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06 March 2024, 15:14

‘This will remain in history’. Lukashenko’s role in restoring Belkhudozhpromysly and reviving Slutsk sashes

"It is very symbolic that the sashes were restored here, in Slutsk. This is a tribute to the masters of the past and a celebration of their descendants, who are as talented and skillful as their illustrious predecessors." The president left this note in the Book of Distinguished Guests as he visited the Slutsk Sashes Museum in 2014. The head of state was gifted the first Slutsk sash, an exact replica of the original thing. Silk and gilded threads were used to make it. In the new episode of the YouTube project "After the Fact: Lukashenko’s Decisions", we will tell you why the president saved Belkhudozhpromysly. What does this association produce? Are there many skillful artisans in Belarus who can pass their crafts and skills on to their descendants?

Famous Slutsk sashes

Long wide sashes with a beautiful pattern and intricate weaving using precious threads became widespread in the Belarusian lands back in the 16th century. Over time, local weavers  created their own unique patterns, symbolic motifs, and exclusive technology. The accessory could contain up to 200 grams of gold: one sash could buy several pedigree horses or an estate.

Slutsk sashes got worldwide fame. Do you remember the famous poem "Slutsk weavers" by Maxim Bogdanovich? The poem is about bondmaids who weaved “the native cornflower bloom” instead of the Persian pattern. Slutsk sashes are a national symbol.

The first president of sovereign Belarus made the decision to revive the unique technology at all costs. An investment project to produce the replicas of Slutsk sashes and national souvenirs was implemented in Slutsk. The project was financed from the budget. The company recreated the unique weaving technology used by Slutsk manufactories. These products are unmatched.

"This is very important for us and for our descendants. This is our ideology. You cannot be a competent specialist without knowing the culture of the land. Therefore, this job is of great importance,"  Larisa Tarasova, director of the Slutsk Sashes company at Belkhudozhpromysly of the Belarus President Property Directorate, said as the head of state visited the enterprise in April 2014.

Boris Lazuko, Head of the Ancient Belarusian Culture Department, the Center for Research of Belarusian Culture, Language and Literature at the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus, noted that the spiritual wealth of the Belarusian people is the most important thing that must be preserved and passed on to younger generations.

“My task was to create the things that no one could appropriate, as it happened often times in the past.  Let’s see if the Poles can beat us here. They say that it is their heritage,” Aleksandr Lukashenko noted.

“We use gold and silver threads to make sashes. We do not use expensive materials to make every item. We want to sell more for the sake of introducing people to the unique Slutsk patterns. Slutsk sashes that use expensive threads are in demand too,” said Director of the Belkhudozhpromysly Association Mikhail Popov.

Why did Lukashenko take Belkhudozhpromysly under his wing?

The unitary enterprise Slutsk Sashes is part of the state association Belkhudozhpromysly of the Belarus President Property Management Directorate. It is the main manufacturer of folk arts and crafts and souvenirs in Belarus. Belarus President Property Management Directorate runs all kinds of companies. Belkhudozhpromysly came under the president's wing. For a reason.
 After the collapse of the USSR, the organizations that made part of Belkhudozhpromysly were left in the lurch and their future looked bleak. However, the president decided to intervene and bail them out.

Everyone knows that the Belarus President Property Management Directorate runs the Palace of Independence and the president’s country residence. Few know that it is a huge organization,” Aleksandr Lukashenko said as he appointed Valery Ivanov Chairman of the Belarus President Property Management Directorate in July 2021. The Belarusian leader recalled that there was a time when the Directorate took the most struggling enterprises under its umbrella. Belkhudozhpromysly was one of them. “I was trying to save it. That’s why I took it under my wing,” the head of state said.

Mikhail Popov believes that this decision by the head of state helped save the enterprise. “Of course,the presidentcould not allow traditional arts and crafts to fall into decay. When no one cares about souvenirs, unique skills will no longer be passed on to new generations and eventually will be lost. Thanks to the head of the state, the company held out during this difficult period of the rise of the independent Belarusian state.”

These products are made of wicker, flax, wood, straw, ceramics. We perceive most of them as souvenirs, but our ancestors used them in their everyday life. Such items are part and parcel of our unique cultural heritage. For example, the Skarbnitsa enterprise jointly with the National Academy of Sciences are working to recreate traditional Belarusian costumes. It’s not for nothing that people say: clothes make the man. Our clothes reflect our traditions. Nobody says that we all have to wear traditional costumes every day. But NOT knowing your history and culture means not respecting yourself.

The Belarusian nation was formed long before the collapse of the USSR. Belarus had an independent state even before it made part of the USSR. When we come to exhibitions, we see that our costume is very different from the Russian one. People come up and show interest. Our costume bears our cultural code," Mikhail Popov said.

