Rakaw: Belarusian Wonderland

By Olga Loginova, New York
Photo by Alena Lis

The snow storm raging through the night calmed down by the morning. Crisp ankle-deep snow, still white and almost untouched by feet and tyres, was sparkling in the cold sun. Our destination was Mizhrechcha, a place near Rakaw. The village didn’t ring a bell for me at that time. According to the message left on our news department answering machine, there was a rabies outburst among the foxes living in the local forests. As the footage of the sick wildlife and their terrified victims is an all time win-win story, the editor delegated me to cover it.

Viktar, the man who had left the voicemail, was waiting for us at the village gates. Once a staunch government supporter, and now a dissident in exile he had to flee to suburbia and redirect his political energy into social activism.

Fairly quickly we covered the story; walked in the forest almost drowning in the snow, chased a sick fox, and returned  to Viktar’s welcoming lunch table. I still had the whole day ahead of me, and frankly was very unwilling to return to the station. This is why, when Viktar pitched a new story to me, I jumped at the idea.

It appeared that the thick layers of snow covered more than just gardens and flower beds. Viktar took out a heavy leather purse and opened it, revealing old foreign coins. The whole place had been built on the treasures hidden in the ground by the people living here centuries before. The answer to the question where on Earth Belarusian peasants got all this money from waited for us in Rakaw.  And this is how our travel in time began.

Feliks Yanushkevich

As we were approaching Rakaw I grew disappointed. Perhaps I expected too much from a place that looked exactly like thousands of other Belarusian places – two cathedrals, a village hall, a supermarket and a school museum. How boring.
As if sensing my worries Viktar said ‘just you wait till you meet my friend Feliks’, and whispered something to
our driver.

The Art Gallery of the Yanushkevich brothers would put to shame even the most sophisticated city museums. It
was as if the past met the present and got happily married to it. Solemn statues of ancient Dukes covered in
snow, a smoking shed still sending off a sweet meaty fragrance into the crisp air, hundreds of hand- made pots and chests and other utensils were waiting as if to tell visitors their stories.

The son of a Belarusian artist, Feliks Yanushkevich, one of five brothers, himself also an artist, collector, and historian greeted us enthusiastically.

Speaking perfect Belarusian he passionately shared his knowledge of the gallery with us.
A decade before he had left his life in the city and returned to the village he believed to be his family seat. During
the renovation of the house, that later became the art gallery, he had discovered several barrels filled with pre-war American dollars, chinaware and famous Rakaw ceramics. This is how his infatuation with the history of Rakaw began.

Not only had he started collecting artifacts and digging up the history of the place, but he also discovered the answers to the questions that nobody had dared to ask. In his Doctoral Dissertation he assumed that the Rakaw ceramics, that had brought this place so much fame in previous years, had been imported to Rakaw by the Chinese masters invited  to Belarus by the Ahinsky family (if you are a music lover, this name should definitely have meaning for you).

Then, Feliks suggested that Nikolai II (the Russian Emperor killed by the Bolsheviks during the Revolution) and his kin came from Rakaw and its neighborhood. To support this, Feliks showed me the portrait of one of his relatives who in fact looked exactly like Tzar Nikolai. In addition, Mr. Yanushkevitsh is an adamant supporter of the legend that Napoleon’s treasures, lost during his retreat from Moscow, had been buried not in the Byarezina River, but here, in the Islach near Rakaw. Quite a story for one boring village, isn’t it? And it’s only the beginning.

A Few Historical Facts

It is hard to say when Rakaw was founded, but most scholars believe it happened sometime in the 15th century. Throughout its existence the place used to be a family seat to several renowned Lithuanian/Belarusian clans, such as the Kezhgailas, Zavish, Sangushkas, Salahubs and Ahinskies. During the Sangushkas’ rule Rakaw turned into a prosperous trade centre.

