Inside Belarus’ hidden library

How Belarusian exiles took shelter in North Finchley, and founded the Francis Skaryna Library and Museum
By Bella Saltiel

A Belarusian book from the library's archive (Credit: Bella Saltiel)
A Belarusian book from the library’s archive (Credit: Bella Saltiel)

In October 2021, Belarusian immigrants paid respect to 100 Belarusian poets and intellectuals who were executed by Soviet soldiers in the same month in 1937. They gathered at the Francis Skaryna Belarusian Library and Museum, located on a suburban street in North Finchley. Together, they read the poets’ words aloud and then read the poetry of political prisoners who were jailed during the 2020 uprisings.

“It is history repeating itself ”, Dr Karalina Matskevich told me recently. Karalina is a theologian who is on the board of trustees for the library. “If you are on your own in your home, just reading the poems is difficult. You need to express it somehow. Otherwise, the despair and grief are overwhelming.” 

Karalina’s desire to draw links between the past and the present is not surprising. On any normal day, she might spend hours turning the pages of dusty books and occasionally find messages scribbled in the margins. Opening a small book, she shows me the handwriting on the inner cover, “I love this”, she says. Books wash up at the library’s door, battered after a journey across a continent. Some travelled with Belarusians fleeing the Iron Curtain in 1945. In an effort to preserve a history that would otherwise have been swallowed up by the homogenising force of Soviet communism, these books were stowed away with refugees as they made their way to Western Europe. 

The library grew out of the Belarusian Catholic Mission founded in London in 1947. Community donations were used to buy Marian House on Holden Avenue and set up a library devoted to the country’s history. Pavel Shevtsov, a lawyer by day who is also on the board of trustees, said there was no particular connection to Finchley before then. 

Father Česlaus Sipovič, a Bishop of the Belarusian Church, was the first to deposit his collection of rare books at Marian House. As the years went on the collection bloomed. In 1971 Father Alexander Nadson was appointed custodian of the library and he spent the following years travelling across Europe to auction houses, bidding for rare manuscripts. One summer in Monaco, he used his proficiency in different languages to confuse the opposition, securing a sought after text in the process. 

A return to Soviet times 

Ever since Alexsandar Lukashenko’s security officials used rubber bullets to crack down on citizens protesting a rigged election, the library’s task to preserve Belarusian identity has taken on a new, and altogether more urgent, meaning. 

I first visited the centre at the end of November, just as Lukashenko’s government was sending hopeful asylum seekers from the Middle East to wait at the Polish border in the freezing winter snow. Pavel says the dictator is using the migrants to distract from his crimes in the country. During the 2020 political uprising, 30,000 demonstrators were detained and 4,000 alleged they had been tortured by the authorities. According to Human Rights Watch, at least three protesters died as a result of police violence. 

“He was raised in Soviet times,” Pavel says. His latest impositions are just another way of returning to, what perhaps seems to him, a simpler moment in history. 

Lukashenko has been president of Belarus since 1994. He grew up in what was then the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic, living in a small village where he was taunted by rumours that his absent father was of Roma descent. He served in the military and began his political career just as Belarus became independent in 1991. His government has retained power over industry, warped election results and, in an effort to maintain a close relationship with Russia, given the Russian language the same status as Belarusian. In the process, an independent national identity has been destroyed. 

For Pavel and Karalina the Belarusian language was a portal. Karalina remembers sitting with her father in their kitchen in Minsk, all of the phones were switched off and he whispered, “our language is disappearing.” After that, “I felt that I will speak that language,” she says, “I will not disappear.” So she started to speak Belarusian in Minsk, even though so many people couldn’t understand what she was doing. “It was like, only villagers, only old babushkas speak Belarusian. Why would the young students speak that language?” 

“We were really Gorbachev’s children,” Pavel says. They both came of age in that small liberal window in the 1980s when Gorbachev Perestroika “started allowing people to express their political views”. With their newly found Belarusian identity, they felt emboldened. 

Pavel arrived in London in the late 1980s to study law. Karalina came to study a few years later. Both had intended to return to Belarus “to use use the knowledge but it wasn’t possible.” Soon after Karalina arrived in London, Lukashenko came to power and “just things started changing so drastically.” Pavel now lives within driving distance of the library with his family and Karalina commutes from South London. 

