In a gray concrete world, a city of beautiful churches

by Richard Humphries

GRODNO, Belarus Most Belarusian cities get a bad press, at least for good looks, in foreign guidebooks. Polatsk is notable for “what was once there,” Mogilev is decidedly “uninspiring,” Homel’s biggest drawing card is a bust of its most famous son, the late Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, and Minsk is the ultimate example of “pure Soviet planning on a grand scale.”

Grodno’s baroque, Jesuit-built masterpiece

World War II explains a lot. When the rubble was cleared, the operative word for rebuilding was “concrete.” Yet the visitor need not fully despair. Although its population was reduced by half, one major city, Grodno, did not suffer the physical destruction of its counterparts. It is, for Belarus, beautiful. Unlike Mogilev, it does not need to rely on the dubious virtues of its most famous son. In any case, that would have been Meyer Lansky, the American gangster.

Grodno, which straddles the Nyoman River, was first mentioned in 1128 and has seen more than its fair share of rulers. The ancient Kievan Principality gave way to Lithuania, which was followed by Poland and Russia alternating control. Conquerors such as Napoleon and Adolf Hitler also passed through.

The less destructive rulers left an impressive architectural legacy that can still be seen today. Grodno is a city of magnificent churches.

The oldest — in fact the second-oldest structure in the country — is the 12th-century Church of Boris and Hleb. Located just above the Nyoman, its quiet precincts are now a meeting place for young couples.

The Uniate church symbolizes in its blend of styles an attempt by the papacy to bring Orthodoxy under its wing.

Along a peaceful road near the city center lies a gleaming white Uniate cathedral. The Uniate faith, which accepts papal rule but maintains Orthodox ritual, represented a compromise attempt by Polish rulers to control, rather than forcibly convert, their Orthodox subjects. In Grodno, a simple yet effective mixing of styles demonstrates this clearly in stone.

Orthodoxy itself is well represented at the Pokrovsky Cathedral. This is a newer structure, built to honor Russian casualties in the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War. However, the interior has the musty feel of venerable antiquity, common to Orthodox houses of worship.

Undoubtedly the most magnificent church is Farnoy Cathedral, which dominates downtown Grodno. It was built in the late 1600s by the Jesuits. Unmistakably baroque, its proud facade and ornate interior offer a vivid contrast to the grayer visions of the future promised by Marxist heroes, whose statues and monuments still dot the town.

Most churches were sequestered by the communist authorities and only returned after independence in 1990. There still exist some tensions between church and state over these properties.

At the small Church of St. Brigitte, founded in 1647 and built in a blend of baroque and Renaissance styles, I encountered one of the sisters who maintain the church. She was unhappy that the adjoining building, previously the nuns’ residence, was still being used by the state as a rather dank and unwelcoming psychiatric hospital. A centuries-old wooden structure on the premises was also serving as an administrative building for the hospital. “This used to be part of our church,” she said. “They should make it into a museum, but the authorities don’t want to. And they keep it in a very bad condition. Look here! They are trying to run electric wires through the old wood.”

Grodno’s derelict Jewish synagoque

While Christian churches suffered through the years, their experiences pale in comparison to what happened to the places of worship of the once-majority Jewish population. Not far from the Uniate church is the largest synagogue still standing in Belarus. But it is derelict — mute testimony to the sufferings of a decimated community.

Grodno is probably the most Westernized city in Belarus. It lies just 24 km from the Polish border and a mere 42 km from the Lithuanian one. There is something, however limited, of a more cosmopolitan European air to the place. In the Old Town, a picturesque street of small shops named Savetskaya is the only one in the country reserved for pedestrians. Private capital has made some headway here. Some 35 percent of Grodno’s small enterprises are in private hands, and at least 20 joint ventures have been formed with foreign investors. The city is thought not to be President Alexander Lukashenko’s favorite, but then, historically, it has somehow managed to take attitudes like that in its stride.