About Belarus

People argue about why Belarus is called “The Blue-Eyed Country.” Some say that the nickname refers to the piercing blue eyes that adorn many of its citizens. Others suggest that this refers to the many lakes that dot the landscape, hundreds of blue gems that seem to peer heavenward like the eyes of creatures hiding in its ancient forests.

Either way, Belarus, the accepted modern rendition of Byelorussia (a name that means “White Russia”), has always been associated with symbolic colors. White, the color, represented an idea centuries old of a land that stayed pure of foreign menaces like the Mongols or the Lithuanians. Free from subjugation, the people lived their quiet country lives through the centuries, even as their neighbors waged war against each other around them. By the late 1800s, modern White Russia re-emerged among the ethnic composite that made up the administrative guberniyas and voivods of what was once eastern Poland.

Belarus, a mostly rural country with a few large cities, today remains a complicated mix of a quiet, almost provincial life, and a cosmopolitan-like tolerance. Having been a field of war in the 20th century, its people have easily embraced the concept of order in its domestic politics, and prefer peace. As such, it is a quiet, and perhaps sometimes boring, place.

Noting that, it should be said that Belarus nonetheless affords many pleasurable pastimes. Hunting and fishing are favorite activities in much of the countryside. Ancient craft traditions live on in the careful preservation of families, societies, and commercial organizations. Modern artists find inspiration in the quiet rural existence and in the power of the monuments to be found within the cities on its territory. Sports and athleticism are still strongly valued by Belarusians, who are rightly proud of their world-class best achievers.

Despite the destruction of the many wars that Belarus has seen, the country is still strongly connected with its past. It is home to one of the most active Jewish cultural preservation organizations in the former Soviet states, one that faces the still intimidating task of ensuring the memory of an ethnicity that before World War II dominated the territory of Belarus. Ancient fortified ruins, once so numerous that Belarus was once known as the “land of castles,” stand as landmarks of the once-powerful Polish szlachta families that lived there, and these still dominate the landscape of the western half of the country. Many neighborhoods preserve the atmosphere and kitsch of Soviet life, espousing Soviet-period Lenin monuments and factories that remain fully functional, even though their exteriors have been hardly touched since the times of Stalin and Khrushchev.

Since the Second World War, Belarus has been a country made up of six regions, each with its own particular character. It’s instructive to know a bit about each, in order to get a sense of the whole.


Minsk Voblast

Covering an area that consists of about 20 percent of Belarus’ total landmass, Minsk Voblast sits at the center of the country, and is probably the most representative of the country today. Minsk itself has about 1.9 million out of 3.3 million that make up the total for the region.

Slavic tribes began to dominate the region nearly 13 centuries ago, after they filled the emptied forests left by the formidable barbarians that left to loot the collapsed Roman Empire. By slashing and burning the ancient woods, they tamed the land. By the end of the first millennium, Minsk Voblast, along with most of the rest of Belarus, had become part of the grand principality of Kiev Rus, the proto-state for the people of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.

Minsk itself first appeared in history when rival great-grandsons of Vladimir the Great fought for control of Kiev Rus at the Battle of the Nemiga River in 1067, coincidentally less than a year after the Norman Conquest of England. In the Tale of Igor’s Campaign, an early Russian historical saga, the bloody banks of the Nemiga (Nyamiha in transliterated Belarusian), situated at a spot where today the ancient river flows under the streets of Minsk, were said to be sown not with blessings, but bones.

Today, the city has many tourist attractions, all of which can easily be described in its own article. The focus here, however, is in what the traveler finds once out of the city limits of Belarus’ capital. Minsk Voblast extends from Belarus’ largest lake, Naruch, in the north, to the potash factories of Salihorsk in the south, and from Niazvizh Castle in the west to the Berezina River in the east.

