Brest Region: The Place Where The Soviet Union Collapsed
On 4 June the Belarusian city of Brest hosted an exhibition of famous Russian painter Nikas Safronov. The exhibition included a portrait of Alexander Lukashenka in the costume of Francysk Skaryna, Belarus printing pioneer of the 16th century. Safronov announced that he would present this portrait to Lukashenka. Brest regional governor Kanstancin Sumar immediately decided to deliver the portrait personally and thus to prove his devotion to the president.
In the USSR, Brest had a particular status thanks to its border location. It was on the edge of the Union, and perhaps ironically, it was here that the leaders of the Soviet republics acknowledged the dissolution of the USSR.
Although Brest is situated just to the south of the Hrodna region and has a common border with Poland, it has no significant Polish minority. Instead, it contains the largest Ukrainian minority and the smallest number of Russians in Belarus.
The region appears less nationalist than the Hrodna region, because Belarusian identity competed here with Ukrainian and often even with its own local identity. However, the population of Brest region, along with Hrodna, has shown stronger support for the democratic opposition in elections throughout Belarus' 20 plus years of independence.
Although Belarus has no access to the sea, Brest is famous for its huge seafood company. Border smuggling also flourishes in the Brest region — not only with the EU, but Ukraine as well.
Not Quite a Belarusian Region
The regional centre, Brest city, lies on the very border with Poland and is the westernmost city of Belarus. It is here that the trains going to and from the EU change their wheels to adjust to the Soviet, slightly wider rails.
Ethnically, the Brest region differs considerably from its northern neighbour, the Hrodna region. It has neither a substantial Polish minority nor major Roman Catholic areas (although there are pockets of active Protestant communities). Instead, the largest number of Ukrainians in Belarus are concentrated here (2.9 per cent). The region also has the smallest number of ethnic Russians of all of Belarus' regions (6.4 per cent).
Southwest of Brest region (also called West Paliessie) presents a unique ethnic and cultural area. In the 19th and 20th centuries, scholars considered it ethnically Ukrainian. The local dialect is characterized by more features common to Ukrainian, although it has elements of Belarusian as well. However, after Nazi Germany and the USSR divided the territory of Poland in 1939, the Soviet government annexed the region to the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic.
The Brest region has a few attractions which have become, in a sense, their own brands. Bielavieža forest is one of them. It is Europe's largest relic of primaeval forest and stretches across the Belarusian-Polish border. Bielavieža national reserve is included in the UNESCO list of world heritage sites. The forest has the richest flora and fauna in Europe and contains the largest population of wisents (European bison) in the world.
Foreigners, however, might know Bielavieža for other reasons: here, in Viskuli, the leaders of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine signed the Bielavieža agreement on the dissolution of USSR.
Another famous attraction of the Brest region is the Brest fortress, which the Soviet authorities popularised as a symbol of resistance of the Soviet people against the Nazis. It was built in the Russian empire in the 19th century, but became famous when Nazi Germany attacked the USSR on 22 June 1941. As a border fortress, it was the first to meet the attack. Germans took it unawares, but the battalions located there did not surrender and fought for another week under heavy attack.
Only two years before, in 1939, Brest hosted a joint military parade of German and Soviet troops, who celebrated the partition of Poland. This friendship turned out to be short-lived.
Higher than God
Although Brest region is a part of West Belarus, electoral behaviour here slightly differs from that in Hrodna region. In the first (and the only relatively free) presidential elections of 1994, Brest showed less support for nationalist candidate Zianon Pazniak. Belarusian nationalism has not properly developed here because of the mixed and often weak identity of the local population. But along with Hrodna region, in subsequent elections Brest supported the democratic opposition more than the east of Belarus.
Perhaps the only attempt at separatism in Belarusian recent history is connected with Brest region, or West Paliessie to be more precise. In the late 1980s/early 1990s, a group of intellectuals tried to create the West Paliessie language and demanded the autonomy of the region. Subsequently, the movement has decayed, as the population failed to support it.
