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.
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.[caption id="attachment_609" align="alignleft" width="315"] Pripyat marshes near Lyaskovichi | Photo: Benny Reiter[/caption]
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.[caption id="attachment_610" align="alignright" width="309"] Forest in the marshes | Photo: Benny Reiter[/caption]
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.
For many people, Belarus is still a blank spot on the map, terra incognita. Nevertheless, during its turbulent history many a merchant, diplomat, scientist, cleric, craftsman and painter from all over the world has crossed its borders. Some were just in transit, others stayed for ever. Fortunately, many of them were conscientious and wrote diaries, recording their impressions of the country and the beautiful town of Minsk in stories and reports. Some tales were told in the traveller’s homeland, others were forgotten and many more are still waiting to be discovered in the archives.
When exactly Minsk was founded is not known, but the name of the town is mentioned for the first time in the Nestor Chronicle in 1067. “Mensk” or “Menesk” is mentioned in connection with the feuds between the Polotsk Prince Izyaslav and the sons of the Kiev Prince Yaroslav. In the deciding battle on 3rd March 1067 on the River Niamiha, Kiev won the day.
The area around present-day Minsk was one of the earliest Slavonic settlements. It is highly probable that Minsk came into being as an ancient settlement in the 9th century. Archaeological excavations have proved that human settlements have existed on Minsk territory for at least 15,000 years.
The first name of the town was Menesk or Mensk. There are many explanations for the origin of the name. Legend has it, that the founder of the town was called Menesk. Another story talks of the River Menka, on the banks of which the town was supposed to have stood. None of the explanations can be proved with certainty. At all events, the Menka flows some sixteen kilometres west of present-day Minsk.
Some historians are convinced that the name of the town is derived from the Slavonic words “mena” or “menjat”(мена, менять – to (ex)change). This is not unreasonable as Minsk lay at the crossroads of many trading routes and has always been an important trading centre.
The town which is mentioned in the Nestor Chronicle was located on a hill to the south of where the River Niamiha converges with the Svislach. According to the description, a mighty castle stood on the hill, with a deep moat and high earthworks. This part of the town was called Zamtschischtsche (Russian: замчище – castle location). On the south side there was a city gate, with a square, a church and five housing areas behind. The town gradually spread southwards from the castle. Craftsmen settled on the banks of the river with a market area in the centre, the lower market. Later an upper market developed. The streets were narrow and the most frequently used building material for the houses and churches was wood. In 1084 the town was completely destroyed for the first time. It was plundered and then burnt down by the Kiev Prince Vladimir Monomakh.
At the beginning of the 12th century Minsk belonged to the principality of Polotsk. Later it became the capital and centre of the same principality, to which the territories of the Svislach, Drut and Beresina basins also belonged. In the late 12th century the Minsk Principality was the most powerful principality on Belarusian territory. However, this period saw many a hard conflict for supremacy between the Minsk and the Polotsk principalities. All attempts to unite them were doomed to failure.
Very little is known about the 13th century. Minsk only began to play a part on a national scale in the 14th century. In 1441, the town was granted special privileges by Alexander the Jagiellon (Grand Duke of Lithuania, later King of Poland) and in 1499 it was awarded the Magdeburg Rights. Minsk was governed by an overseer, who headed the municipal administration. Only the Grand Duke was entitled to appoint influential feudal lords to the position of town overseer. In the 15th century, a start was made on the construction of the Troitski and Rakovsky suburbs. Fortifications, ditches and dams were built around the town. A new town centre emerged around the upper market, where a wooden town hall was erected. The appearance of the town was characterised from an architectural point of view by the houses of the feudal lords, the merchants and rich craftsmen, as well as by monasteries and churches.
In the 15th century, Minsk was one of the 15 largest towns in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, with a population of around 5,000 people. However, the development of the town was hampered during this period by the frequent wars significantly, fires and epidemics.
