I love Belarus

The events of the August coup in Moscow sealed the process of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. In August 1991 the political influence of the communist party was enormously limited. As a result, on 19 September 1991, the Supreme Council of the BSSR passed the law to rename the country: the Belarusian SSR became the Republic of Belarus, or just Belarus.

On December 8, 1991, a meeting of three heads of state took place in the Wiskuli government residence in the Belowezha Forest. Boris Yeltsin (Russia), Stanislav Shushkevich (Belarus) and Leonid Kravchuk (Ukraine) declared the treaty of 1922 to be cancelled and founded a new international confederation: the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

In 1992 the national currency (Belarusian rouble) was introduced and by 1993 Belarus was nuclear weapon free.
The adoption of the Belarusian constitution of 15 March 1994 played a special role in anchoring sovereignty. Following the first presidential election in July 1994, Alexander Lukashenko took over the country’s government.

In the 90s of the 20th century, the Belarusian people gained their political self-determination. Belarus became a sovereign state for the first time and gained its independence on the world stage.

In 1995, Belarus signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation with Russia, thus marking its political orientation and development for the future.

The 1995 referendum changed the Belarusian national symbols, but the Soviet coat of arms remained the basis of the new state symbols.

The two languages (Belarusian and Russian) became equivalent state languages and official languages.

On November 24, 1996, a referendum was held to amend the Constitution, initiated by the President of Belarus. The referendum changed the structure of the legislative power. Instead of the Supreme Council, a new bicameral parliament was formed, the National Assembly. In addition, Belarus became more presidential in the course of the referendum. This change in the state system was accompanied by protests, and opposition members of parliament gathered signatures to initiate an impeachment procedure against the president.

Another referendum in October 2004 lifted the limitation on the president’s terms of office. Today, Alexander Lukashenko rules in his fifth term.

In November 2009, the Presidents of Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan signed treaties establishing a customs union, which was established in 2014 to facilitate and develop trade and economic relations between the countries. This Union developed into nowadays Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).

Belarus Polotsk Sophia Cathedral
Monument to the heroes of the 1812 war Polotsk Belarus

Monument to the heroes of the 1812 war | Photo: Anna Kovaliova

Polotsk or Polatsk (Russian: Полоцк, Belarusian: Полацк) is the oldest town in Belarus. It is situated in the north of the country, in the province of Vitebsk.  Together with the nearby town of Novopolotsk (Navapolatsk), Polotsk forms an urban agglomeration with a population of around 200,000 inhabitants.

Like many other Belarusian cities, Polotsk was built on the banks of a river. Polotsk is situated at a picturesque location, where the River Polota flows into the Dvina. The city takes its name from the River Polota.

Polotsk was one of the first East Slavonic towns to be mentioned in the Nestor Chronicle in the year 862. Archaeological finds indicate that there must have been a settlement here some 60 to 70 years previously. During the course of its turbulent history, Polotsk survived numerous invasions by the Vikings, fought against the crusaders and was occupied on many occasions by the armies of foreign conquerors.

The first stable system of rule on the territory of the town was the Principality of Polotsk, which was formed in the 10th century. At approximately the same time, the Eparchy (name for a diocese in the Orthodox Church) of Polotsk was founded, which gave the town considerable status throughout Eastern Europe.

Rapid development of the town was favoured by its location at the crossing point of several river and trade routes, used among others by the Varangians travelling from Scandinavia to Byzantium. From the 9th century onward, various trades and crafts, including smithies, jewellers and tanners, flourished here, as did the building and sewing trade.

Between 1044 and 1066, the first stone church in Eastern Europe was built in Polotsk: the Cathedral of St. Sophia. Its construction was confirmation of the strength and independence of the Principality of Polotsk. Cathedrals of similar significance were also erected in Kiev and Novgorod, the centres of the great East Slavonic Principalities. The Cathedral of St. Sophia was largely destroyed by fire in the 15th century and lost its status as seat of the diocese. In the 17th century it was rebuilt as a Catholic church in the baroque style. A copy of the original Cathedral of St. Sophia is to be built in the near future on the opposite bank of the Dvina, in Vitebsk.

During the war in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania from 1432 to 1436, between various aristocratic dynasties, Polotsk became the centre of power of Prince Swidrygiello who was also contesting supremacy in the Grand Duchy.

At the end of the 15th century, printing was introduced in Belarus. The first translation of the bible was drawn up by Francysk Skaryna in Polotsk and became extremely popular. His translation was in Church Slavonic, thereby giving the people the chance to read the words of the bible in their own language for the very first time.

In the year 1498, Magdeburg Law was conferred on the town and it became the capital of the Polotsk voivodeship (administrative district) of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (later Poland-Lithuania).

In 1558, in the course of the Livonian War between Lithuania and the Principality of Moscow, Polotsk was captured by the army of the Russian Tsar Ivan Vasilyevich IV (Ivan the Terrible). A large part of the town and its fortifications were destroyed.

During the war, in the year 1580, the first Jesuit College was opened in Polotsk. First rector was Piotr Skarga, a famous scholar who was also rector of Vilnius University, likewise run by the Jesuit Order. Documents dating from the 16th century show that Polotsk was at the time one of the largest towns in Europe, with a population of around 100,000 people. However, the urban population was severely decimated by the wars which ensued in the subsequent centuries, the plague (1566), famines (1600 and 1741-1746) and numerous fires. During the Russian-Polish war from 1654-1667, the town came under Russian rule but later became Polish again and remained the centre of the relevant voivodeship.

The events of the Great Northern War also had great influence on the history of Polotsk. In 1705, Tsar Peter the Great ordered that the Castle of Polotsk be torn down, as it was a strategically important checkpoint and should not fall into the hands of the enemy. For similar reasons, the famous Cathedral of St. Sophia was partially blown up around this time.

After the first partitioning of Poland (1772) the part of Polotsk on the right bank devolved to the Russian Empire, it was joined by the left bank after the second partitioning (1793).  Polotsk was then part of the governorate of Pskov until it became a governorate in its own right. This resulted in a considerable boost to the development of the town from both an economic and a cultural point of view. New administrative buildings were erected, settlements were extended. Little by little, Polotsk recovered its status as an important transit and trading location and the population grew accordingly.

At the beginning of the 19th century there were three higher education institutions in Polotsk, two of them having been founded by religious orders. In 1812, the Tsar also issued a decree authorising the Jesuit Order the right to found an academy. Eight years later, the Jesuit Order was banned by the Russian Empire, so the academy was reorganised and – together with an extensive library – handed over to the Piarist Order.

In Polotsk, different confessions and orders lived side by side. Orthodox Christians, Lutherans, Jesuits, Dominicans, Bernardins, Basilians and Franciscans established their own churches and monasteries, thus enriching the architecture in the town.