One of the most popular attractions in the voblast among these is Niazvizh Castle. Built by the powerful Radziwill family, this UNESCO World Heritage site is said to be haunted by Barbara Radziwill, Queen Consort of Sigismond II Augustus, the last king of Poland’s Jagiellon dynasty. Barbara captured the king’s heart with a combination of beauty, intelligence, and charm. Inevitably, Sigismond married her, but the marriage lasted only a short time, as, allegedly, the king’s mother (who saw the Radziwill family as a dangerous political rival) had her poisoned. So grieved at her sudden death was Sigismond that he ordered alchemists to raise her spirit from the dead. They did so, but when he tried to touch her, her image was said to have exploded into putrid fumes, leaving her trapped as a ghost in the material world. Visitors are said to have seen her in mirrors, in the park surrounding the castle, and even in Soviet times, she was said to have disturbed visitors to what was then a collective farm sanatorium established in the estate.

Many tourists also enjoy visiting the Museum of Old Folkcraft at Dudutki. A traditional Belarusian village, Dudutki offers besides a museum, craft workshops, bread and cheese tasting at the bakery house, aristocratic vodka tasting at the distillery, horse-riding for children, and a windmill.

Minsk Voblast is also a center serves as the religious and spiritual heart of the country. At the Baroque-style basilica at Budslau in the north, the Icon of the Mother of God of Budslau presides as the most venerated religious artifact in the country. Closer to Minsk, places of veneration commemorate the sacrifices made in the Second World War. The village of Khatyn (not to be confused with the Katyn Forest across the border in Russia) contains a touching memorial to the hundreds of villages where the inhabitants were massacred by invading German forces. The heavy-handed Nazi reaction to partisan war tactics contributed greatly to the two million death count the country suffered by the end of the war. A more modern memorial to the defenders on the pre-war Stalin Line was recently constructed northwest of Minsk near Zaslavl.

Of greatest interest to winter sports enthusiasts, the country’s most renowned ski resorts are situated not far from Minsk, to the north of the national airport. The three main resorts are the Olympic sports complex at Raubichy, the downhill skiing resort at Lahojsk, and the newest and farthest out resort at Silichy. Raubichy marks the entrance to the area of the country known as the “Switzerland of Belarus,” where Belarusian downhill skiers flock in the winter. This closest resort has served as a training ground for the country’s Olympic skiers. Lahojsk prides itself on maintaining European standards for its slopes, while Silichy is renowned for its downhill racing slopes and beginner runs, as well as excellent facilities.


Hrodna Voblast

Covering an area that consists of about 12 percent of Belarus’ total landmass, Hrodna Voblast sits along the border of Poland and Lithuania. Its capital, Hrodna, is a city with only 10 percent of the population of the national capital, but its 330,000 people make up a third of the 1 million total population for the region.

This region, once called Black Russia, serves as an ancient cultural no-man’s land between the eastern Slavs and the Baltic people. Even today, with many communities maintaining both Catholic and Orthodox churches, the region has the same mixed feel as it might have in ancient times. Indeed, Hrodna celebrates its cultural diversity with its Republican Festival of National Culture every June, in which this year 26 local ethnic groups (“nationalities”) were represented.

Hrodna Voblast has witnessed many great events. It was through this region that Napoleon invaded, and retreated from, Russia. In the 20th century interwar period, it was part of eastern Poland before the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact brought it into the territory of today’s Belarus. The region currently extends along the national border as eastward as the church-laden region of Astraviec District, and as far south as Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park, where European bisons still roam amid ancient trees so large that they have individual names. The religious center of Slonim and the castle town of Mir help define the extent of the region.

Mir Castle is probably the best preserved in Hrodna Voblast. In the darker moments of its history, it served as a Napoleonic military headquarters and as a holding site for Jews on their way to extermination camps. Today, though, the UNESCO World Heritage site is celebrated for its happier days, when it was home to one of the branches of the powerful Radziwill family, much the same as nearby Niasvizh. Nearby are the remains of Navahrudak Castle, which, as if to emphasize the cultural diversity of the region’s history, once served as the capital of the Lithuanian state. Today, medieval historical reenactments dominate the ruins.

