Family traditions are a foundation of a state. This story is about the family dynasty that has continued for almost a century and a half thanks to strong traditions, creative work and joint guardianship of the literary legacy of Yakub Kolas, a world-renowned poet and writer. Yakub Kolas celebrated the Belarusian people, their patriotism and heroism, family values, the beauty of Belarusian nature, the charm of everyday life. Almost 140 years after his birth, the poet's great-granddaughter, the chief curator of the Yakub Kolas State Literary Memorial Museum Vasilina Mitskevich carefully preserves, together with the state and the family, his literary legacy for future generations. She raises her children on the examples of Yakub Kolas' characters, many of whom were copied off from their great-great-grandparents.
A series of reports under the general title “The Destiny of Women - the Destiny of the United Belarus” by Alina Grishkevich, a journalist, a member of the Board of the Belarusian Union of Women, is dedicated to the Year of People's Unity, the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the Great Patriotic War and the 30th anniversary of the Belarusian Union of Women. This piece is a story about Vasilina Mitskevich, unshakable family values of the already sixth generation of the Mitskeviches, little-known facts of the family history, unique exhibits and previously unknown archival finds.
The Women's Line Starts with the Poet's Mother
We know about Yakub Kolas' literary works from school and university. As much as his works are an example of national spiritual traditions, so his personal life is an inspiring example of strong family values.
The life of the Belarusian poet from the perspective of family continuity is a beautiful story lasting for six generations.
The rules in the poet's family dynasty were started by his mother - Anna Lyosik. Yakub Kolas (original name Konstantin Mitskevich) was born on 3 November 1882 in Akinchitsy, near the town of Stolbtsy, to the family of forester Mikhail Mitskevich, who was in the employ of Prince Radziwill, and Anna Lyosik, a housewife.
She gave birth to thirteen children, four of whom died in infancy. She was an ordinary woman with no education, but she was surprisingly wise and kind-hearted. The only surviving photo from that time shows us a confident woman, a proud Belarusian, the keeper of the family. She raised her son Konstantin a kind and determined man resilient in face of the difficulties which were many in his life.
It is noteworthy that the wife of the poet also was an unusually strong and wise woman. The muse and love of the poet Maria Kamenskaya played a huge role in his life. She took over the responsibility for the household, adapting the family life to the creative needs of the genius poet.
Now she is a role model for seven great-grandchildren and seven great-great-grandchildren, among whom are eight girls. This is a unique continuity of the family, with the stories about the life and love of the ancestors cherished for almost a century and a half.
At her 38, Vasilina Mitskevich, the great-granddaughter of Yakub Kolas, knows about Yakub Kolas probably more than many other relatives. This is not surprising, given that the woman is the chief curator of the Yakub Kolas State Literary Memorial Museum, a Ph.D. in Social Sciences.
Her daughters also have the surname of the great-great-grandfather. These are four-year-old Natalya and eight-year-old Yulia. According to tradition, all the girls in the family, descendants of Yakub Kolas, inherit the surname of the world-famous ancestor. Eight-year-old Yulia confidently recites poems of the famous great-great-grandfather in Belarusian. From very early age the children speak the Belarusian language, in which Yakub Kolas created his immortal works.
By the way, the family speaks mostly Belarusian. The family lives next door to the house where the poet once lived and which is now home to the Yakub Kolas museum.
The life mission of Vasilina Mitskevich is to preserve the literary legacy of her famous great-grandfathers - Yakub Kolas and Yanka Mavr. After all, both poets got bound by family ties thanks to the children who married in secret confusing their parents a bit.
She tells very interesting stories about her great-grandfather which she heard from her grandparents. Of course, many of them are narrated in the books that continue to be published by descendants of Yakub Kolas, including Vasilina Mitskevich, and that are kept in state archives. But there are still many stories that are passed by word of mouth.
The Muse and Love of the Poet
The fateful meeting of two teachers took place in Pinsk in 1912. Konstantin Mitskevich gave advanced training courses for teachers after graduating from the Nesvizh Teachers' Seminary. Maria Kamenskaya was an elementary school teacher at the Pinsk Railway School.
Konstantin gave classes for young teachers to improve their pedagogical skills. As the family recalls, the future poet immediately noticed a blue-eyed girl who blushed after catching his eye. There was a spark between them. After the class the young teacher approached the young girl and asked to walk her home.
