The small town of Sebezh lays in a westernmost tip of Russia, at the Russian-Latvian-Belorussian border, in a wonderful setting, between lakes, on a peninsula reaching deep into the lake. Rustem Adagamov was there a few days ago, and yesterday he published on it a series of photos (all of which should be enlarged, as this is how they really live). These images of the idyllic Russian countryside fascinate even the Russian readers who are sighing about the soul of Russia in their comments, although at the sight of the archive photos they remark how much more civilized was the town in the Tsarist era – and in fact, instead of today’s charming village where time has stopped, the old photos still carried the promise of a vividly developing city. We publish the photos together with the translation of Rustem’s comments accompanying them.
If you start off from Moscow along the Novorizhsky highway, and six hundred kilometers later you turn aside on a road which is not even marked on Google maps, eight kilometers later you reach a lake with a small town called Sebezh standing on its shore. The same Sebezh where, according to Russian folk epics, Ilya Muromets “broke the armies of three princes”. The town lays on a cape reaching deep into the lake, with a hill in the middle, which is still called Castle Hill after the fortress or castle which stood there in the 16th century.
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The place at the intersection of three borders belonged alternately to Russia or to the Polish-Lithuanian republic, until in 1772 it went under Russian suzerainty together with all Poland. It became part of the “Pale of Settlement”, thus the majority of the population (in 1897 around 60% of its ca. 4000 inhabitants) were Jews. Here was born the great actor of Soviet times Zinovy Gerdt, who always remembered warmly of his home town – the quotation in the title is also from him.
The Earl of Sebezh in 1649 laid the foundation stone of the present church on the place of a wooden church burned down. The Trinity Church is the oldest Catholic church standing on the territory of modern Russia. In 1917 it was shut down. In the 60’s it was a worker’s hostel for a while. In 1990 it was handed over to the Russian Orthodox Church. A burial ad is hanging on the fence. Coffins can be ordered for size.
At the corner of the Soviet (formerly Fishermen) street and Pushkin pereulok, in front of the few surviving 19th-century “boulder” houses, local resident Yuly Genrikovich is complaining about the quality of water. It is not good to drink, only to water the garden. The home, according to its inscription, is now the editorial of the newspaper Призыв (Appeal).
At twilight the streets of Sebezh are deserted. The town’s first civilian stone buildings: the government office and the central warehouse were built in 1801.
Valentine and Alexandr (from left to right) pose for me on the steps of a long since closed down building, on which a rusty sign announces: Типография – “Press”. The picture above shows the same building at the beginning of the 20th century. According to local historians, in 1911 in this street worked, besides the press, the Kushlisa Hotel, several tea houses and restaurants, a poor house, a pharmacy, a hospital, many workshops and retailers. Electric street lights were introduced in 1908, and the telegraph a little earlier.
Lake view from the waterfront. To the left you can see the bell tower of the former Nativity of Christ Church (1841-1864), the main architectural symbol of the town.
View of the church from the main – formerly Fishermen, now Soviet – street of Sebezh in late 19th century. It was demolished in 1932. We do not know why they left the bell tower, which was then restored in 1987.
Several 19th-century merchant’s houses are still standing along the Soviet street. Their window frames were gradually changed in Soviet times, and they look like foreign bodies in the building walls.
The life of Sebezh is focused on the water. The scene is idyllic at every side.
A swan family is swimming on the lake: the father as a scout in front, and the mother and the kids behind him at a safe distance.
The mirror of the people: “And where’s the bus?” “When will there be street lights?” In 1908 there were once.
Not far from the abandoned bus stop, a holy spring with a small chapel. At the bottom of the stand with the history of the holy place, a sticker advertising a motor glider at a good price, and a handwritten “Glory to Stalin!”
At the shore of the lake Vlad and another Vlad are feeding the ducks with white bread. They ask me where I come from. “Straight from Moscow?”
In the small park near the waterfront they are already preparing the place for the monument to the town’s greatest son Zinovy Gerdt. As I read, the tender for the monument was won by Oleg Yershov and his team [particularly productive representatives of the trend of the “new gag” now raging in Russia – translator’s note]. Its inauguration is scheduled for 21 September.
The train station with a famous quote by Gerdt: “I come from a heavenly place on earth – from Sebezh.”
I could not immediately get out of Sebezh. Somehow I turned the wrong way on a small road leaving the town, which then meandered across forests and little villages and along several lakes. This road was not marked either on Google Map or on the GPS. I do not know how I finally got back on the highway to Riga.
On Darius’ blog a further photo series can be seen on Sebezh, made only a few days ago. They are not as lyrical as Rustem’s, but informative, and they let you feel that abandonment of the province which is also familiar to us from the villages of Eastern Central Europe laying far from the large centers.