Brest – Western Capital of Belarus. Interesting Facts
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.
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.