Belarus: a Christmas Trip to the Land that Time Forgot
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true inspiration in art and science” – Albert Einstein
“Belarus? at Christmas? You can forget it. No way!” – this was my girlfriend’s predictable response when I first suggested going to Europe’s least-known and probably least fashionable travel destination sometime in early 2012, perhaps fancifully imagining a romantic, alternative festive holiday to the usual over-indulgence. So, for a while, I forgot it. Slowly but surely, though, somehow, the idea grew and gestated, and by November 2012 we were well on our way to finalizing plans. I had acquired the only stand-alone English language guide to the country (the Bradt guide to Belarus), sent off for our visas (a lengthy and pricey process, only practically achievable from my base in Krakow by way of a travel agent), and had commenced research into what on earth we were going to find in this freezing, remote country in the middle of winter. Internet resources, in English at least, are still surprisingly scant. This was, to a large extent, a trip into the unknown.
Belarus had long fascinated me, and I had regrettably aborted a trip back in February 2003 due to doubts about the sanity of a visit in sub-zero temperatures; additionly I was put off by the prohibitive visa price. Costing about 100 Euro today for UK citizens, it is the most expensive visa I have seen, and the only country outside Russia in Europe requiring a visa at all for EU citizens. On that occasion I ended up doing a tour of the Baltic States instead. Nine years on, and Belarus was the last country in the old Eastern Bloc that I had not visited. In that time, a lot had changed in Eastern Europe. Poland, along with the Baltic States, Czech, Slovenia, Slovakia, Hungary and recently Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia had all joined the EU. I had seen rapid improvements in my adopted country of Poland, as shopping malls had sprung up, roads and homes had been built, flat prices had sky-rocketed, Poles had become better-educated and the economy had generally boomed. The crisis in 2008 had barely made a ripple on most people I knew in Krakow. Even the Maluch (Fiat 126), a much-loved Communist-era institution on the roads in Poland well into the 2000’s, had practically disappeared. The story was similar over Central Europe, though Poland is perhaps the best example of post-Communist economic achievement. Meanwhile, Belarus remained, steadfastly and stubbornly, aloof; the so-called last dictatorship in Europe (as then-U.S Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice dubbed it in 2005), seemingly lurching from one economic crisis to another, permanently on the edge. Associated in the western mind, if at all, with Chernobyl (unfairly, as it was a victim of it), coldness, greyness and being a Communist time-capsule, Belarus was, and is, an enigma. Alexander Lukashenko remains in power, having ridden the storms of protest and near-revolution in Minsk in 2011 to emerge stronger and more consolidated than ever – a ruler since 1994, and seemingly, for life. Belarus, it appeared from the outside, was trapped in amber, like the insects found in the precious and beautiful stone along the Baltic shores north of its borders. I wanted to go to Belarus though not to ogle at the Communist relics that remained or to tut at the backwardness of it all – I had seen enough of these things on my travels elsewhere – but with the aim of trying to make sense of this strange world on the edge of Europe’s version of the VIP club, and, I hoped, to find a new way of seeing this mysterious land on the periphery of my vision.
The week before departure brought an icy Arctic blast of winter, as temperatures plummeted to -20C or lower in much of western Ukraine, Poland and Belarus. Several people died of hypothermia in Ukraine. On the day of departure, December 22nd, it was -10 in Krakow. I had prepared for this by stuffing my rucksack with thick socks, jumpers, vests and long-johns, and I looked like the Michelin man in my thick winter duffle coat as I alighted my train to the eastern Polish border town of Bialy Podlasie. A night in this uneventful border town was necessary due to the vagaries of train timetables and the fact that Belarus is two hours ahead of Poland in winter time due to it sticking to Moscow times. Our first destination in Belarus was to be Brest, a mere 10km from the Polish border but psychologically on a different continent for me. Queues at the border check point at the train station were long, and people were carrying with them all manner of goods, from TVs and hi-fi equipment to bottles of liqueur and luxury chocolates – Christmas presents bought from Poland at, we were to discover, much lower prices than what they’re available for in Belarus, presumably due to high import tax levies. The train journey to Brest took approximately twenty five minutes as we took a local train; international trains are known to be stuck at the border for upwards of five hours, due to a different train gauge requiring trains to change wheels. More queues at the other side, a declaration to fill out, a few cursory questions from border guards enquiring where we were going with a raised eyebrow and we were in, with a friendly “Welcome to Belarus!” ringing in our ears. Not the stern welcome we were expecting.
We walked through the rather smart train station building – I had become accustomed to grandness and opulence in post-Soviet train stations; from Lviv to Tashkent, station buildings gleam and glitter, even in the most provincial-seeming town. Police officers were immediately evident in large numbers around the station, though we seemed to be watched with curiosity rather than suspicion. Crime rates in Belarus are said to be amongst the lowest in Europe, probably due to the ubiquitous police, so at least that felt reassuring. Changing money wasn’t a problem – our Polish zloty were eagerly swapped for Belarusian rubles – which before devaluation in 2000 were affectionately known as ‘Rabbits’ due to some of the colourful animal pictures adorning the notes – and we were given large wads of notes in a perplexing variety of denominations. The country does not use coins, so the smallest value note is worth around a U.S cent. As is my habit on entering a new country, I bought a beer in the train station café, drably decorated with cheap Christmas decorations. I was shocked to find that it was about $3 for a Baltika #7, a Russian brand; double what it would be in its Polish equivalent. My dreams of a holiday on the cheap diminished as I generally find beer prices a good rule of thumb as to the prices of things in general. And so it was to prove. Belarusian pricing for all things a foreigner might need – hotel rooms, restaurants, bars – are all at western European levels, and alcohol even in shops is more expensive than in Poland.
