This summer, during a business trip to Belgorod, we reflected upon the importance of Belarus’ growing ties with this region

Long echo

This summer, during a business trip to Belgorod, we reflected upon the importance of Belarus’ growing ties with this region. It was here that our three brotherly Slavic peoples joined forces, on Prokhorovka Field, on May 3rd 2000. As the 55th anniversary of Victory approached, the presidents of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine struck the bell of ‘Unification’. They met in the Belgorod Region, signing deeds into history. At that time, 15 years ago, who could have imagined the hard times to come in Ukraine?

The bell tower is situated at the place where there was the tank battle

 Тhe words ‘Love and Unification will help us to survive’ are carved into Belgorod’s bell, as spoken by the Venerable Sergius of Radonezh. Even today, in the year of the 70th anniversary of Great Patriotic War Victory, it remains to remind us of the high price of peace. We understand the feelings of our countrymen in their heartfelt desire to avoid war.

My earlier impressions have faded to words in my diary, and on my Dictaphone but Belgorod’s hills of streets remain clean, much like those in Minsk. Its roads are well maintained, as I couldn’t help but note on the journey from the airport, driven by my nephew, Yuri. Mayor Savchenko keeps strict order in the city.

Ukraine is very close: it’s just 50km to the border. Beside the road is an advert for furniture from Belarus, delivered here from Pinsk, Bobruisk and from other sites. Belarusian kitchen sets are particularly popular here. My cousin, Oleg Ivanovich Lugovsky, a former air force pilot, admits that he knows quite a few people who purchase Belarusian goods. It’s great to hear!

We stayed at his city apartment rather than at a hotel, wanting to see how ‘locals’ live. During supper, we chatted about the purpose of our trip, and I heard that a great many Belarusians live in the town. My brother became animated on the subject. One neighbour is a former pilot, with war decorations. I know him. My brother’s daughter-in-law, Marina, mentioned a fellow teacher at the 57th lyceum, who annually takes children to Brest, to compete in Russian language and literature contests, and to visit relatives.

Kursk Salient and Prokhorovka     

The next day, colleagues  from  Belgorodskaya Pravda (who helped us arrange the trip) had the day off, and we travelled to the Kursk Salient and Prokhorovka. We’d read an article written by our colleague about Gorodki agro-town resident Ivan Stankevich, in Volozhin District. After the Great Patriotic War, this Belarusian-sapper defused more than 10,000 mines, shells and grenades across the Kursk Salient. Speaking about him in the car, we could not help but feel proud.

Our relatives livened up as we chatted, having recollections of sappers of various nationalities having performed such work. Mikhail Cherkashin, my father, was a Guards private soldier, and a musician. I wrote about him in Father’s War (#5-2015). Travelling to the Kursk Salient, I felt palpable excitement.

In the rooms of the museum honouring heroes of the Battle of Kursk

It takes 40-45 minutes to reach Belgorod’s memorial by car. At the turn of the Belgorod-Kursk to Prokhorovka road, we saw the legendary ‘Katyusha’; nearby, on the square, is the memorial-museum honouring heroes of the Battle of Kursk. The sculptural composition ‘Tank Battle Near Prokhorovka. Ram Attack’ stands centrally, in front of the museum building.

Inside, we saw how Belarusians took part in the historic battle. While waiting for Research Assistant Tatiana Bakanova, we examined the displays of military hardware, shells, splinters, and pieces of thick tank armour. All are there to be touched, while other items are behind glass: army and pilot helmets, map cases, groundsheets, and uniforms (ceremonial and everyday), newspapers, reports on fights and letters written by soldiers and officers to relatives.

Huge numbers of photos show the faces of signallers, tankmen, pilots and infantrymen, the tragedy of that war etched upon their skin. It is as if time has stopped in that impressive silence. You feel compelled to move quietly, and carefully across the stone floor. Even the occasional clatter of a lady’s heel seems out of place. We were the only visitors that day.

I noticed how reverently my brother looked at the photos of pilots. No doubt, he was recalling his own time flying. As a child, I would try on his helmet; one similar is under the glass. Ivan photographed one of the stands while I looked at an exhibit on Hero of the Soviet Union Alexander Gorovets, from Moshkany village, in the Senno District of Vitebsk Region.

