Updated: Feb 14, 2019
Following the inclusion in the main website of a gallery on Belarus, and also my short article on the Naliboki Forest in fLIP magazine (BITTERSWEET Edn Dec 2018), I'm adding some extended notes here. If I ever get the chance to go back there, it would make an interesting documentary subject but for now, this is just what I learned, heard or observed when I was there.
There are not many young people living in this region at the moment. Mostly it has been left to the remaining elderly and generally it seems that amongst those, the women survive longer than the men, often living on for many years alone after their husbands have died - the men frequently die prematurely in accidents with farm machinery, tools, cars, ladders etc – the sort of accidents you have when you have to do everything for yourself, regardless of your skills or strength or equipment, the sort of accidents that result from taking chances, the macho culture of pushing your luck and an almost perverse sense of self sufficiency. There is also a high alcoholism rate so illness, injuries and fatalities related to drinking are common. Vadim Sidorovich (see below) a Zoologist from Minsk, now based in the Naliboki Forest, conducted ethnographical research in the region in addition to his zoological work and he outlined an all too common story as a typical generic example of the degradation of family life and social structure within the area in recent times. The story goes that a typical married couple, who would have been peasants born and bred in one of the hamlets, will cultivate their home and smallholding which will more or less, feed them; the man will accept other work here and there too and they will work hard, investing everything in their children. They will put everything into making sure the children are equipped to get away from the village to have more opportunities and a better life, making sure they are healthy and educated and strong. Eventually then, of course, the children do move away. When they grow up, they go to study or work in the city, they have families of their own and in the end they stop coming home (although they might send money home). But then it gets bleaker – as time goes on, life becomes more difficult for the aging couple as they try to manage their land with diminishing strength. The man often gets ill or has an accident (as above) and dies leaving the wife to get by alone, trying to maintain an ageing wooden house and cultivate enough food to supplement a small pension and making a little extra cash here and there, perhaps sewing or selling things. In the city, the childrens’ respective lives and marriages often struggle too and, often the son, ends up coming back home to live with the mother. Whilst this arrangement of apparent convenience could be mutually beneficial with the son helping the mother and the mother providing a home, in reality it often ends up with the son sponging off his mother, drinking heavily, and both of them becoming demoralized and depressed. Suicide and semi ‘accidental’ suicides are also frequent.
As a result, there is a great feeling of sadness pervading these abandoned houses and overgrown kitchen gardens. You can infer so much that is admirable, the self-sufficiency, the aspiration for some quality of life as evidenced in once cared for homes with their decorative finishes and ornamentation, the range of kitchen utensils that demonstrate busy kitchens where there was serious cooking, where clothes were sewn or knitted, preserves were made, animals were kept, food was stored and the inhabitants were as well fed and educated as they could be. The religious ikons are always there too and there are usually other pictures and family photographs on the walls. There are table cloths with embroidery and thick colourful blankets, all demonstrating a range of skills; creative, domestic and practical. Once particular house had a small table covered with school exercise books filled with meticulous neat handwriting, some child’s homework being checked over by his/her granny. On another table in the kitchen, was an old sewing machine.
This is also a location of accidental history, of being situated in the wrong place at the wrong time – rather frequently. The area was affected by windborne radiation from Chernobyl in the 80s (because of the wind direction, Belarus was actually very badly affected by the accident with numerous villages having to be completely abandoned, yet not being eligible for the help or compensation that Ukraine was). Belarus was also the scene of bloody conflict in the second world war at which time the Naliboki forest was part of Poland. The vastness of the forest provided cover for a range of combatant groups – there were Polish Jewish refugees who formed an organised resistance unit, there were partisan groups who inflicted great hardship on the local villagers, commandeering their homes and taking their food and supplies and there were renegade groups, Russian soldiers and German forces all operating semi covertly. As a result, there were some very bloody and violent skirmishes (including a massacre in 1943 when 123 Poles were killed) and the forest is littered with the buried bodies from these confrontations. Whilst many graves remain unmarked, there are some memorials dotted about the forest, just small graves with crosses and information markers and there is currently a Polish project underway to try and establish who and how many died there and to find and record all their names and locations.
On a (thankfully) more positive note, there is also a new kind of future here just starting to develop – the Naust eco-lodge in the heart of the forest is a Zoological research station run by Vadim and Irina Sidorovich. As well as ongoing research into local animal populations and behavior, they have done work on the ethnographical and historical contexts of the area as well, they are also developing their homestead into an eco tourism project which allows small groups to come and stay in crudely converted barns and outbuildings to observe the wildlife and to take advantage of Vadim’s encyclopaedic knowledge. Also, as in Ukraine, some people are simply coming back – the dangers and hardships of life in such a remote place are starting to appear to some as less than the benefits of living frugally and simply (and cheaply) in relatively untouched nature with plenty of space and fresh air. Also, as part of the Soviet legacy, even the remotest settlement here still has electricity, there are still tiny schools if you are able to drive your children to get there – there is possibility of life.