“Welcome to Vitebsk,” says Lydia as she greets us at the train station. The Vitebsk railroad terminal is a classic Soviet period piece – an assertive, ordered building dominated by polished marble and huge chandeliers. The station design was one of the finest efforts of Boris Sergeyevich Mezentsev, one of those railway architects who fell from favor soon after Stalin’s death. Some were assigned to out-of-the-way universities to write their memoirs. Mezentsev was luckier than most. He went on to work successfully in the Uzbek Soviet Republic and in Russia’s Volga region.
Today Vitebsk station is as efficient as on the day it first opened in 1953. This is a detail that Lydia is keen to impress on us. “We do things properly here in Vitebsk,” she says, going on to explain that Vitebsk is a world apart from St. Petersburg or Moscow.
From time to time a city or region becomes the nexus of a very special creative energy. A very particular creativity emerged in Vitebsk during the first quarter of the 20th century. At that time, this city 300 miles west of Moscow nurtured more artistic talent than most European capitals.
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Most visitors to Belarus require a visa to enter the country, which must be applied for well in advance. Only citizens of select CIS nations benefit from a visa exemption. Do not be misled by the very sparse border controls on the frontier between Russia and the Republic of Belarus. A visa is still essential. Equally, if you enter Belarus from Russia and plan to return to Russia, you need a double-entry Russian visa.
Belarus is a very easy country to get around in. There are good hotels and excellent rail and bus services linking major cities. Some knowledge of Russian is a great asset.
Vitebsk is best visited during the spring or summer months. There are many spots within easy reach of Vitebsk that are deserving of a visit. Ilya Repin’s former riverside estate at Zdravneva, with the artist’s home and studio, is enchanting. Just 60 miles northwest of Vitebsk is the historic city of Polotsk, one of the most attractive in Belarus.
The Slavyansky Bazaar takes place in the second week of July each year. Ever since 1992, Vitebsk has hosted this annual festival of music, art and culture. It kicks off with a spectacular opening ceremony, usually attended by President Alexander Lukashenko. Presidential words of greeting evoke respectful applause and presage an evening of heavy bass, diamenté thongs, showy gymnastics and folksy dance ensembles. Over the ensuing week, performances ranging from pop to poetry attract some of the best artists from across the Slavic world.
The nearest international airport to Vitebsk is 200 miles away at Minsk. The marshrutka ride from Minsk to Vitebsk takes about four hours. The fastest trains, which are far more comfortable than a marshrutka taxi, take four hours and twenty minutes. Direct trains from St. Peters-burg’s Vitebsky Station and Moscow’s Belorusskaya Station both take about eight hours. The city is also easy to reach from Central Europe, with direct trains to Vitebsk, not always daily, from both Prague and Berlin.
The non-profit think-tank Freedom House has labeled Belarus (as well as Russia and most of Central Asia) “not free,” giving the country a score of 7 for political rights and 6 for civil liberties (where 1 is the best and 10 is the worst).
Sholem Aleichem – nom de plume of Sholem Naumovich Rabinovich, the Yiddish writer who was at the height of his popularity during Marc Chagall’s boyhood years in Vitebsk. Aleichim’s stories and plays contributed greatly to the growing confidence of Jewish settlers in the Pale of Imperial Russia.
minyan: a Hebrew word meaning “to enumerate,” referring to the quorum of ten males deemed necessary for communal prayer.
Nasha Niva is published in Minsk by an editorial team that has done much to promote the use of the Belarusian language – not a strategy that always finds favor with the government.
Marc Chagall was a man of many names. On his admission certificate to the Russian school in Vitebsk his name was entered as Мойша Захарович Шагалов (Moyshe Zakharovitch Shagalov), a Russian rendering of his Yiddish birth name. He adopted “Marc Chagall” after settling in France in 1923.
The Pale of Settlement, or cherta osedlosti, was designated in 1791 as a prescribed settlement zone for Jews who refused to convert to Orthodox Christianity. By the late 19th century, Vitebsk was attracting a significant number of Jewish intellectuals and artists who valued the city for its proximity to Russia’s principal cities – where they could visit but were prevented from settling.
Toyre iz di beste skhoyre is a Yiddish aphorism that can be translated as “the Torah is the best merchandise.”
Yehuda Pen was not only an accomplished teacher, but also a very fine artist in his own right. In the main remembered for his peculiarly spiritual paintings of old men, Pen also executed a very delicate portrait of the young Marc Chagall.
Locally, Vitebsk’s river is usually referred to merely as the Dvina, but the region actually has two rivers of the same name. It is therefore useful to distinguish between the Zapadnaya Dvina (Western Dvina), which flows through Vitebsk to the Baltic, and the Severnaya Dvina (Northern Dvina) which drains north into the Arctic Ocean.
Mezentsev later coordinated the team that designed the memorial to Vladimir Ilyich Lenin in the Bolshevik leader’s hometown of Ulyanovsk.
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