Senno was the site of a battle in July 1941, known as the Lepel Counterblow and, then, the Battle near Senno. It would be wonderful to see the museum organise a small exhibition devoted to that battle. Ivan and I agree that they should send a research assistant to the museum of local history in Senno. There, Vasily Bondarevich, would be able to share much information with them. He has been studying the tank battles of July 1941 for a long time, collecting many materials, alongside his colleagues.

Alexander Gorovets ‑— Hero of the Soviet Union

When Tatiana Bakanova joined us, she told us about Soviet pilot Gorovets, who excelled himself in one battle, shooting down nine of 20 enemy bombers. Considered missing for long time, his remains were discovered in October 1957, by residents of the village of Zorinskiye Dvory, in Belgorod Region. His plane was unearthed, still bearing his body, his TT pistol, party membership card, map case, and identity card. Of course, the documents established his identity immediately. Gorovets was buried with honours in the village, and a bronze bust erected on the site.

The Central Armed Forces Museum of the USSR, in Moscow, has the whole stand devoted to Alexander Gorovets. His plane, a La-5, guns and machine guns are exhibited, without shells or cartridges.

Tatiana also explained the courage of a female surgeon with the 5th Guards tank army: Olga Borisenko from Gomel (Shkurdalova, after marrying Yevgeny Shkurdalov, whose life she saved). They were called the ‘Romeo and Juliet of the Kursk Salient’. Shkurdalov was given the title of Hero of the Soviet Union for his bravery in battle.

Six Heroes of Belarus fought and died on the Kursk Salient. Tatiana told us, “If people ask, we focus attention on particular feats and, if we don’t know an answer, we go away and conduct research.”

Back in Minsk, we received a letter from Tatiana, who is studying the history of the 51st Guards infantry division, detailing her plans to create an exhibition on this division, asking if we have anything to contribute on individual soldiers, and the role of military wind bands in rousing fighting spirit before battle. Her letter reads: ‘It may be pleasant for you to know that visitors will learn about your father through the exhibit. I promise to make a photo-report on the exhibition to send to you. Your memoirs of your father, including the fight on the Kursk Salient, would be very interesting. I’ve never read information on divisional wind bands’.

Certainly, I will comply with her request. Her interest shows that she’s more than capable of making an exhibit on the tank fight near the Belarusian city of Senno too.

We next went to Prokhorovka, just 5km from the museum. It’s hard to believe that, from July 5th until August 23rd, in 1943, this was the site of bloody fighting. Now, there are only beautiful birches and magnificent green grass. It’s even more difficult to imagine my father playing here, with his friend-musicians, emboldening the soldiers with a march before putting away his baritone and waiting for the command of ‘Forward!’ Then, there would have been the clash of weaponry and the cries of wounded soldiers. Besides playing his instrument, he acted as a medical orderly, and as a line carrier, and prepared food.

The 59m Belfry stands in remembrance of a certain battle which changed the course of the war: placed at the epicentre of the Battle of Prokhorovka, which took place on July 12th, in 1943. It is crowned by a 7m sculpture of the Mother of God, and a gilded laurel wreath below, symbolising the unfading glory of all those who fell in that field.

Inside is a bell, weighing 3.5 tonnes, which rings each 20 minutes, rendering tribute to the heroes of three fields: Kulikovo, Borodino and Prokhorovka. Not far away is an exhibition of armour from those times, which draws many visitors. They take photos beside the tanks, as the sun shines, and children laugh. Parents warn them not to fall. Such scenes are possible only in peacetime. 70 years have passed since those days, allowing Prokhorovka to become once more a place of pleasure.

Nearby, you can pray for the victims of war at St. Peter and Paul’s Church. Inside, ivory candles are kept burning, and white-marble slabs bear the names of 7,000 soldiers who died near Prokhorovka. To the left is a commemorative plaque showing Peter and Paul and the surnames of the Heroes of the Soviet Union, as well as a list of armies, units and formations which took part in the Battle of Kursk.

