“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

Thursday, July 10, 2008

What to do in Belarus? Posted July 31

I asked Olya to recommend the best things to see in Belarus. Mushroom
picking was high on her list, as were the castles, forts and forests.
Everyone says it is a relic of the soviet past, yet it really is
prosperous in many ways. How would I describe it? There are beautiful
rolling hills and forests, with quaint small towns, and generally,
space. I can see very clearly now why Poles, Russians, Belarusians,
Latvians and other eastern Europeans all chose to settle in the
Midwest and Canada as it really is very similar in climate and

Outside of Minsk it's like one continual farm, with no fences and
livestock in large herds still tended by a shepherd. Collectives are
still very common and village-centered farming is the norm. The
government still owns all the land and country villages are extremely
poor but picturesque.

Belarus has a bit of an identity crisis which means than many will
identify with Poland, Ukraine or Russia more than Belarusian, and the
passivity from so many historical poundings means that the will to
fight for their Belarusian language and identity is limited. Teaching
about wars against Russia is illegal, despite the fact that 2 in 1
Belarusians died, which is twice the number of WWII when 4 in 1 died.
The president hates Belarusian language and culture and is notorious
for not being able to even speak the national language—instead
speaking an uneducated creole of sorts called treshanka. Under the
Soviet Union, no military service would be undertaken in one's own
republic, which is why so many Belarusians fought in Afghanistan and
Chechnya, rather than protecting their own people. This was done so
that if shooting against the population needed to occur, the "foreign"
troops would be less hesitant at protecting the populace as they
didn't identify with them. An effective oppression system, really.

The dig is a fascinating site—a Neolithic peat bog just like the
amazing bog-men collection I saw in the Dublin museum, except that no
bog men have been found in Belarus. The site has been excavated
several times over the last 100 years, but unfortunately, one
archaeologist was executed for being an "enemy of the state", and many
of the items found not to mention journals and records from before
WWII were of course destroyed completely when Minsk was completely
flattened by bombing. Many things changed in the 1970s when the
government put in a huge melioration project of canals which drained
the bogs and marshes. The second dig, which unfortunately I can't go
to, is of a flint mine, which would also have been amazing. Because
Belarus is on the front lines for so many wars, there are so many
possible sites. In fact, Olya was saying that very near the dig site
was the area of the biggest tank battle of World War II and several
planes went down in the bogs which children use as playgrounds now!
Many sites have been gone over with people using metal detectors, but
when they find someone, they tend to just strip the treasure and leave
the body, instead of helping to create some kind of memorial. As it's
a crossroads from Sweden to Ancient Greece, there are many trade route
treasures to be found!

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