Belarus – Europe’s Heart of Darkness

Belarus house Vashilishki
Traditional Belarusian house

Belarus lies at the heart of Europe so it’s surprising that few tourists venture across its borders or know much about this former Soviet country.

This week Belarus was propelled into the global spotlight following a controversial election which many felt was rigged, sparking mass protests.

President Alexander Lukashenko has held power for 26 years . He was once described as the “last dictator in Europe”, the head of an “outpost of tyranny” by US President George Bush.

No wonder tourists aren’t exactly flocking to Belarus. But this is a country with a fascinating history and culture which is well worth exploring…

Rural western Belarus

Inside Belarus

There’s an old joke. “What do you call a tourist in Belarus?”

The answer? “Somebody who is lost en route to Lithuania”.

It’s shame that so few people have discovered what this attractive, largely rural country has to offer, but then it’s not well-geared up for mass tourism.

For most Europeans, it remains a mysterious place, locked in its Russian past. Its tourism industry is surprisingly underdeveloped. There are relatively few big hotels outside of Minsk and its larger cities.

Belarus Hotel Lida
Tourist in Belarus

Two years ago I travelled to Belarus on a business trip which was a revelatory journey. I loved discovering its history, attractions, food and culture… and experiencing its unique ambience.

I was fortunate to travel with a Russian speaker which was a huge bonus. Very few people outside major cities speak English although they’re a friendly bunch.

An elderly woman let use her earth toilet because of the lack of public loos – and a shop owner in a village insisted on treating us to his special vodka!

Belarusian vodka
Belarusian vodka

But where to begin if you’re planning a trip to Belarus?

It’s almost impossible to find a Belarus travel book or glossy guides in Britain. Information is sparse although I did manage to buy a decent map online.

I’d recommend doing your homework before travelling. There are a few tourism websites such as Visit Belarus, the official online guide. But its claims that tourism infrastructure in Belarus is “highly developed” should be taken with a pinch of salt… perhaps in Minsk but not elsewhere.

There are flights into Minsk, mainly from London, but other areas of the country are less accessible. A hire car is a good solution once you arrive.

Lida Hotel Belarus
Lida Hotel – Lida

Booking a hotel is interesting. A quick scan of Belarusian hotels in the west of the country throws up just a handful of suggestions.

I skipped a strange-looking 1970s motel. Apparently it’s a favourite with travelling construction workers. Its cheap rooms with four bunk-beds weren’t quite what I had in mind. But the prices were very low!

A better option is the larger Lida Hotel in the city of the same name. This modern brutalist style hotel is a relic from the Soviet era with rooms strung along long corridors. Old-fashioned furnishings and flowery bed sheets are the order of the day. The stoney-faced staff clearly hadn’t been on the ‘friendly welcome’ training course.

At only 14 Euros a night, it’s a complete bargain. The Belarusian breakfast is included and it’s a real treat especially the pancakes.

It is clean and cosy in a Soviet way… and makes a surprising change from the formulaic big chain hotels we’ve become accustomed to. Everything is in Belarusian and there are few concessions to foreign travellers.

Travelling to Belarus

I’d spent a few days in Lithuania before heading over the border from a crossing south of Vilnius. It looked like a short hop and a jump on the map… but distances can be deceptive in this part of the world.

Vashilishki Belarus
Belarusian village scene

Before travelling, I’d already discovered how tricky it is to prepare a travel schedule if you’re arriving across the Lithuanian and Belarusian border.

There’s a stack of bureaucracy including visas to be obtained, if you’re not flying into Minsk, the country’s capital. It can also take several weeks to process the documents.

Expect to wait three weeks or more, unless you pay a fast-delivery fee. I made two trips to the Embassy in person.

If you fly straight into Minsk, you can get away with being visa free for 30 days.

I also had the added complication of being on a work trip. This involved extra paperwork and culminated in a visit for coffee and cakes in an impressive room with chandeliers at the Belarusian Embassy in London. It was a surreal experience.

The friendly staff offered me Belarusian nibbles including their wonderful zephyrs. These marshmallow-like Belarusian cakes are so sweet that I felt giddy with a sugar rush when I left… although perhaps it was the super strong black Russian coffee?

Zephyr desserts Belarus
Belarusian Zephyr desserts

Another challenge is taking a hire car across the border… only one company was prepared to let us take a vehicle over from Lithuania into Belarus.

This was despite a booking with another company who changed their mind at the last minute when they saw our road trip schedule.

After a stressful hour, we managed to negotiate with another car hire company at Vilnius airport. But it was a close call… and my nerves were left shreds.

On the Border

The border crossing is quite an experience in its own right.

Belarus used to be part of the USSR but it won back its independence in 1991. There are still many echoes of its Soviet past, especially the bureaucracy and border control.

