In the shadow
In the vast marshland of Polesia, in the southern part of Belarus, life in the villages is still shaped by pagan traditions.
Almost older women are left and live there, forgotten and far away from urbanization and globalisation.
End of September 2018, last trip
A trip to Polesia is always an adventure, discovering something new and broadening one’s understanding of what Belarus is.
I went into about 30 homes and everything looks like 20-30-40-50 years ago. I can certainly say that Polesia is unique.
Polesia is a “civilization” in itself with its own pace within the flow of time, its own language, culture and way of communicating. In the conversations and joking between villagers close to one another, language and behavior are constantly brusque and coarse – “pig”, “harlot”, etc. But it’s always meant amiably and respectful of the other, who is given the chance to reply likewise. In any case, the words always express a sense of respect. It’s difficult to believe; you need to have heard it.
Following the concert at the village circle in Pogost, those words can be repeatedly heard at the table addressed to anyone who has decided not to join in the drinking and celebrate all together a successful spectacle. Making excuses such as being unwell, too old or on medication won’t wash. Every fifteen minutes, there’s an instance of this play-acting, which always ends up with everyone drinking, at least a bit.
In every home with no exception, they always invite you to sit at the table, offer you something to eat and something to take away as a present: walnuts from this year’s fine harvest, a huge dried fish, or pumpkin seeds for eating during the long winter evenings.
Well into autumn, the crops have already been harvested in Polesia. All their attention is focused on pumpkins and seeds. The harvest has been very abundant. All the fields are yellow with the pumpkins ready to be harvested or those cut open and thrown on the earth. They rot and fertilize the soil for the next harvest.
Geese. Ducks. Hens. A huge number in every village. They are raised, loved, and eaten.
Grandma Katia Pancenia told with a mixture of affection, horror and laughter about when she had wrung the cock’s neck and left it lying on the ground. Then in bed, about to go to sleep, she remembered the bird was still waiting for her. She got up and went to look for it; it was no longer where she had left it.
She thought the neighbors’ dogs had carried it off. Back inside the house, she saw it sitting in a corner of the room… She started to pray and cross herself. She couldn’t explain to herself the cock’s coming back to life. She began to talk to it and ask forgiveness for having tried to kill it. She went close to it and saw that in effect the cock’s death throes had brought it to the corner, where it had lain against the wall. For good. The cock was cold.
She told all this amid laughter and whoops of joy since it had all ended well…
Nimble fingers – no one excepted – hand you traditional cloths, napkins. You’ll never leave the home of a Palisciuk (Polesian) without a gift. It’s a rule of Polesian “civilization”.
Nowhere else in Belarus are the homes decorated in such a way; handmade embroidery occupies every bit of space – walls, beds, floors…
I really wondered how it was possible for people with such a hard and difficult life to find the time to embroider. One woman weaver had a simple answer: they do it at night. She said that after her son died, she embroidered and embroidered endlessly using strikingly bright colors. It was psychotherapy to stop her going mad and taking her own life.
Second trip to Polesia
7th - 12th of June
“It hasn’t rained since April”, the locals say calmly. Here in the midst of the Belarus marshes the inhabitants predict that the wells will run dry in about a month and there won’t be any water. We are in Polesia, the most enigmatic yet mildest part of Belarus. In the villages, food is still eaten from cast iron pots, the language is a mixture of Ukrainian-Polish-Belarusian and in courtyards are kept the chaika, the boats used in the past to go to shops, to school and to work. They are still kept for flood periods.
Friday – Zarudzie. Calm reigns in the courtyards. The elderly take refuge from the heat in wooden houses, decorated inside with icons covered with floral drapes and classic Soviet sofas. Some people putter in their vegetable gardens. “My legs hurt, I laid down to rest”, says grandmother Ania with lively eagle eyes. She invites us in. Her husband and sons are dead. Her daughters live in Minsk and frequently come to visit. In fact the house, once adorned with splendid hand-loomed textiles, now looks like a city apartment. She knits, her neighbors embroider. What else can a person alone do in winter except knit and watch TV?
