Across the river. Life in a small town split between Belarus and Latvia
Across the river
Life in a small town split between Belarus and Latvia
View of Druja (left) and Piedruja (right) from a church steeple in Piedruja

The small town of Druja and the village of Piedruja are a mere 200 meters apart, separated by the Western Dźvina (Daugava) river. Once upon a time they were one, and people were able to swim across the river without impediment. Today, Druja and Piedruja are parts of two different countries. One can only get from the Belarusian town of Druja to the Latvian village of Piedruja by car, via a 90km circular route. And a visa is required.
Upon entering Druja center from the Braslaŭ side, the eye is immediately drawn to a Baroque church on the high shore of the river. This is 18th century Vilnia Baroque. Alas, since it’s on the Latvian side of the river, the church is off bounds for the average Drujan.
Things weren’t always this way. Historic Druja was a bustling town on the Western Dźvina somewhere equidistant between Riga and Połacak (Polotsk). It was first mentioned in chronicles dating back to 1386. Trade led to its development. At the beginning of the 17th century, Druja adopted Magdeburg law.
The town developed on either side of the river — on the left was Druja, and on the right Drujskaja Slabada. It was first divided in 1772. After the first division of Reč Paspalitaja (or Rzeczpospolita, the historical Polish-Lithuanian state), all the lands to the north of the Dźvina were occupied by Russia. There are still some extant boundary posts from that era; their metal bases can be found on the high shore in Druja next to the modern red and green posts.
Latvian border post
18th century border post in Druja
Belarusian border post
After the Second Partition of Reč Paspalitaja in 1793, Druja and Prydrujsk once again found themselves in a single country — Russia. They remained part of the Viciebsk region until 1918. Border denizens arrived here in the period between the last century’s wars, when Druja was a part of Poland, and Piedruja a part of Latvia.
After the soviet occupation of Latvia in 1940 and until 1990, this is where the border between the Belarusian and Latvian soviet socialist republics was located. But it was only in the early 1990s that a true border regime once again went into effect.

We live next door but can’t just go over to Belarus
How has life changed in Druja and Piedruja? Denizens of both locales respond to this question by pointing to their cars. 79-year-old Druja resident Josif makes repairs on his “slightly dilapidated” Soviet car Zhiguli single-handedly, while in Piedruja 70-year-old Leonids shows off his Dacia Logan, purchased from a Riga show room.
Josif Savuć, 79, has been living in Druja (Belarus) since 1967

Josif Savuć lives 100 meters from the Dźvina river. He is 79. He was born 12 kilometers from Druja during the Polish period, a half a year before the Soviets took control.
In Soviet times, he often spent time on the other side of the river.
“I used to take my motorcycle to go food shopping in Kraslava, 20 kilometers each way,” says Josif. Why? Because there wasn’t a thing to be bought in Miory! People in Latvia were much better off. They had meat and all the rest. They used to complain there that the Belarusians are coming and stripping the shelves.”
Border post 100 meters from Josif Savuć’s home
Villagers in Latvia were able to obtain passports earlier than their counterparts in the BSSR. Many denizens of the Miory and Braslaŭ regions moved there. For centuries, almost everyone had a relative living on the other side of the river.
Josif gets a monthly pension of 350 rubles ($175). Apart from a small garden and some chickens, Josef and his wife don’t grow anything on their own land; nor do they rent a plot to grow their own potatoes, as they once did.
Inside Josif’s wooden garage is his 1989 Zhiguli. It’s his second car. His first, a Moskvitch 2140 was purchased in 1979. When his daughter needed money to buy an apartment, Josif sold the Moskvitch. For a thousand bucks, he replaced it with the “slightly dilapidated” Zhiguli.
“The biggest headache is getting through the medical exam,” Josif says. “My wife keeps yelling that she’s no longer getting in the car with me.”
For an annual tune-up, taxes and spare parts, Josif lays out about 200 rubles ($100) a year. The farthest he goes nowadays is Braslaŭ, which is 30 km from Druja.
Leonids Nazarovs, 70, a native of Piedruja