There, we found the names of such Belarusians as Alexander Gorovets, and Anatoly Volokh (a Belarusian born in Minsk), Pavel Shpetny (a Ukrainian from the village of Gden, in Bragin District of Gomel Region), Mikhail Antonov (a Belarusian from Kostyukovichi, in Mogilev Region), Moisey Spivak (of the Jewish faith, from Narovlya, in Gomel Region), and Semen Chubukov (a Belarusian from Kuzminichi, in Chausy District of Mogilev Region).

Each performed feats of great bravery. For example, during fighting on the Kursk Salient, Pavel Shpetny put several enemy tanks out of action and, on having no further cartridges, placed a bundle of anti-tank bombs under an enemy tank. Shpetny Field is called after our countryman, and there is a memorial plaque in memory of all lost antitank riflemen of the PTP platoon, of which Pavel Shpetny was the Guards Senior Lieutenant.

That day, after returning to Belgorod, I was chatting with my brother about my father, Ivan Lugovskoi, a Red Army commander who went missing in April 1942. My brother recollected ‘his’ war, and how he decided to become a military pilot; how he served for a long time in the East, in Primorsky Krai, protecting our borders. He told me that, during his life, he had met many Belarusians. He told me that, when he was a cadet, he was in a military camp in Machulishchi, near Minsk, and participated in handball contests.

The following is from Oleg Lugovskoi’s memoirs

ВFor me, the war began in Western Ukraine, in Kamenets-Podolsk. I remember the barracks, and the 66th cavalry regiment of my father. My sister and I often ran there to watch our father-officer riding a horse. I remember also the bombardments, which began early in the morning, before the declaration of war. Half of the city was destroyed within a few hours.

Oleg Lugovskoi (on the left) at the meeting of former cadets

Father set off to the Front, as a junior political instructor. Our mother sewed a capsule containing information on him, which she placed into a cartridge and sewed into his trousers. Later, I someone said that this was a bad omen, welcoming death.

I remember being evacuated, first being transported by bus, with 20 such ‘regimental’ families, and then by train, to Kiev. I was 6 years old. During one stop, apparently, in Proskurov [since 1954, called Khmelnitskiy] my sister and I went to a field kitchen. Even today, I remember holding a mess-tin: I dragged my sister Valya, aged 2, by the hand. Suddenly, a soldier put some millet cereal into my mess-tin, which we ate after the train pulled away. I don’t know why we were on a hospital train filled with wounded people; perhaps our mother, like other officer wives, had managed to find a place on that train. Or, someone had ordered us to be taken.

Then, we were bombed. Early in the morning, planes flew down upon us, and began to bomb. I saw the wounded running out from carriages, and then falling from a string of gunfire: the enemy shot 5-6 ‘Yastrebs’. I remember a lot of bodies. My mother took us, and we ran and somehow appeared in the forest. She pushed us down in the earth, and covered us with a blanket. There were wounded people. I don’t remember how we got to Kiev, to the Botanical Garden.

It was filled with refugees, with seemingly more people than trees: some sat and some lay down. I heard remote sounds of ack-ack guns, through silence. I lay down upon the grass and I looked at the sky, seeing planes with crosses flying. Then, I suddenly heard a single shot, and the plane began to fall. A parachute was deployed and I realised that the pilot had baled out. People around began cheering, exclaiming that the pilot would fall on our territory and be unable to leave. At that time, who would have thought that Kiev would surrender…

Oleg Lugovskoi —  pilot-navigator

The commander of the regiment approached our group and saw his own family. He thought that we’d departed on the bus and were already far away, but this was far from the truth! He clutched his head in his hands, went away, and then, in the evening, his assistant returned, to read out a list of who would go. We, the Lugovskoi family, joined other wives of officers and their children on a one-and-a-half-tonne truck, able to carry 6-7 families.

Some, who had to stay, were discontent or angry. We departed, pursued by their damnations. But what could we do? On our way, enemies shot at us twice from planes and four people were killed; they were buried in a village. We drove to Voronezh, where the Germans had not yet invaded, although they were approaching. I remember that we lived in the house of an elderly man who was an Old Believer, in Vorobievka village. There was a large pond in the middle of the village. My mother wanted to go home, to Volchansk, but that direction was closed.

