Belarus magazine correspondents visit unique Belarusian settlement of rosy Ruzhany

Bouquet of red roses

Called ‘Razhana’ (‘rose’) in Belarusian, and later ‘ruzha’, Ruzhany combines Polish and Russian languages. Its coat of arms shows St. Casimir (esteemed by Catholics for centuries) surrounded by a wreath from roses. The church of St. Casimir is near the city centre, surrounded by a cemetery and public garden, featuring monuments to Soviet soldiers and the inhabitants of neighbouring villages who were burnt by Nazis between 1941 and 1945.

In one of the central streets in Ruzhany

Nearby is the Church of the Holy Trinity: believed to be 400 years old. The 18th century baroque Uniat church, opposite, passed to the Russian Orthodox Church in the 19th century, receiving then a classical, pseudo-Russian façade. The two frame the market square of the town and have survived all conflict.

Ruzhany is an urban settlement in Pruzhany District of Brest Region, located on undulating ground by the River Ruzhanka, 140km from Brest, at the crossing of highways Р85 and Р44. It was first mentioned in writing in 1490. In 1552, it belonged to Tyshkevichi, then to Brukhalsky; in 1598, it passed to the Chancellor of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Lev Sapega, who made the town his main residence

Residents of Ruzhany number hardly more than 3,000, and tend to know each other by sight. As I walked along the high walls of the former Basilian monastery, a local asked why I’d been photographing for an hour, showing that few tourists come, despite the town’s wonderful history. It’s a rare gem, boasting the same skyline as it had in the early 20th century: seen in old postcards.

Most cities of Belarus suffered during the First World War and the Great Patriotic War, yet Ruzhany largely escaped damage. The only casualty was Sapega Palace: set on fire in the summer of 1944, by retreating Nazis. The remaining stones remember human tragedy, including the destruction of the Local Jewish community, taken during the years of Nazi occupation. Their synagogue still stands: a reminder of those who once lived here, near the market. The roof is rotting but the walls are almost undamaged, making it suitable for restoration. The facade might then be adorned with a memorial plaque in honour of Yitzhak Shamir: the well-known Prime Minister of Israel who was born in Ruzhany in 1915 and, possibly, visited this synagogue.

Plans to launch carriage rides from Ruzhany to the Palace, so guests can admire sights and imagine themselves as real ‘landowners’, like the noble Sapega family

The town’s museum is located in the restored buildings of the 16th century Sapega Palace, once owned by a family among the richest in Belarus, Lithuania and Poland. It received its first renovations in the 18th century, and was confiscated in the early 19th century, in punishment for the aristocrats having supported the anti-Russian revolt. Ruzhany museum director Ruslan Kniga would love to see tourists being able to take a carriage through Ruzhany, to the palace, feeling like the nobles of old.

The Palace’s many treasures were transported to St. Petersburg and many remain still at the Hermitage. Mr. Kniga plans to travel to the City on the River Neva, in search of his town’s valuables, and with the hope of returning more than empty-handed.

Many of Ruzhany’s roads have been travelled by famous Russians, although there are few memorial signs. Emperor Nikolay II wrote in his journal, on June 22nd, 1915: ‘Monday. At 11.45 my carriage and retinue passed through Slonim, Ruzhany and Pruzhany, into Bialowiez. Having passed the forest roads, about 30 versts, I appeared on Pruzhany highway and returned by the same track, to headquarters, by 11 o`clock.’ The ‘headquarters’ were located in Baranovichi since Russia was, at that time, at war with Germany.

The First World War in progress...

In 1965, director Victor Turov shot the film I Come from Childhood in the town, based on Gennady Shpalikov’s well-known Walking the Streets of Moscow. Nina Urgant, Boris Rudnev, Valery Zubarev and Vladimir Vysotsky played the lead roles.

These days, on the edge of the Ruzhany Pushcha, three districts converge: Pruzhany District, Ivatsevichi and Bereza. The 210th aviation range, operating under military law, is located on this spot. Within the forest, on the bank of Lake Papernya, there used to be a paper-making factory. Now, it’s the site of Ruzhansky Sanatorium, which is popular with tourists from Russia. Local residents often use the health resort’s pool in the evenings, and there’s a cultural centre too, where theatrical performances entertain (just as they did at Sapega Palace more than two hundred years ago). For those planning a trip, Brest Fortress and the Belovezhskaya Pushcha forest reserve are both located not too far distant.

By Viktar Korbut
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