Urbanites often grow tired of traffic noise and crowded streets, dreaming of spending just a few days in a tranquil village. Sadly, they don’t always manage to fulfil these fantasies, since they can involve a long journey to reach the countryside. In this respect, Zaslavl residents are lucky, since they enjoy modern multi-storey buildings and enterprises on one side of town and a historical centre of low ancient houses and cosy streets on the other. In fact, you can reach the unusual town-village in just half an hour, by taking the electric train from Minsk
I decided to start with antiquity, crossing the railway track to seek out the wooden houses hidden among green gardens. Street names like Zamkovaya (Castle), Rynochnaya (Market), Velikaya (Greata) and Symon Budny indicate that I’ve found my way. They bear witness to the rich, ancient history of this town.
Legend tells us that the town was founded in 985, by Kiev Duke Vladimir Svyatoslavich, who conquered Polotsk. He forced the local governor to give his daughter, Rogneda, to him in marriage, despite her refusal. She then decided to take revenge by trying to kill her husband in his sleep. Her attempt failed and, according to the custom of that time, the husband was given the right to take his wife’s life. Their young son, Duke Izyaslav, stepped in to protect his mother, raising his sword against his father. Vladimir then decided to forgive his wife and allowed her to return to her native land, together with his son. They settled at the mouth of the River Svisloch, living in a frontier fortress which was named in Izyaslavl’s honour — Izyaslavl. With time, this was shortened to Zaslavl. Many local legends and place names bear the memory of Rogneda, such as the Knyaginka and Chernitsa rivers, whose banks once hosted a monastery founded by Rogneda. She became a nun or ‘chernitsa’. Today, the site of the fortress where the unruly duchess lived out her exile bears a stone cross recalling the woman who was one of the first in modern Belarus to adopt Christianity.
Our forefathers were building their forts a thousand years ago. My ascent to the ancient 11th century citadel in Zaslavl seemed endless; I was exhausted by the time I reached the top. Imagining the moat which once surrounded the castle, it’s no surprise that Zaslavl dwellers didn’t fear their enemies. In the 16th century, it became the first bastion of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The only entry point was a wooden bridge which could be lowered to allow thoroughfare through the single set of gates. Amazingly, something remains: orange bricks fixed with stones. Another wonder is a church built five hundred years ago within the castle’s walls! Today, its 35m belfry attracts visitors from far away to see the Orthodox Church of the Saviour’s Transfiguration. Initially, it hosted the Calvinist Cathedral, where famous protestant figure and scientist Symon Budny used to preach. It’s said that it was here that he finished translating the Bible into Polish.
Standing on the bank near the church, a wonderful view of the town and its historical centre opens up. It looks like a painting drawn by a talented artist, using a palette of the brightest colours. Above greenery, motley roofs and fences stands another architectural pearl of the town: the Parish Cathedral of the Virgin Mary. Every aspect is simple: stairs, arches and towers. At the same time, it has grandeur: I feel like a small insect beside the 300 year old cathedral, designed by Italian architect Carlo Spampani. It was created upon the order of Antoni Tadeusz Przezdziecki, when he took over governance of Zaslavl.
Big festival for a small town
The Przezdziecki family was one of the most prominent in the Rzecz Pospolita, dreaming for decades of owning Zaslavl County. They wanted to demonstrate the significance and dignity of their family and their dream came true in the mid 18th century. The Sapega family could no longer manage Zaslavl and the town declined, allowing the Przezdzieckis to breathe new life into it. They built a brick factory and set up cloth manufacture, as well as tiling and lime production. They even began breeding Arab and English race horses at Zaslavl stud farm, which frequently won world events. They obtained the right to hold fairs in Zaslavl County, gathering up to 20,000 people, even though Zaslavl itself had no more than 200 residents. It was actually considered to be a borough, since this was its status as part of the Russian Empire.
The Przezdziecki family built a family palace and a park, also designed by Italian Spampani. A library, a picture gallery, a stage for theatre performances, spas, fishing ponds, greenhouses and factories were included, creating a huge estate. It was so costly that the family were obliged to sell much of their land in Zaslavl to cover the financial burden. Unfortunately, only small fragments of the former magnificent palace remain today.
To Zaslavl after flour
Looking at the massive log buildings near the railway station, you can tell they are around a hundred years old. All were erected in 1910 by a well-to-do Zaslavl resident, Mekhedko-Savitsky. The tallest three-storey wooden building is the steam mill, where local people once ground their wheat. Up to 60 carts carrying fifty bags each would sometimes wait near the mill.
