Stork heraldic animal Belarus

The phrase White Russia is the literal translation of the word Belarus (Russian: белый – white,  Русь – the Rus). In earlier times the countries belonging to the Rus were given many epithets or qualifying adjectives. For example, the different regions were called Red Rus, Galician Rus, Black Rus, White Rus, Great Rus or Little Rus. White Rus proved to be the most viable name and over the centuries this became the name of the sovereign state. In textbooks and reference books it is generally stated that the origin of the term is not finally explained. However, there are five possible versions which are most commonly cited.

According to the first, the territory which was not overcome by the Mongolian khans in the 13th century was called white. Genghis Khan and his descendants conquered the territory from China to the Volga between 1237 and 1242 and controlled this until 1480. However, the princes of Polotsk and their neighbours resisted successfully and remained independent. So in this case, white meant independent, free.

According to the second alternative, the name comes from the white hair or colour of the clothing worn by the indigenous peoples in the respective area.

The third variation propounds that the White Rus were Christian, whereas the Black Rus remained pagans for quite some time. In the 13th to 14th century, the Black Rus inhabited the catchment area of the River Neman (Memel), with the main settlements between the actual Belarusian towns of Lida and Novogrudok.

A further interpretation supposes that the points of the compass were implied as follows: white – west, blue – east, black – north, red – south. As the territory of modern Belarus lay in the western part of Rus between the 9th and 13th century, it was therefore called white. At that time the Rus stretched from the Taman Peninsula (now in Russia) in the south to the upper reaches of the Northern Dvina in the north and from the Dniester and the upper reaches of the Vistula in the west to the tributaries of the Volga in the east.

The fifth variant is headed by the White Russian historian Vaclau Lastouski, who sees a link to paganism. According to him, in the 12th century Baltic and Slavic peoples worshipped the god Belobog (Russian: white god).

However, there is no documentary evidence beyond doubt on which to base any of these interpretations. Be that as it may, White Russia (Belarus) is nevertheless a very old term. The Russian scholar, Vladimir Lamanski, calls attention to it and refers to the Austrian poet Peter Suchenwirt (14th century) who mentions the „White Rus“ in his poems and calls the inhabitants „Di Weissen Reuzzen“ (the White Russians).

The Polish author Yan Charnkovski (also 14th century) mentions in his notes that the Polish King Jogaila and his mother “in guodam Castro Albae Russiae Polozk diсto”, i.e. “were imprisoned in a castle in White Russia”. Similar references to the term Belarus or White Russia can be found in letters by Vytautas (1350-1430). Vytautas was the Grand Duke of Lithuania from 1392 and founded the Polish/Lithuanian Union together with his cousin Jogaila. During his reign the Grand Duchy of Lithuania reached the height of its prosperity. These sources talk about White Russia as if it were something generally known and comprehensible. This confirms the supposition that the term has been in use for a very long time. According to Lamanski it can be said that in all probability the term “White Rus” has existed since the middle of the 13th century.

By all accounts, the term seems to have been widely used in Moscow in the 17th   century. There, the inhabitants of White Rus were called “Belorusszy”. This is proved by various charters of the time. In Moscow, the term White Russia was appropriated from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The word “Belorusszy” occurs frequently in documents from the 17th century. In the Moscow “Otpiski” records (1648) one can read the following: “Lithuanians and Belorusszy do not attack the kingdom” or “Belorussez Iwaschko” (proper name). Consequently, Belarusians (Belorusszy) were already recognised as a people in their own right.

The territory of White Rus was of particular importance for the Russian tsars. After Tsar Alexei Michailowitsch (Alexei I, also called the Gentle) captured the town of Vilnius in 1655, he added an honorary title “Ruler over Great, Little and White Rus) to his title as tsar. His sons, Ioan and Petr, who succeeded him to the throne, also used the same honorary title.

In the 18th/19th century, orthodox bishops from Mogilev were called White Russian bishops.  During the time of the Church Union of Brest (1596-1815), all Union bishops from Polotsk as well as the Union metropolitan were also called White Russian. (Church Union of Brest – a union between the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox bishops of the then Eastern Poland whose intention was to foil the demands of the Muscovite patriarch and to maintain the traditional liturgical Byzantine rite.

In tsarist Russia, one of the dragoon regiments bore the epithet “White Russian”. This confirms that the term was already of considerable importance at that time.

A White Russian province was established for the first time in 1796. The centre was Vitebsk, which was surrounded by 16 administrative districts (Russian: Ujezd).

Since the end of the 18th century, White Russia is the generally accepted name for all the territories which from an ethnical point of view are considered to be White Russian. The term “Belarus” is a national designation introduced by ideologists of the Belarusian nationalist movement at the end of the 19th, beginning of the 20th century.

The national territory covers the historic regions of White Rus (White Russian Podwinje and Podneprovje), Black Rus and Polessje (Gomel and surroundings). The country, which has been independent since 1991, bears the official name of Republic of Belarus.

By the way, on our YouTube channel you can also watch an interesting story of a former prisoner of the concentration camp Buchenwald, who had to endure inhumane conditions at the camp, survived and managed to remain an unbroken and optimistic man.

