Behind the Iron Curtain: Belarus

I recently had the fortune of traveling to the last dictatorship in Europe: Belarus.

Somehow you can tell it's still run by a dictatorship.

The Gateway to Belarus (kind of)

For those of you who don’t know the Who, What, Where, When, Why, or How of Belarus, allow me to share:

Belarus is medium-sized European nation that lies between Poland and Russia, or between Lithuania (and Latvia) and Ukraine, depending on how you look at it.  It is near the geographical center of the European continent.  Historically speaking, there are a lot of different ways one could geographically place Belarus:

– When Chernobyl exploded, most of the fallout landed in Belarus.
– When Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812, he actually invaded Belarus.
– When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, they actually invaded Belarus (at the precise location pictured above).
– When the Russians partitioned Poland, they actually partitioned Belarus.
– When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, they actually bombed Belarus.
– That last one is a lie.

As you can tell, Belarus has a confusing history full of turmoil and convoluted national identity issues.  In the last thousand years, Belarus has been a part of Kievan Rus’ (a predecessor nation to modern day Ukraine and Russia as well), Poland, Lithuania, Poland-Lithuania, Russia, and the USSR.

For those of who haven’t stopped reading already, I will entice you to read further by promises of titillating Soviet symbolism:

They still very much love a little hammer and sickle in Belarus.

They still very much love a little hammer and sickle in Belarus.

There’s more where that came from.

As an American, one of the most fascinating things about Belarus is that, at least on an aesthetic level, it behaves as if it’s still living the glory days of the USSR, our sworn enemies of the Cold War.  It is one of the few places that continues to use Soviet symbolism.  Even Russia cut that shit out in the 90’s.  Visiting Belarus is a rare opportunity to observe life and culture as we were unable to see it in the era of the Berlin Wall.  Of course, it’s completely different than it used to be under the Commies, but really, it’s as close as we can get.

And part of that Soviet aesthetic is having huge, monolithic monuments to brave, flawless, proletariat heroes struggling in the Great Patriotic War against Fascism.

The struggle used to be against fascists.  Now it's against disinterested tourists on their smartphones.

The struggle used to be against fascists. Now it’s against disinterested tourists on their smartphones.

I’d say only a post-Soviet nation could be capable of such pompous monuments, but alas, I forget we in the United States have Mount Rushmore.

After a while, he's gonna develop a kink in his neck.

After a while, he’s gonna develop a kink in his neck.

Going back to Belarusian history real quick for a brief summary (skip over this part if you want to just look at pictures):

The old Belarusian coat of arms

The old Belarusian coat of arms

The region of modern day Belarus has, since the beginning of modern European history, been inhabited by a Slavic-speaking peoples.  These peoples spoke what was then known as “Ruthenian,” an East-Slavic predecessor to modern Belarusian and Ukrainian languages.  Eventually, these Ruthenian lands were taken over by Lithuania.  Both the Lithuanian speakers (not a Slavic language) and the Ruthenian speakers (a Slavic language) were known as Lithuanians because that was the political nation under which they existed.

The Lithuanian coat of arms

The Lithuanian coat of arms

Eventually Poland and Lithuania joined into a union of two nations, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which included most of modern day Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine: a multilingual nation of Polish, Lithuanian, and Ruthenian speakers.  Because of the union with Poland, the nobility of Lithuania (some of which may have spoken Lithuanian, and most of which spoke Ruthenian) began to speak Polish, and yet continued to call themselves Lithuanian.

This is why Adam Mickiewicz, Poland’s most famous poet (born in Belarus), was able to write a Polish epic poem whose first line is “Lithuania, my fatherland!”  (Litwo, ojczyzno moja!)  All three nations claim them as their own and erect statues in his honor.

As it turns out, many Belarusians are still proud of their Lithuanian-related heritage.

Many Belarusians are still proud of their Lithuanian-related heritage.

Over time, the Ruthenians who lived under the Lithuanian domain began to evolve their language into Belarusian, and the Ruthenians who lived under the Polish domain began to evolve their language into Ukrainian.  The current political divide between Belarus and Ukraine roughly corresponds to the divide between Poland and Lithuania in the 17th century.

As it turns out, most people in Belarus speak Russian, and Belarusian is actually spoken by an extreme minority.  This is due to centuries of linguistic oppression by the Poles and Russians alike.  However, there is a resurgence of learning and speaking the language among patriotic intellectuals with an interest in their language and history.  My two Belarusian guides, who could only be described as members of an existing Belarusian nationalistic intelligentsia, insist on speaking Belarusian to each other even though both of their first languages was Russian.  At the heart of this is a resentment of the Russian domination of Belarus in recent centuries.  “Belarus” is Russian-applied term, which literally means “White Rus” (or “White Russia” if we wish to get topical), essentially implying that Belarus belongs to the Russian dominion (along with “Little Russia,” aka: Ukraine).  Apparently some Belarusians call themselves “Litvin,” a nostalgic callback to their time as Lithuania and a rejection of the notion of them being White Russia.

In fact, before I went to Belarus, I called its inhabitants “Belorussian” because that was the spelling suggested by my browser’s spellcheck.  My Litvin guide corrected me: “It’s not Belorussian.  It’s Belarusian.  We are not Russian.  We are Rus’.”

Now, if you’re still reading, let me reward you with some more sexy pictures of Soviet kitsch:

So grand.

9th of May is when Belarusians celebrate their grand victory over the Nazis.  So grand.

Hero of the WarOne of the most prominent cultural aspects of Belarus is their obsession with World War II.  No, wait, my mistake: “The Great Patriotic War.”  At every turn, one sees at least a reference to the War, none too inconspicuous, and generally in honor of the heroes who served and died while fighting it.  The first four pictures of this entry all have to do with World War II.  The star is a monument at the Brest Fortress, where the Nazis first invaded the Soviet Union.  The second picture is a poster in Minsk commemorating Victory Day over the Nazis.  The third and fourth are also at the Brest Fortress, although I have no idea what they mean.

It was suggested to me by my guide that, in order to preserve national pride and unity, World War II had to be mythified in Belarus because the October Revolution was too far back in historical memory for it to really be that effective a tool in evoking patriotism.  Hence, why Belarus has many monuments to the Great Patriot War, and few monuments to the October Revolution.

I found a lot of this grandiose art pretty fascinating, especially since we don’t have much of it in the United States (except for, you know, all of Washington DC [and Mount Rushmore]), but there were some things I found rather comically garish.

Party streamer artillery shells in Minsk.

Party streamer artillery shells exploding in Minsk.

There is oh so much more to say about Belarus, but as this is just a blog and not a book, I shall wrap it up for the readers who are actually still reading this with none other than everybody’s favorite way of learning: picture captions.

Go to Belarus.  Really.  It’s something else.

About Doctor Quack

Just another bonehead with an internet connection.
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5 Responses to Behind the Iron Curtain: Belarus

  1. Goodness, quiet streets. Is there a curfew? Where are the people?
    Nice post.

    • Doctor Quack says:

      There’s a curfew in Minsk for students (I’m not sure about the rest of the country). The picture I took with the carless street might just be an anomaly. In general, I found the streets relatively active and lively. I was impressed by the liveliness, but as my Belarusian guides explained, the weather was good, and Minskers come out when the weather is good.

  2. Marta Frant says:

    Have you ever been to Moscow?

  3. Leah Markum says:

    If you do decide to write a book, your writing voice is ideal for nonfiction–you state the facts yet the tone is entertaining.

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