We meet Natalia Lukinishna, a teacher of Belarusian. “I wanted to be a journalist” she says, pleased to see people and have guests. “It was Ryhor Baradulin (a poet of classic Belarusian literature) who convinced me not to. And so I joined the philology faculty.” Natalia has us photograph her with her geese and then takes us to 90-year-old Galina Jakauleuna, whose father had emigrated to America before the Great War. Our route follows the main aquatic ecosystem of southern Belarus, Bug-Prypiat. Here in the spring, like a hundred years ago, everything floods. Polesia becomes a sea. The locals have heard of Herodotus and say that the ancient Greek may have been right in stating that this region was once a sea or huge lake. Where would all this water come from otherwise?
Saturday – Kudrycy. The island-village where civilization arrived only in the late 1990s thanks to construction of the road. Here you can still see its famous houses with reed roofs.
Sunday – Lakhauka. For breakfast we have an omelet, ricotta fritters and watery coffee. When this lady in her eighties decides to let us photograph her without her headscarf, she immediately looks thirty years younger and reminisces about when she was a singer and devoted to the art. Her husband was such a good man he was never jealous of her. And she had so many clothes. But this winter the mice ate them.
The place, where time has stopped
My trip to Polesia, 12th-21st of Mai
The Pripet Marshes are a vast humid area along the banks of the Pripet River. They also go by the name of the Pinsk Marshes and extend for 480 km between southern Belarus and north-western Ukraine. Population density is very low and the few still inhabited villages are scattered amidst wild nature. This isolation has preserved up to the present time the totally unique customs and traditions. Even the local language is different from Belarusian. It’s known as ‘tresianka’, a mixture of Russian, Belarusian and Lithuanian that has its roots deep in the dim and distant past. The inhabitants of the region, called ‘Polishchuks’, have a great capacity to resist and adapt. They lead a life of times past, tied to the soil and the cycle of the seasons, preserving traditions and truly unique ways of life. Setting out to discover them was a real adventure that led us to meet extraordinary individuals, rich in humanity and uncommon sentiments. The rhythms of their life are very different from those that typify modern industrialized society. Our exploration enabled us to gather valuable testimony (photographs, stories, films) that we are committed to make use of and circulate.
On the streets of Pinsk
With the capital Minsk behind us, we go through kilometres of countryside cultivated with rape and wheat. The agricultural areas alternate with dense forests reaching right to the side of the road and I find it hard to visualize how different the scenes are in winter when ‘the long night’ and the storm embrace everything. The time passes enjoyably talking to Maxim – expert guide and interpreter – about the linguistic origins of Polesia. “The first traces of the Polesian language appear in the 19th century. Their language was a transition between the Baltic languages and the Slavic languages spoken in these areas.”
We reach the village of Vialikaya Hats (Big Marsh). It’s where Maxim’s ancestors came from. Maxim is the ideal guide for this research trip with the goal of collecting rare testimony of a world that is unknown to us and disappearing. There’s very little left of the old village, seen as the ‘gateway to Polesia’. We visit the cemetery with its old Orthodox crosses and from this silent deserted scene, two old peasant women emerge as if by magic. They look at us in surprise. Maxim goes up to them and they speak in the local language. Katsiaryna Konzum (73) and Basulay Marija (75) are the last two inhabitants in the village. They tell us: “Once there were 600 peasants with their families here. We all worked on the kolkhoz (collective farm). All the young have left and the oldest died off. We’re the only ones left but we won’t give in. We continue to cut fodder for the cows and plant wheat to make bread. We’re strong. We keep each other company and resist.”
Walking in Lenin Square
We arrive in Pinsk towards dusk. Drawn by the music and choir singing folk songs, we walk towards the stage set up in Lenin Square. Four young female dancers in traditional dress, Violeta, Veronica, Marija e Mazdina, are happy to pose for the foreign photographer. Being part of the Folk Ballet of Polesia fills them with pride, and I realize that in this part of the world popular traditions create a strong social bond between the generations.