Brest's governor Kanstancin Sumar has a reputation as the president’s bootlicker and was involved in a number of funny and not-so-funny stories. Sumar presents a typical Belarusian nomenklatura figure with an agricultural background. He strictly follows the “party line”, which means having no personal viewpoint and initiative and implementing everything ordered from above.
Sumar became famous for his ridiculous phrases and initiatives. In 2004, at a high-level conference of officials, speaking about weather and harvesting, Alexander Lukashenka said, “Well, I am not God”, to which Sumar replied “You are a little higher than God”. In 2011, during a press-conference, Sumar told journalists that he would like to erect a monument of Lukashenka for the successful implementation of the national program of village revival.
In the middle of the financial crisis of 2011, Sumar shocked the public by acquiring a new car, an Audi A8 L, which cost 100,000 euros. Interestingly, the same year Sumar recorded a CD of songs. However, it is not publicly accessible.
Seafood Exporter without a Sea
As a region of western Belarus that experienced less Soviet industrialisation, Brest lacks a developed industrial sector. However, it hosts the most successful private companies in the food industry – Santa Bremar and Savuškin Pradukt. Their owner, Aliaksandr Mašenski, was ranked No 3 in a list of the top 200 Belarusian businessmen published by Ježednevnik newspaper.
The companies deal with seafood and milk production and have a considerable share in the markets of the former USSR. The success of the food industry in the region happened very much due to its well developed agricultural sector.
Of course, businesses of such scale cannot exist without the protection of the head of the Belarusian state. To develop, Belarusian big businesses need to show their loyalty to the regime. Mašenski took up the position of authorised representative of Alexander Lukashenka during the 2010 presidential elections.
The border location of Brest region makes it the second after Hrodna in terms of its fame for border smuggling. Brest city itself lies right on the Polish border, which leaves its dwellers no choice but to engage in border business.
At the other end of the region, a vast border with Ukraine also creates an environment of opportunity for smugglers. The Belarus-Ukraine border is extremely hard to control because of the huge marshes and forests that run through it. It also makes it a convenient place for people to simply cross the border, while avoiding any checkpoints.
Very much like Hrodna region, the economy of Brest relies on neighbours, which makes it another important stakeholder in the improvement of Belarus-EU relations. Local people use their location on the border to their advantage, but cooperation with neighbours could be much more productive and efficient were politicians to show their good will.
The Free Сinema of an Unfree Belarus
The West has never been interested in Belarusian cinema, but things are changing now. For the first time in history Belarus has a few films that international audience can appreciate.
Although we cannot consider the existing films as 100% Belarusian, "Above the Sky”, “In the Fog”, “Viva Belarus” have become breakthroughs for Belarus. All three films represent Belarus from different angles.
"Viva Belarus" shows the fate of young people, who, despite their own desires, are forced to get involved in politics. They learn the downsides of the Belarusian system and alter their predestination.
"Above the Sky” also depicts a story about young people, however the writers target social issues more in this work. The protagonist of the film has to get used to the idea that he has HIV and remains unexpectedly close to his deathbed. “In the Fog” shows the realities of the Second World War and its moral tragedy.
Very little Belarusian money went into these projects. Poland’s Ministry of Culture together with the French Canal+ financed “Viva Belarus”, while the UN Program of Development paid for “Above the Sky”. Belarus only allocated a small quota of funding for “In the Fog”. Germany, Russia, the Netherlands and Latvia provided a considerable amount of money to support the film.
“Viva Belarus” remains the most controversial film about Belarus that has ever come to light thus far. The crew was working on the film in Poland, while Belarus proper has very little space in the film. The stories of the Belarusian political soldiers – youth activists illegally drafted into the army – became the basis of the plot. One of them, Franak Vyachorka, became a script writer and the prototype for the main character.
The premiere of the film took place at last year’s Cannes film festival, while in 2013 the film got second place at a film festival in Prague. Very few Belarusian artists have an opportunity to present their works at Cannes and even fewer are able to win an award at an international film festival.