Belarus isn’t part of the EU and takes border control very seriously. There’s a lot of waiting around. There are documents to be checked, stamped, signed and double-stamped. And there’s yet another queue to get out of customs just when you think you’ve escaped.

This is not a place for smiles and banter. The queues are long and there is generally a three or four hour wait on the Lithuanian side and coming back in the other direction. Our local guide helped to get us bumped up the queue as she knew the guards… but had to ‘sweet talk’ their boss.

We were delayed several hours but it could’ve been worse. Fortunately traffic in western Belarus is very quiet compared to the UK and we made up some of the lost time.

Belarus traffic sign
Belarus – brush up on your Cyrillic

Once you’re over the border into Belarus, there’s a feeling of euphoria and being off the tourist grid. It feels very different to neighbouring Lithuania.

If you’re driving, it’s worth checking that you have Belarus maps. A basic knowledge of Russian and the Cyrillic alphabet is also recommended!

Try to work out the above traffic sign… which is actually for Vasilishki .

The village is also known as Васілішкі (Belarusian), Василишки (Russian), Vasilishok (Yiddish) and Wasiliszki (Polish). There are virtually no signs in English. Very confusing…

Why so many languages? This is because Belarus has been in five different countries over the last 300 years – Lithuania, Poland, the Russian Empire, Nazi Germany and then the Soviet Union.

A Rich History

Lida Castle Belarus
Lida Castle

There have been many turbulent times in Belarusian history dating back to the Teutonic knights.

There was a long period of anarchy in the 13th Century but the mid-1400s saw the blossoming of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania’s “golden age”.

During the battle of Grunwald in 1410 the united army of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania defeated the Order of the Teutonic Knights. The story reads like something out of “Game of Thrones”.

In the 14th Century, Belarus became a target for the Crusaders. Rulers erected defensive castles designed to protect them from any attack.

Mir Castle Belarus
Mir Castle c/o Visit Belarus

Belarus most famous castles are located in Mir and Nesvizh. Ancient stone castles can be found in Lida, Krevo, Kossovo, Lubcha, Ruzhany, Novogrudok and Grodno

The mighty Lida Castle was built by Prince Gedimin and was one of the earliest brick castles in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It has survived many battles and today you can get a glimpse of medieval life within its sturdy walls.

The 17th Century was another dark period in the history of Belarus. 
War followed war, a pattern repeated throughout the 18th Century.

Vasilishki church Belarus
John the Baptist church – Vasilishki – 1769

During the threat from Napoleon in the early 1800s, new defensive fortifications were built including the Bobruisk fortress.

Elsewhere you’ll see a wide range of historic churches. The Holy Trinity church in the village of Gervyaty is a fine example of the neo-Gothic style. It’s located a few kilometres from the Lithuanian border. There are also monasteries, Jesuit churches and splendid cathedrals.

This is a land of beautiful lakes, national parks and charming villages, but it isn’t your usual tourist destination. If you’re looking for authentic experiences and low-key tourism, you’ve come to the right place.

Vasilishok village
Typical village in Belarus

The Abyss – World War Two

Belarus was the centre of the confrontations between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union during World War Two.

It became Europe’s heart of darkness, lying at the centre of major political fault lines.

It was here that the battle for domination of European between Hitler and Stalin played out. Its killing fields were some of the bloodiest in Europe.

World War 2 monument Vasilishki Belarus
Vasilishki – World War Two monument

The collapse of the old Russian Empire and the old German Empire had created what historian Timothy Snyder has described as a “power vacuum” in Belarus.

It led to a disastrous loss of 2 million lives whilst a further an additional million Belarusians fled the Nazis. Another 2 million were deported. By the end of the war, half the population of Belarus had been killed or moved away.

It’s a sobering set of statistics… the human cost was immense.

You don’t have to drive far to discover one of Belarus’ many World War Two monuments or Jewish massacre sites.

Jewish memorial Belarus
Jewish Memorial at Raduń

It is thought that Belarus lost 25% of its population during World War Two when Nazi Germany invaded as part of Operation Barbarossa.

More than 1.6 million civilians and 600,000 Soviet soldiers died during the war. Almost the entire Jewish population was annihilated. 

At Radun, close to the Lithuanian border, there is a roadside memorial and museum to the Jewish community who were wiped out during the Holocaust. It’s one of many dotted around the countryside.

Radun Jewish memorial Belarus
Jewish cemetery

In 1941, the Nazis created a fenced ghetto on Zhydovska Street in Radun. More than 2,000 Jews were incarcerated within its confines.

One day in May 1942 a hundred Jews were told to dig pits in the Jewish cemetery. Fearing the worst, they attempted to organise a mass escape, and many of them were shot.

