The Belarusian town of Slonim, near Grodno, has a unique aura. Walking its narrow, old streets, admiring its historical monuments, you can feel its colour. The local drama theatre is also worth visiting, being one of a kind. Its rich history, according to archives, began in the late 18th century. Back then, the small town on the Shchara River was known as the cultural capital of the whole region
In 1780, Slonim’s headman — patron and composer Michał Kazimierz Ogiński — built a luxurious new opera house, designed by Italian architect and artist Moraino. The two-storey building was situated between Ogiński’s own palace and the banks of the Shchara River, housing 27 box seats. The large stage was used for opera and ballet, featuring dozens of local, Polish, German and Italian actors. Some shows even featured actors on horseback and sets could be changed quickly, using technical equipment which easily rivalled that of Western European and Russian theatres. In the nearby park, festivities were arranged on performance days, while, after each show, theatre lovers could enjoy the sparkling lights reflected in the neighbouring lake or take a short cruise.
The Ogiński Theatre quickly gained recognition. Unsurprisingly, the Slonim troupe joined Antoni Tyzenhaus’ Grodno artistes to set up the Association of Royal Dancers, in Warsaw. Theatrical life in Slonim has always been dazzling. Its modern troupe was set up in December 1990, by Honoured Figure of Culture Nikolay Varvashevich: a true expert in national drama. Over the past two decades, more than 50 performances have been staged, annually attended by around 60,000 theatre lovers.
The town is known not only for its theatre of course. Every stone has its own history, being worthy of study. According to the Ipatievskaya Chronicle, Slonim was founded in 1252 — known initially as Uslonim but later renamed as Vslonim. Its name probably originates either from Slavonic ‘zaslona’ (shield) or Latin ‘slenis’ (lowland — where the town is situated).
The first traces of the settlement date back to the 11th century. During archaeological digs, the remains of an old settlement have been discovered: old wooden and stone fortifications. Over the years, buildings have been constructed one on top of another. The first was wooden, used to house Grand Duchy of Lithuania sejm meetings. Later, following Ogiński’s order, this was destroyed to allow a new building to be constructed, boasting 116 rooms and a hall. The richest rooms were situated in the centre, overlooking the courtyard and park. Its ‘Hall of Goddesses’ was its major attraction, being decorated in Rococo style.
Michał Kazimierz Ogiński also constructed factories in Slonim, in addition to a 53km canal which connected the basins of the Baltic and Black seas with the Shchara River. The town’s advantageous geographical location linked Slonim with Kiev, Moscow and the Baltic States, creating valuable trading routes and supporting the fairs which were held regularly in the town, attracting merchants from far and wide.
Naturally, Slonim also faced war. In 1410, its army took part in the Battle of Grunewald and, from 1654 to 1667, it suffered from Russia’s collision with the Rzech Pospolita. Slonim also experienced huge losses during the 1812 war against the Napoleonic army, as well as during the first and second world wars. However, despite those hardships, the town never lost its charm, which is most encapsulated by its churches. These were once used as part of Slonim’s defence line, being situated in the main streets and squares. Four of its eight 17th-18th century places of worship remain, including the Roman Catholic churches and monasteries of Bernardine monks and nuns, St. Andrew’s Roman Catholic Church and a synagogue. Its other treasures are St. Dominic’s Chapel and several ancient buildings boasting ornamental facades. One today houses a bank and post office.
Sadly, despite many attempts to restore it, Ogiński’s opera house remains in need of renovation. About two decades ago, one part of it was rebuilt. However, the town lacked funds to complete the work. Nevertheless, local theatre fans have always believed that their town would acquire a modern theatre building one day. What else would be fitting for a town steeped in cultural traditions? Local artistes continue to stage performances at the House of Culture, while also touring countrywide.
At present, the construction of a new building is in full swing and the Head of Slonim District Executive Committee’s Culture Department, Svetlana Romanyuk, admits with pleasure that the project is experiencing no financial problems. The state has allocated the necessary funds to install a modern stage and contemporary light and sound equipment. No doubt, audiences will feel comfortable and will enjoy the atmosphere of Ogiński’s time.
Work is due to be completed by late 2012, with several premieres currently being prepared for the launch. The Slonim Belarusian Drama Theatre is sure to be a popular destination for tourists to the town.
By Iosif Popovich