Stage 26 – Belarus: White Rus’

26

Belarus, whose name derives from the Belarussian Beliye Rosi’ (White Rus’) lies between Russia and the EU and seems to be known largely by negative stereotypes; the ‘last dictatorship in Europe’, an ‘outpost of tyranny’ and a museum of the USSR. While there is truth in these titles, I would find a very charming country of neat, clean cities, beautiful wild landscapes and friendly, worldly people. There are several theories as to why Belarus is referred to as White Rus’; that the area was populated by Christianised Slavs as opposed to the more pagan-influenced Balts of Black Rus’ (Black Ruthenia); in reference to the traditional white clothing worn by the natives, or symbolising the ethnic purity of this region which was beyond the limits of the Mongol and Tatar expansion. What is now Belarus was spared the destruction and subjugation of the Mongol Yoke during medieval times, but the twentieth century was certainly not as kind, with the country seeing almost total destruction during the Second World War, massive ethnic cleansing (particularly of the formerly very large Jewish minority), depopulation and Russian cultural domination during the time that the country was a republic of the USSR. Even today, the Belarussian national identity and language are at best met with official indifference; the country has changed little since independence in 1991 and its largely state-run economy remains somewhat dependent on Moscow. Nevertheless, Belarus survives as a country which is subtly quite different from Russia and an outpost largely free from Western Consumerism.

St. Sophia Cathedral, Polatsk, Vitsebsk Region, Belarus

St. Sophia Cathedral, Polatsk, Vitsebsk Region, Belarus

My journey around Belarus begins on the 19th February 2011 as I cross into the country from Russia. There are no stops or checks on the Belarussian side of the border and straight away I’m driving through small villages of colourful, fairytale wooden houses; the road is much improved compared to the Russian side of the border, free of ice and there is comprehensive signposting. The sun even comes out, making for a very pleasant first impression indeed.

My first stop is the city of Polatsk, allegedly one of the oldest cities of the Eastern Slavs and mentioned in the Norse Sagas. Initially part of the medieval state of Kievan Rus’, the city emerged as the Principality of Polatsk in the tenth century and like much of Belarus, has since come under control of Lithuania, Russia and Poland. My host in Polatsk is Ivan, who immediately invites me into his apartment where he introduces me to some of his friends with whom we have a smoke. Ivan turns the television on to check the sport results, and I get a glimpse of television in Belarus which has all the signs of dictatorship; mind-numbing sports coverage with lame, flag-waving crowds and the odd titbit of news comprising coverage of President Lukashenko (whom my hosts refer to derisively as a kolkhoznik, literally a ‘collective farmer’) making an official visit to some factory among sycophantic crowds. It is informative however to see live, state-fixed prices of fuel and basic foodstuffs scrolling across the screen.

Cosmonaut Mural, Navapolatsk, Vitsebsk Region, Belarus

Cosmonaut Mural, Navapolatsk, Vitsebsk Region, Belarus

Polatsk is located on the banks of the Divna River, which is still totally frozen and gives views onto the old heart of the city. Most striking is the Cathedral of Saint Sophia, one of three (the others being in Kyiv in Ukraine and Novgorod in Russia) of the oldest Eastern Slavic churches, all modelled on the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, at the time the home of all eastern Orthodoxy. The Cathedral of Polatsk has been heavily modified through the ages and today has an imposing white Baroque facade, though bares no resemblance to its namesake in İstanbul. Nearby, the compact city centre spreads along the north bank of the Divna, dotted with churches and a mix of nicely restored Tsarist-era streets and some fine, if rather faded Soviet Neoclassical buildings, while on the south bank are streets of colourful wooden houses.

I find Polatsk very charming indeed, quite different from the gritty towns of western Russia; it’s cleaner, more orderly and people seem more immediately friendly and smiling, even if there is a slight air of torpor. A few kilometres to the east of Polatsk is the modern and totally Soviet town of Navapolatsk where I go to register with the Migration Police, and where one finds all the vast, grey concrete apartment buildings thankfully largely absent from Polatsk. I do however spot a magnificent Futuristic Soviet Socio-realist mural on a wall here depicting mankind charging forth into the cosmos under the banner of communism, celebrating one of the Soviet Union’s greatest achievements; putting the first human into space in 1961.

