In Belarus, people like to boast that the country is located in the centre of Europe. On the political map, Belarus belongs more to Eastern Europe and is regarded as an important link where central routes between Europe and Asia converge. The Republic of Belarus borders on five neighbouring states: Russia to the east and northeast, Ukraine to the south, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia to the west and northwest.[caption id="attachment_595" align="alignleft" width="190"] Endless road | Photo: Benny Reiter[/caption]
In Belarus there are no high mountains, the country has no access to the sea. Nevertheless, it surprises with flat, seemingly endless expanses, dense forests and water-rich lakes and rivers.
The territory of Belarus is located in the western part of the Eastern European Plain. The relief of Belarus is predominantly flat and hilly, with an average altitude of 160 metres above sea level. Hills make up about one fifth of the country, the rest consists of 80 percent lowlands and plains. The highest regions are located in the centre of the country, while the relief gradually sinks to the north and south. The highest peak of the country is 345 meters above sea level of Gora Dzerzhinskaya. The elevation is located west of Minsk, near the small town of Dzerzhinsk. The lowest situated area is in the valley of the river Neman (Memel), on the border with Lithuania. The altitude is 80-90 meters above sea level. The wide and flat surface area favours settlements, agricultural development and the construction of industrial plants and utility lines.
The higher regions are characterised by a changing landscape with swamps and lakes. The main features of today's relief were created by the effects of the ice ages. In the northern part of the country there is the Belarusian Poozerje (derived from the Russian word "ozero", the lake) with a relatively young glacial relief, with numerous elevations and lakes.
In the last million years glaciers have played a decisive role in the formation of the relief, five times the area of today's Belarus was covered by ice masses. During these ice ages, glacial and fluvioglacial forms of the relief (moraine relief) were formed by glacial movements.
In the central part of the country lie the Belarusian ridge (area: 13,000 km²) and the East Belarusian plateau. The two landscapes were formed under the influence of the last ice age. The origin of the watershed between the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea lies in the formation of these elevations. The ridge is characterised by steep hills crossed by deep river valleys. The slopes and plains are covered with forests and crossed by hollows and gorges. Next to the town of Orscha in the east of the country, not far from the Russian border, lies the Orshanskoe hill (255 metres above sea level), which gradually merges into the Orshansko-Mogilevskaya plain (between the towns of Orscha and Mogilev). To the south are the plains of Predpolesje and the flat, marshy lowlands of Polesia.[caption id="attachment_596" align="alignright" width="360"] Prypjat marshes at Polesia | Photo: Benny Reiter[/caption]
The region of Polesia extends from the city of Brest in the very southwest of the country directly on the Polish border to the Russian border in the southeast. Brest Polesia is characterised by valleys 50 to 300 metres wide, mostly with a swampy flat underground. The lowlands with 100 to 150 meters above sea level in the southeast are called Gomel Polesia and are characterized by a wave-like relief. On both sides of the river Pripyat there is the Pripyatskoe Polesien, which is characterized by large peat massifs and shallow lakes.
The river valleys are also interesting in the relief. They are of different ages and their final shape was obtained when the last glaciers retreated. Some, such as the river Dvina, have deep, canyon-like valleys, others, such as the Pripyat, have wide, flat valleys with marshy meadows.
The relief has also changed due to human influences. In recent decades, it has been greatly altered by the mining and construction of quarries, dumps, road dams, melioration canals and reservoirs and the drainage of swamps. In addition, seismic processes taking place on the mainland influence the relief. The epicentre of seismic activity in Belarus is located next to the potash salt deposit in Starobin south of Minsk.
The territory of Belarus has a multitude of untouched wet biotope ecosystems. With its 20,800 rivers, 10,800 lakes, 53 reservoirs and 1,500 ponds, it offers numerous habitats for endangered animals and plants. The total length of all rivers is 90,600 kilometres.
The Belarusian rivers connect the Black Sea with the Baltic Sea. The largest rivers with a length of over 500 kilometres are the Dnepr and its tributaries Pripyat, Beresina and Sosch; the Neman (Memel) and its tributary Wilija; the western Dwina (Dvina). All major rivers, with the exception of the Beresina, cross borders.
It's for a reason that Belarus is attributed "blue-eyed", as the Belarusian lakes on the map are almost perceived as blue eyes. The largest of them are the Narotsch (79.6 km² area), the Oswejskoe (52.8 km² area) and the Tscherwonoe (43.6 km² area). The deepest and most picturesque lakes are located in the north of Belarus (on the Belarusian Poozerje, also called Braslaw Lakes).
Thanks to the potential of numerous rivers, the use of hydropower in Belarus has developed strongly. Nevertheless, only low-pressure power plants can be used, the flat territory excludes other variants.
From the middle of the 16th to the end of the 18th century, Belarus’ fate was closely linked to that of the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania. After the third partitioning of Poland, in the year 1795, Belarus and its three million inhabitants came under the control of the Russian Empire. Annexation to the empire led to fundamental changes in the administrative and physical structure as well as to the governing bodies, which were adapted in accordance with Russian law. Once the decree on annexation of Belarusian territory had been proclaimed, the local population had to swear allegiance to Catherine II. Anyone not swearing allegiance had to leave the country within three months and lost his possessions.
After the first partitioning of Poland in 1772, two governorates, Mogilev and Pskov, were formed. Once annexed to the Empire, in 1801, Belarusian territory was divided into five governorates: Vitebsk, Mogilev, Minsk, Vilna (present-day Vilnius) and Grodno. These divisions continued to exist until 1917. The immediate administration of the governorate was in the hands of the governor, who was elected by the Senate.
The governor was endowed with extensive rights and bore responsibility for running the governorate. The governorates were divided further into so-called “ujesde” (smaller administrative districts). Integration into the Empire put an end to Magdeburg Law and the Russian principle of urban self-government came into force. The urban authorities were headed by a police commissioner (Russian: gorodnichi) and beneath him a town council. The council was comprised of two mayors and four elders, who were usually elected from amongst the wealthy merchants and citizens. Special regulations applied to some towns (such as Minsk and Retshisa), but these were all abolished in the year 1830, when Alexander I issued a decree establishing Russian law in the whole of Belarus. The Tsarist regime aimed to transfer officials from Russian governorates to Belarus, putting them in key positions. However, members of the nobility who swore allegiance to the Tsar were allowed the same rights and privileges as the Russian nobility. Nevertheless, members of the higher nobility were not allowed to keep their own armies and fortresses. Many Russian landowners, in particular the Tsarina’s favourites were allocated estates and serfs in Belarus. Among the richest landowners were Prince Grigory Potemkin, Count Pjotr Rumyantsev-Zadunaisky and General Alexander Suvorov. During the reign of Catherine II and Paul I, over 200,000 serfs were “bestowed” on these protégés. The serfs were in a difficult situation. In order to avert conflict, they only had to pay little or no tax after annexation.
Despite serfdom, agriculture was modernised step by step. The cultivated area was gradually increased until by the middle of the 19th century it was three times as large as in the previous century. The booming agriculture contributed to the establishment of a new trading and merchant class in the towns. In every Belarusian governorate there were regular trade fairs.
Belarusian territory gradually became more habitable. After annexation to the Russian Empire, the Oginski Canal System (a canal linking the River Neman with the River Dnieper, which was started in 1776 and was named after Hetman Kasimir Oginski) was finished. New roads and bridges were built and investments were made in the infrastructure. As of the year 1773 the Russian Academy of Science undertook expeditions to the rural areas of Belarus to research natural resources, climate conditions and how people lived.
The Jewish population was seriously affected by a law introduced in 1794 concerning the establishment of a new settlement. It involved an area to the west of the Empire (in present-day Belarus and western Ukraine), in which the rights of the Jewish population with regard to work and taking up residence were restricted. Where religion was concerned, the Russian government strengthened the position of the Orthodox Church. The Catholic Church lost its predominant position in Belarus, although Empress Catherine II allowed the foundation of a Belarusian Catholic diocese. An estimated 1.5 million people converted to Orthodoxy.
The Polish-Russian War of 1830-1831 (also called the November Uprising) led to marked changes in the policy of the Empire, in particular as far as the western regions were concerned. All major autonomies in the Belarusian governorates were abolished. The Statute of 1588 (Codification of Law in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania) became invalid and was replaced by all-Russian legislation.
