Uladzimier Arlou: The World Started From Polatsk

St. Sophia Cathedral
                             St. Sophia Cathedral

By Uladzimer Arlou for ODB.Translated by Mark Bence

“The world started from Polatsk…” reads a poem by the eminent Belarusian poet Ryhor Baradulin. If he implied the world of Belarusian history and culture, then this was no exaggeration. Do you recall the ancient myth of Phaeton, who asked his father, the sun god Helios, for permission to drive his sun-chariot for a day? Sensing his weak young hand, the fiery chariot hurtled off headlong, causing its unfortunate driver to drop the reins until, finally, Zeus angrily struck Phaeton with a lightning bolt. He plummeted into the River Eridanos, far from his Olympian home, and was laid to eternal rest on its riverbank.

Why am I referring to this myth? Because certain scholars maintain that the Eridanos (mentioned by Homer and Hesiod) is our River Dvina which, according to poets, carries the history of Belarus along on its waves. Therefore, the lands where Belarus’ oldest city sprang up may already have been known to the ancient Greeks and Romans. A century ago, this was evidently what gave the Belarusian writer Vaclau Lastouski grounds to speak of an ancient state in the Western Dvina region, with Polatsk as its capital, in his fantasy novella “The Polatsk Labyrinths”.

Old Polatsk, the XVI th century
Old Polatsk, the XVI th century

Nevertheless, it is time to turn from myths to historical sources, according to which Polatsk is indeed not only the archetype of Belarusian cities, but also one of the oldest cities in Eastern Europe. It was founded at the confluence of the Dvina and the Polota (the river which gave the city its name) by the Krivichs, one of the Slavonic tribes that later formed the Belarusian nation.

As far as Polatsk’s age is concerned, diligent pupils and schoolteachers will confidently reply that it recently celebrated 1150 years of existence. It would be hard to disagree with them, for the city was first mentioned in ancient chronicles around AD 862. However, archaeologists have other opinions about when the city appeared, as a number of items dating from the 5th century have been discovered in Polatsk’s upper castle. Researchers of ancient Icelandic lore also agree with the archaeologists, since the city is mentioned in sagas from well before the 9th century.

Historical chronicles list Polatsk as a city ruled by princes who recognised the authority of Oleg in Kiev, yet the rule of far-off Kiev never endured there. Even at the dawn of its history, the city strove to be independent. It had good economic conditions for self-sufficiency, thanks to its convenient geographical location on trade routes which linked the Arabian caliphate and Khazaria to Scandinavia and the Slavonic countries.

 Rogvolod's Stone, 1171
Rogvolod's Stone, 1171

It is open to debate whether Rogvolod, the first prince of Polatsk known from chronicles, was an enemy or a Slav. Another point is more crucial, however: by the mid-10th century, Polatsk no longer depended on Kiev or Novgorod, and was the capital of the first ancient Belarusian state—the Principality of Polatsk, also referred to in chronicles as the Lands of Polatsk. The Polatsk Eparchy was founded in AD 992, and thus our ancestral lands became part of Christian civilisation. The new faith was adopted peacefully, and historians believe that it came directly from Byzantium, so it is highly probable that Rogvolod and his daughter Rogneda were Christians.

The Principality reached the peak of its strength under the rule of Vseslav the Sorcerer, who is still famous today from popular legends and epic poems. It is hard to believe, but in a period when it seemed that no prince was able to keep the throne even for a year, Vseslav ruled the Lands of Polatsk for over fifty years (1044–1101). This was when the grandiose, many-domed St. Sophia Cathedral was built on the steep banks of the Dvina and became the “heart” of the state.

St. Sophia Cathedral
St. Sophia Cathedral

That was where Polatsk residents prayed, received foreign ambassadors, declared wars, signed peace treaties, and kept the state treasures and a library created by Vseslav the Sorcerer’s grandfather, Prince Izyaslav. It was also where the Chronicles of Polatsk were kept until all trace of them was sadly lost in the 18th century. Assemblies to discuss vital issues of state also used to be held by the walls of the cathedral—which locals have always fondly referred to as St. Sophia’s.

The Principality of Polatsk was a typical European state of the period. Its territory was equal to countries such as the Bavarian Dukedom or the Kingdom of Portugal. In addition to the capital, the Lands of Polatsk also incorporated about 15 cities, including Minsk and Vitebsk, and occupied a large portion of present-day Belarus.