Khatyn Memorial, Minsk Region, Belarus

Khatyn Memorial, Minsk Region, Belarus

On my way south to the capital I stop at the monument complex of Khatyn, a moving tribute built in the 1960s to commemorate the incredible losses which Belarus endured during the Second World War. Khatyn was one of more than five thousand Belarussian villages which were burned and destroyed by the Nazis, in this particular case by a group composed largely of Ukrainian nationalist collaborators who in 1943 killed every man, woman and child in the village by burning them alive in a barn, gunning down any escapees. Twenty-six concrete obelisks symbolise the location of each house in the village which was looted and destroyed, on which the names and ages (in the case of children) of the occupants are listed. A bell tolls every thirty seconds in unison from each of these to represent the rate at which Belarussians were killed during the Nazi occupation. A square memorial consisting of three birch trees and an eternal flame further symbolises that one in four Belarussian Citizens, a total put officially at 2,230,000 people, were killed during the Second World War. In this rueful, beautiful snowy landscape surrounded by birch forest, it is quite staggering to contemplate the abject horrors which were unleashed by the forces of nationalism here.

Minsk, today a city of two million, has its origins as a provincial town under the Principality of Polatsk in the tenth century, becoming an important regional capital following Russian annexation in the late eighteenth century. The city was almost totally destroyed in the Second World War and was reconstructed and greatly expanded during the post-war Soviet Period. Today a city of two million inhabitants, the Belarussian capital is a grand and harmonious city of Soviet Neoclassical buildings, wide avenues and parks. It’s a city which bears its Soviet past proudly, and remains visually much as the original designers must have intended.

KGB Building, Minsk, Belarus

KGB Building, Minsk, Belarus

I spend several days in Minsk, acquainting myself with what is perhaps the best preserved large city of the USSR, a tantalising glimpse of the Soviet Union complete with much of its architecture, art and symbolism, though lacking the communist political ideology. From my host’s apartment in the south of the city, I walk past the imposing twelve-storey Stalinist city gates towards Independence Square where the city’s main thoroughfare, Independence Avenue begins. Formerly Lenin Square, here there remains (somewhat ironically) a large statue of Vladimir Ilyich, gazing masterfully towards the east, propping himself on a railing with his cap in hand. Behind the Soviet leader is towering House of Government, a fine piece of Stalinist architecture dating from the 1930s, one of the few buildings to survive the war and one which manages to blend Soviet gigantism with a few touches of Art-Deco. Also in the square is the red brick, neo-Romanesque Church of Saints Simon and Helena from the turn of the twentieth century and a recently constructed shopping mall whose comparative vulgarity has been tastefully hidden underground and connected to the Lenin Square station of the Minsk Metro. Other of the metro stations retain prosaically socialist names such as Traktarny Zavod (‘Tractor Factory’) and Pralyetarskaya (‘Proletarian’).

Heading north-east, Independence Avenue passes the beige Central Post Office, then comes upon the pale buff of the KGB headquarters, a perfect example of Soviet Neoclassicism; a mock Roman Temple behind which lies the heart of the security apparatus of what is undoubtedly a repressive police state. Opposite the building, aptly, is one of the few remaining statues of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet Cheka, forerunner of the KGB and a key participant of the ‘Red Terror’ which saw the ruthless pursuit and execution of tens of thousands of counter-revolutionaries during the Russian Civil War. Dzerzhinsky would probably be reassured by the number of uniformed police on the streets of Minsk, who in my experience are unobtrusive, yet still visible from almost any point. The number of plain-clothed officers and informants is of course left to the imagination.

