Alexander Alexeev and Oleg Lukashevich present new photographic album from their famous art series, at Belarus’ National History Museum

“Heritage of Belarus” — to be continued…

Alexander Alexeev and Oleg Lukashevich present new photographic album from their famous art series, at Belarus’ National History Museum

When the first Heritage of Belarus edition was released, it caused a stir, even outside the sphere of culture. It was amazing how the young authors (both TV workers) managed to demonstrate greater mastery in producing illustrated materials than more experienced professionals. The theme of their book was a true revelation, changing perceptions of Belarus’ allegedly modest historical and cultural heritage. The new edition aroused admiration and, some time later, Heritage of Belarus was presented to various top-level guests. Belarusian diplomats abroad always keep copies of the edition at their offices, ready to make presentations.

Without doubt, the Heritage of Belarus art project is among the most significant in its field, promoting understanding of our historical and cultural legacy. Alexander Alexeev and Oleg Lukashevich have created their own concept for presenting Belarusian history and culture, uniting the release of artistic albums, TV films and photo exhibitions, to achieve a single goal: the promotion of Belarus’ national wealth.

Mr. Alexeev and Mr. Lukashevich have used new methods and means of expression, aiming to create a new perspective on our picturesque and unique panorama, its wonderful landscapes and architectural sites. It presents interesting pages from our nation’s history, contributing to an extensive and active cultural dialogue and opening up Belarusian heritage to the global community.

The historical treasures depicted by the authors are a wonderful embodiment of the Belarusian nation’s spiritual and material legacy. They indicate Belarus’ special role within European and global history and culture. Belarusian masters built magnificent and elegant castles and churches, and made unique golden articles. With its geographical position, Belarusian lands did not simply copy the cultural traditions of Byzantium, Western Europe or the East. We introduced these exotic ‘secrets’ into the culture of our closest neighbours.

The recent exhibition at the National History Museum showcased all the albums published between 2004 and 2015 — including Heritage of Belarus: Treasures. For the first time, significant objects of decorative-and-applied arts, made from precious metals, were gathered together, truly demonstrating our national wealth. Acting as pioneers in the field of reviving knowledge of our national legacy, Mr. Alexeev and Mr. Lukashevich have used photography creatively, depicting the enchanting beauty of gold and the aristocratic delicacy of silver. Readers can follow trends in church plate styles, complicated methods of metal processing and the creation of finished artworks.

The authors now enjoy some fame, having proven popular in Belarus and abroad. Their albums are held by the world’s largest libraries, as well as by prestigious universities, and cultural and diplomatic establishments. They grace many private collections.

Mr. Alexeev and Mr. Lukashevich have investigated the names of famous Belarusians, demonstrating Belarus’ ties with other states, and showing how certain people contributed to the global community and the establishment of the Belarusian nation. Facts and attractive filming are complimented by perfectly chosen music, to create documentaries both atmospheric and moving.

Between 2003 and 2015, over twenty Republican and international exhibitions were held in Poland, France, the UK, Italy and Armenia. In addition, over 100 episodes of the Our Heritage series were filmed for television, on architectural-historical legacy. There have also been over 50 episodes dedicated to famous historical personalities born on Belarusian lands.

There’s no doubt that the Heritage of Belarus art project is a great event for Belarusian culture. Its authors have succeeded in showing the depth of our rich national legacy. Major research has been undertaken, and 44,500 books released: a unique publishing achievement.

The high artistic level of the albums has been acknowledged by several major awards. On January 7th, 2005, the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, awarded Mr. Alexeev and Mr. Lukashevich the ‘For Spiritual Revival’ award. Moreover, the authors have received the highest award in the publishing sphere (bestowed for the first time in 14 years): the Frantsisk Skorina Diploma. It was presented at the 45th Republican Art of Books Contest, for their Heritage of Belarus. In 2008, the Heritage of Belarus: Treasures album was awarded a 1st Degree Diploma at the 5th International Art of Books CIS Contest and, in 2015, the authors received the Winning Diploma at the 54th National Art of Books Contest in Minsk, for their Treasures of Belarus.

