Chronicles reveal their secrets

Unique photos of Einstein, Charlie Chaplin, Rabindranath Tagore, Richard Wagner and Belarusian cultural and political figures from 19th-21st century kept in city not far from Minsk

By Viktar Korbut

The ten storey building in Dzerzhinsk is the tallest in the city, visible from some distance. Not far from Minsk, it is reachable from Koydanovo railway station (the name of the city until the 1930s). It hosts the Belarusian State Archives of Film Shot, Photo Documents and Sound Tapes, boasting priceless shots and recordings of our classical writers and public figures; most of them exist there alone. Thousands of documents reside in iron boxes and cases, having been stored there since 1941.

Seventy years ago, the storage facility was created, open to everyone. On entering the Archives, I decided to first view old photos of the Radziwill family (19th century Belarusian oligarchs) before turning to shots from 1870 of the first railway track being laid in Belarus. Another photo, from 1898, showed an amazing balloon launch at Minsk’s Governor’s Garden (today’s Gorky Park). The originals of the first shots are fragile glass plates.

There are also plenty of photos depicting everyday life, with Belarusian newspapers and news agencies having donated shots. It’s a wonderful way to explore the way our forefathers lived. “Glass plates, tapes and, even, modern computer files will be kept here forever,” asserts the Director of the Archives, Victor Balandin. Local pictures depict Yakub Kolas, Vladimir Mulyavin and many other Belarusian cultural figures; some have never been released to the public.

One collection stands out among the others. In 1945, Europe’s largest photo collection arrived in Belarus from Germany; it was a ‘trophy find’ then but is invaluable now, with photos taken by professional masters from around the world. Hundreds of photos of Einstein, Charlie Chaplin, Rabindranath Tagore, Leo Tolstoy and Richard Wagner are now kept in Dzerzhinsk.

“We don’t know how they appeared in Germany. Most probably, the Nazis took them from an occupied country,” explains doctor of historical sciences Sergey Zhumar — the Deputy Director for Scientific Work at the Belarusian Research Institute of Records Management and Archival Studies. He adds, “We’ve discovered that these photos originally belonged to the Parisian branch of the Wide World Photos (WWP) Agency, featuring the stamp ‘Paris, Rue Reamur, 106’ on the reverse. The Agency was supervised by the New York Times newspaper; it still exists, as a subdivision of the Associated Press.”

Not long ago, staff at the Dzerzhinsk Archives prepared a virtual exhibition to mark the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, with photos placed online at www.gomeljust.by (the website of Gomel Regional Executive Committee’s Main Department of Justice). For the first time, photos showing how the Chernobyl catastrophe was dealt with are on show to the public, in addition to shots of those who took part. Only five years ago, these were declassified. The disaster affected millions of people, with the Gomel Region suffering most of all. Of course, the tragedy is now in the past but it remains a significant part of our history. Dzerzhinsk’s Archives of Film Shot, Photo Documents and Sound Tapes hold the key to unlocking that past.

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