Pages of rarities reveal many facts

This year, Polotsk celebrated its 1150th anniversary. Its Museum of Belarusian Book Printing was founded in 1986, on the bank of the Dvina River, inside the former Epiphany Monastery
By Viktar Andrejev

The rare editions held within its walls bear witness to religious and political disputes through the ages. It first opened to visitors in 1990, allowing them to view exhibitions in the old cells. Yelena Shumovich, who heads the museum, tells us, “While we were deciding where to create an exhibition, Prof. Adam Maldis noted his preference for Polotsk, convincing specialists that folios and manuscripts should be located here, in the city of the first printer, Frantsisk Skorina.”

Moscow and Leningrad museums and archives helped fill the halls with exhibits, as Ms. Shumovich explains. She adds, “Nikolay Nikolaev worked hard to help: he now heads the Rare Book Department at the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg, where many Belarusian 16th-20th century editions reside. He helped select the most interesting editions and found artists to make copies. We also received a donation of an original edition of The Soul’s Supper, by monk Simeon Polotsky, from Moscow’s Lenin State Library (now the Russian State Library).”

Moscow Slavist and Belarusian scholar Yuri Labyntsev, whose expertise is in Eastern European editions, works at the museum-library of Simeon Polotsky; his suggestion has been used at the Museum of Belarusian Book Printing, recreating the atmosphere in which the Belarusian enlightener lived over 300 years ago.

One of the museum’s most precious collections relates to Russian Old Believers: a set of unique 17th century editions, donated many years ago by a Novopolotsk resident whose father was a famous figure among Old Believers in Belarus. Meanwhile, Father Piotr, of the Polotsk Old Believer Church, recently donated The Psalter, released even before Patriarch Nikon’s reform.

Unfortunately, Polotsk lacks a single original folio by Frantsisk Skorina; the oldest edition on display is the Educational Testament, published in 1595 and released in Vilnya (Vilnius) by the Mamonichi printing house. It spans two ages in Belarusian culture: Orthodox faith and the traditions of Ancient Rus, against Catholicism and the influence of Western Europe.

Before signing the Brest Church Unia, in 1596, between the Orthodox and Catholic churches, the Mamonichi printing house used to work for Orthodox monasteries, schools and churches, releasing theological and liturgical editions, as well as promotional works, textbooks and collections of legislative acts. Particularly, it printed the Statute of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania of 1588; Belarus received its first copy of the rarity recently, when it was acquired for the Museum of Mogilev History from a Moscow collector. From the 17th century, it printed books exclusively for Greco-Catholics.
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