[b]Alexander Alexeev and Oleg Lukashevich find Belarus’ true treasures and unveil previously undiscovered secrets of their homeland The two men have decided to convince everyone that their motherland is not a ‘marshy spot on the map’ but a fully-fledged European country with its own unique culture and history. For many years, Alexeev and Lukashevich have been travelling through their native land, unveiling Belarus’ treasures anew, showing the true nature of our national identity. Belarus’ Legacy is an art project promoting little known museum rarities, uniquely beautiful churches and splendid palaces and castles. The friends have been working hard to share their passion on TV and via their illustrated books and photo exhibitions.[/b] [b]Authors’ workshop [/b]I’ve met Alexander and Oleg pre-viously, at presentations of their albums and photo exhibitions. Today, we’re sitting in a cosy studio at the 1st Belarusian TV Channel. Oleg is showing me a photo of the original Cross of St. Yevfrosinia Polotskaya, saying, “This shot was taken in 1910, from an authentic photo plate kept in St. Petersburg.” Numerous books and albums on history, culture, pictorial art and architecture, as well as editions in foreign languages, diplomas, awards, rare photos from the early 20th century, icons and artefacts from abroad testify to their authors’ unusual characters.
The two men have decided to convince everyone that their motherland is not a ‘marshy spot on the map’ but a fully-fledged European country with its own unique culture and history. For many years, Alexeev and Lukashevich have been travelling through their native land, unveiling Belarus’ treasures anew, showing the true nature of our national identity. Belarus’ Legacy is an art project promoting little known museum rarities, uniquely beautiful churches and splendid palaces and castles. The friends have been working hard to share their passion on TV and via their illustrated books and photo exhibitions.
I’ve met Alexander and Oleg pre-viously, at presentations of their albums and photo exhibitions. Today, we’re sitting in a cosy studio at the 1st Belarusian TV Channel. Oleg is showing me a photo of the original Cross of St. Yevfrosinia Polotskaya, saying, “This shot was taken in 1910, from an authentic photo plate kept in St. Petersburg.” Numerous books and albums on history, culture, pictorial art and architecture, as well as editions in foreign languages, diplomas, awards, rare photos from the early 20th century, icons and artefacts from abroad testify to their authors’ unusual characters.
Oleg Lukashevich is a famous journalist, who began his career at the TV News Agency and, later, headed an artistic association. Alexander Alexeev is an editor, a candidate of economic sciences and a talented designer.
Seeing is believing
Alexeev and Lukashevich knew from the very start how to highlight Belarus’ advantages, not via the prism of its beautiful and talented people or using photos depicting its golden cornfields, dense forests and mystical marshes (the ‘lungs’ of Europe). They concentrated on some ‘surface’ topics which, for some reason, did not cause interest among their countrymen. Alexeev and Lukashevich have decided to photograph our architectural monuments. “Civilisation is judged by achievements in culture, art and architecture. Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches and palaces create the silhouettes of our cities and of the whole country,” stresses Alexander.
Many Belarusian palaces and churches are true masterpieces. However, we take them for granted, even when we live nearby. Residents of Athens and Rome are so surrounded by antiquities that they hardly notice them. Meanwhile, Belarusians can daily pass St. Saviour’s Church in Polotsk and hardly give it a second glance. It was built in the 12th century under the order of the first Russian saint, Yevfrosinia. If we are to care for our treasures in the appropriate way, we must change perceptions of these wonderful sites — among our own citizens and among foreign guests.
“From 2001-2002, we travelled through Belarus, collecting enough material to screen a hundred episodes of Our Legacy,” recalls Lukashevich. “The fact that we’ve managed to discover a hundred interesting monuments in our homeland is a revelation — for us and for viewers. Most Belarusians know about Petergof, Russia’s Golden Ring and Parisian beauties but know almost nothing of their native land. Some have, of course, visited Mir and Nesvizh — with their 16th century castles — but there is so much more that we should feel proud of. We deserve to take pride in the grandeur of Belarusian culture.”
Alexander adds, “It might seem evident: there is a wealth of rare architectural sites remaining in Belarus. However, many of those we’ve discovered have shocked us and our audiences with their beauty. People have been surprised to find them situated in our country, rather than abroad. Our film and illustrated albums have changed stereotypical views of Belarus.” Oleg adds, “We sometimes made unexpected discoveries. For instance, in the village of Gremyache, in the Kamenets district, we found a beautiful, yet deserted, mansion surrounded by the dense forest of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha. A wealthy family once lived there. We were impressed by its graceful, winding staircase, decorated with iron filigree work — such craftsmanship! In 2001, the stairs were safe but had disintegrated by the time of our last visit.” As a result, Alexeev and Lukashevich managed to photograph another example of lost beauty.
“To understand the phenomena of Belarusian civilisation, we must comprehend its foundations,” muses Lukashevich. “Local people were connoisseurs of art, bringing beautiful pieces from abroad. This shows the lifestyle of our forefathers, their culture and sense of taste.”
Green light for big ships
Belarus’ Heritage album was first issued in 2004 and has been several times re-edited, with a total circulation of over 30,000 copies. All have been sold — an incredible case for our national book publishing business. However, the Heritage edition faced a problem initially. An artistic council of one of our agencies rejected the book, perhaps jealous of the much younger men’s discoveries. Book publishing has always been successful in Belarus but editions with eye-catching photos of the country were rare. Old school photographers experimented with light and angles but never focused on the masterpieces themselves. Alexander and Oleg are the first to fully highlight their uniqueness, taking a new perspective. The ‘two captains’ have studied historical literature and consulted specialists to ensure their own understanding, developing their own expedition routes and taking thousands of photos, using modern cameras.
