Belarus: From Soviet
Rule to Nuclear...
by David Marples
Most popular pages:
The Belarusian Alphabet
Slavic Basic Phrases
White Ruthenia Map
Is "Russia" White?
Nyet to Russian
Ć ć Ł ł Ń ń Ś ś Ź ź
Č č Š š Ŭ ŭ Ž ž
back to articles
print it out
Academician Jauchim Karski
(Яўхім Карскі; Ефим Карский)
Arnold B. McMillin
There can be no one involved in Belarusian affairs and, indeed, few scholars in the Slavonic field as a whole unfamiliar with at least the name of Jauchim Fiodaravic Karski (1861-1931) who, championing the study of Belarus in the field of language, dialectology, literature, ethnography and palaeography, achieved more than all his predecessors and perhaps also all his successors put together. Although Karski's life was devoted principally to the study of his native Belarus, his scholarly interests were wide, enabling him to produce, among other things, a Grammar of Old Church Slavonic that was well ahead of its time and ran into nineteen editions,1 an important study of Russian dialectology2 and another of Cyrillic palaeography that is still of practical value and use today,3 as well as numerous articles on various other Slavonic languages. Karski's works number more than six hundred, thus permitting mention of only a few of the most important, but, from the humblest review article to the great monograph Belorusy, they show a precise approach within narrow terms of reference combined with a broad perspective of the field as a whole. Despite the unusually great extent of his scientific background Karski -- unlike many of his contemporaries -- was at pains to avoid generalisations and broad theories, confining himself to the discovery and accurate exposition of primary material. For example, in the introduction to his Западнорусские переводы Псалтыри в 15-17 веках4 he enumerates many almost untouched fields of research, such as the influence of Polish and Old Church Slavonic on Belarusian, its relation to Ukrainian or its syntactical peculiarities, but stresses the importance of approaching the general from the particular, and thus justifies his own preference for the detailed study of individual monuments of literary history like the Perevody. And indeed, it is this reluctance to cut corners and seek quick gains that makes Karski's work such a valuable cornerstone for modern Belarusian linguistic scholarship.
Karski was born on the 1st of
January, 1861 (20th of December, 1860 by the Old Calendar); his
father was a poor schoolteacher in the village of Lasa in the former
Hrodna region, whence the family moved soon after Karski's birth to the
Navahrudak district of the Minsk region. One of eight, he attended the
local church school and then the seminary in Minsk, after which he was
fortunate enough to be able to enter the celebrated Prince Bezborodko
Historical-Philological Institute in Nezin where he stayed until 1885.
There he specialized in Russian and General Slavonic philology under
Professor Brandt and made full use of the good library available; already
he had gained the reputation of a hard worker, rising, we are told, at
five in the morning and continuing his studies late into the night,
rapidly forming a broad basis of scholarship by learning all the Slavonic
languages in addition to Ancient Greek, Latin and Sanscrit.
The first freely elected rector at Warsaw, Karski received sixty eight of the seventy votes cast
After this he
spent seven years teaching in a grammar school in Vilnia, and it was not
until 1893 that his academic career really started when he was invited to
lecture in Russian at Warsaw university, only a year later being made a
professor, after defending his thesis for Master's degree in Kiev. For
this he presented his "Обзор звуков и форм белорусской речи" of 1884
and his "К истории звуков и форм белорусской речи" which had been
published in the "Русский филологический вестник" between 1890 and
1893; it is interesting to note that this was the first time a
Belarusian subject had been chosen for an academic thesis. From this
point on his career was spectacular: from 1902 to 1904 he served as dean
of the Historical-Philological Faculty and then for the next five years as
rector of the university. The first freely elected rector at Warsaw,
Karski received sixty eight of the seventy votes cast, which gives an
indication of the great personal popularity he had earned by his
unstinting help and advice given to colleagues and students alike.
Although officially retiring in 1910 he continued to deliver lectures at
the university and in 1915 was evacuated with the faculty to
Rostov-on-Don; thence, on being elected to the Russian Academy of Sciences
he travelled to Moscow and later Petrograd where he accepted a
professorial post at the university. In the years after the October
Revolution Karski's work was principally concerned with Russian documents
and philological problems although the last book of Belorusy was
published in Petrograd in 1922. The circumstances of his last years are
not altogether clear and it is surprising to read in the latter book - his
opinion that Belarusians should use Russian for all their creative and
official writing since, he explains, Russian contains many elements of
Belarusian and other dialects, particularly from the earlier period. A
strange comment, surely, from one who had devoted a large part of his life
to the demonstration of Belarus's vitality and life as a nation. The
sentiments hardly coincide with those implied in the epigraph to
Belorusy taken from Skaryna's translation of The Book of Judith
of 1517: »Понеже от прирожения звери, ходящие в пустыни, знають ямы
своя; птици, летающие по возъдуху, ведають гнезда своя; рибы плывающие по
морю и в реках, чують виры своя; пчелы и тым подобный боронять ульев
своих, -- тако ж и люди, игде зродилися и ускормлены суть по бозе, к тому месту
великую ласку имеють«.
