Lazar Bogsha weighed a small golden Orthodox icon on his palm, scrutinized it carefully from all angles, and smiled. The icon’s colourful enamels were just perfect. Anybody would easily mistake it for a Byzantine work. Anybody, but him. After all, Lazar Bogsha created it himself.
If one could find a 12th century parchment listing all Polatsk goldsmiths, the name of Lazar Bogsha would be at its very top. The city where he lived stood on the Dzvina River, which made up an important part of the trade route between the Baltic and the Black seas. It was the Great Silk road of Eastern Europe connecting Vikings with the Byzantium via lands of Baltic and Slavic tribes. Polatsk markets were full of fancy foreign goods, but it was masterpieces of Byzantine goldsmiths that fascinated Lazar the most. For many years he perfected his skills until he was able to match the level of artists from Constantinople…
A figure of a nun appeared in the doorway of Lazar’s workshop. Her earnest look told the goldsmith that the matter was of utter importance. “Please be so kind to follow me. Mother superior would like to see you”...
Having returned from the convent, Lazar Bogsha shut his workshop for visitors, put aside the unfinished jobs, cancelled all appointments and submerged in work. Eufrasinnia, mother superior of the Polatsk convent, asked him to create an elaborate cross, a reliquary, which would occupy a central place at the Church of the Saviour. She provided Lazar with valuable relics which were sent to her from Constantinople and Jerusalem. There were parts of the Saviour’s cross, a piece of stone from the tomb of Virgin Mary, relics of other saints as well as all kinds of jewels, pearls and gold. On his part, Lazar contributed his skill and artistic taste.
When the people of Polatsk first saw the six-point cross on display at the Church of the Saviour in 1161, they were fascinated by its beauty and splendour. The cross was more than half a meter long. Its cypress wood body was coated with gold and silver. A line of fine pearls ran along its rim. Miniature enamel icons of Jesus Christ, Virgin Mary, and saints intermingled with sparkling jewels. A menacing warning was etched along the edge of the cross. It prohibited anybody from taking the cross outside of the convent. Those who disobeyed would be cursed forever and meet the fate of Judas.
The Judas came soon.
The hunt for the cross began at the end of the 12th century, when the dukes of Smolensk (a city situated half-way between Minsk and Moscow, a centre of an independent principality at that time) took the cross out of the Polatsk convent.
In 1514 Muscovite Tsar Vasily III occupied Smolensk and brought the cross to Moscow. As a rule, religious trophies were supposed to go into the treasury of the bishop of Moscow. However, the cross was so beautiful that the Tsar decided he would rather keep it to himself.
By this time Polatsk land had already become part of the powerful Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which bordered on the Moscow Duchy. Both countries were engaged in constant wars against each other. Another Moscow Tsar, the notorious Ivan IV (the Terrible) launched a large-scale offensive against the Great Duchy of Lithuania. He saw Polatsk as the key to his domination in the region. However, Ivan the Terrible was as brutal as he was pious. Prior to his Polatsk campaign the Tsar pledged to restore the cross to its righteous place if the city would “return under his fatherly rule”. Ivan the Terrible kept his promise and returned the cross to Polatsk.
However, the city paid a high price for that. The siege of Polatsk ended in a bloodbath in 1563. By some accounts, more than 20 000 people died and about 50 000 were captured and sent to Moscow lands as slaves.
In 1574 Eufrasinnia became the first woman to be canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church. Stiapan Batura (Stephan Batory), the ruler of Rzechpospolita (united state of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Polish Kingdom) liberated Polatsk from the Russian troops. The cross was transferred to the Sophia cathedral, which towards the end of the 15th century became a united church (United or “uniat” church retained its Eastern rituals but reported to the Pope).
In 1812 Polatsk was occupied by the Napoleon army. Basilian order monks hid the cross in one of the cathedral’s niches behind a layer of bricks. In 1814, when Polatsk was part of the Russian empire, the cross found its place in the Church of the Saviour.
