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Izabela Meyza

Izabela Meyza is Polish journalist and educator working for multicultural dialogue.

She was born in Sejny, near the Polish-Lithuanian-Belarusian border. She was studying culture anthropology at Warsaw University and Russian culture at Jagiellonian University in Krakow.  For many years she has been travelling to former Soviet Union countries. Her articles and reportages have been published in Polish newspapers and magazines, including Wprost, Tygodnik Powszechny, Gazeta Wyborcza and Zwierciadlo, as well as in French Courrier International. She is also co-author of the book "Nasz ma?y PRL" ("Our little People’s Republic of Poland"), based on experiment which shows how communist past affects today’s Poland. 

The hidden life of a dead roe deer

Kontynenty

Other primeval forests were cut down, but no one touched the Belovezhskaya Forest. Why? A tourist may feel the spirit of the forest, but only collectively. Why? Around the forest, Lukashenko built ring road but nobody drives and uses it. Why?

1. In Victor’s house, a couple of pairs of eyes look down on me from the walls. All of them are mute and motionless in their death. They don’t make an impression on Victor anymore. He deals with death everyday: for several years he has been stuffing animals brought to him by hunters from the Belarusian Belovezhskaya Forest. Then he sells them or hangs in his flat.

Victor eats his breakfast by the kitchen table, looking at dead roe deer eyes that hangs above him and he his chews dried sausage. - Since my wife left me, I eat only with her - he points with pride at the product made with his own hands: an animal with perfectly perked ears and fur more shining than when it was alive. The draft of defer produced by the local kolkhoz stuck in my throat, as I am a declared ecologist.

- It usually happens this way, when a towny person, especially from the West, comes to our forest - the host started laughing at my choking.

Victor had been working as a forester in "Belovezhskaya Puscha" National Park for forty years. Now he is retired and lives in Kamieniuki, where the headquarters of the Park are situated. I rent a room in the flat full of dead animals illegally. - You cannot do it legally here. The previous director dismissed the workers who rented a room. Why? Because it is a competition for the National Park.

There are some tourism farms in the area, but you can count them on the fingers of one hand. The park encourages tourists to stay in one of its hotels. Each of them is a square, concrete building. They are renovated but they do not have soul.

- Not many things have a soul in this country - sighs Victor, at the same time offering the best kvass in Belarus. -People reigning the country haven’t stopped being communists and at the same time they are capitalists. And the soul got lost somewhere in all of this.

2. More about the soul of the forest says Georgi Kazulka, who sacrificed a half of his life to find it. He spent the first half of his life working in the National Park, before he managed to realize that the primeval forest has soul. He climbed high in his professional life as he became a deputy director for research. And then he was degraded as his views concerning the primeval forest were not approved by the new deputy.

It is a scorching day. Kazulka leads me through the edge of the forest. We are trying to drive the swarms of mosquitoes away.

- When I was dismissed from work, it was hard time for me. But difficulties are inseparable part of spiritual travel and they allowed me to find out the truth about the forest.

- And what is the truth?

- Primeval forest is a chakra, an important energy centre - after saying this words, Georgi Kazulka remains silent for a while. His eyes, in the colour of pines growing in the forest, are looking at me and searching for comprehension.

- How do you know this?

- Because I feel the energy coming from it. W?adys?aw Jagie??o and Russian emperors already knew that the primeval forest is a source of energy. They invited European rulers, organised hunting for them and then tried to force them to make decisions that influenced the whole Europe.

While crossing a bridge on the river, Kazulka says: 

- Have you ever wondered why other primeval forests were cut out but the Belovezhskaya Forest was left? - He asks, and his question is left hanging in the air. So he answers it himself: - Because people who live here have always felt the spirit of the forest. This spirit has the power to change everyone who visits the forest.

3. But according to Victor, the only spirit one can feel in here, is the spirit of the Soviet Union. - One look at the border is enough to see this. Our republic is fenced off from Poland by barbed wire and a part of soil that is ploughed every day. Sistema (the System), because that is the name for the complex border protection system of the former USSR that was build when "Solidarity" was born. At that time, Soviet rulers decided that a high fence should be built in the western part of the empire. It was to prevent disloyal ideas from spreading into the Est. But history mocked the creators of sistema when a decade later communism was abolished here by...the communists themselves. A couple of kilometres from the Polish border, in the heart of Belovezhskaya Forest, the rulers of allied republics signed so called Belavezha Accords due to which the USSR was to cease to exist.

