was an instrument for short‑term politics, an identity creation stimulated and stifled from the top down. After 1945, there was no need to reinforce Belarusian‑ness, its meanings appropriated by Soviet historiography. Simply put, there was no opportunity to develop modern Belarusian identity in the second half of the 20th century.

But perhaps the most striking fact is that the task undertaken by Marczewski is also problematic because of what can be described as a grassroots resistance. In one of the first sketches, the author writes that “it seems that in Belarus, time stands still.” True, the great wheels of history did leave their marks on the local landscape: Tatar invasions, cultural expansion of the Polish gentry and the Catholic Church, the absolutism of Catherine the Great and 20th‑century totalitarian systems. At the same time, these grand gears of his‑ tory left space for local enclaves, outside of the aggressors” control, suspended somewhere on the outskirts of time. To be more specific, these enclaves stretch somewhere between Polotsk – the historical and spiritual cradle of Bela‑ rus, the city of saint Euphrosyne (princess and monk), and Minsk – a socialist‑modernist juggernaut of a city on the peripheries of the former empire. It seems that in these vast, muddy and thus not very accessible rural areas of the country, identity is still considered locally, a feature characteristic rather for primitive than national (in the modern sense) communities.

The specificity of the matter explored by Marczewski is perhaps best represented by the phenomenon of trasianka: a Russian dialect that displaced the Belarusian language. It sounds somewhat different in different places, depending on the degree of influence of Polish, Yiddish, or even German; at the same time, because of the folk Belarusian syntax, it sounds a bit similar everywhere. It’s the same with the identity of its users – at first, it may seem to be an artificial construct, based on the marriage of foreign influences and violent ideologies, but if one listens closely, a hidden structure is revealed, closely tied to folklore and myths.

In order to introduce this structure to the reader, Marczewski eschews a linear narrative and adopts a circular structure, as if he realised that it is impossible to write about myths and other “circular matters” in a straightforward manner. To put it differently, the problems the author attempts to describe are on the one hand concerned with the influence of ideology, totalitarianism and symbolic (as well as physical) violence which took on many different forms throughout the ages, although their mechanisms turned out to be surprisingly recurrent; on the other hand, Marczewski faces the archaic, but exceptionally resilient earth myth, which largely organises the Belarusians” auto‑identification process. Both of these “tendencies” seem to stifle the impulses characteristic of modern ways of forging national identities, and narrative strategies usually applied in studies of the subject seem to be incompatible here. Thus, the circularity characteristic of a myth’s chronotope becomes the compositional mainstay of the book.

Short observations, conversations with specific people, details noticed in interior design, or absurdities associated with how Lukashenko’s regime functions occupy the usually short chapters of the book, and give rise to other stories, anecdotes, and legends that are usually much older and seemingly unrelated to the initial threads. However, the conclusion of each of these micro‑stories always reveals the parallelism of the situations presented. Marczewski circles in this fashion on a larger scale as well, in the space of the book as a whole, often returning to issues and stories indicated in other places, shedding new light or introducing new sources. This way, the author of Koliste jeziora Białorusi manages to recreate a chain of events as regards to the Belarusian “fate”, or the aforementioned Belarusian‑ness. Two main links of this chain come to the forefront: concealment and wonder. The first one is associated with the idea of the underground, constantly reoccurring throughout the narrative. It appears in the legend of a labyrinthine city, allegedly hidden under Polotsk, preached by Vaclav Lastowski, one of the most eminent propagators of Belarusian national culture, and in the history of the dungeons under the Basi‑ lian monastery in Polotsk, home to the library of old local prints. This motif is a perfect metaphor of Belarusian culture, which had to go underground when geopolitics did not allow it to prosper on the surface of the social world. But – as it is with legends – the matter has not been ultimately solved, and one day that which is concealed may be wondrously revealed again. And this wonder functions in Belarus without quotation marks. It is a land where deeply interiorised magical thinking causes miracles to constantly happen (or, as Marczewski shows, miracles “are made”). The mystical aura similar to that shrouding Saint Euphrosyne, also surrounds the most eminent representatives of Minsk’s intelligentsia, but also drunks loitering around a mobile store‑truck somewhere deep in the Belarusian province. A legend‑making potential similar to that of the Polotsk saint was claimed by Vatslaw Lastowski, Kim Khadeev (the mentor of several generations of local dissidents) and also Felix Dzerzhinsky. Soviet post stamps have the same wondrous qualities as classic icons, the new “Chinese junk” similar to old Slavic amulets, on display in the same souvenir store. In the Belarusian province where, according to legends, Mother Mary stopped for a while during her journeys around the world, her manifestations still appear on trees. In the cities, where miracles are most difficult to experience, metal tanks of holy water come to the rescue. Even the very real and relatively recent stories of Swedish fluffy toys dropped from the air or shooting down an air balloon participating in the Gordon Bennett Cup race (which are also a great introduction to the issues of isolationism in modern‑day Belarus) contain so much absurdity that again, they bor‑ der on wonder.

Everything that is wondrous comes down then to the question of attitude, not hindered by years of secular modernisation in the Soviet spirit or globalization, inevitably creeping into the country in recent decades.

Marczewski presents numerous other aspects of this wondrousness in various historical and social orders. All the while, he does that without evoking the feeling of visiting an ethnographic museum or a reserve of fossils from premodern Europe. He writes without patronising and distancing himself rationally as a “Western man” who is conscious of his position as a stranger and writes with great empathy towards his interlocutors, but with an (unassuming) note of melancholy of a man who has is irreversibly lost the primordiality of a myth. Koliste jeziora Białorusi is not only a story on wonder, but is also written in a wondrously magnetic man‑ ner. It seems that the mood of the essays itself enlightens us more than just the facts presented therein.

Kinga Siewior

Translated from the Polish by Piotr Czarnota