 Euphrosyne of Polatsk (1101/1104-1173)
Euphrosyne of Polatsk (1101/1104-1173)

Polatsk was also equal to its close and distant neighbours in terms of the development of education, printing, architecture, and other branches of culture. Prince Vseslav the Sorcerer’s granddaughter, Euphrosyne of Polatsk (c.1104–c.1167),

The Cross of St. Euphrosyne
The Cross of  St. Euphrosyne

was a prominent enlightener of the time and was important to the whole of Christendom. She founded monasteries, schools and scriptoria (rooms for the copying of manuscripts), and commissioned the architect Iaan to build the Church of the Holy Saviour (Saviour-Euphrosyne), which became the pinnacle of Polatsk’s distinct school of architecture. The church still survives, and its walls have preserved some unique 12th-century frescoes. Euphrosyne of Polatsk also commissioned the celebrated Cross of St. Euphrosyne, made in 1161 by Lazar Bohsha, a master jeweller from Polatsk, which became a Belarusian national relic.

Certain people may still think the Principality of Polatsk was just a “European backwater”. This can be disproved, however, thanks to the Rogvolod dynasty’s close ties with great European dynasties. For instance, Vseslav the Sorcerer’s daughter married the Byzantine emperor Alexios Komnenos, and Vseslav’s great-granddaughter Sophia married King Valdemar І of Denmark in 1157. Their descendants occupied the thrones of Denmark, Sweden and France. Incidentally, Queen Sophia built a cathedral in the Danish city of Kalundborg which was modelled after St. Sophia Cathedral in Polatsk.

The Lands of Polatsk remained part of common European civilisation even after joining the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in 1307 (while maintaining considerable autonomy). The nucleus of this new state were Belarusian lands, Belarusian culture prevailed there, and for centuries its official language was Old Belarusian (Ruthenian). Up until the mid-16th century, Polatsk was the largest, richest city in the Grand Duchy, and was even greater than the capital, Vilnius. For this reason, the Polatsk regiment was one of the largest in the Battle of Grunwald in 1410, which brought an end to 200 years of assaults on the East by the Teutonic knights. However, very few of those 2000 warriors were fated to return to St. Sophia’s to pray for their fallen comrades, since soldiers from Polatsk and Vilnius ended up in the thick of the battle, outnumbered five to one by Grand Marshal von Wallenrode’s German knights…

In 1498, the residents of Polatsk were granted all freedoms in accordance with the Magdeburg Rights. Like everywhere else in Europe, the craftsmen and merchants of Polatsk formed societies and guilds to protect their trades. An important place in city life was occupied by brotherhoods in monasteries and churches. Brotherhood members constructed religious buildings, orphanages and almshouses, opened printing houses and schools, and organised traditional summertime pilgrimages to local sacred sites where the Holy Virgin had appeared, or other miracles had occurred. The brotherhood of Polatsk’s Monastery of the Epiphany was renowned all throughout the state, since its charter described its main aim as being “common brotherly work to save souls”.

Archival documentation shows that many residents were literate, including simple folk. One may even list the bestsellers of the period—apart from religious literature, there were also books well known to readers all over Europe, such as Old Belarusian translations of “The Tale of Troy”, “Alexandria” (an adventure novel about the life and exploits of Alexander the Great) or “The Tale of Tristan and Iseult”. Polatsk also had its own alchemists, known as “sorcerers”, and an entire dynasty of astrologers, the Nemchins.

The people of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania had incomparably more rights and religious freedoms than the neighbouring Grand Principality of Moscow (Muscovy). After being liberated from the yoke of the Golden Horde, Muscovy had also inherited the Asian concepts of despotism and ruling the entire world (“Two Romes have fallen, but

Francysk Skaryna, 1517
Francysk Skaryna, 1517

the third—Moscow—shall stand, and a fourth shall never be”), which were exacerbated by religious intolerance. Thousands of young Litvins (as our ancestors proudly named themselves, in honour of their state) went to study at European universities in Poland, Bohemia, Germany, Italy, France and Switzerland. Many of them came from Polatsk. In late 15th-century student registers from the Prague alma mater, one may find the names of Polatsk-born Ivan Bahdanovič, Macviej, Piotr, and one more Ivan… Historical literature frequently suggested that one of these two Ivans, who graduated from the philosophy faculty, may have been the founder of the first printing house in the City of London in 1480, who went down in English history by the name of John Lettou (Ivan or Jan Litvin). During the same period, a master’s graduate named Jan from Polatsk was lecturing on Aristotle’s treatises at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. However, the most famous person to bid farewell to the bell-towers of St. Sophia’s before leaving to study abroad was Francysk Skaryna, the son of a Polatsk merchant.

