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Embraced by water. 10 legendary Belarusian islands

Author: Yana Shidlovskaya
Photo: Sergey Plytkevich

24.07.2020

The water surface of Belarus is decorated with hundreds of islands. On some lakes their number reaches up to two dozen... both large and small, they are equally mysterious, picturesque and shrouded in legends of former times. Uninhabited in our days, the Belarusian islands keep traces of human habitation: people used to live, pray, escape from the enemy, and work the land here.

1. The Mysterious Island Do

The largest island of Belarus with an area of 5 km2 (1.9 mi2) is located on the Osveysky Lake - a large one, shallow, warm in the summer, with a great amount of fish and crayfish. The ancient name of the island was left by Finno-Ugric tribes, translated into the modern language it means "lake", and in our case it stays for a lake island. According to another version, on the island there was a Baltic village Du (which translates as "two") with its own parish and the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin.

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The landscape of the island includes two mountains: Gorodok and Perunovo. According to legend, the ancient Slavonic god of thunder Perun always hits the last one. What about Gorodok, there’s a huge hole (cave) where a shepherd boy fell down once upon a time. At the bottom of the cave he met a mythical Grandmother and Grandfather with a dog, who gave gold to the young man and helped him get back to the top. When the neighbors heard of the unexpected wealth of the shepherd boy, they sent two other young fellows to the mountain, but they neither found the treasure, nor they returned back home.

On modern maps, the largest island in the country is marked with the name Island. This was also the name of the island village, which had more than fifty yards with a grocery store, a farm, its own club, and a diesel substation. It was possible to get to the island by boat, on foot or on a sledge on the ice, and after the war-by ferry.

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The remains of the substation, the old village cemetery, and the wild trees of former fruit orchards now remind us of the times when people lived on the island. It was depopulated in 1970. Now the Island is recognized as a reserve where wolves and moose live, and a good place for bird watching.

2. The Ghost Island of Oswego Lake

Floating island is the second attraction of the Osveysky Lake. Not attached to the bottom, it slowly moves along the surface of the lake at an average speed of 1-1. 5 kilometers per hour (0.6 – 0.9 mi/h), depending on the wind. 

This island named as The Host by locals, resembles a nest. Instead of soil there are intertwined algae, roots, and branches. One can walk on them, but it is not too safe. The island vegetation is represented by flexible trees and shrubs, favored by birds. Every year, the island increases in size, because it collects everything on its path while swimming, and sometimes joins other smaller floating islands on the same lake.

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The fishermen angry with the floating island for destroyed nets, named it Ghost. They say that at night a weightless and rather nervous ghost walks here along the decking of branches, scaring people and fish with screams and moans. According to the fishermen, the fish really ignores the bait at the island. More pragmatically minded locals believe that the role of a ghost on The Host is successfully performed by muskrats living here.

3. Chichin Island on the Lake of Strusto

There are more than a hundred lake and river islands in the Braslav Region, this is a significant part of all the islands of the country.

The second largest island named Chaichin, is one of the most beautiful in the country. It’s located in the center of the large and picturesque Strusto Lake. Before the water level was dropped down in the 30s of the XX century, its Northern part used to be an independent island of Yurkovo. Chaichin, Yurkovo and the neighboring Shova Island formed a small archipelago, where the Village of Strusto Island was located. In 1931 there were 6 households and 27 people living here. Now the archipelago is uninhabited.

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The beauty and charm of Chaichin is made by the winding line of the coast with deep bays, narrow isthmuses and sandy beaches. The island has a small inland lake that has always been rich in crucians. The hills on Chaichin are replaced by lowlands covered with coniferous forest, high juniper bushes, and a birch grove where the Karelian birch (Betula pendula Roth var. carelica), atypical for Belarus, is found.

4. Island Turmac Lake Snudy

The Snudy Lake in Braslav Region was considered as one of the richest in fish: there’s lots of pike, the European smelt (Osmerus eperlanus eperlanus) and the European cisco (Coregonus albula) caught here have always been in particular demand.

Fishing has also been developed on the Island of Turmas on the Snudy Lake. Three families lived in two houses here. They were getting to the big land by boat, in winter – on foot or on a sled. Sometimes in the off-season it was impossible to reach the opposite shore on thin ice, and the islanders were cut off from the mainland for up to several weeks.

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The Islands of Chaichin and Turmas, as well as 7 Islands of the Strusto Lake and 11 ones on Snudy lake can be seen from the observation tower on Mayak mountain.

5. Castle Island on the Miadel Lake

The largest of the eight Islands of the Miadel Lake is known as Castle. The ancient city once named Miadel by the Balts (which meant "forest" or "wooden") appeared on the island, presumably in the X-XI centuries. It was surrounded by high wooden walls that were replaced by the stone ones a few hundred years later to protect it from Crusader sieges. In this well-fortified settlement in case of trouble the residents of other islands leaving their homes and farms, could stay in Miadel for several months: this island used to provide them with shelter and protection. However, in the first half of the XV century the plague epidemic forced people to leave the thriving city. Later the city was built again. This time as a mainland one.