They connected immediately: both grew up in ordinary families, worked hard from early years, both were educated, which was a rare thing at that time. They seemed to be made for each other - so similar were their views on life. Meetings, dates, poetic confessions - it was all so romantic, pure and beautiful. Life, like a river, flowed smoothly and beautifully. Back then Konstantin still could not imagine what a colossal role this fragile girl would play in his career, what an unshakable monolith and protector she would become in his difficult life. In the meantime, everything was easy and beautiful, which happens only when we are young.
Mary's Proposal, Which the Poet Could not Turn Down
However, whenever they conversed about plans for the future, the poet seemed to stop short of making the proposal that young girls wait with trepidation.
Probably, the modest and shy poet would keep reading his touching poetic confessions and taking walks with his beloved under blossoming apple trees never daring to propose. They dated for about a year…
Maria, seeing the obvious shyness and sincere feelings of the young man, which she shared with all her heart, once said: "Kastus, maybe we should stop dating. Let's get married."
Of course, Kastus could not turn down such an offer. He felt like a ton weight was lifted from his shoulders.
It is noteworthy that her entire life Maria was the one who ran the household and managed all domestic concerns letting her husband focus on creating works that she believed were imperishable.
Maria's unshakable belief in her husband was very insightful - even now, almost 140 years after the poet's birth (this date will be celebrated in 2022), more than one generation of Belarusian school and university students study the poems of Yakub Kolas. No one else could celebrate Belarus and its people like he did.
The heart of Yakub Kolas always belonged to the one and only Maria. His love for her was immortalized in his tender and lyrical poetry. An entire cycle of passionate youthful poems was dedicated to her. Unfortunately, the notebook with the poems was lost during numerous relocations, and these poems never saw the light of the day. Who knows, maybe one day they will pop up at international auctions…
However, we definitely know that 13 of the surviving poems were dedicated to Maria as well as an excerpt from the poem Fisherman's Hut. The principal characters in the story There, To the Neman! Were based on Yakub Kolas himself, his wife and their sons.
At some point Maria got a feeling that Yakub Kolas' love verses were inspired by some other woman and asked half-jokingly whom they were dedicated to. The poet dispelled her doubts and fears saying that the poetry was all about her, his beloved Marusechka, Marusenka.
Decades later, Yakub Kolas said that he had never cheated on his beautiful Maria, although there were many ladies who had their eyes on the stately and well-known young poet, and this fact gave rise to many speculations and rumors.
Behind Every Great Man There is a Great Woman
Yakub Kolas' relatives and friends remember Yakub Kolas and Maria as a very beautiful and harmonious couple, Vasilina Mitskevich said.
“They never raised their voices at each other, and contemporaries said that the great-grandfather would always look at his wife with admiration. My grandfather, the son of Yakub Kolas, called Maria Mitskevich an exemplary mother and wife, who was a great homemaker, a loving wife and companion for her husband. She is a role model for us. Therefore, we do not only cherish the literary legacy of our great ancestor, but we also strive to preserve and pass on our family traditions to our children. My family taught me this when I was a child and I really appreciate it. Now I teach my daughters this simple everyday wisdom,” the poet's great-granddaughter said.
“Behind every great man there is a great woman - this statement speaks for itself. They understood each other without words, there were strong invisible bonds between them till the end of their lives,” Vasilina Mitskevich continued.
By the way, while giving a toast at the silver wedding anniversary celebrations of Yakub Kolas and his wife, their middle son Yurka (he died in the first days of the Great Patriotic War and his grave has not been found yet) thanked his parents for never having a row. Indeed, all the three sons had a calm and happy childhood.
Woman Calls the Shots
Yet, Maria was not a meek woman. Quite the opposite, the wife of Yakub Kolas was tough on her children and did not allow misbehavior, especially when the father was working or relaxing. Reminiscences of one of the sons are very indicative. Once he was detained by the police who thought he could steal someone's wallet. The child spent three hours in the police station not daring to call home to sort things out, because the father was having a rest at that time!
Thus, this quiet and soft-spoken woman established a truly matriarchal order at home. Children knew their place in the family, their task was to study well and to grow up into honest and decent adults. Such family rules passed on to the children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and now the great-great-grandchildren of Yakub Kolas. His family values deserve utmost respect.