Paddling on the Prypyat Belarus
Orthodox grave cemetery in Turov Turau Belarus

Orthodox cemetery in Turov | Photo: Anna Kovaliova

Polesia, Polesie or Polesye has always impressed travellers with its unique and unspoilt nature. Polesia (Belarusian: Palesse, Russian: Polesje) is located in the polesian lowlands and extends to the territories of Belarus, Poland, Russia and Ukraine. The total area of the territory is approximately 130,000 km². The largest part of Polesia lies in the south of Belarus and the north of Ukraine.

The area of Belarusian Polesia is 61,000 km², slightly less than a third of the total Belarusian territory. The extension of the region from west to east is about 500 km, from north to south about 200 km. The largest cities of the region include Brest, Pinsk, Turov and Mozyr.

In the scientific literature there is no uniform opinion about the origin of the name. Most of them hold on to the opinion that the root “les” (Belarusian / Russian for the word forest) is decisive. This means that Polesia designates an area bordering on forests. Another derivation is based on the Baltic root “pol-” or “pal-“, which denotes a swampy landscape.

The toponym Polesia was first mentioned in 1247 in the Galician-Volhynian Chronicle. The first known map of this region is the so-called “Gdansk map” from 1560, and the place name Polesia was found several times in works of Polish historians. The borders of the region were drawn in different sources but each time still differently. The common bond, however, was always the Pripyat river basin.

The connecting element Pripyat and its numerous tributaries, such as the Pina, Yasselda, Braginka, the Zna, Sluch and Ptitsch, run through the region and its towns. In the east of Poland flows the mighty Dnieper and its tributaries Berezina and Sosh, in the west the Bug with its tributary Muchawetz. Together they form a widely ramified water system that forms large flood plains during spring floods.

In the lowlands between 100m and 130m above sea level, remnants of glaciers from the last ice age, large swamp massifs and extensive moors appear in the flat relief.

This area is unique in Europe. Some of the most important continental migratory bird routes cross here. Especially waterfowl such as the black-tailed godwit (Limosa limosa), the redshank (Tringa totanus), the lapwing (Vanellus vanellus), and the Terek sandpiper (Xenus cinereus) rest here. Polesia is the habitat of many birds that are threatened with extinction in Europe, including the Corncrake (Crex crex), the Great Snipe (Gallinago media), and the Greater Spotted Eagle (Aquila clanga).

The Pripyat river lowlands provide habitats for rare animals such as the European pond turtle, the otter and the European mink. For ornithologists, biologists and ecologists this region is therefore of special interest.

Prypjat marshes near Lyaskovichi Belarus

Pripyat marshes near Lyaskovichi | Photo: Benny Reiter

Among the many marshes, the Sporovskoe Marsh is outstanding, one of the largest natural mesotrophic fens in Europe. Most of it is preserved in its natural state, only a small part of the area has been drained by a system of canals. This swamp is characterized mainly by its richness of species and an abundance of medicinal plants thriving there. Rare orchid species that are on the Red List grow in the eastern part. Wild animals like beavers (Castor fiber), otters (Lutrinae) and the rare muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) live in the water. Meadow Harriers (Circus pygargus), Marsh Harriers (Circus aeruginosus) and various species of water and marsh birds nest there. The Sporowskoe bog, however, was made famous by a small bird, the Aquatic Warbler (Acrocephalus paludicola), 9% of the world population of which lives in Sporowskoe.

Forest Prypja marshes Belarus

Forest in the marshes | Photo: Benny Reiter

The territory of Belarusian Polesia is 38% forested. Deciduous and coniferous forests are widespread in the watershed areas. On the left bank of the Prypyat there are mainly spruce forests. On the flat territories there are more oak forests, on the lowland moors – black alder and birch forests. In the last century many hectares of forests were destroyed by logging and fires. In the Pripyatskiy National Park, established in 1996, the natural landscapes of Belarusian Polesia are now strictly protected.

The biggest problem for the local ecosystem is, as in many places, the human being. The greatest influence here was the draining of many swamps. In Belarus, the drainage of the swamps began already at the end of the 19th century. At first on a small scale, individual farmers cultivated small plots of land to make them suitable for agriculture. The mass draining did not begin until after the Second World War, in the 1950s. These measures reached their peak in the 1960s. The arable land was used and adapted for the cultivation of cereal crops as well as hemp and tobacco.

Despite this, Belarus has preserved many of its swamps and marshes compared to other European countries. The total area of Belarusian swamps is 863,000 hectares. However, this is less than a third of what it was in the 1960s.

Even today, there is still controversial discussion about the drainage of the swamps. On the one hand, it was advantageous to gain new land for agriculture. On the other hand, however, this also led to chemical fertilisers from the fields ending up in lakes and rivers, causing damage there.

However, the draining of the swamps did not cause the greatest damage to the region. In 1986, a large part of the territory of Polesia was radioactively contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which occurred in the immediate vicinity.

