Belarus: A Christmas trip to the land that time forgot – Part 3
Travel writer Stuart Wadsworth continues his journeys across Belarus, describing Chagall’s childhood home, dinner-table discussions about Putin and the (dubious) geographic centre of Europe.
PART 3 – VITEBSK AND POLOTSK
Read Part 1 of Stuart’s journey here: https://www.neweasterneurope.eu/interviews/1043-belarus-a-christmas-trip-to-the-land-that-time-forgot
Part 2 is also available: https://neweasterneurope.eu/interviews/1044-belarus-a-christmas-trip-to-the-land-that-time-forgot-part-2
Traversing Belarus from west to east and back again in the middle of winter is a curious choice of holiday, it must be said, and aside from the coldness and greyness, we had to deal with a largely featureless landscape on our long train and bus journeys. A thousand-kilometre journey across most parts of Europe makes one think of diverse scenery, perhaps coastal, maybe mountainous or at least including a few hills or valleys. Belarus has none of these things, barely so much as a bump or hillock to distract one from the endless grey-brown fields outside the window. The highest point in the country is the 346-meter Mount (sic!) Dzyarzhynskaya, oddly named for Felix Dzerzhinsky, head of the Cheka, the forerunner to the NKVD, the Soviet Union’s feared secret police. Perhaps more odd is that it hasn’t been renamed.
Vitebsk was reached after an extremely comfortable five-hour train journey in which my three travelling companions and I were accommodated in our own cosy compartment, each of us with space to lie down (with blankets) for a princely sum of about $5 each. The Belarusian train system runs on time; is well-maintained, efficient and comfortable; and is something the Soviet system that bequeathed of which it can be proud. Vitebsk is handsome, and was the first place we had come to with a historical heart and pre-war buildings (mostly neo-classical), small cobbled, curving streets going off at different angles with the occasional nook and cranny instead of uniform straight lines and wide featureless boulevards. There were even some undulations: the city rises sharply on either side of the river Dvina which runs through it. In short, it has character, and I liked it immediately. It seemed to be appropriate that Belarus’ most famous artistic son, Marc Chagall, had come from here, as there is a vaguely artsy feel to the city, even if it isn’t Paris or Milan. By Belarusian standards, it is charming and cosy. There were some welcoming little bars, restaurants and cafes, and it was a pleasant place to just wander around, with a few smart churches, museums and galleries.
We bunked down in a renovated communist-era hotel after much searching. We were close to New Year’s now and, being 50 kilometres from the Russian border, there were many people here on holiday. It’s a busy time of the year to travel in Russia, and Belarus is quite popular, being cheaper. The fact that there is no actual border between the two countries makes travel for Russians even more attractive. A kind of Schengen Zone exists here and, theoretically at least, it’s a back door into visa-free Russia for foreigners, too. The hotel was a step up from the Bug in Brest, taking Western credit cards and with English-speaking receptionists, even WI-FI to offer. It did seem to operate on a three-tier pricing system, though, with Westerners paying the most followed by Russians and then locals. Nevertheless, the step up in quality was noticeable. As in Ukraine, the Western parts of Belarus (those furthest from Russia) are the poorest and least-developed and the least visited by foreigners (if Russians are to be considered as such), so you notice the difference when you travel east. Outside the centre, Vitebsk quickly becomes quite bland and industrial: we spent an afternoon walking along the river to its suburbs and new town, which doesn’t offer up much to the visitor other than a park with a massive war memorial including tanks and aircraft.
