Rakov is a wonderful place. Once, it was a big city —
a rezidence of the Ogiński noble family. It was a cultural, religious and economic centre. Today, it’s just a village, located 40km from Minsk. However, it boasts rich history and an intense present
Silver water runs like a thread through my fingers, sparkling in the sun. The water is truly silver, since it contains a great deal of silver ions, as shown by the chemical analysis of its spring, which appeared in Rakov’s outskirts hundreds of years ago. According to legend, the Mother of God appeared to an old, blind Rakov resident in his dream, pointing to the location of the new spring. He recovered his sight after washing his eyes in the water and residents decided to construct a chapel over the miraculous spring. Since then, people from throughout Belarus have travelled to the holy spring to pray and ask for healing. Rural residents believe that the Mother of God has saved their home many times. I begin my travels through ancient Rakov from this holy site.
Home to crawfish
I’ve heard plenty of stories about the origin of this unusual name. Some people say that a great many crawfish used to live in the rivers of the Ptich and Isloch, enlacing Rakov like ‘blue ribbons’. The rivers are located directly in the watershed of the Black and Baltic seas. Others argue that crawfish like clean, warm and quiet waters while the local rivers are cold and fast flowing. Some connect the name with the Belarusian word ‘raka’, or the first settler, named Rak, or, even, the ancient Egyptian sun god Ra.
Rakov residents refer to themselves as ‘mountaineers’ for several reasons. Walking through the village’s hilly terrain you can’t but feel the traces of the glacier which passed through thousands of years ago. Not far from Rakov is Belarus’ highest point — Dzerzhinskaya Mountain, known as the holy mountain. High mounds and an ancient citadel with the remains of a sacrificial altar grace mountainous area. They say that Lithuanian high priests are buried in these mounds while Polish writer Eliza Orzeszkowa called Rakov a ‘Lithuanian Athens’.
Capital of region
Rakov should have been inhabited since the earliest days of man, yet was only first mentioned in written chro-nicles in the 15th century — noted as a place owned by the great Lithuanian dukes. 150 years later, it became a private town at the centre of Rakov county, with a castle, governor and constitution. The latter contained some very amusing rules, prohibiting young people from marrying anyone who didn’t reside in the county. At that time, Rakov comprised the same population as today’s Nesvizh, Slutsk and Gomel. Famous Belarusian nobleman and composer Michał Kleofas Ogiński also owned Rakov county for some time.
Rakov reached its height of power in the 17th century, when it was owned by the Sanguszko family. It had a printing house, a wooden Ramon Catholic church, and Basilian and Dominican monasteries. Anna Sanguszko — the wife of one of the Radziwiłłs — set up the manufacture of ceramic ware in her native city, which enjoyed great popularity all over Belarus.
“Anna was a legend,” notes local historian and artist Felix Yanushkevich. “Despite her difficult fate — she lost her husband and children early — she was very entrepreneurial. Alongside Rakov ceramic ware, she established the production of Slutsk sashes, Korelichi tapestries and Urechie-Naliboki glass. She even employed foreigners at her manufacturing facilities. She possessed a rich collection of Chinese porcelain, as seen from inventory lists. She may have even brought Chinese masters to her workshops to teach Belarusians new techniques.”
Ceramic pots, angel figurines and baking dishes are still found buried beneath Rakov. When a gas pipeline was laid via the village, Mr. Yanushkevich uncovered around 100kg of ‘ceramic gold’ from the trenches.
In late 18th century, Rakov joined the Russian Empire and became a village again. At first, Yekaterina II presented Rakov to General and Field Marshal Piotr Saltykov, the uncle of famous Russian writer Saltykov-Shchedrin. Saltykov later sold it to Marian Zdziechowski, professor at Krakow and Vilno universities. At that time, verses and songs were often heard on the Zdziechowski family estate, since they enjoyed gathering famous literary men and musicians. Industry was developing well in Rakov, with workshops making agricultural machinery, as well as mills, wood-sawing, brick factories and breweries operating.
‘Polish El Dorado’
After Rakov joined Poland in 1921, this place, where the Belarusian-Polish border used to run, became a favourite with smugglers and spies from all over the world. Textiles, spirit and drugs were smuggled from Poland to the Soviet Union, with gold, fur and precious stones moving in the opposite direction. An intelligence officer, who camouflaged himself as a smuggler, wrote a 500 page book about this ‘golden age’. The Lover of Ursa Major, written by Sergiusz Piasecki in 1937 while in prison, has been translated into 17 languages and was even nominated for the Noble Prize. Until 1939, Rakov had 134 shops, 96 restaurants, 4 brothels and hundreds of kilograms of gold in circulation!
War and Soviet councils took the wind out of Rakov’s sails, leaving just 500 out of 3,500 residents. Once noisy and wealthy, it became a modest village. Today, Rakov has neither factories nor workshops. It doesn’t even boast a kolkhoz (a large collective farm). However, its residents are proud of their clean air and wonderful landscapes. They even joke that they could walk the streets naked without being bitten by a mosquito. From being the capital of the county and a Polish smuggling haven, Rakov is now a cultural and administrative centre of a resort zone. Spas, guesthouses and children’s holiday camps surround it on every side.
