Vasil Bykov (1882-1969), a major Belorussian author who wrote both in Russian and Belorussian. In June 1941, as a 17-year-old boy, he abandoned his studies at the Vitebsk art college to volunteer for the frontlines of the Second World War which became the dominant theme of his writing in the subsequent decades. Amidst the flow of bombastic paeans to war heroism he was the first in Russian literature to look at the unheroic aspects of the war and to investigate the problem of moral choice and personal safety in the war.
In his later years Bykov turned to Russia’s post-revolutionary history, marked by the dispossession of well-to-do peasants (kulaks) and the Cheka’s ruthless repressions of innocent people when, moreover, victims and executioners often changed places.
Bykov was a prolific author and left an impressive number of works. But whatever his theme, Bykov invariably touches on the subject of betrayal. “Betrayal has always been a fascinating theme for literature and art,” says Bykov. It is well known that on Nazi-occupied territory the local police was recruited from voluntary collaborators among the local population. The history of the Civil War in Russia abounds in cases when children denounced their parents, and vice versa, to the Cheka, when close relatives were fighting on opposite sides, and when on the strength of neighbours’ or colleagues’ denunciations whole families were dispossessed and exiled to Siberia to die of cold, hunger and back-breaking toil.
Bykov has always been preoccupied with the problem of retaining humanity in inhuman conditions. Among his characters there is always one who, faced with a moral choice, prefers death to infamy.
English translations of Bykov's major works are mostly rather outdated and need retranslation or heavy editing:
The Third Rocket, (1961). Alpine Ballad (1963). Sotnikov, written in 1970 and translated into English in 1972. Live Until Dawn (1972). Pack of Wolves (1975). His Battalion (1975). The Dead Feel No Pain (1965) and Sign of Misfortune (1990). Also available in English translation: The Manunt (Glas: in The Scared Generation).
From Publishers Weekly:
This careful translation of Bykov's 1982 excellent, unrelentingly bleak drama serves to introduce Byelorussia's foremost living writer to the American public. Two elderly peasants, Stepanida and husband Petroc, eke out a living on an allotment carved from an estate in the eastern Soviet republic. Having survived the horrors of agricultural collectivization during the 1930s, which caused a near-famine in their village, they now face a new terror--Nazi occupation. The Germans, with the help of vindictive local polizei who bear a grudge against the garrulous Stepanida for her Communist activism prior to the war, requisition their farm. Bykov's descriptions of fluctuations of nature and Stepanida and Petroc's stoic endurance through years of suffering and deprivation are contrasted with the deliberate brutality of the Nazi occupiers. Even when the Germans are finally forced to retreat, the elderly couple's misfortunes do not end. Petroc, who, unlike his wife, is an optimist, tries his hand at making vodka to use as a bargaining chip. But the polizei's demands become insatiable, and when he is unwilling to meet them, events move quickly to a tragic end. Bykov's sturdy yet evocative prose conveys the strength of the Russian character during a grim period of history.
From Library Journal:
Bykov, Belorussia's foremost novelist, belongs to the contemporary school of rural Soviet prosaists. Concerned with preserving historical memory, he here brings to life the unbearable existence in the villages during Stalin's collectivization and the war with Germany. This highly artistic novel tells the story of a simple peasant couple in a series of vivid scenes, interwoven with depictions of the countryside and village life. Petroc and Stepanida endure endless humiliation and cruelty from the Nazis and the local polizei until life becomes impossible to endure. Through all this their kindness and sense of justice survive, and their humble lives show incredible resilience and strength of character. This is a timely and valuable contribution to the knowledge of the USSR, as well as a very moving novel. Highly recommended. – Ulla Sweedler, Univ. of California at San Diego Lib.