It probably won't come as a surprise to people that I love maps. From an early age I pored over them, and on our biannual family drives from Scotland to Czechoslovakia I would study our route and navigate for my dad. As I grew older I understood how maps could display so much more information than simple topography and place names: climate, industry, agriculture, ethnography, linguistics, politics - all are made clearer and more immediate with the help of a good map. I'm particularly fascinated by historical maps, with their imprecise coastlines, challenging handwriting, and flights of fancy (here be dragons). But especially because they show a reality that once existed and which isn't necessarily acknowledged today. Sure, London and Paris have been around for over 1000 years, but if you go back 2000 years then they disappear, only to be replaced by Londinium and Lutetia. Borders, which, today, feel immutable and permanent, ebb and flow, disappearing and reappearing with metronomic regularity. Names and national identities, for which people go to war and innocents die, are in fact ephemeral and subjective. Belarus epitomises this (un)reality perfectly. Attempts to find (the name) Belarus in old maps will more than likely come up blank; and if you do find it, it won't be where it is today.
|Maps have a strange power. This map of China, from 1735, was recently given as a present from German chancellor Angela Merkel to China's president Xi Jinping on a state visit. A nice present you would think. However it caused huge waves on the Chinese blogosphere because it doesn't show Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan or Inner Mongolia as being Chinese, despite the Chinese official narrative of these being immutable parts of China since "ancient times". [For a more detailed analysis see this article.]|
For most of its history the area of modern-day Belarus was part of Lithuania, either as an independent duchy or as part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. During that period the Slavic inhabitants of the region (we tend to think of multiculturalism as a new phenomenon, but, up until the 20th century and the rise of ethnic nationalism, it was in fact the norm in continental Europe) were known either as Ruthenians, or Litvins. When the region was annexed by the Russian empire the latter term was suppressed, along with all other Polish and Lithuanian influences, as they underwent a heavy bout of Russification. Nowadays though the term Litvin is making a comeback, especially amongst the nationalist intelligentsia who wish to differentiate themselves from their overbearing neighbours to the east. Although I don't like generalisations, there is often more than a kernel of truth to them. And so it was when one of my hosts explained to me the Belarusian "type" According to him, between the Slavic peoples the Poles are like the French, in that they tend to be a bit too philosophical (depressed?); the Russians are like the Italians, in that they're over-emotional and have a well-established mafia; whilst the Belarusians are like the Germans, tidy, quiet and hard-working.
|This bookshop-gallery-cafe in a nondescript alleyway in central Minsk is a bastion of the Belarusian nationalist intelligentsia. It's called "Ў" because it is a letter of the Belarusian alphabet that doesn't exist in Russian.|
This difference means that Belarusian historical sights are more similar to those in the rest of Europe, with stately homes and castles, rather than the kremlins and orthodox monasteries of Russia. That makes Belarus particularly popular with Russian tourists who want their fix of castles but who can't afford to travel to western Europe. Most of them gravitate to the twin towns of Mir at Nesvizh that were home to the powerful Radziwill family. They are surprisingly interesting and even have signage in English (which is never to be taken for granted round these parts), and it is easy to see that the government has invested heavily in restoring and promoting them (during the Soviet period the old renaissance palace was used as a sanatorium before being abandoned) as unfortunately most of Belarus's historical heritage failed to survive the double-whammy of Communism and WW2.
|The medieval castle of Mir dominates its surroundings and attracts many Russian tourists.|
Although Communism was harsh, the toll of WW2 is almost impossible to comprehend. Of the 60 million or so casualties over 40% of them were borne by the Soviet Union. That in itself is pretty stupendous, but whilst the USSR lost over 8% of its population in the conflict the brunt of the losses were incurred in the two western republics. Of its pre-war population of over 9 million 2.5 million perished in the horrors of '39-'45.* One third of the population. Only the Jews, who lost two thirds of their pre-war population, suffered more. Some 5,000 villages were razed, of which over 600 with the entire population still inside. The numbers are just overwhelming.
|The remembrance hall of the Great Patriotic War museum in Minsk. Sobering.|
Naturally there are a multitude of memorials to the Great Patriotic War dotted throughout the country, from the recently opened - and surprisingly informative, though in places propagandistic - national museum of the war, to the poignant Khatyn memorial. However no memorial that I've ever seen can quite compare to the bombast of the monument to the Heroic Defenders of Brest Fortress. In 1939 the city of Brest (Brzesc Litewski in Polish) was a major hub in eastern Poland. When Poland was invaded by Germany in September 1939 (and by the Soviet Union a couple of weeks later) the fortress and city were captured by the Germans but then handed over to the Soviets in accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Two years later the Germans returned with Operation Barbarossa and retook the fortress from the Soviets. The fact that Brest saw the first fighting between German and Soviet forces, and that the defenders put up stubborn resistance for over a week, earned it a mythic place in the Soviet heroic narrative. Such an important place required an equally impressive monument. Built in 1965 in unflinching Socialist-Realist style the monument is still one of the largest in the world having used up some 4000m3 of concrete. It certainly LOOMS.
|The Brest monument (along with its honour guard of young pioneers) is the central focus of the fort, which is itself one vast memorial and museum complex devoted to WW2.|
Brest was certainly an interesting final stop in Belarus. It is the oldest city in the country, and though fixed in place has had borders move back and forth across it through time: initially Polish, taken by the Kievan Rus, laid to waste by the Mongols, incorporated into Lithuania, a metropolis of the Commonwealth, taken by Russia, captured by Germany, briefly part of ephemeral the Belarusian Democratic Republic and Ukrainian People's Republic before returning to Poland, captured by Germany, handed over to the Soviets, captured by Germany (again), retaken by the Soviets, and finally becoming part of an independent Belarus. Now it sits on the wrong side of the EU border, but who knows what will happen in the coming years. If there's one thing that history teaches us, it's that maps change.
*Or to put it another way, Belarus, with a population a fifth the size of the UK, suffered five times as many casualties.