In the middle of the 19th century, rule in the Russian Empire was in the form of an absolute monarchy with strong autocratic traits. The tsar was the unrivalled ruler, with unlimited power. He was supreme head of state and controlled the ministers and authorities. However, from a purely practical point of view, the system eventually reached its limits. Over time state machinery – in particular the legislative – was fundamentally reformed. In 1857, the first step was to found a council of ministers. Other reforms involved the ordinary citizens, especially the peasants. In 1861, Tsar Alexander II signed a manifesto abolishing serfdom, giving all peasants equal civil rights. This was one of the most revolutionary reforms of the time. Other reforms during this period concerned the self-administration of smaller towns and local governing bodies, which received more powers. As the tsar feared that the Polish upper classes might increase their power, these reforms did not become effective in Belarus until a later date. Nevertheless, the reforms accelerated social and economic development in Belarus and furthered the evolution of a modern society.
The revolutions at the beginning of the 20th century – which were to fundamentally alter social structures in Europe – encouraged the upsurge of a national Belarusian movement. The idea of the Belarusian people as an autonomous, independent nation was fostered for the first time by a group of students, “Gomon”, in St. Petersburg in the 1880s.
During the First World War (1914 – 1918), there were many bloody battles on Belarusian territory. The German advance began in the direction of Kaunas, Vilnius and Minsk. On 31st August 1915, German troops occupied the small Belarusian town of Vileyka in the north-west. For fear of being surrounded, the Russian army abandoned Vilnius, Grodno, and Brest. The headquarters of the supreme command was moved from Baranovichi to Mogilev. The front line was stabilised in October of the same year. It stretched from Dvinsk (Daugavpils), via Pastavy and Smorgon to Baranovichi and Pinsk. This front line remained unchanged until the beginning of 1918. As a result of the war, devastating inflation broke out as nearly the entire population in the frontline area was drafted for armament and military purposes.
In the occupied territories in the west of the Russian Empire, the military occupied zone Ober Ost (abbreviation for Supreme Command of All German Forces in the East), covering an area of about 50,000 km², was established, controlled by the German Supreme Command. The local population was subjected to a series of control measures and reprisals. Under the German administration, a new currency – the Oberost Mark (also called Eastern rouble) – was brought into circulation. Taxes were imposed on the local population as of 1915: poll tax, business and trading taxes. A mandatory levy on agricultural products was also common practice. Livestock and poultry could not be slaughtered without special permission and a part had to be handed over to the authorities. As of 1915, men between the ages of 16 and 50 and women between 19 and 45 had to do forced labour. The German occupying forces also attempted to revive the local timber industry. Seven sawmills were erected in the Białowieża Forest in 1915. This caused considerable damage to the flora and fauna in Europe’s last virgin forest. Towards the end of the First World War, the suppressed social conflicts and problems worsened and led to a major crisis in the country, which flared up into revolution and civil war.
With the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, after the February revolution of 1917, the Russian part of the country became a republic. The first free and democratically elected parliament (Russian: Duma) gave the population full civil rights and freedom for the first time. However, this did not help solve the most pressing issues in the country. Russia was still a warring party, the population was still impoverished and the economic crisis continued to grow. The new government was divided and undecided, mainly through fear of left-extremist ideologies and parties.
The provisional government abolished the national borders and special regulations on 3rd March 1917, making it possible for the Belarusian Socialist Hramada (Belarusian Socialist Assembly) to become a social democratic party and start its political activity. Its policy reflected the interest of the middle classes in implementing democratic reforms. The Belarusian Socialist Assembly joined forces with the provisional government and demanded Belarusian autonomy in the Russian Federal Republic. In July 1917, national forces organised the second congress of Belarusian national organisations and drew up plans for the autonomy of Belarus.
After the October revolution of 7th November 1917, the Congress of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council, the 3rd Congress of the Peasant Deputies and the 2nd Congress of the Armies of the Western Front took place in Minsk. A provisional government was formed at these congresses. It concerned itself primarily with the problems on the war front. In December 1917, the first All-Belarusian Congress took place which proclaimed the Executive Committee to be the central government of Belarus. However, the Bolsheviks refused to participate in the Executive Committee. On 21st February 1918, the Executive Committee declared itself to be the provisional power on Belarusian territory. All responsibilities of the new authority were invested in the People’s Secretariat with Jazep Varonka as its chairman.
On 3rd March 1918, the peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed, according to which Russia withdrew as combatant from the First World War. A large part of Belarus came under the control of the German Empire. In the occupied territories, the People’s Republic of White Russia (also People’s Republic of White Ruthenia or Belaruskaja Narodnaja Respublika, BNR) was proclaimed on 25th March 1918. According to the terms of the Versailles Peace Treaty, Germany was to recognise the independence of the People’s Republic as a nation, which – in practice – did not happen. After the German occupiers left Belarusian territory, this was seized by the Red Army. In the ensuing conflict between the reinstated Poland and the Soviet Union, both powers raised claims to the national territory of the People’s Republic. Belarus’ borders were modified once again in the Soviet-Polish War from 1919 to 1920. Thus, Belarus’ absorption into the Soviet Union started in the year 1919.
Vitebsk or also Vitsebsk (White Russian: Віцебск; Russian: Витебск) is the hub of northern Belarus. With over 360,000 inhabitants it is the fourth largest city in the country.
The town was erected on the high banks of the Rivers Dvina and Vitba, the latter lending the town its name. Legend has it that a Princess Olga founded the town of Vitebsk in 974 and built it as a fortress. The town was inhabited first by Baltic tribes but it was soon settled by Slavs and the Krivichi. In the course of the next centuries, the town grew rapidly and flourished on account of its favourable geographical location. Vitebsk was mentioned in the Nestor Chronicle for the first time in the year 1021.
In the centre of town one can still find the Schlossberg, where the princes’ residence stood. The simple folk, traders and craftsmen lived at the bottom of the hill. The first stone church in the town, the Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, was erected in the 12th century. Attached to the church was a scribe’s workshop, in which important religious scripts and chronicles were drawn up and copied.
After the death of Vseslav of Polozk in the year 1101, his six sons divided the principality up and the Principality of Vitebsk came into being under the rule of Sviatoslav. He later passed the principality on to his son, Vasilko, who later became Prince of Polotsk.
Between the years 1165 and 1167, the Principality of Vitebsk gradually lost importance and the Prince of Smolensk (Russian town in the east) began to exert his influence over the area. His rule was not long-lived and Vitebsk soon regained its independence.
Towards the end of the 12th century and in the first half of the 13th century, Vitebsk fell under the sphere of influence of the Lithuanian princes. The first Lithuanian prince in Vitebsk was Tautvilas, who consolidated the dynastic relations between Lithuania and Vitebsk. From the year 1320, Vitebsk belonged to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The voivodeship of Vitebsk was founded in the year 1508. In 1597 Magdeburg Law was conferred on the town, but was lost again in 1623, as were other privileges, after the people revolted against introduction of the Church Union.
At this time the aristocratic Sapieha family (Belarussian: Сапега) exercised the greatest influence in Vitebsk and surroundings. The Sapiehas owned vast estates in the Vitebsk voivodeship.
During the 17th century, Vitebsk developed into a significant centre of trade and craftsmanship, but as a result of the Great Northern War (1700-1721), the population was largely decimated and the importance of the town dwindled again. However, at the end of the 18th century the town saw a revival, the population grew and Vitebsk was soon the second largest town on Belarusian territory, after Mogilev.
As a result of the first partitioning of Poland in the year 1772, the Vitebsk voivodeship became part of the Russian Empire. This provided the town with the opportunity to access trade on the Russian market. In the wake of this, many Jewish settlers came to the town.
During the war against France in the year 1812, Vitebsk was occupied by Napoleon’s soldiers. Napoleon arrived at the town on 28th July 1812 and – bearing in mind the poor supply situation and bad transport links – was confronted with the dilemma of whether to stay put and spend the winter there, or to advance to a more fertile area with better accessibility in Russia. After the Russian armies united in Smolensk, Napoleon’s only option was to continue his campaign in the direction of Moscow. As is generally known, this was his undoing and he was defeated by the Russians in the decisive winter battles.
Napoleon’s Russian campaign (known as the Patriotic War, not to be confused with the Great Patriotic War which the Russians use to depict the Second World War), caused major destruction in the town and the pre-war level of prosperity was only reached again in all aspects of daily life by the middle of the 19th century.
