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Belarus - The author’s take
When my dream to visit the old Soviet Union was first realised in the late 1980s, Belarus existed not as a sovereign state, but as Byelorossia (‘White Russia’), one of the constituent republics of the USSR. Other than to those with more than a passing interest in the politics of the area, it was simply part of the vast swathe of red that formed the eastern half of the Cold War map of the world. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the consequent disintegration of the USSR, a national identity for Belarus began to emerge. But as the other former Soviet republics turned their gaze westward to embrace political and economic reform through evolution or revolution, Belarus remained (and remains still) fiercely embedded in the past. Its neighbours to the west and north (Poland, Lithuania and Latvia) are now member states of the EU, while those to the east and south (the Russian Federation and Ukraine) move ever closer to embracing Western commercialism and the economics of the free market.
But Belarus, the most westerly republic of the old USSR, clings steadfastly to the past. It prides itself on being situated in the heart of Europe, at the crossroads of ancient trade routes from west to east and from north to south. The first-time visitor might be forgiven for expecting things to be little different from the rest of eastern Europe but, even before leaving home, there are clues aplenty to suggest that this will not be so. Before this one, no guidebooks devoted to Belarus alone could be found on the shelves of Western bookshops. Maps could only be purchased in specialist travel stores or online. Information anywhere, paper or electronic, was conspicuous by its absence and needed to be searched for actively (and in part, this is still the case). It is an unknown land; yet it is much more than this. It is an undiscovered box of gems, with a history rich in heroism, tragedy and despair, natural wonders of great beauty and a people who have endured endless privations over the centuries, but whose hospitality is open and unconditional, notwithstanding all that has transpired on their lands.
Brest Fortress © Sergey Novikov, Shutterstock
I first visited the country in November 2001, arriving at Minsk in the dark of night. First impressions were intimidating, with an edge of danger. Back then, the process of entry via customs and immigration was interminable. Stern-faced officials in khaki uniforms were less than welcoming. Emerging into the night, I was led hurriedly to the waiting transport for a six-hour journey down to the southeastern corner of the country, on unlit roads through mile after mile of silver birch forest, stretching away into impenetrable blackness. Stopping briefly to stretch our legs in the middle of nowhere, the raw cold took my breath away as I gazed up into a dazzling panoply of stars, unpolluted by unnatural reflected light from below. As the first snows of winter began to fall, we arrived in Vetka and, over dirt tracks, we came to the old part of town, where wooden houses stood sentinel against the biting cold, windows rattling in ill-fitting frames as flurries of snow danced among the eaves. The front door to the house of my hosts opened with a dazzling burst of light and heat as I was ushered into warmth and safety. My life has never been the same since that day and every time I return, it is to the same family, and it always feels like coming home.
It’s a cliché, I know, but a visit to this delightful country really is one of those life-defining experiences. It is still relatively free of the trappings of modern tourism and Western materialism, such that it’s very easy to feel a sense of having slipped into another time and dimension. In many ways, the country is a living museum of Soviet communism, but to treat it as such would be a gross disservice to the resilience of its people. Decades after the catastrophic nuclear accident at Chernobyl, Belarusians still feel like the forgotten people of Europe, overlooked and shunned by an international community that denies effective aid and assistance in the absence of political reform.
It is an unknown land; yet it is much more than this. It is an undiscovered box of gems, with a history rich in heroism, tragedy and despair, natural wonders of great beauty and a people who have endured endless privations over the centuries, but whose hospitality is open and unconditional, notwithstanding all that has transpired on their lands.
Sometime soon, I hope, I’m going to board a train at St Pancras Station in London and journey to Minsk via Lille, Brussels, Cologne, Warsaw and Brest. One January, I made it as far as the Polish border during the course of a trip from London via Berlin. I love traversing Europe by train and, on this occasion, I went on 28 trains in five days, which is presently my record. One of the favourite pastimes, particularly on dark winter nights, is to take down from my bookshelves the re-launched European Rail Timetable, uncork an Irish malt whiskey and put together a pan-European journey; and with time on my side, I reckon London–Minsk–London would be a breeze to organise. One day…
So it is with the greatest of pleasure that I share with you everything that I have come to love about Belarus: the natural splendour of primeval green forests, clear rivers and blue lakes; rare flora and fauna; cities that rose from the flames of Nazi barbarism as monuments to post-war Soviet urban planning; stunning museums crammed with rare artefacts; rich culture and tradition; historical sites dating from the Middle Ages to modern times; beautiful churches and the mysteries of Russian Orthodoxy; and most of all, a people whose warmth, honesty and hospitality must be experienced to be believed. Yet whisper all this softly, for we must be careful to guard and not spoil these riches.
It was during my second visit to this much-misunderstood country that I convinced myself that here was a book just waiting to be written. It made no sense at all that I seemed to be the first to have this thought. And when I decided that I would be the one to write it, there was only one publisher to whom I was prepared to entrust the task of opening the door to the land and people that I had come to love. Bradt’s enviable reputation not only for responsible travel writing, but also for being in the vanguard of blazing a trail to new destinations, ensured that in 2008 this was the very first book in the West to feature Belarus as a single subject. Once more, it’s a real delight to be able to share my experiences with you in this third edition.
I’m writing this story as I ride the rails on the sleeper to St Petersburg. We’re somewhere between Gomel and Mogilev (my destination), and I’m tired. Outside it’s humid and gloomy and I’m sharing the compartment with an elderly lady. I’m hot and I need a break from speaking Russian, but my companion wants to chat. I’m soon glad that she does, because she is warm and friendly and particularly kind when I ask forgiveness for the limitations of my Russian. She’s going all the way to St Petersburg, to see her sister. We exchange pleasantries and she settles into her book as I watch the countryside go by. Now I’m eating a tomato from the bag of food Tanya gave me as I left Vetka. My new friend looks up at me from her book, puts it down and begins to rummage around in her bag. She produces a tatty old medicine bottle, which she gives me with a smile. It’s full of table salt. Next she offers me a knife. I give her one of my apples. She finds me a cucumber from the depths of her bag and hands me a napkin. ‘Eat, eat, take salt,’ she says. ‘Thank you for the lovely apple’. On we rattle to St Petersburg. It’s just a moment in time and after we part when the train reaches Mogilev, we shall never meet again. But it’s a moment I shall cherish for always. I’ve been coming to Belarus for 14 years now and encounters like this happen wherever I go. Once again it’s my very great pleasure to share with you many of the things I’ve seen and done in that time, and to open the window for you to peek inside at this beautiful country. I very much hope you visit one day, to discover for yourselves all there is to experience. My life has taken a new direction since I first came here. I can’t promise that for you, but I shall be surprised if Belarus and its delightful people don’t leave a lasting and positive impact for when you return home. Whatever your impressions, do write and tell me what you think.