Eastern Belarus: What To See And Do
The capital city Minsk generally marks the limit of ambition for many first-time visitors to Belarus. Last month, however, we took a glimpse at some of the delights awaiting discovery in Western Belarus beyond the boundaries of the M9, the Minsk orbital motorway.
This article, the second of a two-parter, introduces the visitor to the Eastern half of the country. Here stand the cities of Homieĺ (Gomel) and Viciebsk (Vitebsk), famed for the richness of its arts and culture heritage.
Elsewhere lie the historic settlements of Polack (Polotsk, the oldest town in Belarus and one of the oldest in all of Eastern Europe) and Turaŭ (Turov, spiritual heart of the Paliessie), as well as the small town of Vetka with its superb Folk Arts Museum.
Cities: the arts, parks, rivers and vistas
With a population close on 500,000, Homieĺ can justly claim to be the second city of Belarus. 300 kilometres from Minsk and close to the borders with Russia and Ukraine down in the south-eastern corner of the country, its location high above the western bank of the Sož river gave the city significant importance during the Great Patriotic War. Today, all is hustle and bustle as befits its status.
Yet oases of calm do exist, chief among them being the lovely Rumiancaŭ-Paškievič Park, behind the statue of Lenin at the top of Savieckaja Street. Whatever the season, the opportunity to promenade here should not be missed.
The sumptuous 18th century palace designed by Count Rumyantsev stands in 25 hectares of beautiful parkland, from which extensive elevated views east over the river afford a fine panorama. Within the park also look to find the early 19th century Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul and nearby the Rumiancaŭ mausoleum, an excellent photo opportunity.
270 kilometres north-east of Minsk on the banks of the Western Dzvina river stands the elegant city of Viciebsk, birthplace and long the home of artist Marc Chagall. The excellent museum devoted to his works holds a lofty position on the river’s eastern bank, just across a pretty square from the 18th century Russian Governor’s Palace.
A few moments’ walk south brings the visitor to the magnificent Uspenski Cathedral of the Assumption, one of the city’s highlights. The view from the balustrade takes in the whole of the lower city, including the site of old Jewish Viciebsk.
Little of the original architecture survived the horrors of the Nazi occupation, though one notable building that remains is the House of Marc Chagall, now a lovely museum telling the story of the artist’s life. Just a few hundred metres along Pakroŭskaja Street from here stands the Chagall monument in the old market square.
The popular and much-loved Slavianski (Slavic) Bazaar, an international song and culture festival that takes place annually in the open air in late July and early August, beautifully articulates the city’s relationship with the arts. For one glorious week in high summer, the city morphs into a gigantic street party, with 5,000 artists performing at the purpose-built domed amphitheatre on Frunze Street, as well as (seemingly) on every street corner.
‘The city of all Belarusian cities’: walking in the footsteps of history
No visit to Vitebsk should pass without an excursion to Polack, the oldest and one of the most attractive towns in the entire country. Only 105 kilometres to the north-west and birthplace of famed poet and teacher Simeon of Polack, as well as the great humanist and translator of the Bible Francysk Skaryna, a single walking tour presents the visitor with an opportunity to explore the town’s riches on foot. One such tour is described in the third edition of my Bradt Travel guide to Belarus
However you do it, be sure not to miss the stunning Cathedral of St Sophia, first built in the 11th century, the magnificent Convent of St Euphrosyne, with its cathedral and two churches, and finally the statuary and monuments to be found the length of Francysk Skaryna Avenue. Bring your walking shoes and luxuriate in a slow meander through this beautiful town.
Icons, manuscripts and rušniki
At first sight, the small town of Vetka appears unremarkable. Founded in 1685 by “Old Believers’ (the religious group disenfranchised and persecuted by Catherine the Great and others for failure to accept significant reforms within the Russian Orthodox Church), it stands on the eastern bank of the Sož river, just 22 kilometres north-east of Homieĺ .