Just twenty years ago, it was still operational, creating as much noise as a jet plane passing overhead. Now, it’s only open for demonstrative purposes.
“Old millstones were placed on the floor at the doorway,” guide Tatiana Orlova tells us. “Entering the building for the first time, you were supposed to make a wish, stepping onto the stone with your right foot as you did so.” The stones are still there, worn down by thousands of feet. I hope my cherished wish comes true.
So many people came to grind flour at Zaslavl that the queues obliged some to stay overnight. The Mekhedko-Savitsky family built an inn to cater for guests, offering hand washing facilities, straw mattresses and a samovar. The building looks just as it did a hundred years ago.
My attention is drawn by a building across the street; its balcony and carved handrails surely indicate it was owned by a wealthy family — but it has no windows and very high foundations. It turns out that it was a barn, designed to be dry so that wheat could be stored — in various boxes, tubs and chests. These were often received by the mill in payment for services rendered.
We might think that it was easy for our ancestors to make their journeys by horse — rather than enduring temperamental cars. However, carts and horses also needed attention, with a blacksmith shop (built by the mill owner) clanging in Zaslavl from dawn until sunset. The blacksmiths repaired carts and made axes, scythes and locks for Zaslavl fairs. We rarely hear a blacksmith at work today, except at folk museums, or else where tourists might be invited to hit an anvil with a hammer for fun.
As a child, I heard stories about wood goblins, and water and house spirits. I yearned to see these mythical creatures and, a few years ago, my dream came true, thanks to Zaslavl’s Mythology and Wood Museum. Although supposedly for children, the museum is also enchanting to adults.
On entering, you find yourself in a wild wood, hearing distant music. In the darkness, green eyes blink here and there. Behind a tree is an old snag-man; according to Belarusian legend, he trips you as you walk through the forest, hoping that you’ll drop berries from your basket. Swamp spirits, wood goblins and house spirits reside at the museum, which also shows us stuffed hares, hazel-grouse, martens, jays and other creatures. It’s a wonderful opportunity to gain acquaintance with Belarusian fauna and flora. The wooden house of the museum is located directly in the woods.
If you want to take up a musical instrument but are having trouble deciding which to chose, Zaslavl can help you. It houses Belarus’ only museum of musical instruments, with rare pipes, violins, zithers, lutes, penny whistles and more on display and played for visitors’ amusement. One corner is home to Vileika master Konstantin Kirget, who lived in the mid-20th century. Since resources were scarce at the time, Kirget used anything available to create instruments, including animal bones and tin cans. One from Nescafe is 70 years old.
It’s hard for us to imagine that a single person can manage several puppets during a theatre performance. Besides pulling the strings, all the different voices are needed. The youngest audiences at Zaslavl’s batleika (puppet theatre) — one of the most popular entertainments in the town — often try to peep behind the screen to see how many people are there.
Of course, there is only one: Konstantsia Shakhovich. She has dozens of her favourite puppets with her, which she treats like real children. She tidies their hair, sews costumes and creates new roles for them. Konstantsia writes her own plays, such as her rhyming Tsar-Tyrant, Little Red Riding Hood and Farewell to Primary School. These are well known to the young Zaslavl theatre-goers. Even children from Minsk attend her performances. She is one of the rare few who can create the voice of a tyrant tsar, a squeaky imp and a cordial angel. After each performance, she usually chats with the audience, discussing the characters and drawing parallels with real life.
“It’s not enough for a child just to see a play,” explains Ms. Shakhovich. “It’s important for them to understand the real message. The bright costumes catch their attention but they should also learn something significant.”
Zaslavl’s historical and cultural sites are certainly impressive. Besides puppet performances, you can enjoy theatrical installations showing Maslenitsa and Kalyady festivals, watch knights’ tournaments during the Zaslavl Tocsin event and listen to the annual chamber music festival.
Across the railway track to the town
Crossing the railway track, you see an entirely different life: cars, multi-storey buildings, plants and beauty shops. Zaslavl tops the ranking of Belarus’ small towns. However, it has further pages in its history. To tell you more, I’ll need to return to the topic another day.
By Lyudmila Minkevich
City of contrasts
[b]Urbanites often grow tired of traffic noise and crowded streets, dreaming of spending just a few days in a tranquil village. Sadly, they don’t always manage to fulfil these fantasies, since they can involve a long journey to reach the countryside. In this respect, Zaslavl residents are lucky, since they enjoy modern multi-storey buildings and enterprises on one side of town and a historical centre of low ancient houses and cosy streets on the other. In fact, you can reach the unusual town-village in just half an hour, by taking the electric train from Minsk[/b]