An advanced post of Bialowieza

Emilia SHELEST, "Narodnaya Gazeta" (The People’s Newspaper) Newspaper, No 108, May 18, 2006

Any man can scarily be found within the area of the former Soviet Union who was never hearing about Belovezhskaya Pushcha. Thanks to the song with the same name by Alexandra Pakhmutova and Nickolai Dobronravov executed by the folk-music group “Pesnyary” thirty years ago and resounded at that time throughout the country, Belovezhskaya Pushcha truly became a “celebrity”. Today, as sociological opinion poll has recently shown, the most of the Russian citizens consider the song “Belovezhskaya Pushcha” an informal hymn of Belarus.

The architect Alexa and bison are the main symbol of Kamenetz after the tower
The architect Alexa and bison are the main symbol of Kamenetz after the tower

What does the most of us know about Belovezhskaya Pushcha? It is a few: this is a large reserved wood in the west of Belarus and in the east of Poland; an ancient animal bison lives there; the locality Viskuly is available somewhere in Pushcha where the leaders of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine recorded crash of the great Power (USSR) in the written form at the end of 1991 ...

If an especially inquisitive man will want to learn more about Belovezhskaya Pushcha, many unexpectedness and riddles are waiting for him. The first of them, perhaps, which he will face by researches, comprises the name of the National Park. Why is “Belovezhskaya”? It means that a white "vezha" (the Belarusian name of tower) is somewhere alongside of it. And this tower (even its ruins or memoirs about it) should be very ancient because this name already accompanies Pushcha over five hundred years... The most interesting originates from this fact. The tower is available in the vicinities of Pushcha. The great tower! This is the genuine frontier fortress built in 1276. Its height is about thirty meters. It stands on a mountain (hill). Clouds moving down cling just to its rectangular wall tooth made in accordance with all rules of the middle age. Its location is the center of the town of Kamenetz of the Brest region, several kilometers from the border of Belovezhskaya Pushcha (the heart of Belarusian Bialowieza is also located in the Kamenetz district, in the village of Kamenyuki where all research laboratories of the National Park are placed). In short, all converges and the tower which gave the name for Pushcha is found...

However nothing of the sort! The tower is not white and it has never been white for seven hundred thirty years of its existence as a whole. It was built from red, like an Easter egg, bricks. It means the mistake comes of it...

But after this conclusion, I suppose, an unlucky researcher of the Belarusian topology will scarily remain to be disappointed, if he is actually the inquisitive person. This is because both the tower and its coeval Kamenetz have a tremendous history. No each ancient capital can boast of it.

“A stone town in the middle of desert”...

The history of occurrence of the town of Kamenetz is directly connected with a patrimonial damnation. Moreover, in far XIII century the tower impressed the contemporaries as much as they made a record about it in the Galician-Volynsk chronicle.

All originated from the event when Voishelk, son of the Lithuanian King Mindowg (the capital of the kingdom situated in the town of Novogrudok), decided to be a monk. After the father has gone he rules over his lands for some time but then he retired from mundane bustle to a monastery (the memoirs about this ancient cloister are still kept in the village of Lavryshevo of the Novogrudok district of the Grodno region). The prince-monk, being renounced the world businesses, made the right to govern his son-in-law Shwarn Danilovich This fact, however, was very unpleasant to the Shwarn's brother, Prince Lev Danilovich of Galician who was not related to Voishelk but laid claim to the authority's right for some reason. He decided severely to take vengeance Voishelk for his choice to make the brother, not him, the successor, or if to say easier, to kill the sanctimonious person. He did not plan to do it in the one's house where he was not able to lure Voishelk as the monk suspected that the Prince Galician had a grudge and sword against him.

Lev Danilovich invited Voishelk to be a guest, not to him but to the next door where Prince Vasilko of Volynski lived. Voishelk accepted the invitation but, trusting nobody, required the owner to put guarantees of safety. Vasilko, nothing suspecting about treacherous plans by Lev Danilovich, promised that nothing happen concerning the visitor.

The Lev Danilovich's people killed Voishelk at night directly in the monastery where he stayed. The dying prince-monk threw out the terrible damnation. However, it was not directed to the head of the murderer but to the one who promised that nothing will happen - to Prince Vasilko of Volynski, his family and his city of Vladimir-Volynsk.

The damnation made by the monk in that time, especially within the precincts of monastery, has been considered the similar to death. Prince Vasilko, being rescued, moved away to make one's home within a wild area and began living a recluse in hopes to obtain by prayer for one's forgiveness. This has not brought help. The Prince shortly passed to one's eternal world, having left lands and damnation to inherit them by the son Vladimir.

The 'White Tower' is not white at all
The "White Tower" is not white at all

Vladimir Vasilievich devoted all his life to get out rid of this damnation. He built temples all over his possessions and helped the unfortunates. During the time of famine he even helped with food to the tribe Yatviagi (this was considered the unprecedented generosity in those severe times)... But the internal voice prompted to the Prince that this is not enough. He began to look then for advice in the Bible. He opened the Book of the Books at random and read “To erect stone towns in the middle of desert”. The Prince considered it a direct guide to action and ordered to found the “stone town” Kamenetz (it's translated like stone land) on a plain nearby a huge impassable wood at a bank of the river Losna.

