Vasil Bykaŭ (1924-2003)
is not unknown for English speaking readers. I have read myself one English translation of his novel, published as Vasil Bykov "A Portent of Disaster"
, I am sure it's not the only work of this Belarussian writer available for those who can't read in Belarussian but still enjoy reading books in English.
took part in the Wolrd War II and after the War he became a writer. Belarus then was a part of the USSR and any writers had to observe certain rules to be pulished and to get money from the government. That's why the early Bykaŭ
couldn't write everything he knew about the War. All his life he was interested in the psychology of man's behavior under extreme circumstances. He was free to write the bitter truth of war crimes committed by Germans in the USSR and local Polizei, but the Soviet censorship left no place for any wrong conduct of the Red Army soldiers. And Bykaŭ
was critisized for any slightest attempts to describe the war reality that included betrayals, robbing and cruelty from both the fighting sides. The period of democratization in the Soviet Union, called Glasnost
(do not think that Perestroyka
was a liberalization course as such, for it was only an attempt of slight economic transformations having nothing to do about democracy and it was Glasnost
, proclaimed in 1988, that allowed peaceful protests against violations of rights and freedoms and crtisizing the government that along with the economic stagnation led the USSR to its collapse in 1991) pushed Bykaŭ
to write about Stalin's repressions as well. When Belarus became an independent nation in 1991 he had already become an anti-Communist and a moderate Belarussian nationalist. (One can read also his biography in Wikipedia
That later Bykaŭ
wrote a series of short stories called The Wall
, where he tried to describe the cruelties of the Soviet system both during the War and in other periods of USSR history. As a historian I can't help seeing that he exagerated certain thing, but after reading dozens of Belarussian books I shall admit that those stories make part of the best masterpieces of the world literature by the manner of the description of human behavior in difficult times.
So, I've chosen and translated 3 short stories and I think my readers have the right to know about some translation features. Firstly, there's no translation that can perfectly reflect the original work. With Belarussian as my second language and English as my third one I only tried to render these works as best as I could. Secondly, there exist a problem of the proper romanisation of Russian and Belarussian names. That why this writer is known ouside Belarus not only as Bykaŭ
, but also Bykov and Bykaw. I've decided to render Belarussian names according to the modern rules for the romanization of Belarussian characters (story one) and other Slavonic names ouside Belarus as Russian names (some changes in vowels and consonants) for it Belarussian the name of some Russian president will sound like Putsin
and yet they are known worldwide as Putin and Medvedev. Thirdly, in the story that I called The Fog of a Wrong Belief
(story one)I dared to translate the name of main character literally -- Badger (in Belarussian -- Barsuk), for the author himself had written that it was unnkown if it was his real last name or just a nick, which was not uncommon in those years. Fourthly, I'm absolutely sure that the real name the Commander from story two is Marshal Zhukov, which was believed to be responsible for the defeat of the German Army in Stalingrad (now Volgograd) making them shift additional tanks from Africa without even changing their yellowish color. And Zhukov really executed many soldiers and officers without any trial or any real fault just to keep some discipline. Fifthly, the last story seems to have happened to the narator himself.
Enjoy your reading
FOG OF A WRONG
was their celebration
they were going with flowers and flags to their stone-stiff leader.
music was being played.
pipes were shining,
granite of the monument was shining too due to the rain, the urban
reflected on the wet road pavement.
of them were without hats or caps, gray-haired, bold, with
aigrette-like wet hair, the eyes of their old faces showed suffering
of them was carrying a
basket of begonias, keeping it carefully with both hands; a stick was
hanging on his bent arm.
other old ones he had a great white beard
like a Santa, that beard hung to his weak tired chest.
he approached the
the others he bent down awkwardly and put his basket on the ground,
then he straightened his back and clumsily, as if being embarrassed,
the sign of the cross.
it's Badger! — almost
with some excitement Vinceś
plucked his friend by the sleeve. — Yet
it was Badger, alive and
seemingly in good health, the man whom
Liaksei and Vinceś
remembered since the War, as they had lived in the
town where this old deaf-and-dump man
called Badger used to live during the War.
he seems to be the same, — Vinceś
couldn't help talking.