In the year 1812, there were two battles in the vicinity of Polotsk between the Russian army and Napoleon’s French army. The first battle was indecisive, but in the second the Russian troops freed Polotsk and forced the French army back.

Church of the Epiphany Polotsk Polatsk Belarus

Church of the Epiphany | Photo: Anna Kovaliova

During the Russian Civil War and the Nazi Occupation, Polotsk was under the control of German and Polish troops. The town belonged to the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR) from 1924 onwards and during the Second World War it was captured by German troops on 16th July 1941, after holding out for 20 days. It was only on 4th July 1944 that the Red Army was able to liberate the oldest Belarusian town. The war claimed 150,000 lives in Polotsk. A dire effect of the war – for those who survived – was the extreme housing shortage, as 96% of the existing housing had been destroyed.

Today Polotsk is one of Belarus’ finest cities, from whose colourful history many places of interest have emerged. It fascinates with numerous cultural events. One of these is the international organ music festival “St. Sophia’s Bells”, which takes place every November in the Cathedral of St. Sophia. In addition, every April a chamber music festival is organised, at which modern music is also performed.

But Polotsk does not just have a thriving historical and cultural scene: it is also a geographical curiosity. The city fathers claim that Polotsk is the geographical centre of Europe and have erected a monument to mark the spot.

Discover this fascinating little town and other interesting places on our Tour of Belarus.

Flag of the Eurasian Economic Union

The EEU is an economic alliance between Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia. It evolved on 01.01.2015 from the customs’ union between Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan. The main objective is to simplify and streamline the exchange of services, goods and capital. The five countries want to coordinate their economic policy along the lines of the European Union. The principal milestones on the road to development of the EEU were:

– in 1994 the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, proposed the idea of a Eurasian Union

– in 2000 Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan founded the Eurasian Economic Community

– in 2010 the customs’ union between Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia came into being

– in 2012 the Eurasian Economic Union was created between Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan, with the aim of promoting a free transfer of goods, services, capital and workforce.

Each year a different member country chairs the EEU. In 2015, this was Belarus, followed by Kazakhstan in 2016 and Kyrgyzstan in 2017.

The ambition of the Union is economic cooperation. The member countries also aim to coordinate key issues of mutual interest such as transport, agricultural and industrial policy.

Among the most important targets of the EEU are:

–  creating conditions for the stable development of the economies in the member countries, with the aim of improving the standard of living of the population;

–  attempting to create a common market for goods, services, capital and workforce;

–  implementing extensive modernisation, cooperation and improvement in economic competitiveness.

Moreover, the EEU aims to create a common finance market by the year 2025. This should make a free transfer of capital within the EEU possible. The common finance market should include banks, stock exchanges and insurance.

The EEU also hopes to extend its sphere of activity by concluding free trade agreements with other countries. A free trade agreement with Vietnam was already signed in 2015. Negotiations over free trade are currently underway with about 50 countries, for example with Singapore, Egypt, Iran and India.

At the present time, the Commission is working with China on the “new Silk Road” project, in other words a joint trade and economic agreement with China. This cooperation would provide opportunities for both sides. On the part of the EEU, Russia in particular would be able to supply its hydrocarbons to the Far East. In return, China would obtain a reliable transit route to the West for its goods. The Silk Road could also include the regions of Western Asia, the Caucasus and Eastern Europe. Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran also seem to be interested in cooperating. This would lead to a trading area from China in the east via India and Iran in the south to Belarus in the west.

In the summer of 2017, a new customs code came into force with the intention of standardising and modernising import regulations and the work of the customs authorities.

As some of the member countries are lagging well behind with regard to modern technology, the Eurasian Economic Commission has set itself the goal of encouraging industrial innovation and promoting industrial cooperation between the member countries. In addition, the production of technology products will be stimulated and completely new branches of high-tech industry developed.

To achieve this goal, the Eurasian Economic Commission plans to modernise industrial and innovation structures. This includes industry and innovation clusters, industry and technology parks, economy and technology centres.

Eurasian Technology Platforms

Furthermore, platforms are to be created in priority fields of technology so as to encourage important key branches. Scientists and design engineers from all EEU countries will work together to find solutions for specific innovations for particular industrial branches. The results of the research and development work will subsequently be implemented in the production process.

Digital factories

In the EEU countries, so-called digital factories are to be created. The Eurasian Economic Commission is eager for the member countries to synchronise their national digitalisation strategies in order to create digital technology platforms, system and interdisciplinary projects. Digital technology in the fields of industry and agriculture is still negligible, but this should be remedied in future by digital factories.

Eurasian Centre for machine tool construction

The EEU is planning to create a Eurasian Centre for the machine tool industry, which will be instrumental in the technological development of machine tool construction.

Environmental technology  

The demand for modern, environmental technology is extremely high at the moment. The global market for environmental technology and services is one of the most dynamically growing sectors. With the aid of the Eurasian platform “Technology for ecological development”, the EEU is planning to open up this market for companies within the union. A top priority is the development of environmentally friendly transport facilities and modern solutions for climate and environmental protection.

According to a survey made by the German-Russian Chamber of Commerce, the majority of German companies questioned consider the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) has advantages. Apart from abolishing customs duties between the countries and creating a larger sales market, some of the advantages mentioned included savings in logistic costs and technical regulations.

The EEU provides easier access to five markets simultaneously through unified customs duties and a common certification process. This is beneficial in particular to companies which are active in other EEU countries as well as Russia.

According to Tigran Sarkisjan, the chairman of the Eurasian Economic Commission, the work of the Eurasian Economic Union is primarily of an economic and not a political nature. The Commission offers solutions for improving the business environment in the five countries and providing a single market for goods and services as well as freedom of movement for the workforce and investments.

It will take some time to be able to judge whether the EEU can fulfil these expectations in the long term.

Birds on power line Belarus

Ten or fifteen years ago, Minsk was the undisputed centre for cultural events, forums, festivals etc. in Belarus. Today, the situation is slowly but steadily changing. Each region has its own special events and festivities which are renowned beyond the borders of the region. Old traditions and customs are being revived. Belarusians themselves are again showing greater interest in their folklore and their history. There are also international festivals which are acclaimed beyond the national borders, which have been re-discovered or newly founded since the country gained independence.

Below you will find some of the most important dates of events and festivals which are worth visiting in Belarus and which can be ideally combined with one of our tours.

