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Simon Lewis

simon lewis

Current Post / Principal Activity:

Simon is currently a postdoc at the University of Warsaw, where he is continuing to research Eastern European memory practices, now with an extended comparative focus on Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.

Research

Simon’s dissertation examines the intersection of identity, memory and nationhood in Belarus. With the topic of Belarusian identity as its consistent focus, it analyses in comparative and trans-national perspective the ways in which the past has been emplotted by competing discourses in the geographic territory now known as Belarus, from the nineteenth century to the post-Soviet present day. Belarus is a country where memory has been the object of power relations for several centuries. A Belarusian-language discourse about the past emerged from the shadows of Polish- and Russian-language conceptualizations of the territory and people of Belarus, and has had to compete with these dual hegemonies to the present day. Precisely for this reason, the analysis offered is comparative in nature: it juxtaposes externally-imposed stereotypes about Belarus with the counter-discourses articulated by Belarusian intellectuals and artists. I offer close readings of works about the people and history of Belarus that are written in Belarusian, Polish and Russian (and occasionally a mixture of languages), including prose fiction, poetry, cinema, historiography, drama, and popular music.

The dissertation employs a part-thematic, part-chronological division into three parts, with each part consisting of two chapters. The first two chapters examine the dominant colonial discourses about Belarus: Chapter One analyses nineteenth-century literary and scholarly explorations of the Belarusian folk that rendered Belarusians a peasant nation; and Chapter Two closely analyses Soviet histories, films and literature of the Second World War to show how Belarus was made into the ‘partisan republic’, an essentialist myth about the nation’s devotion to the Soviet Union. The two central chapters study two major Soviet-era Belarusian authors whose work forged an alternative space for Belarusian identity: Vasil’ Bykau (Chapter Three) and Uladzimir Karatkevich (Chapter Four). The authors’ oeuvres are thematically very different – Bykau wrote prose works about the Second World War, whereas Karatkevich pioneered the genre of historical fiction in Belarusian – but they share a common endeavour to imagine Belarus as a cosmopolitan land in which Belarusian identity shared an equal status alongside other modes of belonging. The final part of my dissertation examines post-Soviet developments in Belarusian culture: Chapter Five analyses the transformation of the trope of the ‘partisan republic’ in post-Soviet Belarusian culture; whilst Chapter Six offers close readings of two recent Belarusian novels which embrace a cosmopolitan form of mourning that transcends national boundaries. Both of these chapters examine narratives which subvert the aesthetic and mnemonic norms of the Soviet canon and seek to enact cultural renewal by re-imagining the past in original and creative ways.

The overall aims of the dissertation are: to contribute to the development of a theoretical language that understands the cultural history of eastern Europe in terms of colonial and postcolonial theory; to re-evaluate the Soviet literary canon by considering Belarusian authors and their specifically national motifs within a broader analytical framework; to provide insight into the development of cultural memory in the aftermath of the collapse of state socialism; and to interpret the literary and cultural tradition of a space that has a rich historical heritage of cultural diversity and linguistic polyphony.