When the Germans reached the Don, we took a cargo train to Chkalov, then on to Orenburg. I remember the clock on the station, as I’d never seen it before. It was a huge miracle on a high pole!

Then, we arrived in the city of Mednogorsk, beyond the Urals: a city of armourers and metallurgists, to where the Tula factories had been evacuated. At the station, we received a room in a barracks, intended for four families. We lived in one room. I’ll never forget, early in the morning, seeing the workers go to the factory. I woke up to the knock of wooden clogs.

My mother began working with the field brigade at a collective farm. I remember, once, when I was in a field with my mother, that I picked up a carrot and wanted to eat it. My mother got a scolding for that.

I went to school in Mednogorsk, which was 1km away, through a tunnel and wasteland. I was learning how to write, on old newspapers. I remember how I and other boys stole technical salt from platforms, which we then brought to factories. It was used for food. We also pinched soap from soap-producing tuns; once I even fell into one.

What did we eat? Millet porridge, sometimes flavoured with eggs.

During the evacuation, I caught typhoid fever, then camp fever, but I survived.

When Kharkov Region was liberated, my mother received a ticket to go home, to her mother, Katya. So, we went by cargo train, then by freight train.

I remember, we were walking in Volchansk, through the city, and we were emaciated, physically exhausted, but alive! In the centre, we met Aunt Marusya [the wife of my brother’s uncle] who was running to the bank, where she worked. Thus, we came to Podgornaya Street and began to live there: all in one little room. There were five of us: my mother, sister and I, Aunt Marusya, and my cousin, Yurka. My grandmother, Katya, slept in the kitchen. Uncle Misha, a war veteran, who was severely wound, returned home in April 1945.

With Yura, we would often go to the ravine near the Cherkashin family’s garden. The Germans had left all sorts of things there: grenades, and an automatic pistol, which Uncle Misha took to the police.

At that time, we lived in poverty, half-starving. In 1946, there was a terrible famine in Volchansk: not even the birds chirped! I remember wanting to eat all the time. When Uncle Misha began to work in an oil mill, he began receiving oil cake [a by-product of sunflower seeds after wringing out the vegetable oil], and we all became cheerful. Oil cake was tastier than chocolate to me. Yurka told me that it was even sweeter than a lump of cacao he’d once stolen from a German tank, and had eaten behind a shed [it was one of our family stories that my big brother Yuri had gone unpunished by lodging Germans for his petty theft].

In 1947, my mother received a room in a house for officers and, later, a small, one-roomed apartment. Then, we received a kitchen garden, where we planted potatoes, beets and carrots. My mother worked at the shoe factory for a low salary, but also received father’s benefit of 27 Roubles and 50 Kopecks. Later, when it was proven that father had died during contact with the enemy, mother began receiving a bigger benefit.

I went to school and, after seventh form, entered flight school, in Rogan. Why there? Because students were given clothes and were fed. Probably, there were other factors. As a son of a Red Army officer, and a child of war, I’d heard about the feats of pilots, for example from Aunt Marusya, who was 22 when the war began, and worked with the 690th airdrome battalion service. At that time, the military airdrome was located at Valuiki. There was another near Podgornaya Street, in Volchansk, to which Yurka and I often ran. Probably, Uncle Misha, who was like a father to me, also might have given me advice on becoming a pilot, I don’t remember exactly. When I entered flight school, it became easier for my mother to support the family, as she only had my sister remaining at home.

Ukraine nearby

Мany Belarusians with whom we spoke still speak of Belgorod as a city ‘at the Front’. Eastern Ukraine is very close. It is the city of my childhood and youth, the district centre of Kharkov Region, where the graves of my relatives can be found, and where friends and relatives still reside.

You could once reach Belgorod by ‘diesel train’ but this was discontinued, so the town is now only accessible by road: a bus goes from Russian Shebekino to Kharkov through Volchansk. However, people prefer to take their own car. Men aged under 60 can only enter Ukraine by special invitation. Accordingly, my nephew, Yuri, wasn’t able to take us. In the end we postponed our meetings until evening, so that we could travel with Kostya, Alla Pyshneva’s brother. Alla was my favourite friend of childhood: she lives in Belgorod with her husband, Nikolay, an Honoured Pilot of Russia.

