Scary Belarus

A literary journey to the shores of Lake Neshcharda with Yan Barshcheuski


Halloween time passed, so this article is supposed to touch upon some creepy subject. Although there is no such holiday as Halloween in Belarus, the country has enough in stock to get you scared. In fact, there are plenty of stories, which could (and maybe some day will) eclipse the fame of Dracula and other well-known frightening myths. What about meeting Vargin the Cat King, which secretly fills people’s heads with wasps when they listen to his purring? Or seeing Nikitron, the evil spirit, which lives in every sparkle of fire? Or swimming in the lake, which is full with all kinds of beasts and spooky creatures? If you are brave enough, let’s travel all the way up to Lake Neshcharda in northern Belarus, near the border with Russia and Latvia. Your guide will be Yan Barshcheuski, the writer, whose set of stories “Nobleman Zavalnya, or Belarus in Fantasy Stories” (1844-1846) is sometimes called “the Belarusian Thousand and One Night”.

“The one who travels southwards in the direction of Belarus, sees huge villages, which resemble small towns, white stone churches and mansions of noble houses“ begins his story Yan Barshcheuski. “But when a traveler reaches the borders of Sebezh and Nevel lakes, he faces vast dark woods, which hang over horizon, like heavy clouds. In the midst of the woods, there are straw roofs of poor houses; once in a while the traveler notices an iron cross of the moos-covered chapel, with two or three bells on top of pinewood pillars in front of it, and gravestones scattered all over its grounds. Poor villages are filled with sad silence. Very rarely one can hear the song of a reaper or ploughman. And if you do, then you shall easily understand his anxious thoughts, because bad harvest often fools the expectations of local people”.
This is where Yan Barscheuski was born in 1794, two years after the Russian empire finally annexed Belarusian lands. Before that Belarus was part of Rzeczpospolita, the union state of the Polish Kingdom and the Great Duchy of Lithuania, which was later torn in three pieces by Russia, Prussia and Austro-Hungarian Empire. As brutal as it was, the Russian regime couldn’t reshape the new lands in an instant. For a long time Belarus remained covered with a network of estates of “shlyachta”, local noble families, whose ancestors received their aristocratic titles and coats of arms in return for defending their country in numerous wars. Most of “shlyachta” families were far from being rich. A popular joke of that time told that: the only difference between a peasant and a nobleman was that the latter ploughed his small fieled while wearing his sabre.
Yan Barshcheuski was born in a village on the shore of Lake Neshcharda into a noble, but quite poor, family. Provincials, the Barshcheuskis were never part of high society. This helped them to preserve their old gentry traditions and the way of thinking. They valued dear legendary memories of the “golden days”, when they lived in a freedom-loving “aristocratic republic”, very different from the authoritarian czarist Russian empire of the 19th century.
As a boy, Yan Barshcheuski was sent to study at the Jesuit College in Polatsk. There he quickly gained popularity as a talented poet. This, as well as his orator talent and skills in drawing landscapes and funny sketches, turned Yan into a local showman, who was a welcome guest at gentry parties throughout Polatsk region. Even though he spoke Polish, a usual thing for Belarusian gentry, Yan especially enjoyed writing poems in the “common” Belarusian language, and even dedicated one of them to a girl he fell in love with.
After the college, Yan wanted to enter Vilnia (Vilnius) University but realized that he couldn’t afford it. Then, with a pitiful dozen rubles in his pocket, the young man went to Saint Petersburg, the capital of the Russian Empire, where he earned his living by coaching state officials in Latin and ancient Greek. Yan’s adventurous spirit brought him to France and England. The old duchesses, whom he tutored in Latin, even took him along on a journey to Italy. Yan Barshcheuski was acquainted with Adam Mitskievich and Taras Shevchenko, and established a literary magazine Niezabudka“ (‚Forget-me-not’), which united a small circle of Polish-Belarusian writers living in St. Petersburg.
Every Summer Yan Barshcheuski left the capital walking home by foot for many miles and collecting folk stories on his way. “Many legends wander around these lands among common folk. Many of them recall actual historic events. Others are nothing more than fruits of fantasy and melancholic spirit, which is so characteristic of the inhabitants of these wild wooded areas. By nature they have a vivid mind, capable of creating unusual pictures”, he once wrote. As a result, in 1844-1846, Yan Barshcheuski published a set of four books under the title “Nobleman Zavalnya, or Belarus in Fantasy Stories”.
