Filon — Orsha’s headman

[b]After reading historical novels by Alexander Dumas and Walter Scott, some people sigh that Belarusian history doesn’t boast such romantic events. However, we do have a history filled with knights’ tournaments, philosophical disputes and unusual adventures. Our ancestors didn’t live on a wild island in the centre of Europe [/b]Our subject for today was a commander, a diplomat and the first Medieval Belarusian writer. His descendant became a model Kmicic knight — Henryk Sienkiewicz’s favourite character. Although he may not be familiar to everyone, his name is closely connected with true legends.
After reading historical novels by Alexander Dumas and Walter Scott, some people sigh that Belarusian history doesn’t boast such romantic events. However, we do have a history filled with knights’ tournaments, philosophical disputes and unusual adventures. Our ancestors didn’t live on a wild island in the centre of Europe

Our subject for today was a commander, a diplomat and the first Medieval Belarusian writer. His descendant became a model Kmicic knight — Henryk Sienkiewicz’s favourite character. Although he may not be familiar to everyone, his name is closely connected with true legends.

Filon Kmita-Chernobylsky
Filon was born in Orsha in 1530, earning fame young for his heroic deeds. He was appointed Governor of Oster Fortress, near Kiev, and King Sigismund II Augustus gave him the estates of Chernobylskoye and Orsha. Of course, we shouldn’t idealise politicians and military men. Filon often failed to comply with the law, being cruel as well as courageous and cunning in diplomatic affairs.
The most curious part of our character’s life begins on the death of his patron, Sigismund Augustus. The King died without an heir — as described in the legend of the Black Lady of Nesvizh. Sigismund had been in love with beautiful Barbara Radziwiłł who was, according to general opinion, murdered by the king’s mother, Bona Sforza.
Once the king died, the Rzech Pospolita and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were thrown into chaos, with candidates for the throne spinning intrigues. The French Prince Henri de Valois and Russian Tsar Ivan the Terrible were the leading contenders.

Filon and Ivan the Terrible
There’s nothing extraordinary in inviting royal foreigners to take the throne. Moreover, European ruling dynasties are always closely connected by ties of blood and marriage. Those who didn’t want the Grand Duchy of Lithuania to find itself in vassal dependence on the Polish Kingdom spoke in favour of Ivan, as did the Orthodox nobility, who were concerned for their faith. Filon Kmita-Chernobylsky was among those who wished to see Ivan, or his son Fiodor, become King of Rzech Pospolita.
Filon had earned a military reputation for bravely defeating Moscow troops near Smolensk and Polotsk and had gathered information about Moskovia, conducting diplomatic negotiations. However, his plan failed and, in April 1573, the French Prince was elected to the Polish throne. Kmita-Chernobylsky was lucky enough to not be a vassal of the Russian Tsar (known for painfully disposing of those members of his court who failed to complete his tasks). The Tsar simply sent a goat’s head to Filon — showing his assessment of Filon’s diplomatic abilities.

Filon and Henri de Valois
Filon’s attitude towards Henri de Valois may have been similar to that of a heavy metal fan towards a boys’ pop band, but professional politicians aren’t guided by emotions. Orsha headman organised a solemn welcoming ceremony for the monarch. However, the Frenchman’s reign over the ‘wild northern country’ didn’t last long. The son of Catherine de Mйdici — known to us via Alexander Dumas’ novels — surprised Poland no end with his ‘effeminate’ ways: luxurious attire, cosmetics, jewellery and perfume. He and his court aroused mockery from the rough Polish nobility but this didn’t stop Rzech Pospolita fashionistas from quickly copying the new trends. Meanwhile, Henri didn’t know the Polish language and had no desire to help manage his new country.
The King enjoyed himself in revelry every night, while squandering huge amounts of money from the royal treasury. However, he soon tired of his Polish life, and rather older bride, Anna Jagiellonka, and planned a secret escape at night. He organised a feast for his senators to make them drunk and then fled to France to take the throne there — a much more attractive prospect. Henri’s elder brother — French King Charles IX — had died, leaving France’s throne open to Henri.

Filon and epistolary heritage
People’s Poet of Belarus Rygor Borodulin wrote: ‘Kmita-Chernobylsky was sending letters in the Belarusian language to the King, magnates and state officials. He considered the land to be his and didn’t stint on praising it’.
The epistolary heritage of Filon Kmita-Chernobylsky is a true treasure, still inspiring us in discoveries. Undoubtedly, Filon possessed literary talent and his letters contain plenty of images and folklore expressions. He was also good at writing political essays. Yefim Karsky was the first in Belarus to become interested in the Orsha headman’s letters and used them in his fundamental work — Belarusians.

Filon heads intelligence
Filon’s letters contain plenty of references to reports made by his numerous spies in neighbouring states. He headed the intelligence service — filling a role rather like M in the James Bond film series. He ran an especially wide espionage ring in Moscovia, of which Ivan the Terrible was aware. The Tsar took his own strong measures with the help of oprichniki (a private army devoted to the service of Ivan the Terrible and responsible for the torture and murder of many innocent people in Russia). Filon was also effective at questioning his enemy spies of course.
Filon’s life contained many secrets and mysteries, which are reflected in the fact that his burial place remains unknown. An epitaph remains, written by Starovolsky, which reads: ‘Dear traveller, a courageous person lies under this stone, famous Senator Filon Kmita of Sarmatia, Head of Smolensk, an experienced warrior and the first of the first’.

By Lyudmila Rublevskaya
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