I admit that I felt anxious about seeing this part of Ukraine again. The words of my young school friend from Moscow ran through my head: that I might never return.

In the morning, at 6.30am, we set out to Volchansk in an old Niva, and soon reached ‘Pletenevka’ checkpoint. Usually, it’s busy with cars on both sides at the Russian-Ukrainian border, as the Ukrainians go to Belgorod to buy fuel, and make money on the difference in price, returning the same day. My friend tells me that, sometimes, she and her husband have had to stay there for 8-12 hours but we were lucky, as it was a workday. We arrived early but allowed the Shebekino-Kharkov bus to pass ahead of us, and were caught on a shift change, resulting in a wait of almost four hours. On the way back, it took only about an hour.

The Ukrainian border guards and customs officers were respectful to us, as foreign citizens, asking our names, where we had come from and why we were going to Volchansk. They explained that it’s now procedure for foreigners travelling; Ivan had to sign one protocol five times. We asked if it were true that Russians aged under 60, and Ukrainians registered in Russia, aren’t allowed to enter Volchansk and Kharkov. It appears that it is true.

We saw large trenches over the Ukrainian border, and strengthened positions, with sandbags on the roof of the terminal on the Russian side. Alla told us that, earlier, there were even machineguns. It’s not for nothing that Belgorod is called a frontline city…

We rushed through Volchansk, which seemed less than well-groomed, looking a little unkempt, and dropped in to see the mother of my niece for an hour. She treated us to cold okroshka soup, with cottage cheese dumplings, then we called a taxi, buying flowers on the way to the cemetery.

Afterwards, we visited my old school mates, with whom I’ve been on friendly terms for many years. They told us that large enterprises in the city have closed, including the modular plant. People have grown poor and embittered, while families are divided on political principles, taking sides. Divorces are becoming more common.

My school friends live near the Belgorod highway, and Podgornaya Street, where my childhood home still stands, but I didn’t go to look.

At 3pm, we departed from Alla and Kostya’s mother’s home, making our way to Belgorod. At the border, I burst into tears, feeling both hot and wracked with nerves. The Russian border guard asked me, “Who has hurt your feelings?” Probably, he thought that my Ukrainian relatives had argued with me. I replied that my thoughts were absorbed by the impermanence of life, having visiting graves, and upon the conflict in Ukraine. Will a time come when we can visit cemeteries and native places without fear?

The echo of war lingers. As we mark the 70th anniversary of the Victory, we remember that it was one war for all Soviet people. If our fathers and grandfathers had quarrelled, becoming isolated in their ‘national’ houses, could they have withstood one by one, the march of Fascism?

Prokhorovka, the Kursk Salient and the Battle near Senno, like many other symbolic battle sites, are places of war glory for Belarusians, Russians, Ukrainians and people of other nationalities. It is inexcusable for us to ignore them, despite the distraction of today’s conflicts. Belarus, Russia and Ukraine have not enjoyed unclouded relations; there have even been protracted wars. However, all were resolved eventually.

Having visited ‘frontline’ Belgorod, and the Kursk Salient, and Prokhorovka, We’re convinced that the memory of our war lingers, as it does in the neighbouring regions of Ukraine. It exists like immunity in the blood, helping us to resist infection. There is hope: Belarusians can travel from Russian Belgorod to Ukrainian Volchansk as easily as from Minsk to Moscow, Smolensk or St. Petersburg. We’re convinced that people on both sides of the Russian-Ukrainian border will find resolution and reconciliation. Weapons will be laid down and new, friendly relations established. How else can it be? For the sake of our general memory and for the future of our children and grandchildren.

P.S. Having visited Belgorod, the signing of an agreement on trade and economic, scientific and technical and cultural co-operation between the Government of Belgorod Region and the Government of Belarus is a significant event. At the Second International Forum of Regions of Belarus and Russia, on September 18th, in Sochi, obligations were accepted, to develop scientific and technical co-operation, as well as liaisons in culture, public health, education, sports and tourism. There will be greater interaction between national-cultural societies, youth and other public organisations. Our Motherland will come closer for the many Belarusians living in Belgorod Region.

By Valentina Zhdanovich and Ivan Zhdanovich (photo)

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