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The island is also associated with the name of the Queen of Poland and the Grand Duchess of Lithuania, Bona Sforza, who received the local area along with the lake as a gift from her husband, Zhigimont the Old. According to legend, the modern Miadel was once surrounded by three magnificent castles-palaces, each of which was placed on a separate island. They were called Miadel, Naroch, and Myastro. The last one was named as the permanent residence of the Queen.

6. Castle Iisland on Lake Drisviaty

The Castle Island rises on the Drisvyaty Lake as a defensive rampart. In the XI–XIII centuries, fortifications of the Polotsk Principality were built on the settlement, and a small settlement with a population of about 400 people was also established nearby. The island and the castle on it were mentioned more than once in written sources of the XV-XVI centuries as a fortified settlement of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. 

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Near the castle there was the landlord’s court, a place with a market, three streets, and a Catholic Church. Two bridges led to the big shore from the island. Later in the XVII century a scheme of the Castle Island on the Drisviaty Lake will be mapped by a famous Polish cartographer Jozef Naranovich-Naronsky. By this time only fragments of wooden walls and three towers without roofs will remain from the castle…

For many years, archaeologists have been working on the island studying the cultural layer of settlements from the Polotsk Principality and the time of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, that used to stay hidden under the agricultural lands for a long time. The interesting finds discovered during the excavations are kept in the Braslav Museum now. This is the place one can also learn about the ancient fishing of the Braslav region and Belarus since the iron age.

7. Castle Island on Lake Ikazn

The construction of the island fortifications on Ikazn were initiated by the Braslav headman Jan Sapega, who had bought a land lot on the shore along with the lake for 200 kopecks "in the wide grosches" in the last year of the XV century.

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The defensive walls of the castle made of stone and brick, the clay ramparts with wooden structures and two towers towered over the wooden buildings of the town: in the XVI century the castle was the center of the large possessions of Sapiehs family in the Braslav region. A significant part of the island was occupied by a sub-castle surrounded by an earthen rampart. An artificial fish pond was dug near the walls of the fortress and connected to the lake by a channel. The island was connected to the shore by a floating bridge on special boats, which was quickly dismantled in case of danger, and the boats were drowned down.

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The castle was destroyed at the beginning of the XVIII century during the Northern War. There is a legend that the enemy could not break into the castle for a long time, and was about to lift the siege when suddenly a cow crossed the flooded bridge to the island. The enemies followed the cow into the castle. Another legend says that at the bottom of the lake near the island there is still a treasure of the XVII century not found yet.

8. Monastery Island on the Nespish Lake

At the beginning of the XIX century on the island in the South-Eastern part of the Nespish Lake in Braslav region bells were ringing, and Catholic masses were held. Braslav monastery with a church and residential buildings was built on the island in the XV century. This monastery became the owner of the lake and several surrounding settlements.

Since 1635 the monastery was passed to Uniates. The island was connected to the shore by two bridges, near the main one a tavern for travelers was working. Pilgrims were coming to the island to worship the miraculous icon of the Mother of God of Braslav, the lady of the lakes and patron of the entire Braslav region. Because of the large number of people, services were held in the field, right on the shore of the lake.

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In 1832 a terrible fire occurred on the island, which did not spare the monastery buildings. But the icon survived. According to legend, it was found on the nearby Saint Island, where a cross was installed from the beginning of the monastery's existence. From Saint Island the icon was moved to the altar of the Braslav Church, where it can still be seen today. On August 24 a great holiday is celebrated in Braslav: the celebration of the Mother of God, the lady of the lakes.

9. Island on the Prince Lake

The Red Lake in Poliesie, which at various times was called the Prince Lake, Jitensky, or just the Zhid [Jew – Polish] Lake, is shrouded in legends and traditions. Interesting stories also exist about the lake Islands. So, once upon a time a Je lived in the town of Zhitkovichi in the vicinity of the lake, this Jew was running his own tavern. One of the noble Prince fell in love with the daughter of the tavern owner, and ordered to build a castle for the Jewish beauty on one of the five Islands of the lake. The best masters of the Slutsk region were following the order of the Prince, but the spring flood did not spare their efforts, destroying the strong masonry. Since then, the lake has been called Zhid.

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According to another legend, one of the Slutsk princes Olelkovichi, who owned the Prince-lake, was imprisoned in the castle. The older brother hated the younger one, and banished him to the island. The death of the prisoner was caused also by a flood, that destroyed the castle in the spring.

10. Stefan Batory Island on the Western Dvina River

Once fortified island, which began the history of the town of Disna, lies at the confluence of the Western Dvina and Disna rivers. In the times of the Polotsk Principality it was called Kopetz (earthwork). In the second half of the XVI century king Stefan Batory initiated the construction of a powerful castle on this island. The island, which now had a fortress with nine towers, became known as the Old Castle. Disnensky Castle performed a defensive function during the wars of the XVI–XVIII centuries, it also was a customs house, where goods were inspected. There also were trading warehouses on the island: the merchants of Disna were delivering lard, bread, wax, honey, and fish to Riga.

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Having survived the war of 1812, the castle was finally destroyed by fire in 1882. Today only the ruins overgrown with bushes remain of the mighty outpost which used to be on the Stefan Batory’s island.

Translated be M. Shaturin


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