January 07.01. Christmas
Orthodox public holiday according to the Julian calendar
19.01. Kalyady Slavic winter solstice festival
Terra Nova International festival of digital art in Minsk
February Masleniza begins 54 days before Easter Butter week, marking the end of winter
March 21.03 – 28.03. M@rt-Kontakt International theatre festival in Mogiljov
April International festival of ancient and modern chamber music Music festival in the oldest Belarusian town of Polotsk
May Puppets on the Neman International puppet theatre festival in Grodno
09.05. Victory Day
Throughout Belarus, celebration of the end of the Great Patriotic War (Russian phrase for the Second World War)
01.05 – 03.05. Minsk street
theatre forum
Open-air performances in the  historic centre of Minsk
June Musical evenings at Mir Castle 2 week event on the stage in front of Mir Castle, with Belarusian and foreign performers.
15.06. Rok za bobrov Open-air rock festival near Minsk
July 03.07. Independence Day Celebrations throughout the country
03.07 – 04.07. MOST (Russian: bridge)
Open-air-Festival bei Minsk
06.07. Kupalye Summer solstice festival
09.07 – 13.07. Slavyanski Bazaar Largest international culture and song festival in Vitebsk
August Polesie’s Call (Sow Polesja) International festival of  ethnocultural traditions in the Pripyatsky National Park
Mirum Music Festival Open-air in front of Mir Castle
September Folklore festival „Kamyanitsa“ Festival of folklore culture in the Museum of  Folk Architecture  in Ozerco (a suburb of  Minsk)
Potato festival „Bulba-fest“ The potato is considered to be the second staple food in Belarus and this culinary festival is therefore celebrated annually in Silitchi (a skiing centre near Minsk)
Dazhinki,different venue
each year
Harvest (and agricultural) festival
November International filmfestival „Listopad“ Minsk Competition for domestic and foreign films, also by young film directors
„Sophia bells“ International organ music festival in Polotsk

Take a trip with us and discover the rich culture of the country.

Wolf in the grass Belarus

The Białowieża National Park (Belarusian: Belawezhskaja Puschtscha, Polish: Puszcza Białowieska) is the largest remnant of a lowland primeval forest that covered the entire continent of Europe in prehistoric times. In the course of time the primeval forest was gradually cut down, leaving an untouched remnant on the territory of Belarus and Poland, between which today the state border of both countries runs. On both sides of the border the forest has the legal status of a national park. The Belavezhskaya Pushcha is considered to be the vegetation zone of a “Sarmatian mixed forest”. On the territory of the national park also lies the main European watershed between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea.

Within the framework of the UNESCO programme “Man and the Biosphere (MAB programme)”, the Belowezha Biosphere Reserve was established in 1976 in the Polish part. The corresponding biosphere reserve on the Belarusian side followed in 1993 with a size of over 216,300 hectares. The entire biosphere reserve consists of a core zone, a buffer zone and a transition zone.

In 1976, the Bialowezhski National Park (Polish: Białowieski Park Narodowy) was added to the World Heritage List by a UNESCO decision. In 1992 the territory was extended by the state national park Belawezhskaja Pushcha (Belarus) and was given the name Belovezhskaya Pushcha / Bialowieza Forest.

In 2014 the cross-border territory of the World Heritage Site with a total area of 141,885 hectares and a buffer zone of 166,708 hectares was established as “Białowieża Forest, Belarus, Poland”.

In order to preserve the unique nature of the Belovezha Forest, it was divided into four zones with different degrees of protection, a strict protection zone, a zone of limited use, a recreational zone and an economic zone.

The Belovezhskaya Pushcha is one of the most valuable protected areas in Belarus and the last preserved deep virgin forest in Europe.

The national park is situated on flat relief. Among the largest rivers are the Narew, Narevka, Rudavka, Lesnaya and others. There are no natural lakes on the territory, but there are ten artificial lakes. The largest of them, Ljadskoe and Chmelewskoe, are situated in the southern part of the Park, in the middle of fens.

The soil of the primeval forest is mainly characterized by an acidic, nutrient-poor environment. The climate and soil conditions promote the growth of a wide range of vegetation with more than 890 plant species. 86% of the territory is covered by forest, predominantly pine forests, which cover almost 60% of the forested territory.

Forester and tree face Belarus

Forester with 100 year old tree | Photo: Benny Reiter

The average age of trees is 81 years, but some trees are already between 250 and 350 years old. There are more than a thousand so-called giant trees registered in the area. These include oaks with an age between 400 and 600 years, ashes and pines between 250 and 350 years, and spruces between 200 and 250 years. The spruce is the tree species that grows highest, sometimes reaching a height of up to 50 meters. Alder forests grow in marshy river valleys and fens. They cover about 15% of the forested territory. The birch forests (just under 10%) are mainly found in transitional bogs, as well as near maple, grayling and fir.

The Belowezha Forest with its rich flora and fauna is unique in Europe. Among other things, 958 species of vascular spore and vascular seed plants, 260 species of moss, 290 species of lichens and 570 species of fungi thrive here.

The local fauna includes 59 species of mammals and 227 species of birds, 7 species of reptiles and 11 species of amphibians, 24 species of fish and over 11,000 species of invertebrates. The Belarusian part of the National Park is home to the world’s largest population of bisons, also called European bison (Bison bonasus). Among the big herbivores you can meet mainly the red deer (Cervus elaphus), the roe deer (Capreolus) and the wild boar (Sus scrofa). Among the predators, the wolf (Canis lupus), the fox (Vulpes vulpes), the lynx (Lynx), the European badger (Meles meles), the pine marten or noble marten (Martes martes) and the otter (Lutra lutra) are particularly noteworthy.

Among the rare animal species are the aforementioned bison, the lynx and the European badger. There are numerous rare birds such as the white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla), the snake eagle (Circaetus gallicus), the black stork (Ciconia nigra), the grey crane (Grus grus), the lesser spotted eagle (Aquila pomarina) and the golden eagle (Aquila clanga). Among the bird species are rare owl species such as the eagle owl (Bubo bubo), the bearded owl (Strix nebulosa) and the Ural or Ural owl (Strix uralensis), as well as the Eurasian Pygmy-Owl (Glaucidium passerinum).

Other important representatives of the diverse bird species are the white-backed woodpecker (Dendrocopos leucotos), the three-toed woodpecker (Picoides tridactylus), the European Roller or Almond Crow (Coracias garrulus), the Aquatic Warbler (Acrocephalus paludicola) and others.

As for the flora, the splendid fir (Abies magnifica), the sessile oak (Quercus petraea), the Turk’s-band (Lilium martagon), the large star-shaped umbel (Astrantia major), and the goblet (Adenophora liliifolia) are on the Red List of endangered species of the Republic of Belarus.

The history of the primeval forest

The forests of the Belavezhskaja Putscha nature reserve are the oldest in Europe. These forests were already mentioned in 983 in one of the first chronicles ever, the Hypatius Chronicle. From the 12th century it is said that the Grand Duke of Kiev, Vladimir II, called Monomakh, hunted aurochs, bisons and deer there. In the 13th century the territory of the primeval forest came into the possession of the Lithuanian Grand Prince and later passed to the Polish kings. In 1409 the Polish king Jogaila forbade hunting in his forests. Only the king himself and members of his family were allowed to hunt large animals. Thus the Belowezha Forest was reserved for the nobility. But the forest was also a supplier of meat for the king’s army and a source of raw materials for weapons. The increased exploitation by the nobility caused great damage to the forest.