Leonids is 70, and although a native of Piedruja not a citizen (of Latvia). His wife Fatinija however is. But not Leonids. Because he doesn’t speak Latvian, (he explains.)
“There are more Belarusians here than there are locals,” says Leonids. “Whenever a vacancy in house turned up, some Belarusians would move in. And it was always Belarusians. Nobody from Latvia ever went to Belarus. It was always them that came here. Their Miory, Braslaŭ, Pahost, their collective farms, it was a hard life on that side. They never seemed to have any wood, or hay. They’d come here like it was some sort of paradise!”
Fatinija Nazarova adds that in the 60s and 70s Belarusians used to come to Latvia to collect hay. They’d shear it all off and take it back home by boat.
The Nazarovs haven’t been to Belarus since soviet times. They know well how things are in Minsk and with whom Alexander Lukashenko takes meetings, as they’re able to watch Belarusian TV on their set. Funnily enough, it’s how things are in neighboring Druja that they know little about.
“We hear them mow the grass in Druja,” says Fatinija. “We can see Druja pretty clearly from the cemetery. Just think: We live next door, but can’t just over to Belarus.”
Leonids Nazarovs gets a monthly pension of 207 euros. His wife — 205 euros. They grow their own potatoes on a plot not far from their home. They have 4600 (meters) of land at their disposal.
The Nazarovs built their house of brick in 1980. Their 2007 Dacia Logan is parked in their underground garage. They bought it from a dealership in Riga. Saved up and bought it, without even having to take out a loan. This is their third car. Nazarov bought his first Moskvitch in 1971, which was followed by a used Honda Accord.
Annual car inspections and tolls cost him 78 euros. Insurance — an additional 24. A liter of AI-95 petrol costs 1.2 euros. The car has needed repairs only once in the last decade, and that was only because a rear light blew. Leonid took the car to a repair shop.
“I don’t even have 30,000 kilometers on it yet,” says Leonids. “Sometimes I’ll go to Kraslava or Daugavpils, but no further.”
He also keeps a tractor in a nearby auto park. A T-40 with all accessories. He does his own repair work on it.
“Whoever owns land, has the necessary machinery. Almost everybody,” adds Fatinija.
Border regulations in Belarus are constantly changing. To visit Druja, a Belarus citizen needs only his or her passport. Foreigners, however, have to obtain permission beforehand in the town of Polacak 110 kilometers away. Upon entering Druja, they have to register yet again in Braslaŭ, 30 km away.
Piedruja — is located on the border, in Latvia. By law, those wishing to enter the border zone — citizens of Latvia and foreigners alike — must first obtain permission at the border crossing in Piedruja. With prior notification of border guards, they can sail along the Dźvina in their boats, taking care not to cross the center of the river.

The island in the middle of the Dźvina river was once a symbol of the partnership between Druja and Piedruja. During Soviet times, the island’s main beach was a summer relaxation destination for residents of both Druja and Piedruja.
But since the early 1990s, citizens of Latvia can no longer freely visit the island as it now part of a foreign country, Belarus. Nor can residents of Druja do so. If someone from Druja wants to swim across to the island, he or she needs prior permission from border authorities.
Once the island became part of the border zone, the beach here disappeared. The pedestrian bridge between the island and Druja shores was removed. One can now only reach the island either by wading or by boat.
The island today is nothing but a grazing field. Druja’s residents graze their cows here. They bring the cows here in the spring and take them back in the fall. Every morning and evening owners swim to the island to milk their cows.
But fewer and fewer people in Druja own cows.
“There’s nothing to do on the island,” says local resident Josif Savuć. “There are almost no cows there, maybe three or four from all of Druja. Only fishermen go there now.”
The island really is now only of interest to the fishermen. They like it because it’s closer to the Latvian shore, and there’s a quick stream there.
“Fishing was always better on the Latvian side because the waters are deeper there,” says Aliaksandr Linkievič of Druja. Until the fall of the Soviet Union, they’d do most of their fishing from that shore. But you can’t go there anymore.”
The most popular season for Belarusian and Latvian fishermen is autumn. Asp is the prime catch during this time. When Belarusian fishermen come to the island, they do shout outs to their Latvian “friends.”
“We don’t actually shout, we just talk,” explains Aliaksandr Linkievič. “About fish, naturally.”
The island in the middle of Dźvina belongs to Belarus. Both Drujans and Piedrujans used to relax on its beaches. When it became the border zone, the access to the island was restricted. There is a grazing field on the island now.