The little palace, in which the communistic empire was abolished, still exists in Viskuli and serves as a residence for Lukashenko. Tourists are not allowed to enter it.

They are also not allowed to approach the sistema. It records every fox, boar and hare that goes to European Union in search for a better life. And each of them that leaves the Union. It marks the boarder of civilisation, dividing the primeval forest into two parts: democratic and quasi-communistic. In the Democratic Party people speak freely: it is known which politicians support the development of the National Park and which one of them is against it. The number of European bisons, deer and bobcats inhabiting the forest, are known to everyone. When the family of beavers is attacked, ecologists react, and then also politicians react and each reaction of politicians is supported or objected by the local society.

Over the Belarusian part of the forest, there is a mist of silence. No one speaks about the forest, no one protests or tries to change it and no one fights for it (Georgi Kazulka, who started a website on ecology, is the exception). Only the words of president Lukashenko, who is providing support for the forest, echo far and wide. His decrees immediately become reality. The one issued two years ago, under the number 59, almost changed the forest into a temple. It increased the area of direct protection of Belovezhskaya Forest. Zapowiednaja zona (that is the name of this area) spreads over more than a half of the forest. No mortal man sets foot there (most of the Belarusian would not even think of defying president’s orders and those who do, have to pay high fines). Here, branches broken by the wind are not removed, no one gathers berries, raspberries or mushrooms. If there is a hurricane in zapowiednia zonia broken trees are not removed. The president decided that they should stay there for ages.

4. I dream about going to this forest. At the counter in the headquarters of the Park, I leave almost twenty thousand Belarusian rubbles and I rent a bike. They want me to sign a document with rules and regulations for tourists (do not leave the path, do not gather berries, do not cut trees) and ask to pick a route (there are three at choice).

On the lady’s bike, in which the gears are not working, I am riding along smooth, asphalt road. After a few kilometres, I reach the real forest, the one that rarely sees human: the trunks of fallen trees are already overgrown with moss, pines grow high into the sky and the shrubs, one would have to work his way through, try to grow as high as the pines. I am really close to this feeling of sacredness Georgi Kazulka mentioned. It is silent like in an Ortodox Church before the mass, the smell of moss is intense and the sky is clear. When I ride deeper into the forest, I am trying to feel the power of its chakra and I can hear a rattling sound. Is it a petrol chainsaw? A motorbike? No, it is a lawn mower. A smiling worker of the Park is standing on the side of the road and mowing the lawn.

For the sake of wildlife protection, Belarusians do not allow cars to enter the forest, but apparently they have nothing against lawn-mowers.

I am not thrown off the scent. Despite the rattling sound, I do not leave the chosen path (after all, I signed the document). I am on my way to Lyackoje Lake. On my way there, I go past: seven lorries, five cars, a group of road construction workers who are trying to repair the side path, and only three bikes. And one viper crushed with wheels. In primeval cultures a viper was the symbol of chthonic powers. Apparently this one was unaware of the traffic here and just wanted to bask in the sun on the asphalt. 

By the lake, which is the effect of Soviet drainage, three teenagers throw each other into the water. One of them stumbles over concrete lakeshore and shouts loudly.

5.

- Didn’t I tell you that the rulers are capitalists? - Victor laughs at my journey, showing his golden teeth that are his token of the previous political system.

- What the noise in the forest has to do with capitalism? - I ask.

- Lorries make noise because they transport wood to sawmills and the Park has some profit of it. And they use the lawn-mower because they want the tourists to be comfortable - we make profits of them as well. Belarusian tourists like being spoon-fed - Victor is trying to figure out the eastern soul. For this reason, the lawn is mown, the road is smooth and maps are accurate and there are signs beside the road that would not allow anybody to get lost.

To encourage tourists to come to the Park, Lukashenko even decided that a ring road should be built. The inhabitants call it "the road of the president". - It is well done, I have to say. But we don’t use it because it leads from nowhere to nowhere - says Lena, the inhabitant of Kamieniuki. - The road starts on the newly opened border crossing with Poland and ends near Viskuli. It is appreciated only by the tourists from the West, but they also have a problem with it because it still hasn’t been put on the map.