In the 17th and 18th centuries the character of hunting changed, it became a luxurious pastime for the nobility. A large hunting lodge was built on the bank of the Nerevka River for the hunting festivals of kings. For more comfortable hunting, a large area of forest was fenced in, where the king’s hunters brought large game animals.

At the time when the Belovezha Forest belonged to the Russian Empire, hunting was allowed in the Pushcha, but bisons were not allowed to be shot.

Since 1802 there was a regular count of the heavily decimated bison population. In 1864 deer were imported from Germany, as they had been completely exterminated in the area. This can be seen as one of the first state conservation measures. In the times of the Russian Empire the official owner of the forest was the tsar family. From 1889 to 1894, an imperial hunting palace was built here, for which a special railway line was established to make it easier for the tsars to travel to the forest.

During the First World War German troops occupied the territory of the forest and began to cut massive amounts of wood. In two and a half years, 4.5 million solid cubic metres of timber were exported to Germany. The acts of war and the occupation also caused immense damage to the animal world. In 1919, bisons and fallow deer were finally exterminated, the number of deer and wild boars was greatly reduced. Since 1920 the Belowezha Forest belonged to Poland, but its exploitation continued. In 1935, almost a fifth of the forest had been cut down.

Wisent European Bison Nationalpark Bialowieza Belarus

Bison in the National Park | Photo: Benny Reiter

Since 1939 the Belovezha Forest belonged to the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR) and became a national park. After the Second World War, Poland and the BSSR divided the territory of the forest among themselves. On the Polish part, the historical centre of the forest, Belowezha, remained with the breeding of bisons. On Belarusian territory hardly any structures for further care and preservation of the park had been preserved. However, the Polish colleagues gave the neighbours five bisons, which became the progenitors of the Belarusian bison population.

In 1957 the Belovezhskaya Forest was granted the status of a protected hunting area, in 1991 the area was reorganized in the form of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha State National Park.

Today the national park is one of the most visited sights in Belarus. Tourists can discover the forest partly by bike but mainly on foot. In the local natural history museum you can learn more about the history of the forest and its diverse animals and plants.

Near the museum there are large enclosures with wild animals. There you can see the lynx, fox, deer, red deer, moose, bear, wild boar and of course the bison.

Also today the park needs protection and attention again. There was an outcry two years ago when the Polish government announced that the park would be used commercially again and wood would be cut. Fortunately, this could be prevented until now.

Mir castle Belarus

The present-day state symbols of the Republic of Belarus were adopted by public referendum on 14 May 1995. The coat of arms, the flag and the anthem are the main symbols of independence, representing the historical and cultural heritage of the Belarusian people and emphasizing “the national spirit and dignity of Belarusians”.

The Belarusian flag

official flag and coat of arms of Belarus

National flag and coat of arms of Belarus | Photo: Viktoria Salauyeva

The present flag of the Republic of Belarus consists of two horizontal stripes: the upper one is red, the lower one is green and slightly narrower than the red one. The Belarusian national ornament is depicted along the right-hand side (red on a white background). These basic features of the national flag have certain historical roots.

In general, the red stands as a sign of the sun, symbolizes blood ties, brotherhood, struggle for a just cause. The red of the modern Belarusian flag symbolizes the guidon of the victorious battle at Tannenberg (1410) against the crusaders as well as the color of the flags of the Red Army and the Belarusian partisan brigades. At the same time it is a sign of happiness and life. There is also evidence of the connection between the red and the flame, without which man can never exist. The red also symbolizes struggle, resistance to oppression and blood shed in battle. This meaning came up in Belarus in the 19th century with the revolutionary movement in the Russian Empire.

Green is the colour of nature, rich fields, meadows and forests covering most of Belarusian territory. Green is a sign of growth, development, prosperity and peace. Traditionally, greenery has been accorded great importance in Belarus. One of the main deities for the Slavs was the earth mother, inseparably connected with the green flora. This tradition found its way into many proverbs and desires.

Forests and swamps as well as cultivated fields were and are characteristic for Belarusian landscapes. Pagan ancestors deified the surrounding nature, there were developed cults of oak and birch groves, hills and stones. The worship of the forces of nature and the pagan faith remained even after Christianization. The green as one of the national colours symbolizes joie de vivre, the spring awakening of nature after a long hibernation.

Whiteness, above all, is the colour of freedom, the colour of integrity and wisdom. The Belarusian national ornament, which symbolizes ancient folk culture, spiritual wealth and unity, rests on the white. According to its origin, the ornament is a graphic incantation of the celestial powers. Such ornaments were used to express desires and legacies when writing did not yet exist. In this way the Slavs wanted to pass on their knowledge. In the middle of the ornament runs a vertically stretched diamond with two lines reminiscent of horns. For millennia, the diamond symbolized the feminine, soil fertility. The Slavs often used this pattern. In the centre of the diamond there are two crossed lines between which four dots stand. These stand for the sun, a symbol for fertility.

The other motifs symbolize the wish that the begging person succeeds in everything. Such ornaments are often embroidered on traditional clothes, cloths and tablecloths. Ornaments are believed to protect against evil. According to popular tradition, the simple farmer’s wife Matrena Markewitsch embroidered this pattern for the first time in 1917.

The Belarusian coat of arms

State coat of arms of Belarus

State coat of arms of Belarus | Photo: Viktoria Salauyeva

The origin of the national coat of arms of the Republic of Belarus is connected with the coat of arms of the BSSR (Belarusian Socialist Soviet Republic). However, there have been significant changes reflecting the fact that Belarus has become an independent state. The hammer and sickle, the abbreviation “BSSR” and the Soviet slogan were removed. The band surrounding the coat of arms is not red, but red-green (like the state flag). The emblem is framed with a wreath of ripe ears of rye, symbolizing victory. In the centre, the outline of the Belarusian borders can be seen. As a sign that Belarus is a part of the world civilization and perceives other countries as equal partners. The earth-sun-unity is the sign of peaceful coexistence.

The Belarusian National Anthem

On 24 September 1955 the text and music of the new national anthem was introduced. Many of the most famous Belarusian poets took part in the competition for the national anthem. In the end the poet Mikhail Klimkovich won with the text “We, Belarusians”. The music for the anthem was composed by Nestor Sokolovsky. It was reedited in 2002. Vladimir Karizna wrote a new version of the national anthem based on the old one. The music remained unchanged.

Here is the first verse and the chorus of the three-tropical anthem in English translation:

We Belarusians are peaceful people

With the heart faithful to our homeland.

We are good friends and steel ourselves

In a busy and free family.


Long live the bright name of our country,

Long live the brotherly union of nations!