In 1994, Latvian filmmaker Laila Pakalniņa shot a documentary here about the ferry that travels between Piedruja and Druja. “Ferry” was one of the entries at the Certain Regard competition at the Cannes film festival.
Until the late 1990s, the ferry was the last link between Druja and Piedruja. During soviet times, it ran ceaselessly day and night.
The father of 70-year-old Piedruja resident Leonid Nazarov ran the ferry until 1980. He remembers how the first ferry was dragged by hand to the other shore, using wooden mallets.
There was always a big row boat, with a capacity of perhaps 20 people, next to the ferry. Drujans and Piedrujans alike used the row boat to cross the river.
Nobody quite remembers when the ferry made its last trip. Today its rusty carcass lies not far from the Latvian border point.
When the river would freeze over in the winter, people from Druja and Piedruja would walk over the ice.
Everyone has a different explanation for why contact between Druja and Piedruja ceased. Belarusian border authorities say it’s because people rarely travelled. But their counterparts in Latvia say it’s because the Belarusian government simply doesn’t want to expend funds on a border/customs point in Druja.
There has long been no direct contact between Druja and Piedruja

In Piedruja — a hotel with a capacity for 52 guests; in Druja — one agri-center
Baroque churches and nature in the raw. Druja and Piedruja share almost identical attractions to entice the prospective tourist. In one country these are taken advantage of, however, while in the other they are not.
Tourists come to Piedruja on a weekly basis. The village of 150 inhabitants boasts a Baroque church from the middle of the 18th century. There’s also a museum and even a hotel for up to 52 guests.
“Last Tuesday we had a whole busload of tourists come here, around 50 people,” says Ludmila Panko, the director of the local museum. “Two of the women were from St. Petersburg. Their relatives came from here. Sometimes we get tourists from Germany, also a lot of Poles.”
Ludmila Panko, head of local museum in Piedruja
In 2012 a building previously owned by local officials became vacant and became home to the museum. Ludmila and her sister Zita Lukša, who works in the village administration offices, were its founders. Local residents often volunteer their own belongings for display.
This building once housed local village administration offices. It is now home to the village’s museum.
From 2002, Piedruja has its very own motel. During Soviet times, its co-founder Jevgenijs Borzols, was a collective farm worker. In the 1990s collective farms were reorganized, and a good portion of their property was divided among the workers. The Borzols’ and another family suddenly became owners of the collective farm dorm. They first opened a store here, but later converted the building into a motel.
“Twenty years ago it would be hard to believe that one day tourists would be coming here,” says Jevgenijs.
During Soviet times, this was a collective farm dormitory. Later, the building was converted into a store. From the early naughts, it is the Kraslava region’s biggest hotel.
The Viciebsk-Riga highway lies not far from the village, and motorists often spend the night. Lately, however, more tourists opt to lay their heads in Piedruja.
“We offer boat trips on the river,” says Jevgenijs. “On winter weekends, folks from the city come to stay here. Road surfaces in town usually aren’t sprinkled to keep dust and mud away, yet here our roads are always covered with the whitest of snow.”
View of the Piedruja park and the Orthodox church from the Catholic church steeple

In wintertime, Piedruja attracts tourists with offers of horse-drawn sleigh rides.
Another attraction of the village is that, just across the river, one can see Belarus. That fact is often mentioned in tourism brochures.
Anyone can come for a vacation in Piedruja on one’s own. A room in the motel can be reserved through, while all the information a prospective tourist might need can be found, in five languages, on the tourism center’s website.
Tacianа Linkievič, head of school museum in Druja
In the center of Druja is one of Belarus’s two extant “Barysau Stones”, which are relics from the 12th century. Also here are Belarus largest Jewish cemetery, the Sapieha palace, an 18th century Trajeckaja church with a Bernardine monastery next door, and the remnants of many another centuries-old church. There’s also a building from the early 20th century, and a bridge across the Drujka that was constructed between the wars.
The museum is housed in Druja’s school building
In 2002, Druja opened its museum of local history in the town’s school building. Alas, the museum is not advertised much in town, nor does it have its own web site. In order to find it, one needs to get in touch with Tatsiana Linkevich, a local tour guide.
Some tourists literally make their way to Druja by water, on kayaks sailing along the Drujka. Their journey culminates in Druja, where the Drujka (river) flows into the Dźvina.
View of the main street in Druja, leading to the Catholic church