Further development came with the improvement of the infrastructure such as the construction of roads and the railway. Modern production methods were introduced in Vitebsk at the end of the 19th century. A Belgian corporation built the first water pipelines and the first tramway in Belarus, as well as erecting the “Dvina” flax mill.
According to the census of 1897, over 50% of the population were Jews. Russians and Belarusians made up just 40% of the total population. Vitebsk was therefore one of the most important Jewish centres in Eastern Europe.
Soviet power came into effect in Vitebsk on 9th November 1917. Workers’ councils took control of the factories. Consequently and thanks to continued modernisation, productivity increased rapidly. By the time the first five-year-plan was introduced, various branches of industry, such as tool-making and mechanical engineering, as well as the shoe and furniture industry, were manufacturing almost a third of the total Belarusian industrial output.
In the second decade of the 20th century, Vitebsk became the centre of the modern art scene. Marc Chagall founded the Vitebsk Arts College, where artists of different orientations and styles, such as Yehuda Pen, Kasimir Malevich, Robert Falk and Mstislav Dobuzhinsky worked. They organised exhibitions, took part in seminars and congresses and shaped the entire town like a living museum, according to their perception of art. Kasimir Malevich and like-minded people put their mark on the art world with their UNOVIS (“Champions of new art”) group. The art school is renowned world-wide as the Vitebsk School of Modern Art. During this period, the famous Russian philosopher and literary scholar Mikhail Bakhtin also lived and worked in Vitebsk.
Vitebsk was occupied by the Nazis from 11th July 1941 to 26th June 1944. The war inflicted serious damage on the town. Very few inhabitants of the pre-war population of 180,000 survived. Up to 90% of the town was destroyed. Reconstruction began immediately after the end of the war; the first factories started production in 1946. Like many other towns in the Soviet Union, Vitebsk developed in the post-war years according to the master plan of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU).
Present-day Vitebsk is one of the largest industrial centres of the Republic of Belarus and a centre of culture and science. The historic centre – with its churches and squares – is one of the most beautiful in Belarus and the position – directly on the Dvina – contributes to the overall tranquillity.
Vitebsk is known beyond the borders for its Culture and Song Festival Slavianski Bazaar. The festival is an annual event which takes place from 9th to 13th July and attracts thousands of participants and spectators from far and wide.
Discover the town and its surroundings on your own personally organised trip within the scope of our 5-day Vitebsk tour.
The path of Belarus as part of the Soviet Union began with the February Revolution in 1917, with the abdication of the Tsar and democratic reforms in the dissolving Russian Empire. The defeat of the Central Powers in the First World War and the November Revolution of 1918 in Germany allowed the Lenin government to terminate the Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty. When the entire territory of Belarus was liberated from German occupation, Belarusian statehood began to re-establish itself. The Belarusian people aspired to independence. The Bolsheviks could not allow this in their efforts to preserve as much of the territory of the former Russian Empire as possible. But the existence of the self-proclaimed Belarusian People's Republic (BNR) and the requests of some political parties and organizations helped the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Belarus to decide to create the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic on December 24, 1918. But there was no Soviet Union yet, only on 29 December 1922 did the Russian Soviet Socialist Federative Republic (RSFSR), the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR), the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR) and the Transcaucasian Soviet Socialist Federative Republic sign the treaty establishing the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics with the capital in Moscow. The Soviet Union was a confederation of states with unified governments and common executive and legal organs of power, which aligned their legislative and legal systems with the socialist theory of society. According to the Soviet constitution, the Union republics were considered sovereign states; formally, each Union republic was allowed to leave the Union. A Union republic had the right to communicate with other states and to participate in the activities of various international organizations.
After the founding of the Union, the territory of the BSSR was enlarged and several districts (Russian: Ujezd) in the north were connected to the country. In 1924 a new territorial division was introduced, the country was divided into 10 Okrugi (the largest administrative unit), 100 Rajoni and 1,202 municipalities (Russian: Selskij Sowet). Separate communities were established for national minorities such as Jews, Poles and Ukrainians.
In the 1920s, a one-party system developed analogous to the rest of the Soviet Union. Opposition parties and organizations were gradually suppressed and eliminated. The Communist Party became the central power in the state.
The economy in Belarus experienced a great crisis after the First World War and the civil war. In order to overcome the crisis and revive the economy, the reforms of the New Economic Policy (NEP), designed and implemented by Lenin and Leon Trotsky, were intended to give an impetus to the entire Soviet Union. What was new about this policy? Lenin introduced market economy processes into the state-controlled economy. This gave farmers the right to dispose of some of their production themselves. From then on, they only had to pay a so-called natural tax and were allowed to sell the rest freely. The cooperative system developed very quickly. The farmers joined together in cooperatives to increase their labour productivity and thus their profits. Thus the agriculture of the BSSR was rebuilt until 1927.[caption id="attachment_605" align="alignleft" width="385"] Calves on the collective farm | Photo: Benny Reiter[/caption]
The New Economic Policy also gave private trade scope for development. Between 1922 and 1923, for example, about 90% of commercial enterprises belonged to private entrepreneurs. They generated over 85% of the country's value added. The NEP also covered the industrial sector. A new management and administration system was introduced for the large nationalized industries. The Supreme Economic Council and its local representatives were the supervisory bodies, but they left the companies room for manoeuvre in their decision-making. This had a positive effect on the mood of companies, employees and consumers.
A special feature of the Belarusian economy was that small private enterprises in particular were able to develop rapidly during this period. In addition, new industries and large enterprises were established in the republic, which had a positive effect on the small craft enterprises. In 1925, pre-war production levels were surpassed for the first time.
The reconstruction of the national economy was driven not only by the effectiveness of the New Economic Policy, but also by the active participation of the population and their will to rebuild. The NEP was partly at odds with the socialist social system. It was of an interventionist nature and was implemented without the reconstruction of the political system and without the legal reforms that were actually necessary. Politics does not refer to objective economic laws, but to social needs and voluntarism. It was an auxiliary mechanism for the concerns of the time and the lack after the war and was a decisive factor for the consolidation of the power of the communists. However, its inherent systemic weaknesses eventually led to problems. Since 1926, taxes rose, and small industry and commerce were gradually pushed out of the market. The New Economic Policy, which at the beginning triggered a boost in industry, trade and agriculture, failed.
The year 1927 in Belarus was marked by supply crises, especially for grain. The Soviet government saw the solution to the problem in the collectivization of agriculture, i.e. the integration of private farms into a state system of collective farms (agricultural production cooperatives). This process of collectivization took place under great pressure. The peasants who resisted were severely punished, threatened prison or deportation to penal camps. Despite the active resistance of peasants, collectivization in the BSSR was completed by the early 1930s. At that time, 87.5% of all farms were organized in collective farms. The exchange of production, however, was disappointing. The collectivization deprived the farmers of the right to their own means of production and prescribed the results of their work. For this purpose there was a centralized system of planning and management in the collective farms.[caption id="attachment_606" align="alignright" width="508"] In today's Belarusian collective farm | Picture: Benny Reiter[/caption]
Employees on the collective farms had no passports and were de jure bound to the place of their work, the collective farm. This completely restricted their freedom of movement in the country.
The social and economic results of economic reconstruction in the 1920s and 1930s were highly contradictory. On the one hand, the economic development of the Soviet Union provided an enormous boost to development, and the country caught up internationally. On the other hand, the socialist construction of the economy and society led to high material and human losses. Almost all forms of ownership were gradually abolished and the state became a monopolist.
It should be noted that, despite its orientation towards Moscow, the BSSR consolidated the Belarusian people and Minsk became the centre of Belarusian nation-state revival. The Stalinist government closely observed, monitored and controlled the socio-political processes in the republic. To this end, many Moscow party cadres were installed in important leadership positions. The best example of this was the position of the chairman of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the head of the Committee for State Security.
The nationality policy of the Soviet Union was also reflected in Belarus. The so-called "policy of national rebirth" continued when the BSSR was founded in 1920. Since 1921 the entire state file management was transferred into Belarusian. The Belarusian State University Minsk (today - the largest university in the country), which was opened in 1921, made a substantial contribution. Until 1928, 80% of the employees of the central state institutions spoke Belarusian. The policy of national reconstruction was successful and received extensive support from the Belarusian people. The construction and development of the language helped to shape the feeling of belonging to a nation
Since the beginning of the 1930s, however, a contrary policy was pursued. The central Soviet administration strived to eliminate everything connected with the Belarusian nation. At that time, a myth was spread about a broad network of counterrevolutionary nationalist organizations. According to the OGPU (United State Political Administration), all areas of the national economy, scientific institutions and universities of the BSSR were permeated. This provided the excuse to nip the revival of Belarusian national identity in the bud.