In 1566, when Minsk became the centre of the largest Belarusian voivodeship (Russian for an administrative district), the town began to grow once again. In 1591, Minsk received its coat of arms, depicting the ascension of the Virgin Mary. This coat of arms – with one or two minor alterations – is still in use today.
The Jesuit Order came to Minsk in 1657. They built 11 monasteries, with schools and seminaries attached, with the intention of spreading Catholicism.
At the beginning of the 18th century the town fell into decline as it was besieged alternately by the Russians and the Swedes.[caption id="attachment_922" align="alignright" width="292"] Minsk central railway station 1873[/caption]
From the end of the 18th century, after the second partitioning of Poland (1793), Minsk belonged to the Russian Empire. Muscovite civil servants, scientists and rich Russians were frequent visitors at that time. This development was rudely interrupted by the French ‘Russian Campaign’ of 1812. Pushing on further eastward, Napoleon wanted to establish a base for supplies and an assembly point for the sick and wounded in Minsk. To this end, he had numerous storage areas and other buildings erected. After his crushing defeat, the town was in a miserable state when Napoleon and his army left. The population had been heavily decimated by the siege.[caption id="attachment_924" align="alignleft" width="327"] In front of the Minsk City Hall | Photo: Anna Kovaliova[/caption]
By the middle of the 19th century the number of inhabitants had significantly increased again. Economic development was dynamic and many firms and businesses started operating.
With the start of the First World War, Minsk became a frontline town. Many divisions, military hospitals and the general staff were stationed here on the Russian west front.
From 1st January 1919, Minsk was the capital of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Belarus (BSSR). Although the war and foreign intervention had caused massive damage to the town, Minsk continued to develop. In the interwar period the population doubled, the output of local businesses increased fortyfold.
In June 1941, on the fourth day after the German army invaded the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa), Minsk was taken. Shortly afterwards the new occupiers set up the district of “White Ruthenia”, with Minsk at its centre. This was governed by the general commissioner Wilhelm Kube. The racial ideology foresaw the extermination of 75 per cent of the Belarusian population to make way for German settlers.
During the Second World War underground warfare was intense and was partly behind the liberation of Minsk on 3rd July 1944. Today, this date is celebrated as Independence Day in Belarus. The town was almost completely razed to the ground by the war, so the first plan was to transfer the capital to Mogilev in the East or start afresh, rebuilding Minsk further eastward.[caption id="attachment_1063" align="alignleft" width="266"] Mc Donalds meets Stalin architecture | Photo: Viktoria Salauyeva[/caption]
In the end, the decision was made to rebuild the town in the old location. This was a mammoth task in which architects and workers from all over the Soviet Union participated. German prisoners of war also played a major role in the reconstruction.
The new town was designed completely on the drawing board and was geared to the architectural style of Soviet realism. On a global basis, the city centre of Minsk is unique in its architectural rigour and yet it radiates a charm of its own.[caption id="attachment_1068" align="alignright" width="269"] Minsk city gate | Photo: Viktoria Salauyeva[/caption]
Since 1991 Minsk has been the capital of the independent Republic of Belarus. The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) has its headquarters here, as does the Court of Justice of the Eurasian Economic Community.
In the last decades, Minsk has become a modern European capital and is constantly growing. It now has a population of over two million people. That means that every fifth Belarusian lives in Minsk. The development was particularly striking in 2014, when the ice hockey world championship took place in Belarus.
Discover the city and its surroundings on our 5-day Minsk trip.
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 city of Grodno or Hrodna as it is also called (Russian: Гродно, Belarusian: Гродна) is one of the most beautiful Belarusian towns. It lies in the west, on the banks of the River Neman. Grodno has been a border town since the 12th century and served as a border outpost for various nations. Today, Grodno is 15 km from the Polish border and 30 km from the Lithuanian border.
Grodno is the largest industrial centre in western Belarus, the main focus being on the manufacturing industry. The predominant industrial enterprise is the joint-stock company Grodno Asot (Russian: азот – nitrogen). Forty five percent of the total urban industrial production can be attributed to this plant.