With all its potential in terms of tourism, Druja lacks in terms of infrastructure. There’s not a single restaurant in the entire town. There used to be a diner, but it burned down. It was only several months ago that a coffee machine was installed in the town’s central square.
Neighboring Braslaŭ has a dozen or so hotels, and the region is home to some 120 agricultural centers. Druja is home to only one of these, opened seven years ago by Raisa Paladzieŭna
Druja’s central square. At right, the Barysaŭ stone
“People looked at me skeptically when I was first opening the place,” says Raisa. “Like, you know, Who’d ever want to come to Druja in the first place? But,” she goes on, “we have lots of things here that might draw tourists. Unfortunately, nobody advertises that we have a Sapieha palace here. And it’s almost impossible to get to Belarus highest waterfall, which is also located nearby.”
More often than not, the tourists that do come to Druja are those vacationing in the Braslaŭ lake country. For them, Druja is one of the locales in the vicinity that one can visit for a few hours. Yet, others make a special trip just to stay in Druja for a few days. There used to be more of those.
“They sit in a gazebo and gaze out at the European Union across the river. That’s quite a sight,” says Raisa Paladzieŭna describing Druja’s attractiveness as a tourism destination.
Until Druja opens an official information center, the town’s cleric, Siarhiej Surynovič of the Church of the Holy Trinity, acts as a kind of tour guide. He is an outspoken fan of the town and each year hosts an artists’ plein-air alongside Druja’s former monastery. Artists from across the country comeeach year, and often leave Father Surynovič one of their paintings as a parting gift. He hopes that one day the old monastery is converted into an art gallery.

The Last of the Milk Men
Every morning Mikalaj Bielavus makes his way around the eastern part of town, picking up milk bottles. As in years long past, he travels by wagon. He has 24 people on his list of stops. At each stop, he adds a few more bottles. Back in times he had to take much more milk cans and make a few routs.

I like it here. Young people
about their places in the country
Young people are leaving their native villages. People complain about that both in Druja and Piedruja. While youth from Druja opt for Belarusian cities like Polacak, Viciebsk or Miensk, young Piedrujans go to Daugavpils or Riga, or even to England or Germany.
Edīte, 31, Latvia
Edīte Lukša grew up in Piedruja. She is 31, a university graduate and fluent in English and German. Until last year, she worked as an English-language instructor in various schools in the Kraslava region. She now lives in the nearest big town of Kraslava proper and works in the town tourism information center. It is 25 kilometers to Kraslava. Four times a day, buses from Piedruja go to Kraslava. Edīte returns to Piedruja quite often.
“People often tell me, ‘You speak foreign languages. Why don’t you emigrate?’ But I believe that the place you were born needs you most of all. I’m happy to be a Piedrujan. I’m proud of it.”
“Some people consider this the last stop in Latvia,” says Edīte. “But we Piedrujans prefer to think of it as the beginning of not only Latvia, but of the European Union.”
Ilona, 24, Belarus
Ilona is 24. She studied in Viciebsk. For the past two years, she’s been working in a private store in downtown Druja. Every two days, from nine in the morning till eleven at night.
Ilona has never been to Latvia. The cost of a visa — 60 euros — is too much of a luxury for most Drujans, where an average monthly salary of 200 rubles ($100) is considered good.
Druja is an endpoint: It is here that the railroad routes of Belarus culminate. The train runs once a day. At six in the morning, a two-carriage train arrives and remains here till eight in the evening, when it departs for Minsk. There’s also a bus that comes from Braslaŭ. There are no other ways in or out.
End of the line for Belarusian trains. This is the terminal point. The railroad track here abuts with the river.
Truth be told, there’s really no reason to come to Druja, say many of the locals. Most young people from here choose to leave, as they do other villages.
“Up to age 18, there’s really nothing to do here. And once you hit 18, you enroll in college and leave,” says Ilona. “There’s nothing here and there never will be.”