Karski was a great
traveller, always searching for new material and information; as a teacher
in Nezin and later professor in Warsaw he made trips each summer to
different regions of Belarus collecting ethnographical and linguistic
data, whilst visits to the great Slavonic libraries of Europe took him
further afield: to Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey
and, later, Czechoslovakia. Although truly patriotic, with a deep love for
his native Belarus, Karski was cosmopolitan in outlook and published
contributions to Western as well as East European journals; well known and
admired in Europe, he was, towards the end of his life, elected a member
of the Czech Academy of Sciences. He died in Leningrad on the 29th of
...using the dialectal material for
comparison with Russian and Ukrainian he proved in the face of
contemporary opinion that the Belarusian language was an original
linguistic entity formed many centuries earlier, and not just a dialect or
When in 1901 Karski
was proposed for admission to the Russian Academy of Sciences, Sachmatov,
Sobolevskij, Peretc and Kotljarevskij, in a note to the governing board,
described him as "the founder of Belarusian philology", and this
constitutes the major and dominating part of his work, particularly before
the change in circumstances brought about by the October Revolution of
1917. His first step was the publication in 1880 of some folk songs from
his native village,5 and one immediately perceives a contrast
with the work of his predecessors, mostly, like Federowski6 and
Dobrovolskij ,7 ethnographers from the provincial
intelligentsia: Karski produced the songs not so much for any interest
there might be in their content but as examples of local speech accurately
recorded for linguistic analysis. His chief criticism of the work of
ethnographical collectors like Romanov8 and Sejn9
was that they paid insufficient attention to accuracy in their recording
of material. Karski, with characteristic generosity, helped and advised
Sejn in these matters so that he was able to improve the quality of his
work in this respect. He also gave assistance in mundane tasks like
proof-reading, and after Sejn's death edited and published the third
volume of his friend's Материалы.10 Karski himself did
no recording of actual folk material after this early start, but turned to
the recording of 'pure' linguistic data, which he used in conjunction with
material from the old literary monuments — the ancient forms helped in the
analysis of the contemporary and
dialectal ones, and vice versa, a rewarding technique, known as the
comparative-historical method and widely accepted and practised nowadays,
but which was very much the exception rather than the rule in the
nineteenth century. Already armed with a formidable amount of material, he
produced between 1884 and 1886 the first of the two studies of
Belarusian phonology and morphology that were offered in Kiev some ten
years later for his Master's degree. This was not absolutely the first
study since slightly earlier Appel'11 and Nedjosev12
had written articles attempting to outline the main distinguishing
features of Belarusian, but which, being based on inadequate and, to
some extent, inaccurate material, had left much to be desired. In the
forward to Обзор звуков и форм белорусской речи13 Karski
describes the scientific study of Belarusian as non-existant; too many
people approached the subject with preconceived notions or unreliable
material: even Nasovic14 and Mikucki,15 who were
natives, did relatively little, Mikucki being principally concerned with
Lithuanian and Nasovic dealing with vocabulary rather than grammar.
Although we know that Karski found much to criticise in Nasovic's
dictionary for scholarly reasons,16 his comments on the
latter's work do show his relatively small interest in lexicology. Perhaps
he thought that in an almost completely undiscovered field other
disciplines should take first priority, for even in his earliest work he
stresses that his efforts are an attempt to, as it were, clear the ground
or smooth the path of future scholars. Karski's work, based as it was on
his own first-hand researches, often into unpublished material, was the
real foundation stone for future Belarusian linguistic
For his Doctor's
dissertation, defended in Moscow and published in Warsaw in 1896, he took
and analysed a series of old literary monuments, the Западнорусские
переводы Псалтыри в XV-XVII веках. Already in this work he displays
those qualities that render his later, extensive work on old documents,
both Belarusian and Russian, so valuable: the strictest accuracy
combined with the ability to consider a given literary monument in all its
aspects: palaeographic, orthographic, phonological, morphological and
syntactical. So many different points of approach helped him to make
accurate analyses of the origins and unusual features of the documents.