When Marc Chagall (born Movsha or Moses Shagal) first witnessed Vitebsk in 1897, it was a different world, one of rickety wooden dwellings, public bath houses, unpaved streets, onion-domed churches and more than 60 synagogues. On the poor side of town, every householder kept goats, chickens and a cow in the yard. Today’s centre has been pretty well-restored after the destruction of the Second World War, but the sense of loss is more of a community than mere buildings. Vitebsk is in what used to be known as the Pale of Settlement, the region of western Russia to which Catherine the Great banished the Jews in the 18thand 19th centuries, and half of its pre-Second World War population of 65,000 was Jewish. The region was famous for small market settlements which were entirely Jewish, known as shtetls. Larger settlements with sizeable Jewish populations like Vitebsk, Lviv and Chernivitsi were known as shtots. By the war’s end, there was only a handful of Jews left in Vitebsk, 24,000 having been murdered and the rest having fled. The shtetls became a folk memory and, like so many towns and cities in Eastern Europe which had a flourishing Jewish population, Vitebsk retains a sense of something missing, and something removed. A faint air of sadness remains.
Chagall’s Jewishness is not what made him special; it was his fantastic art, Cubist surrealist fantasy masterpieces of fiddlers on roofs, flying animals and upside-down figures in a displaced reality. Like Bruno Schulz, a 20th-century Polish writer of Jewish origin living near Lviv, his art came from a time and place of horror and persecution and living on the fringes when only art offered an escape. Escape he did, first to Paris, then to Moscow, back to Paris and eventually to the United States. What Vitebsk does to honour this star of a firmament which was snuffed out of existence is barely enough: the modest wooden house just west of the river of his upbringing is open to visitors (worth a visit to get a feel for the artist’s fairly humble beginnings). There is a small art gallery containing some of his lithographs. The curator of the gallery was surprised, it seemed, to receive visitors, while the best of his works are exhibited in the galleries of New York, Paris and London. Despite my disappointment, Vitebsk is known as the cultural capital of Belarus, and there is an annual festival to celebrate this fact. This festival is known as the Slavianski (Slavic) Bazaar, and it celebrates mostly Belarusian, Russian and Ukranian song and culture, taking place outdoors in early August. At this time, the town is said to come alive, the city turning into a gigantic street party.
New Year’s arrived and we were caught a bit on the hoof with no arrangements made, no idea of where to go or what to do. How to start, where to go, whom to know in such circumstances? We had no “in”. In the event, we needn’t have worried about finding the right party. It turns out that for some reason no one goes out on New Year’s in Belarus, at least not in Vitebsk. The hotel rooms may have been full of partying Russians, but the streets were as empty as a graveyard at midnight, and we shuffled into the only pub in the centre with any semblance of life – a family sat around a table of food with a few bottles of cheap champagne and vodka. For the country’s fourth largest city of 350,000, this was more than a little perplexing. We were told that this is normal in Belarus: “People drink at home until one or two o’clock and then go out to party”.
The family warmly welcomed us to its table and despite barely sharing a few words of each other’s language we got by with smiles and clinks of vodka glasses, which were refilled at every opportunity. I was sad not to be able to converse with them and find out more about them and their culture, but it probably wasn’t the time for deep conversations anyway. At 11pm on Russia’s New Year, Putin came on the TV and made a speech. The volume was turned up and everyone stood to attention, full of respect. “He is strong man! We like!” our host ventured. It’s not a new opinion and it didn’t overly surprise me. Many citizens of the Soviet Union’s cast-off nations seem to yearn for an old-school father-like authority to believe in. I wondered how much Belarusians looked up to their own leader, who relies so heavily on Putin’s Russia for support that they might be excused for wondering who really pulls the strings. Informally known as Batska (daddy) in Belarusian, it seems he certainly has followers – mainly outside of the educated urban areas. Lukashenko was born in a village in Vitebsk province in Krushchev’s time.
An hour later, as the clock ticked towards midnight, Lukashenko’s head flickered up on the screen. It was the first time I had seen his face since arriving in Belarus, and it made me realise what a relatively low profile he kept for a dictator. Stern-faced, authoritative, though a poor man’s Putin in my eyes at least with his balding pate, comb-over and comedy moustache, it all felt a bit absurd and reminded me of the addresses the British have to suffer from the Queen each Christmas. Our new friends listened, though less intently and enthusiastically, slightly out of duty or possibly appearance’s sake and it was a moment when I glimpsed how many Belarusians feel about their leader. It seemed to be mild respect mixed with fear rather than affection, but at no point on our trip was anyone willing to voice their true feelings about their leader. Old habits, it seems, die hard. You never know who is listening. This is a country where outspoken critics can disappear and be arrested and charged of crimes they may not have committed. Public silence is perfectly understandable.