Palace of the Republic, Minsk, Belarus

Palace of the Republic, Minsk, Belarus

Not far beyond the KGB I reach the Minsk Univermag or department store, a typically Soviet institution which has become largely obsolete in the new market economies of other parts of the Former USSR. Lying in the very centre of the city, the department store has a small attached ground-floor bar; not a pretentious and overpriced street-side cafe where one is waited on and pressured to leave as soon as possible, but a simple bar where one can buy a bottle of beer or a coffee at normal shop prices and watch the outside world go by, something I find myself doing several times during my stay in Minsk.

Despite being the capital of an authoritarian and politically isolated country, Minsk does not have the feeling of being cut-off from the outside world, nor of being trapped in time. While the city remains architecturally true to the Soviet era, there are touches of sophistication; period Soviet shop fronts conceal modern bars and restaurants and the traffic outside consists overwhelmingly of cars of European or Japanese origin rather than Russian. What is lacking here, gladly, is the glaring inequality one sees for instance in Russia or Ukraine where the privatisation of the economy allowed certain individuals to quickly amass great wealth, often through highly questionable actions. It is also highly refreshing to finally find respite from global consumerism, in a city where international brands and advertisements are almost absent and there are shops still simply called ‘Shoes’, ‘Bread’ or ‘Bar’. Belarus is not Turkmenistan, fighting to keep any influence of the outside world safely beyond its borders; it is trying more to distance itself from the vices all around.

Victory Square, Minsk, Belarus

Victory Square, Minsk, Belarus

Also slightly different from neighbouring Russia are the people, who seem a touch more European in mindset, more like the Poles or Lithuanians who long dominated what is now Belarus, lacking the Russian xenophobia bred by centuries of isolation. In appearance people are also somewhat more European looking, lacking perhaps the Tatar blood of Russians; judging by watching the people passing by, Belarus’s reputation for beautiful women is certainly not undue.

Continuing along Independence Avenue, I pass the post-independence Palace of the Republic, built in 2002 in the old Soviet style on the far side of October Square, which has been filled with water and allowed to freeze into an ice rink on which people can freely come and skate. The avenue then descends past the small, teal-coloured wooden museum-house where in 1898, in great secrecy, nine delegates of various revolutionary parties, including Lenin, held the First Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, then past Yanky Kupala Park to the Svislach River. Crossing a bridge I pass the apartment where Lee Harvey Oswald lived from 1959 to 1961, then climb to the tall granite obelisk of Victory Square, in front of which four soldiers stand guard throughout the day. Bronze reliefs cover the base of the obelisk, depicting the struggle of the Red Army, the population of Minsk and the Belarussian partisans, for which Minsk later received the honour of becoming one of the Soviet Union’s twelve ‘Hero Cities’.

Soviet Mural, Minsk, Belarus

Soviet Mural, Minsk, Belarus

Beyond Victory Square I pass numerous further examples of grand and often elegant Soviet architecture, then walk to the far side of the city where the recently finished National Library of Belarus is located, in a twenty-two storey futuristic blue-glass rhombicuboctahedral building. Many people I would meet in Minsk and in Belarus would sneer at the Library as something of a folly of the President, a hugely expensive project of little use to the average person, a repository of Belarussian literature in a country which actively promotes the Russian language over Belarussian, and stifles national identity in order to appease Moscow from where vital energy subsidies and economic support come. Indeed, despite my overwhelmingly positive impressions of the country, it is clear that many Belarussians are unhappy with the situation the country is in; perhaps feeling left behind in an anachronistic dictatorship with a stagnating, state-run economy whilst its neighbours extract themselves ever further from the hangover of the Soviet Union. My delight at finding a country free from the glorification of consumerism seems not to be shared with its general populace. Nevertheless I leave Minsk feeling deeply impressed, even imagining that it is a place I would enjoy living in.

