At the end of the last millennium, our thoughts turned to the passing of time. Just as people’s life is of a limited span, settlements too often have their allotted years. Many Belarusian villages have ceased to exist, including my native home Yatskovshchina, which was home to 30 families just 15 years ago. Old man Pavlyuk was its most respected inhabitant, being of great age. Meanwhile, the remains of Dubniki — a century-old oak grove — were found near the village.
A lilac bush used to grow near my grandparents’ house, until the fateful summer of 1959, when a lightning strike ignited six homes in the village. That of my grandparents, Yuzik Frantsevich and Eva Andreevna, was among them that Sunday, the Feast of the Ascension. The dry, windy weather helped the flames spread quickly, so that nearly everyone’s possessions were lost. My parents had time only to save my brother, aged 2, in his pram, a tablecloth and a glass ashtray! The lilac bush seemed scorched to nothing yet, the following spring, new shoots appeared, and it grew anew. A different, open field was allocated for rebuilding, and wood was donated from a local collective farm, to construct replacement cottages. Yatskovshchina’s new homes were established near the old road from Lyakhovichi to Kletsk and I was born one year later. Meanwhile, the old site was used for the railway line connecting Baranovichi to Slutsk.
These days there is neither old man Pavlyuk; nor is Dubniki or the ‘magical’ lilac bush. In 1998 I wrote a short, melancholy article about him, called Old Man and Oaks, for Belarus magazine, which was republished by the Lyakhovichi Bulletin (issue 11). The text read: ‘He often looks out over the village, and the pasture, as the sun sets in the evenings. There, of once great Dubniki, there remain just a few oaks’. I remember taking a photograph of a sinewy old man in his shabby cap, studiously raking up dried hay near some old cherry trees. At that time, he was already over 90. His daughter, Marusya, told me that the menfolk of his family had served as guardsmen in St. Petersburg’s imperial palace, before the 1917 Revolution, being tall and strong. I marvelled at what the man had seen in his lifetime, surviving revolution, war and collectivisation. His family ran a mill, continuing through the changes of power.
He was born in 1903, according to official documents (although he believed his date of birth to be December 28th, 1898). At that time, Yatskovshchina was part of imperial Russia. The ‘first Councils’ came, then the Germans (during the First World War). The Soviet invasion of Poland (March 1921 to September 17th, 1939) was followed by ‘the second Councils’, Fascist occupation and ‘the third Councils’ (the village was liberated in July, 1944). Old man Pavel came through Gorbachev’s Perestroika (reorganization) and died in 2000, in our independent Republic of Belarus: ‘officially’ 97 years old, he was buried near his wife in the cemetery near the village of Gulichi.
I recently received a letter marked ‘Roots and Leaves’ — from Alexey Zhdanovich, currently living in San Francisco. We have never met, but he remembers my father from his youth. I knew that Pavlyuk’s younger son had ‘married a Georgian, and moved to Tbilisi’ and that ‘even guests from America come to see Marusya’; she would laughingly recollect their appetite for her draniki and potato babka. Her husband, Sasha, would arrange a summer shower for guests, using an electro-boiler to heat a barrel of water every morning.
I reproduce his letter here unchanged. Incidentally, Zhdanovich is a common surname in Yatskovshchina: nearly eight families shared it. It’s good to know that even when people move away from Belarus, they take their name with them — and their connection to their home settlement.
Unforgettable moments of stay in Yatskovshchina at the land of ancestors, guests from California are in the photos. But everything they encountered in these beautiful places remains in their memory and each year invites to Belarusian province.
‘Roots and Leaves’
Hello! A while back in Belarus magazine there was a small photo-sketch of Ivan Zhdanovich, taken in his native village of Yatskovshchina, in Brest Region. It shows a century-old oak grove and its contemporary: old man Pavel Zhdanovich. I am his younger son, Alexey.
Almost 60 years ago, immediately after finishing secondary school in Zherebkovichi, I left my native home. At first I studied and, then, worked: in Kiev, Poltava, and Tbilisi. For the last 15 years, since retiring, I’ve lived in the USA, in San Francisco — as my daughter Masha married and moved here. However, in the years before the collapse of the USSR, I visited my parents annually, so the ties with my native home were not lost. Years passed, and I again visited it with my grandsons Savva and Alexander: aged 9 and 4 years.