When it comes to earning money from the forest, Victor is right: the “Belovezhskaya Puscha” National Park is a great enterprise. The sole shop in Kamieniuki, restaurant, museum, four hotels, sawmills and event the flats of Victor and other workers are part of it. The director hires more than thousand people who feed animals, cut out diseased trees, clean the rooms in hotels, gather hay on the forest glades, prepare hunting for tourists from foreign countries and sell blinis. There are only twelve tour guides. Not many, considering that the Belovezhskaya Forest was visited by almost half a million tourists last year.

I was told in the tourist information office that there is no chance to have an individual tour guide. The best way to see the forest is to buy a bus trip. If I want to feel the spirit of the forest then, like in the communistic systems, I have to do it collectively.

6. They are taking us to the part of the forest that was unique a couple of years ago. Biologists called it the bright oak forest because it included mostly oaks, through which one could see rays of sunshine. A herd of European bison got settled in the forest and the workers of the Park built a porker for them and bring them food in winter.

The bus is air-conditioned and a sentimental hit the "Belovezhskaya Puscha" sounds from the speakers. The tour guide gives us some facts about the forest and she tells the story of the oldest forest in Europe in ten minutes. She wants us to look outside the window - maybe there is a fox or at least a hare beside the road. But neither fox nor hare is so imprudent as to come close to the bus filled with tourists.

They take us to this place although there is no sign of any oak forest anymore. Its place was taken by the residence of Ded Moroz. The tour guide claims it is the main tourist attraction in Belarusian Belovezhskaya Forest. There are stalls with t-shirts, trinkets, matrioshkas and other souvenirs. There is also a restaurant where one can it blinis with caviar. One has to order them quickly, because Ded Moroz is waiting. Although it is midsummer, we take each other by hands, embrace high spruce and wiping out sweat from our faces, we sing Christmas carols.

Then Ded Moroz (I know this from Victor: There are two Ded Morozes hired in the Park. One of them, the taller one, came from Moscow, the other one is local), the taller one who speaks with Moscow accent, tells jokes and gives everyone a present - a chocolate bar with the image of European bison. Children use the carousel from which one can hear "jingle bells" melody.

It is supposed to be like in a fairytale. When I am eating blinis with caviare I feel joy that the fairytale is going to end soon.

7.

- Victor, please, show me the real forest - I ask him when we sit under his stuffed roe deer in the evening

Although I spent over a week in Kamieniuki, I was not able to feel the power coming from the forest’s chakra that Gaorgi Kazulka mentioned. Viktor lights a cigarette and says:

- The forest you have already seen, is the real one - he is obviously surprised that I was not impressed by Ded Moroz because hundred thousands of tourists living east from sistema are enchanted by him. And he proposes that if my individual soul cannot be collectively impressed by the forest then he can take me to the place where, in accordance with the president’s order, tourists don’t go.

We start our journey at the crack of down. Victor, a true man from the forest, flinches at the smell of repellent that I had used. He takes me to Belaya by car. Then we walk. We go past foundations of an Orthodox Church that are covered with moss, cemetery where one can see hundred years old crosses (it is called the "Polish cemetery" although there are Catholics, as well as Members of the Orthodox Church, resting under the moss.  The road becomes narrower. Victor remains ahead of me. - It is here - he stops in the place where the path ends. He points at the sign that says: “Absolutno-Zapowiednaja Zona” (highly preserved area). When I am trying to go further, he places his hand on my shoulder. His face is stern. – It’s impossible. You can look at it and take a photo, but do not take any step further - he becomes visibly nervous.

They he sits on the grass in front of the sign and extracts a tick from his fore arm with one swift move. I crouch beside him and look at the fallen trees that melt with the ground, at spruces with dry branches. At blueberries shrubs that bend under the weight of fruit. At decay and rottenness that are not tamed by anyone. It reminds me of "Stalker" by Tarkowski. In this film, there was also a zone filled with metaphysics.

- We will not enter due to high fines? - I ask, because I am tempted to eat some overripe raspberries. But Viktor’s face speaks for itself - you never walk in here. Like you don’t look behind iconostasis in an Orthodox Church. Like you cannot touch showpieces that are put into display cabinets in the museum. 

So I give up on raspberries and sit beside him.

I don’t know how long we sat there. But only at this moment did I realize what Kazulka was talking about. The forest manifested itself in front of me. It was stripped of the false folklore of Ded Moroz, of meaningless rituals of collective trips and of the façade of evenly cut grass. Both of us felt the power of the primeval forest, despite the fact that we live on different sides of sistema.

Originally published: http://www.globtroter.pl/artykuly/2630,polska,nowy,numer,magazynu,kontynenty,.html