Arnold McMillin: “When Belarusians came, they started with the library”

Prof. Arnold McMillin is dearly loved for his enormous contribution to studying and popularising Belarusian literature, for supporting the Belarusian community in Britain and Belarusian Studies as an academic field; as well as for his warm character and ingenious humour. Despite the fact that Prof. McMillin has been interviewed on dozens of occasions, in Belarus and other countries, we felt that one particular topic has always been overlooked in those conversations: his relationship with the Francis Skaryna Belarusian Library and Museum. In the following interview we have attempted to fill that gap.

Prof Arnold McMillin
Photo by Alexandra Belookaya

How did you find the Belarusians, or did the Belarusians find you?

The Belarusians were smart: they discovered that I had just begun researching my doctorate on the Belarusian literary vocabulary. They sent Guy Picarda to see what kind of птица I was. We met in Belsize Park and he said: “An important thing, Arnold, is the wine”. So, we went to a pub and had a few drinks. He must have reported back that I wasn’t a raving lunatic. Then I visited the Library which, at that time, was in Marian House. The librarian was Fr Haroška, a rather fierce man, but he truly helped me a lot – I needed texts of the 19th century for my research. The priests who lived in Marian House were very kind and learned. They were very helpful too, while I was quite ignorant of the subject. Some of the texts I needed were in the British Library, e.g. Czeczot, Rypiński, but by no means all. And Fr Haroška was very keen to help me. So between the two of them, the British Library and the Skaryna Library, I wrote my thesis. That was the beginning.

Sometime later the Library literally fell down into the church: too many books, and a very weak ceiling. When the Library opened across the road in 1971, I had already completed my thesis. I was there for the opening of the Library, as well as my guru, Prof Robert Auty, who had encouraged me to engage with Belarusian literature. At the ceremony he was swaying slightly under the influence of something… I really admired him.

Auty gave a good boost to the Belarusians in London. He saw the beginning of my thesis and, after about a year, went off to Oxford. I sent my chapters to him and they always came back with the same phrase: “Fine, Arnold”. It was only later that I started to wonder if he ever read them. He was the Slavonic editor of The Modern Languages Review, a very prestigious journal. In his office I saw many Russian books on the table by the door. Very few found their way to reviewers as far as I can tell. I later took over this task, and a few others, from Auty. I took reviewing very seriously: if a book comes and it’s fit for reviewing, you must find a reviewer. It’s not easy, but it’s important. Auty was also on the International Committee of Slavists – a very popular man, a real gentleman. It was a difficult job to be his successor.

When my thesis was finished, a good Dutch publisher accepted it to make a book out of it. Then they wrote me a letter saying they were very sorry, but their finances didn’t allow them to proceed with the publication after all. I was devastated, but my university offered to publish it instead. The Belarusians found out about it and so it became a joint publication of London University and the Anglo-Belarusian Society, The Vocabulary of the Byelorussian Literary Language in The Nineteenth Century.

I started my thesis in 1964, finished it in 1971 (absolute disgrace!), and the book came out in 1973. It was reasonably reviewed then.

And soon you switched to literature…

As soon as the first book was finished, I received an invitation from Germany to write a history of Belarusian literature. That’s what started me on this road. And the Skaryna Library was very important for me again.

A History of Byelorussian Literature: From Its Origins to The Present Day was meant to cover the journey of Belarusian literature from its beginning right up to the end, which is a problem, of course: the end moves all the time, and what constitutes the beginning is a controversial issue. It was reviewed on nine pages of Polymia. Back in the Soviet times, for safety, they had to have three co-authors of the review. Among them were Mušynski – a nasty piece of work, but Maĺdzis was my friend. And I forgot who the third one was. That was quite an event, it was a massive review. So, Belarusians were interested and even grateful, you could say.


Looking back at all the places and sources you used for your early works, what was the role of the Skaryna Library?

It was vital: I found there many texts I needed. It has always been very important to me, particularly for my largest book, Writing in a Cold Climate: Belarusian Literature from the 1970s to the Present Day (published in 2009).

Later, as the library collection was becoming less up to date, I decided to become more independent, particularly after I started working on more recent, young authors. The Library doesn’t have many of their – mostly very slim – books. I had to get them by other means, like writing to the authors (some very kindly sent their publications to me) and buying in Belarusian shops and online..

Many years ago, even before we had met, Uladzimier Arloŭ somehow found my address and got into the habit of sending all his books – that was very helpful. And other people too, but by and large I relied on Skarynaŭka.

Now, when I get spare books, unless they are very very relevant to what I do, I give them also to the university library, to our part of it – the School of Slavonic Studies. I am nice to them, they are nice to me. The Belarusian section has expanded and I am happy, not ashamed any more, when visitors come to take them to that part of the SSEES library.

In 1976-87 you taught in Liverpool, then returned to London

Yes, to the School of Slavonic and East European Studies… I had already lived in the Skaryna Library for a week or two to get all I needed and have it done. Fr Alexander let me stay there, because he wanted me to progress. I don’t think researchers were always asked to contribute money for their stay.

When I moved back to London, it was too expensive to buy a house straight away. I spent a year in the library for a rather low rent. I hated being at the mercy of the Northern Line [underground], otherwise it was fine. I got to know Fr Alexander rather well. He was very hospitable.

Belarusian has never been taught in London.