On April 11, 1927, the constitution of the BSSR was adopted, in which the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic was declared a socialist state of the dictatorship of the proletariat. According to the constitution, the BSSR voluntarily entered the Soviet Union.
After 10 years, a new constitution of the BSSR was adopted, as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) itself adopted a new constitution in 1939. The Constitution of the USSR required full conformity with the Constitution of the BSSR. The laws of the USSR were fully valid on the territory of the BSSR, since every citizen of the BSSR was also a citizen of the USSR. In the Constitution, it was formally a voluntary union of the BSSR with the USSR, although the sovereignty of the republic was substantially limited. Thus, all important issues of state life fell within the competence of the USSR. The economic life of the Republic was developed and coordinated according to the plans of the USSR.[caption id="attachment_676" align="alignleft" width="338"] Kurapaty. Place of Stalin mass graves | Photo: Benny Reiter[/caption]
Many constitutional laws had the character of declarations, but often did not correspond to reality (e.g. with regard to freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly).
The Soviet economy aimed to develop heavy industry and build large machinery and industrial plants. This entailed a fundamental transformation of the entire economy. In the BSSR, as in the entire Soviet Union, this process took place under the slogan of Socialist Industrialization. The transformation into an industrial society was relatively rapid in Belarus and took between ten and fifteen years. This industrialization in the blink of an eye required considerable financial resources, which the state took from the people. Many national cultural artefacts and valuables, especially ecclesiastical ones, were sold. The working class was paid less and the peasantry was subject to high taxes.
In the BSSR, the fuel, wood, paper, textile, shoe and food industries developed during the interwar period. Heavy industry was hardly developed at that time.
Economic activity was prescribed by the Communist Party in so-called five-year plans. These plans had to be strictly followed. There were socialist competitions of the so-called Stakhanov movement. According to the great deed of Stakhanov (overfulfilment of the daily plan by 1.457%) the workers throughout the Soviet Union were supposed to make more efforts to increase their labor productivity, so was the hope.
On August 23, 1939, Hitler and Stalin concluded the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, whose secret Additional Protocol was to divide the zones of influence of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. After Germany had attacked Poland, the Red Army entered western Belarus. This territory was annexed and incorporated into the Belarusian SSR. Despite the non-aggression pact, the Third Reich entered the war against the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. More about this topic you can find here.
During the subsequent German occupation, enormous damage was inflicted on the Belarusian people in all areas of their lives. After the defeat of Nazi Germany and its allies in the Second World War, a new period began in the historical development of Belarusian society. Its main characteristic was a spiritual resurrection. But the joy that accompanied the victory over the enemy was overshadowed by the huge human losses. In comparison with all other countries involved in the war, Belarus suffered the greatest losses: approximately three million people, or one in three inhabitants, lost their lives.[caption id="attachment_677" align="aligncenter" width="376"] Victory Square in Minsk | Photo: Anna Kovaliova[/caption]
In the post-war period, agriculture lay in ruins, other Soviet republics supplied Belarus with livestock, grain and agricultural technology. Great efforts were needed to overcome the post-war damage. Many cities such as Minsk were rebuilt from scratch.
In the post-war period, many forces and resources were invested in the reconstruction of heavy industry. In the Belarusian SSR, mechanical engineering and the electricity industry developed at a particularly rapid pace. By 1950, the economy had returned to pre-war levels in almost all areas. In the following decades Belarus developed into the most progressive of the Soviet republics. It was an important centre of technical progress, strategically important large enterprises were settled, among other the first Soviet microchips were manufactured locally. The excellent level of technical education has been maintained to this day.
In sympathy with the heavy losses of the country during the German occupation in the Second World War, the BSSR was admitted to the UN as a founding member alongside the Ukrainian SSR and the USSR. It had its own vote in the Plenary Assembly, but it was always cast in the USSR bloc.
The Belarusian SSR experienced the same political history as the entire Soviet Union. After Stalin's death, the thaw period began (1953-1964). This was followed by a period of stagnation from 1964-1986. On 7 October 1977 the last constitution of the USSR was passed.
The political processes of the Perestroika period led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and to the independence of Belarus. The end of the Soviet Union was sealed on 8 December 1991 in the Belovezh Agreement on a Nomenklatura estate in the Belavezhkaya Pushcha near Brest, which transferred the Soviet Union to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
In Belarus, the Second World War is often equated with the Great Patriotic War, but the two are anything but identical. The “Great Patriotic War” began on 22nd June 1941 when the Third Reich attacked the Soviet Union, almost two years after the commencement of the Second World War.[caption id="attachment_684" align="alignright" width="330"] Memorial to fallen soldiers in Turov | Photo: Benny Reiter[/caption]
The Second World War began on 1st September 1939 with the invasion of Poland. In accordance with the secret agreement appended to the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact on the partitioning of Poland, Belorussian troops from a special military district advanced on Poland in the night of 17th September 1939 under the pretext of liberating Belorussian fellow countrymen and Ukrainians. This was the start of the Polish-Soviet war. The Soviet Union wanted to exploit the situation in order to increase its power in western Belarus and the Ukraine. Western Belarus was incorporated into the Belorussian Socialist Soviet Republic (BSSR) in the autumn of 1939 thus becoming part of the Soviet Union.
At the same time, Nazi Germany was preparing for war on the Soviet Union. As of June 1940, the preparations for Operation Barbarossa were forging ahead. The plan was to invade the Soviet Union in June 1941 and defeat the Red Army in a lightning war before the winter of the same year. To this end, Germany and its allies Italy, Romania, Hungary and Finland massed large parts of its forces on Polish territory near the border to the USSR, where the powerful Army Group Centre was stationed. The Soviet secret service reported on Hitler’s intention to attack the Soviet Union well in advance, but the Soviet leaders did not recognise the urgency of this intelligence and dismissed it as lies and provocation. They simply failed to consider the fact that Germany might unilaterally terminate the Soviet/German non-aggression pact.
In the early hours of the 22nd June 1941, German troops crossed the Soviet border. Thanks to successful battles in Western Europe, the Germany army had already acquired enormous combat experience and possessed one of the most powerful armies in the world. The Wehrmacht started by advancing on Brest, where the first heavy fighting took place. Within just four days it had fought its way through to Minsk, 350 kilometres away, and Minsk fell two days later. At the beginning of the war, the Red Army was hopelessly inferior to the German Wehrmacht, the defence of the western military districts was inadequately – or rather not at all – prepared. This was aggravated by the fact that about 40% of the most experienced officers and generals of the Red Army had fallen victim to Stalinist terror in the 1930s. The country’s defence at this point was in the hands of mostly simple, inexperienced soldiers. In the first days of the war, the administration appealed to the people to stay calm and implied that the enemy would soon be fought back. However, the administration itself was evacuated immediately after war broke out.
It was not until the 29th June 1941 that general mobilisation of the Red Army began. Between June and August 1941 over 500,000 Belarusians were conscripted for national service. Many people, even young girls, voluntarily reported for service on the front line. This was the subject of a book by the authoress Svetlana Alexievich (The Unwomanly Face of War), for which she received the Nobel Prize in 2015.
Right from the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War, Belarusian territory was the main arena for the horrific confrontation between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army. The civilian population suffered dreadfully under the war: the constant air raids wrought havoc, the country was flooded with refugees, the supply situation was catastrophic.
Nevertheless, the Red Army managed to evacuate about 1.5 million people, the industrial plant from various factories and an incredible amount of livestock beyond the Ural Mountains.[caption id="attachment_680" align="alignleft" width="331"] Brest Fortress | Photo: Benny Reiter[/caption]
At the beginning of July 1941, the Soviet Supreme Command attempted to establish a defence line along the Dvina and the Dnieper. Soviet soldiers were literally fighting to the last man to save many towns, such as Barysaw, Bobruisk, Mogilev, Gomel and others. Despite this, the entire country was occupied by the Wehrmacht by the beginning of September. The Red Army lost more than 1.5 million men during defensive operations, in addition to thousands of machine and weapons units.
The troops garrisoned in the Brest Fortress fought resolutely until the end of June 1941. The defence of White Russia was of immense significance for Stalin from a military policy point of view.