The plot develops around a Belarusian musician, illegally drafted to the army despite numerous health problems. In the army, he endures beatings and betrayals, and becomes disabled at the end of the film. Cult rock-musician Lyavon Volsky composed the music to the film – and indeed the soundtrack can be considered one of the strongest points of the film.
The film’s creators advertised it as “based on real life events”, still, the film contains many speculations. For example, police never disperse concerts in clubs using tear gas shells in Belarus. An influential opposition newspaper Nasha Niva accused the authors of making a picture of North Korea rather than of Belarus.
Such problems occurred due to the weak and limited influence of Belarusians throughout the process of shooting the film. Polish director Krzysztof Łukaszewicz showed Belarus through the eyes of the West, not of Belarus: everything seems worse than it actually is with a huge Lenin monument on the screen to make it look even more horrible.
Despite its hyberbolisation, the film has become a noticeable event in Belarus, and Lukashenka’s regime reacted sharply to it. The Belarusian Ambassador to Poland called the film an attempt to make Belarus and Poland enemies.
Above the Sky
The film creators could not put the UN-sponsored film “Above the Sky” officially on screen for a long time. According to scriptwriter Andrei Kureichyk, the UN Development Programme tried to impose political censorship on the film, so the authors published their finished version on the Internet a year ago. “Above the Sky” got more than 100,000 views on Youtube in a short period of time. Then the video hosting service deleted the film at the request of the copyright holders – the UNDP.
The film tells a story of a young musician who has the HIV. The character should rethink his life and realise he was to die in the near future. The plot at first appearance is rather classic for such type of films. However, “Above the Sky” does not only tell the story of living with HIV, but also goes to great lengths in portraying the Belarusian reality: from the negative sentiments of youth to the dullness of everyday life. It was precisely this that made it problematic for the film to be aired on Belarusian TV.
The film contain some scenes that even more horrible than those found in the “Viva Belarus”. However, the filmmakers made it less politically biased, and the Belarusian audience accepted it more willingly. The film is not without its faults, and while it became the debut film for many of its actors, their acting could have been much better. Dzmitry Papko, the leading actor in "Viva Belarus", also made his debut in "Above the Sky" .
In the Fog
“In the Fog” has one great advantage over the other films. Syarhei Laznitsa, the script writer and director, based the film on the novel by Belarusian writer Vasil Bykau. Bykau remains the main icon of the Belarusian literature. Foreign publishers have translated his works into more than 50 languages.
The story begins in 1942, when German troops arrest an ordinary Belarusian and then release him unexpectedly. The partizans suspect the main character of treason and take him to the forest to shoot him dead. However, an ambush waits for them there. One of the partisans die, and the main character must explain to the other that he was not guilty.
The International Federation of Film Critics awarded a special prize to the film at the Cannes festival in 2012. The critics accepted the film warmly, despite its moral seriousness. As it is not an easy film, it takes time and a conscientious moral effort to really understand and appreciate the film. The film depicts the war not as a struggle between people, but rather as a moral struggle within people.
The Future of the Belarusian Film Production
Belarus has suffered from the absence of domestic contemporary filmmaking for a long time. “Viva Belarus”, “Above the Sky” and “In the Fog” remain rare exceptions to this, films that coincidentally all came out at around the same time.
Low salaries in the film production sphere force actors and directors to emigrate and build up their careers abroad. “Above the Sky” script writer Andrei Kureichyk earns money on writing scripts for the Russian comedies, while “In the Fog” director Syarhei Laznitsa has lived in Germany for more than 10 years by now. It may sound ridiculous, but Belarusian operators earn more filming weddings, than in films.
The authoritarian character of the country has never facilitated the development of cinema. Creative personalities cannot work in the conditions when they have to coordinate almost every scene with the authorities. Until Belarus has money and the proper conditions for the development of the film industry, the perspectives for Belarusian cinema will be lost in the fog.
Some of the festivals in the West continue to show these films. One of them – “Viva Belarus” – you can also view on YouTube with English subtitles.