City of distinctive traditions
[b]It would seem that in order to go back one thousand years, a time machine is not needed. It is enough to catch a Minsk commuter electric train and, in half an hour, you will find yourself in the centre of one of the oldest cities in Belarus — Zaslavl.[/b] In 2015 it will turn 1030 from the moment of the first mention of it in historical chronicles. However, ancient settlements have appeared here much earlier. The city is not big even today, just 14.5 thousand residents, but its role in the destiny of Kievan Rus, and later, the Old Russian state, is huge. Cruel prince Vladimir, who forcedly took the beautiful Rogneda of Polotsk for his wife and then exiled her with their son, Izyaslav, sent her to this city. And so, the city was named after this son of Rogneda and Vladimir.
In 2015 it will turn 1030 from the moment of the first mention of it in historical chronicles. However, ancient settlements have appeared here much earlier. The city is not big even today, just 14.5 thousand residents, but its role in the destiny of Kievan Rus, and later, the Old Russian state, is huge. Cruel prince Vladimir, who forcedly took the beautiful Rogneda of Polotsk for his wife and then exiled her with their son, Izyaslav, sent her to this city. And so, the city was named after this son of Rogneda and Vladimir.
Such classics of Belarusian appear in Ukrainian literature, like Yakub Kolas and Taras Shevchenko, who were inspired by their drama destinies and devoted poetic lines, full of pathos, to Rogneda. In the middle of the 19th century, the opera Rogneda was successfully shown on the stage of the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg.
The princess gave birth to the legendary Kievan Prince, Yaroslav the Wise, while her son Izyaslav became the founder of a new dynasty of influential Polotsk princes, among which is the well-known soldier, Vseslav the Magician (Vseslav Charodey), and legendary Orthodox enlightener, Yevfrosiniya Polotskaya. That was a very important chapter in the formation of Belarusian statehood.
So, what signs of those, almost mythical times remain in the ancient city? Together with the Director of Zaslavl History and Culture Museum-Reserve, Nikolai Pogranovsky we walk around the most significant places. Of course, we start with the ancient settlement known as ‘Zamečak’ (meaning ‘small castle’) on a slope of a hill which towers over the Chernitsa River. According to legend, this was the place where Rogneda and Izyaslav settled. Now, only the remaining earth mounds and a memorial stone cross on round pedestal, erected on the occasion of 1000 anniversary of Christianity in Russia, remind us of those times. Grateful descendants gave credit to the memory of Rogneda as a devout adherent of Orthodoxy. She was the first on the territory of today’s Belarus who was baptised and became a nun, calling herself Anastasia. She constructed a convent on Chernaya Mountain and was buried near this monastery in the year 1000.
The following centuries also left a lot of interesting things in Zaslavl. The Calvinist church of the 16th century, which was later transformed into Transfiguration Church, is the only part of the castle-fortress of Glebovich, a distinguished dignitary of Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which has remained in good condition. The ancient Roman-Catholic Church of the Birth of the Virgin Mary is located opposite the Transfiguration Church.
After visiting these majestic locations, you feel the simple human warmth of the ethnographic museum, which instructs its visitors about life of the Belarusian peasantry. Mr. Pogranovsky invites me to examine the mlyn, a well-preserved, two-storeyed wooden mill constructed in 1910 and shows me the stone millstones and other original objects.
He comments, “In those days it was a huge construction, its owner, Mekhedko-Savitsky, even took credit for its construction. He maintained strict discipline. If a worker came to work drunk, or tried to smoke, the penalty could reach as much as half of the cost of one cow. The mill stands in its original location, while the ancient barn we brought up from the Vitebsk Region. The smithy, with a complete set of clamps, hammers, anvil and the other tools, were brought from the Volozhin District. Until recently it has been used for excursions, with the Zaslavl resident, metal artist, Larisa Kostyukevich worked here as a smith. Her works are also exhibited in our museum.”
