Communities of Dialogue Russian and Ukrainian Émigrés in Modernist Prague

Conference | Paper

“Become an Intellectual to Become a Factory Director?”: Dilemmas of the First Generation Belarusian Intellectuals on the Pages of Viktar Valtar's novel Born under Saturn

Ivan Zhyhal

Thursday 23 May 2024

14:45 - 15:30


The novel Born Under Saturn, written by Viktar Valtar between the late 1920s and early 1930s, is not only an autobiographical work about Belarusian emigration in Czechoslovakia, but at the same time is a philosophical novel in which ideas and theories are inseparable from the lives of the text’s characters. The protagonist Piotr Tuhouski is a university student – described as a “superfluous person” and “weak, old Faust” – who becomes a witness to the formation of Belarusian intellectuals in Czechoslovakia, allowed by the generosity and help of compatriot emigrant circles and the Czechoslovak state. For Valtar, the context of studying in Prague and precarious petty-bourgeois life of young Belarusians prompts him to question what values and orientations would be determinant for these students, who were mostly first-generation intellectuals. After their class ascension, leading to a “divided habitus” (Bourdieu), they were conflicted between, on the one hand, attachment to their origins and the burdens of assuming the mission of “swallows” who should bring culture “to their native fields”, and on the other hand, doubt towards this mission, questioning their own lives and the essence of the Belarusian project itself. Ultimately, in his novel, Valtar raises the question of the role and essence of the intellectual figure, thus referring to the broader context of the emerging “sociology of intellectuals” in the late 1920s, represented by names such as Julien Benda, Antonio Gramsci, and Karl Mannheim, whose approaches differed radically. These theories, in which the question of intellectual’s autonomy and its degree was raised to a greater or lesser extent, were developed taking into account the modernisation processes in the West, whereas the reflections of the protagonist of  Valtar’s novel refers to another context – the Belarusian situation of the first third of the 20th century, which can be briefly characterised by the weakness of national consciousness and incompleteness of the social structure. A historical analysis of this situation as well as the ideas presented in the novel, can be a peculiar “Eastern European” addition to the Western theories concerning intellectuals, and allow us to consider the figure of the intellectual on a more broad perspective, which affects not only developed Western societies, but also those in the periphery.