Karski's opus magnum, which appeared between 1903 and 1922 was
simply called Belorusy. Once again the vast majority of it is based
on the author's original researches, and, in three volumes, seven parts
and over three thousand pages it is comparable in scope and importance
perhaps only to Gebauer's work on the history of Czech.17 It
sets out to present a picture of the
present and past state of the language and literature of Belarus.
first volume18 is in the nature of an introduction to the work
as a whole, and is written in a style comprehensible to the intelligent
layman. In it he expounds the theory of how the Belarusian people find
their origins in the Drehovici, Radzimici and Kryvici tribes, outlines
the ethnography and archaeology of the country, discusses the main
features of the language and principal dialects (as well as the degree to
which they have been studied), and, finally, makes a survey of the old
documents and the copies made from them, together with available
collections of folk material. In addition there is a dialectal map; Karski
calls it ethnographical, but one should bear in mind that for him
ethnography was basically a question of language and dialect. The map,
like so much of Karski's work, was the first of its kind for Belarus;
indeed, it had only two predecessors in the Slavonic field as a whole: one
for Russian and one for Czech, both produced in 1877. The research on
which the map was based was carried out by Karski personally during the
year 1903. Previously, in the sixties, Erkert and Rittich had produced
maps attempting to define the Polish-Belarusian ethnographic border, but
these were superseded by Karski's work although the new map was not
entirely satisfactory, excluding as it did from Belarus's ethnographic
boundaries Pinsk, Brest and much of the South Hrodna region, whilst
including patently Russian towns like Kursk and Orjol, for example.
Nonetheless, it temporarily filled a large gap in the field of
The second volume
of Belorusy, which consists of three parts, is basically devoted to
the language: part one19 contains a palaeographic description
of the principal old literary monuments like the Вкладная Ивана
Никоновича of the fourteenth or the Западнорусская псалтырь of
the sixteenth centuries, together with a comprehensive history of the
Belarusian phonological and stress systems. Part two20 is a
study of morphology and word formation, whilst the third part of volume
two21 deals most thoroughly with syntax: perhaps this is the
most significant and important part of Belorusy, since hitherto
there had been some work, albeit inadequate, on phonology and morphology,
whilst the field of syntax had remained untouched.
Volume three is
also in three parts. The first of these is an exceptionally full catalogue
of Belarusian folk poetry;22 Karski's was the first attempt
to systematise the different genres and he stresses that his work is
preliminary, aimed at clearing the way for future investigators.
Unfortunately the latter have all too often been content
to merely repeat his
work and to present his conclusions as their own. The second
part,23 is perhaps even more valuable; it is a systematic
account of the literature up to the end of the eighteenth century,
showing, inter alia, how from the thirteenth century onwards the
East Slavonic monuments show signs of the local, vernacular language
intruding into and 'corrupting' the Church Slavonic texts. The third and
final part of this great work is a review of Belarusian literature from
the beginning of the nineteenth century to 1921:24 Karski makes
little or no subjective assessment of the writers' individual worth, but
attempts to collect and classify as much information as possible, and it
is partly for this reason that his work is of such extreme interest and
value today, although, as with the folk songs, he is reproached by present
day critics for approaching the literature from the point of view of its
cultural and historical interest rather than its significance in the class
struggle. For the modern scholar, however, it is precisely this
thoroughness and lack of tendentiousness that make his work indispensable,
particularly when one compares it with other attempts at the same tasks,
for example that by Maksim Harecki,25 to mention only the best.
It is a matter for deep regret that the first and third volumes of
Belorusy have been allowed to become bibliographical rarities;
volume two alone was reprinted in 1955. Completing this great work the
author, with characteristic modesty, emphasised that he had no illusions
about having exhausted the subject, and outlined some of the main gaps, in
particular lexicological, remaining to be filled; many of them still
remain, although since the Second World War an ever increasing amount of
work has been undertaken in the field.