is amazing however that he didn't change. Is
his life or his character the reason of
it? Or may be the wrong belief that is like thick fog that some
circumstances keep tight from clearing away. Such
as those of the Badger.
came to that town with many other refugees. When
the War began lots of civilians from the western parts of Belarus
rushed eastwards together with the defeated troops. Some
went by military vehicles others by carts but most of them went on
foot with their sacks, cases and children. Badger
escaped from the hell of the battered area alone. All
his family members had got lost somewhere and so he settled in the
town waiting for them. Perhaps, he
thought it was for just a while but he stayed there all the years of
German invasion. He lived at an old lady's
near the ditch and earned his living by all
possible means: digging vegetable beds,
cutting wood, and
sometimes bootmaking. He ate what he was
given, often went hungry and he was said to
be waiting for his wife and two kids. Time
passed but Badger's family didn't show up. At
times he felt terrible but he didn't go to the forest. And
what kind of partisan he could be — deaf
and mute? Nevertheless his young neighbor
Valera (that was said to
have something about the forest and was often absent in the town for
a week or two and then reappeared there with no fuss) visited
him sometimes. He needed Badger to have his
boots repaired or his loot watch fixed since Badger knew what to do
with the watch.
this Valera came with an unknown guy, a trooper sergeant. They
had a mission: to try food
cards. Yes, ordinary
food rationing cards on cereals, flour, salt, etc. issued for
employees that they
managed to fake in the forest. Or, may be,
in a town print house? So,
those cards were fake. Of course,
Valera could have sent his sister Ninka or his
auntie Hanulia, but he felt sorry for them. And
in the evening he and his partner dropped at Badger's.
that week Badger was without work and food and was finishing his last
pot of potatoes that he had earned by repairing his neighbors'
chimney; he had run out of salt long
before. And suddenly two forest guests,
partisans, ask him cordially “How are you?” Sympathize
him and give him lots of cards. Go to the
shop, fetch some stuffs for yourself and for us. We
don't need much, mostly cigarettes,
the rest you can keep to yourself. We
are not greedy people, we
are Soviet partisans...
couldn't believe that — what
a luxury! And what nice guys, so
compassionate to a poor disabled percher! That
week Polizei robbed him of the excellent
boots he wanted to exchange for bread.
And also gave him a good kick in the pants.
These ones, lo, give him
cards for free: margarine, salt,
he wasn't going, he was flying to the shop with the cards and got
everything there. Just the same way he
speeded home where got slightly embarrassed
for the boys had gone for unknown reasons.
They reappeared only at night and inquire some
details of the shopping. Then they gave more cards, which was a
terrific support for the hungry Badger.
the War Badger sometimes met the grown-up Valera and kissed his hands
every time: what a nice partisan. What a
support for the old one! Especially when he
gave Badger a paper as a witness of his position of a
communication agent of special partisan
That very paper injected some spirit to Badger to
keep living after the loss of his family. He
retired soon, in fact, after having done different jobs at the local
consumer service establishment where he had been
event promoted to the position of a headman. Recently
he felt a great pity because of the collapse of the USSR.
Especially when he learned that Valera, a big boss
now, works outside Belarus and is unlikely to
come to the revolutionary celebration.
And all because of those borders, customs and
broken economic relations. Valera was still
remembered here since the War and most often by 90-year old Badger
with some warmth in his senile eyes.
He was really sure that Valera didn't betray the
great work of Marx, Engels and Lenin. And Stalin too. Badger
didn't want to betray as well for betraying is always bad.
When he got a call from the Veterans
administration to take part in the laying of
flowers to the leader's monument he did come. And
brought his last basket of begonias for t'was a must to pay his
tribute to the leader and to the leader's work, to Valera and to that
sergeant, those two guys that
honored a lonely humiliated dumb one.
after the War many people got to know that story
it was only Badger himself who didn't know the truth. Was
it really worth telling him? Would he
him live in the fog of his wrong belief the rest of his life and
bring flower baskets to the monument. Moreover,
now it is not forbidden to make the sign of the
cross openly and even with some affection...