Perhaps the economy is not the basket case it has been portrayed from outside though; Belarus has a relatively strong export industry, and its 2013 GDP level of around $15,000 is similar to Turkey’s, making it only the 11th poorest European economy. As we strolled to the hotel we had targetted for the night, the aptly named Hotel Bug, one cliché was ticked off the list: our first glimpse of a statue of Lenin. He stood by the side of the road, imperious and proud, pointing accusingly at the west. Our hotel was a delightful throwback to times gone by: dominated by frowning middle-aged women guarding each of its three thread-bare floors, we had to walk an entire corridor and flight of stairs to find a sink and toilet (one of which had a burst pipe and was flooded) and also we were obliged to receive and fill in a little hotel voucher as proof we had stayed here – just in case. Of what, I never knew, and no one ever checked it. A Communist left-over, in all likelihood; best not to question it. There were no breakfasts and woe-betide you if you try to bring someone into your room at night. At less than $15 a night each though – a rare budget option here – we weren’t complaining. Our rooms were spartan but comfy enough and happily they didn’t live up to the hotel’s name, containing neither creepy-crawlies or (as far as we knew) devices with which we were being monitored. In fact, the place takes its name from the nearby River Bug which borders Poland.
Brest has changed hands several times over the years between Russia and Poland, and many of the locals understand Polish – it is much closer to Warsaw than to Minsk. Belarusian and Russian are mutually comprehensible languages and pretty much everyone speaks both. Associated with the 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk which formalized Russian terms of surrender from WW1, the town is, and was, strongly politicized. In general it is a fairly uneventful town, lacking any must-see sights in the centre though there are a number of Catholic churches and some impressive neo-classical architecture. Much of the city was rebuilt after it was destroyed in WWII in typical Communist style – or lack thereof – and there is little, if any, historical heart, and few museums to visit. A fascinating train museum on the outskirts of town, containing old Soviet steam relics from a bygone age, is well worth a visit though, and conjures up a yesteryear feeling which becomes familiar when travelling in the country.
What most visitors come to Brest for though is to see its massive fortress on the outskirts, and this did not disappoint. The fortress, which is a national treasure, dates from the 19th Century and has changed hands between Russia and Poland several times. It commemorates in particular the 1941 siege against advancing Germans during Operation Barbarossa, and tells the story of this harrowing period of Belarusian history in which around 25% of the population was killed at the hands of the Wehrmacht. Its sheer immensity impresses most, set over hundreds of acres of land; it’s not a fortress as you would imagine it, more like a town within a town, its grey walls only visible in the distance beyond lines of red brick barracks and tanks. Just entering it, you feel a tinge of national pride even as an outsider as Russian military music blares through speakers at the huge red star-shaped entrance. Many assume this to be a Soviet war monument, but it’s the closest thing Belarus has to a national monument for war heroes. It has always been a puzzle to me how Belarusians can feel within themselves any sense of national pride, their country never having existed before the break-up of the Soviet Union and having always been dominated by Russia or Poland politically, linguistically and culturally. Although it has played its part within the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth and later as an industrialised and relatively wealthy part of the Soviet Union, it had never had full independence before 1991, its nationhood never allowed to flower. It has been, like Poland, a battleground for centuries, and, more often than not, a martyred nation in terms of its huge losses. Brest fortress though gives a clue as to where nationalistic feeling may be stirred and is an excellent introduction to the country’s (mostly tragic) history. The lasting image is of a huge 40m concrete construction of a grim-faced defender’s head flecked with snow dwarfing a nearby chapel; a bizarre and incongruous sight which somehow sums up the hideous nature of what went on here. To me, Brest and its fortress seemed to sum up the nation – a place of desperate struggle for survival which has been shot by both sides for so much of its history that it has an air of exhaustion and weariness, but nevertheless a fierce determination to live on. Perhaps, like the weeds poking through the melting snow beneath our feet, Belarus exists today because of this spirit.
I wanted to find out more about this spirit, and where better to do that than in the nation’s rebuilt capital, Minsk? The mysteries of Belarus were just beginning to unfold – and inspire me.
Part II of Stuart’s Christmas trip to Belarus can be found here: https://www.neweasterneurope.eu/interviews/1044-belarus-a-christmas-trip-to-the-land-that-time-forgot-part-2
Stuart Wadsworth is a freelance writer and travel photographer, and has contributed to Rough Guides, Urban Travel Blog, the Krakow Post and other media. He has a blog: http://www.offexploring.com/stuinkrakow