To really get a sense of what Hrodna Voblast is about, one must remember that Lithuania was the last country in Europe to shed pagan beliefs for Christian monotheism. When it did so, the country built churches with a vengeance. In Hrodna itself, once a Christian outpost, are several restored Catholic places of worship, the oldest dates to the 12th century. However, all along the borderlands with Lithuania, historical churches stand little scathed by time. Near the train line between Minsk and Vilnius are several such churches, including the Carmelite Church of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Hudahaj (Gudagai in transliterated Russian). However, the church capturing the most attention at the moment is the 19th century Holy Trinity Church at Herviaty, which towers over the small town with flying buttresses and spires. Listed as one of 20 top tourist objects in Belarus, it sits in a neatly kept park with statues of each of the 12 apostles.

Sports options in Hrodna Voblast mostly relate to outdoor activities, including hunting. Though for most hunters the ancient Belovezhskaya and Naliboki forests remain off-limits as nature preserves, big game sportsmen can still go after such creatures as European bison and red deer within designated hunting grounds in the regions. It should be noted that guns are strongly controlled, and foreign hunters are best served by going through an agency. Most agencies that organize hunts for foreign sportsmen are based in Minsk.


Brest Voblast

Covering an area that consists of about 16 percent of Belarus’ total landmass, Brest Voblast sits in the corner of the country bordering Poland and Ukraine. Its capital, Brest, is a city of 300,000, less than a quarter of the total population of the region (about 1.4 million).

Brest Voblast exists in the region called Polesia, a name which literally means forest. Within its boundaries are the ancient Pinsk Marshes, said by some to be the birthplace of the Slav people. Indeed, the voblast could be said to be the cradle of White Russia, as it was the northern part of the Halych-Volhynia Principality, the first Eastern Slavic region from which the Mongols were driven.

However, when the name Brest is mentioned, what comes to mind for most people is its Hero Fortress. Built on an island in the Bug River, its surprised Soviet defenders were repeatedly bombed and assaulted by the Nazi Wehrmacht, who had planned to take the fortress in a matter of mere hours. It actually took days, and when the story came out of its stubborn resistance a year later, it helped to encourage bravery against the continued Nazi invasion. In 1957, the Soviet authorities belatedly recognized the defenders for their courage in the face of overwhelming odds, building a museum and releasing a film depicting their heroism for the Soviet public. The museum is still highly popular today.

A lesser-known landmark, but nonetheless one that helps define the region, is the White Tower at Kamianiec. Actually made of red brick, the tower is one of the oldest structures in the area, and it lends itself to the name of the wilderness that surrounds it, the Belovezhskaya Pusch. One of the last relicts of the original Halych-Volhynia principality, it was near here that the agreement to divide the Soviet Union was signed. Today, the forest is said to be home for Ded Moroz (the Russian version of Santa Claus).

Another important place is Pinsk. Situated on the Pina River, this city of 130,000 sits at the center of the Bug-Pripyat canal system. Although mostly a freight corridor at present, the city does maintain a passenger river station that serves a couple villages about 10 kilometers outside of the city, a unique outing into the original Slavic homeland. Pinsk itself is said to be the second best preserved in Belarus, behind Hrodna, and features the Franciscan Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, an architectural monument described as having a “unique energy,” as well as vague remnants of its past as a major Jewish center.


Homiel Voblast

Covering an area the same size as Minsk Oblast, Homiel Voblast sits in the corner of the country bordering Ukraine and Russia. Its capital, Homiel (translitered from Russian as Gomel), is a city of over 500,000, more than a third of the total population of the region (about 1.4 million).

Homiel Voblast, in Soviet times, enjoyed its place in the breadbasket region called the Fertile Triangle. However, since the Chernobyl nuclear accident, it has had the dubious distinction of hosting the Polesia Radiation Ecology Reserve, the Belarusian forbidden zone in which radioactive particles remain a hazard.

However, Homiel Voblast, outside of the reserve, has long since returned to normal levels of background radiation, and tourism is again starting to pick up in the region. Perhaps the most well-known destination in Homiel is the Rumyantsev-Paskevich Palace situated on the right bank of the Sozh River. The neoclassical structure, featured on the Belarusian 20,000 ruble note, sits in the midst of an extensive English park, with replicas of the original marble statues (earlier destroyed) standing in the places where Field Marshal Ivan Paskevich enjoyed them.