However, this has done to the Prince little. He died some years later (he had no the successors) because of terrible illness – an unclosing up ulcer literally corroded all his bottom jaw. But in some months when a Prince's coffin has been opened, his body was imperishable and fragrant. He was honouring within his possessions, especialy in Kamenetz, as the Holy. The modern townspeople also kindly recollect his name. However, a monument in the centre of the town, at a bottom of the tower, was found in honour of bison and Alexa, famous architect, who, according to the same chronicle, built the town and tower under the Prince's order. He was one of thousand anonymous people about whom the chroniclers passed over in silence.

The pillar of Kamenetzki

The only tower is today a remnant of the primordial town Kamenetz of that time. Belarus cannot boast of a plenty of architectural monuments at all, therefore those that were saved are a marvel like God's craft. There were a lot of the most destructive wars passed through this land and, perhaps, all of the remnants since the distant centuries, therefore, are exactly to call "marvel" in this area. The Kamenetz tower or, as local inhabitants call it impressively and shortly, the pillar is one of such the marvels. The tourists coming to Kamenetz from Europe, for example the Englishmen who have hundreds of such old towers on their quiet island, look at it and... do not believe their eyes that the pillar is more than seven hundred years old. It is really difficult to believe in it by knowing the history and the fact that the monuments of the similar age in Belarus can be counted using fingers of one hand. This is especially unbelievable if to be aware of how many times the town was besieged by crusaders and Crimean Tatars and of the fact that an archeological stratum of Kamenetz of XIV century is completely burnt down black ground, as well as to recollect the last war when the capital Minsk remained nearly the ruins as a whole while no one house were remained in the town of Liozno at all... God indeed saved the tower. Certainly, the people who did not allow it to fall down from the near-cloud height also shared this duty.

The tower, having lost defensive function, stood forgotten and deserted for some hundreds years. It could very easy be disassembled with using bricks in the beginning of the last century. But the Emperor Nickolai II has taken to visiting for hinting in Pushcha and the local priest Lev Paevski turned to him for very humble request to help with repair of a local church and to pay attention to the tower deserted by all. The tsar became interested in the history of the pillar and a sum from the imperial treasury, quite sufficient to conduct restoration, has soon been transferred to an account of the Russian archeological society. Due to works under leadership of the architect Suslov and the restorer Pokryshkin the tower was given back to life. The tower really managed to surprise the skillful restorers because wooden ceilings inside of the tower were saved since ÕIII century while 22 stone steps fixed by Alexa and his colleagues at one time are alive till now!

It’s a marvel that the pillar did not suffer during the last war. In 1941 the fascists occupied the town during the first day without striking a blow. In 1944 our armies attacked as fast as the German soldiers were just having no time to detonate mines which big number were generously put all over the tower before retreat...

About how the tower was “adjusted” to make similar with Pushcha

However, mishaps did not come to the end after this. In 1950s there was ordered to paint it white that to make it corresponding to the name of Pushcha. According to responsible persons, there was an official version that the name of the reserved wood originates from the Kamenetz tower. The Russian historian Kartsev was an author of the mentioned “official version”. But actually, he simply thought up this version and posed it in a book devoted to celebration of 300 years of the Tsar Romanov's dynasty as incontestable. It's very doubtful that mister Kartsev saw the tower by the own eyes. However, because there was no another tower in vicinities of Pushcha he decided that it's easier “to paint” the available tower white than to look for unknown information about the more suitable tower as no one knows where to do it. The decision to paste the tower white made by local authorities after the war was the same. This action simultaneously canceled the problem concerning a symbol of Pushcha (together with bison, the toothed edges of the Kamenetzki pillar have reserved this honourable but not absolutely plausible status for a long time).

However, the district's regional heads also soon understood all the absurdity of that “thematic” colouring. The pillar was not painted any more but they did not hurry to wash it. The paint has got strong therefore the tower remained unclear grey-dark-red for a couple of the last decades. Only in the middle of 90s when large and small Belarusian cities and towns began changing their view to the best and putting into order, the tower was cleaned in order to recollect about its merit. The climbers made it by coming down with the use of cords from the 30-meter height and scraping off every brick. As a result, the Kamenetzki pillar is now like the new, in all its bright Easter beauty. A branch of the regional museum with a survey platform upstairs is inside of the tower.

Historians say that there is a lot of toponymy with the word “white” in this area and, quite probably, a true white tower which granted the name for Pushcha was available somewhere at one time. But this is only the words which have yet no confirmation by any findings and the Kamenetzki tower, therefore, is still called the white tower. The international theatrical festival “White Tower” is annually organized in Brest and its emblem is... it's correct, the Kamenetzki pillar.

The festival has tradition. If someone of the participants brought a Shakespeare's production and the weather allows acting it, the people go in Kamenetz to look at it. The scene is acted at the bottom of the tower while the tower serves scenery to perform passions like 500 years ago. The tower, quite probably, witnessed the same staging “alive” in the past. This, believe me, really impresses.

Photo by Alexander SHABLYUK