But this sleepy provincial town is home to the splendid Folk Arts Museum, where exhibits of the highest quality recount the story of the unique culture and history of the region. Ancient artefacts, icons, manuscripts, traditional costumes and woven ‘rušniki’ (embroidered towels with deep ritualistic and ceremonial significance) fill each room.
Old Believers crafted many of the icons in the 17th century, while the rushkini come from the villages of the region. At the school in the nearby village of Niehliubka, pupils still learn to weave on wooden looms made to the exact design of those dating from the 1600s. The headteacher is always glad to welcome visitors.
‘The land of fogs and bogs’
The area to the south of the M10 motorway linking the cities of Homieĺ and Brest (the mysterious, mystical and fabled Paliessie) holds considerable appeal to lovers of nature and the great outdoors. Known colloquially as ‘the land of fogs and bogs’, the fragile balance of the eco-system of the marshy lowlands here has been difficult to maintain over the centuries, but work now undertaken at Prypiacki National Park helps to maintain its unique biological diversity.
Do visit Turaŭ, the main town and spiritual heart of the Paliessie. First mentioned in chronicles in 980, some historians place its importance in Old Russia second only to Kiev. The fine nature museum here explains all the visitor needs to know about the history and ecology of the Paliessie.
Visitors from outside the country will always find that the attractions of the capital city Minsk are many and varied. But as with Western Belarus, those with an instinct for discovery who venture East beyond the boundary of the Minsk orbital road will uncover many treasures. Be bold and inquisitive. You will not be disappointed.
Nigel is a freelance travel writer specialising in Belarus and is based in the UK.
Second-Hand Arms from Russia, Massive Belarusian Army Exercises – Belarus Security Digest
While Belarus is receiving very old modifications of the S-300 from Russia, its officials have announced that the national air force will soon receive the newer S-30 aircraft. But it is too early to celebrate.
Minsk for almost a decade has in vain tried to obtain planes from Russia to guard the sky, including that over Moscow. In addition, Belarusian generals have recently made a series of overoptimistic statements to conceal the rather disappointing reality.
In these conditions, the Belarusian army has conducted a massive number of drills throughout the country to respond to the challenges known to be destabilising neighbouring Ukraine and more remote countries. Minsk is trying to combine various units and arms and to train them in countering infiltration of armed groups from abroad.
Was the Kremlin being generous in granting the S-300 to Belarus?
In the last two months Belarus has received from Russia three S-300PT batteries. One more will arrive by the end of March. Minsk receives the S-300PT surface-to-air-missile (SAM) systems, which have been decommissioned from the Russian army, for free after they have been overhauled in Russia.
But the image of the Kremlin being generous in supplying Belarus with arms doesn't stand up against the backdrop of details of this transfer. Firstly, Moscow gave Minsk the oldest modification of this hardware (and not a single Belarusian media outlet mentioned it). Secondly, it is not known who is paying for the S-300s to be overhauled.
Commander of the Belarusian Air Force and Air Defence Aleh Dvihalyou announced that these are the final transfers of these arms. Belarus allegedly now has enough S-300s to fulfil its responsibilities with regard to the Single System of Air Defence with Russia.
New aircraft, finally?
Deputy Defence Minister on Armaments Ihar Latsyankou on 4 February told daily Belarus Segodnya that Belarus would replace its MiG-29 fighter aircraft with heavier Su-30SM fighters by the end of 2020.
Latsyankou claimed that Belarus had reached with Russia's Irkut Corporation a preliminary agreement on the Su-30. Despite the small number of aircraft being bought in order to replace a larger number of older planes, the capacities of the Belarusian airforce will remain the same, emphasised the Belarusian official, thanks to the bigger operational range of the Su-30.
Minsk expected to receive Su-30s in the early 2010s. The Russian firm even brought some aircraft of this type to Belarusian Baranavichy for overhaul. But then it opted to sell them to any other country willing to pay real money. As a result, the Belarusian government should be cautious with its statements that by 2020 it will definitely have newer airplanes.
