By Lyudmila Minkevich
Many coloured leaves fall onto a wooden boat, moored to the bank, while fish — caught by the host — dry under the roof. Anchors are seen everywhere and a mermaid sits on a stone, as if having just emerged from the water. Within just a few steps, you know that Vileika is a river city, with the Vilia River surrounding it like a blue ribbon.
Vileika was known as a large river port until the 20th century (when the railway was laid). In the 1970s, the largest water reservoir in the country was built in the city, as the Belarusian capital lacked water. Vilia’s popularity has grown and, for several years, water voyages dedicated to Konstantin Tyszkiewicz have been organised along the river. In 1857, he was first to research the Vilia, from its rise and outflow. Enthusiasts travel in kayaks, rafts and twin-hulled vessels along the river for a month, visiting Belarusian and Lithuanian historical sights and beautiful places.
Fishermen say that church bells can be heard on winter Christian holidays at Vileika water reservoir — just place your ear to the ice. The area has many churches, which perhaps explains the phenomenon. Several major houses of worship are situated in Vileika’s central square, just a few metres from one another. Snow white St. Mary of Egypt Orthodox Church was built in 1865, using ancient architectural designs. Some time ago, it had chiming clocks. Interestingly, the church never closed and, during WWII, only one tower was damaged by a shell.
The Exaltation of the Holy Cross Church had a different fate. It was built in 1913 and, in Soviet times, was a warehouse for sweets, cereals and alcohol. The church’s stained glass windows were covered with iron boards and its frescoes were painted over. However, two years later, the paint began to crumble, being laid upon cement. As a result, Christ’s painted out face mystically reappeared. In the 1970s, the church was reconstructed; its tall Gothic towers were visible to anyone coming to the city, so the authorities had little choice.
Local residents have another explanation for the mysterious bell ringing heard through the ice, saying that it comes from lost villages, flooded during the construction of Vileika water reservoir. Nine disappeared under the water, obliging residents to be relocated. However, memories live on. Rybchina’s former villagers began organising meetings not far from the site where their village was previously situated. A stone has been erected to honour their original home and, every year, former villagers — now residing in Minsk, Moscow, Tallinn and Kiev — come to celebrate Trinity Sunday and recollect their past. A priest is always invited to give a service.
The idea was recently supported by the Chairman of the District Council of Deputies, Yevgeny Ignatovich, famous local land researcher Anatoly Rogach and architect Anatoly Koptyuga. They decided to unveil a memorial to honour the villages which disappeared in the Vileika District last century. There are 250 in all, including those flooded, burnt during the war and lost for other reasons. It took several weeks to erect the ‘Honouring Former Villages’ memorial, which is unique countrywide, resembling a cottage, built using thirteen stones (symbolising the 13 village councils of the Vileika District). It is inscribed with two hundred names of lost villages. Many come to lay flowers in remembrance….
Vileika was founded in 1460, on the Grand Ducal lands of Kurenets. It gained the status of a city in 1795 and is now home to about 27,000 people