One of the surprise destinations post-Chernobyl is Pripyat National Park. This nature reserve features a safari-style trek tour that showcases the animals that live in its confines, as well as a riverboat tour and a Museum of Nature in nearby Lyaskovichi. An area of the park is reserved for hunters and fisherman, but bookings must be made 3-4 months in advance.

Lastly, Turau (Turov in Russian) serves as an ancient gem in Homiel Voblast. This spot on the Pripyat River was once the capital of the Dregovichi, a tribe suggested to be the forebears of the Belarusian people. The remnants of a 12th century cathedral keep alive the memory of Kiev Rus, within which this city played a major role.


Mahiliou Voblast

Sized between that of Hrodna and Brest voblasts, Mahiliou Voblast borders the Russian oblasts of Smolensk and Bryansk. Its capital, Mahiliou (translitered from Russian as Mogilev), is a city of over 365,000, containing more than a third of the 1 million people who live in the region.

Mahiliou, the city, often styles itself as the last capital of the Russian Empire, as Nicholas II commanded the Russian Imperial Army here in its losing battle with the advancing Germans. When he returned to Petrograd in February 1917, he was forced by the new national government that had already seized power to abdicate. The city faced bitter fighting during World War II, which is commemorated in a memorial complex called Buinichi Field. Named for the village of Buinichi, utterly destroyed in the fighting, the complex includes a chapel that in the center holds a Foucault pendulum, a symbol of eternal life. The village itself was resurrected in the form of an ethnographic museum, keeping alive the traditional craftwork of the area.

Today, Mahiliou hosts its own version of the Arbat commercial district (Leninskaya Street), and an impressive array of Soviet style buildings. Additionally, the city contains significant sites, such as its zoo garden, the Catholic church of St. Stanislau, and the convent of St. Nicholas.


Viciebsk Voblast

Covering an area equal to Minsk or Homiel oblasts, Viciebsk Voblast is the northernmost region of Belarus, sharing the same latitude as Ketchikan in Alaska and the start of the Alaska Highway at Dawson’s Creek in British Columbia, the southern shore of Hudson Bay, Edinburgh in Scotland, or Helsingborg in southern Sweden. As with St. Petersburg in Russia, it doesn’t get completely dark at night for a couple weeks on either side of the summer solstice. Viciebsk (transliterated from Russian as Vitebsk) itself has about 340,000 people, or roughly a quarter of the 1.2-million population that live in the region.

The region is the closest to ancient Novgorod, where it is said that Rurik first established the state that would later become Kiev Rus. Indeed, Palack (or Polotsk) is easily one of the oldest centers in Belarus, having been a significant Baltic-Slavic principality during the life of Vladimir the Great. The region borders three countries: Russia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

Viciebsk itself is sometimes described as the cultural capital of Belarus, with numerous museums, theaters, and festivals, such as the International Festival of Modern Choreography and the Slaviansky Bazaar singing competition held in the Yakub Kolas National Theater. Despite this, though, the city retains a Soviet sense of accommodating foreign visitors that for Westerners may take some getting used to. This is in stark contrast to Minsk, which has gone to significant lengths in recent years to be a more comfortable destination for travelers.

Palack, once the most fortified and dominant of all of Belarus’ ancient cities, sits on the Palata river. The ancient city retains today its connection with its past mostly through its churches. Cathedrals and convents add character to the modern city, including the Transfiguration Church, one of the few relicts of Kiev Rus left in the city.

The region includes several lake resorts, and as with many of the other regions of Belarus, it plays host to some of the newer forms of sightseeing: ecotourism and agroturism. Ecotourists come to Belarus with the same sort of destinations that they would in other areas of the world, to visit natural wonders in a way that allows them to appreciate the beauty of the place with as low an impact as possible. Agrotourists, though, are a more unique breed of travelers. These typically travel to Belarus to stay on farms and learn the traditional ways of the people who live there. This can represent anything from pre-Soviet local culture to presentations of life on Collective Farms. Most such accommodations are made through agencies, many of which can be found in Minsk. But options for agrotourism can be found in all voblasts, even far-north Viciebsk.