Soviet ideology ignored St. Eufrasinnia. A prominent religious figure and a member of aristocracy, she was a double sinner in the eyes of the Bolsheviks. However, despite their contempt towards St. Eufrasinnia, Communists were not too squeamish about getting their hands on her cross. The treasure was confiscated and seemed to have disappeared. In 1928, a special expedition organized by Vatslau Lastouski, Director of the Belarusian State Museum, discovered the cross at a local department of the Soviet Finance Ministry in Polatsk. The cross was brought to Minsk and a year later it occupied a place at the History Museum in Mahiliou.
Soon after that the museum “accommodated” an office of the local Communist Party branch. The cross and many other museum valuables were hidden in a special vault room behind an iron grating and a 15-cm-thick metal door. It stayed there until World War II broke out and the Nazis approached Mahiliou. This is where we meet our old acquaintance – driver Piotr Paddubski.
When the Red Army liberated Mahiliou from the Nazis, the museum vault was found empty. It is very much likely that the cargo which Piotr Paddubski took to Moscow in 1941 was in fact the exposition of Mahiliou history museum. If this is the case, what else could have been there except the cross of St. Eufrasinnia?
In 1944 Ivan Migulin, former director if the Mahiliou History Museum, drew up a list of the vault room contents. The treasures that were hidden there were enormous. There were: the Cross of St. Eufrasinnia; golden and silver keys to the city of Mahiliou (symbolic sings of the city self-governing right); hand-written Gospel of Slutsk; numerous Orthodox icons with golden and silver frames, decorated with diamonds; all kinds of precious church utensils; jewellery; ancient weapons and armour; hand-copied books and old prints, paintings, and even Napoleon’s sleigh, which the French emperor lost in Belarus on his flight to France after the collapse of his Russian campaign. The list of valuables had 89 lots, with many of them corresponding not to single items but to whole collections such as “Belarusian national clothes”, “large ornithological collection”, “one hundred and fifty 13th-18th century icons by Belarusian masters”, etc. The riches were enormous both in their tangible and cultural value.
The museum’s director was immediately made responsible for the loss (even though he was not present in Mahiliou most of the time during the war). Ivan Migulin was found guilty of “negligence which resulted in the loss of socialist property”. The intimidating verdict notwithstanding, the director was punished with… a strict reprimand. Basically, it meant “make sure you behave yourself and never do this again”. It is worth noting that it was still Stalin’s era and people were routinely shot for much pettier crimes.
The treasure was lost, the culprit was punished, and the case was closed. No further search was needed. At least not until Belarus declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. The new government soon learned that Belarus held only 1% of its cultural possessions, which it officially had before the WWII. Ninety nine percent of the country’s treasures were either destroyed, taken by the Nazis or “evacuated” to mainland Russia, where they consequently vanished without any trace.
The Ministry of Culture of Belarus established the “Viartanne” (‘Return’) commission, whose task was to search for the lost valuables and attempt to return them to Belarus. It turned to specialists in Moscow and St. Petersburg, asking them to provide information about whereabouts of the Mahiliou treasure. “Most likely in the United States”, was the answer. Allegedly, the cross was seized by the Nazis and sold at an action somewhere in Western Europe after the war. The treasure was said to be concealed in the collection of the Morgan family in New York.
Adam Maldzis, head of “Viartanne”, visited Pierpont Morgan Library in 1990. Belarusian diplomats even delivered an official letter to the foundation in which they asked its director to shed light on the fate of the treasure. The reply came in two months. The Morgan Foundation denied that it possessed the cross.
Further conversations with Russian museum officials persuaded Adam Maldzis that he was being misled, perhaps even on purpose. The American trace was not plausible enough. Other researchers, including journalist Aliaksandr Lukashuk, who had a rare opportunity to study FBI archives on the topic, also found no sign of American connection in this case. The Mahiliou treasure also never appeared on the meticulous lists of Alfred Rosenberg’s Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories, which was responsible for robbing material values from the lands it oversaw.
When Adam Maldzis was visiting New York, a number of Belarusian newspapers published articles about the fate of the lost treasure. These publications resulted into most interesting replies from the readers. One of them, Mr. Kavaliou from Mahiliou, claimed he knew a person, who evacuated the city’s museum treasures – more than 2000 items – to Moscow! Driver Piotr Paddubski was another person who replied. He described in detail his strange assignment at the Mahiliou history museum. The recollections of Mr. Panamarenka, wartime head of the Belarusian Communist Party, who accompanied Paddubski on his secret trip, also pointed out, albeit indirectly, to Moscow as the place where the cross was being hidden.