In Belarus, it wasn’t long before dissent was crushed under authoritarianism. Lukashenko ensures his longevity, in part, by controlling the cultural narrative. The Russification was singular and suppressing, preventing Belarusians from connecting to pre- Soviet history. Pavel says, “Lukashenko is basically a successor of the KGB with the same values as them.” 

It makes the library and collection of artefacts act as a political statement “in as much as Belarusian identity, but also culture is politicised,” says Karalina, “just speaking the Belarusian language you are already expressing something.” 

So much of Belarus’ history was distorted under Soviet rule. Karalina points to the Vilnius Region, shared with Lithuania, where Eastern and Western travellers met. A rich culture formed. We examine the browned pages of an ancient Quran written by Tatars. There’s a Hebrew Bible, written and illustrated in Belarusian and, from a much later date, a German dictionary translated into Polish, Yiddish, Belarusian, Lithuanian and Russian. There are also small objects made of bone, fashioned by clergymen who were banished to labour camps in Siberia. 

Before Luchashenko showed his true colours, there was talk of sending some of the collection back to Belarus. But, London is safer for the books. It was easy to imagine Belarusian history locked in the same vaults that store the KGB’s archive. 

Hiding history from view has stunted a transformative justice process, particularly, for the victims of Stalinist repression. From 1937 to 1940 some 30,000 Belarusians were killed and buried in mass graves at Kurapaty, a forest outside of Minsk. The government does not commemorate the victims and in 2019 Belarus officials used bulldozers to demolish 70 crosses at the site of the executions. The same is true for those who were lost to the hostile wilderness of Siberia. Their ancestors and surviving family members will have been forced to write their own piecemeal history. 

This state-lead silence acts as a barrier, forcing people to make their own pilgrimages. Some have ended up at the Francis Skaryna Library. Either they want to donate artefacts that have been passed down through their families – a Gulag uniform was saved for decades until a man turned up and entrusted it to the museum – or, to track down family trees and personal documents. 

One day, an American arrived from a military base in Peterborough. Karalina explains how “his grandad was a Belarusian Jew. He moved to America, married an Irish woman who hated the Jewish identity of her husband and never allowed him to sing his songs in Yiddish. It meant he would go to the cellar to sing. So, the Jewish identity was very much suppressed in the family.

“The man arrived at the Library full of questions about his grandad’s hometown in Belarus, “Where is it? What were the people like there? I want to know his life. My grandad’s life.” It’s very touching,” she says. 

For Belarusian people who have settled in London, the library acts as an anchor, offering shape to a community who are now reliving many of the same traumas their grandparents survived. Perhaps, because the brutality of Lukashenko’s regime has been forced to the surface, a new wave of immigrants have started calling themselves “the new Belarusians”, learning the language just as Karalina and Pavel did when they were young. 

The Belarusian church 

Just opposite the library, there’s another house providing lodgings for priests. In its garden is a small church, built out of timber in traditional Belarusian style. Framed by white birches, the church seems out of place on this quiet residential street. It was named the Holy Hierarch Cyril of Turau and All the Patron Saints of the Belarusian People and built in 2016 to mark the victims of the Chernobyl disaster. Today, it is still used for services each Sunday, as well as to host cultural events. 

The bare planks of wood appear bent and jagged as if the form has been smudged out. Pavel says these fluid lines mirror the ephemeral nature of a culture that is in danger of extinction. Many of Belarus’ simple wooden churches have been replaced, or the domes, once plain, now shine thick with golden paint in the Russian Orthodox style. After touring the Belarusian countryside, the architect chose to replicate the ways the unused buildings had begun to rot. More recently, the Holy Hierarch Cyril of Turau church has taken on the shape of the landscape around it, growing thick with moss. 

Inside the wood is clean. Standing motionless in the cool quiet interior, I look up to the domed ceiling where a single bell hangs down. 

“Maybe you can ring it and I can take a photo?” I ask. Pavel takes the cord, smiling joyfully. I smile too, as the shrill sound fills the space. 

To visit the library, head to 7 Holden Road, London, N12 8HS 

For more information, Visit Skaryna.org.uk, call 020 3088 4729 or email [email protected]

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