you know, one piece of bad news
comes upon the back of another. That another
reached the Commander on his way to Melnikov's dominion. That
Melnikov didn't have the things right from the very beginning,
the troops couldn't move forwards from the
Dnieper's bank, the neighboring troops made a breakthrough and
captured the very city on the right for which the Commander received
congratulations from the Commander-In-Chief. But
hardly the Commander left the village when the command center
reported on the radio: a problem on the
right flank, the Germans had
a counter-attack in force and flung the
infantry back over the river. The Commander
had a look into his map and ordered to turn to the
lateral route to go to the right flank. On
hearing the new command, his two adjutants,
young handsome colonels
passed it to the other vehicles – an armored carrier with the guard
and a closed truck with the
court martial – those ones that accompanied the Commander
everywhere. The whole small convoy began to
move speedily on a bumpy, narrow and muddy
byroad. Everyone was silent in the Willys.
The Commander kept silence, his square chin
shut, the adjutants kept
silent too apprehending what they are going to see. It
is possible that the Commander will quickly get right into the hell
of the battle and, with his iron fist... They
had had enough opportunities to see that his fist was really iron...
on potholes, picking up the
speed on even surfaces and rolling over
small hills covered with some low forest, the Willys, the carrier and
the truck went to the hub of the earthquake of the battle, and even
the constant noise of their motors couldn't stifle the battle sound,
soon the thunder of the battle was heard nearby
somewhere behind the forest where, according to
the Commander's map on could find a narrow tortuous river
along a wide water-meadow. Who
would guess that German tanks will attack right here? —
thought the Commander.
Were the missing anything on a smooth surface?
Or have they learned from us our Asian
quickwittedness? Well they hit right here to this
troublesome for attackers place. And,
unfortunately, the defense right here, in this spot,
happened to be a kinda weak, just yesterday Cheremysin's brigade was
sent to the center to help the forwarding group; and
only one antitank regiment was left here,
no, even a bit right from here, I guess. So,
the infantry had a hell-hard time with no support and
it yielded. That's its destiny in any war
and in any army.
Willys jumped to a sandy hill with some young and tiny pine
trees and immediately dashed aside crashing those trees with a
cracking sound. The Commander not expecting
the maneuver, swore as he just managed to grasp the metal rail in
front of himself with his gloved hand. However,
he got that it had been done well and it was no reason to swear.
The pine forest was being stung with gun bursts,
one should roll back or jump out and lie
down. And the Commander did
jump out. Waited a while and bending down
ran upwards and laid down on dry heathery ground. In
front of him there was a wide panoramic sight of the water-meadow
with a shameful spectacle of a panic
skedaddle. Oh, how many times the Commander had
seen this shame but never he could get used to it and with no
hesitation resorted to a reliable solution. The
people overcome with fear could be driven only with a more tremendous
fear that a boss had in store. Our infantry
were running away to the river, climbing over its
banks, some soldiers were really not far
from the hill on this side of the river. On
the river bank among willowbushing a
lopsided Studebaker was
in flames and smoke clouds, some people were moving chaotically over
there. Another one, however,
got out of the sludge
and having a cannon attached crawled slowly to the hill. On
the running board of the vehicle there
stood a man in a military shirt but without any overcoat, his head
bandaged. Isn't he the commander of an
antitank battery? — thought the
Commander. The man was shouting something,
perhaps to show the direction to the driver. From
behind the river tracer bullets were dashing here and there and
ricocheting were flying everywhere like fire bees. The
Commander, without looking back ordered his
guard: “Get hold of 'em!”, and
some soldiers led by a staff sergeant rushed
through the forest down the hill.
they were stopping the infantry with their strained voice the
Commander was peering through the meadow
and further at the other side of the river where light-yellow German
tanks began to appear. The Commander had
already met with them and knew it was he himself who had made German
commanders move them here from Africa by decisive attacks of his
troops, for they were colored to fight in a
desert. But they met no deserts here,
mostly swamps. Now and again they shelled
this side of the river and the infantry with their cannons. The
shelling made the hill quake...
to the Commander and especially behind him there were about ten
people of the guard with alert faces, a bit
further downwards the chairman of the
court martial was stretching himself near a
pine tree, he was a major, a man-of-war, all around girded with
belts, with a
service cap on his head. Behind the major
his secretary, a young man wrapped in a cape was opening his bag.
The man was looking at the Commander, his fingers
were trembling and he couldn't open the bag quickly. They
were waiting. It wasn't their first time
they went with the Commander, so, they knew what to do very well.