His name figures among the constellation of titans that emerged from the European Renaissance, the Eastern outpost of which were the Belarusian lands. After graduating from university in Kraków in 1506, Skaryna (already a doctor of “free sciences”) brilliantly passed his examinations six years later and became a doctor of medicine in Padua, the most respected European university at the time. Today, a picture of this famous Polatsk resident can be seen in the memorial hall of Padua University, alongside portraits of the forty most outstanding scientific and artistic figures to have studied at that alma mater. Hanging near Skaryna are his spiritual bothers Galileo Galilei and Nicolaus Copernicus.

Like a true humanist, instead of choosing the calm life of a court doctor to some monarch or magnate, Skaryna decided to give his nation “medicine for the spirit” in the form of the Bible, printed in a language the people could understand. When he published 23 books of the Bible in Prague in 1517–1519, Skaryna became the first Belarusian and Eastern Slavonic printer, thus bringing the Belarusians/Litvins into the family of Europe’s leading nations. His Bible was the fourth in the world (after German, Italian and Czech translations) to be published in a living national language. A few years later, Skaryna brought a batch of his books to Muscovy (which had no printing houses of its own) and offered to start publishing there. However, the Grand Prince of Moscow, Vasiliy ІІІ, ordered Skaryna’s books to be thrown on a bonfire…

 Symeon of Polatsk (1629-1680)
Symeon of Polatsk (1629-1680)

Another famous resident of the city, Symeon of Polatsk, had more luck during the next century, when the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was still a civilised bridge between Europe and Russia. This enlightener from Polatsk set up a printing house in Moscow, immediately doubling their number from one to two. By way of contrast, during the same period, there were 134 printing houses in the land of our ancestors—the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth—which incorporated Lithuania and Belarus. Symeon of Polatsk became the first professional writer in Russia, presented a project for the first higher educational establishment, and also opened the first theatre.

Polatsk’s Eastern neighbours visited not with books, but with swords. Time after time, due to the city’s location near the state border, it was the first target for Muscovite rulers who described Belarus as “Russian lands since time immemorial”. From the late 15th century onwards, the wars with Muscovy were almost perpetual: 1492–1494, 1500–1503, 1507–1508, 1512–1522 and 1534–1537. In winter 1563, Polatsk was occupied by the immense army of Ivan the Terrible. That event was hailed as the “liberation of Polatsk” by both the Russian and the Soviet empires (the latter inherited much from the former). In actual fact, as a consequence of the Muscovite “liberation” and 16-year occupation, the richest city in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, with its 12 monasteries and 18 churches, was pillaged and the majority of its population was wiped out. Catholics were hacked to death with sabres, and Jews met a terrible fate as they died under the ice of the Dvina. Tens of thousands of Orthodox believers were marched along the wintry roads towards enslavement in Muscovy. The loss of Polatsk—an outpost of European civilisation—triggered a strong response in many countries. Handbills describing the tragedy of Polatsk were printed in English, German, French, Czech, Dutch and Latin.

This “father of Belarusian cities” also endured severe hardships during the “bloody deluge”, when over half of the Belarusian population perished in battle, died of hunger, or were deported to Russia in the war started by Tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich in 1654–1667. Out of more than 1500 houses in Polatsk, just 102 remained.

Lutheran Cathedral, 1888
Lutheran Cathedral, 1888

The beginning of the 18th century again saw Belarus transformed into a theatre of war. This time, August ІІ, the Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland, was Russia’s ally in the Great Northern War against Sweden. The allies, however, led by Tsar Peter the Great, often behaved worse than the enemy on Belarusian soil. The Russian monarch’s excursion to St. Sophia Cathedral turned into a bloody tragedy. At the time, this ancient edifice was the seat of the Belarusian Greek Catholic (Uniate) church, of which the majority of Belarusians were members. The Russian tsar understood perfectly the role played by the Uniates in what would today be termed Belarusian identity. His visit to the cathedral ended with the saints looking down in horror from the walls, as the tsar and his attendant officers personally murdered five Uniate priests. Not content with that, the “ally” then ordered St. Sophia’s to be turned into a military storehouse for ammunition and horses, with gunpowder stocked in its subterranean passageways. It would have taken just one spark to blow up the cathedral and, by odd coincidence, that is exactly what happened just before the Russian troops withdrew…

