Black Barbara: A Belarusian Ghost Story
By Anne Coombes
Belarusian history is decorated with many noble lines. None is more renowned for its wealth and prestige than the Radzivil family however. In the early 16th Century, young Barbara Radzivil – famed for enticing men to fall head over heels in love – cast her spell on Polish King Zygmont II August. His infatuation was such that their marriage was dubbed ‘the love affair of the century.’
Zygmont idolized his beautiful wife, despite her fl irtations and court rumors of infi delity. Zygmont’s mother took a particular dislike to Barbara and many blame the girl’s untimely death on her mother-in-law; saying she poisoned her in a fi t of jealousy and hatred. Naturally, Zygmont was distraught by the loss of his beloved Barbara, just one year after their wedding. In desperation, he travelled from their home in Krakow to visit her cousin, Nikolay the Black, who resided in her family home of Nesvizh, which was 112 km from Minsk. Nikolay the Black organized a séance to summon Barbara’s spirit, but as her lovely form appeared in the room, Zygmont was so overcome that he ran to touch her, calling her name. Her ghostly form vanished that night but her spirit remained trapped in the castle. Zygmont vowed to return to Nesvizh to die, so that they might be reunited in the afterlife, but he passed away suddenly in Krakow. To this day, it’s said that Barbara’s sad spirit walks the grounds of Nesvizh while her tormented husband’s ghost roams the castle of Krakow, alone and deep in melancholy. In later years, the Radzivil family updated the family home at Nesvizh, adding an impressive three-storey chateau in the 1580’s. Each corner was fortifi ed with an octagonal tower. In the mid-18th century, German and Italian architects were invited to revamp it, embellishing it with stunning Baroque details. In 1770, the castle was seized by Russian forces and the Radzivil family was forced to fl ee. Most of the castle’s art was redistributed among the Russian aristocracy and it was then abandoned and left to fall into ruins. However, it was restored to Prince Antoni Radzivil and his French wife, Marie de Castellane, in 1881. They returned Nesvizh to its former glory and the estate remained in the hands of the family until 1939, when the Red Army drove them out. During Soviet times, it was used as a sanatorium.
These days, elegant Nesvizh has been carefully restored, having joined the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2006. Visitor numbers are slowly growing but it remains largely unknown as a tourist destination. If you ever have the chance to explore this stately home, beware of taking a turn around the grand lake at dusk. Barbara’s ghost, dressed all in black, has been known to appear, walking the gardens of her former palace. Fortunately, her apparition is largely benevolent, often appearing to couples in love. It is thought to wish them well and bring them strength in their love..
The noble Radzivils may no longer reside in this, the grandest of all Belarusian homes, but their bones rest nearby, in Corpus Christi Church, designed in the late 16th century by Italian architect Bernardoni. Today, it is accessible over a bridge from the castle, but, it is said, a secret underground passage links the two. Though its exact location has long since been lost, many continue to search the grounds for clues. The church itself is certainly worth a visit, boasting baroque frescoes from the 1760’s and the Holy Cross Altar, created by Italian sculptors in 1583. It was the fi rst of its kind in Eastern Europe. Those who enjoy the macabre will thrill at spending time investigating the gloomy crypt, where 72 members of the family are interred in dusty, cobweb-covered coffi ns. Don’t go alone!
The best way to visit some of the attractions outside Minsk is by car. Your hotel can arrange this for you – or contact Top Tour Agency, who charges $0.35 per km for a car with driver. They supply guides at $13 per hour (7 hours minimum). Holiday Tour Agency offers guides at $10 per hour ($60 for 7 hours).