A Wife Sent From Above
The great-granddaughter reveals more details about the family of her famous ancestor: “Kolas' sister recalls in her memoirs that if not for such a wife, Yakub Kolas would not have risen to such a prominence. Maria was his first listener and reader, counselor and critic. Here is an interesting example: when the second edition of Symon Muzyka was being published, she helped him recall the verses (the manuscript was in a suitcase stolen on the train), because she remembered a lot by heart. He was really lucky with his wife. Yanka Kupala liked her too. When he came, the hostess prepared jellied fish head, jellied side pork and other dishes he fancied.”
All her life Maria Mitskevich was Yakub Kolas' guardian angel. In his diaries, the poet described his dreams, in which he saw her as his defender. And when she passed away in 1945, he wrote: “I feel as if my right arm was cut off and half of my soul was taken away. She was one in a million. She was the only one for me.”
While Yakub Kolas was a literary genius who wrote many remarkable and imperishable works, his wife was a brilliant homemaker; she turned her home into a retreat where family members felt relaxed and nurtured; she was a wise woman, a perfect housekeeper, easy-going and considerate, cordial, kind, patient and thoughtful. She sought to completely free her husband from day-to-day concerns. She handled everyday routine with an ease and did not think of it as of a burden.
Yakub Kolas and his wife loved hosting friends in their home. Friends would linger in the kitchen enjoying simple, but very generous and tasty food Maria would cook. Her signature dishes like soups and meat rolls were very popular among the poet's friends.
Minister of Mushroom Hunting
Mushroom dishes had a special place among these treats. Mushrooms were picked by Yakub Kolas himself. He knew places abundant in mushrooms not only in his native Akinchitsy, but also in Talka, his countryside retreat where he even wanted to build a house. When he visited his friends Maksim Tank and Mikhas Lynkov on Naroch Lake, he did not miss an opportunity to go mushroom picking there.
He was so good at it that he could find mushrooms in the most non-mushroom places. His record was 500 boletus mushrooms gathered in one day. It was not for nothing that he jokingly called himself a minister of mushroom hunting.
He sent mushrooms as a gift to many friends, for example, dried boletus mushrooms to translator Sergei Gorodetsky.
“After that, my grandfather, that is Kolas' son, taught us, children, responsible and sustainable mushroom picking. He told us that mushrooms should be carefully cut off so as not to damage the delicate mycelium below, and the exposed mycelium should be covered to prevent it from drying out, otherwise it could impair future harvests. These seemingly simple things convey love and respect for nature,” the poet's great-granddaughter said. In our family, the love for mushrooms has passed down through the generations. My grandfather always had his special pickled pepper-mushrooms on New Year's Eve celebrations. He would also make very tasty mushroom gravy. He used to be a very good cook. Pancakes with fried sausages and ribs were his signature dish,” the poet's great-granddaughter said.
“When Kolas went mushrooming while on holiday in Pukhovichi District, he used to bring all kinds of twisted tree branches from the forest that looked like Baba-Yaga or other fairy tale characters to entertain his children and village kids. My grandfather took this habit over. He used to notice and draw children's attention to various unusual things in the forest. This both entertained the children and nurtured their creative thinking. The passion for quiet hunt has passed on to the current generations of the Mitskevich family. We love summer and autumn mushroom hunting,” Vasilina Mitskevich said.
Kindness and Benevolence
The Kolas family were well-known for their kindness and benevolence. For example, he and his wife brought to Minsk a young girl Olga Prachuk from Kursk where they stayed after the First World War. They helped her get education and settle down. Kolas' wife had always dreamed of having a daughter and treated the girl with great love.
One more child, Yurka Lyosik, lived with the Kolas family for more than a year during the Stalinist repressions. He was the son of Belarusian linguist Yazep Lyosik, an “enemy of the people”, who was Yakub Kolas' uncle on his mother's side. Kolas was not afraid of bringing the boy to his home, although such a move was fraught with grave consequences for his family. During the terrible 1930s it was very risky to give shelter to the son of an “enemy of the people”. One had to have great courage and love for people to make such a decision. The decision also showed the unity of the Kolas family in helping the young man to get back on his feet, support him, even at the risk to their lives.
Charity Work of the Kolas Family
The Kolas family were widely known for their great charity work.