Our dear mother home,

Live and glow forever, Belarus!

However, these modern state symbols are not uncontroversial. Some Belarusians do not recognise them and do not perceive them as historically rooted. The alternative state symbols are the white-red-white flag and the coat of arms “Pahonia”. The word can be translated as “persecution”. It shows, on a red ground, an attacking white sword-wielding knight on horseback carrying a shield with a golden double cross. The Pahonia is a very old symbol, already the Grand Duke Vytautas used it as national coat of arms of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 13th century. These symbols were considered official state symbols from 1991 to 1995 and 1917 after the collapse of the Tsarist Empire, when the Belarusian People’s Republic was formed for a short period of eight months.

Unofficial symbols

Feeding stork Belarus

Stork – unofficial symbol of Belarus | Photo: Benny Reiter

Besides the flag, the coat of arms and the anthem, Belarus has some unofficial symbols. The cross of St. Euphrosinia from Polotsk from the 12th century, although lost in the Second World War, is considered the spiritual symbol of the country. Today there is only one copy of it. Heraldic animals are the bison, which has the largest population in Europe, especially in the Białowieża Forest near Brest, and the white stork. The cornflower is a representative of the rich flora and is often found in postcards and souvenirs.

hay bales harvesting time Belarus
Peasant woman in traditional festive costume Belarus

Peasant woman in traditional festive costume | Photo: Benny Reiter

In Belarus there are numerous national and religious public holidays. Among the most important national public holidays are Constitution Day (15th March), the Day of Unification of Belarus and Russia (2nd April), Victory Day (9th May, Russian: Den Pobedi), Independence Day (3rd July) and the Day of the National Coat of Arms and the National Flag (on the second Sunday in May).

The 9th May is one of the most important national public holidays and is celebrated ceremoniously in Belarus. The day commemorates the victory of the Soviet Army over Nazi Germany in the Great Patriotic War, as the Second World War is known in the former Soviet Union. A large military parade is held in Minsk on this occasion and reviewed by the president in person. This holiday is still of great significance for the national consciousness, as every third person lost his life during the Second World War. Another large parade takes place on 3rd July. On this day in 1944, the Belarusian capital was liberated from the German occupying forces: today this day is celebrated as Independence Day. Echoes of the Soviet past persist on 1st May (Labour Day) and 7th November (Day of the October Revolution).

Christmas is celebrated twice in Belarus: the Catholic Christmas on 25th December and then the Orthodox Christmas on 7th January. New Year’s Eve is far more festive than in Western Europe and the USA. Ded Moroz (Russian: Jack Frost) is the counterpart of Santa Claus and brings presents for Belarusian children on New Year’s Eve. He is traditionally accompanied by his granddaughter and a helper called Snegurochka. At midnight all the members of the family sit around the festively laid table and drink to each other, listen to the bells chiming, wish each other well and congratulate each other. This is the time of “Kaljady”, the name for the 12 days of Christmas, from 25th December to the 6th of January. This was originally a pagan custom but the Church integrated it into its own festivities. Going from house to house, singing and performing, is a widespread tradition on Christmas Eve. Evil spirits and monsters are supposedly frightened away by cheerful songs, the so-called “Kaljadki”.

Easter is also an important celebration for Catholic Belarusians. The day before the festivities the traditional Easter cake is baked (Belarusian: Kulitsch). As a symbol of the festivity, eggs are traditionally dyed red with onion skins. The eggs are consecrated in the church and laid in water at home. Then one washes one’s face with the water so as to become (or to stay) healthy and beautiful. A popular game at Easter is similar to a game of conkers: eggs are knocked against each other and when one egg is broken, the other person has won. This game is called “Bitki” (from the verb “bit” – to hit),

The Russian Orthodox Church celebrates the Radonitsa festival nine days after Easter. This is a commemoration of the departed and families assemble at the cemetery after a service of remembrance. It is an ancient custom to lay cloths on the graves and place an uneven number of different dishes on it. This is a symbolic invitation to the relatives who have passed away to partake of a meal. In the autumn there is another day of remembrance called Dziady (Belarusian for ancestors).

In Belarus many cultural festivals have survived. The best known is the summer solstice festival (Belarusian: Kupalje, Russian: Ivan Kupala), which is celebrated on the night of 6th/7th July. Like many pagan customs, Kupalje is associated with fire, water and burgeoning magical powers. By burning old things, one is supposed to cleanse oneself and free oneself of all tribulations. Fire is believed to scare off evil spirits. The tradition of jumping over fire is intended to promote inner cleansing. It is tradition to dance round the fire and sing special Kupalje songs. Young women usually weave wreaths of flowers and blades of grass and let them float away on the rivers. If a young man manages to retrieve a wreath, then he is destined to marry that girl.

Paparz-Kwetka (Belarusian for fern flower) has a special role to play on this day. It was widely believed that ferns flower in the Kupalje night and so people used to search for the magic ferns in the woods at night. According to pagan belief, all treasures buried in the ground would be revealed to anyone finding these flowers. Likewise they would have a long life and happiness.

At the end of winter, Maslenitsa is celebrated in Belarus. Festivities last for a week and end with the beginning of Orthodox Lent. The name comes from the word “Maslo” (Russian: butter). During that week believers may not eat meat, but milk products, eggs and fish are allowed so that pancakes (Russian: blini) are particularly popular. Traditionally, they are made with different fillings such as quark or fruit. Blini are a symbol for the sun, which supposedly shines stronger at the end of the winter after the festive week. Therefore in some regions this festival is called “Bliniza”, derived from blini.

Sunday is the last day of “butter week”. A final farewell is said to winter and spring is welcomed in. The highlight of the festival is the burning of the Maslenitsa doll, which is usually made of straw. The doll symbolises all that is dark and negative experienced during winter. This last Sunday before Lent is a very lively affair, with traditional folk songs, dancing and plenty to eat and drink.

Other important folk festivals originate from peasant traditions, in particular “Zazhinki” – the start of the harvest – and Dazhinki – the end of the harvest. In former times, these festivals were celebrated in every village. However, traditional peasant folk festivals are gradually losing their significance in a Belarus which is becoming more and more urbanised.

Books of the belarussian literary classics in the library Minsk Belarus

The origins of the Belarusian language and literature date from the early Middle Ages.  Literature emerged in the 10th century as a direct consequence of the development of the written language. The principal centres for the promoting the spread of writing were Polotsk and Smolensk (Russia), where the first forms of Slavic historiography developed through ecclesiastical and monastic chronicles. During the era of the Kievan Rus, the foundations of Belarusian literature were laid in conjunction with the Russian and Ukrainian literature and language. Outstanding examples of this period include the “Speech by Ioan Polozky”, the “Life of Euphrosyne of Polotsk”, the “Life of Abraham of Smolensk” and the “Works and teaching” of Kirill of Turov.