Minister of Culture Boris Sveltov (on the left in the photo)
with the authors of “Heritage of Belarus” album book

Dialogue with project authors

The National History Museum of Belarus’ recent hosting of an event to celebrate the launch of Heritage of Belarus featured an exhibition of photos from the edition, and a retrospective of all the albums released in the series since 2004.

The circulation figures are impressive. What’s the secret of the book’s success, despite its high cost?

Oleg Lukashevich: You need to remember how we began the Heritage of Belarus series. Alexander and I were abroad and were disappointed at having been unable to find a worthwhile souvenir to give people, to show them something about Belarus. In 1997, I interviewed Pierre Cardin in Paris and the only gift I could offer him was a 50-page album on Belarus. In Paris, we visited a bookstore and asked for a guide on Belarus. We were offered one large book, with just two pages devoted to Belarus — featuring a photo of a beautiful sunset over Polesie marshes.

Sadly, no information was available on Belarus. Every country has its own enchanting landscapes; even the Saharan sands are wonderful. However, architecture enables tourists to learn more about a country. Visitors tend to tour architectural sites first and only then the remaining sights. Architecture indicates how far a country has developed and how richly.

Visiting Warsaw in 2001, we spotted a unique edition by Polish historian and photographer Roman Aftanazy: Dzieje Rezydencji na Dawnych Kresów Rzeczypospolitej (A History of Residences in the Old Borderlands of the Rzech Pospolita). It united unique materials on places and castles situated on the territory of modern Belarus. Mr. Aftanazy toured those residences until WWII and took unique photos. When we saw them, we were amazed: it was hardly possible to believe that our Belarus enjoyed such treasures in the past. We prepared an initial list of all sites throughout Belarus. At that time, we were working for the Belarusian TV and Radio Company and proposed a major TV project, dealing with our architectural legacy. As a result, 100 episodes were broadcast over a period of two years. Nothing of the kind had been filmed before.

Alexander Alexeev: Importantly, we began creating our own unique photo archive. You could buy a good digital camera by that time, which enabled us to begin the second stage: publishing a high quality album. We acted as photographers and designers. In October 2004, the first 3,000 copies of the Belarusian-English Heritage of Belarus edition were published and enjoyed incredible success: almost the whole circulation sold out in a month. Only about 50 copies remained by the time the album was presented in November, at the National Art Museum of Belarus. We received the ‘For Spiritual Revival’ award and our book was named a ‘bestseller’ in Poland.

Oleg Lukashevich: Only then did we think about the reasons behind our success. The answer was simple: we’d prepared our book with great love, wishing to show our roots in ancient Polotsk lands. These include a 12th century church built upon the order of St. Yevfrosiniya Polotskaya, which boasts amazing frescoes. The album features every region of Belarus and has been a true revelation for many. We often hear: ‘It’s hardly possible to believe that all these sites are Belarusian…’

Alexander Alexeev: Of course, it’s impossible to make a high quality edition cheaply. The process is very expensive. Similar 320 page albums cost around 100 Euros in Paris. Our edition is half the price.

Your albums don’t depict any ruins. Everything is so beautiful.

Alexander Alexeev: Belarus has lost much, since almost every century has brought destruction. Castles, palaces, mansions and churches have disappeared as a result. Villages in Italy and Spain each have their own castle, palace or magnificent church, although many are in ruins. We could have featured ruins but chose to catalogue buildings which have survived. We have no ruins comparable with Rome’s Coliseum and it would be strange to be proud of ruins of a mill or a mansion. The popularity of our albums indicates that we made the right choice. The creation of each edition is hard work and requires much research.