 St. Sophia Cathedral
St. Sophia Cathedral

Restored in the mid-18th century in Vilnius baroque style, St. Sophia’s was once again forced to bear witness to numerous historical events. After the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth was first partitioned by its powerful neighbours, the right-bank parts of Polatsk and Polatsk Voivodeship were annexed to the Russian empire in 1772. Two decades later, Russian bayonets enforced the new order on the left bank too. Soon afterwards, the historical clock stopped for the state that had belonged to our ancestors. Yet Polatsk lived on and, paradoxically, rose to European fame again, albeit briefly, when Clio, the muse of history, decided to make the city the world capital of the Jesuit Order.

Thanks to the cautious policies of the Belarusian Jesuits, the Society of Jesus (suppressed by Pope Clement XIV in 1773) managed to survive in Orthodox Russia. The Society’s members from Polatsk were the first to swear allegiance to Catherine the Great, and thus gained her protection, since it was in the empress’ interests to maintain the highly-developed Jesuit education system in the Western lands. For several decades, the Order exchanged the banks of the Tiber for the banks of the Dvina. By selecting Polatsk as their new capital, the Order emphasised the city’s exclusive role in the history of the country. Members of the Society of Jesus who arrived there from all over the world included many prominent scholars, tutors, artists and writers. For some time, Polatsk was one of the most important cultural centres in Europe. The best illustration of this was the Polatsk Jesuit College, opened in 1581, which began to attract professors who had formerly lectured at the Sorbonne and other European universities. One of the College’s

The Polatsk Jesuit College, 1581
The Polatsk Jesuit College, 1581

lecturers, who later became Supreme General of the Order, was the eminent polymath Gabriel Gruber (1740–1805). His name was synonymous not only with excellently equipped astronomy, physics, mineralogy and other classes, but also the creation of an art gallery and a kunstkammer museum at the College. Visitors to the gallery were able to delight in canvases by Rubens, recalling how the great painter had illustrated the Antwerp edition of Maciej Kazimierz Sarbiewski’s “Lyrics”. This famous poet and philosopher had been a teacher of rhetoric, poetics, and ancient mythology in Polatsk 150 years previously, but was best known as a poet venerated as the “Christian Horace” by his peers. The College’s art collection included 2000 engravings, but the museum’s main attraction was built with the assistance of Gabriel Gruber: a mechanical head which, so the newspapers wrote, “could clearly and logically answer any question asked in any language, with full knowledge of the topic”.

The Polatsk Jesuit College, 1581
The Polatsk Jesuit College, 1581

Just before the beginning of the Napoleonic campaign in June 1812, Polatsk celebrated the College’s conversion into a university-standard Academy with ceremonial processions, illuminations, and the launching of hot-air balloons. The Academy boasted theology, philology and philosophy faculties, a publishing house which produced literature in ten languages, and a library of 40 000 volumes. With its 700 students and forty professors, this new higher educational establishment promised to become a worthy competitor of the Vilnius alma mater. The lecture halls of Polatsk paved the way to fame for the Belarusian artist Valiancin Vańkovič (who painted superb portraits of Mickiewicz, Napoleon and Pushkin), as well as for one of the creators of new Belarusian literature, Jan Barshcheuski, and for the historian and ethnographer Kanstancin Tyškievič. The list of names, which any culture would be proud of, could have been considerably longer, but Polatsk only remained a university city for eight years. The Russian authorities soon began to regard Belarusian educational establishments as dangerous “hotbeds of free-thinking”, so the Academy buildings were locked up and sealed in 1820.

The Academy’s teaching staff and students spread out all over the world, and made sizeable contributions to education and science in other countries and nations. For example, Francišak Dzieružynski, a theology lecturer from Polatsk, founded a Catholic school system in America. His colleague, the philosopher Vincent Bučynski, was invited by the Belgian royal family to become a professor of philosophy at the University of Leuven.

Even though it had lost its Academy, the city continued to be a centre of free-thinking and resistance to the colonial authorities. In 1823, the police uncovered a branch of the secret, patriotic Philomaths and Philareths Society at Polatsk Piarist Lyceum. The Lyceum soon met with the same fate as the Academy. Suspected of being “untrustworthy”, its students were hunted down and arrested all around the empire. One of them, Kajatan Kasovič, managed to avoid repression and completed his studies. Already reputed as a brilliant Orientalist in Europe, he once pointed out to British Museum employees that some Assyrian cuneiform scripts on display were hanging upside-down.