In a magnificent building – once the premises of the Jesuit College – we visit the Museum of Ethnography accompanied by Svetlana, who knows every section and relates the history with passion. Of great importance are the clothes and traditional fabrics, all handmade. The main feature in a male garment was the ‘kalita’ close to the body, a kind of wallet used by the head of the family containing money. It was a symbol of power. The visit to the Museum ends with the section on fishing, the typical activity of the Polesians, who have always lived among the waters of the river and the reeds of the vast marshland. The boat they still use is called a ‘ciaka’ (seagull). Made of wood, it is narrow-shaped with a flat bottom. The traditional nets are now banned under regulations demanded by the forest wardens to preserve intact the National Nature Reserve for the protection of all the species of plants and animals in Europe’s most unspoilt humid area of land.
The heroes of Polesia, 14th of Mai
We leave Pinsk and follow the course of the river Pina. People living there mention the hamlet of Kudrichy, a cluster of izbas where some people still live in the middle of the marshes. Until a few years ago, there was no road so that the villages were really isolated. The only access was by boat or horse. The few link roads in the region of Polesia were built in the 1990s after the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Maxim and I think we’ve got lost when we spot an old izba. We continue on foot and come across two women working in their vegetable garden. They smile at us and, curious, come to the fence. Their names are Valentina Kolb and Marija Lapushka. “Where are you from? It’s a long time since we’ve seen any strangers!” says Valentina. “This is the village of Kudrichy. Once there were 200 of us. We worked and got on really well. Now there are ten of us left. People in Pinsk call us “heroes” because we’re the only ones to live like this. We’re old and the most attached to this land. This izba is the only thing we’ve got left. We’re poor but you’re welcome here.” And they invite us to drink tea.
The outside walls of the izba have a nice dark blue colour. The inside is simple but neat and tidy. After a pleasant chat, they suggest we go and see the village head. We say goodbye and walk to the next izba, where Maknovids Moisiej and his wife Volga live. He is 77 and she 72. Moisiej says with pride: “The day I was born (1941) the Nazis invaded Poland. My father was at the front. Pinsk was burning and I let out my first cry. Then came a difficult childhood of hunger and fear. After the war things were sorted out and we lived by working the land and rearing cows and pigs on the kolchoz. When Communism ended, everything went to pot and now all we’ve got left are the chickens and a horse, but we make do. We live off a small pension and are staying here. We remain true to our nest like the stalks!” Moisiej and Volga are kind and hospitable and willingly let themselves be photographed on the sofa with the picture taken of them on the day they were married.
What the hermit says, 15th of Mai
We sleep at the house of Oleg Sadovsky, a warden at the Nature Park, who has restored the old family izba and turned it into a bed & breakfast. “The only way to bring this village, doomed to oblivion, back to life is to attract nature-loving tourists". The following morning Oleg suggests we go out in boat and he entrusts us to his neighbour Slava Batujev (63), who still uses an old ‘ciaika’ rowing boat. We spy in the dense vegetation an old izba. It all seems to be abandoned and decaying, but an old man comes towards us through the tall grass. He looks like a wood elf. He is covered from his head to his knees in a piece of plastic to avoid the stings of the insects and mosquitoes that are very aggressive here in the marshes.He is called “the hermit” by the villagers. “Go away. I don’t want to speak to anyone!” But then he starts to tell: “My name is Anatoly (Anton) Makhnavec. I was born in this dwelling 70 years ago. This is where my father, grandfather and my grandfather’s grandfather lived. Now it’s falling to pieces…look at the roof!"
“At the time of the Soviets, there was justice! There was work for everyone, and if anyone stole, they ended up in prison in Saint Petersburg. Then Moscow imposed its economic rules and we had to work like slaves. We were starving. I went to study in town and got a diploma. You see me reduced to looking like a tramp but I’m a respectable person. When I was young, the Party gave me assignments and I travelled for the State to Brazil, Argentina, Canada and Cuba... Here in the kolchoz, it was hard work but every year there was a big party with folk songs and dancing, the ‘Talaka’. It was a time all the peasants in the region got together to celebrate the harvest and get ready for the long winter.” Then he changes the subject and explains to us the word spasiba (thank you). “It shouldn’t be spasiba ma spasibog, which means ‘God save you’. But what should the good Lord save us from? From injustice! With democracy there are no more rules and everyone does as he wishes. The rich are more and more rich and high-handed and we poor get poorer and poorer!”