Today, the “State Radiation Ecological Reserve of Polesia” exists here, which consists of over 216,000 hectares of contaminated land inaccessible to the civilian population. It is mainly scientific research that is carried out there, as well as measures aimed at preventing the contamination from spreading to other territories.

Birch over the Berezina Belarus
Twilight over Beresina Belarus

Twilight over Beresina | Picture: Benny Reiter

The Berezina biosphere reserve is an area primarily covered in pine forests which alternate with moors and flood plains. The reserve has an overall surface area of 85,200 hectares and is to be found about 100 km northeast of Minsk. Untouched forest and extensive moors are typical of the reserve. Overall the moors cover 50,700 hectares, which makes it one of the most widespread moorland areas in Europe. It can absorb vast quantities of carbon dioxide from the air and is therefore of vital importance for climate protection.

Thanks to its biological diversity, the biosphere reserve is of significance well beyond the borders of Belarus. It is home to four dominating ecosystems: thick forests, deep swamps, lakes with abundant water and vast wild meadows. The forest is predominant, covering about 89% of the overall area. The original formations of vegetation: Scot’s pines, black alder woods and downy birch, which are to be found in the extensive swamps, are of particular importance.

The River Berezina (Belarusian: Bjaresina) is part of the water system in the biosphere reserve, along with many smaller rivers, streams and connecting channels, as well as old river beds and numerous lakes.

The biosphere reserve lies in the river basin of the Berezina and Essa, which are likewise part of the Black Sea and Baltic basin. The watershed between them lies in the north-eastern part of the reserve. The River Berezina has its source 45 km farther away on the northern edge of the reserve. The river winds its way through the reserve over a length of 110 km. Its banks are lined with numerous backwaters and lakes.  Canoe tours on the Berezina are extremely popular due to its interesting course. The largest tributary of the Berezina is the Sergutch, which is 35 km long. The rivers are abundantly filled and usually the spring floodwater floods the reserve in March, subsiding only after 20-40 days.

The lakes in the reserve, which are largely connected with each other, are extremely rich in nutrients (eutrophic). The largest lake is called Palik and has a surface area of 712 hectares and looks like a broadening of the Berezina river bed on the southern boundary of the reserve. Part of the artificial Berezina water system also flows through the reserve, linking the rivers Berezina and Daugava. The system has an important role to play, helping to keep the water level constant. It was enlarged between 1797 and 1805 on the orders of Paul I (Russian emperor from 1796-1801) as part of the ancient trading route from the Varangians to the Greeks. Nowadays the river Berezina has lost its economic importance, as it is no longer passable for large ships. It is entirely left to itself and provides a habitat for a wealth of flora and fauna.

The tranquillity provided the perfect environment for flora and fauna. In the meantime, more than 230 bird species live in the biosphere reserve, of which 56 are on the red list of endangered species. Among the rarest species are the Eurasian bittern (Botaurus stellaris) and the corn crake (crex crex). Both are acutely threatened with extinction.

The flora in the biosphere reserve is composed of over 2000 known plant species. This is more than half the entire flora in Belarus. 37 species are on the red list. New species are constantly being discovered on the banks of the Berezina. The last three to be discovered include dwarf cudweed (Omalotheca supina), tall bog sedge (Carex paupercula) and the Sudetenland bladder fern (Cystopteris sudetica).

The fauna is equally as diverse and comprises 56 species of mammal, including the European bison (Bison bonasus), the brown bear (Ursus arctos), the European badger (Meles meles), the Eurasian lynx (Felis linx), the pond bat (Myotis dasycneme), the lesser noctule (Nyctalus leisleri), the northern bat (Eptesicus nilssonii) and the garden dormouse (Eliomys quercinus). These are all on the red list of endangered species. The brown bear is of particular interest. The population in Belarus is estimated at between 100 and 130 animals. A third of the Belarusian population of brown bears lives in the biosphere reserve (about 35 animals).

Canoes on the Berezina Belarus

Canoes on the Berezina | Picture: Benny Reiter

As one can imagine, the conditions for creating a biosphere reserve with great biodiversity were from the outset anything but ideal. Vast areas of forest were destroyed in the First World War and the Polish-Soviet War (1914-1921), decimating the number of wild animals. Elk, red deer, roe deer, boar, bears, otters and martens were almost extinct. Beavers were considered to be extinct until the Belarusian zoologist Anatoly Fedjuschin discovered a colony in the upper reaches of the Berezina in the early 20s. The biosphere reserve was founded in order to protect these and other animals. Hunting was forbidden, as was deforestation and any settling or human activities which would affect the woods and moorlands. It even meant relocating local inhabitants who lived on the reserve territory.

Scientific research activities gradually got underway. Not only were the beavers preserved, but they were also resettled in other areas. As in other Belarusian national parks, there are various protected areas in the Berezina biosphere reserve. The most rigorously protected area covers 47.2% of the total territory. Any kind of human activity is strictly prohibited here. Today, the Berezina biosphere reserve is listed on the UNESCO list of biosphere reserves.

Go on a trip with us and discover the reserve on a multi-day canoe tour accompanied by an experienced biologist.