On a hot summer day of July 13, 1941 a dust-laden truck pulled up to the main door of an imposing building in the centre of Mahiliou. A former history museum, it hosted headquarters of the local Communist Party branch. However, this was just about to change. The air was filled with the distant sounds of explosions and the muffed racket of machine-gun fire. The Nazi army was quickly advancing, closing its grip on this strategic city on the Dnepr River. Despite of fierce resistance, the fall of Mahiliou was a matter of days.
Men in plain clothes shuttled between the building and the truck, loading it with obscure boxes and bags. The driver, whose name was Piotr Paddubski, rolled a cigarette and idly observed the bustle. “What a nice cross!” said one of the workmen, marveling over something he saw in a package.
Finally, the truck was fully loaded. Piotr started up the engine. Suddenly, a man slung himself onto the passenger’s seat. Paddubski’s heart gave a jolt when he saw his face. It was Panteleymon Panamarenka, almighty head of the Communist Party of Belarus. “We must get this load to Moscow at any cost”, ordered the party boss. The truck roared and set out on a long and dangerous journey. It was joined by two other trucks, carrying the valuables from Mahiliou’s banks. The convoy managed to evade constant bombings and arrived in Moscow two days later, unloading its cargo at the Red Army headquarters. The fate of the load and its exact nature is still shrouded in mystery. However, it is very much likely that it contained most valuable treasures of the Belarusian nation.
What you have just read is only a short episode of a breathtaking story, which began about 850 years ago in Polatsk. Today, this is a midsize town in northern Belarus. A thousand years ago, however, Polatsk was the center of a powerful principality. It united most of the Belarusian lands and part of Latvia under its rule. In a sense, Polatsk became the first capital of Belarus. The principality reached its peak under the rule of the legendary Usiaslau Charadzey (‘the Wizard’). At some point, he even challenged the mighty principality of Kiev. Having lost a battle against Kiev, Usiaslau was captured and thrown into prison. However, the fate of the Duke of Polatsk threw an unexpected curve. He was released by the inhabitants of Kiev and elected as their ruler. Having spent some time as a governor of Kiev, he returned to Polatsk with triumph. People said Usiaslau could change into a hawk to cover long distances in an instance or into a wolf if he needed to escape imminent danger.
In 1101 a girl was born into the family of Usiaslau’s youngest son, Sviataslau. She was given the name Pradslava. As the little girl grew up, she witnessed many events of this turbulent age. She saw dukes climbing to power and being overthrown, court intrigues ignited, the Polatsk army going to wars. At times, the constant fighting brought Polatsk glory and new lands and sometimes it caused devastation. However, no war passed without bringing deaths and suffering to the people of the land.
As a young girl of noble descent, Pradslava might have dreamt about a happy marriage to some young and powerful duke. After all, she was already 12 – just the right age to get married at that time. Noble suitors sent their matchmakers to Pradslava’s father, willing to wed the beautiful member of the glorious Polatsk dynasty. However, the glamorous life was of no appeal to Pradslava. Polatsk’s land was just about to be christened. The pagan culture was omnipresent, especially among the common folk. The nobility, however, was already embracing the new Christian culture. Pradslava was fascinated by books and studies, which the monks of the Polatsk monastery provided. One day her parents decided that she should accept what they saw as a very good marriage proposal. The girl refused and declared that she wanted to take the veil. Unwillingly, the parents had to bow to their daughter’s decision.
Pradslava took the Christian name Eufrasinnia and occupied a cell in a majestic Polatsk church of Holy Sophia. There, she became a scribe. It was highly unusual for a woman to take on the hard labour of a scribe, which was normally a task of monks. The money earned from the sale of books copied by was distributed among the poor.
One night Eufrasinnia had a dream. She saw an angel who took the young nun by her hand and brought her to the village Syaltso near Polatsk, where a modest wooden church stood. “Here you should be!” the angel told her. The dream repeated three nights in a row. The same time Polatsk bishop Ilya had a similar dream about Eufrasinnia. Sensing a miracle, bishop Ilya summoned Duke Barys, the ruler of Polatsk, Eufrasinnia and her father Sviataslau, as well as many other respected Polatsk noblemen. The bishop declared that the village of Syaltso and its church would officially pass under the protectorate of Eufrasinnia. There, she founded a convent and a monastery. Soon afterwards both sisters of Eufrasinnia and two nieces joined her at the convent. The parent’s attempts to stop their daughters were in vain. With so many nuns coming from noble families, the convent flourished.
The authority of Eufrasinnia was enormous. Dukes and the popular assembly of Polatsk citizens took her opinion into account. Eufrasinnia often acted as an unbiased judge in disputes among aristocrats, appealing for peace between neighbouring principalities.
Although coming from the ruling Polatsk dynasty, Eufrasinnia shaped the course of Belarusian history not by military victories but by turning Polatsk into a major cultural centre. The convent and the monastery she had founded became important education hubs of the principality. There were schools where children could learn to read and write, study arithmetic, sing church anthems and learn to decipher notes of music books. Elder children were offered courses in Church Slavonic and ancient Greek languages, nature, medicine, rhetoric, and history – not only universal, but also their native history of the Polatsk land. Eufrasinnia also founded libraries with scriptoriums, icon-painting and goldsmith workshops. She contributed to the spiritual literature by writing sophisticated prayers and sermons.
Eufrasinnia also influenced the national style of architecture. She ordered to rebuild the old wooden church of the Saviour in Syaltso. Interestingly, instead of inviting an architect from Greece, she commissioned the work to a local Polatsk arthitect Iaan. As a result, a new stone church was erected in just 30 weeks. With its elegant features, the Polatsk Holy Saviour church became the masterpiece of architecture, a true jewel, which has fortunately survived into our days. One can visit it and admire ancient frescos, hoping to find the portrait of Eufrasinnia.
Eufrasinnia went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where she died in 1167. Her relics were transferred to Kiev and later on to Polatsk. However, shortly before her last journey, Eufrasinnia initiated the creation of one of the most important, valuable, and mysterious symbols of Belarus …
to be continued
by Ales Kudrytski for the ODB