not one of Karski's specialities, compared, for example, with palaeography
or syntax, and the majority of his work takes the form of reviewing and
discussing the investigations of others, but it is nonetheless clear that
by the 1890's he was considered the greatest expert in his field, since the
Academy of Sciences selected him to prepare a programme for the systematic
study of the Belarusian dialects: this he completed in 1897, and himself
undertook much of the work of classifying the material collected as a
result of the programme. He was the first to make the basic division of
the dialects into the North-East/South-West types, a division that is
still generally accepted today; and using the dialectal material for
comparison with Russian and Ukrainian he proved in the face of
contemporary opinion that the Belarusian language was an original
linguistic entity formed many centuries earlier, and not just a dialect or
One may mention
briefly Karski's other work, outside the field of Belarusian. He
produced a number of studies dealing with ancient Russian documents, for
example that on the syntax of the Lavrent'jev Chronicle,26
many of which are still of use to students
and scholars today. In the field of literature he delivered speeches at
occasions marking the anniversaries of Lomonosov,27
Lermontov,28 Pushkin29 and Gogol',30
producing some strikingly original ideas about these writers' importance
for the Russian language as well as literature that aroused considerable
discussion at the time. He was keenly interested in all aspects of
philology and followed the spelling reform debate very
closely,31 as well as waging a campaign against the unnecessary
or barbarous use of foreign words in Russian.32 In addition to
Russian, he wrote about Ukrainian, Slovene and, of course, Old Church
Slavonic, towards the end of his life taking an especially great interest
in comparative studies. Like many other scholars of the time, including
Brandt, he supplemented Miklosic's famous hexaglot lexicon33
and at the same time embarked on a project to compare the development of
and relations between the various Slavonic languages on the basis of their
lexical resources; unfortunately this project was cut short by Karski's
sudden illness and death.
Finally there is
his work as an editor, firstly of the Русский филологический вестник
from 1904 to 1918, and later of the Известия отделения русского
языка и словесности Академии Наук from 1920 to 1930. Не took over the
Русский филологический вестник from Smirnov, and in a short time
almost doubled its size, at the same time bringing about great
improvements in style and content, particularly in the bibliography
section. Wishing the latter to be as comprehensive as possible, Karski
himself would review any book not dealt with by his colleagues — another
instance of his characteristic willingness to take onto his own shoulders
what would normally be a huge collective burden. In 1913 alone he
published seventy such reviews. In general they were descriptive and
informative rather than critical, with Karski, like other scholars, always
trying to stress the valuable aspects of any new work, without, at the
same time, sacrificing critical standards. This was typical of a man
whose aim was not to
condemn but to encourage others for the general good of Belarusian and
linguistic studies as a whole. These reviews, dealing with the widest
possible variety of subjects, show as well as anything the immense range
of Karski's knowledge and interests.
The few personal
scraps of information we have about him point to a man of great modesty
and sensitivity, always ready to help students and colleagues alike.
Lacking in academic pride Karski willingly popularised some of his most
important works, for example volumes two and three of
Belorusy,3* 35, to make them available to a
wider audience, whilst some of his other works were adapted for use in
textbooks. The content of his writings ranges from the principles of
teaching methods to the intricacies of historical syntax, but all his
works share the vital common factors of clarity and practicality: his
Славянская кирилловская палеография36 contains, in
addition to a theoretical discussion of the subject, over a hundred
photocopies of the texts, since, the author notes in his foreword, they
are both difficult to obtain and expensive for students.
Karski was a man of
many sides, combining a deep and original intellect with humanity and
practicality. It would be too much to compare him to a Leonardo-like
figure such as Skaryna, but nonetheless Belarus may be proud to have
produced such a rare talent, and deeply grateful to him: both for his
inspiring example and for doing in one lifetime what might otherwise have
taken several generations to achieve.
1) Грамматика древнего церковнославянского языка сравнительно с русским, Vilna, 1888.
2) Русская диалектология. Очерк, литературного русского npoизношения и народной речи великорусской (южновеликорусских и северновеликорусских говоров), белорусской и малорусской (украинского языка), Leningrad, 1924.
3) Славянская кирилловская палеография, Leningrad, 1928.
4) Warsaw, 1896.
5) «Белорусские песни села Берёзовца Новогрудского уезда Минской губернии», Русский филологический вестник, XII, 1884, 124-35.
6) Michal Federowski, Lud bialoruski na Rusi Litewskiej. Materyaly do etnografii slowianskiej, zgromadzone w latach 1877-1891, Krakow, 1897-1935.
7) В. Н. Добровольський, Смоленский этнографический сборник, СПб, 1891-1903; Смоленский областной словарь, Smolensk, 1914.
8) Е. Р. Романов, Белорусский сборник, Киев, 1885-91. Е. Ф. Карский, Разбор историка-этнографических трудов Е. Р. Романова по Северо-Западному краю, вышедших в течение 1898-1901 годов, St. Petersburg, 1904.
