This article is part of a project designed to raise awareness about what has been happening in Belarus since August 2020, at the occasion of the Day of Solidarity with Belarus launched by Sviatlana Tikhanovskaya. In order to understand the past and current events better, The Euroculturer Magazine will organize a live interview with a belarusian Euroculture alumni on 07/02/2021. Scroll down to the end of the article for more information!
The elections that sparked the rebellion
On August 9, 2020, Alexander Lukashenko, often referred to as the last dictator of Europe and who has been ruling Belarus for 26 years, claimed he had been re-elected with 80% of the votes after the presidential elections. His main challenger, Sviatlana Tikhanovskaya, had allegedly collected only 10% of the votes, despite her strong popular support. This announcement sparked unprecedented protests right after polls had closed.
I land in the centre of Europe. A small airport welcomes me back home.
When I think of my country, I always picture a charming lady. She has an entangled past to share with travellers.
Long ago Belarus used to be part of a huge powerful country, which comprised of Poland, Belarus and Lithuania. The state was the second one in the world that adopted a Constitution in 1791, and was recognised as a cultural and military centre of Europe for many centuries. A huge part of that culture remained forgotten and silent for a long time, but now it is slowly waking up from the period of integration with the other 14 soviet states, which affected several generations of the state’s culture.
A small shuttle brings me to the closest metro station. Just a while ago, all the station names were dubbed in English to make it more convenient for travellers. The other two main languages you will find are Russian and Belarusian. They both are equivalent, according to our Constitution, but people are using Russian more these days. When parents have the option to choose education for their children in one of the languages, Russian becomes more prevalent due to the Customs Union and the economic relations between Russia and Belarus.
“Belarusian definitely shares more roots with the western languages than Russian.”
Belarusian, in fact, is markedly different from Russian. I remember one time when I stayed in Warsaw, to my surprise after several days I started to understand the language and could say simple sentences like “No, I am not getting off the bus now”. Compare the words “paper” in English and “papera” in Belarusian with “bumaga” in Russian. Belarusian definitely shares more roots with the western languages, and proper Belarusian speech is very hard to comprehend for Russian speakers.
I get off the metro in the middle of Minsk, at its only ancient part – Nemiga. The Second World War destroyed the city and it was all rebuilt from scratch in 1944, modelled in line with the best Soviet architectural traditions. My great-grandfather used to tell me that when standing on one edge of the city he could see quite far – there were no roads or high buildings to block the view at all. Walking along the Svislach River, I look at the row of ancient remains of Troitskoye Predmestye (Trinity Suburb), where the families of famous Belarusian writers like Kupala and Bogdanovich once lived; these days the sight attracts brides and girls who crave for a new Facebook profile picture.
“The Second World War is a huge part of the history of the country…”
The Second World War is a huge part of the history of the country. From 1941 – to 1944 the country was occupied and people kept fighting as they could: in cities and in forests. There are many remarkable monuments from that period. Visit Brest Fortress, for instance, where you can read the words written by a dying soldier “I’m dying but I won’t surrender. Farewell, Motherland. 20.VII.41” , which really makes the blood in your veins freeze. Another breath-taking place is Khatyn, which until 1943 was a typical Belarusian village to the northeast of Minsk. On 22nd March 1943 it was burnt to the ground killing all of its inhabitants. There were many villages that, just like Khatyn, were never rebuilt after the war.
The post-war Soviet period was a very controversial and difficult time for the culture of the country. Nevertheless, even with all the Soviet drawbacks, the government managed to save the country that was destroyed by the war. Many famous factories and plants, schools and universities opened during that period.
“The Soviet Union disappeared from the map. The predictability of life disappeared together with it.”
The state has changed a lot in the past 20 years. The Soviet Union disappeared from the map. The predictability of life disappeared together with it. Borders fell down. There were many possible ways of development for the country to choose from, a huge variety of things to do and to believe in.
As I walk along the river to my apartment, I see many people on bicycles. Belarusian people are slowly letting their identity show. There are many festivals and sport events which are held in the city, and I am very happy to be part of the huge Erasmus Mundus community of Belarus.
Two German guys ask me for directions, and I am glad to show them around. Many tourists come to the country to see the main lakes: the lake Narach, which is the largest lake in Belarus, and the Braslau Lakes, a unique lake system that attracts fishermen from all over the country.
“Foreigners sometimes get scared of our ‘strong’ currency, but…”
From a local grocery shop, close to my apartment, a loaf of bread costs 8,000 Belarusian Roubles; 1 Euro amounts to 11,500 Roubles. Foreigners sometimes get scared of our ‘strong’ currency, yet after getting a breakfast for less than a Euro, it is funny to realise that all the Belarusians are millionaires!
I finally reach my flat and sit comfortably on the bed with my laptop. I look at the smiling faces of my European friends on Facebook. Many of them keep saying that visiting Belarus is very hard due to the strict visa policy between the European Union and Belarus. I would respond that this paperwork is possible to do if you want; and it can never keep friends apart.
“Belarus, a young country with blue lakes for eyes in her early twenties again.”
Belarus is now in a beautiful transition period from its post-Soviet state: a young country with blue lakes for eyes in her early twenties again, looking for her identity and trying all of the new opportunities she has ahead. So if you are open to breaking stereotypes, you want to see some very atypical architecture and to explore a new culture – you are more than welcome to Belarus. We will meet you, show you around, and definitely have the craziest nights after eventful days.
Nadezhda Fomenok, Contributing Writer
Nadezhda is a senior year private international law student, living in Minsk, Belarus. From 2011 to 2012, she studied in Bilbao as an Erasmus Mundus exchange student. This experience helped her develop new interests, among which are the culture of the European Union in the view of integration and how Belarus could be a part this process. Nadezhda dreams of successfully graduating from her course in 2014 and finding her own way in the big world. In her spare time she reads Paulo Coelho and sketches her greatest ideas.