“The poet's personal archive, which has some 6,000 items, keeps numerous letters from people asking for help. He helped many people. He was a good psychologist and understood that if people sought his help, he should do something to meet them halfway. For example, there is a letter from a peasant woman who writes that she has lost her cow, the breadwinner for the family. Those were the hungry times, and he helped buy the woman's family a cow. In another letter, the boy writes that he wants to play the accordion, but his parents cannot afford it. The poet helped make the boy's dream come true. Someone has a leaky roof, someone has no money for medicine – Kolas responded to such simple requests and helped many. He didn't expect that the money would be returned. In such cases, he used to say: “You'll give it back when I am poor,” his great-granddaughter said. “There are also a great number of memories from the students he supported. Some did not have enough money to buy food, books, or to visit their parents. According to the receipts that survived to this day, Kolas transferred money to complete strangers, to various cities and villages. The poet also helped the orphanages in Brest, Minsk and Chausy. He supported them both financially and morally. He understood that those kids needed care and attention, and he corresponded with them. They used to visit him, and he would mentor and give them advice. There is an album full of photos, which they presented to him,” she said.
In the 1920s he donated his first fee from the poem Simon the Musician, dedicated to young people, to the orphanage, although the poet's family could use this money too. Those were hard years for everyone.
“Kolas, like his wife, was very sensitive and responsive. Numerous memories of him testify to the fact. On his way home from work, he would give sweets to the children, or, seeing their worn-out ball, would give them a new one. He was responsive to other people's problems. His way of life is an illustrative example. He did not turn up nose once he became famous. He always remembered his poor childhood. This is a good example for us. Even more people began asking him for help when he became a member of the Supreme Council of the BSSR and the USSR, vice president of the Academy of Sciences. The requests ranged from street lighting to housing. People asked him to help find a place in hospital, or to get employed. It is surprising how he had time to do all those things,” his great-granddaughter said.
The memory of his good deeds lives on in the generations on other continents. In winter 2021, the Kolas family received a letter from Yana Viltovskaya from Toronto, whose parents lived next door to the Mitskeviches at 3 Voiskovy Street before the war. The Canadian resident knows from the stories of her mother about the wonderful family of Yakub Kolas. When Yana's father went to the front on the second day of the war, and her mother was left home with her 2-and 7-year old children, kind-hearted Maria Mitskevich offered her to evacuate together.
Not wanting to be a burden the neighbor declined the offer. They said a heartfelt goodbye to each other and parted. It was 24 June, the third day of the war. Yana's mother and her children went out to visit friends and when she came back, she saw neither her house nor Yakub Kolas' house: a huge crater from an exploded bomb gaped in their place. The woman had nothing left, but she was happy that she was alive and that her neighbors had left in time. It was just the beginning of the war.
Collections of More Than 2,000 Manuscripts
Vasilina Mitskevich, the chief curator of the Yakub Kolas State Literary Memorial Museum, loves her job.
She says: “It is a very responsible job. About 37,000 museum exhibits are kept here. The holdings are huge, and they are divided into collections. The most important collection for us is the poet's manuscripts. For example, it contains the poet's rare works of the late 19th century - early 20th century. The collection boasts 2,122 autographs. The most valuable thing that the poet left for us is his works. We carefully preserve the handwritten New Land, Simon the Musician, Fisherman's Hut, the draft versions of the trilogy At the Crossroads, the poet's letters. The 20-volume collection of Yakub Kolas' works also features the great work of researchers, who reviewed each manuscript, analyzed it, gave comments, and reflected what changes were made in various editions. The poet treated the manuscripts with reverence. He was a teacher and understood that they must be in perfect order. Keeping them in order became easier in the 1950s thanks to his assistants, including Belarusian poet Maksim Luzhanin, who was good at typing.”
The main task of the chief curator is to preserve, systematize all the collections, and search for new documents related to the life and work of the Belarusian poet.
“Yakub Kolas had a calligraphic handwriting, which can be clearly seen in the manuscripts,” said his great-granddaughter. “Nowadays, children and students don't write like that. When I hold the poet's autographs in my hands, I realize that my great-grandfather wrote them more than a hundred years ago, with his own hands, and of course, I always feel excited. The poet also paid a lot of attention to collecting folklore. A large number of the poet's letters to his friends-writers, relatives, in which one can see the sincerity and depth of his soul and genuine interest, survived to the present day. Reading Kolas' letters is like hearing his voice, understanding his feelings, learning about his dreams. It is like a conversation through the ages - about health, weather, plans, forecasts, achievements and failures,” she added.