In soviet times the street names of Druja and Piedruja were virtually identical — Lenin Street, Kamsamolskaja Street, Maskouskaja Street. Has anything changed in that respect in the years hence? We were curious about street names today on the Belarusian and Latvian sides of the Dźvina river
In the 26 years since Belarus became independent, exactly one street name has been changed in Druja: What used to be Pieršamajskaja Street is now Alter Drujanaŭ Street, named in honor of a Jewish writer born here in 1870
The remaining streets have all retained their soviet era names: Lenin, Engels, Kamsamolskaja, Saveсkaja
During soviet times, Piedruja’s central street was named Kamsamolskaja. In the early 90s, however, street names were abolished at the request of village authorities
Piedruja and the rest of Latvia returned to a traditional system, whereby every street and land plot has its own name. Now buildings in Piedruja bear such names as ”Lute,” “Small gardens” “Dreams”, “Rainbow” etc. Signs bearing the old street names were either painted over or removed

In Piedruja, every other person is a farmer; in Druja, there isn’t a single one
Until the 1990s, Piedruja had a collective farm by the name of ”Sovietskaja Latvia.” Druja’s collective farm was known as ”Drujski.” A quarter century later, “Drujski” is no longer a collective farm but a joint stock company. But most locals say it’s basically still the same collective farm. Meanwhile in Piedruja, collective farms have completely disappeared and have been replaced by private ones.
Piotra Švab of Piedruja. During soviet time her worked on the “Sovietskaja Latvia” collective farm. In the 1990s, he became a private farmer
Piotra Švab was born in Belarus nieghboring Miory region. He moved to Piedruja in 1977 and got a job as a driver on the collective farm. After the collective farm closed, he became the proprietor of a ”kauzik” or mini-bus.
“Yes, that was my first bit of capital,” says Švab. “Later, I brought tractor MTZ from Belarus. Things were cheaper then.”
Farmers were afforded a lot of perks after Latvia became part of the EU. First of all, they are paid an average of 100 euros per year for every hectare of land. Just for working it. For his 500 hectares, Švab has an annual income of 50,000 euros from state subsidies alone.
One of Švab's shed
If you plow the fields in the spring, rather than in the fall, to avoid erosion, the subsidies increase by 50-70 euros for each hectare. Land taxes are 4%; income taxes from 15-25%.
In order to stimulate agriculture, farmers are encouraged to seek assistance from EU coffers. If a project proposal is submitted and approved, 40% of costs for new machinery will be covered. Any additional machinery can be purchased with funds obtained from an interest-free loan.
Švab is now Peidruja’s most prosperous farmer. He has six tractors and several sheds. He has three full-time employees, as well as additional seasonal help.
There is almost no Belarusian-made machinery remaining on Švab’s farm
Švab no longer owns any Belarusian-made machinery: his tractors are all either German or American made.
“My guys are all wary of getting into a MTZ-made tractor,” says Švab. “You’ve got to repair those almost on a daily basis. But you get climb aboard one of these (German or US-manufactured) tractors and you have nary a worry.”
Švab bemoans the fact that fewer and fewer people remain in the village, making it difficult for him to find good help. Most young people travel to western Europe in search of wages.
“So far, none of them have ever returned to Piedruja,” says Švab.
In Latvia, no collective farms remain. In the mid-1990s all collective farm property was redistributed among workers. An old collective farm remains abandoned for the last twenty years

Besides Švab, almost every Piedruja household owns a small farming plot of at least a few hectares. Valery and Raisa Anećka are one such couple. They have been living in Latvia since soviet times. He was born in the north of Russia but his parents are natives of neighboring Miory region. She is from Stolin region in the south of Belarus.
Every morning, Valery and Raisa Anećka milk their cows
The Anećkas keep five cows, two lambs, some pigs and chicken. They purchased all the machinery necessary to work their 17 hectares of farm land.
Valery has a job in Piedruja. During the winter he works full time as a coal stoker, earning at least 300 euros a month. During the summer, he does the same job on a part-time basis, earning 200 euros a month. He also mows the lawns in the village park and maintains order in the village center.
The couple get additional income from the milk their cows produce. Recently, milk prices have increased from 22 to 25 cents per liter. Their five cows bring them an additional 500 euros in income.
“But we’re just representatives of the middle,” says Raisa. “Many here keep as many as 10-20 cows. We’re not even really farmers, because all we produce is mostly for ourselves.”
Milk in Piedruja is collected on two milk wagons
Every morning, the milk train visits the Anećkas’ farm. There are two such milk wagons for small Piedruja. Each collects milk for its private farm.
“Nothing is state-run around here,” says Valery.
Since Belarus declared independence, not a single private farm has appeared in Druja

