A team of journalists travels to Belarusian villages to document a dying way of life.

A group of Belarusian journalists is collecting the sights, sounds, and stories of dying Belarusian villages in the Polesie area for Brest city magazine Natatnik.by. The magazine’s founder Maksim Khliabets talks about the project in an interview with digital lifestyle magazine CityDog.by.

CityDog.by: Tell us how your project came about.

Maksim Khliabets: As a child, I spent a lot of time in a village with my grandmother, and I have a lot of positive emotions connected with this. Nowadays, when the situation in the country is so bleak, I want to lose myself again in that childhood. But you know, I want this not just for myself, but for other people.

I started researching, searching where to go and what you could find by Googling “abandoned villages” or “tiny villages,” [in] the Malaryta district. Or there was also a list on Wikipedia of all the villages in the area. The data might be from 2002, 2007, or 2009 – but if there were about 50 people living in a village 10 years ago, now there are likely to be very few.

Abandoned house in Сhryshchanovichy village, Ivatsevichy district. Photo by Maksim Khliabets.

So I identified 10, 15, sometimes 20 villages in an area, then I collected Aksana [colleague Aksana Brovach] and off we went, exploring the villages, talking to the local inhabitants.

Your Instagram post [of Сhryshchanovichy village] inspired me for this interview. Can you talk about what it was like there?

It was the first village on our itinerary, and it was just houses, with no one living there. It was dead. If you were making an esthetically beautiful horror movie – as long as you didn’t need anyone to kill or didn’t need someone to chase you into the woods – that’s definitely Belarus, especially Polesie. There you can find this unbelievably beautiful village.

Only five people remain in Borki, a village in the Malaryta district. Photo by Siarhei Silivonchyk.

All these houses, especially the wooden ones, are super unique and really beautiful. The window and door frames, the doors themselves. We saw a door decorated with some kind of flower designs. There used to be life here – we were literally five years too late – but it still seems like the inhabitants left yesterday.

Maybe it gives a harsh impression in the wintertime, and it’ll be nicer in the summertime.

All the roads were in terrible condition, but somehow, we set out to explore. We got to one village, where they told us there were five people living there. They said there was only one person in the next village, but “You won’t get there, everything is washed away. There’s no road – it’s all broken up from when they were transporting timber.”

It was true – we drove as far as we could, then stopped and continued on foot. We walked around a field, went into the woods, and there was a village of 20 houses right there in the woods. There was one man living there, 86 years old, who keeps bees and thinks about how to revive the village. I mean, someone his age is thinking up business plans and ideas about how to bring this village to life!

Zybaily village, Ivatsevichy district. Photo by Siarhei Silivonchyk.

When you find people like this, it’s an encounter of the heart. And it’s the same with encountering beauty of all kinds – the beauty of Belarusian dialects, the beauty of the villages themselves, the hidden beauty of Belarus, which will very soon vanish.

No matter which village we went to, everyone said a bulldozer had arrived the previous year, or an excavator, and just destroyed the empty houses. If there was a house no one lived in, they just came, cleared it away, buried it, and sowed crops, to make the collective farm a little bigger.

First they did that with the roads and now they’re doing the same with the houses?

Yes. Those who are still left in the village are very sad to hear it, and see it with their own eyes. It’s still possible to live in these houses. They’re not falling apart by themselves; they’re being demolished for more arable land. It’s being done in the name of an “orderly Belarus.” But it turns out that being “orderly” is destroying Belarusian beauty.

Do you have historical training?

Yes, I recently graduated from the history faculty in Brest. There was a research trip through the villages, but at that time I was writing a research paper and didn’t go. However, I managed to make a recording of my grandmother and grandfather. They told me about their childhood. Then came the Dialects project [a separate effort, to record disappearing dialects in the Brest region], and I was hooked. 

I, too, have been involved in oral history. You carry out interviews – two or three a day is enough – and you are emotionally tapped out. The life stories of Belarusians are not very happy ones. You say that you want to re-experience something connected with your childhood, with your grandmother, with your grandfather. But after interviews like this, you could actually end up in a very bad mood.

That does happen. But we chose this path for ourselves. I was prepared for this to be really bad: I understand that village life is dying, that it can’t be saved, that you can’t make a small village big. The government doesn’t help, people don’t understand that it’s possible to live in villages. You can’t make a living there, so everyone lives in towns or commutes there.

There is a small percentage of people who move to villages around Minsk because you can get there by car or go to the store if you need anything. We tour villages that cars sometimes can’t get to. One old man told us he skied three kilometers to the mobile store [a truck selling basic supplies that comes to villages twice a week] to buy something – a hat! Or, another example, it’s hard for doctors to get out there. 

It sounds very harsh. But the people who live in these villages offer you some positives. Everything’s awful, they say, then add: “But we like it!” Although some say wolves are now coming right up to the houses.

A man in Batareya carves decorated walking sticks from the roots he finds in the forest and sells them in Minsk. Some have ended up as far away as India and Japan. Sometimes he rents sticks from his collection to film crews. Photo by Maksim Khliabets.