German plans for a “lightning war” ground to a halt in the gruelling, bloody battles. The myth of the invincibility of the Third Reich received its first damper.
Following the occupation of White Russian territory, the occupying forces introduced their new regime. The occupation – which lasted about three years –affected about eight million inhabitants and 900,000 Soviet prisoners of war. Hitler’s Master Plan for the East envisaged leaving 25% of the population alive and using them as a workforce, 75% were to be exterminated or exiled. The new regime was backed by the SS, SA, SD (security service), security police, Gestapo and police force. Special task forces were also established, whose main function was to combat partisans and underground fighters. There were 260 extermination camps in Belarus, with various subsidiary sites. According to Soviet figures, about 206,500 people were killed in the Maly Trostinets extermination camp. Ghettos were set up in the main towns and one of the largest ghettos in Europe was the Minsk ghetto, in which more than 100,000 Jews died.[caption id="attachment_681" align="alignright" width="312"] Central sculpture at the Khatyn memorial site | Photo: Benny Reiter[/caption]
In the course of the occupation, the occupying forces carried out more than 140 major punitive expeditions against partisans and the civilian population. They destroyed a total of 5,295 villages, 628 Belarusian villages were burned together with their inhabitants. Many of these villages were never rebuilt. The burnt village of Khatyn, not far from Minsk, became a tragic symbol of these atrocities and an impressive memorial site was erected there in 1969.
The remainder of the population was systematically exploited. Many were forced to work in factories under inhumane conditions. 380,000 inhabitants were deported to Germany as forced labourers.
In the spring of 1942, a land reform was carried out in the general district of White Ruthenia. According to this, all kolkhozes were abolished and the land was officially returned to the local farmers.
Head of the German administration in Belarus was Wilhelm Kube, the regional (Nazi) party leader. He was assassinated in 1943, when two Minsk partisans Elena Masanik and Maria Ossipova placed a bomb in his apartment. In retaliation, 300 prisoners from the Minsk prison were shot. Kube was replaced by Curt von Gottberg, a top-ranking member of the SS.
During the occupation, widespread resistance was organised on White Russian territory. After the war, Belarus was known worldwide as the country of classical partisan warfare. The first partisan division – with sixty members – was established on the first day of the war in the town of Pinsk in the south of the country. The division fought against the mutual enemy under the command of Vasily Korzh.
During the occupation 1,255 partisan divisions were set up. They fought against the Nazi regime, helped by the local population. According to information from the Belarusian staff of the partisan movement, there were about 374,000 partisans in Belarus. There were about 30 areas which were completely under the control of the partisans and which the Wehrmacht was unable to overcome. By the end of 1942, about one third of White Russian territory was controlled by the partisans and a year later almost two thirds. The partisans’ most successful tactic was the “railway war”, which played a key role in liberating the country. The partisans destroyed the railway lines on occupied territory, caused German transports to derail and consequently hampered the essential supply of weapons, ammunition and food.
As a result of the strategic advance of the Red Army in 1943, the front line to Belarus was relocated. The first Belarusian county town of Komarin was liberated on 23rd September 1943. The Belarusian operation ‘Bagration’ was one of the largest military operations in the Great Patriotic War. It took place between 23rd June and 29th August 1944. The aim was to destroy the German Army Group Centre, liberate the entire territory of White Russia and to compel the enemy to retreat as far as the neighbouring countries Lithuania, Latvia and Poland.
The Belarusian capital of Minsk was liberated on 3rd July 1944 and this day is known today as Independence Day. By the 28th July the entire country had been liberated and the Red Army was not far from the border to Eastern Prussia.[caption id="attachment_682" align="alignleft" width="394"] Tank in Bobruisk | Photo: Benny Reiter[/caption]
The Second World War had grave consequences for Belarus. Of all the countries involved in the war, Belarus was the worst hit. 209 towns and 9,200 villages were completely razed to the ground or destroyed. The loss of life was tremendous. Historians estimate the number of victims to have been between 2.5 and 3 million. In other words, every third Belarusian lost his life during the war.
This war is remembered in Belarus to the present day and the 9th May is celebrated everywhere in Belarus as the Day of Victory over Nazi Germany. On this day there is an annual parade in the capital Minsk, reviewed by the Belarusian president in person.
Go on a journey with us and discover more about the history of the country.
Unbeknown to most people, Maly Trostinets was the largest German extermination camp on the territory of the Soviet Union. Until the 1990s it was not even mentioned in standard works on the Shoah.
Work was started on erecting the camp – under the auspices of the commandant of the security police – soon after the invasion of the German army on 28th July 1941. Maly Trostinets counts the fourth highest number of victims in the Nazi extermination camps, after Auschwitz, Majdanek and Treblinka. Civilians and prisoners of war, Jews from Poland, Austria, Germany and Czechoslovakia were all murdered in Trostinets. After the war a Soviet commission estimated a total of 206,000 victims but western historians consider the figure to be more like 60,000.
The name Trostinets comprises three different locations:
- the woods near Blagovshchina, where mass executions by firing squad took place
- the actual camp, 12 km southeast of Minsk
- the woods near Shashkovka, where a provisional crematorium was erected and where mass cremations took place.
Most people were killed by firing squad. They had to undress, line up along the edge of long ditches and were shot either in the head or neck. The bodies were buried and the earth compacted with caterpillar tractors.
In the autumn of 1943, when a defeat of the Wehrmacht seemed more and more likely, the Nazis tried to obscure the traces of their crimes. An SS special unit was formed, which was responsible for digging up the bodies of those shot and burning them. This horribly inhumane task was allotted to prisoners from Minsk prisons and prisoners of war, who were then also shot and cremated. In the autumn of 1943, about 50,000 bodies were exhumed and burnt. Inhabitants of the neighbouring villages had to supply several thousand cubic metres of wood for the purpose. After the bodies were burnt, the bones were crushed and all jewellery and gold teeth collected from the ashes.
At another place nearby, in the woods of Shashkovka, the Wehrmacht built a temporary crematorium for cremating the bodies of those shot. It was a ditch with gently sloping entrance. On the floor of the ditch were six rows of rails, 10 metres long, on which lay a grating. The place where this temporary crematorium was situated was surrounded by barbed wire and guarded around the clock. It was in continuous operation from October 1943 until June 1944.
The last documented act of mass extermination took place in July 1944, just a few days before Minsk was liberated. 6,500 people were shot in the Trostinets extermination camp and then burnt in a barn. They were prisoners from the prison in the Wolodarskogo Street and from the camp in the Schirokaja Street in Minsk. On this day Stepanida Sawinskaja and Nikolai Walachanowitsch escaped death. Sepanida Sawinskaja remembers that there were many women and children between three and ten years of age among the victims.
A Soviet State Commission started work in July 1944 and discovered 34 mass graves in the woods near Blagovshchina. Some of the ditches were up to 50 metres long. When the graves were opened, cremated human remains were found to a depth of three metres and layers of ash up to a metre thick. According to Soviet information, about 150,000 people were murdered and buried in the woods at Blagovshchina, including about 60,000 Soviet prisoners of war, 50,000 prisoners from the Minsk ghetto and over 20,000 deported European Jews.
The tragic fate of Soviet Jews also awaited Jews from Western Europe, in particular from countries occupied by Nazi Germany such as Austria, Hungary, Poland, Bohemia and Moravia. They were deported eastwards under varying pretexts. For example, for settlement in the East or to work in German armaments factories. The first stop for transports from the German Reich and West Europe was in the little Belarusian town of Volkovysk (Vawkavysk). The new arrivals were divided up and were loaded into goods trains. If a train was delayed, then it was diverted to another station (e.g. Baranavichy, Stolbtsy, Koidanovo), where a similar fate awaited them as in Minsk.
The deportation of Jews from Germany began in September 1941. The plan was to deport approximately 50,000 Jews to the newly designated General Commissariat for White Ruthenia. The first transport from Hamburg arrived in Minsk on 11th November 1941. In the following months, 6,963 Jews from Hamburg, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bremen and Poland arrived in Minsk. Some were brought immediately to the extermination camp, others became victims of the killings in the Minsk ghetto. Jews from Germany and West Europe were strictly separated from the Jews from the Soviet Union. There were two separate districts for this purpose in the Minsk ghetto. About 19,000 German Jews were deported to the Minsk ghetto. Till the very end, the German occupying forces maintained appearances to the effect that the German Jews were being resettled.