Between the 14th and 15th century, Belarusian literature broke away from pan-Russian literature, at a time when the Belarusian territory belonged to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Ruthenian was the official language.  All Lithuanian statutes were recorded and published in this language.

Books have been printed in Belarusian since the 16th century. The first book to be printed in an East Slavonic language was a psalter in Belarusian.  This was printed in Prague in 1517 by Francysk Skaryna. The name Skaryna is firmly anchored in Belarusian history, thanks to his achievements in the spheres of enlightenment, the art of book printing and book dissemination.

Francysk Skaryna was succeeded by Wassily Tiapinsky, who was a famous humanist and enlightener.  The only remaining book of those he issued is the “Evangelium” (Gospel) which was printed in both Church Slavonic and Belarusian. In the foreword to this book, he mentions his special affinity to the Belarusian language.

Between the 16th and 17th century, baroque syllabic poetry and dramatic art (Simeon of Polotsk) emerged, influenced by Polish culture. In the 18th century, the Belarusian people – and in particular the upper class – were heavily influenced by the ruling Polish noblemen. This meant that for a while the significance of Belarusian writing lost importance. It wasn’t until the end of the 18th century that Belarusian literature experienced a revival and was rediscovered. The first romantic works were written in the vernacular, which had a strong impact on the modern Belarusian language. Examples of such literature are the satirical poems by Vikentsi Ravinski and Jan Barszczewski and poetry by Pauluk Bagrim and Yan Chachot (Jan Czeczot).

The beginning of the 19th century saw the advent of romantic literature, which was inspired by the lively language of folklore. The most prominent exponent of this genre was Adam Mickiewicz, who was born in Belarus but who wrote in Polish. To this day, scientists from both countries argue as to which country the poet should be ascribed to.

Around the same time, Vincent Dunin-Martsynkevich appeared on the literary scene. He is recognised as the founding father of modern Belarusan literature. His works include not only lyrics and drama but he also wrote stage plays. Family members and local farmers all took part in his village theatre.

Monument toYacub Jakub Kolas Minsk Belarus

Monument to Yakub Kolas | Photo: Anna Kovaliova

Another factor which had an effect on the development of Belarusian literature was the appearance of the first, legal newspapers, such as ‚Nascha Dolja‘ (‘Our destiny’ and ‘Nascha Niwa’ (‘Our homeland’). These newspapers were published in Vilnius at the beginning of the 20th century, which at that time was considered to be the centre of Belarusian intellectuals. The best Belarusian prose writers gathered around these newspapers and had their first extracts printed in them. These newspapers therefore published works by many Belarusian men of letters including Janka Kupala (Yanka Kupala), Yakub Kolas (Jakub Kolas), Tetka (Ciotka, Alaiza Pashkevich) and Maxim Bogdanovich (Maksim Bahdanovič), all of whom are now ranked as belonging to the golden age of Belarusian literature. More recent Belarusian literature is a composition of different structures and incorporated different genres and styles such as impressionism and symbolism, romanticism and modernism. During the First World War, the dominating subject in literary works was patriotism

After the revolution of 1917 and the formation of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Belarus (BSSR), literary life was concentrated on the magazines “Maladniak” (Belarusian: young people) and “Uzvychch” (Belarusian: upturn). The authors and poets of the younger generation were: Vladimir Dubouka (Uladzimir Dubouka), Tsishka Gartny (Ciška Hartny), Kuzma Сhorny and others. In the 1930s Belarusian intellectuals were subjected to the mass persecution and political repression of the Great Terror or Great Purge. The night of 29th to 30th October 1937 was catastrophic for Belarusian literature, as 23 young poets were shot.

During the Second World War the publishing of literature and satire was particularly important and patriotic works were instrumentalised in the battle against the common enemy. Notable examples are the poems “Iranian Diary” by Pimen Panchanka and “The Brigade Flag” by Arkadi Kuleshov. The novels “The Milky Way” and “Search for the Future” by Kusma Tschorny are among the highlights of Belarusian prose during the war years.

In the post-war years, the subject of war was reconsidered and confronted. The novels and short stories by Ivan Schamiakin, Mikhas Lynkou and Ales Adamovich bear witness to this. But the unrivalled master of war prose was Vasil Bykau, who wrote more than a hundred literary works on the subject. His highly authentic prose is characterised by his own experiences on the front.

Historical novels are extremely popular in Belarus and one of the best authors in the field is Uladzimir Karatkievich. His novels are set in different periods of Belarusian history from the Middle Ages up to the war years. Uladzimir Arlou is a well-known contemporary author, who also writes about historical topics.

It was not until the end of the 1960s that it became possible to explore social and political issues of the recent past on a literary level. For example, in a trilogy, Ivan Melezh portrayed a profound picture of the inhumane agricultural collectivisation of the 30s. Rygor Baradulin (Ryhor Baradulin) has made a name for himself with his philosophical poems and has twice been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Innovative, contemporary authors include Ales Rasanau, Adam Globus (Adam Hlobus) and Andrei Khadanovich, all of whom are talented translators. A well-known book in German-speaking countries is “Minsk: the sun city of dreams”, by Artur Klinau. In this work, the qualified architect combines the characteristics of a tour guide with autobiographical elements and personal memories and compares the Belarusian capital to Utopia.

A major sensation in modern, Belarusian literature was the Nobel Prize awarded in 2015 to the authoress Svetlana Alexievich (who actually writes in Russian) … “for her polyphonic opus which immortalizes the suffering and courage of our times” (Die Zeit). She has been honoured on several occasions for her documentary prose about life in soviet and post-soviet society. In 2013 she received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. Svetlana Alexievich writes in a personal style of her own. She travels around the country and talks to people about subjects which are of concern to them. She then transforms these conversations into awe-inspiring masterpieces, in which her style alternates between journalism and belletristic. Among her most important works are “The Unwomanly Face of War”, “Boys in Zinc” (Afghanistan and the results), “Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future”, “Second-hand Time: the Last of the Soviets” and others.

One of the most important literary events is the Nefarmat Literary Festival, which takes place every year in Minsk. This includes many performances in which authors, musicians and other artists take part, in addition to numerous literature readings.

Modern literary life is centred in Minsk. Nearly all important literary events are organised by the Logvinau publishing house. The publishing house came into existence in 2014 as a private initiative of some Belarusian publishers and authors and aims to promote Belarusian literature and make it more widely known. Since the Russian language dominates in daily life, the idea is to revive the Belarusian language through literature. “Logvinau” is a combination of bookstore, publishers and a venue for literary exchange. Authors, readers and critics are able to meet regularly and exchange opinions at numerous events organised by the publishing house.

“Logvinau” has acquired renown beyond the national borders and is a regular participant at book fairs in Leipzig, Frankfurt, Prague and Warsaw.