Their children and grandchildren suggest moving to the city, but they don’t want to: “What am I going to do there? You can’t go mushroom picking in the woods. There’s no way to get outdoors.”

Since last summer, we have been making frequent trips through the countryside, and not once have we come back without some little treats. Everyone gave us something. There was one man – we made an appointment with him in advance, and he went out that morning and picked some mushrooms for us. He makes very beautiful walking sticks, with a stork’s head, and he gave us one. In one village, people gave us homemade raspberry wine, and in another village it was mushrooms or berries and apples. Everywhere we went, they gave us something.

Sometimes we travel through a whole village looking at abandoned homes. We don’t take anything, but if a door is open, we might go and take a look. 

The oldest inhabitant of Borki, this woman has lived there all her life. Photo by Siarhei Silivonchyk.

One time, there was an old woman on her own, coming out of the woods. She’d been picking berries there, and she was so beautiful with her red, juice-stained hands. But she was very wary of us. At first, she said very little, and then a little more and a little more. We recorded it all. We got back in the car, turned around, and were already driving away. She ran after us, actually ran after us – we saw her and we stopped – and she served us some draniki, potato fritters.

The first step is information. It’s very good that you are sharing this information. But what more can be done? What steps does society have to take, to preserve all of this?

We ask the old women and old men living there what to do. As of now, two people have told us they have some kind of plan. One woman said there was a village nearby with a club that no one needed. A nursing home could be built there instead, she said, and she would work there, looking after the old ladies whom no one comes to see.

An old man from a forest village said there were a lot of trees in the forest, and you could cut them, sell the timber, and use the money to organize a festival in the village, so that people would come and see, learn about beekeeping. … He had a lot of ideas.

But the rest say that you can’t do anything more. That it’s impossible to bring people back to where there’s nothing – no work, no hospitals nearby, the ambulance won’t come. No supermarket or grocery, just a mobile store twice a week. They say, “We’ll live out our lives, and then that will be it for the village.”

There is one positive example: a man and woman who revived the village of Stoily. There was a very old man living here, a woodcarver. He died, leaving a collection of sculptures he called “wooden Belarusians.”

There is only one inhabited house in the village of Сhryshchanovichy. Photo by Maksim Khliabets.

The couple bought a house and moved there. Now they have foreign tourists visiting their farmstead, and they find everything so exotic, because they no longer have this kind of village left in their country; their villages are like little towns where there is everything you need, where there are standard houses. Meanwhile, more people followed the first owners to Stoily, and now there are four households, half of which are young. And that was how they revived this village.

I think completely wooden villages could be preserved, if only in the form of museums. You could make a tourist trail of the wooden villages of Polesie. But we have a number of abandoned tourist sites, and not enough money for their upkeep. Meanwhile, everyone thinks that villages are just a wasteland. But I think villages should be preserved as tourist attractions.

As for the old woman who brought us the draniki: This could be a job for her – she could be mayor of her village, meeting guests, preparing food for them. She actually lives there, in the woods, and it’s hard for her. It could be so much more attractive.

Are you yourself, or someone in your team, considering the possibility of going to live in a village?

Ina Khomich, who works with me on the Dialects project, already has moved to the village of Zianki, in the Kamyanets district, with her husband, and now they have a child. [That’s] a small village too, with maybe four houses.

The mobile store, a truck with basic goods from which all five residents of Borki buy their groceries, comes to the village twice a week. Borki sits on the border with Ukraine, and the villagers used to be able to freely cross the border to visit relatives or trade in Ukrainian villages. It was closed about a decade ago, and a fence and check points were built. Photo by Siarhei Silivonchyk. 

I have my [late] grandmother’s and grandfather’s house, where I [used to spend] almost the whole summer. [During a project-inspired visit] I cleaned the stove, and one of the rooms, and even stayed there for a few days.

There’s such peace and quiet there, nothing to trouble you. You don’t have that in the city. You can go to your neighbor in the morning and buy two liters of milk for a ruble, just after she’s milked her cow. You go home and drink milk with your fritters.

It’s simply another world – you feel like you’ve changed your whole life. Our cameraman has also caught the countryside bug, and when the summer comes, there will be a lot for us to do.

So you’re encouraging everyone, little by little.

We hope so. I didn’t think so many people would watch our videos on YouTube. We don’t have many subscribers, but our latest videos have had three to four thousand views, which is an absolutely incredible number for us – we don’t advertise at all, only a brief mention in our social media networks.

The coolest comments are when they write, “Wow, that’s my village!” and there’s three people living there. Or: “Cool, you videoed my uncle.”

Especially now that the borders are closed because of COVID-19, you can try to love your own country. There’s more than just the popular and well-known attractions of Mir Castle, Kosava Palace, Nesvizh Radziwill Castle, or Trinity Hill [in Minsk]. You have to go out to really old villages and talk to people. It’s … a living museum; a museum of antiquities.

This article originally ran on CityDog.by. Reprinted with permission and edited for length and clarity. Translated by Victoria Roberts.