Rakov residents like to say that their village is protected by God’s Mother. Wars have ravaged its architecture but its churches have completely survived, as if some invisible hand has drawn away the falling shells. Spaso-Preobrazhenskaya Church, built in 1793, is snow-white, like a baby’s christening clothes. Parishioners are welcomed by an arch brama (gates) with a bell, constructed to honour the 25th anniversary of the abolishment of serfdom. The neo-gothic Our Lady of the Rosary and St. Dominic Catholic Church is located opposite, straining its sharp towers towards sky. It was built in the early 20th century from yellow brick, especially brought from Lithuania. A pretty brick building, located on the River Isloch’s picturesque bank, is the youngest Evangelical church building in Belarus. Rakov has always been a multi-confessional and faith-tolerant settlement.
Museum in the garden
A complex of several-storey red-brick buildings, constructed in an unusual style in a Rakov resident’s garden, stands out against the village’s architectural landscape. A large inscription on the faзade reads: ‘Museum. Art-Gallery’. However, it’s hard to believe that a village can really boast a high level cultural institution; cows walk the streets, swishing their tails and dogs run a little wild. I decided to check.
The patio is protected by a large, aristocratic-looking greyhound, yet guests shouldn’t be afraid, since it’s made from bronze. The same sculpture is installed in Nesvizh — created by Valerian Yanushkevich, a brother of the museum’s owner. Felix Yanushkevich — a candidate of art history, a restorer, a famous artist (his pictures are hung even in the Tretyakov Gallery) — owns the venue. He’s drawn frescoes at the entrance of one of his gallery halls. I have to distract him but he’s pleased to show me around, telling me wonderful stories from Rakov’s history.
The gallery showcases Felix’s works, as well as pieces by his no less talented brothers. Moreover, it holds ancient documents, furniture, musical instruments, ceramic ware and fragments of Slutsk sashes, which describe the life of Belarusian ancestors to visitors. Today, the gallery boasts over 12,000 exhibits, yet everything began with a small collection of ceramic ware, gathered by Felix for this thesis paper, and with copper barrels, accidentally found in a basement.
“I’ve become ‘involved’,” smiles Mr. Yanushkevich. “Living in the city, I’ve understood that I can’t do without the place where I was born and which preserves the history of my family and my homeland. I’ve returned and now try to encourage other people by familiarising them with Rakov’s history and the beauty of this Belarusian village.”
Moreover, Felix is developing eco-tourism, with tourists from Israel, Holland and Italy arriving at his home, breathing fresh village air, relaxing in the banya and tasting Belarusian smoked meat delicacies.
Songs from Rakov’s outskirts
It’s better to visit Rakov on the eve of some Belarusian holiday. Just sit on the banks of the Ptich or Isloch and listen. Besides bird song, you’ll hear the pure voices of Rakov residents, singing melodic folk songs. Today, the Gostinets folk ensemble is rehearsing. The group was founded at the Rakov Centre of Culture in 1998 and initially comprised just three sisters; it now unites over 15 members and has been awarded a ‘People’s’ title. It’s popular in Belarus and abroad. Two years ago, its artists were awarded the Grand Prix at the International Festival of Family Bands in Murmansk. A year ago, the ensemble was given the Special Award of the President of Belarus.
Gostinets performs at every kind of festival, alongside family celebrations. “Kupalie is the biggest holiday celebrated in Rakov,” explains Yelizaveta Petrovskaya, who heads Gostinets. “First, folklore enthusiasts visit Rakov residents with songs and a ‘Kupalie tree’, inviting everyone to join in the celebrations. They gather all their old, unwanted possessions to later burn on a fire. Traditionally, we celebrate in the evening, dancing in circles in the rye fields, playing games and singing songs until the early morning. As the sun rises, young boys and girls roll in the dew and the girls throw headdresses into the river. Almost the entire village comes to celebrate the holiday, since Rakov residents venerate their history and traditions.”
We won’t say goodbye
Silver water is running through my fingers again. I couldn’t help but go to the holy spring on my return, revisiting the place where we began. What will happen if I drop a coin? They say it means that you’re sure to return. I certainly wish to come back, since I’ve truly enjoyed seeing this unusual village with the history of a city.
By Lyudmila Minkevich
Village with history of a city
[b]Rakov is a wonderful place. Once, it was a big city — a rezidence of the Ogiński noble family. It was a cultural, religious and economic centre. Today, it’s just a village, located 40km from Minsk. However, it boasts rich history and an intense present[/b]Silver water runs like a thread through my fingers, sparkling in the sun. The water is truly silver, since it contains a great deal of silver ions, as shown by the chemical analysis of its spring, which appeared in Rakov’s outskirts hundreds of years ago. According to legend, the Mother of God appeared to an old, blind Rakov resident in his dream, pointing to the location of the new spring. He recovered his sight after washing his eyes in the water and residents decided to construct a chapel over the miraculous spring. Since then, people from throughout Belarus have travelled to the holy spring to pray and ask for healing. Rural residents believe that the Mother of God has saved their home many times. I begin my travels through ancient Rakov from this holy site.