In late October London saw a series of events dedicated to the 400th anniversary of the first edition of the East Slavic Primer – Bukvar, with the participation of the Director of the National Libray of Belarus, Roman Motulskiy.

Book culture in Belarus has a long history. The first library known to us on the territory of Belarus – the library of the Polotsk St. Sophia Cathedral – was created almost 1000 years ago. Belarusian educators gathered rich collections of books known far beyond their homeland. In 1517 Francysk Skaryna from Polotsk published the first printed East Slavic book. Having rich traditions in the field of book printing and creation of book collections, which influenced the development of not only their country but also neighbouring countries, Belarusians have suffered irreparable losses over the past few centuries due to historical and political circumstances: endless wars, religious struggle, changes in statehood and territory, etc., and the efforts of librarians to create book collections have been nullified. It was the mission of the National Library of Belarus to restore the lost historical and cultural heritage.

The National Library of Belarus, established in 1922, for almost 100 years of its existence, has gathered the world’s best collection of Belarusian books, which includes ancient manuscripts, the first works of Francysk Skaryna, rare Belarusian editions of the 19th century, and numerous contemporary publications. In total, the Library’s fund has almost 10 million units of storage, of which more than 1 million are a collection of national documents.

The staff are working to restore the lost cultural values in the following main areas:
– creation of a national bibliography;
– return to Belarus of its book heritage;
– virtual reconstruction of lost book collections
– facsimile reproduction of valuable literary monuments.

Over the years, the Library has prepared a number of unique facsimile editions and accumulated rich experience in facsimile reconstruction of book monuments. So, in 2017, to the 500th anniversary of the Belarusian and East Slavic book printing, it completed the largest project on facsimile publishing of Francis Skaryna’s book heritage in 20 volumes.

This year Belarus celebrates another big anniversary – 400 years of the first Primer – Bukvar. For most of us, the first book was a primer. The real pride of the national book culture is the fact that the first book in the world, which was called “Primer” and marked the beginning of the centuries-old tradition of many peoples in the field of primary literacy training, was published by a Belarusian printing house.

Given the importance of this event, the National Library of Belarus decided to implement an international scientific publishing project on facsimile reconstruction of the first “Primer”. The successful implementation of the project was made possible with the support of the Library’s partners: the Library of the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple in London, Embassy of the Republic of Belarus in the United Kingdom, Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Belarus, the International Association of Belarusian Studies, Belarusian State University, Ministry of Education of the Republic of Belarus, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, as well as “Belinvestbank”.

The first book in the world, simply called “Primer”, was published in Church Slavonic on July 24, 1618 in the printing house of the Vilna Orthodox brotherhood of the Holy Spirit in the town of Evie near Vilna (today Vilnius). It is one of the oldest Belarusian publishing houses that published books in Church Slavonic, old Belarusian and Polish. Before that there were other educational publications, but this was the first “Primer”. This publication has had a significant impact on the development of the book tradition of educational activities not only in the Belarusian lands, but also in many countries of Europe and Asia.

As of today, only two copies of the first Primer have survived. One of them is incomplete, located in the Royal Library of Denmark, and the second (full) copy is kept in the library of the Honorary Society of the Middle Temple.

The exceptional rarity and great value of the first Primer made it almost unknown to both scientists and the general public. Almost none of the Belarusian researchers had the opportunity to see the unique publication firsthand. At home not a single copy has been preserved: they were just “read to tatters”, as was often the case with academic publications. Thanks to the assistance of British Belarusians and lecturers of the University of London, in 2015 Belarusian experts had the opportunity to get acquainted with the valuable document and study it in detail. Later on, with the assistance of the Middle Temple Library, a high-quality digital photography of the book was made, on the basis of which a facsimile reproduction was performed.

The facsimile includes full-colour high-quality reproduction of the “Primer” the size of the original and with all defects and marks preserved. The “Primer” of Evie is a small book, compact and ideal for training. On 52 pages, each letter of the Cyrillic alphabet is printed in half-uncial. The external decoration is reminiscent of Vilnya editions of Francysk Skaryna. In addition to educational tasks, the “Primer” was intended for the needs of upbringing and was based on the Christian system of values. To this end, prayers, religious hymns, the creed, the commandments of God, sermons, the list of virtues of man and his sins are included as important texts to read.

Together with partners from the Belarusian State University, the National Library conducted a scientific study on the first “Primer” and the translated it into the modern Belarusian language, which made it accessible and understandable to a wide audience. The study was published in Belarusian, Russian and English, so that the spiritual wealth of Belarus would be accessible to the international community.

In April this year, the National Library of Belarus held the 14th International Bibliology Reading, dedicated to the 400th anniversary of the first edition of the Bukvar. The scientific event brought together more than 400 bibliology experts, teachers, linguists, cultural experts, historians and philosophers from Azerbaijan, Belarus, Great Britain, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia and Ukraine.

The opening of the international exhibition “ABCs of the peoples of the world” was held within the framework of the Readings. For the first time in Belarus about 1400 primers in 587 languages of various peoples from five parts of the world – Europe, Asia, America, Africa, Australia and Oceania – were shown. The exhibits were very diverse. In the space of the exhibition “Belarusian primer: 400 years of history”, in addition to excursions, there were held master classes on the methodology of literacy training, museum classes for children and other events.

The publishing project of facsimile reconstruction of the first “Primer” was completed on the eve of the Day of Knowledge (September 1) and on August 28 the NBB held its solemn presentation which was attended by a wide range of the public.

A number of events are planned in Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, Ukraine, Switzerland and other countries in order to present the facsimile edition of Bukvar to the foreign audience. But the first one took place in London, in the Library of the Middle Temple, the library that has preserved this monument of Belarusian book culture. The fresh facsimile book is the best example of cooperation between the peoples of Belarus and the United Kingdom over the centuries and a symbol of faith in friendly relations in the future.