There was also another separate area in the ghetto: the children’s home. Here, the children were left more or less to their own devices. They slept on musty straw and suffered from malnutrition. The purpose of this children’s home was of a military nature: the children served as blood donors for German soldiers.
Like other camps, the Trostinets concentration camp was part of the brutal war of extermination. However, this extermination camp was singular in that all aspects of the killing machinery were rampant here: extermination of the civilian population and prisoners of war, planned murder and spontaneous execution of people of various nationalities and confessions.
After the war, many places where mass extermination had taken place were turned into memorials, as a reminder of the Nazi atrocities. Museums and places of remembrance were built; the public was confronted with the past. Trostinets has been largely unaffected by such remembrance processes. It was not until 1963 that an obelisk with an eternal flame in memory of the victims of Trostinets was erected, albeit quite some distance from the actual extermination site and the concentration camp, in the village Wieliki Trostinets. Two simple gravestones remember the victims who were murdered in the crematorium of Shashkovka at the end of the war. In addition, in 2002 a small memorial was erected in the woods near Blagovshshina.
In the same year, the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Belarus decided to set up the Trostinets memorial complex. Leonid Levin, a famous Belarusian architect who has created many monuments to the holocaust and the Second World War in Belarus, drafted the main design for the entire complex. Unfortunately he was not able to carry out his plan; he died in 2014 at the age of 78. In the meantime, his daughter Galina Levina is continuing her father’s work. A monument was inaugurated in Maly Trostinets in 2015.
In European archives lists of the names of many western European victims of Trostinets are still preserved. Of the Jews deported from Western Europe, the majority came from Vienna. A figure of approximately 10,000 is assumed. Of those, only 17 survived. As far as Soviet citizens are concerned, only about 600 names are known today, 400 of those being prisoners from the Minsk ghetto and 50 members of the underground movement.
To this day, relatives of the victims of Trostinets come to Minsk every year to pay tribute to their forebears and to raise awareness of what terrible things happened in this place. In this way, the subject and interest in it is passed on to the younger generations.
In this context, the History Workshop, Minsk, plays an important role. It is located in a historic building on the site of the former Minsk ghetto. The History Workshop is a joint German/Belarusian project which remembers and tries to help come to terms with the atrocities of Nazi history, implements educational programmes on this theme and supports surviving victims. It is open to visitors at all times and houses an interesting exhibition on the holocaust in Belarus and on the work of the architect Leonid Levin.Learn more about this subject and go on a trip to Minsk with us.
The below feature video is brought to you by Dr. Aliaksandr Dalhouski. It provides you a great inside in the remembrance work around Maly Trostenets. Aliaksandr is the deputy director of the Minsk History Workshop. He leads the project „Contemporary Witness Archive“ there. In 2014-17 he was a collaborator in the project "Vernichtungsort Malyj Trostenez. History and Memory" for the preparation of a German-Belarusian traveling exhibition of the "International Education and Meeting Center Johannes Rau Minsk (IBB Minsk)" in cooperation with the "Foundation Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe". Aliaksandr is also a renowned author and published several books dedicated to the history of his homeland Belarus. His latest book on the history of the Białowieża National Park was published in 2017. For more video features around Belarusian history, check out our Youtube channel.
The murder of the Jews was taken into account during the preparation of the attack on the USSR and was part of the Third Reich's war of extermination in the East. With the commissar's order of June 6, 1941, all Bolshevik commissars of the military and internal administration, including many Jews, were executed without military trial. On the territory of Belarus the Einsatzgruppe "B" operated under the command of Arthur Nebe, Chief of the Criminal Investigation Department.
According to the last census before the Second World War (1939), there were 70,998 Jews in Minsk, almost one third of the total population of the Belarusian capital.
On 19 July 1941, the Wehrmacht issued an order to create a ghetto in Minsk. The order clearly defined the boundaries of the ghetto not far from the city centre. The Minsk Ghetto consisted of about 40 streets and crossroads and was located in the northwestern part of the city. The ghetto territory was bounded by Kolkhoznaya, Nemiga, Respublikanskaya, Shornaya, Kollektornaya, Obuwnaya and Zaslavskaya streets. After the announcement of the order, the Minsk Jews had five days to move to the ghetto. They were only allowed to take what they needed with them. After the resettlement, the ghetto was walled and fenced in, isolating it almost completely from the outside world. There were two entrances and two exits, and the ghetto could only be left if the ghetto inhabitants could prove that they were working outside. Disobedience had the most serious consequences. Jews were forced to wear the Star of David.
The administration of the Minsk ghetto was taken over by the so-called Jewish Council (german: Judenrat). The Judenrat was an institution between the German occupying authority and the ghetto inhabitants. It consisted of influential citizens of the Jewish communities, rabbis, elders and members of the intelligentsia. Among other things, its task was to regulate the registration system. In the Minsk Ghetto, it was common practice to recount the Jewish population after each punitive action.
The reality of life in the ghetto was characterized by hunger, narrowness and extraordinary hardship. Several families had to share a room, there was only one central kitchen in the ghetto. Food was allocated according to the category of work. Thus "non-working" Jews received only 150 grams of bread, 10 grams of barley and 3 grams of salt per day. Those who fell into the category of "working Jews" also received a slice of bread and a plate of soup a day. This severe situation provoked several riots. The people lived in constant fear, the basic laws of the ghetto were arbitrariness and violence.
There was no medical care, the hygienic situation was catastrophic. Due to the many deaths, which were only sporadically transported away, epidemics and diseases quickly spread.
The Judenrat also had the task of creating a police force among the inhabitants of the ghetto. The police of the ghetto, the so-called Jewish Ordnungsdienst, was the executor of the orders of the Judenrat and the German occupation authorities. This "police" was forced to collaborate with the German occupiers in actions against ghetto inhabitants.
Despite the most adverse conditions, the prisoners of the Minsk ghetto managed to organize resistance. Up to 22 underground groups were active in the ghetto at various times. The leaders of the resistance were people like G. Smoljar, M. Pruslin, M. Gebelew, N. Feldman. The underground resistance was concerned, among other things, with communication with the partisans outside the ghetto, coordination about conspiratorial meeting places, and propaganda work in the ghetto itself.
Many Belarusians risked their lives and those of their families by rescuing refugees from the ghetto and hiding them in their houses and apartments. Some took Jewish children under Russian names or placed them in children's homes.
The extermination of Jews in Belarus began immediately after the beginning of the war. By the beginning of 1942, Jews had already been murdered in more than 40 towns and villages in eastern Belarus, as this territory was part of the hinterland of the Central Army Group. By then an estimated 5250 Jews had been killed in Bobruisk, about 7000 in Borisow, 4000 in Gomel, 3000 in Retschitza, and 6800 in Witebsk.
The surviving prisoners of the Minsk ghetto mostly remember the black days of November 7 and 20, 1941, March 2 and 31, 1942, and July 28, 1942, when the SS carried out the largest murder operations. Due to the enormous number of people shot by SS occupying forces from spring 1941 to summer 1942, the SS sought more effective methods of killing. From the autumn of 1942, so-called "gas vans" (Dushegubka, Russian: душегубка) were in use for the first time in Belarus. Post-war research refers to specially converted trucks used by the SS to gas the occupants as gas vans. There were four gas vans in the Belarusian capital, each of which could accommodate up to 60 people.
After two and a half years of existence, on 21 October 1943, the Minsk Ghetto was dissolved. The remaining 1,000 inmates were killed in the Blagovshchina forest near Minsk.
By 1942 almost all Jews had been murdered in the cities of Brest, Baranovichi, Volkovisk, Klezk and Zhlobin. In December 1942 Baranovichi was declared "Jew-free".
In April 1942 the head of the security police of the general district Weißruthenien, Obersturmführer Strauch, announced that 130,000 of 150,000 Jews were destroyed on the territory of the general district.[caption id="attachment_906" align="alignleft" width="320"] Memorial stone for murdered Jews from Hamburg | Picture: Anna Kovaliova[/caption]
In the years 1943 - 1944 the murder actions against the Jews continued in the west of the country, in Grodno, Nowogrudok, Wolozhin and other cities.