During the time when grain was milled, peasants passed time in the house of the Handler. They had to give him a tenth part of their milled grain as payment. The Handler’s house was originally a rural hotel consisting of two big rooms, a kitchen, hall and dormitory. Though it was built anew and now is a part of the museum, its former place and ancient ware, various utensils, furniture and clothes preserve the colour of the past. Lodgers did not get under their feet, having sold their crops; they gave themselves a treat — gorelka (vodka) — in the neighbouring tavern, the public catering establishment which, by the way, is nearby even today. After that, not all of them managed to take off their boots — lenivki — without the use of special devices. They slept on hay mattresses filled with dried grass and when it was cold, they got warm near a stove lined with tiles. The keeper of the museum, Svetlana Nosevich informs me that today’s children are especially impressed with ancient way of life, “Children from the whole of Belarus, and other countries, come to us. We treat them with mint tea with spiced-cakes. The children become silent and listen attentively.”
Nearly 36,000 tourists visit Zaslavl annually, so this town is not lost against the background of younger places neighbouring Minsk. But how does this ancient city feel today on the outskirts of a two-million population mega-city? I talk about this with the Chairman of Zaslavl City Executive Committee, Svetlana Kartasheva.
“Our city has its own history and a quiet, measured way of life. For example, in January, maestro Mikhail Finberg held here the republican festival of chamber music for the 15th time. It is a spiritual supply for the whole year. But at the same time Zaslavl is also a big industrial centre. About 800 enterprises, basically private and foreign, are registered here. Construction mixtures, natural parquet and glass production are sold in Belarus and abroad. Since Minsk is nearby, where construction services are always in demand, the building industry is well developed,” she noted.
800 enterprises, including large ones, with 14 just thousand residents? Is Zaslavl such an attractive place for business? The theme of favourable conditions for the development of business in Belarus needs a separate discussion, but the fact that such countries as Germany and Russia willingly invest in this ancient city is indisputable. It even creates certain problems with the recruitment of qualified staff. In order to attract them, the administration of the city develops new housing. It is one of the concerns of the governor. What to do with the historical constructions protected by the state? In total, they occupy a lot of space — 113 of around 1800 hectares of the total city area. Yes, the state takes upon itself the main burden, allocating means and attracting contractors, but the opinion of local authorities is also taken into account. For example, in the central street of Zaslavl there are several wooden one-storeyed houses from the 19th century which attract attention. The plaques on these houses testify that they are of historical value. However people live there even today. How can the state and the local authorities keep these habitations in good condition? Probably, it is better to resettle their inhabitants and to present these rare, small houses to the museum. But where do those finances come from? Svetlana Kartasheva’s main concern is about children, and about the future of the city.
“Zaslavl has great potential. Thanks to the high birth rate for last several years, the city is growing. We now have 3,000 children and teenagers living in the city. There are two secondary schools and one grammar school. Many of the pupils achieve good results in sport and art. They are our future. But we do not forget about the veterans. This is our gold fund, and we can always rely on it. Our city is small, I know practically all the residents. And if I’m in a shop, clinic or school people approach to me with housing and municipal problems. Now, people are more interested in the questions of development of the region,” she added.
One of the ideas prompted by local residents is to recreate the castle of the nobleman Glebovich? One more significant tourist objective, where it is possible, is to place an ethnographic museum of Zaslavl which would appear near Minsk. The income gained from visitors would allow the creation of new workplaces and would top up the regional budget. Svetlana Kartasheva and Nikolai Pogranovsky support this idea and have thought it over in the Ministry of Culture, district and regional executive committees. The idea is being prepared to be introduced to the Council of Ministers. There is also the need to construct a modern hospital with polyclinic in Zaslavl, as well as a modern, cultural-entertainment centre. The fact that all this is available in the neighbouring Minsk is not an argument for local residents, because it is not convenient. Culture, public health services, as well as shops and public catering, should be located nearby, Svetlana Kartasheva is sure.
Many plans will come true soon. In 2014, Zaslavl will host the Day of Slavonic Written Language for the second time. By tradition, for this international event, the state allocates additional means for beautification and the putting in order of historical constructions. It means that the ancient city will acquire a new face.
By Vladimir Bibikov