Polotsk – the Most Ancient City of Belarus
Polotsk or Polatsk (Russian: Полоцк, Belarusian: Полацк) is the oldest town in Belarus. It is situated in the north of the country, in the province of Vitebsk. Together with the nearby town of Novopolotsk (Navapolatsk), Polotsk forms an urban agglomeration with a population of around 200,000 inhabitants.
Like many other Belarusian cities, Polotsk was built on the banks of a river. Polotsk is situated at a picturesque location, where the River Polota flows into the Dvina. The city takes its name from the River Polota.
Polotsk was one of the first East Slavonic towns to be mentioned in the Nestor Chronicle in the year 862. Archaeological finds indicate that there must have been a settlement here some 60 to 70 years previously. During the course of its turbulent history, Polotsk survived numerous invasions by the Vikings, fought against the crusaders and was occupied on many occasions by the armies of foreign conquerors.
The first stable system of rule on the territory of the town was the Principality of Polotsk, which was formed in the 10th century. At approximately the same time, the Eparchy (name for a diocese in the Orthodox Church) of Polotsk was founded, which gave the town considerable status throughout Eastern Europe.
Rapid development of the town was favoured by its location at the crossing point of several river and trade routes, used among others by the Varangians travelling from Scandinavia to Byzantium. From the 9th century onward, various trades and crafts, including smithies, jewellers and tanners, flourished here, as did the building and sewing trade.
Between 1044 and 1066, the first stone church in Eastern Europe was built in Polotsk: the Cathedral of St. Sophia. Its construction was confirmation of the strength and independence of the Principality of Polotsk. Cathedrals of similar significance were also erected in Kiev and Novgorod, the centres of the great East Slavonic Principalities. The Cathedral of St. Sophia was largely destroyed by fire in the 15th century and lost its status as seat of the diocese. In the 17th century it was rebuilt as a Catholic church in the baroque style. A copy of the original Cathedral of St. Sophia is to be built in the near future on the opposite bank of the Dvina, in Vitebsk.
During the war in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania from 1432 to 1436, between various aristocratic dynasties, Polotsk became the centre of power of Prince Swidrygiello who was also contesting supremacy in the Grand Duchy.
At the end of the 15th century, printing was introduced in Belarus. The first translation of the bible was drawn up by Francysk Skaryna in Polotsk and became extremely popular. His translation was in Church Slavonic, thereby giving the people the chance to read the words of the bible in their own language for the very first time.
In the year 1498, Magdeburg Law was conferred on the town and it became the capital of the Polotsk voivodeship (administrative district) of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (later Poland-Lithuania).
In 1558, in the course of the Livonian War between Lithuania and the Principality of Moscow, Polotsk was captured by the army of the Russian Tsar Ivan Vasilyevich IV (Ivan the Terrible). A large part of the town and its fortifications were destroyed.
During the war, in the year 1580, the first Jesuit College was opened in Polotsk. First rector was Piotr Skarga, a famous scholar who was also rector of Vilnius University, likewise run by the Jesuit Order. Documents dating from the 16th century show that Polotsk was at the time one of the largest towns in Europe, with a population of around 100,000 people. However, the urban population was severely decimated by the wars which ensued in the subsequent centuries, the plague (1566), famines (1600 and 1741-1746) and numerous fires. During the Russian-Polish war from 1654-1667, the town came under Russian rule but later became Polish again and remained the centre of the relevant voivodeship.
The events of the Great Northern War also had great influence on the history of Polotsk. In 1705, Tsar Peter the Great ordered that the Castle of Polotsk be torn down, as it was a strategically important checkpoint and should not fall into the hands of the enemy. For similar reasons, the famous Cathedral of St. Sophia was partially blown up around this time.
After the first partitioning of Poland (1772) the part of Polotsk on the right bank devolved to the Russian Empire, it was joined by the left bank after the second partitioning (1793). Polotsk was then part of the governorate of Pskov until it became a governorate in its own right. This resulted in a considerable boost to the development of the town from both an economic and a cultural point of view. New administrative buildings were erected, settlements were extended. Little by little, Polotsk recovered its status as an important transit and trading location and the population grew accordingly.
At the beginning of the 19th century there were three higher education institutions in Polotsk, two of them having been founded by religious orders. In 1812, the Tsar also issued a decree authorising the Jesuit Order the right to found an academy. Eight years later, the Jesuit Order was banned by the Russian Empire, so the academy was reorganised and – together with an extensive library – handed over to the Piarist Order.
In Polotsk, different confessions and orders lived side by side. Orthodox Christians, Lutherans, Jesuits, Dominicans, Bernardins, Basilians and Franciscans established their own churches and monasteries, thus enriching the architecture in the town.
In the year 1812, there were two battles in the vicinity of Polotsk between the Russian army and Napoleon’s French army. The first battle was indecisive, but in the second the Russian troops freed Polotsk and forced the French army back.
During the Russian Civil War and the Nazi Occupation, Polotsk was under the control of German and Polish troops. The town belonged to the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR) from 1924 onwards and during the Second World War it was captured by German troops on 16th July 1941, after holding out for 20 days. It was only on 4th July 1944 that the Red Army was able to liberate the oldest Belarusian town. The war claimed 150,000 lives in Polotsk. A dire effect of the war – for those who survived – was the extreme housing shortage, as 96% of the existing housing had been destroyed.
Today Polotsk is one of Belarus’ finest cities, from whose colourful history many places of interest have emerged. It fascinates with numerous cultural events. One of these is the international organ music festival “St. Sophia’s Bells”, which takes place every November in the Cathedral of St. Sophia. In addition, every April a chamber music festival is organised, at which modern music is also performed.
But Polotsk does not just have a thriving historical and cultural scene: it is also a geographical curiosity. The city fathers claim that Polotsk is the geographical centre of Europe and have erected a monument to mark the spot.
Discover this fascinating little town and other interesting places on our Tour of Belarus.