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Culture & People


Belarusian literature began with 11th- to 13th-century religious writing; the work of 12th-century poet Kiryla Turauski is representative. Rhyming was common in these works, which were generally written in Old Belarusian, Latin, Polish or Church-Slavic. By the 16th century, Polatsk resident Francysk Skaryna translated the Bible into Belarusian. It was published in Prague and Vilnius between 1517 and 1525, making it the first book printed in Belarus or anywhere in Eastern Europe.

The modern period of Belarusian literature began in the late 19th century; one important writer was Yanka Kupala. Many of the writers at the time, such as Uładzimir Žyłka, Kazimir Svayak, Yakub Kolas, Źmitrok Biadula and Maksim Haretski, wrote for a Belarusian language paper called Nasha Niva, published in Vilnius. After (Eastern) Belarus was incorporated into the Soviet Union, the government took control of Belarusian culture, and until 1939 free development of literature occurred only in the territories incorporated into Poland (Western Belarus). Several poets and authors went into exile after the Nazi occupation of Belarus, not to return until the 1960s.

In post-war literature, the central topic was World War II (known in Belarus as the Great Patriotic War), that had particularly left particularly deep wounds in Belarus (Vasil Bykaŭ, Ales Adamovich etc); the pre-war era was also often depicted (Ivan Melezh). A major revival of the Belarusian literature occurred in the 1960s with novels published by Vasil Bykaŭ and Uładzimir Karatkievič.

Visual Arts

Painting first developed in Belarus in the 11th and 12fth centuries, under influence of Byzantine art. Few works of that period remain, but fresco paintings like those in the Polotsk Sofia Cathedral have been preserved. In the 16th century, a fresco painting school was formed in Belarus. Works from the 16th through 19th centuries were stylistically connected with the painting of Poland and Western Europe; portraiture was popular.

The Vitebsk School played a major role in developing the Belarusian national art in the early 20th century. The best internationally known member of the school was Marc Chagall, who was born near Vitebsk. He emigrated in 1922 and subsequently lived in France, Mexico, and the United States. Often his works depict scenes of his native Vitebsk, and Jewish life in a Belarusian town.

After the October Revolution of 1917, Socialist Realism became popular, with emphasis on historical and domestic subjects. Beginning in the 1940s, artists focused on battle scenes, particularly of the Great Patriotic War. In the 1980s and 1990s, Belarusian painting followed western trends and addressed intellectual and philosophical topics, relying on symbolic meanings and metaphors.

Since the 1980s, decorative and applied arts have been revived. Ceramics, glass, batik, and especially tapestry are popular. Folk art, like weaving from straw, is gaining prominence as well.

Performing Arts

Belarusian theatre began gaining popularity in the early 1900s. One of Belarus's most famous plays, Paulinka (written by Yanka Koupala), was performed in Siberia for the Belarusians who were being sent to the region. Documentation of Belarusian folk music stretches back to at least the 15th century. Prior to that, skomorokhs were the major profession for musicians. A neumatic chant, called znamenny, from the word 'znamia', meaning sign or neume, was used until 16th century in Orthodox church music, followed by two hundreds of stylistic innovation that drew on the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation. In the 17th century, Partesnoe penie, part singing, became common for choruses, followed by private theatres established in cities like Minsk and Vitebsk. Popular music groups that came from Belarus include Pesniary, Dreamlin and NRM. Currently, there are 27 professional theatre groups touring in Belarus, 70 orchestras, and 15 agencies that focus on promoting concerts.

In 2005, playwrights Nikolai Khalezin and Natalya Kolyada founded the Belarus Free Theatre, an underground theatre project dedicated to resisting Belarussian government pressure and censorship. The group performs in private apartments and at least one such performance was broken up by special forces of the Belarusian police. The Belarus Free Theatre has attracted the support of notable Western writers such as Tom Stoppard, Edward Bond, Václav Havel, Arthur Kopit and Harold Pinter.

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