A trouble with Belarus is that it’s a small place. Jim Dingley and I tried really hard, when we both were at the university, to establish a course of Belarusian. He would do language, I would do literature. We did everything we could. We always had two or three students who wanted to do it, but we needed at least five every year for that to happen, so we never could get it off the ground.

The Library was also important as a meeting space…

Yes, a lot of people worked in it. Shirin Akiner, a very clever woman, wrote a thesis on an important Belarusian Tatar manuscript, kitab, acquired by the British Library. I’d like to think that somehow, perhaps, her interest in Belarusian matters came to her through me. She also wrote an important article on young Belarusian poets based entirely on materials from the Skaryna Library. I think she had a great amount of help from Fr Alexander over the years. Vera Rich had huge help from the Library too.

In the Library I met many interesting people, it was a focal point for Belarus-related research really. Arloŭ – already mentioned – came here. Prof Sante Graciotti, an Italian Slavist – I met him here. Theresa Alt and Wayles Brown, American Slavists, were here a year and half ago. They gave me a hard time because there was no electronic catalogue. Also, in recent years – Andrew Wilson, the author of The Last European Dictatorship. I said to him: “Have you been to the Belarusian Library?” And he replied along the lines: “How do you think I would have written my book without it?” Then, Tony French, an urban geographer and historian. He used the Library and wrote about it. Lindsey Hughes was a wonderful historian. She was introduced to Belarusian topics by Jim Dingley at Reading University. David Marples, a Canadian, comes to the Library when he is in Britain. Zina Gimpelevich has been here more than once, she also lives in Canada.

I remember in this very room I met Sakrat Janowič śvietlaj pamiaci. He had a stammer and was rather nervous. We talked as much as we could. Then he started inviting me to his symposia in Krynki, where I met other very interesting people.

Jan Zaprudnik, who wrote Belarus: At a Crossroads in History, must have been to this Library more than once. He inscribed his book of memoirs to me: “To Arnold McMillin who introduced Belarus to the world.” That was a bit over the top.

When the Belarusians came in Britain, they  started with the library, they were busy with collecting books. In the past, there were more people around. When Bishop [Sipovič] was here, it was a wonderful centre. By his character, he brought the local community into it – Jews, Anglicans, all these people, even Russians – people were interested in this place. Taxi drivers still know where the Belarusian Library is.

Collecting books, collecting people around…

– Exactly.

– Guy Picarda?

– Guy did his own research. He was very interested in Belarusian music and most of his materials came from Belarus. He used to go there often and had many friends among musicians.

In those days there were six lectures every year. Sometimes people spoke more than once, I did so myself. They took place in various places in central London. Guy Picarda liked rich London background with aristocrats and so on. He arranged meetings in the Society of Antiquaries, in the Royal Scottish Corporation – all those excellent organisations near the Royal Academy in Piccadilly. It created a bit of atmosphere. Guy had the right idea.

Peter Mayo… He became a trustee in place of Fr Žurnia.

He worked in Sheffield. It wasn’t a great place for him as there were other very bright people there at that time. And he felt a bit left out in a way. But he wrote a very simple and useful Grammar of Byelorussian published by Sheffield University and the Anglo-Belarusian Society. He used to come to our Board of Trustees meetings. He was a good linguist and helped a lot with the Anglo-Belarusian dictionary which isn’t bad. He used to go back and forth to Minsk to work on that dictionary in his last years. I was pleased to see his name among the contributors.

What was your first trip to Belarus like?

I used to go to Russia every year. I first went to Belarus in 1964 I think; or 1965, maybe. I was at the Moscow State University, but wanted to see Belarus. I was met by Adam Maĺdzis and Hienadź Kisialoŭ. Maĺdzis had some Рижский бальзам, which I had never heard of before. Not everyone was brave enough to try it, but he insisted. They put me in the best hotel, for they didn’t know what kind of ‘рыба’ was coming from Moscow. On the next day I had to move somewhere else cheaper – I was only a student. So I stayed below the roof of the Minsk hotel. There was no metro yet and the buses were too full to get on comfortably, therefore I walked to the Academy of Sciences and back every day. I was there for a month. I worked in the Institute of Linguistics. They were very kind to me, I remember. They had a card catalogue and allowed me to stay and work with the catalogue long after everyone else has gone home. You wouldn’t find that kind of trust in this or any other modern country – to leave someone with the card index on their own! I was very touched. On the stairs, they had posters about what to do when the evil West dropped bombs on Minsk. The actual kindness of the people!

Maĺdzis came to Britain during the Soviet period, in 1982, he wrote his “Англійскі дзённік” from that trip.

That’s right, a lot of it was вранье, I was furious. I chose not to have any contact with him for a while, but he explained that he had to write that to see the diary published. We had quite good relations afterwards.

Then Maĺdzis became a big friend of the Library. Effectively he was the acquisitions librarian…

Yes, he was the key person in supplying the Library with new books for quite a while.

And you were friends with Vasiĺ Bykaŭ too.

I remember having lunch with the Belarusians during Bykaŭ’s visit to London. It was a big occasion for me. Bykaŭ came around the table in the middle of everything and kissed me on both cheeks and went back. That was an impression. I am not easily impressed, but was impressed by that.

Why did he do it?

Because I supported Belarusian literature, I think.

Recorded on 16 April 2016 in London by Ihar Ivanou. 

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