It was privileged to hold two bazaars a year, which ensured the constant flow of money and ideas. By the end of the 16th century Rakaw society rejoiced over the opening of the first printing house in the town. Religious tolerance came along with prosperity and literacy: Catholicism coexisted peacefully with the Union church, and later Orthodox Christians and Judaism (With trades flourishing, Rakaw soon became a home to hundreds and thousands of Jewish families, who by the beginning of the 20th century became the dominant nation living in the place). Moreover, according to the orthodox legends, Rakaw is one of the six locations in Belarus where Mother Mary had made her appearance to the people.

In 1793 Rakaw was annexed by the Russian Empire as a result of the second partition of Rzeczpospolita. In 1921 it was given to Poland, and in 1939 it became a part of Soviet Belarus.

The Smugglers’ Capital

Even in their worst nightmares, the residents of 19th century Rakaw could not have thought that this once flourishing place would in time turn into a dull province: for centuries the town has been notorious for its prosperous smuggling business and bustling social life. 134 stores, 96 salons and eateries, as well as four brothels welcomed anyone willing to spend some cash. (A comment by Feliks Yanushkevitch: Mademoiselles working in the brothels used to wear exquisite silk dresses imported directly from China).

The stream of goods and money pouring into the town would not stop even after the Revolution, when Rakow became a frontier between the Soviet Union and Poland. Trains loaded with gold, fur and diamonds would tear the darkness from East to West, and return nights later loaded with bricks of cocaine and marijuana for the Soviet Army.

Smuggling was a style of life at that time. From young children to grey-haired oldies, everyone would try to bring something across the border to get something else in return. For those who considered smuggling their profession, there even existed secret maps that would show the safest routes through the swamps and forests surrounding the frontier.

The first decades of the 20th century were indeed incredible and astonishing for Rakaw and its citizens. By the start of WWII it had transformed not only into the smuggling capital, but also into the city of spies. Three intelligence services - the Soviet, Polish, and German - had their residences in Rakaw. And there was one incredible man who succeeded to work for them all at once.

The Lover of the Great Bear

You may call him a gentleman of fortune, a literary genius or one of the greatest spies of all time. Sergiusz Piasecki (Syarhey Pyasecky) deserves all these titles.

Born in 1901 in Lyahavichy as a result of a sweet but short affair between a nobleman Michael Piasecki and his maid, Sergiusz was determined to prove himself worthy to the world from his earliest years.

This he did; moving to Rakaw and working for all the intelligence agencies he could contact, and earning the title of the first terrorist in world history. No one knows what the historical outcomes would have been should Mr. Piasecki have continued his activity, but he was eventually caught and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Not able to plot further intelligence operations, Mr. Piasecki started to write, and in a little while was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature for his novel ‘The Lover of the Great Bear’, which not only brought him fame but an early release from prison.

The Second World War ruined his literary plans and gave his life a new turn. By the end of the war, he fled to Italy, and later England leaving his beautiful wife and son behind. After that there are few recorded facts left about his life. There are rumors that he could have been recruited by MI6, or became a prototype for the James Bond series. But I guess, we’ll never know for sure.

War and Post-War Times

Along with the rest of Belarus, WWII brought death and devastation to the town. 2000 Jews were burned alive in the building of Rakaw synagogue; countless numbers of people were killed, tortured and sent to concentration camps. But although they perished, their treasures discovered in the basements and gardens of the contemporary residents of the village still remind people of how fragile human life and material values can be.

After the war, having lost a considerable amount of its population, Rakaw has become a quiet village, surrounded by numerous summer camps and Soviet recreation resorts.

Back to Present

Mr Yanushkevich glances pensively through the window onto the empty market place. I look in the same direction and just for a second the village street gives way to a bustling bazaar with merry merchants and traders, mademoiselles looking for new wardrobes, and mysterious clandestine-looking gentlemen hurrying through the happy crowds. It lasts just a second, and then the vision is over, dissolved by the pale rays of the winter sun.

The Church of the Transfiguration was built between 1730-1793 as a union church. It
now belongs to the Orthodox Church.

Cathedral of St. Mary