Fascinated with Polesie
[b]442 unique photos of Belarusians published a century later[/b]I’m leafing with excitement through an advance copy of the album Belarusians through Photography by Isaac Serbov in 1911-1912. The bulky volume has just arrived from the Belarusian Encyclopaedia Publishing House and still smells of fresh ink. Within, you can explore the works of famous Belarusian ethnographer and archaeologist, scholar and historian Isaac Serbov. By order of the North-West Branch of the Imperial Russian Geographical Society, he was tasked with cataloguing life in the Minsk, Brest, Gomel and Mogilev regions. He walked on foot and travelled by cart, bicycle and train to 74 towns and villages, armed with his camera.
I’m leafing with excitement through an advance copy of the album Belarusians through Photography by Isaac Serbov in 1911-1912. The bulky volume has just arrived from the Belarusian Encyclopaedia Publishing House and still smells of fresh ink. Within, you can explore the works of famous Belarusian ethnographer and archaeologist, scholar and historian Isaac Serbov. By order of the North-West Branch of the Imperial Russian Geographical Society, he was tasked with cataloguing life in the Minsk, Brest, Gomel and Mogilev regions. He walked on foot and travelled by cart, bicycle and train to 74 towns and villages, armed with his camera.
He particularly loved Belarusian Polesie, from whence my ancestors came, living in the town of Petrikov, situated on the banks of the Pripyat. According to family legend, my great-grandfather ceramist made glazed clay pots there, which were famous almost as far as Warsaw. Alas, none of the faces in the book appear to be from my own family, as seen in our old albums, but the portraits cannot help but strike a chord. A bearded merchant stares seriously at the camera, standing in Petrikov market. More photos depict a lively gypsy camp and the familiar silhouette of the church on the hill.
The Belarusian Ambassador to Lithuania, Vladimir Drazhin, has worked hard to ensure that the edition has reached publication and I’m hugely grateful for his efforts. Serbov’s shots capture the very essence of the Belarusian people: their diligence, humility, pride and loyalty to their homeland.
From the lowly peasant bearing his farming tools to the wheel-maker and Polesie potters with their mountains of earthenware, standing beside their furnace, we see the burden and pride of labour. Women are naturally beautiful, shining with devotion to their children and family, wearing homespun dresses and elaborate headdresses. Sadly, photography of the time could not depict the rich colours of those folk patterns. Most buildings, from the school to the church and homes, are simply thatched.
The handwritten comments of Isaac Serbov against each photo are also fascinating, detailing his thoughts on the influence of industrial progress: ‘Everything old — buildings, their contents, tools and clothes — is being replaced by the new’. The younger generation was learning new habits fast, with the traditions of their ancestors losing popularity. The photographs are an invaluable record of local customs, clothing and way of life. The faces are especially notable, not yet indelibly imprinted by the events soon to follow: World War I, the October Revolution and collectivisation, then World War II.
Older villagers rarely objected to posing for the camera, wearing their holiday attire. Just twenty miles from Minsk, towards Slutsk, men wore long white shirts with simple necks and large turndown collars, with white trousers and willow bast shoes. Their broad, colourful belts held their tobacco pouch and a knife. Around Kletsk, most women wore coloured clothing with a red hat — known as a ‘woodpecker’. Younger people were shy, usually refusing to be photographed, feeling that they might be made fun of.
Serbov’s shots certainly revealed how clothes, farming and the everyday life of Belarusians varied across the regions, and how they have since changed with time. Of course, some of his subjects were farmers while others were skilled craftsmen. Some were from villages around Slutsk while others served the Tsar in some way. The names of settlements reveal much; in Luchniki, villagers made bows while Seryagi residents wove grey cloth jackets and those from Ogorodniki grew and sold vegetables.
The edition is sure to be interesting to researchers and to all those interested in their folk legacy. The first copies are being distributed to libraries, universities and embassies and the edition even features a forward written by the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko. This reads: ‘Knowledge and remembrance of the history of our own country, honouring our ancestors and the legacy they have left us brings spirituality in the highest sense. This is what it means to be Belarusian.’ It is truly wonderful that such photographs survived war and the Revolution, becoming published one century later.
Mr. Serbov was born in 1871 to a family of land-hungry Belarusian peasants, in the Mogilev Province. His keen interest in learning led him to work as a teacher at a Minsk gymnasium, and he was an active member of the North-West Branch of the Imperial Russian Geographical Society, which reformed in 1910, based in Vilno (now Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania). In 1913, Mr. Serbov moved there and gave his first photography exhibition. After the October Revolution, he helped set up the Belarusian Academy of Sciences and worked there. Unlike the other founders, he escaped repression and died in 1943, in Tambov, having been evacuated there before the Germans captured Minsk.
The location of Mr. Serbov’s glass photographic plate negatives (around 2000 from his Belarusian Polesie expedition) remains unknown. However, 442 copies were kept for decades in the Manuscript Department of the Vilnius University Library, attracting the attention of Belarusian researchers a few decades ago. Their authorship was identified and most were published in an album, with text, compiled by Olga Lobachevskaya — who holds a Ph.D. in Art History and is an Associate Professor of the Belarusian State University of Culture and Arts.
“Lithuanian specialists assisted in the preparation of the publication, including the Deputy Director of the Library of Vilnius University, Maria Prokopchik, employees Niele Shulgene and Valentina Karpova, and the Head of the Science and Encyclopaedia Publishing Centre of Lithuania, Rimantas Kareckas,” explains the author. “We should be grateful to our Lithuanian colleagues for them having preserved priceless items of Belarusian heritage, which they have placed in digital format and made public. They’ve even held several exhibitions.”
The joint edition took two years to complete and, without exaggeration, can be called a monumental work. The Chief Editor of the Belarusian Encyclopaedia series, Larisa Yazykovich, notes that this is the second volume in the Encyclopaedia of Rarities collection, in co-operation with Lithuanian colleagues. In 2012, an album of drawings by Russian artist Dmitry Strukov was published; by coincidence, he travelled to the
same places as Mr. Serbov, half a century earlier.
By Vladimir Yakovlev