Navahrudak, Hrodna Region, Belarus

Navahrudak, Hrodna Region, Belarus

I drive out of Minsk one morning, joining the old Soviet M1 Highway south-west, formerly connecting Moscow with Brest and Warsaw. Soon turning south, I leave the highway to visit the town of Nyasvizh, home of the Radziwiłł Family whose castle still stands, though has been rather carelessly restored and is currently closed to visitors. North of Nyasvizh I cross the M1 and continue to the village of Mir with its sixteenth century Gothic Mirski Castle which later also came under the ownership of the Radziwiłłs, who added a stately home. It’s a beautiful piece of architecture, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (along with the castle in Nyasvizh) and one of very few historical buildings still standing in Belarus. West from Mir, I drive on good roads through quaint villages and small towns, stopping again in the town of Navahrudak which is located around a small hill. Atop the hill are the desolate ruins of what was once one of the key strongholds of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a fourteenth century which was attacked by the Teutonic Knights, Crimean Tatars and finally the Swedes during the Great Northern War in 1706, leaving the castle in ruins. Today just a few walls and stumps of the towers remain but the views over the snow-covered Belarussian countryside are beautiful, with the colourful wooden village houses of the town receding to snow-covered fields and then thick forest. In the town of Lida, which has another heavily restored castle, I join the highway west to Hrodna, reaching the city after dark.

Kalozha Church, Hrodna, Hrodna Region, Belarus

Kalozha Church, Hrodna, Hrodna Region, Belarus

Hrodna lies in the far western corner of modern-day Belarus and through its long history has been part of Black Rus’, Lithuania, Russia and like much of western Belarus was part of Poland between the two World Wars. The city is attractively set high on the banks of the Neman River, and is noticeably less Russified than eastern Belarus with a strong Catholic influence visible in a number of beautiful Baroque churches and monasteries. The old city and central square have a number of restored and beautiful historical buildings, though together they fall slightly short of creating a genuinely historic atmosphere; the effect of twentieth century destruction and insensitive Soviet urban planning are all too visible.

One most noteworthy building however is the small twelfth century Kalozha Church dedicated to Saints Boris and Hlib, the first saints to be canonised in Kievan Rus’, early in the eleventh century. The church, which is the oldest in Hrodna, stands near the old castle on the edge of a high and steep bank of the Neman, into which its southern wall collapsed in the nineteenth century. Bearing the Byzantine cross-form of early Eastern Orthodox churches, its remaining red-brick walls are uniquely decorated with faceted slabs of blue, red and green stones, sometimes arranged into crosses and it is indeed the only extant piece of Black Ruthenian architecture.

The more modern parts of Hrodna are not the kind of showcase of Soviet architecture that Minsk is, but I do find myself having a quintessentially Soviet experience when eating in a stolovaya (canteen) located on the ground-floor of an office block in the north of the city. The establishment is named simply ‘canteen’, and has a utilitarian decor with touches of 1980s kitsch. Beer is served, but no hard alcohol so as to keep out the sallow alcoholics or men in wellingtons who march into cafes and wordlessly down a hundred grams of vodka before marching back out. There is no menu until one reaches the front of the queue, for this is not a bourgeois restaurant and dishes are typical Soviet staples with a running theme of mushiness; kotlet (rissole), grechka (buckwheat), kartofelnoye pyure (mashed potato) and a thick soup; nothing for which a knife is required, and indeed there are no knives available. Portions are modest and not quite hot, encouraging patrons to eat quickly and return to their work, but the food is fresh, wholesome and tasty. Such institutions are rapidly disappearing across the Former USSR, even becoming novelty restaurants in Russia, but here in Belarus this is another Soviet institution which is still going strong.

Great Synagogue, Hrodna, Hrodna Region, Belarus

Great Synagogue, Hrodna, Hrodna Region, Belarus

Through my host Ivan I am introduced to a number of the city’s residents; young, well educated and intelligent Belarussians and even a British artist who has taken up temporary residence here in this oddly endearing city. One of Ivan’s friends mentions that he is Jewish, which leads me to scratch a little into the city’s history. Jews are thought to have lived in this part of Europe since the eighth century and after the Russian annexation of the late eighteenth century, the area became part of the Pale of Settlement, the area of the Russian Empire in which Jews were legally allowed to reside (in cities). At the turn of the twentieth century many cities in what is now Belarus had majority Jewish populations and Hrodna, which was economically dominated by Jews, was considered one of the Jewish intellectual capitals of Europe.