Unfortunately, people, like oaks, are not Egyptian pyramids: we are all subject to the power of passing time. My father and grandfather (both Pavlyuk) have died and the giant oaks have fallen. Reclamation works had been conducted near Yatskovshchina. I am saddened that the former site of my native Dubniki — small but picturesque and cosy, where the sun would set so beautifully — is now an open field. Old Yatskovshchina has 5-6 near-derelict houses. However, there’s no sense in grieving, since such things happen everywhere: the impetuous flight of time and ruthless industrial-agrarianism are the cause.
I write as if in acceptance but my heart disagrees, recalling the thin green shoots of young oak saplings pushing through each spring, where the former grove stood, turning to the eternal Sun. Raised by the vital sap of powerful roots, alive yet in the depths of the earth, they bring to mind the roots of people, which reach out, from wherever they may reside.
Old man Pavel and his wife, kindly Kotra-Yekaterina, did not utterly disappear into mute non-existence. To my great surprise and happiness, their descendants are alive and kicking! My favourite grandsons, despite being born American, responded to Yatskovshchina from the first moment they arrived on the soil inhabited by their grandfathers and great-grandfathers. They ‘opened their own America’ in my Yatskovshchina! Savva and Alexander took up the natural, strong link: the continuum over the centuries, connecting dozens of good people to this charming little village and to God. Oh, how spellbound they were, and with what pleasure they rushed about, kicking off their smart city shoes, running on the soft grass and in the dust of the rural street! Looking at my grandsons, I could not help but return to my own distant, barefoot childhood, and mused on the long chain of generations of Yatskovshchina child residents: those who lived before me and came after me...
It would be wonderful to believe that this thread of time will never end.
We were hospitably received into my sister Marusya’s home, with her husband Alexander. Our ‘American special mission’ also partially lodged in an empty neighbouring house that remains without owners. I was surprised by how easily Savva and Alexander took delight in the slow, measured rhythm of rural life. They were fascinated by simple household utensils, the living creatures round about, and other things which create the unique spirit of Yatskovshchina: this village of my childhood and youth, which is slowly fading, as is the rural way of life itself. These newly made ‘foreign rural boys’ felt comfortable in Yatskovshchina, as is seen on their faces in the photos.
Savva and Alexander are typical, modern American children: globalized, urbaniszed and computerized. In my opinion, they are too ‘galvanized’ by virtual games, puzzles, mad speeds, vehicles and special effects: all blessings and curses of modern civilisation. The fact that they embraced all that was the opposite is a riddle and a miracle. What lightning bolt hit them? Simply, certain mysticism: the great secret of the human soul. One thing is clear: they found themselves — without lectures from philosophers, politologists, moralists or nationalists. They felt themselves to be natives of Yatskovshchina, without knowing the national-language, wearing embroidered shirts, or having spun yarn on wheels: all differed from their life in a city apartment.
Why am I writing to your editorial office? To share my happiness. When, this year, our whole family made plans again for summer travel, my now adult grandsons chose our destination without hesitation: Belarus and Yatskovshchina. They could visit more attractive and popular places, but have opened themselves to their distant ancestors’ native land, now so close to them.
I believe that contact with the earth trodden by our ancestors has inspired my elder grandson Savva, inducing him to attend a special school with a bias towards Buddhist philosophy. A nostalgic spiritual need has awoken in his soul, seeking understanding of good and evil, compassion and hate, fanaticism and tolerance. My grandson wants to understand the values that raise nations over the division of race, religion or sect: all that prevents us from being simply people — children of our beautiful Mother Earth. For his exemplary following of humanitarian principles, Savva had the great honour of welcoming the Buddhist spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, when he visited San Francisco in February, 2014.
My younger grandson, most likely, will follow in his brother’s footsteps. There’s no doubt that the patrimonial branch of grandfather Pavlyuk is thriving in American San Francisco, bringing together Belarus’ legacy of amazing pagan holidays, strong Christian traditions and Yatskovshchina (which is close to God in its simplicity) and exotic Tibet!