When the ghetto was liquidated, more than 1,500 Jews had been killed by the Germans and the local police.  It’s a story repeated in many locations in Belarus.

Radun Belarus monument Jewish
Radun’s Jewish monument

About 85% of the capital Minsk was destroyed in WW2 bombing raids and the city had to be largely rebuilt in the post-war years.

The scars are still there if you look carefully on your travels across Belarus which suffered probably the worst of any country during World War Two.

Terror was everywhere.

Our visit to Vasilishki was also sobering. It was one of many Jewish shetls or small towns in Russia where Jews lived and worked. Catholics and Jews lived peacefully side by side, but that was to change…

Vasilishok Jewish site
Vasilishok Jewish site

Nazi troops drove into Vasilishok in 1941 .

They occupied the town and took control of daily life before turning their attentions to suppressing its Jewish community.

The Jews were herded into a ghetto in the village where they lived for the next year. There was forced labour, beatings and lockdowns, but far worse was to come…

Vasilishki synagogue Belarus
The old synagogue in Vasilishok

On May 10, 1942 a Nazi officer gave the order to round up the Jews in Vasilsihok. They were taken to a wooded park close to the centre of the village.

In one of the most shocking incidents of the Holocaust in Belarus, over 2,000 men, women and children were shot dead in plain sight of the village.

Look hard and you’ll see glimpses of this dark period of history including Vasilishki’s deserted synagogue and the Jewish memorial in the park.

Walking through the park, the local historian told us that we were walking on top of the burial pits were the Jews were buried.

Vasilishki Jewish memorial
Vasilishki Jewish memorial

Nuclear Meltdown

If Belarus’s history wasn’t dark enough, another disaster took place in the 1980s.

On 26 April 1986, one of the nuclear reactors at the Chernobyl power plant exploded in Ukraine. It was the world’s worst nuclear accident. 

A toxic cloud spread across the region and neighbouring Belarus suffered the worst radioactive fallout. It is thought that about 70% of the hazardous particles landed in the republic.

Chernobyl TV style

When I was watching the “Chernobyl” TV drama, I realised that things could have been even worse. If the authorities had failed to regain some control after the accident, the whole of Belarus could’ve been wiped out.

Even today Chernobyl still has an impact. This didn’t occur to me until we were told not to drink the local drinking water unless we wanted to “glow in the dark”.

One fifth of the country’s agricultural land was contaminated and more than 2,000 towns and villages were evacuated after the nuclear explosion. More than half a million people were relocated – another sobering thought.

Today’s Belarus

But it’s not all doom and gloom in Belarus , far from it. There are many reasons why tourism has started to increase in recent years.

Belarus might not be the most modern of tourist destinations but it does have beautiful landscapes and a rich history. You have to be prepared for a bit of hard work and patience. It’s not for the faint-hearted.

On one occasion, we were refused entry into a restaurant we’d booked. It turned out that they were embarrassed because they didn’t speak English.

The door man eventually relented but only when a business person from the Czech Republic stepped in and spoke in Russian to help us out. We agreed to order what he’d eaten – four fillet steaks with beers!

Lithuanian food - Vilnius
Typical local cuisine

Eating out in Belarus is an interesting experience, especially if you’re off the beaten track. Dinners are fantastically cheap. Our giant meal with a fillet steak, vegetables and two glasses of wine came to just 10 quid each.

Food is a mix of Slavic and Soviet in style with local delicacies including kletski, boiled flour balls filled with meat. It’s hearty and filling.

Belarusian cuisine is brimming with potatoes, vegetables, meat and cream. Sausages, beetroot and cabbage based dishes are also popular.

I found few restaurants and bars with English menus but here’s a typical drinks list. Knowing the Belarusian for beer is worth its weight in gold!

Bar menu in Belarus
Bar menu in Belarus

The Politics of Change?

Today Belarus is changing and the people are keen to welcome you enthusiastically in most places. They’re as curious about us as we are about them.

But Covid 19 and the post 2020 election ‘fall out’ haven’t helped.

President Lukashenko’s complacency about the coronavirus reveals that he may be out of touch with his people and the wider world. He suggested beating it with “vodka, saunas and hard work”.

The ‘closing down’ of the internet; the flight of Belarus’ opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya,  into neighbouring Lithuania; and rioting on the streets have made this another troubling time for the country.

Vodka in Belarus
The vodka health ‘cure’

But Belarus is an amazing place to visit and we may be witnessing a turning point in its politics and fortunes.

I hope that the times are a-changing for the better because I’d love to go there again one day when the current situation has improved.

After all, Minsk is waiting to greet me so I can delve deeper into the capital’s fascinating history…

For everyone else, a first tentative step might be to combine Belarus with a trip to Lithuania?

Modern Minsk c/o Visit Belarus

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