Letters to Yanka Kupala's Spouse
Vasilina Mitskevich finds it amazing how Yakub Kolas managed to devote so much time to writing letters and communicating with people. “There have preserved correspondence (four letters) between Yakub Kolas and Yanka Kupala's wife Vladislava Lutsevich. The letters show how much he cared about other people. Yakub Kolas wrote to Vladislava Lutsevich from Tashkent, trying to support his friend's wife after Yanka Kupala's death and sharing his own feelings about his loss. “Life feels so empty without him,” he wrote.
In another letter, he congratulated Vladislava Lutsevich on her 60th anniversary in a playful manner, wishing as many years ahead.
By the way, just as the two poets were friends, the museums dedicated to Yakub Kolas and Yanka Kupala also maintain friendly relations.
“The relationship between Yakub Kolas and Yanka Kupala is the only example in the literature of all Slavic nations of two writers, two classics, two national symbols walking through life together, being close friends. We uphold these traditions,” Vasilina Mitskevich said.
The museum also holds Yakub Kolas' letters to writers Petrus Brovka, Mikhas Lynkov, Piotr Glebka, Yanka Mavr, and the families of Maksim Goretsky and Gavriil Goretsky (that have been friends with the Mitskevich family for four generations).
The museum has seven very touching letters to Ragneda Grishkevich – a fledgling poet and elementary school student, the daughter of publicist and translator Frantishek Grishkevich. Yakub Kolas gave her an advice on wirting. “Feel free to write to me, I believe that you can become an outstanding poet,” he wrote in his letter to the girl. No one knows whether she followed his advice, but his respect for her art and writing attempts is admirable.
According to researchers of Yakub Kolas' life and work, he was very attentive to young poets. He never criticized them, gave only positive feedback, recommended reading more and studying their topics deeper. He always remained a true teacher.
Yakub Kolas' Meticulousness
Vasilina Mitskevich inherited Yakub Kolas' meticulousness and hard-working style.
“When you work with manuscripts and letters, you understand how hard-working Yakub Kolas was. In the post-war years, literature was not his main line of work. He was a member of numerous commissions, including commissions on state literature awards, the vice president of the Academy of Sciences, and a member of the Supreme Councils of the BSSR and the USSR. It was a lot of positions and a lot of responsibilities,” she noted. “In the last letter to his friend, translator Yevgeny Mozolkov, Yakub Kolas wrote: ‘I am a writer only by 50%, and you-know-who by the rest.' Public activities and various meetings consumed a lot of his time. He liked to share his emotions and describe his feelings, impressions, and everyday life in his letters. When I read them, I understand the high spiritual values that were important to the poet. Yakub Kolas wrote about his health, plans, translations, he did not hesitate to describe his thoughts or failures. I believe that that we should pass those letters on to our grandchildren and great grandchildren, because this is a true dialogue between generations,” Vasilina Mitskevich added.
Yakub Kolas' letters make up three books of the 20-book collection of his writing: 400 pages of letters that demonstrate how attentive he was to people and their feelings.
Family Continues Research
The family of the poet carry out a lot of research and publish their results. Work is currently underway to prepare a book of works by Yakub Kolas' younger brother Mikhail Mitskevich (who wrote under the penname Antos Galina) and his translation of Gospel into the Belarusian language.
Yakub Kolas' descendants are working on many books dedicated to the poet and his family. For example, Mikhail Mitskevich and famous Belarusian poet Nikolai Metlitsky wrote the book about the poet's son Yury who died in September 1941. The book saw the light of day at the Zvyazda publishing house in 2013.
Another book written by Yakub Kolas' family tells about the relations and lives of Yakub Kolas and Yanka Mavr. It was written by Natalya Mitskevich, Yanka Mavr's daughter and Yakub Kolas' daughter-in-law.
Many such editions became must-read books for researchers of Yakub Kolas' life and work, for example, Danila Mitskevich's (Yakub Kolas' eldest son) book “To Love and Remember” and Mikhail Mitskevich's (Yakub Kolas' youngest son) “Under Parents' Roof”.
