Journey to ‘Northern Athens’

...I am strolling through old-fashioned houses along the banks of the Oginsky Canal. I am in Slonim, the district centre of the Grodno Region. You might think it’s nothing special but think of Opernaya Street...
...I am strolling through old-fashioned houses along the banks of the Oginsky Canal. I am in Slonim, the district centre of the Grodno Region. You might think it’s nothing special but think of Opernaya Street...

Oginsky’s opera. Where is the theatre? Local residents couldn’t tell me; they only shrugged their shoulders. Employees of the Slonim District Museum of Regional Studies (named after Joseph Stabrovsky) were more help — there was a theatre in Slonim and it performed operas… though not since the late 18th century.

In the 1770s, Prince Michał Kazimierz Oginsky of the Great Duchy of Lithuania (performing a role akin to Minister of Defence) took charge of the town. His nephew, Michał Kleofas Oginsky, won laurels for his musical masterpiece — a polonaise entitled ‘Farewell to My Homeland’.

Michał Kazimierz built a magnificent rococo residence on the foundations of an old citadel on a hill; it can still be seen along Opernaya Street. On one floor of the palace were 116 rooms and a ‘hall of goddesses’. A park was laid out around the house and the theatre was built between the palace and River Schara, which became part of the Oginsky Canal — designed to his order. The theatre boasted a spacious stage, able to house even horsemen. Shows were organised on the canal, and the park was decorated in grand style for many performances. Opera and ballet were common, with Slonim’s ballet masters forming the Association of Dancers of His Kingship, in Warsaw.

Slonim became famous for its theatre and Oginsky’s economic activity. It was even called the ‘Northern Athens’. Sadly, the theatre eventually ran into debt and went out of business while Oginsky’s Palace fell into ruin. Only the canal, named in honour of the prince, still flows from the Baltic to the Black Sea, connecting the basins of the Neman and the Prypiat.

Biblical relic. Fortunately, world wars and other cataclysms that ruined many Belarusian cities in the 20th century took pity on Slonim. It differs from other towns, its church and cathedral towers still visible from afar. The oldest synagogue in Belarus stands in the former Market Square, founded in 1642 but now empty. The Nazis killed most of Slonim’s Jews during the Second World War. Those who survived went to Israel, where the surname Slonim is still common today.

The synagogue needs to be restored but you can still enjoy its unique baroque interior. Slonim Museum recently placed a fragment of the Torah (one of the Five Books of Moses) on show; the scroll in Hebrew was discovered there fifty years ago. Irina Shpyrkova found the text, having been in charge of the museum since 1958. Now, she is the main custodian. “In the 1960s, we were collecting materials on socialist achievements and were searching old sites. We visited the synagogue several times. There was a warehouse of furniture in the building, which had kept it preserved. When I examined the ‘aron kodesh’ or ‘holy ark’, I found a fragment of parchment, which I brought to the museum.” Now, everyone — believers and atheists — can see this rare manuscript.

There are several synagogues in Slonim, as well as Hebrew prayer halls, which now house state institutions and shops, in addition to apartments. Before the war, there were many Jews in Slonim, though two hundred years ago it was a Catholic town, and now it is mainly Orthodox. All nations and confessions are welcome here. Even Tartars have a mosque, built at the end of the last century.

Slonim is an ecumenical town, which gave birth to Lukasz Dzekuts-Maley. Together with Anton Luckewicz, an outstanding political and cultural figure, he published one of the first translations of the New Testament in Belarusian (1931).

Golden lion of Sapega. A new Orthodox temple’s white walls rise near Schara Hotel. Father Viktor Bokovets restored Spaso-Preobrazhensky Cathedral from the ground up, with the help of donations. It was known as the Holy Body Cathedral before atheists destroyed the building after World War II. Father Viktor decided to rebuild it in honour of Slonim, in the image of the former church. The town now has a new church and another restored architectural site. A lot of work is still to be done — such as restoring the wall paintings, including ‘The Judgment’, which is several metres high. Painters have decorated the cathedral with colourful scenes from the Bible.