Oleg Lukashevich: Taking photos of architecture might seem simple at first sight. Many people think you just take a picture, since almost anyone has their own camera these days. However, it must be said that not everyone can take a perfect shot. To photograph architectural buildings, lighting plays a major role in emphasising details, creating the necessary volume and intensity. To capture the best shots, we visited each place several times — on rainy days and in cold frosts. Our chosen shot of Gervyaty Roman Catholic Church was taken on a miserable day. We left Minsk and had to wait six hours until the sun appeared, to light the church. It looks magnificent against the contrasting sky and bright sun.

Have you ever thought of taking pictures from a bird’s eye view? It’s now fashionable to use a quadcopter to do so…

Alexander Alexeev: We’ve been considering this for a long time and even had a helicopter session. However, we came to the conclusion that we like to focus on architecture, rather than natural landscapes. Our Belarusian nature is very beautiful but we mostly focus on the aesthetics of a shot. Sadly, helicopter sessions above our villages and towns also show neighbouring infrastructure; in most cases, agricultural farms or industrial factories. This is our Soviet legacy, which lacks beauty. The value of such photos is exclusively documentary. We do sometimes use a 25m crane for shooting: it helps us rise over a monument, to emphasise its large scale and magnificence.

The wave of interest in our national legacy — born in the mid 2000s — is partially down to your work. Speaking of your new edition, how does it differ from those you’ve released before?  

Alexander Alexeev: It’s the first to be published in three languages: Belarusian, Russian and English. It features over 400 photos, taken from 2014 to 2015, and gives a clear understanding of how certain architectural monuments look today. We show our restored architectural legacy. Of course, restoration works are worthy of attention but, being in the business since 2001, we remember when public opinion was against the restoration of Mir Castle or Nesvizh. People thought we should only preserve their beautiful ruins but time has proven those people wrong.

Oleg Lukashevich: We could hardly have imagined, just 15 years ago, that the estates of Skoki and Merechevshchina, the palaces of Pinsk, Krichev and Gomel, the churches of Volchin, Vitebsk and Brest, the castles of Lyubcha and Lida, and the town halls of Mogilev and Minsk would be restored. Nesvizh now welcomes up to 500,000 tourists annually, showing that the restored site enjoys popularity. It would be great to see the Castles of Belarus project receive worthy financing. I’d like to show preserved sites rather than ‘lost heritage’ in each new edition.

Your books are held by the world’s largest libraries, as well as by prestigious universities, and cultural and diplomatic establishments. They are found in the libraries of the Pope and of British Queen Elizabeth II. You personally presented your book to Pope Johann Paul II.

Oleg Lukashevich: We presented our first book in Italy, in October 2004, during the Days of Belarusian Culture. Our embassy worked with the Italians to organize our stand, and the Italians sent us an invitation to attend an audience with the Pope. At the end of that meeting, a limited number of people were invited to approach the Pope, to receive his blessing. We had the great honour of presenting our album to Johann Paul II. Some time later, we received a letter from the Vatican’s State Secretariat, sent with the Pope’s blessing. It expressed gratitude ‘for the interesting book — Heritage of Belarus — featuring wonderful photos’: high praise indeed.

Alexander Alexeev: Of course, it’s pleasant to visit the New York Public Library, to find a signed copy of our book, and we’re delighted to know that Belarusian diplomats give our books to heads of state when presenting their credentials. We’ve personally presented many books to famous figures of culture abroad, during our work at film festivals, in Cannes, Berlin and Ve-nice. While preparing the Epoch TV project, about famous Belarusian countrymen, we presented our albums to relatives of Ignaty Domeiko in Chile, as well as to the family of Marc Chagall in France and the USA, and to that of Napoleon Orda in France and of Nikolay Sudzilovsky-Russel in Japan. These were tokens of our appreciation.

In fact, our Heritage of Belarus work has been used to prepare an application to UNESCO to include the Nesvizh and Polotsk sites on its World Heritage List.

By Veniamin  Mikheev
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