Of course, the weather was not always fine. Alexander recalls, “There were often situations when we had 15-20 degree frosts. However, we were so engrossed in our work that we forgot to feel uncomfortable. We only realised how cold we were when we found that our fingers couldn’t move and that our shoes were wet. We forget such inconveniences when we take a good photo, of course.”
Each photo is an expression of its author — using light, shade and composition. Alexander and Oleg clearly demonstrate that the beauty of Belarus’ cultural heritage via harmony of form, light and emotional expressiveness. Their work has been praised by the Information Ministry which — unlike the artistic council — has given Heritage a green light. Their major artistic project has set sail…
Oleg has his own explanation for their success, “Previously issued photo-albums are, of course, worth while. Scientists have also done much to research our historical monuments. Dozens of books on architecture and art have been published too, but they all have a generalised approach — combining ethnography, sculpture and architecture. As a result, they make readers dizzy; the necessary accents have not been outlined. We’ve taken a different approach, highlighting key points and inviting our TV viewers and readers to take a closer look at Belarus. Architecture has been chosen as the first focus point, while pieces of decorative-applied art from (antiquity to modern days) is the second. We’ve been looking at gold and silver artefacts decorated with gemstones, as shown in our second book of the Belarus’ Heritage project — called Treasures. Experts said we would fail, since so few true treasures remain in the country. Luckily, our searches discovered otherwise. However, we’ve had to keep the location of church relics secret, to ensure they remain safe.”
Alexeev and Lukashevich stress, “Support and trust from the Orthodox and Catholic churches has been very important for us during the Belarus’ Heritage art project. This is why all our albums are blessed by Metropolitan Filaret and Cardinal Kazimir Świątek.”
Belarusian embassies know how to promote our country abroad and hold many editions of the Belarus’ Heritage albums. These reveal the beauty and uniqueness of our country, situated in the centre of Europe. The Pope and Queen Elizabeth II have received albums. Clearly, Oleg and Alex are ‘people’s diplomats’. Capitals of the world — such as Rome and London — now know about Belarus, much owing to the unique editions compiled by Alexeev and Lukashevich. On gaining acquaintance with the masterpieces presented by Heritage, representatives of the British Museum made contact to suggest an exhibition of Belarusian cultural relics in London. Those from the West have been much interested in the heritage of our Eastern European country — no less than in old Egyptian or antique rarities.
Alexander and Oleg often muse on their country’s place in the world. We need to advance, finding new features to place Belarus at an advantage. “What does Belarus symbolise?” ponders Lukashevich, “I bought a copy of Countries of the World encyclopaedia in Paris; an article on Belarus was illustrated with a picture of Polesie marsh. I was embarrassed!” I hope that Parisian publishers will be shamed into presenting Belarus in a different fashion now they’ve seen our Heritage books. Even Polesie has its own Versailles, Eiffel Tower and Louvre — as confirmed by photos of Alexeev and Lukashevich.
Belarus has untold treasures, although many remain hidden and much work is needed to unearth them. Others are kept at museums, although not all are on show; some languish in archives. Alexeev and Lukashevich have, for the first time, managed to show some of these treasures to the public — at least on the pages of their albums.
Warm words and glazed shots
The authors regard the Belarusian word ‘spadchyna’ (heritage) with reverence, “For us, this word unites all that our ancestors have left us — their legacy of themselves and their civilisation. A separate album is to be released, dedicated to each segment of Belarusian culture. Our goal is to show Belarus’ worth from different angles. Our forthcoming plans include the publishing of albums about frescos (decorating churches since the 11th century onwards) and the legacy of the Radziwills — known as the uncrowned kings of our homeland. In addition, wooden buildings and, of course, rare books are worthy of attention.”
The project by Alexeev and Lukashevich has been widely recognised, with people ready to pay a great deal for their book. In 2004, it cost $30; now, it fetches $50 — not cheap for Belarusians. However, it is a worthwhile acquisition.
The authors have been awarded the ‘For Spiritual Revival’ Presidential Award and have received a Frantsisk Skorina Diploma from the Information Ministry. Oleg and Alexander recall that their nomination for the ‘For Spiritual Revival’ Award was proposed by the Metropolitan of Minsk and Slutsk, the Patriarchal Exarch of All Belarus Filaret, “We came to His Grace to present him with an album and he opened the book on a page showing a photo of the Minsk Mother of God icon. He touched it with his lips, as if it was a true icon. This was high praise for us. Several minutes later, His Grace unexpectedly pronounced, “Why shouldn’t we nominate Belarus’ Heritage for the award?””
Time to gather stones
“Belarus has witnessed many wars,” notes Alexeev. “It was robbed by foreign invaders and many treasures were lost. Our people have faced so many ordeals and, for a long time, were unable to admire their homeland’s beauty. It’s now time to ‘gather stones’ and, believe me, there are many precious stones among the ordinary boulders which form our national heritage.”
Alexeev and Lukashe-vich continue searching, finding new facets of our Belarusian identity. In the time of the Radziwills, Italy’s best architects were invited to Belarus to create wondrous palaces. Meanwhile, Skorina was the first in Europe to publish the Bible in Belarusian. We’ll soon be able to view unique artefacts on the pages of the new albums.
Will these folios influence the perception of Belarus around the world? The authors are sure that the process has already begun. Follow new issues of Belarus’ Heritage on TV and at bookstores!
By Viktar Korbut