The daughter of the Pripet, Pagost (Turau) 18th of Mai
Once through the old town centre of Turau, we take a dirt road heading to the village of Pagost, a small hamlet of izbas washed by the river Pripet. We’re going to meet a very special person. Kacjarina Panchenja (76) embodies all the traditions of Polesia. The rarity and value of her testimony lies precisely in the very old things she knows handed down solely through the oral expression of folk songs and popular rites. When we see her, she greets us dressed in typical dress she herself has embroidered. Sitting in the shade of the pergola, her neighbour Julia spins flax with a swift and makes fabrics with an old wooden loom. Here everything is the same as in the past. All have a great respect for Kacjarina, who displays strength and charisma.
“When I was young, the head of the kolchoz heard my beautiful voice and wanted me to sing in the region’s folk choir. Since 1980, I’m the artistic director and as long as my memory holds out, I can remember 400 folk songs from the old times. My grandmother Antonina taught them to me. Many of them are about the Patriotic War, love, working in the fields or life in the marshes with her animals.” She continues: “When spring comes with the thaw, the mud reaches up to your knees. So we put the animals in a safe place and spread the nets to catch the fish…then we wait patiently for the waters to recede.” We walk outside the fence of the old blue and yellow izba and Kacjarina adds: “This street is called Konsomolska Ulica. 47 families used to live here. All these houses are empty or in ruins from bad weather. The old are dead and the young have gone to Turau. Their children and grandchildren have not wanted to continue the traditions. Some come back for the ‘Summer Festival’…what we call the ‘Fern Flowers Festival’. Then the young women dance on the riverbank and throw their garlands into the waters of the Pripet, praying that they find a husband in the course of the year. The girls watch the garlands floating away in the current and dream of finding a boy to marry among the strapping youths that fire their blazing arrows towards the sun at dusk.” Kacjarina and her way of life is the subject of a film entitled The Daughter of the Pripet.
Hanna’ story, 16th of Mai
We come into Stolin, a pretty town with large parks and a population of ten thousand. The symbol of the town is the stork and it’s common to see their big nests on the chimneys of the izbas or at the top of the lampposts. The Belarus-Ukraine border is only 15 km away and there’s no lack of military road blocks. A ghetto was set up here in 1942 for the over 7000 Jews rounded up from neighbouring villages. It was sited on an insalubrious spot on the banks of the Bank River. Most of them were old men, women and children. The “liquidation of the ghetto” took place on 11 September 1942. The massacre was undertaken near to the military airfield by a Wehrmacht cavalry unit. People here do not forget. It’s not by chance that traces of the second world war also emerge in the account of Mrs Hanna Maiseevna, who we meet in the nearby village of Staryna.
Born in 1927, Hanna is still very lucid and active. She is attending to some chickens and pigs and opens the gate with a smile, inviting us in for a chat. Inside, her small izba is full of photographs in black and white bearing witness to her links with the past and family matters. “The German troops came in 1941 and when I was 15, I was deported to a work camp in Germany. All of us workers were prisoners coming from several countries. We made bombs and hand grenades. In the camp we lived in huts. They gave us beetroot soup in the morning and evening. We were all weak and many of us fell ill. After three years, American soldiers came and set us free. They took care of us. Then a Russian general came and told us that “Your parents are waiting for you. It’s time to go home. Your suffering is over!” And so the long journey home began. When I got here to Staryna, everything was destroyed. There was no trace of my family. Only grandfather was left. So we lived in poverty for three years. I never heard of my parents or brothers and sisters again. There was nothing to eat and grandfather caught fish in the river. In winter, we made potato soup. As soon as we reorganised, work restarted on the kolchoz and things got better. Three years later, I got married. His name was Archom Alexandrovic. We had a good life together. Two sons were born, Nikolaj e Andrej, and I’ve got 9 grandchildren. My husband Archom died 22 years ago and I feel lonely. My sons have left because here in the marshes it’s difficult to live and find work.”
Andrei Liankevich was end of March 2018 for the first time in the region of Polesia:
"I just come back from the first investigation trip.
This spring is cold this year, so it still ice and snow - no flood.
Here first impressions".