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One of the eastern European nations to emerge from the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early nineties, Belarus is a fascinating excursion into 20th century history. A Soviet state, it was invaded by the Nazis in 1941, treated brutally by Germany in the subsequent occupation, and eventually returned to Soviet control in 1944. But the damage had been done; a quarter of the country's population was dead by the time the Red Army took over.
Sixty years later, Belarus enters a new phase of its life, as it seeks to join the club of capitalism. But the remnants of WWII and the Soviet occupation remind visitors and Belarusians alike of the country's torturous past.
The region that is now modern-day Belarus was first settled by Slavic tribes in the 6th century. They gradually came into contact with the Varangians, a band of warriors consisting of Scandinavians and Slavs from the Baltics. The Varangians later became one of the tribes that helped to form the Kievan Rus. The Kievan Rus' state began in about 862. Upon the death of Kievan Rus' ruler, Prince Yaroslav the Wise, the state split into independent principalities. After a Mongol invasion in the 13th century, most principalities were integrated into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. During this time, the Duchy was involved in several military campaigns, including fighting on the side of Poland against the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Grunwald in 1410. The joint victory allowed the Duchy to control the northwestern border lands of Eastern Europe.
In 1569 the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, was created. The union between Poland and Lithuania ended in 1795, and the commonwealth was invaded and divided by Imperial Russia, Prussia, and Austria, The Belarusian territories were acquired by the Russian Empire and were under control of Russia until the first World War. As did more parts of the Russian Empire, Belarus declared independence on 25 March 1918, forming the Belarusian People's Republic, this independence was short lived. After the war the BPR fell under the influence of the Bolsheviks, and became the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1919. After Russian occupation of eastern and northern Lithuania, it was merged into the Lithuanian-Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. Byelorussian lands were then split between Poland and the Soviets after the Polish-Soviet War in 1921, and was one of the founding members of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1922. At the same time Western Belarus remained occupied by Poland.
In 1939, West Belarus, was annexed by the Soviet Union as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939. Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 and Belarus remained in Nazi hands until 1944. Casualties were estimated to between two and three million (about a quarter to one-third of the total population), while the Jewish population of Byelorussia was devastated during the Holocaust and never recovered. The borders of Byelorussian SSR and Poland were redrawn to a point known as the Curzon Line.
Joseph Stalin implemented a policy of Sovietization to isolate the Byelorussian SSR from Western influences. This policy involved sending Russians from various parts of the Soviet Union and placing them in key positions in the Byelorussian SSR government. The Byelorussian SSR was significantly exposed to nuclear fallout from the explosion at the Chernobyl power plant in neighboring Ukrainian SSR in 1986.
In March 1990, elections for seats in the Supreme Soviet of the Byelorussian SSR took place. Though the pro-independence Belarusian Popular Front took only 10% of the seats, the populace was content with the selection of the delegates. Belarus declared itself sovereign on 27 July 1990, by issuing the Declaration of State Sovereignty of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. With the support of the Communist Party, the country's name was changed to the Republic of Belarus on 25 August 1991. On 8 December 1991, Belarus, the Ukraine and Russia formally declared the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States. From 1994 until now Alexander Lukashenko has won the Elections for President of Belarus.
Belarus shares international borders with Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Latvia and Lithuania. The country lies between latitudes 51° and 57° N, and longitudes 23° and 33° E. Belarus is a landlocked country and relatively flat. It contains large tracts of marshy land. About 40% of Belarus is covered by forests and there are many streams and 11,000 lakes. Three major rivers run through the country: the Neman, the Pripyat, and the Dnieper. The Neman flows westward towards the Baltic sea and the Pripyat flows eastward to the Dnieper; the Dnieper flows southward towards the Black Sea. The highest point is Dzyarzhynskaya Hara (Dzyarzhynsk Hill) at 345 metres and the lowest point is on the Neman River at 90 metres.
Belarus is divided into 6 provinces (Voblasts).
Mirsky Castle Complex (Мірскі замак) is an amazing sight located just outside of Mir or a day trip from Minsk]. Construction of the castle was begun in the 15th century with a Gothic architecture style. Around 1568 the castle got a new Lithuanian Duke as owner who decided to finish the castle in a renaissance style. It was abandoned for about a century then it was restored in the 19th century. When the Nazi's took it over they turned the castle into a Jewish Ghetto. Today it is a very popular tourist sight and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Niasviž Castle was the estate of several very wealthy families from 1533 to 1939 outside of Nesvizh. In 1939 the Soviets expelled the Radvila family and turned it into a sanatorium and stopped maintaining the grounds. Today the castle is undergoing extensive repairs, although sadly in 2002 the upper story of the palace was destroyed by a fire. The Niasviž Castle castle is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
For the nature lover that does not like to climb mountains, Belarus is the ideal country. 34% of the country is covered by forests that are the habitats to several different wild animals and plants. Also there is over 11,000 lakes to explore and swim in. Remember to be careful in the wilderness in the south eastern part of the country because 70% radiation from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine settled in Belarus.