Moreover, they did their
work risking their own lives. Two bursts nearby in the forest made
them press their heads to the ground, but
the Commander payed no attention to the explosions. He
was watching things happening on the meadow.
looked like the guard got hold of the first runners and soon led from
the forest two frightened breathless infantrymen
with long three-line rifles with attached
bayonets. Having escaped
somehow from the fire and German tanks they seemed not to understand
what was going on and what that officer with a strict face needed
them for. “Why
did you run? — the Commander snapped
while examining them both with his eyes — a
tall one and a short, almost gnome-sized,
soldier, both in muddy rugs. — Why did
you run?” the foot soldiers were
breathing hard and keeping silence, and the
Commander waved his hand, not so to them as to some of his guard:
“Surrender you arms!”
must have been a certain signal, for two
guys in reefing-jackets of
the guard staff pulled the riffles of the soldiers and violently
pushed them both. The short fell down at
once, murmuring something, the tall began
repeating senselessly: “What,
what?” With this
were pushed away to the forest, away from
the sight of the Commander and they never returned.
the staff sergeant brought the officer from
the Studebaker to the Commander. Wounded,
with his head in
bandage, trying to save the cannon to his own
cost, the officer crossed the river to the
life-saving, as it seemed to him, hill. He
was a senior lieutenant with the Order of
the Great Patriotic War on his chest, he was girded with a twisted
belt, where a definitely empty holster was dangling. On seeing the
Commander he tried to report:
Commander cut him short with the voice tone that
could make speechless not only battery commanders but some officers
of higher ranks:
are dead, comrade com...
are they? — the
Commander got totally enraged. — And why
didn't you, bastard, die?
his hands, dirty from sludge and fresh blood, the senior lieutenant
undid a button of his
jacket a got out some papers — an
officer's ID, a
Communist Party card, a posessions
accounting document. The staff sergeant
snatched them immediately and passed to the members of the court
him! — the Commander cut it off coldly.
commander!.. — the officer shouted
huskily and stopped — the Commander was
already looking around the meadow and the staff sergeant was bearing
arms against his chest, it was a new
blue-finished machine pistol of Sudayev with a
banana magazine, this type had just arrived to the front line, and
these pistols were given first of all to the Commander's guard.
The staff sergeant took the battery commander to
the forest and soon a quiet single shot was heard.
chairman of the court martial and his secretary were forming the
judicial act frantically quickly. The
general information had been written beforehand and so they needed
only to add names and to fit some other details. Still
lying, the major leaned closer to the
secretary and the latter read to him: “The
court martial of the troop unit number... in an open hearing
examined the case against... What's
lieutenant Bezuglov, — said
the major after looking into the ID. — And
also privates Andreyev and Tyavelko...
and Tyavelko, — repeated the secretary on
writing. — And sentenced the mentioned
capital punishment, — helped the major.
sentence... — said the secretary.
executed, — helped the major looking
around anxiously. He seemed to be hurrying
up: if the job is done or not. Moreover,
the German tanks must have come to the river
— it was quaking too hard beneath the hill.
At the same time an explosion thundered pretty
close — sand and dust showered upon the
heath and the trees, the Commander's cap and his
shoulders as well as the court's papers which the secretary had
failed to hide. The Commander shook off the
sand with a vivid motion and stood up.
are you ready there?
sir! — the major stood up quickly.
aboard! — ordered the
Commander and hurried himself to his
Willys. The court
members and the guard got up immediately after him and rushed from
the forest to the road.
remained after them was just the heather dusted with sand and two
thrown rifles with bayonets. Far away
through the young pine tree one could see something white —
may be the bandage on the bleeding head of the
unlucky battery commander. From the meadow
one would hear the concert of shooting, perhaps,
some sort of defense was being organized somehow.
Commander really brought discipline
— the German tanks did not pass there.
happen in the life things which
significance is revealed only after many years and is meditated upon
all the lifetime. Some other things at
first seem to be important, but soon lose
their importance; certain ones get this
importance in years. And there are some few
that are constant in their imperative significance. About
one such event I'd like to tell you, and, by the way, it's
been more than half a century since it took place.
happened during the last War in the winter of 1944 in
the hard battles with the German Army our division got into a
difficult situation, the German troops
executed a counter-attack, occupied some villages in the rear.