During the Second World War an estimated 90% of Belarussian Jews, some 800,000 individuals, were exterminated by the Nazis. Most remaining Jews emigrated from the Soviet Union after the 1970s and today Jews make up perhaps 0.1% of Belarus’ population. Hardly any monuments stand to this incredible demographic, economic and cultural loss; even Minsk’s Holocaust memorial is tiny and located out of the city centre. Hrodna’s imposing Baroque Great Synagogue, which was looted by the Nazis in 1941, today sits forlornly overlooking a bend in the Neman River among general dereliction and graffitied walls of other abandoned buildings. Its rendering and plaster are slowly peeling off, windows are barred or boarded-up and one of the six-pointed stars from the rooftop has slumped into the guttering; a somnolent monument to one of the greatest human tragedies of the twentieth century. The cities may have been rebuilt, the rubble cleared, the landscape healed, the protagonists have died off and the children have forgotten, but this part of Europe will remain forever changed.

Wisent, near Novy Dvor, Hrodna Region, Belarus

Wisent, near Novy Dvor, Hrodna Region, Belarus

I drive south from Hrodna, roughly tracking the Polish border past sovkhozy (state-owned farms) still marked by red stars and hammer-and-sickle signs, then turn onto small roads through beautiful, primeval European forest. Near the village of Novy Dvor I see a herd of what look like cattle in an empty field to my left. Closer inspection however reveals that these are indeed a herd of about thirty wisent, or European bison, the largest wild mammals in Europe, which are slightly taller, though less hairy than their more famous American relatives. Wisent were actually hunted to extinction in the wild with the last populations surviving in these forests until 1919, becoming totally extinct in the wild in 1927. However, as part of one of the oldest programmes of captive breeding from zoo stock, the wisent has since been successfully introduced into a number of countries in the region, with Belarus having perhaps a thousand individuals. It’s a very pleasant surprise to see these magnificent animals in a part of the world hardly famed for ‘big game’ sightings.

Entrance Gate, Brest Hero Fortress Complex, Brest Region, Belarus

Entrance Gate, Brest Hero Fortress Complex, Brest Region, Belarus

Brest is the most westerly city in Belarus, lying just east of the Bug River which forms the Polish border. Here one finds the Brest Hero Fortress Complex, which after Volgograd’s Mamayev Kurgan is surely the most important of the memorials to the Soviet fight against the Nazis during the Great Patriotic War, the celebration and remembrance of which became practically a state religion in the Soviet Union. Since the end of the Polish-Soviet War in 1921 Brest had been part of Poland, until being annexed by Germany, then soon handed over to the Soviet Union as part of the secret terms of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. In June 1941 the Nazis attacked Brest and its fortress in one of the first battles of Operation Barbarossa; the Fortress was held under siege for eight days, with the Red Army suffering terrible losses. For this the title ‘Hero Fortress’ was later conferred, as it was to the twelve ‘Hero Cities’ of the Soviet Union.

One enters the fortress through a stylised gate; a huge block of concrete with a star-shaped tunnel covering the walkway, through which one walks past murals and listens to a recording of the 1941 news broadcast announcing the surprise German invasion of the Soviet Union. One then proceeds down a walkway, passing the monument ‘Thirst’ which depicts an injured Soviet soldier crawling towards the river for water. In the central complex of the shrine is the hundred metre high obelisk of the Bayonet Memorial and its centrepiece; a huge, 33.5 metre-high mountain of a concrete Red Army soldier painted grey, sternly bearing down upon visitors. All around are mostly unrestored remains of the red-brick nineteenth century fortress, still pock-marked from the battle and partially derelict. The memorial has the classic Soviet monumentalist pathos, though one cannot help but feel a slight sense of irony given that many of the native population of this region which the Soviet Union only officially reacquired in 1945 would have been shipped into the Gulag system as Stalin’s monstrous paranoia worsened in his later years, seeing anyone who had previously lived under foreign rule as a threat and sending them off to a life of hard labour or premature death far from their homeland.