Jews from Western European countries suffered a similar tragic fate as the Jewish population of the Soviet Union. They were deported from Austria, Hungary, Germany, Poland, Bohemia and Moravia to the occupied territories in Belarus. The deportations of Jews from Germany began in September 1941 and it was planned to deport about 50,000 Jews. The first transport from Hamburg arrived in Minsk on 11 November 1941. A further 6963 Jews were then brought to Minsk from Hamburg, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt-am-Main, Berlin, Bremen and Poland. Two areas separated by barbed wire and barriers were erected in the Minsk ghetto, one for Western European Jews and one for Soviet Jews. More than 19,000 German Jews died in the Minsk Ghetto.
During their retreat, the SS occupation troops tried to cover up their bestial crimes. In autumn 1943, mass graves were opened by so-called Sonderkommandoos in top secret actions and the victims of the shootings and gassings were burned.
Although the Minsk Ghetto was one of the largest ghettos in the territory of the Soviet Union at the time, little was known about its history. Only former prisoners of the ghetto took the initiative in 1946 and erected a memorial in the form of a black obelisk on the site of a mass grave in the former centre of the ghetto, where thousands of Jews had lost their lives.[caption id="attachment_904" align="alignright" width="383"] History workshop in Minsk | Picture: Anna Kovaliova[/caption]
Today, it is above all the Minsk History Workshop that is actively engaged in historical research. The History Workshop is a Belarusian-German project, which was founded in 2002 by the International Education and Meeting Center in Dortmund (IBB), the International Education and Meeting Center "Johannes Rau" Minsk and the Association of Belarusian Jewish Organizations and Communities. The History Workshop is located in a historic building on the site of the former Minsk Ghetto, which allows learning from history in authentic places.
The central tasks of the History Workshop are to accompany and support surviving victims of National Socialist tyranny, to develop and implement programmes of historical education and to promote newer research trends in Belarusian war and occupation historiography as well as German Nazi research.
The town of Brest, which lies in the southwest of the country, is considered to be Belarus’ gateway to Western Europe. Brest is the regional capital of the oblast (Russian for administrative district) of the same name and with 338,000 is one of the largest cities in the country.
Thanks to its advantageous position on the Bug River (in the west) and on the borders to Ukraine and Poland, Brest is an important traffic junction. Trains travel via Brest to Moscow and Warsaw. At the station the gauge has to be changed on trains travelling from the west to comply with the Russian track gauge and vice versa. There are important inland ports on the Mukhavets River and on the tributary of the western Bug.
From a geographical point of view, Brest lies on the western periphery of Belarusian Polesia, in marshy, flat lowlands. By travelling north, one arrives directly in the Belovezhskaya Pushcha (Bialowiezha Forest) National Park.
Brest can look back on a long and eventful history. The town was first mentioned in the first Novgorod Chronicle in 1019. In the course of its history, the town belonged to various countries, was destroyed many times and then rebuilt.
The original name of the town, Berestje, probably stems from the word “berest” (field ulm) or from “beresta” (birch bark). A legend has it that a rich merchant and his friends were travelling north-eastwards to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. On the way they found themselves in a swamp, in which birch trees grew. The travellers chopped down the trees and by using the trunks, which they laid down in the swamp, were able to make their way out. They eventually came to an island between two rivers. Out of gratitude for having survived, the merchant erected a place of worship in honour of the god Veles, the main god of Slavic mythology. Later, when the merchant and his co-travellers returned, they stopped at the place of worship, built houses and founded the town called Berestje.
In chronicles of the 12th and 13th centuries the name Berestij is also to be found. From the 18th to the beginning of the 20th century, the town was called Brest-Litovsk. This indicated that it belonged to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and made it distinguishable from the Polish town of Brest-Kujawski. It wasn’t until September 1939 that Belarusian Brest received its present name.
In the 19th century, archaeologists discovered the hill fort of old Brest, where the Brest fortress stands today. The first settlement on Brest territory was presumably built about the turn of the 10th to the 11th century, when the Dregovichi – an East Slavic tribe – lived there. Numerous archaeological finds testify to the development of craftsmanship as well as the trade and cultural relations both with towns in the Kiewer Rus and with other neighbouring countries. The Archaeological Museum of Brest now stands on the site of the former hill fort and one can gain an impression of what a Slavic town looked like in the Middle Ages.
In the 11th century, Berestje was an Old Russian trading centre, with a fortress on the border to Polish and Lithuanian estates. The place where old Berestje stood was at the crossroads of two old trading routes. The first led from the Duchy of Halych- Volhynia via the western Bug to Poland and Western Europe. The second stretched over the Rivers Mukhavets, Pripyat and Dneiper and linked Berestje with Kiev and the Near East. Since Brest had always been a border town, it was often the focal point of wars and conflicts. Control over the town was usually passed from prince to prince or principality, frequently involving much plundering and destruction. Despite the efforts of the local nobles, the town never acquired the rank of an independent principality and remained purely a centre for trade and crafts without political importance.
In the 12th and 13th century Brest was constantly under threat of being conquered by the Golden Horde, but the town’s inhabitants withstood the rigours of sieges time and time again. Later, the Grand Duke Gediminas ceded Brest – without offering resistance – to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. However, the protection of this powerful ally was still not sufficient to save the town from the Mongolian horsemen who ransacked it and burnt it to the ground. Despite this, they were still unable to take the fortress.
The town was soon rebuilt after the pillaging and in 1390 it was awarded the Magdeburg Rights (right of self-administration). Further economic development was hindered by the lengthy war between the Order of Teutonic Knights and the Polish-Lithuanian Principality (1409-1411). The plan for the main battle in this war (Battle of Tannenberg, 1410) was prepared in Brest. The town dispatched its standard and its troops, who showed remarkable bravery during the battle. Brest was one of the most important towns in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania at this time.
According to sources dating from 1566, the town consisted of three main parts: the castle, one part on the island between the western Bug and the Mukhavets and another on the right bank of the River Mukhavets, the so-called “Samukhavechye”. At this time, the town had about 7,000 inhabitants.
In the 1550s, a civil servant from Brest – Nicholas Radziwill, called the Black man – founded the first printer’s workshop on Belarusian territory. In 1563 the Brest bible was published, which was the first complete translation of the Protestant bible into Polish.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, religious orders played an important part in the political and social life of the town. They endeavoured to preserve popular culture and the language and opened printer’s workshops and schools.
Brest also plays an important role in the Religious history of the country. It was here, in 1569 that the Church Union of Brest was formalised. The Church Union was a union of the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox bishops of East Poland, whose intention was to break away from the Muscovite patriarchy and retain the traditional liturgical Byzantine rite.
In the second half of the 17th century, the town centre of Brest was relocated to an island between the western Bug and Mukhavets. However, this did not last long as the Swedes took over the town in the Russian-Swedish War from 1656 to 1658 and destroyed it. Three years later, the Muscovite troops, under the command of Prince Ivan Chovanski, dealt the final blow and burnt the town to the ground. Only a few dozen inhabitants escaped with their lives.
It was not until the second half of the 18th century that an economic upswing started again. Brest became the largest inland port on the western Bug, dealing primarily in corn and wood. At the same time, the first manufacturing processes began in the town. Many new houses were built, mainly made of wood, so that there was a constant risk of fires.
After the third partitioning of Poland in 1795, Brest belonged to the Russian Empire and became a border town. A plan developed to build a defence fortification. Unfortunately Napoleon’s invasion prevented the implementation of this plan. It was not until 18 years after the end of the war – in the mid 1830s – that construction of the fortress actually began. The project foresaw that the fortress be built on town land. Therefore the town as it had been was more or less totally demolished. In 1835 a completely new town was laid out two kilometres further east. Houses were only allowed to be two storeys high, so that the overall view was not restricted. Between the town and the fortress, boundary markers were set up in the form of great stone pillars. One still remains today at the crossroads of Lenin and Gogol Street. The new fortress was officially opened on 26th April 1842.
While the town was part of the Russian Empire, it began to recover from the never-ending wars and invasions. But in the mid 19th century it was unable to re-establish its previous status as an important trade and craft centre. Economy and trade developed slowly, the town was basically just an accessory to the strategically significant fortress. Life in the town was dictated entirely by the armed forces.
Growth did not return until the fortress underwent extensive modernisation and the railway was built at the end of the 19th century. The railway lines built at this time linked Brest with Warsaw, Moscow, Kiev and Gomel. A new railway station was built, which was considered to be the most advanced station in the Russian Empire when it was inaugurated in 1883.