Braslau Switzerland from above Belarus

Belarus is often called blue-eyed. Only from a bird’s eye view this can be fully understood. The country has about 11,000 lakes and about 20,000 rivers and streams. Most of them are located in the Braslaw (Braslau) Lakes National Park, which covers a total area of 183 km². The density of lakes here is higher than in Finland, for example. Rivers and streams connect the central lakes, the largest lake district consists of 61 lakes.

The southern part of the national park is characterized by flat lowlands, forest areas alternate with extensive swamps. Forests cover a total area of 31,000 hectares. In the predominantly widespread coniferous and spruce forests there are many small picturesque forest lakes. One of the most beautiful of these forest lakes is called Bozhje Oko (english: Eye of God), which has the shape of an almost perfect geometric circle. In Braslaw the belief is widespread that God sees through these lakes and watches over the earth.

Braslau Lake District Hill Mayak Belarus

Hill Mayak near Braslaw (Braslau) | Photo: Tatyana Pilipenko

The many lakes are a result of the last ice age. About 18,000 years ago this area was still covered by extensive glaciers. As it slowly became warmer, enormous erosions occurred, which formed this unique system of lakes and gentle hills. This can best be admired at the viewpoint “Mayak” (see picture). Mayak is surrounded by numerous ridges of hills within a radius of about 50 square kilometres. Each of the ridges has its own name, together they form the Kesikowskie ridge (the name comes from the name of the nearby village). Mayak is the biggest hill of Kesikowskie, its height in relation to the nearest lakes is almost 50 meters, in absolute sea level it is 174 meters high.

Today there is a viewing platform on the hill, from which the visitor can enjoy a fascinating view. To the north one can see the border with Latvia, and nearby are the mast of a wind power station and the towers of the churches of the village of Plusy. In the east, a mosaic of hilltops of the Kesikovskie range of hills with extensive wooded valleys can be seen. To the south, the outlines of the Catholic church in the village of Ikazn and the castle hill in Braslau can be seen. In the foreground is the lake Strusto with its numerous islands. To the west, a Catholic church and the wooded Perwoloka peninsula can be seen, where there are beautiful bathing places in the surroundings of meadows and woods.

At dawn and in the evening hours the light is almost magical. Travel fans who are attracted to Scandinavia often compare these places with Finland. The attraction of the Braslaw lakes is that each of them has its own character and its own special shape, as can be seen at the lake Strusto. In the middle of the lake there is the second largest island of Belarus, called Tschajtschin (area 1.6 km²), which itself has its own small lake. Lake Wolosso is the deepest and cleanest lake in the National Park. Its depth is more than 40 meters and the water is so clear that you can see up to 8 meters into the depth.

The flora and fauna around the lakes is diverse. The region is home to more than 800 plant species, some of which are endangered and are on the Red List of Threatened Species of Belarus.

More than 30 species of fish live in the lakes, almost 40 percent of all birds in Belarus nest on the territory of the national park. 45 bird species are registered in the Red Book of Threatened Species. Among them, the Mute Swan (Cygnus olor) is particularly noteworthy. These sublime birds were almost extinct, but have recently been resettled on the Braslaw Lakes and are now strictly protected. Other rare bird species living on the lakes include the black stork (Ciconia nigra), the grey crane (Grus grus), the herring gull (Larus argentatus), the willow ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus), the Dunlin (Calidris alpina), and the Ural Owl (Strix uralensis).

As far as the local fauna is concerned, the European badger (Meles meles), the Eurasian lynx or northern lynx (Lynx lynx), and the brown bear (Ursus arctos) are under special protection.

Braslau Switzerland Belarus

Braslaw lakes | Photo: Benny Reiter

All these animals live in the National Park, the heart of which lies in one of the oldest cities of Belarus, Braslau. The city is surrounded by five lakes, Lake Drivjaty is the largest in the National Park (see picture).

In the heart of Braslau rises the castle hill, of which fortified settlements from the 5th to the 18th century can be traced. Today you can walk through the picturesque little streets of the city. Unfortunately, hardly any excavations have taken place, so little is known about the history of Braslau. However, it is known that the settlement was inhabited until the 11th century by the Latgals, the ancestors of the Latvians. With the expansion of the Slavic peoples in the early Middle Ages, however, the Latgalians were displaced. The town is a little younger than Vitebsk or Polotsk and was first mentioned in a chronicle in 1065. The castle hill in the centre of the town was named in honour of Prince Bryachislav of Polotsk in the 11th century. This is where the actual roots of the city name lie.

The history of the city of Braslau has always been closely connected with the ruling Grand Dukes Mindaugas, Gediminas, Vytautas, and Alexander the Jagiellonian.

At the top of the already mentioned castle hill stands a white obelisk. The obelisk is dedicated to the famous Belarusian doctor Stanislav Narbut. In 1906 he founded a very modern hospital in Braslau, where patients from all over the country came to. The doctor had the opportunity to work in other places, but remained loyal to his small homeland throughout his life.

At the foot of the mountain you can see the Church of the Birth of the Virgin Mary, which is considered an excellent example of neo-Romanesque architecture. The present church was built in 1897 on the foundations of the destroyed 15th century church. During the Soviet period it was used as a storeroom for a long time, only in 1967 it became a place of prayer for the faithful again.

Another religious attraction of the city is the Orthodox Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, built in 1897 in pseudo-Russian style. Today the church houses over a hundred icons, some of them very old, to which believers from all over the country make pilgrimages.

The military cemetery from the First World War has been preserved until today. In the vicinity there is also a tomb from the 19th century.

The so-called Braslau Switzerland is a unique region, whose beauty and historical wealth attracts many visitors.

Holy Scripture of the Jews Belarus

The first Jews settled on the territory of what is now White Russia in the 14th century, at the time of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. During that time, the Jews who came from the Grand Duchy were called “Litvaks”. They differed from other Jewish ethnic groups because of their north-eastern dialect and their own habits and customs.

The first written source recording the presence of Jews on Belarusian territory was a document from Grand Duke Vytautas the Great (dated 1383). In this document, the Jews are mentioned as being an ethnic group. According to law the Jews were a free people in a class of their own in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and were under the direct protection of the Grand Duke and the local authority.

In the 14th and 15th centuries many Jews came to Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania from German towns. Entire communities set off into the unknown. They brought their traditions and customs, their trading practices and their educational system. At the end of the 15th century there were more than 20,000 Jews in Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

In the year 1495 there were five towns in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania with an established Jewish population: Brest, Grodno, Volodymyr-Volynskyi and Lutz in present-day Ukraine) and Trakai (in present-day Lithuania). In other places, such as Drogichin, Kamenets, Krichev, Minsk and Novogrudok, the Jews only stayed temporarily. At the turn of the 16th century, many Jewish settlements sprang up.