The city has 362,000 inhabitants and is therefore the fifth largest city in the country. [caption id="attachment_703" align="alignright" width="370"] Bridge over the Neman | Photo: Benny Reiter[/caption]
First documentary evidence of Grodno is to be found under the name Goroden in connection with Grand Duke Vsevolod at the beginning of the 12th century. At the time, the town was at the centre of the Duchy of Goroden, which was the first form of autonomy on the territory of the Black Rus. In that period, Grodno was a small fortress with a fortified trading outpost. The town was presumably named after the River Gorodnya. Another explanation is that the name comes from the verb “gorodit” ((Russian: городить – to enclose). The name Grodno (alongside Goroden) was first used in the year 1562 in documents of Grand Duke August II.
Although it was the centre of the Black Rus in the 12th century, Goroden was always a dependency of Kiev. As a border town, Grodno was well fortified and the use of stone was introduced early on in comparison with other towns. The main church (Church of St Boris and St Gleb) was similarly built of stone.
Towards the middle of the 13th century, the Duchy of Goroden became part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Shortly thereafter, the Knights of the Teutonic Order started attacking the town and vandalised it. In the year 1300, David of Goroden (one of Grand Duke Gediminas’ advisors) became castellan. The attacks of the crusaders were repelled under his leadership and Goroden therefore remained independent.
The Duchy of Goroden was handed down from one Lithuanian Duke to the next. After Gediminas’ death, it was governed by Kestutis, then by his son Paterg, who ruled from 1365. When he was succeeded by Grand Duke Vytautas, the latter made Goroden his second capital after Trakai. As a result the town developed rapidly and many new buildings were erected.
In 1496, Magdeburg Law was conferred on Goroden. In addition to the municipal administration there were always two mayors in the town, one a Catholic and the other Orthodox, so that the affairs of the two main confessions were always treated equally.
From 1576 to 1586 Grodno became the king’s residence. Stephan Báthory, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania built his Grodno town Palace in the Renaissance style in 1576. Today it still towers over the city and is known as the Old Castle.
Trade and crafts developed in the town during the 16th and 17th centuries and the first craft guilds in Grodno came into being in 1570. After the Church Union of Brest came into force in 1596, various religious orders came to the town (Jesuits, Carmelites, the Brigidine Sisters). Before the end of the 18th century, nine Catholic churches and two united convents had been built.
In 1793, the voivodeship of Grodno was created. The district was not sub-divided into smaller administrative areas as this was not customary in Poland.
At the end of the 17th/beginning of the 18th century Grodno had experienced economic decline as a result of the devastating wars and the spread of the feudal system in Poland-Lithuania. However, social life continued to develop and the first newspaper on Belarusian territory was published between 1776 and 1783. The newspaper was called Gazeta Grodzienska and was printed in Polish.
After the end of the Great Northern War (1700-1721), both Grodno and the entire Grand Duchy experienced a demographic crisis. Due to the decline in population, the tax revenue was also lower. To counteract this effect, the King of Poland invited German Jews to settle in the area. The population – especially in Grodno – therefore increased and for a long time, the Jews were the largest ethnic group in the town. They built numerous houses of prayer, many of which were destroyed by fire. The synagogue which stands in the city centre of Grodno today was erected in the 20th century. The Belarusian architect Ilya Frunkin designed it in one of the eclectic styles – in the Moorish style. It is considered to be one the finest synagogues in Europe.
Inspired largely by the influential statesman and civil servant Antoni Tyzenhaus, the second half of the 18th century saw a cultural renaissance in Grodno. Tyzenhaus founded a number of factories in Grodno and the surrounding area and also established a theatre. From 1775 till 1781 there was a medical school in Grodno and from 1781 – a faculty at the University of Vilnius, attended by most of the nobility from eastern Lithuania.