The Bialowieza Forest, which is shared with Poland is one of Belarus' natural highlights. It is one of the last remaining true wilderness areas anywhere in Europe and consists of an immense forest range with evergreens and broad-leaved trees. On top of that, it is also home to some rare and endangered animal including mammals like the wolf, the lynx and the otter. But the creature that is really special is the European Bison, of which there are several hundreds reintroduced into the park. Therefore, the park is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
This huge, guitar-loving festival held every February and March attracts amateur and professional musicians from around Belarus. First held in 1992, the event occasionally draws a few big names (usually from Russia) who entertain the crowds with classical renditions of famous folk songs. If you plan on being in the country around this time, make sure to book a ticket well in advance as the festival sells out fairly quickly and accommodations are hard to come by.
This lively festival is held every July in Vitebsk and is devoted to the celebration of Slavic music. The event attracts participants from Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, and Poland, in addition to those from the former states of Yugoslavia. Famous singers from around the region attend and perform Slavic songs, backed by the National Concert Orchestra of Belarus. The most successful country to date is Ukraine, with five wins to its name.
Founded by the government to promote the country’s film, this event takes place in Minsk every November. It brings together a vast array of talented movie makers and avid cinema-goers. It achieved international status in 2003.
Held each year on August 25, a garish, military-dominated Belarusian celebration sees the army parade through the streets of Minsk, tanks and all. It is an interesting spectacle to behold, but carries with it a creepy, overly Orwellian feel.
A leftover festival from the Soviet era, Defender of the Fatherland Day is still celebrated in a number of former USSR countries on February 23, the date marking the massive 1918 Russian Civil War draft. After the fall of the Union, the event was renamed to honor Belarusian soldiers who served and men throughout the nation.
Respects are paid on April 26 to the victims of one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters, which took place near the Ukraine-Belarus border. Large parts of the country were, and remain, severely contaminated by the explosion. The event is marked by a somber procession throughout the streets of the cities and the laying of wreaths and flowers at the Chernobyl chapel.
A long-standing Slavic festival celebrating the summer solstice, Kupala is held on the night of July 6th and 7th. Many believe the festival has pagan roots and is extremely popular among young generations in Eastern Europe, who use the occasion as an opportunity to engage in fun-filled water fights.
Another traditional Slavic festival, Dziady celebrates the dead when families come together to throw ritualistic feasts. The festival regained momentum in 1988 due to the efforts of the Belarusian Popular Front to revive nationalism in the country.
Belarus has a continental climate with generally warm sunny summers and cold winters with regular snowfall. Daytime temperatures in summer (June to September) are around 25 °C (with a record of around 35 °C), in winter (December to February) around -6 °C. Nights are 15 °C and -10 °C respectively but can drop below -25 °C sometimes. Precipitation is fairly even during the year, although July and August are somewhat wetter. Winters have snowfall. Minsk, the capital of Belarus, is in its geographical center, so the weather in Minsk would be more or less the same for the whole of central Belarus.
Minsk International Airport (MSQ) is Belarus' main international airport, servicing flights to and from airports throughout Europe, as well as to Tel Aviv. It is the main hub of Belavia, the national airline. If you plan to land in Minsk MSQ Airport knowing about certain issues concerned with medical insurance, immigration, passports control and the airport building itself will save you plenty of time.
Belarus is well connected by train and most trains originate and terminate in the capital Minsk. Popular lines include the main line between Berlin and Moscow, via Warsaw, Brest and Minsk. Another line connects Vienna with Warsaw, Brest and Minsk. Other destinations include Riga, Vilnius, Kaliningrad, Kiev and Odessa.
Getting to Belarus by car is not impossible, but it requires patience at borders and also arranging the paper work before you intend to go to Belarus. International driving licence is required, as is sufficient insurance, with Belarussian extra insurance bought at the borders. Be sure to have your visa in order as well, as it is not unheard of for people to be refused entry, especially by car. You need to register with the first hotel you intend to go to before entering the country for example.
Buses connect Minsk and some other main cities with several European cities, mainly the capital of surrouding countries, including regular services to Warsaw, Riga, Vilnius, Kiev and Moscow. Trains are generally a better option though, as roads are not in a particularly good shape.
Belavia theoretically flies to and from Minsk, Brest, Homel, Hrodna, Mahileu, Mazyr and Vitsebsk.
Belarus Railways operates an extensive rail network with frequent departures to and from Minsk from most major cities and towns, as well as smaller regional places.