When Alexander the Jagiellon (Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland, 1461-1506) was unable to pay his debts back to Jewish moneylenders, he issued a decree expelling all Jews from the territory of the Grand Duchy. As a result, all Jews in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were sent into exile in April 1495. Communities from Brest and Grodno transferred to Poland and some to Lithuanian minor duchies. In 1503, Grand Duke Alexander allowed the Jews to settle in the Grand Duchy again and returned their expropriated possessions to them.

The Grand Duke and King Sigismund the Old (1506-1548) was known as an active protector of the Jews. He introduced numerous laws bolstering the their legal situation. In the main, these laws were related to taxation and authorisations for conducting commerce and trade. At the beginning of the 16th century, the most flourishing Jewish communities were in Brest, Grodno and Pinsk.

In 1551 Belarusian Jews were given the right to choose their own rabbis. Distinguished Jews were considered equal to Polish and Lithuanian gentry. However, in 1529 Lithuanian law banned Jews from owning slaves. Another law in 1566 regulated what Jews should wear: it forbade expensive clothing and gold jewellery. Jews also had to wear yellow hats or caps, to distinguish them from Orthodox citizens. At the end of the 16th century, Stephan Bathory (King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania from 1576) accorded Jews the right to do business in the towns and later on the right to own shops.

The supreme self-administrative body of the Jews in Eastern Europe was the Wa’ad Arba Aratzot (Hebrew for The Council of Four Lands), which existed from the middle of the 16th century till 1764. The Wa’ad Arba’ Aratzot consisted of rabbis and representatives of the regional kehillah (Jewish communities).

In 1654, the war between Russia and Poland began, a source of great misfortune for the Belarusian Jews. They were robbed, murdered and driven out of the Belarusian towns which were conquered by the Russians. After the Khmelnytsky Uprising in the Ukraine in 1648, many Ukrainian Jews fled to Lithuania, but the uprising even spread there. Using swords and fire, the Cossacks destroyed the Jewish communities in Gomel and Pinsk. So they were dark times for the Jews in the region in the second half of the 17th century. They were constantly threatened by Cossack pogroms and Russian troops. About 86,000 Jews fell victim to these marauders.

After Poland had been partitioned three times (1772, 1793, und 1795) the territory of present-day White Russia was annexed to the Russian Empire. Once again Jews were accorded special status in 1775. Later they were allowed to join the merchant class and work in the town administration.

Between the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 20th century the settlement area (and consequently the right of abode and the labour laws) of the Jews was limited by the original decree of Catherina II (1791) to the so-called Pale of Settlement. This was the term used for an area in the west of the Russian tsarist empire which had previously belonged to Poland-Lithuania. Soon all Belarusian Jews were to be found in this Pale of Settlement and were not allowed to leave it according to the terms of the decree. Moreover, all Jews had to move into the towns by the year 1825 and were no longer allowed to live in the country.

According to a census in 1897, there were over 900,000 Jews on Belarusian territory, over 21% of that population being in the Pale of Settlement. Their numbers were higher than those in the great Polish diaspora.

Yeshiva in Valoshyn (Volozhin) Belarus

Yeshiva in Valoshyn | Photo: Benny Reiter

There were several important yeshivas (Jewish colleges for studying the torah and the Talmud) in Belarus – in Volozhin, Mir, Slonim and Slutsk. Young Jews from numerous countries were attracted here. The high proportion of Jews among the population can be seen by the number of synagogues that existed: in 1917, there were 83 synagogues in Minsk, 50 in Mogilev, 42 in Bobruisk, 30 in Vitebsk and 26 in Gomel.

The February Revolution of 1917 put an end to the Pale of Settlement; national and denominational restrictions were abolished. All Jewish parties were legalised with immediate effect and began to take part in the political affairs of the country.

The First World War and the Russian Civil War accelerated the urbanisation of Belarusian Judaism, at the same time fuelling a mass exodus. In the second decade of the 20th century the Jews’ economic footing was destroyed as a result of the new economic policy. Thousands of craftsmen and tradesmen lost not only their livelihood but also their civil rights and were disenfranchised.

After the Soviets took over power (1920), Jewish communities were dispersed, Jewish parties dissolved and New Hebrew and studying in the yeshivas was forbidden. Many synagogues were closed. The Soviet authorities introduced the Soviet educational, enlightenment and cultural system for Jews, in Yiddish but without national traditions and national culture. All Jewish periodicals (with the exception of the newspaper “Der Wecker”) were banned. During this period, Yiddish was an official language alongside Belarusian, Russian and Polish.

But despite all this, in the second half of the 1920s and the first half of the 1930s Jewish culture reached a relative climax in Belarus. Belarusian-Jewish culture produced such famous painters as Mark Chagall, Chaim Soutine, Yehuda Pen, Solomon Yudovin and Meyer Axelrod.

Jewish gravestone in the old cemetery in Minsk Belarus

The Jewish cemetery in Minsk | Photo: Anna Kovaliova

At the end of the 1930s, about 400,000 Jews lived in Belarus. After the annexation of western Belarus to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Belarus (1939), the Jewish population increased to about one million. Then the outbreak of the Second World War came, a horrendous catastrophe for Judaism. Between 1941 and 1945, over 950,000 Jews were killed in Belarus, including 85,000 who were deported from Germany, Austria and Hungary. More than 300 ghettos were set up on Belarusian territory. The majority of prisoners from the Minsk and Polotsk ghettos, as well as many Western European Jews, were exterminated in the concentration camp Maly Trostinets near Minsk.

The largest ghetto in Belarus was in Minsk. Today, an imposing monument in memory of the victims stands on the former site of the ghetto. The monument “The Pit” was created in 2000 by Leonid Levin. The bronze sculpture depicts people who are going to their death in the pit.

Despite the repression, antifascist movements started up notwithstanding the terrible conditions in the ghettos. Underground groups operated in the ghettos of Minsk, Baranavichy, Bobruisk, Grodno and other Belarusian towns. In some ghettos there were uprisings on the day before mass shootings. Most of the prisoners who were released joined partisan groups. About ten Jewish partisan divisions fought on the territory of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. In all, 12,000 Jews battled against the enemy in partisan divisions. The period was again characterised by widespread anti-Semitism. The peak of emigration to Israel occurred in the years 1989-1991, during which time about 72,000 people emigrated.

Today, most Jews live in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, although there are communities in other cities. In the meantime there are eleven practising synagogues in Belarus: two each in Minsk, Vitebsk and Mogilev and one each in Pinsk, Brest, Grodno, Bobruisk and Gomel. Altogether 19 rabbis work there.

The official Jewish community in the Republic of Belarus reports that there are 55,000 Jews in the country, half of them living in Minsk.

Diplomatic relations with Israel were started in 1992 and these have gradually grown stronger. Since November 2015, citizens of both countries can visit each other without requiring a visa.

Go on a journey with us and discover the traces of Jewish history in Belarus.