By Olga Loginova
For years this has been one of my favourites – the story of how we tracked down the Lepel Lake monster. It involves several characters – myself, my indispensible camera person Sasha (who actually ended up in New York with me), a local policewoman and a good portion of ‘The Black Knight’ cognac (FYI consumed only for medical purposes).
It was sometime around Halloween, and the Newsroom was thirsty for out-of the ordinary kicker stories. Surfing through the web, I found this absolutely fantastic lead on a Loch Ness-like monster living right in our backyard, – in Lake Lepel, Vitsebsk region.
We set out on a 3-hour journey up north with a threatening note from the editors: dead or alive we had to bring footage of the monster. Two pairs of rubber boots, an underwater camera and an unbound imagination – this
was the gear that was supposed to help us find the monster.
It started as a traditional October day, sentimentally beautiful, and very cold. To kill some time, I was scanning through historic materials I found about the town.
Not much, but to the point. Here are just a few interesting facts, for your future reference.
The town’s name derives from a Latvian word ‘liepa’ which means water-lily, reminding the modern Belarusians of their Baltic roots.
The first time the town of Lepel was mentioned in history, was the year 1439, when Duke Michael, the son of the Duke of the Great Duchy of Lithuania Zhyhimont (Sigismund), forwarded the Lepel estate to the Catholic Church of Vitsebsk.
In 1586 Lepel was purchased by the future chancellor of the Duchy, Lew Sapieha – a prominent name in Belarusian history. Twenty years later he signed the town off to the Bernardino Nuns. Since 2010, a monument erected to honour the great Belarusian diplomat together with St Kazimir Church and a Synagogue became one of the town’s attractions.
Later, Lepel was annexed to the Russian Empire before becoming part of Polatsk Province. Later on
it was included in Vitsebsk province, and in 1805 it received a semi-independent status. Lepel residents did not think twice, when they sensed the Ghost of Communism in the air – it took only two days in November, 1917 to establish Soviet rule. This undoubtedly jinxed their luck – within the next 30 years the town was occupied three times: first by the Germans, then by the Poles, and then again by the Nazi Germans.
During the last war, Lepel shared the tragic destiny of many Belarusian towns – 37 villages surrounding it were burned down, some of them with their residents. After the war, Lepel slowly recovered.
Now, with more than a hundred beautiful lakes and forests that remain the main natural resources and treasures of Lepel region, the territory boasts a constant influx of tourists from Belarus as well as from neighbouring Russia.
We pulled into the driveway. Alina Stelmakh, the director of Lepel Museum of local History, gave us a quick tour of the one-storey wooden museum, founded in 1953 by two History teachers.
She was prepared for my question about the Lepel monster. Back in her office she took a book from her table, and read out loud: ‘… Fools were those who had forgotten that Lepel Lake did not return its dead. But that year even the most stubborn disbelievers were shattered… In one night forty dragons were found dead on the shores, and half of that number was floating on the waves
like drifting islands. And the next morning another half of the monsters were found dead in the lake … – this is what Uladzimir Karatkevitch wrote about Lepel Lake in one of his many bestsellers “Christ landed in Harodnia”. What if one of the monsters had survived?’
Excellent start! Our next stop was at the local militia station.
There is one quality that unites all provincial militia in Belarus – they are extremely nice people, when it does not come to any kind of social protest or politics. If in Minsk, you generally have an unpleasant experience dealing with law enforcement; it is the opposite in the provinces, where the HQ of the local militia is the first place you should stop for information.
A hot pot of freshly brewed coffee, a bar of chocolate, and a bag of sugar biscuits – can you imagine a better conversation starter? Larisa, the lovely militia officer delegated to work with us, was eager to hear gossip from the capital – the best night clubs, celebrity affairs, scandalous divorces and political undercurrents. (Before coming to Lepel she studied in Minsk, and missed the Big City life).
A few tabloid details later, a miracle only possible in a small town happened- without tiresome negotiation and bureaucratic traps, Larisa was absolutely delighted to provide us with four-year-statistics on missing people in Lepel (among them six people were dead or missing in the proximities of the Lake, none of the bodies found; in one case the agents found a boat entangled in the fish nets on the beach). What more could you hope for than going on a fantastic assignment like this one?
Our next destination was a town bridge across the lake - the site frequented by local fishermen and romantic couples. We parked near the boardwalk, and decided to look around and get some footage of the town.
At last we reached the bridge. Despite the nasty drizzle, fishermen were at their posts, staring silently into the dark depths of the lake.
Amazingly, each of them had his unique monster story. Some described it as a huge sheatfish-looking creature, others saw a dragon that rocked boats at night and wailed at the stars.
Fisherman Andrei told his brother-in-law’s tragic story: 5 years ago there was supposed to be a wedding in the family, and several days before the grand event, the young couple decided to take a boat ride. The groom was on the roars and the happy bride was enjoying the scenery. Suddenly, the girl saw something in the water, she bent slightly over, and instantly the huge monster’s head emerged from the lake and dragged her under the water.
The boy jumped into the lake to save his beloved one and never came back. The witnesses of the tragedy were fishermen, who had watched in horror from that same bridge we were standing upon. A heavy silence fell over us. Somehow the prospect of a monster search was not appealing any more, but we were far beyond the point of no return.
En route to the lake we parked by a liquor store and bought a bottle of cognac – to keep us warm and brave.
And there it stood, magnificent in its solemn dignity – the Great Lake that for centuries kept its secrets from idle travellers and eager writers. Not a wave stirred its tranquil surface that like a mirror reflected the sky and the trees. An abandoned boat lay upside down buried in the sand on the shore. Transfixed, we stood there on the beach, mesmerised by the size and beauty of the lake. But we had no time to lose, - the light was getting dimmer, and so Sasha, my camera girl, and myself, put on the rubber boots, took several gulps of cognac, and stepped into the icy water.
We were through with recording my presentation. Sasha was getting the underwater footage, while I walked idly in the water taking pictures with my cell phone. I turned to Sasha to wave her back, and realised something
was wrong. She stood there with a camera in her hand, staring intently in the water’s depths. I looked up to see what caught her attention and froze – an unnaturally large disturbance broke the glass surface of the water.
I looked at Sasha, and as if reading my thoughts she turned around and ran, just as I did. Too scared to think or look back we jumped in the car. In a second we were gone and away from the Lake’s face.
Was it the cognac, or just our imagination? I don’t know, but I can swear, when I watched the underwater footage, I could see the huge shadow gliding through the water.