Pina River, Pinsk, Brest Region, Belarus

Pina River, Pinsk, Brest Region, Belarus

I find the modern city of Brest rather bland and uninteresting, perhaps a touch infected with consumerism from the West and so begin my journey east towards Russia. Not far from Brest I stop in the tranquil town of Kamyanyets with its famous thirteenth century red-brick tower, the only remaining frontier stronghold of the medieval Principality of Volhynia which is now mostly within the borders of modern Ukraine. It’s a pleasure to drive east on good roads, through a landscape completely devoid of snow; despite the grass being a dull and tired-looking yellow-brown, it’s a great pleasure to see the world without the blanket of snow which has covered it for the past four months.

In the afternoon I arrive in the small city of Pinsk, located where the Pina River meets the Pripyat, both tributaries of the Dnieper. Pinsk is delightfully provincial, a touch faded and rather trapped in time. Soviet mosaics can be found on many of the apartment buildings, and many of the shops still have colourful 1980s window livery and potted plants favoured in the late Soviet period. My host Andrei is a student of German and is extremely keen to show me his home city and introduce me to his friends and classmates. If Belarus has a tourist circuit, then Pinsk is definitely not on it, and I have the feeling of being a rare foreigner visitor, despite being in a city less than two hundred kilometres from the EU.

Pinsk however is an ancient city and its old centre is dominated by restored buildings, most strikingly the large, Baroque Jesuit Collegium and nearby Franciscan church and bell tower set overlooking the Pina. The ice on the Pina has recently thawed and the bare poplars on the far bank whose branches are speckled with green bunches of mistletoe, are reflected in the dark flowing water of the river which runs past the southern edge of town. Among the shop fronts in the streets of the centre are patches of unrestored whitewashed masonry still bearing old Latin-script names of Jewish and Polish businesses, survivors of the war and reminders of the combined efforts of the Nazis and Stalin in ethnically cleansing the region.

Pripyat Marshes, near Stolin, Brest Region, Belarus

Pripyat Marshes, near Stolin, Brest Region, Belarus

As much as I enjoy Pinsk and the genuine friendship I make with Andrei, I must continue my journey east towards the Russian border. Heading south from Pinsk I am immediately in the wild Pripyat Marshes, which lie around the Pripyat River as it flows east through Polesia in endless meanders. The marshes are one of the largest wetland areas of Europe and are conjectured to be the place from where the Slavs originate, as a tribe of shifting cultivators in the fifth century. The road east is a beautiful succession of thick, primeval woodland, mires and open marshland which has been drained in places for agriculture. I watch a couple on a horse cart taking a path parallel to the road and come across small, isolated villages in woodland clearings, places untouched by time which are easy to imagine as a Slavic homeland.

I stop in the small, sleepy town of Turau, seat of the medieval Principality of Turau (which once included Pinsk) and famous for its mythical stone crosses, one of which I find in a local graveyard, and another in a small church. The crosses, which look rather pagan in form, apparently floated upright up the Dnieper and then Pripyat Rivers from Kyiv following the forced baptism of the populace of Kievan Rus’ in the late tenth century. The crosses were allegedly thrown into the river in the 1930s to save them from destruction by the Soviet authorities, only to float to the surface some years later. Two were stored in the local church, while another, which was buried in a local cemetery has since allegedly emerged from the ground of its own accord, and is said to be continually growing in size.

Pripyat River, Mazyr, Homyel' Region, Belarus

Pripyat River, Mazyr, Homyel’ Region, Belarus

I stop for a night in the city of Mazyr, attractively located on a hill overlooking the Pripyat River which is in flood, flowing through a beautiful landscape of birch and pine forest. Like Pinsk, Mazyr is something of a provincial backwater, but a very likeable city focussed on the Pripyat River where there is a wonderfully kitsch Soviet port building. In the city’s central square is a monument consisting of a single block of polished black granite carved into the number ‘1986’ in memory of the Chernobyl Disaster, when on the 26th April 1986 a fire and explosion at the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in what is now Ukraine caused a reactor meltdown and the release of large quantities of radioactive particles into the atmosphere. With the radioactive dust heading initially north, Mazyr was one of the first cities which the radiation reached.