I hoped not to have too bad a hangover on waking to the first day of the new year: we had to be up early for a bus to Polotsk, the oldest surviving settlement in Belarus, in the far north. As it turned out, it wasn’t too bad for a night on the vodka, but we got up late and mistimed the bus departure, meaning we had an undignified run with bags along treacherous streets of melted and refrozen ice. I slipped twice, sprawling both times and arrived at the station just in time at 9.30am. It was just getting light. Polotsk is one of the many places in this part of the world which claim to be the geographical centre of Europe. Heaven knows how anyone can estimate such a thing, but I suppose if you were to draw two straight lines across Europe from northwest to southeast and southwest to northeast, the lines might bisect somewhere in this vicinity. To most Europeans, this is decidedly Eastern Europe, an area beyond the pale to which few would ever think of venturing.
Polotsk is one of the oldest eastern Slavic settlements, and between the 10th and 12th centuries the Principality of Polotsk was the dominant power in the region of present-day Belarus. The city’s Cathedral of Saint Sophia in Polotsk (1044–1066) was a symbol of the independent-mindedness of Polotsk, rivalling churches of the same name in Novgorod and Kyiv. The cathedral bears a striking resemblance to the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, a symbol of the prestige and authority of the city at the time. Its influence stretched from the Baltic shores to the area of Smolensk. Today, Polotsk is no more than a northerly Belarusian backwater of 80,000 people with an air of faded grandeur, though one of considerable charm, enjoying a pretty riverside location on the banks of the Dvina. Statues of Lenin and Marx line the streets as in other cities we had visited, and it felt almost normal to see them now. Except it wasn’t – the only place I have seen these anachronisms elsewhere in the old Soviet empire are in the tiny unrecognised republic of Abkhazia on the Black Sea. These are open-air museum pieces.
We walked around a perfectly silent town in the watery grey light of a New Year’s Day, hardly a soul about, past rickety painted wooden cottages and ramshackle single-story houses, wood-smoke rising lazily from chimneys. After a long and pleasant stroll through slushy streets we came to the Convent of Saint Ephrosinia and the Church of the Saviour, two of the best-preserved early church architecture in the country. An Orthodox service was taking place, and the mellifluous sound of religious chanting drifted through the air. Orthodoxy is the religion of nearly half of Belarus while around 40 per cent are irreligious; Catholicism makes up only 7 per cent. The revival of religion in post-communist Belarus, though, also brought about a revival of the old conflict between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, with priests of the former preaching in the Russian language and the latter in Polish. The Belarusian language suffered and is an example of how Belarusian culture and language has been marginalised in this country which seems to be a cultural battle-ground between East and West. Fledgling Belarusian religious movements are finding it difficult to assert themselves within these two major religious institutions because of the historical practice of preaching in Russian in the Orthodox churches and in Polish in the Catholic churches. Attempts to introduce the Belarusian language into religious life, (including the liturgy) have also been largely unsuccessful because of the cultural predominance of Russians and Poles in their respective churches, as well as the low usage of the Belarusian language in everyday life. Religion and politics, it seems, are close brethren here and no doubt the country’s leadership are well aware of what is going on.
Our stay in Polotsk was unfortunately short as we had to travel back west – first to the country’s finest surviving castle at Mir, then to the old Polish city of Grodno, via Adam Mickiewicz’s home town of Novogrudok. I had only five days left to put together the pieces of the Belarusian puzzle, and it was still leaving me scratching my head.
Stuart Wadsworth is a freelance writer and travel photographer, and has contributed to Rough Guides, Urban Travel Blog, the Krakow Post and other media. He has a blog:http://www.offexploring.com/stuinkrakow