With one foot still in its Soviet past, Belarus might not be the most obvious choice for travellers, but its isolation is at the heart of its appeal.
Abridged from the History section in Belarus: the Bradt Guide
No student of modern-day Belarus can hope to gain an insight into the mystery and enigma that characterise the national psyche without first engaging in at least a rudimentary study of all that has gone before. But there is very little to be found specifically about the country in Western books, although there is much to read on the subject of Holy Mother Russia and the former Soviet Union, both of which subsumed it at various times as an integral element of their empires.
Belarus's history is one chequered with suffering, still visible today at the likes of Brest Fortress © Sergey Novikov, Shutterstock
There is one theme in particular that spans the centuries: that of suffering and privation. Whether subjugated to the yoke of Lithuanian, Pole, Tsar, Frenchman, Bolshevik, Communist, Nazi, Communist again or latterly oligarch, heroism and tragedy can be found on most of the pages of the country’s history, as drama and melodrama unfold in the never-ending struggle to resist pain, anguish, grief and suffering. For generation after generation, there seems to have been no sanctuary from constant oppression, with the identity of the oppressor being largely irrelevant. Further, the media of oppression are many and varied: fear, dogma, hunger, poverty, lack of education, geography, climate and, in recent times, Chernobyl. Each succeeding generation has developed defences to resist every challenge that comes along, such that the people of today are characterised by an impressively stoical resilience.
Belarus is particularly proud of its national parks. In 1992 Byelovezhskaya Puscha National Park (340km southwest of Minsk) was included in the list of World Heritage Sites by UNESCO and one year later UNESCO granted it the status of Biosphere Reserve. This means that it is one of the sites monitored by ecologists to assess environmental changes taking place around the globe. Then, at the end of 1997, the Council of Europe recognised the park as one of the most conservation-conscious reserves on the continent. The characteristics and profile of the locality were first mentioned in Chronicles in AD983, while the first attempts at establishing a formal reserve on this site were made early in the 15th century. The total area exceeds 90,000ha. The largest population of European bison roam free here; once to be found in abundance throughout the forests of Europe, the species is now extremely rare and the very fact of their existence in Belarus is something of a success story for the country’s conservation policies.
Within the Polyesye is the 82,529ha Pripyatsky National Park (established in 1996), its territory extending for 64km east to west. Of particular interest here are the areas around the banks of the river. In places the spring melt causes it to rise up to 2m each year and the floodplains have their own unique vegetation, with oak and ash further from the river being replaced by black alder and willow adjacent to it. Some 826 species of plant are to be found here, including an astonishing 200 different mosses.
In Vitebsk region in the northeast of the country (120km from Minsk and southeast of Braslav Lakes), the 80,000ha Berezinsky Biosphere Reserve was created in 1925 to preserve the natural primeval landscape as well as game and other wild animals, such as the river beaver. Today, many animals and birds that are extremely rare or even extinct elsewhere live here, including the brown bear. Part of UNESCO’s Biosphere Reserves World Network, much of this reserve is covered by forest, most of it pine and spruce, the remainder being largely marshland interspersed with wooded islands. The main river that flows through the reserve (for 110km) is the Berazhina.
Some 150km north of Minsk, Narach National Park boasts one of the largest (shoreline 41km) and deepest (maximum 30m) lakes in the country, bearing the same name. The country’s renowned Blue Lakes are also situated here. The largest concentration of ecological resorts and recreation complexes in the whole country is situated within the wider Narach area, including a total of 18 sanatoria and recuperation centres.
Known for the stunning Blue Lakes, Narach National Park is home to the country's highest concentration of eco resorts © Natallia Khlapushyna, Dreamstime
Created in 1995 and covering an area of around 70,0000ha, Braslav Lakes National Park lies close to the Latvian border in the north, 249km from Minsk, where large numbers of lakes are surrounded by picturesque hilly landscapes. Brooks, rivers and channels (most of them navigable) form a water-bound labyrinth throughout which the visitor can cast off the trappings of modern life and meander undisturbed.
Across the centuries, the establishment, maintenance and promotion of ‘traditional’ Belarusian culture (whatever that may mean) has not been without difficulty. The first challenge is to identify the characteristics of that culture, so diverse were the founding influences, the subsequent means of suppression under various regimes and the romantic ideals that have been brought to bear in the search for a distinct identity and culture.
National holidays often feature parades of children and young people, traditional costumes, singing and dancing © Nickolay Vinokurov, Shutterstock
The origins of traditional Belarusian dress are as difficult to establish as any area of culture, and at different points in history various sources have been claimed to suit particular political expediency. Some claim that today’s perceptions of the foundations owe much to incursions south by the Viking princes in the 9th century, but not surprisingly, dress also displays the influence of the neighbouring countries (Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Russia) to which at various times throughout history Belarus has been closely linked in terms of statehood, governance, culture and society. Primarily made from wool and hand-produced linen, its key features are straight lines and red and white colouring, often with intricate patterns at the edges (as with the national flag), dependent upon the place of origin. There are many subtle variances of design from region to region and even from district to district. Historically, variances from village to village were not uncommon. The rules of society used to dictate which garments were to be worn on which occasions. For example, it was considered indecent for a man to go outdoors without wearing a particular form of jacket over his shirt. It was also prohibited for married women to go out unless wearing a headdress and apron. For both, it was also considered a minimum standard of decency for the neck, elbows and knees to be covered. Special attention was paid to female clothing at festival times, reflecting the status of women in Belarusian culture as mothers and home-keepers. Today, examples of national dress are displayed in museums up and down the country. It is most frequently worn at festivals and special occasions such as weddings, or at events promoted for the edification of foreign tourists. It remains the most prominent embodiment of traditional culture and can most often be seen at public commemorations of special events in history, in tableaux presented on national days or in state processions.
Traditional crafts include pottery, wood engraving, paper cutting (vyrazanka in Belarusian) and plait work with straw, willow, root and bark. Again, examples are displayed in museums in even the smallest of towns. The most notable and uniquely attributable example of Belarusian folk art is the rushnik (Belarusian pronunciation ruchnik), or ceremonial towel. Flaxen threads are woven together, usually on looms of historic design, to form delicate silvery white and grey geometric patterns, with ancient symbols featuring in the woven or embroidered decoration of symbolic red colouration at the edges. Each village will have its own specific design. When news of the Nazi invasion was broadcast in 1941, it is said that babooshkas in villages all over the country set about weaving rushniki in order to protect their homes from the rampaging hordes. Joanna tells me she once heard from her mother that each rushnik was to be finished within the day, to be tied around the crosses made by the menfolk that were then erected at the village entrance. Today sacred rushniki still have a very significant place in the hearts and lives of Belarusians. Not only have they long been used for practical and decorative purposes, but they also have an important role in the performance of certain rites, such as those at family meals on national holidays, weddings, christenings, funerals and for welcoming guests to the home with bread and salt. Rushniki are commonly to be found draped over icons, both in church and at home.