I left the church and set off to examine others, such as the former Bernardian monastery, also under reconstruction. The gate — which greets those arriving — is being restored. It is not far from Spaso-Preobrazhenskaya Church. Their towers rise high into the sky, as if competing to be the first to bring prayers to God.

Today, the former Bernardian Roman-Catholic Church houses the Holy Trinity Orthodox Church. It is baroque, unlike the others, and reminds one of Gothic and Renaissance buildings, with its massive walls.

St. Andrew Cathedral was a salt warehouse 25 years ago. Now, it’s a well known site in the town; you can’t miss it if you’re walking into the centre from the railway or bus station. The square next door was named after Lev Sapega, the Chancellor (Minister of Finances) of the Great Duchy of Lithuania, who owned Slonim in the late 16th century. The town emblem — a golden lion on a blue background — reminds us of his family’s rule.

Kolas’s signature. Opposite the tank monument — dedicated to the liberators of the town from Nazi invaders — is a two-storey building whose history remains obscure. Some say there was a restaurant and a hotel there during Prince Oginsky’s time. Others say that it was a town hall. Nevertheless, the building is very old, with high ceilings. Now, it hosts Slonim Central District Library (named after Jakub Kolas).

“This August, the library celebrates its 65th anniversary,” supervisor Lidia Butsko tells us. “In 1954, when Jakub Kolas was alive, our library was named after the poet. The former director, Maria Kapitanchik, wrote a letter to him and he sent her a book signed ‘To Slonim District Library: Jakub Kolas’. However, there was debate over whether he had misspelt the second word (clergy and teachers disagreed on Belarusian spelling in the 1950s).

There is another unusual edition in the library, ‘Novaya Ziamlja’ by Jakub Kolas, published in Vilnius in 1928. The Latin ‘j’ is used instead of ‘й’ in Cyrillic. Belarusian language is old enough, but its spelling was formed only in the 20th century — with optimal sounds and words. Since then, Slonim Library has been using Mickiewiczs’ spelling (the real surname of Jakub Kolas).

Since 1992, the Library has had its own Museum of Belarusian Books, exhibiting the publications of those born in the Slonim District — such as Galiash Levchik, Anatol Ivers, Oleg Loyka, Vasil Suprun and Alexey Yakimovich. Some are known abroad and it may be the only such museum — alongside the Museum of Belarusian Printing in Polotsk.
Slonim residents respect not only Belarusian books, of course. The library collects Polish newspapers and books from 1921–1939, when the town was Polish. Meanwhile, Hebrew books are accepted with gratitude from Israel.

Museum in Slonim. I am heading off to Opernaya Street. Before going to the bridge that will take me across Oginsky Canal to the road leading to the railroad station, I decide to visit Slonim District Museum once again. It’s now called a district museum but, some time ago, it was the private collection of Joseph Stobrovsky, who amassed a whole collection of books, arms, knightly armour, coins and archaeological rarities from the days of the Russian Empire. He opened a museum, saved it during World War II, and later handed it over for public enjoyment. It contains one of the first issues of the Lithuanian Statute by Lev Sapega (one of the first European constitutions).

I’m intrigued by a log, which Natalia Rudneva, the senior museum researcher, tells me is bound with iron. It’s part of the first Slonim water pipe, which ran from Oginsky Canal to the theatre. Opernaya Street is clearly at the heart of the town’s history.

In 1937, when laying pipes or digging house foundations, workers found the head of a pagan god in Slonim. The unknown heavenly ‘guardian’ of our Belarusian ancestors was carved from shell. Stobrovsky saved the unusual find, enabling us to learn about those who inhabited the town before 1252. The idol inspired deeper research into Slonim’s history, although archaeologists are yet to conduct digs. A future visit to Slonim seems in order.

Viktor Korbut
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