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Xmas Trip to Belarus (Part 3/4) - The Wild East: Vitebsk & Polotsk

Updated: Jul 16, 2018

Flat as a Pancake

Traversing Belarus from west to east and back again in the middle of winter is a curious choice of holiday it must be said, and aside from the coldness and greyness, we had to deal with a largely featureless landscape on our long train and bus journeys. When you think about a thousand kilometre journey across most parts of Europe, you think of a variety of scenery, perhaps coastal, maybe mountainous, or at least including a few hills or valleys. Belarus has none of these things, barely so much as a bump or hillock to distract one from the endless grey-brown fields outside the window; the highest point in the country, is the 346-meter (1,135 ft) Mount (!) Dzyarzhynskaya, oddly named for Felix Dzerzhinsky, head of Cheka (forerunner to the NKVD – Russia’s feared secret police). Perhaps odder it hasn’t been renamed. For vast swathes, Belarus is flat. Flat as a bliny. Unfortunately, like Poland, this has been one of its main problems in history, as armies from every direction have been able to sweep through virtually unopposed. And, being land-locked, it is also coastline-free. What it does have is hundreds of thousands of acres of forests - Bialovieze, a massive primeval forested wilderness on the Polish border perhaps the best example, containing rare European bison - countless pristine post-glacial lakes and a largely untouched countryside. At its best in the summer months, and, I would imagine, ideal for cycling, fishing, mushrooming, boating and other simple pursuits.

A budding eco-tourism scene exists and staying with locals in their farmhouse homes would be an excellent way to experience the real Belarus. Winter is not the best time to experience its modest rural delights though and if I regretted coming here at this time of year it was mainly for that reason. For a country not much smaller than the UK, Belarus surely deserves some sort of recognition for its geographical uniformity and sheer lack of must-see ‘sights’. Not too many places can boast that, and in a perverse way I like the country better for it. It rewards the adventurous because everywhere is off the beaten track. Vitebsk was reached after an extremely comfortable five hour train journey in which I and my three travelling companions were accommodated in our own cosy compartment, each of us with space to lie down (with blankets) for the princely sum of about $5 each. The Belarusian train system runs on time, is well-maintained, efficient and comfortable, and is something the Soviet system bequeathed it can be proud of.

Vitebsk - Neoclassical Style

The city of Vitebsk is handsome, and the first place we had come to with a historical heart and pre-war buildings (mostly Neoclassical), small cobbled curving streets going off at different angles with the occasional nook and cranny instead of uniform straight lines and wide featureless boulevards. There were even some undulations – the city rises sharply either side of the river Dvina which runs through it. Dominating the centre of the city is the impressive three-towered white edifice of the Holy Assumption Cathedral, rising majestically on a hill just above the river. It was the most impressive and obviously most sacrsanct building I'd seen yet in Belarus, and gave the city a sense of pride and importance.

In short, Vitebsk had character, and I liked it immediately. It seemed to be appropriate that Belarus’ most famous artistic son, Marc Chagall, had come from here, there being a vaguely artsy feel to the city, even if it wasn’t Paris or Prague. By Belarusian standards, it was charming and cosy. There were some welcoming little bars, restaurants and cafes, and it was a pleasant place to just wander around, with a few smart churches, museums and galleries. We bunked down in a renovated Communist-era hotel after much searching – we were close to New Year now, and being 50km from the Russian border, there were many people here on holiday. It’s a busy time of the year to travel in Russia, and Belarus is quite popular, being cheaper. The fact that there is no actual border between the two countries makes travel for Russians even more attractive: a kind of CIS Schengen Zone exists here and, theoretically at least, it’s a back-door into Russia visa-free for foreigners too. The hotel was a step up from the Bug in Brest, taking western credit cards and with English speaking receptionists, even Wi-Fi on offer. It did seem to operate a three-tier pricing system though, with westerners paying most followed by Russians and then locals. Nevertheless the step-up in quality was noticeable. As in Ukraine, the western parts of Belarus (those furthest from Russia) are poorest and least-developed, and the least visited by foreigners (if Russians are to be considered such) so you notice the difference when you travel east. Outside the centre, Vitebsk quickly becomes quite bland and industrial – we spent an afternoon walking along the river to its suburbs and new town, which doesn’t offer up much to the visitor other than a park with a massive war memorial including tanks and aircraft. The surrounding blocks

Soviet images decorating the side of an apartment block, Vitebsk, Belarus
Soviet images decorating the side of an apartment block, Vitebsk

have militaristic / patriotic murals painted on their sides and it makes you realise that war, politics and history surround you in Belarus, reminders of the Great Patriotic War never being much further away than around the next corner.

Chagall - Famous Son

When Marc Chagall (born Movsha or Moses Shagal) first witnessed Vitebsk in 1897, it was a different world, one of rickety wooden dwellings, public bath houses, unpaved streets, onion-domed churches and more than 60 synagogues. On the poor side of town every householder kept goats, chickens and a cow in the yard. Today’s centre has been pretty well-restored after the destruction of WWII, but the sense of loss is more of a community than mere buildings. Vitebsk is in what used to be known as the Pale of Settlement – the region of western Russia to which Catherine the Great banished the Jews in the 18th and 19th centuries, and of its pre-second world war population of 65,000, half were Jewish. The region was famous for small market settlements which were entirely Jewish, known as ‘shtetls’. Larger settlements with sizeable Jewish populations like Vitebsk, Lviv and Chernivitsi were known as ‘shtots’. By the war’s end, there were only a handful of Jews left in Vitebsk, 24,000 having been murdered and the rest having fled. The shtetls became a folk memory and, like so many towns and cities in Eastern Europe which had a flourishing Jewish population, Vitebsk retains a sense of something missing, something removed. A faint air of sadness remains. Jonathan Safran Foer wrote about this subject memorably in Everything Is Illuminated, which was also made into a film. Chagall’s Jewishness is not what made him special, it was his fantastic art, Cubist surrealist fantasy masterpieces of fiddlers on roofs, flying animals and upside down figures in a displaced reality. Like Bruno Schultz, a Jewish writer living near Lviv, his art came from a time and place of horror and persecution and living on the fringes when only art offered an escape. Escape he did, first to Paris, then to Moscow, back to Paris and eventually to the USA. What Vitebsk does to honour this star of a firmament which was snuffed out of existence is barely enough: the modest wooden house of his upbringing is open to visitors, just west of the river (worth a visit to get a feel for the artist’s fairly humble beginnings).