“A museum more precious than Louvre” –

The entry in the visitors’ book was left by one of the multiple tourists while leaving the Vetka People’s Arts Museum in Gomel Region. It could be regarded as “good form” of the thankful sightseer if not for the true rarity of the exhibits, which is appreciated by professionals and antiquity worshippers. It is this museum in Gomel Region that attracts up to 60,000 visitors annually. It is no less than 6 times the town population
The entry in the visitors’ book was left by one of the multiple tourists while leaving the Vetka People’s Arts Museum in Gomel Region. It could be regarded as “good form” of the thankful sightseer if not for the true rarity of the exhibits, which is appreciated by professionals and antiquity worshippers. It is this museum in Gomel Region that attracts up to 60,000 visitors annually. It is no less than 6 times the town population.

Heart of Old Belief

In Red Square in the heart of the Belarusian provincial town, which little differs from similar towns, is a museum, which pushed the town of Vetka in a class of its own. Only this town and no other town in the vast territory of the former Soviet Union has preserved traditions of the Orthodox Christian Old Belief, which cultural legacy is surprisingly rich.

It should be noted that this year will see the 350th anniversary since the church reforms (1656) launched by Patriarch Nikon in Russia were over. The reforms brought dissent among Orthodox Christians, which resulted in Old Believers — adherents of the old belief, who did not accept the novelties. To protect themselves from the persecution of the official church, Old Believers or laudatori temporis acti left their homeland seeking other safe places.

Many of them settled down in the territory of the present Belarus. The town of Vetka was founded in 1685 by immigrants from Moscow and other central regions of the Moscow state. Not just proud and strong in spirit people came here into the eastern part of the Gomel Region present territory. They brought a special culture of their own. Among them there were many craftsmen: icon painters, penmen, bead embroideresses, chasers, and carvers. The Old Believers settled down here to turn Vetka into the centre, which would “supply the entire Old Belief world with books and icons” in a certain time.

To collect amazing in order to amaze everyone

This cultural and historic layer served as the basis of the future museum, which appeared in Vetka only thanks to efforts of local ethnographer Fedor Shklyarov.

Common people regarded the man as an eccentric. Few could deem it necessary and worth of efforts to spend so much time, efforts, and money in order to reveal beauty and wisdom of the Old Belief culture to people. but Shklyarov managed to do it. Initially his collection was a homemade one.

For almost 30 years the private residence of the Vetka local accumulated household items, archaeological items, manuscripts, icons, ancient books — the legacy of the Old Belief. Fedor Shklyarov once confessed, he dreamt of collecting every interesting thing in Vetka land to surprise everyone with it.
The People’s Arts Museum opened in Vetka in 1987 to occupy a two-storey building, which was an example of the 19th century architecture, a former house of Vetka merchants the Groshikovs. In the first year Fedor Shklyarov presented over 400 exhibits of his own collection to the museum, thus starting the formation of the museum fund.

Ancient legends

For fifteen years the number of rarities in the museum has multiplied many times over. Today it is a collection of over 6,000 unique exhibits. It contains such exhibits, which are unknown in the most famous museums of the world.
Exhibits directly connected with the Old Belief are especially impressing. In particular, icon masterpieces by Vetka craftsmen, who had preserved the ancient icon painting system right until the beginning of the 20th century.

Certainly, 500 icons of the museum fund are just a little part of the work by local craftsmen. But their value is enormous. Many icons are decorated with beads and pearls, gilded silver embossed framework. The museum also showcases instruments the craftsmen used to create their masterpieces as well as crafting technologies. Specialists say, it is one of the world’s largest collections of Old Belief culture items.

Without a shadow of a doubt, the Old Believers regarded themselves as keepers of the ancient Christian culture and accomplished the mission with honour. In spite of fires and wars, they managed to preserve unique 16-18th century books, black letter masterpieces by Ivan Fedorov and Petr Mstislavets, books with presentation inscriptions and loose leaves by first Russian tsars Mikhail Fedorovich and Aleksei Mikhailovich. There are books once owned by Kuteinskiy and Borkolabovski monasteries. Even the Kiev museum does not have the first Kievan book Anfologion, which was printed in 1619. Fedor Shklyarov believes, the most precious rarity in the collection is Zlatoust (Chrysostom) — a kind of a collection of public life observations supplied with a nature phenomenon calendar. Not only the content but the very exterior design of the book is impressing. The book cover is made of oak plates upholstered in leather. The book is 35 centimetres long, 21 centimetres wide, and 10 centimetres thick. The museum collection contains around 400 similar editions, which beauty and value can be compared with the book.

But that’s not all. In Belarus the Old Belief culture developed in “a folklore situation” under the influence of local ancient traditions, which were deeply rooted in the pagan times. Both the cultures existed concurrently, constantly crossed and enriched each other. The famous towels woven by women from local villages are a fine example. At present the museum collection has some 2,500 towels and clothes pieces, with some 600 titles of ornamental pictures written on them. The ornamental signs preceded the modern letters. They were woven into the canvass of a towel to create magic words: “for rain”, “for good harvest”, “for birth” and many others.

At present the museum constantly showcases such expositions as Craftsmen Street, Old Window, Fair, Icon Workshop, Grater, Bead Embroidery, National Costume, Neglyubskaya Khata. Today besides Vetka one can be inspired by the originality of the Old Belief culture, its spiritual legacy in Gomel, where a branch of the People’s Arts Museum was opened several years ago.

…Carved doors of a hall in the Vetka Museum are decorated with an inscription “Peace Attend You!” It is an invitation to enter the world of unique culture and unique exhibits. The world of traditions and wisdom accumulated by many generations, the world which initiates you and leaves a mark in your heart.

Violetta Dralyuk
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