The quality of roads in Belarus is very average and renting a car by yourself is not recommended, although a few companies have cars at the international airports and a few other places. Also, the unreliable supply of fuel is a problem and police controls can get irritating. You need an international driving permit and thrid party insurance or you will get a fine. In the summer of 2013 Belarus introduced a digital toll collection system for the passage on the highways.
There are plenty of buses to all places in the country, but services are slow and buses are not comfortable, neither are most roads. Better to take the train if possible.
There are no passenger services on ferries in Belarus.
Citizens of the following countries do not need a visa: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cuba, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Qatar, Russia, Serbia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Venezuela.
Belarusian visas at Minsk National Airport (MSQ) are issued to nationals of countries with no consular offices of the Republic of Belarus for €90. However, the prices for citizens of countries with a Belarusian consulate are rather high - €180 when they apply at MSQ Airport on arrival. Standard documents like a letter of invitation have to be provided, too - a hotel booking is not enough, at least for a tourist visa, but not other entry points. See the visa price-list in English.
Visa fees and processing changes so make sure that you check with the local embassy or consulate before you plan your travel. A visa will take a full page of your passport so make sure you have at least one page free. Visa fees are generally as follows:
Japanese and Serbian passport holders are exempted from visa fees.
There is now a trend to spare the transit tourists from a need to apply for a transit visa at MSQ Airport. There is no document with guidelines available to public, but if you come from a migration secure country and travel with Belavia via Minsk to the third destination it is highly unlikely that you will need a transit visa. Always check with the Minsk Airport Consulate.
In order to get a visa you will also need a passport and an invitation, other papers depending on the type of visa you apply for. There is a compulsory state medical insurance for visitors to Belarus if you do have a policy valid in Belarus. The fee for this insurance is USD0.50 per day rounded up to the nearest USD (i.e. 1–2 days: USD1; 3–4 days: USD2; etc.). The citizens of the UK are the only nation exempt from this procedure. Even if your medical insurance is valid in Belarus, it is common for customs control to insist you purchase insurance at the airport. This can be purchased just before you go through customs, so it is important you carry a few euros on you.
See also: Money Matters
The Belarusian rouble (BR) is the national currency, and the money's wide spectrum of bill denominations is overwhelming to the newcomer. There are BR10, BR20, BR50, BR100, BR500, BR1,000, BR5,000, BR10,000, BR20,000, BR50,000 and BR100,000 notes. You'll quickly acquire a thick wad of largely worthless notes. Thank god there are no coins. Ensure you change any remaining roubles before leaving Belarus, as it's almost impossible to exchange the currency outside the country.
ATMs and currency-exchange offices are not hard to find in Belrusian cities. Major credit cards are accepted at many of the nicer hotels, restaurants, and supermarkets in Minsk, but travellers cheques are not worth the effort. Some businesses quote prices in euros or US dollars (using the abbreviation YE), but payment is only accepted in roubles.
Belarusian and Russian are the two official languages. Both languages are part of the Slavic language family and are closely related, and there are many similarities in those languages. Russian, in general, is more widely spoken by the population. According to the 2009 official census, 53.2% of Belarusian residents considered Belarusian to be their native language and 23% predominantly speak it at home. Others speak Russian. It will be difficult to get by without some Russian or Belarusian.
Polish is spoken in the western parts, especially around Grodno. But most local Poles use their own dialect with Belarusian as the base and with only some Polish words and sounds.
English, on the other hand is not widely spoken in Belarus, but use is starting to increase. Younger people often speak English fluently, but elder people rarely do.
Modern Belarusian cookery is based on old national traditions, which have undergone a long historical evolution. But the main methods of traditional Belarusian cuisine are carefully kept by the people. Common in Belarusian cuisine were dishes made with potatoes, which are called "the second bread". The Belarusians bring fame to their beloved potato in their verses, songs and dances. There are special potato cafes in the country where you can try various potato dishes. Potato is included in many salads and it is served together with mushrooms and/or meat; different pirazhki (patties) and baked puddings are made from it. The most popular among the Belarusians is traditional draniki, thick pancakes prepared from shredded potatoes. The wide spread of potato dishes in Belarusian cuisine can be explained by natural climatic conditions of Belarus which are propitious for growing highly starched and tasty sorts of potatoes.
Meat and meat products, especially pork and salted pork fat, play a major role in the diet of Belarusians. One of the people's proverbs says: "There is no fish more tasty than tench, and there is no meat better than pork". Salted pork fat is used slightly smoked and seasoned with onions and garlic. Pyachysta is one of the traditional holiday dishes. This is boiled, stewed or roasted sucking pig, fowl or large chunks of pork or beef. Dishes prepared from meat are usually served together with potatoes or vegetables such as carrot, cabbage, black radish, peas, etc. It is characteristic that many vegetable and meat dishes are prepared in special stoneware pots.
