In the height of summer, the broad and gentle river that divides the town of Polotsk in north-west Belarus is an appetising prospect. Yet no one is swimming. The sandy banks are lined with reeds that give way to homely dachas and unkempt shrubbery; but, like so many towns in the former Soviet Union, Polotsk is quietly blighted by the legacy of negligent industrialism. The river is heavily polluted by an old fibre glass factory upstream. Once you stray further from the town centre, there are further artefacts of decaying Soviet infrastructure: factories and tower blocks surrounded by broad patches of undeveloped land. The nearby settlement of Novo-Polotsk seems to have been in a state of suspended development for the past 50 years. Polotsk might seem to be defined by the legacy of the USSR’s twilight years. But there is something vital growing amidst the inertia.
Every Friday evening, in a damp nursery on a crumbling side street, a small reformed Jewish congregation meets for Shabbat. The following morning, in the same building, the Orthodox congregation performs their service. These are revivalist Jewish communities, resuscitating a faith and an identity that all but died out in much of the country.
In the years before the Second World War, the population of Polotsk was almost half Jewish, and that of Belarus overall almost a fifth. The Jews of Polotsk were persecuted by the Soviets, before largely being murdered by the Nazis in 1941. (Amongst Belarus’s partisan wartime fighters was the largest armed Jewish resistance during the Holocaust.) The few that survived mostly left for Israel. The rest were subject to homogenisation in an officially atheist Soviet society that was at best antipathetic and at worst actively antisemitic. Vladimir, a member of the Orthodox congregation, was in the army before the fall of the USSR. He tells me of his own heritage: his parents were ethnic Jews but, having lived his entire life under Soviet rule, he never experienced a Jewish religious or cultural community himself. Only now, in his sixties, has he begun to attend this improvised synagogue with any regularity.
Even in modern Belarus there is something furtive and hushed about these meetings. The Orthodox rabbi in Minsk tells me that fear of antisemitic violence is low at present, but Belarus’s autocrat Alexander Lukashenko has been known to openly praise Hitler for his leadership qualities, and in a town like Polotsk it is hard to escape the feeling that the country is haunted by the great traumas of its history.
Kiddush — the blessing of the wine — is pronounced with a Russified and distinctly phonetic intonation over vodka. The service is performed in Russian and almost no Hebrew is spoken by either congregation. Jonathan Clingman — a representative of The Together Plan, an organisation that assists these largely impoverished diaspora communities — leads the service on both days. He travels Belarus by minibus, fostering these tentative outposts of Jewish life, nurturing back into existence a way of life that seemed impossible after the last century’s suppression and genocide.
Lunch following the Saturday morning service comprises a substantial spread of pastries, cheeses, and a large sausage of indiscernible meat. There is also plenty of challah bread: an anomaly which, presumably as a consequence of the country’s Jewish history, is fairly ubiquitous in bakeries around Polotsk.
Judaism is about identity and history. In Polotsk and elsewhere in Belarus, it feels like an antidote to an ongoing loss of purpose.