On 27th May 1793, the last sitting of the Sejm (lower house of parliament) of Poland-Lithuania took place in the New Castle in Grodno (so-called Grodno Sejm), approving the second partitioning of Poland-Lithuania and declaring the constitution of 3rd May 1791 invalid. The Polish noblemen, led by Tadeusz Kosciuszko fought against this and Grodno became the centre of the Kosciuszko uprising. The uprising failed and the voivodeship of Grodno was annexed to the Russian Empire in 1795. As a result of the annexation, many Russian troops and their families were settled in the border town, causing a sharp increase in the population.
Annexation to the Russian Empire and being linked to the Russian market favoured the development of the town and its economy. This situation changed with the start of the war in 1812. At first, the Catholic community welcomed Napoleon’s army because it thought that the French would help them recover their independence from Russia.
In the 19th century, after the French army was defeated and the position of the Russian Empire in Europe was strengthened, the tendency towards russification and discrimination against the Polish-speaking population grew, as did the position of the Orthodox Church.
In 1862, the St. Petersburg-Warsaw railway line was built. It passed through Grodno and contributed largely to the development of trade and industry.
In 1863, the town once again became the centre of an uprising, this time led by Kastus Kalinouski. His aim was to reinstate the Poland-Lithuania borders. This uprising also failed.
In 1885, a great fire broke out in the town, destroying the historic centre to a large extent.
At the beginning of the 20th century, electricity came to Grodno and the surrounding area and in 1912 a diesel power station with two DC generators was built. By the year 1915, 99 electric power plants had been erected in the province of Grodno.
In the course of the First World War, the town was occupied by German troops and on their withdrawal the Russian army destroyed all bridges and the fortifications of the Grodno fortress.
According to the terms of the peace treaty of 1920 between Lithuania and the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic (RSFSR), Grodno was allocated to Lithuania. During the Polish-Soviet War (1919-1921) the town was occupied by the Red Army for four months, but then retaken by Polish forces.
In the Peace Treaty of Riga (1921), Grodno was finally adjudicated to Poland. As a result, Grodno gradually lost significance since Białystok became the centre of the voivodeship. However, the industry and infrastructure were rebuilt by the end of the 1920s. At the beginning of the 1930s Poland started on a policy of polonisation and assimilation. All Belarusian schools were closed, the use of the Belarusian language forbidden.
After the Soviet occupation of East Poland (Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939), Grodno became part of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR). On the third day after Soviet Russia entered the Second World War (on 25.07.41; Russian: Great Patriotic War) the town was occupied by Germans. Soon afterwards a ghetto was set up, where all the Jews were herded together. Almost the entire Jewish population was annihilated there and the town lost in all more than 50,000 of its inhabitants during the German occupation.[caption id="attachment_644" align="alignleft" width="429"] Second World War tank, Grodno | Photo: Benny Reiter[/caption]
During the Second World War, Grodno was one of the largest strongholds of the partisan and underground movements. There were about 16,000 active partisans on the present-day territory of the Grodno administrative district. On 16th July 1944, the town was liberated by Soviet troops. After the war, the majority of the Polish inhabitants returned to Poland.
The town recovered fast, thanks to the rapid reconstruction of industrial complexes destroyed by German troops and a complete reorganisation of the infrastructure. Like many other towns in the Soviet Union, after the war Grodno was developed according to the master plan of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU).
Since 1991, the town has belonged to the independent Republic of Belarus. It was not until 2003 that work on the renovation of the historic centre began, which is considered to be one of the showpieces of Belarus. Since then, the Botanical Gardens and the so-called Swiss Valley in the Gilibert Park have been redeveloped. In 2006, renovation of the main square (Soviet Square) and the Sovetskaya Street were completed, though some historic buildings had to be demolished in the course of the refurbishment.
Thanks to its turbulent history, its rich architecture and its diversity of cultures and confessions, Grodno offers something for everyone.
Make your own individual discoveries in the city and its surroundings on our 6-day Grodno trip.
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.
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.[caption id="attachment_708" align="alignright" width="262"] Church of the Epiphany | Photo: Anna Kovaliova[/caption]
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.