Today, many Belarusian researchers are inclined to think that the treasure is to be searched for in Russia, either in museums or private collections. They have a rather exotic ally on this quest – Belarusian KGB. The Mahiliou branch of the Belarusian secret service is also pursuing the search through its channels. However, despite the otherwise friendly relationship, their Russian colleagues are still not too eager to provide access to its secret archives.
The story of the cross of St. Eufrasinnia made another twist somewhere around 2002.
...An Orthodox priest knocked on the door of a modest apartment. An old lady, lying in bed, stretched her weak hand. She wanted to make her confession, which would also be the last one in her life.
After the ritual was over, she asked the priest to lean closer. “You are so kind”, she whispered into his ear. “I would like to give something to you and the Church – as a present”.
The book she gave to him was not just old – it looked truly ancient with its ornate Cyrillic lettering. The experts who examined it discovered a stunning fact. It was the famous Gospel of Slutsk! Yury Alelkavich, Duke of the history-rich Belarusian town of Slutsk, copied it by his own hand in 1581.
As stunning as it is, the discovery appears even more mysterious if you skip several paragraphs back and read the list of treasures, which were hidden in the vault of the Mahiliou history museum. Bingo! The Gospel of Slutsk was one of them.
The Gospel was the only piece of the lost Mahiliou treasure, which surfaced since its disappearance. But, if the Gospel was in Belarus, isn’t it possible that the rest of the treasure is also hidden somewhere in the country?
There is more to it than this. As you would remember, the Cross was brought from Polatsk to Mahiliou by Vatslau Lastouski, head of the Belarusian state museum in 1928. In his description of the Cross Mr. Lastouski pointed out that some jewels were substituted with the pieces of glass. Moreover, he wrote that the Cross was made of oak wood, although it was common knowledge among historians that it was made of cypress. Was it just a mistake of Lastouski? Unlikely.
It is possible that with this description Vatslau Lastouski was giving a signal that the Cross, which he had in his hands, was a fake. But why didn’t he write it directly?
Perhaps, Vatslau Lastouski knew where the original cross was, but wanted to send a fake to the Mahiliou history museum. As an intellectual and a true patriot of Belarus he couldn’t help noticing that the Soviet regime could not be trusted. What if he simply wanted to save the original from greedy red commissars?
In 1993 it was already obvious that the Cross would not be found easily. The Orthodox Church in Belarus decided to follow the steps of St. Eufrasinnia. It commissioned a copy of the cross to be made by Mikola Kuzmich, one of the top Belarusian goldsmiths. The task was ultimately difficult. He had to reconstruct Byzantine enamel techniques the same way Lazar Bogsha did eight centuries ago.
It took Mikola Kuzmich five years to recreate the cross. Metropolitan Philaret, head of the Belarusain Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church went to Jerusalem to get holy relics for the cross. The Belarusian state financed the work.
The new cross is not considered to be a copy, but rather a masterpiece created “after the image and likeness of the Cross of St. Eufrasinnia”. In a sense, the lost cross returned to Belarus – even though the original had not been found yet.
It was not the only return of the Cross of St. Eufrasinnia. In 1991 its shape appeared on “Pahonia” (‘the Chaser’) the new state emblem of independent Belarus. The knight rider sported the six-pointed cross on his shield. The cross also decorated the flagstaff of the national white-red-white banner.
As a result of the dubious state referendum of 1995, “Pahonia” was substituted with the Soviet-type wreath. National flag turned green and red, with a star on top of its flagstaff. Belarusians lost their holy cross again. This time, however, they did it voluntarily (at least according to the ruling regime).
The fate of the Cross of St. Eufrasinnia is similar to the fate of Belarus. It was lost, but also recreated. Some day, we hope, the Cross of St. Eufrasinnia will return to Polatsk, the ancient capital of our land. We’ll keep you posted on the developments of this exciting story, which will surely come in the future.
"Pahonia" ('the Chaser') the new state emblem of independent Belarus
A new cross by Mikola Kuzmich
The cross also decorated the flagstaff of the national white-red-white banner
By Ales Kudrytski for the ODB