Polatsk, 1912, Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky
Polatsk, 1912, Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky

Although downgraded to powiat (county) status by the tsarist authorities, the city did not forget its former fame or lose its honour. Over 300 Polatsk residents took part in the November Uprising of 1831. A 3000-strong division of noblemen and peasant insurgents from Polatsk managed to capture and hold the town of Disna for several days. 150 years ago, in the battle-torn year of 1863, a division of insurgents led by Otan Hrabnicki was operating in the vicinity of Polatsk. It was joined by cadets (from a school set up by the tsarist authorities in the former Polatsk Academy buildings) who had crept past the Russian checkpoints at night. These descendants of free Litvins stubbornly refused to become “faithful servants of Tsar and Fatherland”, and 171 of the 289 cadets dropped out of the school during the 1863–1864 academic year… Although the Uprising failed, it marked the beginning of the emergence of the modern Belarusian nation.

St. Boris and Gleb Cathedral, the XII th century
St. Boris and Gleb Cathedral,
the XII th century

The historical heritage of the city—once the cradle of Belarusian statehood and culture—was deliberately obliterated under Soviet rule. Despite its centuries of history, the city was left with just one small museum which primarily glorified the “great achievements of socialism”. The Communists’ fight against religion turned into a war against priceless cultural monuments. The 1930s brought an unprecedented act of vandalism: the destruction of the monastery of Saints Boris and Gleb, with its three 12th-century churches, which were reduced to rubble for road-building. The unused, neglected Cathedrals of St. Sophia and the Epiphany looked sadly down onto the flowing waters of the Dvina. In 1964, a deafening explosion shook Polatsk and transformed the Cathedral of St. Stefan—a stately baroque monument—into mere ruins. A hideous nine-storey building for the provincial elite (known as the “house with ears”) was erected in its place. In his memoirs, the Soviet dissident general Pyotr Grigorenko wrote that the destruction of this very cathedral served to test an “innovative method for demolishing religious edifices” in the USSR.

 Orthodox Monastery St.Euphrosyne
Orthodox Monastery St.Euphrosyne

A new page in Polatsk’s history began when the independent Republic of Belarus appeared on the political map of the world. The changes that have taken place in the former capital of the first Belarusian principality bring to mind an ancient book of prophecies by the Polatsk astrologer Vasiliy Nemchin. Looking forward to our times from his distant 15th century, he predicted that his home city would be restored to its former glory and even become the capital. Sceptics may laugh patronisingly, but one could say that his prophecies are starting to come true for Polatsk, with its national historical/cultural museums, St. Sophia Cathedral,

Polatsk, Western Dvina River
Polatsk, Western Dvina River

the Saviour-Euphrosyne Monastery, a dozen museums, an art gallery, and a university whose departments are gradually moving back into the former Polatsk Academy buildings. Polatsk really is becoming one of the cultural and religious capitals of the country.

Cities also have souls of their own, and Polatsk’s has retained its purity and nobility. It is capable of releasing us from the daily hustle and bustle, and encouraging us to ponder things eternal. One can definitely feel this if one comes to visit, particularly profoundly in St. Sophia Cathedral, which will glide above the Dvina into the centuries to come, like a majestic ship beneath the snowy-white sails of its towers.


Uladzimer Arlou a well-known Belarusian historian, writer, poet.

Uladzimer Arlou

Uladzimer Arlou was born 1953 in Polatsk (Belarus). After graduating from the Historical Department of the Belarusian State University in 1975, he worked as a teacher, a journalist and as an editor. His historical novels “The Time of Pest”, “Eufrasiniya of Polatsk”, “The Secrets of Polatsk History”, “Adkul Nash Rod” (“Where We Come from”), “Ten Centuries of Belarusian History” became bestsellers. His book about the Belarusian history “This Land Called Belarus”, richly decorated by over 2000 illustrations contributed by Zmicier Herasimovich and other Belarusian artists and photographers, was translated into English.
All in all, over 30 novels, historical overviews and essays by Uladzimer Arlou were translated into 25 languages. Since 1989, Arlou has been a Vice-President of the Belarusian PEN-Centre.
Winner of “The European poet of Freedom” Prize laureate (Gdansk, 2010). Honored with the Francišak Skaryna medal, the Prize for Freedom of Thought by The Movement for Freedom, Belarus.