Wonderful city where ‘houses look onto the wide Dnieper’

Vladimir Korotkevich — Belarus’ original writer of Gothic horror stories, whose books are translated into dozens of languages — is much loved and revered in his native Orsha, where the city museum keeps unique exhibits devoted to his life and artistry
By Yuri Chernyakevich

A monument to Vladimir Korotkevich — known to all lovers of historical novels in Belarus and beyond — can be found in the city of Orsha, on the banks of the River Dnieper. His stories have been translated into dozens of languages and several streets are named in his honour. A monument to Mr. Korotkevich even stands in Kiev.

His last book — The Black Castle of Olshany — quickly sold out in bookstores and was even stolen from reading halls and libraries. Visitors to Orsha’s Vladimir Korotkevich Museum can learn so much about the writer! Interestingly, the building is located on the central city square, where a maternity clinic was once situated and where the writer was born, on November 26th, 1930.

Mr. Korotkevich — who mostly wrote mystery novels — actually predicted that a museum named after him would open in the centre of Orsha. Olga Pashkovich, a senior museum officer, tells us, “As a teenager, he was once walking along the street with his sister when it began raining. The youngsters found shelter by the maternity clinic and, smiling, Vladimir told his sister, “A museum will open here when I grow up and become famous.” Everything has happened as he predicted: our museum exhibition opened in 2000, on the 70th anniversary of his birth.”

The museum welcomes visitors with a replica of the writer’s study, which features numerous photos on its walls: all show Vladimir’s brooding eyes. His desk stands by the window and several cabinets hold the writer’s personal belongings — including masks of outlandish Papuans, a collection of smoking pipes ‘a la Sherlock Holmes’, clay pots and lithographs by famous graphic artist Arlen Kashkurevich.

Another room is a happy hunting ground for lovers of the writer’s works, since it holds many editions by Korotkevich (in various languages) and magazines in which his writing appeared. In addition, there’s an electronic database uniting Internet texts on the life of this outstanding poet, playwright and prose writer. You can watch a short film on Mr. Korotkevich’s life, as well as films based on his novels: Christ Lands in Grodno, The Black Castle of Olshany, The Grey Legend, and The Savage Hunt of King Stakh. The latter is of special interest, been viewed as a Soviet pioneer of horror and Gothic stories. Ms. Pashkovich notes, “The Savage Hunt of King Stakh is a truly Gothic film, shot in Soviet times: it has nothing in common with modern horrors or detective stories, but takes us to a dark, decaying castle, surrounded by obscure grey marshes, full of ancient legends and family curses. The material world ‘dissolves’ under the pressure of such mystic forces.”

Christ Lands in Grodno (another tragic novel screened in Soviet times) was shot in 1967, and then banned for over two decades, before being publically released in 1989, as an edited version. 

Interestingly, the first translation of Mr. Korotkevich’s book into a foreign language was made while he was completing his university studies. Czech translator Vaclav Jedlicki so admired his Impossible to Forget, or Leonids Won’t Return to Earth that he immediately translated the novel into Czech and it was published abroad 17 years before it gained release in Belarus.

Walking through Orsha, I can’t help but imagine Vladimir Korotkevich promenading its streets, parks and squares, several years ago. Standing on the riverbank, he must have admired the ‘cherry houses looking onto the wide Dnieper’, leaves falling in the city park and the revival of St. Epiphany Kuteinsky Monastery (founded almost four centuries ago by local Bogdan Stankevich).

Orsha residents continue to remember their famous countryman with love: all those from whom I requested directions were easily able to guide me to his monument, museum and family house. This surely indicates that modern Orsha could hardly exist without Vladimir Korotkevich. It seems unlikely that the situation will ever change.
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