Among dishes from fish, the Belarusians prefer yushka, galki and also baked or boiled river-fish without special seasonings. In general, the most common seasonings are onions, garlic, parsley, dill, caraway seeds and pepper; they are used very moderately in Belarusian cookery. The national dishes are hearty and tasty nonetheless. Among the fruit and vegetable choices are fresh, dried, salted and pickled mushrooms, and berries such as bilberry, wild strawberries, red whortleberry, raspberries, cranberries and some others. Of flour dishes, the most popular is zacirka. Pieces of specially prepared dough are boiled in water and then poured over with milk or garnished with salted pork fat. The Belarusians prefer to use whole milk, which affected some methods of making yoghurt and the so-called klinkovy cottage cheese. In Belarusian cuisine, milk is widely used for mixing in vegetable and flour dishes.
Typical non-alcoholic drinks include Kefir, which is a sort of sour milk, similar to yogurt, Kvas and Kompot.
Vodka (harelka), bitter herbal nastoikas (especially Belavezhskaja) and sweet balsams are the most common alcoholic drinks.
Krambambula is a traditional medieval alcoholic drink which you can buy in most stores or order in a restaurant. It's a pretty strong drink but its taste is much softer than vodka.
Medovukha (or Myadukha) is a honey-based alcoholic beverage very similar to mead.
Sbiten is a combination of kvass (another common soft alcohol drink) with honey.
Berezavik or biarozavy sok is a birch tree juice which is collected in March from small holes in birch tree trunks with no harm to the plants themselves. There are several variations of this very refreshing alcohol-free drink, which is a good thirst-quencher in hot weather.
See also: Travel Health
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Belarus. It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Belarus. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended.
If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis, typhoid as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months. It is also recommended to have a vaccination against tick borne encephalitis when you go hiking and/or camping for 4 weeks or more in the period of March to November.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
See also: Travel Safety
Belarus is a tourist-friendly country and normally tourists confirm that they feel safer here than anywhere in Europe. While crime rate is surely not zero, there are plenty of police around and following normal safety rules you will get around without a problem.
Crimes against foreigners are rare, though criminals have been known to use force if met with resistance from victims. Common street crime, such as mugging and pickpocketing, occurs most frequently near public transportation venues, near hotels frequented by foreigners, and/or at night in poorly lit areas. In many areas, you should be especially alert in metro and bus stations, as criminals have a likely chance in attacking you.
Avoid visiting night clubs and discothèques, as these are operated by criminal gangs willing to search for greater money, but street-level organized criminal violence is rare and does not generally affect expatriates.
Belarus is still largely a discriminatory society. Gay and lesbian travellers face widespread discrimination in Belarus, as do Jews. If you are in any of these categories, it is best not to travel to Belarus in the first place.
Visible and hidden dangers exist, including potholes, unlighted or poorly lighted streets, inattentive and dark-clothed pedestrians walking on unlighted roads, drivers and pedestrians under the influence of alcohol, and disregard for traffic rules. Driving in winter is especially dangerous because of ice and snow. Drivers are urged to exercise caution at all times.
A lot of places are appointed with WiFi hotspots but you have to buy a card and go through the login routine to get online. There are a few internet cafes in the major cities, but you’re more likely to be able to access the internet from your hotel’s Wi-Fi.
See also: International Telephone Calls
The country calling code to Belarus is: 375. To make international calls from Belarus it is necessary to dial 8, wait for a tone, then dial 10. Calls from Belarus to some countries must be booked through the international operator. Public telephones take cards. Grey booths are for internal calls and blue ones for international calls. Prepaid phone cards are available.
There are 3 major GSM providers in Belarus: MTS, Velcom and Life. All of them offer no-contract GSM SIM-cards and USB modems for Internet access. Cellular communications are very affordable and popular in Belarus. Each of these companies has numerous stores in Minsk, Brest and other regional centres. You will need your passport to purchase a SIM card, but many tariffs are available only to those who are registered with the authorities in Belarus. However, a stamp by your hotel on the back of the immigration card in your passport is sufficient to be registered, and this is routinely done by hotels upon check-in.
Avoid using your home SIM card in your own phone. Switch off data roaming and use only wifi instead.
Belposhta (Belarusian: Белпошта) is the national postal service of Belarus. Services are affordabele but slow: airmail to Western Europe takes a minimum of 10 days. Post offices are generally open between 8:00am and 6:00pm Monday to Friday, but some central offices in major cities keep slightly longer hours. Likewise, in rural small communicaties post offices might not be open every day. If you want to send a package internationally, use companies like DHL, FedEx, TNT or UPS, as they are faster and more reliable.
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