If we hang on for a few more years, Soviet Army Day will be one hundred years old. Time for a grand celebration! For now, the delicatessens of one Belarusian city have baked some unusual tank-shaped cakes with red stars, cannons and “unnamed heights” which are apparently defended by soldiers from screen adaptations of war stories. Victory is not a simple matter – one needs to call a stop at the right time, to prevent people from being sick. Although the brightest manage to make victory feed people continuously.
If the city of Hrodna were to start using this recipe, they would probably bake the cannons of the Old Castle. They would cover them in chocolate because the cannons are made of bronze or cast iron. These are not our cannons, they belonged to Tsar Peter I. They are ambivalent, and not victorious at all. On February 22, 1706, in the face of an onslaught by the Swedish forces, the Tsar gave the order to drown the artillery in the Neman river in order to save the Russian garrison which was retreating from Hrodna. The cannons were thrown into the river, and were found during Soviet times, after which they were given pride of place at the Old Castle.
Under the Tsar’s Portrait
Sometimes I stumble across television programmes on military themes. A Belarusian colonel sits in his office, and on the wall hangs a giant portrait of our one-time neighbour and ally, Peter the Great. Funny? Hilarious, but not for the squaddies themselves! They have a great respect for the Tsar, as the “creator of the Belarusian engineer corps”. The presenter explains that “they are the oldest military formation in Belarus, they are 300 years old”. So the idea that the oldest is always the dilettante infantry is disproven.
So, our voivodes (military governors in the times of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania) had nothing to do with the creation of a military. The Belarusian generals found some references to the Tsar’s decree, took it to heart and are now counting the centuries of their service. Although, as is well-known, the current army of the Republic of Belarus was created from the remains of the Belarusian regiment of the Soviet Army in 1992 (Belarus gained independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union), when a majority of parliamentary deputies voted in favour of a Belarusian-language oath, although with great reluctance and only under pressure from the opposition (The Belarusian parliament in the immediate post-independence period was mostly composed of communists, who were against the Belarusian language).
This gem of a story about Peter I’s Belarusian engineer corps originates in Hrodna, which was also the first city where the new ‘holiday’ was celebrated. It’s difficult to understand: did the head of the military sleep through his history lessons at school? Or did he come from somewhere like Syzran, Armazas, or Taldy-Kurgan (Russian/Soviet cities which became synonymous for places far away from Belarus) and Belarusian history was a dark forest for him for that reason? In any case, he probably read a lot of the Russian historian Pavlenko, who described in great detail how the Tsar ordered a report on the bridges and fortifications of Hrodna in 1705. Menshikov was very pleased that the Old Castle was on the hilltop, where it looked impregnable and only 300 soldiers would be needed to defend it.
The Russians stationed no less than 40,000 troops in the city in winter housing. They even put the Polish king and their ally August II in command for a short time, who instituted the famous Order of the White Eagle here. The city passed between hands several times, and in the end the Tsar had 45 battalions of infantry and six regiments of dragoons here – he was strengthening his position. Hrodna became a kind of entrance hall, and the Russian army arrived several more times to rest, and as historians tell us, “robbed the people”. So the people of Hrodna certainly cannot forget the Tsar, who was so beloved by the engineer corps.
The television also shows how our soldiers look for anti-infantry mines in the snow, with the Tsar in mind, as it were (a play on words: the Russian “to have the Tsar in your mind” means that a person is of sound mind., that he is rational). The logic and reasoning behind it is rather specific: “his specialisation as a sniper is one of the most creative”. Or, for example, the festive day of the rocket corps and artillery is celebrated on such-and-such a day because “it all began at Stalingrad in 1942, where there were not a few Belarusians involved”. Were there no artillery or Belarusians on our own territory, in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania?
In the indistinct dreams of the Belarusian military, warheads stand out like an abyss, like a missing tooth. Let us listen further to the television: “The outflow of nuclear capacity is compensated for by the artillery and rockets, which are the shield of the Republic”. The journalist is very upset that Russia took away the last nuclear arms from Belarus. You have to feel sorry for the guy, who doesn’t understand that the strategic rockets protected not Belarus, but Moscow, and made Belarus a target for nuclear attacks by the “potential enemy”. A better impression is left by the female presenter who tells us about “The Mastery of Artillery” by Kazimir Semianovich, a treatise which was studied by Newton, Peter I, and is even still valued by NASA.
I wouldn’t have guessed myself that our army was made up mostly of sappers and engineers, that we didn’t have enough cash for guns and cannons, never mind nuclear warheads. An army which has never invaded or defended anything. Instead it has only built crossing and carried out repairs for others, and then tried not to step on the anti-infantry mines that those others left behind.
Boris Vian has written a story called “Ants” about the Normandy landings, it’s a story filled with subtle and dark humour. While the hero is always fine, the others are not so lucky, because the hero never hurries to get involved, he doesn’t stick his head out. But you never know, perhaps he isn’t so lucky after all: “I’m still standing on a mine. This morning they sent me on sentry duty, and I was last out as usual: they all filed past, and I felt the click of something under my foot, and I froze on the spot. They explode when you get off them.” In our version, the Belarusian sapper feels the ants crawling up his leg but has no hope that the military command will help him, so he prays to Peter I to rescue him.
In a famous text by Dovlatov (lived 1941-1990, a Russian writer and journalist), the author takes part in a short historical film in the role of Tsar Peter I, and in the break goes to a street beer stand to get a drink. No-one is surprised by his appearance, but a row begins when someone tries to take a glass without queuing: even the Tsar is waiting his turn like everyone else, not barging in front! In our version (the author is dreaming up the plot of a film based on current Belarusian reality, where the OMON special police mistakes the Tsar for an enemy) a watchful patrol stops the Tsar on the streets of Hrodna, who blurts out that he is looking for a Mr. Skaryna [the first Belarusian publisher Frantsysk Skaryna, 1490- approx. 1551, who translated and in 1517 in Prague published 23 books of the Bible in Old Belarusian, with his own commentaries – transl. note] from the regional printshop on Reprographics Street. In a border city, you have to be careful!
When the Tsar is taken for questioning, they find a military map of the city, a heavily-annotated copy of “The Mastery of Artillery” and an order to collect food and clothing from the residents of Hrodna. The Tsar is put in a cell. But the sappers mount an assault to free their founding father. Together they go and hide in the Old Castle, but they can’t manage the Tsar’s cannons. The young Belarusian army is happy that the OMON special police will snap the horns of the three-century-old pride of the renegade engineer corps. The Tsar gives the order to drown the cannons, so as not to leave them to the enemy.
I’m not sure, however, how the story should end. Should everyone be fed tank cakes and cannons against the background of a grand fireworks display, or should the Tsar be stood against a wall in the Old Castle and prevented from corrupting the youth? I still haven’t made up my mind.
The author: lives in Hrodna, Belarus. Journalist. Former editor of Pagonia. Writes for Radio Svoboda – has a blog on www.svaboda.org, a series of entries titled “Diary of a Writer”. In his essays, he focuses on the common Belarusian-Polish themes.