I feel confident that their great-grandfather Pavlyuk (a true peasant philosopher, borne of the land, which has been Christian for many generations) would understand his American descendants. He would bless Savva and Alexander for their devotion to the Eternal Temple of Goodness and Truth.
With deep respect
Alexey Pavlovich Zhdanovich
The USA, San Francisco, 2014
Alexey Pavlovich Zhdanovich
The USA, San Francisco, 2014
From the style of the letter, it’s clear that it’s written by someone who loves his native land. Also, his grandsons certainly have sensitive souls, appreciating tranquil Yatskovshchina, and preferring it over the Internet social networks and shooting games. Mr. Pavlovich didn’t mention whether other descendants of grandfather Pavlyuk feel similar strong ties; we planned to talk about this in the summer, in Yatskovshchina, but circumstances prevented the San Francisco clan from visiting Belarus this year. At my request, Alexey and his daughter Masha sent an e-mail giving additional information on the family.
Prof. Mikhail Zhdanovich, the elder son of grandfather Pavlyuk, has been working as a teacher at the Kiev Institute of Civil Aircraft Engineering since the 1970s (now, the National Aviation University). He continues to lecture, despite celebrating his 80th birthday in November. His influence seems likely to have inspired others from Yatskovshchina, particularly regarding employment in aviation. His second cousin, Igor Zhdanovich, now works in Gomel, Mikhail Gaspadynich is employed in Minsk, and Yuri Kruglik has a job in Kiev. I remember meeting him in the 1970s, when I was driving a combine harvester with my father, near Yatskovshchina. He approached us, offering his greeting, and my father took the opportunity to bid me to study hard, so that I too might ‘elevate’ myself above ‘swallowing the dust’.
The elder son of Kiev professor Zhdanovich, Andrey, worked as a flight-engineer for Yakutia Airlines for a long time but has worked in Moscow for the past decade, as a co-pilot on Boeing 747: on such routes as Shanghai and Hong Kong, Chicago and Los Angeles. This March Andrey visited his uncle Alexey, alongside his aunt and cousin Kirill in San Francisco.
The professor named his younger son Pavel (probably, in honour of grandfather Pavlyuk). Alexey writes that Pavel is a real prodigy, having graduated from Moscow’s elite Institute of Physics and Technology — before the collapse of the USSR. He returned to Kiev and created a computer company, called Softprom, engaged in software development. Its annual turnover is about $10-15 million, and it has branches and customers in Minsk, Astana, Tbilisi, Moscow, Vienna and Los Angeles. Pavel often goes on business trips to the USA and visits his family there, but lives ‘between Kiev and Vienna’.
Vasily Zhdanovich, the second son of grandfather Pavlyuk, stayed in Belarus, working as a driver, while his wife has employment in a collective-farm office. It was he who delivered grain from our combine harvester to the grain storage warehouse at the ‘Belarus’ collective farm one year. My father was on friendly terms with his uncle, Vasily (nicknamed Dlinnyi — meaning long — due to his great height). After work the men would sit, chat and have a drink. Both are dead now. After Vasily Pavlovich’s death the tie with his descendants weakened. Svetlana and Sergey, his children, gained higher education and moved to Minsk.
Maria, the youngest of Pavlyuk and Katerina’s children, is their only daughter. She studied in Kiev and worked there for a long time, then returned with her family to Belarus to be closer to her parents. She now lives with her Ukrainian husband in Yatskovshchina. Their elder son, Sergey, graduated from the National Aviation University, and lives and works in Kiev. His wife writes poetry, and their sons, Fiodor and Stepan, are still at school. Maria’s second son, Mikhail, graduated from the military college and works in Kletsk, near his parents.
Alexey tells me that he has only one daughter, Maria, who graduated with distinction from Tbilisi State University, and the School of International Business in Los Angeles. She now divides her time between bringing up her two sons and working part-time. Impressively, her husband is a neurosurgeon.
All three sons of grandfather Pavlyuk and Kotra — Mikhail, Vasily and Alexey - have enjoyed success, weathering life, like strong oaks. Meanwhile, Maria is wending through life with dignity. The Zhdanovich family, from Yatskovshchina, now reside in San Francisco, Minsk, Kiev, Moscow and Kletsk. Who knows, perhaps some may even live one day in celestial Tibet...
By Ivan Zhdanovich