Knights and ladies parade through town of six hills

Spirit of past evoked at Mstislavl, steeped in legends and fairy-tales

By Olga Kudesnikova

Ladies, lifting the hems of their wonderful dresses, promenaded the streets, accompanied by noble knights. A settlement with a fortress, tents and a tilt-yard appeared on Zamkovaya Hill, where the town originated in the 10th-11th century. Anyone unaware of the Knights’ Fest-2011 being held in one of Belarus’ most beautiful and ancient towns would be greatly astonished; even those coming to Mstislavl to deliberately view the festivities were surprised.

The event brought together knights of the Temple and Tevton orders, alongside archers; over 400 knights from Belarus and Russia gathered, alongside members of historical re-enactment clubs and historical researchers of ancient Mstislavl. They began the day with a prayer service at the Carmelite Roman Catholic Church and Alexander Nevsky’s Cathedral, remembering Mstislavl warriors who died for their Fatherland on July 15th, 1410, at the Battle of Grunewald. The local history and archaeology museum displays their helmets, as found in Vikhra River by local boys in the last century.

Doctor of History Igor Marzalyuk, who heads the Mogilev University’s Chair for Archaeology and Special Historical Disciplines, tells us, “I admire Mstislavl, which is built on six hills, as it retains so many ancient sites in their original state, unlike any other region in the east of Belarus. The Mstislavl District boasts many prominent names. Local residents are proud that their central square is graced with a monument to book printer Piotr Mstislavets, rather than to a popular political leader from times past.”

The parade saw costumed actors playing Piotr Mstislavets, Duke Rostislav Mstislavich (who founded the town), Duchess Anastasia Slutskaya and Stepan Polubes (both born in the Mstislavl area, with the latter making a breakthrough in making ovens in the 17th century, tiling their facades). They were followed by knights and ladies adorned in long dresses, bright frock coats, armour and linen smock shirts and trousers.

Andrey Nelyubin — one of the enduring organisers of the event and head of the Mogilevskaya Druzhina Club — was easily distinguishable in this colourful crowd, being dressed in dark blue robes trimmed in gold and a fur hat, carrying a scroll in his hands. Like his fellow club members, he was keen to reconstruct the history of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, re-creating costumes (and armour) from historical documents. The youngest member of his club — Zvenislava (or Anechka) — is just six.

Rechitsa’s Terra Club — Belarus’ oldest historical and military club — promenaded in luxurious outfits, helmets and sparkling armour, joined by young boys and girls from Vitebsk’s Naglfar Club. However, when knights from the Smolensk District appeared, spectators completely forgot their kvass and shashlyk. The strong grey haired men in splendid armour, with swords and shields and fur boots looked so authentic — as if they’d stepped straight out of the past. However, more surprises were in store, including one of the knights being called out to fight by a lady. Several years ago, Galina joined the Varta Sports Association, headed by knights Vladimir and Gennady from the Dorogobuzh District’s Ozerishche (Smolensk Region). She helps sew costumes and studies the traditions and techniques of knightly tournaments, so she knows how to wield a sword, a spear, an axe and battle flail. Of course, a sword can weight up to 2kg, while a shield weighs a significant 5kg; an entire armoured outfit weighs around 20kg. However, these were minor problems for our guests from Smolensk, who say that their interest in antiquity helps them ‘escape’ the routines of everyday life.

The Handicrafts’ Town ensured that guests left with souvenirs of the wonderful day. Many left hoping to return one day to the ancient streets, perhaps viewing the sun rise over Zamkovaya Hill. Of course, ancient Mstislavl — called ‘small Vilnius’ or ‘Belarusian Suzdal’ — is beautiful at any time, not just on holidays.

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