Vasilina Mitskevich is also actively involved in research. The meticulousness she inherited from her great-grandfather helps her study and preserve his legacy. According to Vasilina Mitskevich, she does not know everything about Yakub Kolas. She is sure that there is still a lot to explore and discover.
In 2020, she found Yakub Kolas' previously unknown autographs to Mikhail Sholokhov and Aleksandr Tvardovsky. We can only imagine how much remains unknown…
“We are also working on translating Yakub Kolas' books into the English language,” she said. “There was a wonderful translator and poet, Vera Rich, who translated works by Yakub Kolas, Yanka Kupala, and Maksim Bogdanovich. By the way, she once came to Minsk and stayed at our place. A collection of poetry translated by her into English saw the light of day last year. It included some works by Yakub Kolas. She intended to translate ‘A New Land' and ‘Simon the Musician' into English, but passed away before she could do it. In her translations, Vera Rich managed to convey not only the meaning, but also the rhythm of ‘A New Land', which is extremely difficult,” Vasilina Mitskevich explained.
Yakub Kolas' family carry out research, find new unique pages of his biography and work that are an inexhaustible source of spirituality and endless love for the Belarusian land.
The Bright Star of Yakub Kolas
The year of 2021 marks the 130th anniversary since the birth of Maria Mitskevich. To celebrate this occasion, her descendants prepared a book dedicated to her. The book was compiled by Vera Mitskevich and Vasilina Mitskevich, Yakub Kolas' granddaughter and great granddaughter. Vasilina worked with the museum's materials and her aunt Vera looked through the family archives. The working title of the book is “The Bright Star of Yakub Kolas”. It is expected to be published by the Mastatskaya Litaratura publishing house. “In my opinion, the book is interesting. We compiled all information about Yakub Kolas' wife: her family tree, memories of her eldest and youngest sons, and previously unpublished letters to Yanka Kupala's wife, who was her friend, and to Yakub Kolas' sisters,” Vasilina Mitskevich said.
According to Petrus Brovka, whose memories were included in the book, Maria Mitskevich was Yakub Kolas' true life partner. “Theirs was a house of a hardworking and kind family that embodied the best traits of their nation,” he wrote.
Zair Azgur recalled: “Here is the house encompassed by a huge apple tree orchard. Yakub Kolas lives here… We saw a woman of amazing beauty. The depth of her eyes, a special sense of kindness and heartiness reminded me of the Virgin Mary. It was Yakub Kolas' wife Maria Dmitriyevna. She was very welcoming and had a remarkable deep voice. She invited us to take a seat and grab a snack. Snacks and tea were served to us… I immediately felt some special atmosphere, some special family climate of this house… This woman had a face of someone, whose words and deeds are not forced. Attractively easygoing… I was once looking at her, watching her graciously and with some special air of a hostess handling things at the table, when a thought came to me. Understanding the significance and the role of her husband in the Belarusian culture, she cannot think that someone undeserving of respect can cross the threshold of his home… Maria Dmitriyevna was truly gifted. Such persons easily assume the mantle of the genius' companion. The poet's muse, to put it in grand terms. Maria Dmitriyevna was routinely lively even when times were not really cheerful. She was frugal and generous, modest and uncompromising in her convictions, sensitive to the guest's mood and unobtrusive in conversation. She did wonders in the kitchen, frying, boiling, mixing, pouring, and salting things. The smell of rich food would promise a good dinner or supper to us. The rooms were quiet… Watching Konstantin Mikhailovich [Mitskevich] as a painter, a sculptor, who is destined to portray this man, I sometimes noticed… To be exact, I saw his glance towards his wife. I cannot say his were the eyes of a young man feeling a passion for a girl. However, his eyes showed something unusually caring. Sometimes it seemed to me that a person, who believes that Virgin Mary is the mother of God, would look at a woman like that… I am confident that Maria Dmitriyevna felt Konstantin Mitskevich's great mission surprising early. They became friends and lovers when his poetic name already was as famous as Yanka Kupala's… No, she never showed that she knew and appreciated the standing of her husband, his social calling, and respect for him. It was not obvious. Only the look in her smart and sensitive eyes. Only this quiet but confident voice. This pleasant and open smile… An intelligent woman with rich spiritual inner world. Without prejudices and haughtiness. A radiant soul… Maria Dmitriyevna Kamenskaya-Mitskevich… The keeper of Yakub Kolas' home.”