Unique specialists at Belkhudozhpromysly

The president pays special attention to preserving and promoting national traditions and values. The head of state set a task not just to preserve the manufacture of traditional items but also to constantly upgrade it and develop new products. Aleksandr Lukashenko keeps this matter under personal control.

Companies making traditional arts and crafts items boast a unique history, identity, and skills. However, such enterprises cannot go on the way they used to. They should get a major overhaul and keep developing new products all the time. Skills and traditions must be passed on to our children,” the head of state said in August 2022.

Last year the output increased by about a third; 1.5 times more items of folk arts and crafts were made. A new administrative and production building is under construction at Slutsk Sashes Factory. Belkhudozhkeramika is upgrading its technological equipment in an effort to improve the product quality and increase assortment. The history of pottery art goes back many centuries, but consumers are no longer excited by an ordinary jug. Therefore, a piece of clay should be turned into a masterpiece.

Our main task is to retain competences. Arts and crafts are mostly done by older people. Young people are unwilling to do it, because this work requires a lot of focus. We need to incentivize people with a good salary. These people do a huge amount of work. Mentors need to teach a new generation of artisans. Unless we preserve these traditions, all our efforts will be in vain,” Mikhail Popov said.

Preserving traditional arts and crafts in Belarus

More than 10 types of old-time folk crafts have been preserved in Belarus. These are pottery, weaving and embroidery, wood carving, straw and wicker weaving, painting on glass, wood and fabric. This is the case when a machine cannot replace a human being. The organizations of the Belkhudozhpromysly association employ more than 1,100 people, of whom about 230 are artisans. Such specialists are usually dubbed as “people with golden hands”…

Receiving a report from Head of the Belarus President Property Management Directorate Yuri Nazarov in February 2024, Aleksandr Lukashenko noted that the enterprises and organizations affiliated with the Belarus President Property Management Directorate performed quite well: “Financial results are good. Individual industries are doing well, too: agriculture, civil engineering, and Belkhudozhpromysly. Everyone used to believe that the Belarus President Property Management Directorate had snatched all the juicy pieces and rested on its laurels. No. Belkhudozhpromysly Concern alone was a lot of headache.”

“This year we have started making Sozh skan out of various sorts of timber and shavings. We get exceptional products. When I took over, we had two elderly artisans who knew how to split wickerwork. What they make is outstanding. This is why we preserve this line of work and have increased the team up to seven people,” Yuri Nazarov said.

How many people know the Sozh skan technology?

Sozh skan, which Yuri Nazarov reported about to the president, is an amazing Belarusian applied art. It emerged at the end of the 20th century and is unmatched. Some 20 people across the globe know the technology. Artisans lay out wooden curls with the help of tweezers. They use different species of wood that give different color shades. They create unique products that are impossible to replicate. Did you know that? Probably not. This means that any artwork needs advertising, no matter how great this artwork is. Producers must maximize their sales networks. This is true for all areas of applied art.

“Thanks to the support of the head of state, the Belarus President Property Management Directorate, we get considerable funds for modernization. First of all, modernization is needed to improve the quality, to reduce prime costs, to make souvenirs more available. Nowadays funds are needed everywhere, especially in the light of the tasks set by the head of state. We do not need large-scale manufacture to make bespoke items for a museum. We need large-scale manufacture to mass produce souvenirs inspired by our centuries-old traditions. When Belarusians go abroad, they always take souvenirs to give them as a gift. Belarusian themed souvenirs such as towels, baskets and boxes make very good gifts,” Mikhail Popov said.

How can one avoid the fall of culture and spirituality?

No exhibition or conference abroad goes without a display of authentic products. We go to see new people and show our worth. We also gift visiting delegations unique items that cannot be bought anywhere else. Tourists love Belarusian souvenirs and eagerly buy them at airports, train stations, hotels, stores and even gas stations. Of course, we would like foreigners to bring home not only magnets as a souvenir, but also things that personify our country and convey the national spirit.

Talented artisans create unique products not only for tourists, but, first of all, for us, Belarusians. By studying the past, by drawing on the experience of our ancestors, we will be able to preserve the identity of our wonderful culture.

“We, Belarusians, are a nation of creators. Since ancient times, we have followed our own path, which helped us preserve our way of life, culture and spirituality in the most difficult periods of history. The point that I have just made is very important. Many people, especially from among our self-exiled opposition, are ranting and raving that our spirituality and culture are falling into decline. This will not happen if we show people how incredibly creative we are. Creativity is more than welcome in our country. This has always been the case and will remain so. But we will not allow anyone to destroy what has been built by many generations of Belarusians over centuries. Our traditions, our spirituality and our moral compass have their roots in the past, and this cannot be destroyed,” the Belarusian president said at the ceremony to present the Spiritual Revival Award, the special prize for cultural and art luminaries and the Belarusian Sports Olympus Award in January 2024.
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