According to data from the first census in the Russian Empire in 1897, 46,568 people lived in Brest at that time of whom around 30,000 were Jews. Traces of Jewish culture were almost entirely wiped out in the 20th century and are practically non-existent in the Brest of today.
During the course of the First World War, Brest was set on fire by Russian troops as they withdrew. Peace negotiations between Russia and the German Empire took place in Brest between 9th December 1917 and 3rd March 1918. The outcome was the Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty, according to which Brest-Litovsk should become part of the Ukraine.
During the subsequent Soviet-Polish War, Brest was repeatedly occupied either by Polish or Soviet troops. After the Peace Treaty of Riga (1921) the town belonged to Poland. In the interwar years the town was known as Brest-on-the-Bug.
When the Second World War began, German soldiers occupied both the town and the fortress. On 22nd September 1939 the town was handed over to the Red Army and incorporated into the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR), in accordance with the Hitler-Stalin Pact. The German and the Soviet Armies were only separated by the western Bug, which represented the German-Soviet demarcation line.
On 22nd June 1941, when Germany revoked the Non-Aggression Pact and went to war against the Soviet Union, the military stronghold and the town were among the first targets. The German command took particular care when planning the storming of the fortress, but the Russian forces were able to fight them off for a whole week. Isolated pockets of resistance still existed a month later. The defence of Brest Fortress, which – at the time of the attack – was occupied by about 9,000 Soviet soldiers and commanding officers with their families, was portrayed as a feat of heroism in the Soviet Union and considered as a symbol of steadfastness, courage and military heroism. Once the German forces had finally seized the town, it was annexed by the occupation authorities to the Ukraine Reich Commissariat. During the occupation, about 40,000 inhabitants lost their lives and the economy collapsed completely. All Jewish inhabitants of the town were rounded up in the Brest ghetto and murdered.[caption id="attachment_680" align="alignright" width="334"] Brest Fortress | Photo: Benny Reiter[/caption]
On 28th July 1944, the town was liberated by forces of the First White Russian Front. Brest has celebrated this each year ever since. It was decided at the Yalta Conference that Brest should remain on the territory of the BSSR.
After the end of the Second World War, Brest soon started developing as an industrial centre and the population increased rapidly.
Brest became regional capital after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Although the number of tourists declined, Brest Fortress remained one of the most significant and most frequently visited attractions of the city.
Despite all the wars, fires and destruction, Brest today is an ever-changing city at the crossroads between East and West and is well worth a visit.
Discover the town and surroundings during our 5-day Brest trip.
The Belarusian cuisine developed in pagan times. It has a rich history and is based on centuries of tradition.
On account of their geographical location and weather conditions, the Belarusians always had a relatively limited selection of local foods available, which did not prevent them from using their imagination and curiosity to create an interesting cuisine. This resulted in new dishes, which in the first instance appeared to be composed of incompatible ingredients, often based on a recipe from a popular foreign cuisine. Over time, the recipes changed to reflect local cooking traditions. Therefore the Belarusian cuisine has been influenced by different national cuisines (in particular the Russian, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Polish and Jewish). Nevertheless, there are still many dishes which are exclusive to the Belarusian cuisine. Belarus has always produced ample cereals, potatoes, meat, milk and vegetables and as there are many rivers and lakes, fish has always been the main ingredient of many dishes. Nearly 40% of Belarus is covered by forest, so berries, mushrooms and game have also played a significant role.
The introduction of the potato in the 18th century caused a culinary revolution and since that time the potato has been at least on a par with bread. One will seldom find such a wealth of dishes using this root crop as in the Belarusian cuisine. Consequently, the Belarusians are often jokingly called “Bulbaschi” (Belarusian for ‚бульба’ – bulba – potato) by the neighbouring countries.
An essential ingredient in the Belarusian cuisine has always been bacon, which is used in all kinds of dishes or just eaten salted. Traditionally salty bacon is used for cooking: raw bacon is cut into small slices and liberally sprinkled with salt and other seasoning, which preserves it for up to six months.[caption id="attachment_585" align="alignright" width="338"] Rulka with Gretschka | Picture: Benny Reiter[/caption]
National Belarusian recipes typically use a combination of different types of flour such as oatmeal, pea flour, buckwheat flour, rye flour, etc. The pride of the Belarusian cuisine is its natural bread, for which the dough is prepared with rye flour using a special ferment instead of yeast. To this very day Belarusian bread is often baked in wood-fired ovens.
Belarusian cuisine includes very few desserts. They are comprised mainly of berries, fruit, honey and quark.
Among the traditional beverages there are various spirits such as krambambulja (a liqueur with honey and spices), chrenovucha (a horseradish liqueur) and of course samogonka (home-distilled vodka). Typical non-alcoholic beverages include sbiten (a hot drink made with water, honey and spices), kvass (a special non-alcoholic beer which is made by fermenting the basic ingredients water, rye and malt), uzvar (a cold drink made from dried fruit) and mors (a fruit juice made from soft fruit).
The modern Belarusian cuisine is an eclectic mix. Nowadays many old recipes are being reintroduced in modern variations. It goes without saying that the actual Belarusian cuisine – like any other national cuisine in this day of globalization – is influenced by general international culinary trends.
Nearly all Belarusian families own a summer house (Russian: datscha) in the country, where they grow fruit and vegetables for their own consumption. Harvesting takes place in August and September and a large part is bottled (far more than in the west) and stored for the winter months. It should be pointed out that in Belarus vegetables are preserved in brine and not in vinegar.
Belarusians are an incredibly hospitable people, who put nothing but the best on the table when they have visitors. No gathering around the table is complete without vodka, which is usually accompanied by light snacks (Russian: sakuski). These may consist of bread with caviar, sprats and gherkins, marinated vegetables or mushrooms. In addition, you might expect to see salads with meat and vegetables, usually with plenty of mayonnaise. The main dish, normally chicken or pork, made according to the secret recipe of the lady of the house, usually stands in the middle of the table.
Strangely enough, there are few overweight people in Belarus, even though the cuisine is hearty and rich in carbohydrates. Maybe this is because the portions are usually considerably smaller than in Germany for example.
Below you will find some of the tastiest recipes of the Belarusian traditional cuisine.
Veraschtschaka (Minsk version)
0.5 kg pork with ribs
200 g kvass
1 laurel leaf
Season the pork with salt and pepper and sear both sides briefly in the pan. Remove the meat and sauté the finely chopped onions in the fat. Lay the meat, onion and laurel leaf in a sauté pan, cover with kvass and simmer for 10 minutes on a low heat.
Serve with mashed potato or blinis which are dunked in the veraschtschaka.
Another speciality of the Belarusian cuisine is cold soups, for example made from beetroot, nettles or sorrel. We can recommend svekolnik (Russian: ‘свёкла’ [swekla] – beetroot) – a cold beetroot soup. This is served mainly in the hot summer months.Svekolnik (traditional recipe)
2 beetroot with stalks and leaves
1 tbsp vinegar
sour cream (for serving)
Peel the beetroot, wash and cut them into thin strips. Boil in water with the vinegar until cooked. Ten minutes before the beetroot are cooked through add the leaves, season with salt. Leave to cool. Wash and peel the cucumber and dice. Wash the chives, radishes and dill and cut finely. Hard boil the eggs and dice. Add the cucumber, salt, sugar, chives, radishes, dill and eggs to the chilled beetroot soup. Serve with sour cream.
As already mentioned, it is hard to imagine the Belarusian cuisine without potato dishes. Try cooking one of the simplest and tastiest potato dishes: babka. There are two variations of this: the original and vegetarian.Babka
600 g potatoes
100 g bacon/ oil for baking
Grate the potatoes, without squeezing out the liquid.
For the vegetarian alternative: cut the onion finely and fry in the pan.
For the original „babka“: cut the onion and bacon finely and fry together in the pan.
Mix the contents of the pan with the grated potatoes, season with salt and turn into an earthenware pot. Place in the oven and bake for 40 minutes at 180-200°.
Babka is eaten hot and served with milk.
Kulaga (traditional berry dessert)
400 g berries (blueberries, cranberries, raspberries or rowan berries)
70 g honey
2-3 tbsp wheat flour
Sort through the fresh berries, rinse and place the saucepan with the berries on the hob. Mix the wheat flour with a little water and add to the softened berries with the honey. Bring to the boil at medium temperature, constantly stirring until creamy and thick. Kulaga is a traditional accompaniment to pancakes, white bread and milk.