The same situation exists with regards to some other types of advanced Russian weapons. Deputy Defence Minister Latsyankou reported that Belarus and Russia were going to consider the possible delivery to Belarus of the S-400 SAM system and Iskander tactical ballistic missile system only after 2020.
Words which conceal reality
Belarusian military commanders understand the inadequacy of these deliveries for maintaining the combat capacities of the national army. But they prefer to manipulate the definitions instead of admitting sad reality.
So, Belarusian officials and the media emphasise that the Yak-130 which Minsk is now buying from Russia is also a “light close air support aircraft” and hence it can presumably replace the soon-to-be-decommissioned Su-25. The plane, however, is primarily a trainer and it can never equal the capacities of the Su-25, in any regard. The Belarusian army is about to lose the remainder of its capacities to provide the ground forces with air support while its generals pretend that the new Yak-130 will fix the problem.
Commenting on the arrival of the old S-300s from Russia, Dvihalyou said something which sounds like unintended irony: “We have personally ascertained that the hardware made in the USSR has a high level of reliability. And we possess a lot of opportunities to modernise it at our entreprises.”
The same concerns the missile forces. Minsk for years tried to obtain Iskander tactical ballistic missile systems from Russia and the prospect of it doing so still seemed bleak. Hence the official talk that the Palanez, a multiple launch rocket system newly developed with Chinese assistance, is on par with “missile systems” referring apparently to Iskanders. Which is, certainly, a very moot point.
Air defence units train to counter “extremist forces”
Between 11 January and 5 February, the “comprehensive control examination” of the Belarusian army took place. While the special operations units are undergoing control examinations and exercises almost monthly, other units are usually less active. After all, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka himself admitted in 2014 that “Special operation forces, and not any aircraft or helicopters, are for us the most important units.”
In January-February, however, not only special forces but also motorised rifle units, mechanised armour, artillery and even air defence and missile units throughout the country were mobilised and dispatched to training grounds – up to 300 km away – to conduct tactical drills. At the same time the authorities have drafted hundreds of reservists.
Involvement of all these troops does not indicate a change in the priority of recent years. The Arab spring and especially the crisis in Ukraine saw a shift to training the Belarusian army in border control and counterinsurgency. It is worth noting that Belarusians are not being trained to combat NATO in “Suwałki Gap” as somebody speculated in recent months.
Effectively, the entire army is being drilled to combat possible infiltration of and insurgency by armed groups from abroad. In addition, it is being trained to assist border guards in defending the border.
The 740th Air Defence Brigade, for example, is being trained to use the Osa, a low-altitude, short-range SAM system, in order to stop light airplanes and motorised deltaplanes from flying over the state border to supply “destructive forces” with munition and arms. The 1562th Air Defence Technical Missile Base is being trained in how to protect itself in situations of “emergencies, extremist and terrorist activities.” No doubt, the developments in Ukraine inspired these exercises.
The artillery conducted launches from the most powerful systems it deploys, among them Smerch, Uragan and BelGrad multiple launch rocket systems, Msta-B 152 mm howitzer (for a distance of over 20 km) and the Tochka-U tactical ballistic missile system. That was no ordinary drill, as the last time the Belarusian army launched a Tochka-U was in 2012.
The missile and artillery units, however, seem to be being trained for the same tasks. Head of the General Staff Aleh Belakoneu commented, “For the first time we tested a combination of intelligence gathering and firepower deployment, i.e., we combined deploying drones, helicopter correcting fire and activities of special forces with a missile strike.”
All in all, the Belarusian government seems to be making all possible military preparations for the worst case scenario with the equipment it has. Despite ongoing economic difficulties, Minsk is investing in military training having realised the risks which are developing in a region which recently experienced subversive activities and outright military aggression, destabilisation and rapid growth in military spending.