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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).

There is a small art gallery containing some of his lithographs, the curator of the gallery surprised, it seemed, to receive visitors, while the best of his works are exhibited in the galleries of New York, Paris and London. Despite this disappointment (for me) Vitebsk is known as the cultural capital of Belarus, and there is an annual festival to celebrate this fact. This festival is known as the Slavianski (Slavic) Bazaar, and it celebrates mostly Belarusian, Russian and Ukranian song and culture, taking place outdoors in early August. At this time, the town is said to come alive, the city turning into a gigantic street party.

All Dressed up and nowhere to go

New Year arrived and we were caught a bit on the hoof; no arrangements made, no idea of where to go, what to do. How to start, where to go, who to know in such circumstances? We had no ‘in’. In the event, we needn’t have worried about finding the right party. It turns out that for some reason no one goes out on New Year in Belarus. At least, not in Vitebsk. The hotel rooms may have been full of partying Russians, but the streets were as empty as a graveyard at midnight, and we shuffled into the only pub in the centre with any semblance of life – a family sat around a table of food with a few bottles of cheap champagne and vodka.

For the country’s fourth largest city of 350,000, this was more than a little perplexing. We were told that this is normal in Belarus – “people drink at home until one or two o’clock and then go out to party”. I was never able to test this theory, as by that time I was safely tucked up in bed, full of vodka. The family warmly welcomed us to their table and despite barely sharing a few words of each others’ language we got by with smiles and clinks of vodka glasses, which were refilled at every opportunity. I was sad not to be able to converse with them and find out more about them and their culture, but it probably wasn’t the time for deep conversations anyway. At 11pm, Russia’s New Year, Putin came on the TV and made a speech. The volume was turned up and everyone stood to attention, full of respect. “He is strong man! We like!” our host ventured. It’s not a new opinion and didn’t overly surprise me. Many (especially older) citizens of the Soviet Union’s cast-off nations seem to yearn for an old-school father-like authority to believe in. I wondered how much Belarusians looked up to their own leader, who relies so heavily on Putin’s Russia for support that they might be excused for wondering who really pulls the strings. Informally known as ‘batska’ (daddy) in Belarusian, it seems he certainly has followers – mainly outside of the educated urban areas.

Lukashenko was born in a village in Vitebsk province in Krushchev’s time, and he made his name as the chairman of a collective farm in the region. An hour later, as the clock ticked towards midnight, Lukashenko’s head flickered up on the screen. It was the first time I had seen his face since arriving in Belarus, and it made me realise what a relatively low profile he kept for a dictator. Stern-faced, authoritative, though a poor man’s Putin in my eyes at least with his balding pate, comb-over and comedy moustache, it all felt a bit absurd and reminded me of the po-face addresses the British have to suffer from the Queen each Christmas. Our new friends listened though less intently and enthusiastically, slightly out of duty or possibly appearance’s sake, and it was a moment when I glimpsed how many Belarusians probably feel about their leader. It seemed to be mild respect mixed with fear rather than affection, but at no point on our trip was anyone willing to voice their true feelings about their leader. Old habits, it seems, die hard. You never know who is listening. This is a country where outspoken critics can disappear, arrested and charged of crimes they may not have committed. Public silence is perfectly understandable. New Year was seen in with more toasts, piles of food and friendly if awkward pidgin conversations before we tottered off home on the slippery streets, slightly bemused by our random night out but glad to have celebrated it with some locals.

Polotsk - Centre of Europe

I hoped not to have too bad a hangover on waking to the first day of 2013 - we had to be up early for a bus to Polotsk in the far north – the oldest surviving settlement in Belarus. As it turned out, it wasn’t too bad for a night on the vodka, but we got up late and mistimed the bus departure, meaning we had an undignified run with bags along treacherous streets of melted and refrozen ice. I slipped twice, sprawling both times and arrived at the station just in time about 9.30am. It was just getting light. Polotsk is one of the many places in this part of the world which claim to be in the geographical centre of Europe. Heaven knows how anyone can estimate such a thing, but I suppose if you were to draw two straight lines across Europe from northwest to southeast and southwest to northeast, the lines might bisect somewhere in this vicinity. To most Europeans, this is decidedly Eastern Europe, an area beyond the pale to which few would ever think of venturing. Polotsk is one of the most ancient eastern Slavic settlements, and between the 10th and 12th centuries the Principality of Polotsk was the dominant power in the region of present-day Belarus.

Two of the city's religious monuments, Cathedral of Saint Sophia (1066) and the Cathedral of the Epipany (1123), symbolise the independent-mindedness of Polotsk, rivalling churches of the same name in Novgorod and Kiev. Their impressive edifices point to the erstwhile prestige and authority of the city. Its influence stretched from the Baltic shores to the area of Smolensk. Today, Polotsk is no more than a northerly Belarusian backwater of 80,000 people with an air of faded grandeur, though one of considerable charm, enjoying a pretty riverside location on the banks of the Dvina. Statues of Lenin and Marx line the streets as in other cities we had visited, and it felt almost normal to see them now. Except it wasn’t – the only place I have seen these anachronisms elsewhere in the old Soviet empire are in the tiny unrecognized republic of Abkhazia on the Black Sea. These are open-air museum pieces.

The Belarusian Complex

We walked around a perfectly silent town in the watery grey light of a New Year’s Day, hardly a soul about, past rickety painted wooden cottages and ramshackle single-story houses, wood-smoke rising lazily from chimneys. After a long and pleasant stroll through slushy streets we came to the Convent of St Ephrosinia and the Church of the Saviour, two of the best-preserved early church architecture in the country containing some of its finest religious art and frescoes. An Orthodox service was taking place, and the mellifluous sound of religious chanting drifted through the air. Orthodoxy is the religion of nearly half of Belarus while around 40% are irreligious; Catholicism makes up only 7%. The revival of religion in post-Communist Belarus though also brought about a revival of the old conflict between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism – priests of the former preaching in the Russian language and the latter in Polish. The Belarusian language suffered and is an example of how Belarusian culture and language has been marginalised in this country which seems to be a cultural battle-ground between East and West. Fledgling Belarusian religious movements are finding it difficult to assert themselves within these two major religious institutions because of the historical practice of preaching in Russian in the Orthodox churches and in Polish in the Catholic churches. Attempts to introduce the Belarusian language into religious life, (including the liturgy) have also been largely unsuccessful because of the cultural predominance of Russians and Poles in their respective churches, as well as the low usage of the Belarusian language in everyday life. Religion and politics, it seems, are close bretheren here and no doubt the country’s leadership are well aware of what is going on. ‘Russianizing’ the population through language discourages a resurgence of Belarusian culture and identity, and since the early days of Lukashenko’s regime it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that he has favoured a policy of ‘Pan-Slavism’ through economic, social and educational policy. Discouraging national feeling has made the country largely indistinct from Russia, and therefore his own position more tenable, as the country’s model of control is little different to what has existed since the formation of the Soviet Union. Our stay in Polotsk was unfortunately short as we had to travel back west – first to the country’s finest surviving castle at Mir, then to the old Polish city of Grodno, via Adam Mickiewicz’s home town of Novogrudok. I had only five days left to put together the pieces of the Belarusian puzzle, and it was still leaving me scratching my head.

This blog is part of a series. Please see the previous/next parts, on Minsk and Mir/Grodno respectively, here:

Part 2/4:

Part 4/4:

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