Here is what Yakub Kolas' youngest son recalled about the mother, who in his words was the strictest person in the family: “She was schooled by a rough but just mother superior to carry throughout her life the Christian values: honesty, justice, humanity. Mother kept an eye on our studies, our behavior, and one can say ruled our family with an iron fist. The house had to be completely quiet when father was working and particularly when he was resting.”
To School Across a Square Named After the Great Grandfather
Vasilina Mitskevich said: “Since I was a little girl, I have known that Yakub Kolas is a Belarusian writer and my great grandfather. I came to recognize this fact some time in primary school. By the way, I went across Yakub Kolas Square to my school. Every time I would say hello to him. I was very proud of it. It is a great honor for me to be related to such a person of such importance for the country. As I grew older, the feeling grew stronger that I had to study well, know a lot, achieve something, and continue his traditions. My classmates could not even guess I was related to the poet. Moreover, my grandmother and grandfather always told me I should not boast, I should be modest, I should respect other people. From what I can recall, grandfather taught me to never put myself forward, taught me to quietly be proud of my lineage. I was never the first one to say that I am a great granddaughter of Yakub Kolas. I inherited these simple commandments from Kolas' son, my grandfather. In turn, I taught it to my little daughters. Yakub Kolas was a modest man and he taught kids the same way. It went through the generations. In school I and my twin brother Vasily had a different last name – Fedchenko – after my father. I participated in various school conferences and national conferences. I wrote essays about the great grandfather's art. My desire to pass on to others what the great poet looked like, what his ideals were grew gradually stronger.”
Women Inherit the Last Name Mitskevich in the Family
About 17 people, who are related to Yakub Kolas, bear the last name of Mitskevich.
Vasilina Mitskevich recalled: “When I finished the tenth grade, I changed my last name to Mitskevich. The father didn't argue against it because two sons had his last name. By the way, I couldn't change my last name with the first application. My grandfather had to write the second application that we brought to the civil registry office. I remember well what he wrote: ‘My granddaughter is an heiress of Yakub Kolas and I want her last name to be Mitskevich.' After that the request to change my last name was fulfilled.”
When Vasilina was getting married, she warned her husband-to-be that she would retain her great grandfather's last name. And if daughters were born, they would also inherit the last name. If sons were born, they would carry the husband's last name.
The husband proposed to Vasilina one month after they became acquainted. She was not ready for it and suggested they should get to know each other better. She remembered the great grandfather's commandments about a strong and close-knit family. This family is like an example of family life for all the generations of the Mitskevichs.
“So, we took two years to get to know each other better. We did in the end. Because a family has to be a team. Family members have to understand each other. There is no time to waste on finding out who is in charge. It is another trait that we pass on from generation to generation – we don't have to find out which family member is more important, we have to help and support each other,” Vasilina Mitskevich says.
Teachers in Every Generation
Yakub Kolas and his wife were teachers. He taught the Belarusian language in a primary school and a vocational school. He worked as a professor in the Belarusian State University in 1923-1926. One way or another every consequent generation of the Mitskevichs had teachers or university professors although they were not philologists by training except for Yakub Kolas' grandson, his full namesake – Konstantin Mikhailovich Mitskevich, a professor of the Belarusian language at the Belarusian National Technical University (BNTU).
Vasilina Mitskevich recalled: “I graduated from the Philosophy and Social Sciences Department of the Belarusian State University and spent some time teaching. One can say I followed in the great grandfather's footsteps.”
From Yakub Kolas she inherited a calm and judicious character. But she inherited wavy locks from another great grandfather Yanka Mavr.
The Dream to Become a Famous Poetess
The nearly 50 years of history of one Belarusian family, the family of a national hero is full of creative work, continuity of family traditions and spiritual values of the Belarusian people.
Natalya, a four-year-old great great granddaughter of Yakub Kolas, dreams of becoming a cosmonaut, a ballet dancer, and a poetess at the same time. However, the little girl is confident that she is destined to become famous just like her great-great grandfather, whose fairytales help her have sweet dreams about the peaceful and great future in the native country of Belarus.
By Alina Grishkevich,
Photos courtesy of the Mitskevich family,