So, there was the danger of being surrounded,
which was one of the greatest dangers of
that war. My leg was wounded and I couldn't
walk. At night some of us, the wounded
ones, they tried to move away upon the outer plates of tanks,
but the way to the rear was blocked. In
a certain village all the wounded were taken from the tanks and
carried to houses. The tanks went further.
To make a breakthrough.
were left alone, without any protection,
in uncertain conditions.
from cold weather and pain I climbed
somehow on a shaky bed where somebody was already lying. My
hands felt something wet by my side, but I paid no attention to it
and fell asleep soon. It seemed just when I
fell asleep I woke up being moved by a sudden terror. It
was getting light outside, it was already morning, shots could be
heard from somewhere, even screaming, someone
ran away in panic by the window. I raised
my head and for the first time looked at the one I had spent the
night with. And even gave a start:
it was a German officer. But
he wasn't moving, his uniform overcoat
fringe was mucked with blood, he must have died at night before my
arrival. Nobody was there in the house,
all the wounded had run away. A
cart move was heard outside followed by tracer bullets bursts in the
air. From the other end of the village the
Germans were getting into it.
was dangerous to stay in the house I had to move away, but, however,
I couldn't go really far. Clinging to walls
and benches I limped to the lobby.
It was rather dark over there, in
one corner there were some cut planks of wood, in another one, right
by the entrance door there was a self-made wooden section, its height
being up to one's kneels, full of potatoes. I
got my pistol out of its holster and lied down on
the potatoes. Through a split in the door I
could see some of the yard and the gate of the house. The
street of the village was desert, far away at the end of the village
one could hear shootings, so our guys have sneaked away, — I
thought. Soon the Germans must come here.
the day was breaking and it was already a sunny frosty morning.
The sun rose over the roofs and its rays lit the
yard. I was lying with a pistol in my hand
and waiting. But what I was waiting for and
what I could feel reliance in? Perhaps,
my death? For hoping to
defend my life with just eight bullets was in vain. And
I got ready to die. I just was waiting,
in all, I didn't have to wait for very
long. Through the split I
saw a group of German soldiers running and shooting their rifles now
and again somewhere. Then
another group appeared. Those ones were
walking slower and were not shooting.
And just from that group one guy — a
tall soldier in a
short overcoat with a submachinegun on his
chest headed to the yard and went right to the door. I
cocked the hammer and pointed the pistol at
the door. The German was going quickly, his
eyes narrowed behind the glasses in a metallic rim. His
chin was covered with dark scrub, there was
a cold-weather cap on his head with its
peak over his forehead. He threw the door
open decisively with
his hand and looked into my face right from the sunlit yard.
My pistol was pointed to his chest, my finger was
resting on the trigger. Any moment I was
ready to shoot. But I didn't —
something kept me from shooting him. It
wasn't the feeling of danger, nor the natural instincts of
self-preservation — somewhere inside my
mind all my readiness had vanished. Again I
was waiting. The German had to grasp his
gun on his chest to shoot: but his right
hand was resting on the door latch. Nothing
changed in his look behind the glasses — neither
surprise, nor fear, and, may
be, that was the thing that kept me from
shooting. It seemed that being blinded by
the bright morning sun he was unable to see me and I lacked the
suicidal determination to pull the trigger. It
all took just a second then somebody shouted outside – perhaps, the
German was called. And, letting
go the latch of the door he turned his back to me and hurried after
his comrades. I gave the sigh of relief.
Of course, it was not
all over yet, but at least the first danger
had gone away.
the end of the village they were fighting a heavy battle, I
could see scattered groups of Germans appearing
and disappearing now and again, but they didn't come into the yard
any more. Then the Germans disappeared at
all, the village was taken by the Red Army soldiers. In
the afternoon I was sent to hospital.
the war years I told nobody about that anecdote: it
was dangerous to reveal things like that, — but
I couldn't help thinking of it. By all, it
was an unusual story: on meeting
each other armed soldiers of the warring
armies spared each other's life. No matter that
unwillingly. For If I'd shot the German
then, I'd have been definitely killed too. May
be, it was the Almighty God who gave us both a second life.
And, lo, I'm alive yet.