Chronicle of Middle Ages and modern times

The National History Museum exhibits princes’ letters and TV puppets
 The exhibition has been long awaited, notes the director of the National History Museum, Oleg Ryzhkov, who has announced it time and again. Naturally, the international project has required co-ordination between Lithuanian and Belarusian archives in sharing rarities once owned by the Radziwiłł family, those princes of ancient times, the ‘uncrowned kings’ of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

At the exhibition at the National History Museum

The Radziwiłł Family: Great Epoch of Princes exhibition shows the magnates not only in the context of the history of Belarus but more widely, as owners of lands in Lithuania, and elsewhere in Europe.

At the exhibition, I heard an interesting story about a book published in the 17th century Amsterdam by Adam Freiberg, on the subject of fortification. Bogusław Radziwiłł, who lived at that time, bought the edition abroad and was advised by his father to bring the author to Lithuania. So it was that Freiberg arrived in the city of Biržai, where he constructed the residence of the Radziwiłł family, following the most modern of techniques. The strong fortress proved impregnable for some time. A student of Freiberg later constructed a similar citadel in Slutsk.

The exhibition demonstrates that modern Belarus and Lithuania had more in common in the past than we may 

realize. A tile found during excavations of the palace of grand princes in Vilnius is very similar to those found by archaeologists at Mir Castle.

Rare 16th-18th century books show that the Radziwiłł family preferred books in Polish and Latin languages. One large Bible, published in Brest in 1563, was ordered by Mikołaj Radziwiłł Czarny, the patron of the Protestant religious movement at that time, printed not in Belarusian, but in Polish. Such was the cultural fashion of that time. Belarus, on the crossroad between Poland and Russia, was influenced by its strongest neighbours.

The National History Museum is showing, for the first time, documents from the archive of the Slutsk Holy Trinity Monastery. Monks sent letters across Belarus and even to Kiev, often sealing with an ancient coat of arms. Amazingly, these fragile objects have survived wars and fires and are now available for viewing.

The heritage of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania is also on show inside the House-museum of the First RSDRP. Its Weaponry and Honour: In Service of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania exhibition reveals that, more than 600 years ago, Tatars arrived in Belarus and Lithuania from Crimea. They served in the army of the grand prince, built mosques, and copied the Koran into Belarusian using Arabic letters. Even today, several thousand descendants still live here, and are almost impossible to distinguish from Belarusians and Lithuanians, having been assimilated. The exhibition displays objects from everyday life and Tatar costume, for both sexes. There’s even the armour of a late 14th-early 15th century soldier, complete with helmet, shield, chain mail, belt, sabre, spear and gonfalon.

Fans of modern culture should visit the House of Masons, located in Musical Lane, in Minsk. Part of the Museum of Theatrical and Musical Culture, it features a collection of puppets from Nina Shoba’s Kalykhanka (Lullaby): a children’s favourite with which every Belarusian is familiar. Who doesn’t know dog Tsyava, cat Martin, girl Vasilinka, boy Vasilek, Zhuravlik (stork), old man Boroded, bear cub Topa, and fox Yana?

On display also are rare photos from the show, including those of film sets, and the costumes worn during filming. Creator Nina, now retired, admits that she still likes to watch the show before going to sleep. This year, the old hero of the programme, Zhuravlik, returned. Actress Emiliya Pranskutse is voicing the role.

Children love the programme so much that they often write to the puppet characters. Over the past 35 years, it has lulled young Belarusians to sleep, with the aid of 40 puppets. Not all remain: only about 20 reside in the museum, restored by Marina Fomina. She tells us, “Some had a damaged mechanism, so I repaired with hammer and nails. For Vasilinka, I embroidered a waistcoat using a sewing machine, while I hand cross-stitched a shirt for Vasilek.”

The History Museum, as you can see, is not only a warehouse of medieval treasures but a living chronicle. Having visited, you can leave your own chronicle in the guest book, to be viewed by someone else in the future.

By Viktar Korbut
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