9) П. В. Шейн, Материалы для изучения быта и языка русского населения Северо-Западного края, СПб, 1887-1902. Е. Ф. Карский, Разбор этнографического труда П. В. Шейна St. Petersburg, 1899; see also: Журнал министерства народного просвещения, 1887, октябрь, 320-330; ЖМНП, 1890, ноябрь, 175-190; ЖМНП, 1894, апрель, 434-450.
10) П. В. Шейн, Материалы, III, St. Petersburg, 1902.
11) К. Аппель, »О белорусском наречии«, РФВ, III, 1880, 197.
12) И. Недёшев, «Исторический обзор важнейших звуковых и морфологических особенностей белорусских говоров«, РФВ, 1884, 427.
13) Moscow, 1885.
14) И. И. Носович, Словарь белорусского наречия, St. Petersburg, 1870.
15) С. Микуцкий, «Белорусские слова. Сборник», Известия Императорской Академии наук по Отделению русского языка и словесности, III, 1854, 176-92.
16) обзор звуков и форм ..., р. 8.
17) Jan Gebauer, Historicke mluvnice jazyka ceskeho, Prague, 1894-1929.
18) Белорусы, т. I. Введение в изучение языка и народной словесности, Warsaw, 1903.
19) Белорусы, т. II. Язык белорусского племени. 1. Исторический очерк звуков белорусского наречия, Warsaw, 1908.
20) Белорусы, т. II. Язык белорусского племени. 2. Исторический очерк словообразования и словоизменения в белорусском наречии, Warsaw, 1911.
21) Белорусы, т. II. Язык белорусского племени. 3. Очерки синтаксиса белорусского наречия. Дополнения и поправки, Warsaw, 1912.
22) Белорусы, т. III. Очерки словесности белорусского племени. 1. Народная поэзия, Moscow, 1916.
23) Белорусы, т. III. Очерки словесности белорусского племени. 2. Старая западнорусская словесность, Petrograd, 1921.
24) Белорусы, т. III. Очерки словесности белорусского племени. 3. Художественная литература на народном языке, Petrograd, 1928.
25) М. Гарэцкі, Гісторыя беларускае літаратуры, Vilna, 1919; Выданьне чацьвертае пераробленае, Minsk, 1926.
26) «Наблюдения в области синтаксиса Лаврентьевского списка летописи«, ИОРЯС, II, кн. 1, Leningrad, 1921, 1-75.
27) Значение М. В. Ломоносова в развитии русского литературного языка, Warsaw, 1912.
28) Памяти М. Ю. Лермонтова. Речь сказанная на годичном акте Виленских Первой и Второй гимназий, 22 сентября 1891 года, преподавателем Е. Ф. Карским, Vilna, 1891.
29) »О влиянии поэтической деятельности А. С. Пушкина на развитие русского литературного языка», РФВ, XLII, 1899, 195-230.
30) «Значение Н. В. Гоголя в истории русского литературного языка», РФВ, LXI, 1909, 205-222.
31) See, for example: Е. Ф. К., »К вопросу о реформе русской орфографии», РФВ, LII, 1909, 154-74.
32) »о так называемых барбаризмах в русском языке. Речь произнесенная на акте 21 августа 1886 года«, Краткий отчет о состоянии Виленской 2-й гимназии за 1885/6 учебный год, Vilna, 1886, 33-45. К вопросу об употреблении иностранных слов в русском языке. Речь при открытии в Варшаве летних курсов для учителей и учительниц начальных и городских училищ, Warsaw, 1910. Et al.
33) Ф. Миклошич, Краткий словарь шести славянских языков, St. Petersburg, 1885. Also: F. Miklosich, Etymologisches Wörterbuch der slawischen Sprachen, Vienna, 1886.
34) Белорусская речь. Очерки народного языка с историческим освещением, Petrograd, 1918.
35) Geschichte der weissrussischen Volksdichtung und Literatur — Grundriss der slawischen Philologie und Kulturgeschichte, Berlin and Leipzig, 1926.
36) Leningrad, 1928.
© Copyright "The Anglo-Byelorussian Society", 1967.
Reprinted from "The Journal of Byelorussian Studies" Vol. I, No. 3, Year III. London 1967. Arnold B. McMillin "Academician Ja. F. Karski (1861-1931)" pp. 207-215.
- Francis Skaryna, the first Belarusian printer by Alexander Nadson
- Marc Chagall Biography compiled by Uladzimir Katkouski
- Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and the Revival of Hebrew by Jack Fellman
- Old Church Slavonic Grammar by Horace Gray Lunt
- The Slavonic Languages by Comrie &. Corbett
- The Dawn of Slavic: An Introduction to Slavic Philology by Alexander M. Schenker
- Write your comment