The book tells the story about Pan Zavalnya (in Belarusian, “Pan” was an equivalent of “Sir”), a moderately wealthy aristocrat, who lived on the southern shore of Neshcharda lake. Pan Zavalnya was a stay-at-home type. Instead of travels, he enjoyed listening to stories told to him by many guests who visited his estate. As the winter loomed, the lake Neshcharda froze and turned into an improvised road with most travelers willing to take a short cut across it. Most of them saw a welcoming candlelight in Sir Zavalnya’s window, and paid their toll in stories in return for a warm bed, supper and straw for horses.
The book begins with the visit of Yan, the narrator, to his uncle Pan Zavalnya. The young nephew recites him “Odyssey” in the manner of a true Jesuit college alumnus. The listeners’ reaction is puzzled: “That’s kind of a twisted fable, can’t remember a word of it”. The next evening it’s time for the young man to get acquainted with the stories which are told here, in the northern Belarusian woods. When the night comes, Pan Zavalnya, his nephew and servants come together in order to listen to a new story told by a new guest…
This article is way too short to tell you about all the stories in this book. Let’s choose one… Perhaps, the story of a Grass-snake Crown? Here it is – as a short summary:
A hunter called Syamion got an order from his master to hunt down some game for a fancy dinner. “But he couldn’t find any birds, just the wind, which whistled in the trees”. The hunter cursed his day and even thought that he could praise the Devil, if he had any luck. He barely thought this, as a huge black silent dog appeared before Syamion. “The hunter was overwhelmed with unease, the site gave him shivers”. Then a creepy old man came out of the thicket, and advised Syamion to go to the faraway Elk Mountain.
So he did. The mountain turned out to be fully covered with grass-snakes. The biggest of them was the Grass-snake King. Syamion bowed to him, and the beast gave the hunter his crown as a present. After that, the horrible black dog never left Syamion, showing his new master where the game was. Syamion brought full loads of prey each time he went to the woods. However, local people, seeing Syamion, whispered to each other: “He must be an evil sorcerer”.
It all went well for Syamion until he decided to marry Marysia, a young girl from a nearby village. “People say you practice sorcery, and I’m afraid of that” she told him hesitantly. “Dear Marysia, I’ve never done such lousy disgusting things,” assured her Syamion. In order to prove that he wasn’t lying, Marysia held out her little catholic cross, which she wore as a necklace. Syamion eagerly kissed it – and a huge grass-snake immediately appeared from the grass, peering into Marysia’s face. The girl screamed, and Syamion threw a stone at the beast. Hissing, it disappeared, so did the black dog. Barely alive of fear, Marysia returned home.
After that, the hunter’s luck abandoned Syamion. The game he hit turned into rotten stumps, and his home was filled with grass-snakes. Desperate, Syamion reached for the box where he kept the magic crown of the Grass-snake King – but instead of gold he saw a wreath of withered birch-tree leaves…
The plots by Yan Barshcheuski could be a great source of inspiration for the Hollywood screenplay writers working on a horror movie. However, it would be a mistake to believe that the book about Pan Zavalnya is poor entertainment. Yan Barshcheuski published it when the very word “Belarus” was prohibited for use in official documents. Nevertheless, the author not only called Belarus by its name and inserted many Belarusian-language passages into the text – he also encoded appeals to the enslaved Belarusian people into his stories. For example, a short but very powerful and symbolic story “The Son of Storm“ tells us about a vagabond, whose father spent his whole live in chains as a prisoner, and his mother – in crying over her bitter lot. Their son, the Son of Storm, suffers because neither his parents nor himself are truly free and happy. When you read this story, you can’t help thinking that it forestalls the newly emerging modern Belarusian literature in the early 20th century. It was filled with similar ideas that the enthralled Belarusian people would become happy only when they shed their chains.
The stories by Yan Barshcheuski are a mix of sadness and optimism. The good nearly always overcomes the evil (especially with the force of faith and prayer), and even if it doesn’t, then it’s the good lesson for those who hear the story: beware! No matter how gloomy the story is, the writer always brings you back to the warm and cosy chamber of Sir Zavalnya, where the good company is gathered around a fireplace. Pan Zavalnya marvels over extraordinary things he has heard and orders to pour the storyteller another cup of a hot drink. It’s scary, but it’s also homey.


By Ales Kudrytsky

Illustrations by Valery Slavuk