East of Mazyr I leave the Pripyat River, which turns south towards Kyiv and drive to the edge of the Polesia State Radiation and Ecological Reserve, the Belarussian extension of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. With the dust cloud moving north, the Soviet Airforce was deployed to seed clouds and rain out radioactive particles over this sparsely populated area, resulting in the modern state of Belarus having received far more of the radioactive fallout than either Ukraine or Russia, with two highly radioactive hotspots in the country’s south east. Entry to the reserve, which seals off one of these hotspots is of course restricted, but I do wander into the village of Brahin on the reserve’s edge, where most houses are abandoned. There’s nothing to see of course; if anything the unmolested nature is more vital than elsewhere with an abundance of storks nests on top of the telegraph poles and the locals who I meet are warm and friendly souls.

Belarussian Men, Brahin, Homyel' Region, Belarus

Belarussian Men, Brahin, Homyel’ Region, Belarus

In the evening I reach Homyel’, the second city of Belarus, which is located on the Sozh River, another tributary of the Dnieper. Homyel’ is architecturally elegant in places, with the striking Neoclassical Homyel’ Palace complex on the riverside and some nice pieces of Soviet architecture, but the city feels much like a provincial Russian city, and lacks the charm of, for instance, Hrodna or Pinsk. Altogether more charming is my Belarussian host Masha, born in 1986 shortly after the Chernobyl Disaster, whose mother works in the local nuclear institute.

On my second day in Homyel’ Masha and I, armed with a dose-meter borrowed from her mother, drive together north-east out of Homyel’, through Vetka to the centre of the second radiation hotspot in the country. Instead of a total exclusion zone, here the main road remains open, but the villages lining it have been evacuated, and in most cases destroyed to prevent anyone from returning, leaving just a few foundations, or a poignantly overgrown graveyard. In a few of the villages, such as Bartalameyowka which is identifiable only by its bus-stop on the main road, buildings still stand: crumbling concrete shells of apartments, clinics or administrative buildings where we defy the ban on entry and furtively park the truck to explore. Many of these villages were not evacuated until years after the accident and it is interesting to see just how localised the radiation is; in some areas levels are almost at natural background, while a few metres away doses may be several microsieverts per hour; less than having an X-ray and not a short-term exposure risk, but unsafe for continued inhabitation. Very little remains of the homes and lives which were once here. The devastation of the Chernobyl Disaster is one legacy of the Soviet Union which Belarus has no option but to preserve.

Bartalameyowka, Homyel' Region, Belarus

Bartalameyowka, Homyel’ Region, Belarus

I’m deeply grateful to Masha for indulging my curiosity, especially given that she is a so-called ‘Child of Chernobyl’ and has lived with the effects of the disaster throughout her life. After a morning looking around Homyel’ alone, I drive north through beautiful dark, wintry pine forest to the city of Mahilyow. Here I’m hosted by Alex, who shares some photos and experiences of summer trips driving around Belarus in his Soviet Ural side-car. Mahilyow however has little of the charm of western Belarussian cities and feels heavily Russified, not surprising given how close it is to the border. In the morning I drive due north to the town of Orsha where I rejoin the M1 Highway and drive straight into Russia.

I’ve fallen in love somewhat with Belarus; perhaps for its engaging and worldly people, or for being so quaintly clean and orderly, perhaps for its well preserved Soviet architecture, or for the gently beautiful rolling landscape of forest, fields, rivers and marshes. Or perhaps it is just the sheer surprise at finding somewhere unexpectedly different, right against the borders of the EU.

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One thought on “Stage 26 – Belarus: White Rus’

  1. Belarus took me by surprise as well, with it’s friendly people, gentle nature and touching monuments. I wouldn’t mind to return, and you’ve given plenty tips on where to go. Looking forward to read about the next stages!

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