Druja no private farm plots.
“This is a second income for me,” says Taresa. “The milk really helps a lot. We can’t even pay our wood bills until our second cow isn’t ready to provide milk.”
Druja once had over 100 cows, now there are slightly more than thirty.
Anton Valžonak and his mother Taresa are heavily dependent on the money they make from milk
The milk factory pays 40 kopeks “on behalf of the population” for every liter of milk. For Taresa and her son Anton, this is a solid boost to their family budget. She gets a monthly pension of 130 rubles ($65). He works as a part-time trucker and earns 85 rubles a month. Their two cows bring them an additional 200 rubles ($100) a month in income.
“We sell everything we produce,” says Taresa. “We also have two little goats. The milk they provide, we drink ourselves.”
Anton’s income of 85 rubles ($42,5) a month isn’t the lowest in Druja. One can earn more in a children’s home or school, but that entails a lot of ”community” work. With a job like that, it’d be hard to maintain even a small land plot. Full-time collective farm workers earn 50 rubles ($25) per month.

It’s difficult to ascertain the ethnic identity of most Piedruja residents. The vernacular is fairly similar to the language spoken in Druja — Russian with plenty of Belarusianisms.

At the beginning of the 20th century, there were two churches in Druja. Only one of them remains — the Church of the Holy Trinity. The soviets shut it down in 1947. For decades it underwent a slow destruction. Only in 1989 was the church returned to parishioners.

From the 1920s the monastery was home to Marian monks. Since then, the language of the faithful in Druja is Belarusian.

During Soviet times, the church in Piedruja was not shut down. Thus, Druja’s Catholics would travel there to attend church. Even when the church was allowed to reopen in Druja in 1989, some Drujans continued to sail over to Piedruja in their boats. It was closer for them to attend mass in Piedruja.

The liturgy in Piedruja is conducted in Polish because, as some locals pithily put it, “that’s how things are done here.”

The Kraslava region, of which Piedruja is a part, is the most Belarusian of all regions in Latvia. According to a 2011 census, 20% of the region’s residents are Belarusians. Almost as many as there are Russians, Latgalian and Latvians.
Latgale has historically been home to many Belarusians. Latvian researcher Erik Ekabsons writes that in the 1925-26 academic year, there were eight primary Belarusian-language schools in the Piedruja district. (“Belarusian diaspora as intermediary in dialogue between civilizations.” Minsk, 2000.) The 1935 census shows that 68.2% of the district population was Belarusian.

What do Drujans and Piedrujans think of each other?

Belarusians about Latvians:
“If Latvia had the kind of places we have, there would long been cafes there, and babushkas would be running around selling their pastries.”
“I have a brother in Latvia. He makes 1000 euros a month. Here 220 rubles is considered a good salary. How can one even compare?”
“We know very little about Piedruja. When somebody comes for a reunion of graduates, we’re always very curious.”
“We know they have a lot of unemployment, a lot of people have emigrated, and only the old folks remain. But it’s no better here. For example, they’ll close the children’s home here, and we’ll have 70 more jobless people here in Druja.”
“They think we live a good life here because our fields are plowed. But look, even they now have farmers. And the fields have been sowed with rapeseed.”
Latvians about Belarusians:
“You guys are smart. You’ve adopted a program for the development of the villages. We saw the construction cranes in Druja. They’ve built several homes there. I’ve counted fifteen new ones on this street alone.”
“Life sucks there. You can see it. If there’s only one bus a day coming there, how can live? Basically, your Viciebsk region is a bit backward. Just like Latgale.”
“You have a lot of cow-bream, that’s one thing I can say. The club house is completely overrun by it. The entire shore is covered in cow-bream.”
“We here have Liga, and you in Belarus have Kupalle (harvest fests). We make bonfires, and so do you.”
“We have fewer spots where one can swim. On the Belarusian sides, there are even beaches. We used to be envious that Belarusians could always go for a swim, while we had nowhere to go. You make your way down to the river, and you suddenly encounter an abyss.”


Anton Trafimovich, Andrei Shauliuha, Yuliya Kotskaya, Maksim Lauretski, Dzmitry Vasilkou

2017 ©, Радыё Свабода