People of the Swamps Fight the Flooding
This April, the region of Paliessie in southern Belarus experienced annual flood caused by major local rivers. The flood was the largest in decades.
Yet Paliessie is famous not only for floods that turn towns and villages into islands. The region’s population presents a distinct ethnic group within the Belarusian nation. They speak a peculiar dialect and retain many features of traditional lifestyle.
Belarusian protestant communities are very concentrated in the region. Their way of life differs a great deal from that of their Orthodox compatriots. Previously, Paliessie was one of the Jewish centres of Eastern Europe and many famous Jews come from here.
Because of its unique nature, culture and history, Paliessie became a popular tourist destination in Belarus.
Belarus has no access to the sea, but once a year some Paliessie spots turn into islands surrounded by water. Geographically, Paliessie lies in the lowlands, where two major Belarusian rivers, Prypiac and Dniapro, flow. These natural conditions make Paliessie vulnerable to floods, which occur annually in spring. The 2013 flood turned out to be one of the largest in recent decade. Here is a typical picture of a flooded village:
For people who are used to a comfortable city life such floods look like a disaster. But paliašuks (this is how they call themselves) take it easy. They have gotten used to such phenomena since childhood and perceive them as the natural state of things. Every family usually has a boat to move between their yards and mainland during the flood. Children sail to school and their parents to work. When water comes too close or even inside the houses, people construct devices to raise their house and even animals in sheds.
However, even these sophisticated means of adaptation do not help, if the situation becomes too extreme. For that reason the Belarusian emergency service is especially busy during the flood period. They move people and animals, build dikes, distribute food and other products when people are unable to reach mainland and do other kinds of emergency work.
People of the Swamps
Ethnically and linguistically, Paliessie presents a peculiar case. Some scholars consider Paliašuks a separate ethnic group within the rather homogenous Belarusian nation. This group has formed and preserved their distinctiveness very much due to natural conditions which isolated them from the rest of population.
Linguists believe Paliessie dialect to be a transitional dialect between Belarusian and Ukrainian language, as it contains elements of them both. In the beginning of 1990s, a separatist movement emerged which sought to create a Paliessie language. However, the movement did not become popular among locals and soon declined.
Paliessie has always been a treasure house for ethnographers and linguists, as it preserved many ancient features in the way of life, culture and language. However, Paliašuks has never held a strong common identity. They have acknowledged their distinctiveness but call themselves “tutejšyja” (the locals) when asked about their own identity.
Before the World War II, Palessie was one of the centers of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. Quite a few famous people of Jewish origin descend from here.
Chaim Weizmann, the president of the World Zionist Organisation and the first president of Israel was born in Motal village near Pinsk and received his first education here. Golda Meir, the fourth prime-minister and the “Iron Lady” of Israeli politics lived in Pinsk with her family for some time before they emigrated to the United States. The winner of 1971 Nobel Prize in Economics, Siamion Kuźniec (Simon Smith) also came from Pinsk, where he was born and studied at a local gymnasium. Another famous Pinsk scholar, David Shoenberg, became professor of Physics at Cambridge University.
Early ethnographers of the Russian Empire depicted Paliašuks as a gloomy and unhappy people with weak health and a widespread hair illness. Today, however, Paliessie demonstrates highest birth rates in Belarus and is famous for its strong local communities. The main reason for such developments seems to be tied to a religion not common in other Belarusian regions – Protestantism.
The Miracle of Paliessie Protestantism
Protestant communities began to spread in Belarus in 1920-1930s, but soon the communists destroyed most of them during Stalin's rule. Until the 1970s, authorities constantly persecuted the protestant church. Nevertheless, the communities continued to exist and flourished after the collapse of the USSR.
The Brest region, the western part of Paliessie, presents the centre of protestant communities in Belarus. Protestants differ significantly in their way of life compared to regular Belarusians. Protestant families often have more than five children, while normally Belarusians have one or two. Protestants do not drink alcohol, while in some Belarusian villages alcoholism killed every single man.
No wonder the region looks rather positive in terms of its social indicators. It has the youngest population in Belarus and higher average household income. For example, the whole Alšany village, one of the biggest protestant communities in Belarus, deals with the cucumber business.
Every family has greenhouses where they toil day and night. Remarkably, local children do not want to go to big cities in search of a better life. They stay in the village and continue their father’s business. “Why should we go to the city? Here, on the land, we can make more money during one season than you will make during your whole life”, they say.
Paliessie as a Tourist Destination
Due to its unique nature, culture and history, Paliessie became popular among Belarusian as well as foreign tourists. Some people seek the ancient way of life which still exists in local villages. For instance, in some places the roofs of the houses are still covered with reed.
For some categories of tourists, the tour in areas contaminated by Chernobyl presents a real adventure.
Others enjoy struggling through vast swamps and woods. Actually, Paliessie's wetlands appear the largest complex of wetlands in Europe that have preserved their natural environment.
Paliessie has a great potential for tourism as it offers experiences and adventures for those who like unusual experiences, hidden just a few kilometres from the EU border.
Young Fashion Labels from Belarus – a New Export Hit?
At the end of April, the 6th Belarus Fashion Week took place in Minsk. It may come as a surprise that there is a fashion industry in Belarus, and in fact, this is one of the good news from the country. During the last years, a whole branch of young and excellent fashion labels has emerged in Belarus.
Clothes – the Most Important Good after Food for Belarusians
According to the National Statistic Committee, Belarusians spent 11,6% of their income on clothes, which is the second largest position after food. This proves that there is a whole growing clothes industry. After the economic crisis in 2011, money has reappeared to be spent on the outward appearance. However, buying modern, good quality clothes at affordable prices is very difficult in Belarus. So far, there have been three ways to buy garments in Belarus:
1. The national clothes industry. There are some pretty good manufacturers in Belarus which are partly even available abroad: The famous brand “Milavitsa” for female underwear, “BelWest” shoes for adults and Shagovita for children, Belarusian knitwear “Areola”. However, every day modern and cheap clothes are difficult to find. Belarus-produced clothes are very expensive and of low quality and not made according to any fashion trends. These, however, are the only clothes sold at the department stores all over the country. How does not like this kind of clothing has therefore two options left:
2. The markets: In Minsk, there are markets and little shopping centres where you can buy fashionable clothes, mainly imported from Russia or Turkey. They are highly expensive and the quality is not always good.
3. During the last years, some of big Western chain stores have opened in Minsk. However, they often sell just overpriced remnants of last year’s collection. Cheap Western clothes are sold as the latest of fashion to young people who can hardly afford them.
Rising Importance of the Fashion Industry
Those options for fashionistas and people who like to dress decently are not satisfying as it gets clear when looking at the research result of the market research institute MASMI from March 2013. According to those figures, buying clothes in the Western European countries is one of the options for Belarusians. 34,7% of Minsk residents travelled abroad for shopping in 2012, and shoes and clothes are by far the most bought articles in this statistic: 86,5% of the shoppers bought those items abroad, because “they are cheaper than in Belarus” (92,5% ).
The upcoming of high fashion from Belarus is therefore an answer to the growing demand of Belarusian customers. During the last years, a whole range of young designers has appeared in Belarus. The sixth edition of the Belarusian fashion week shows their growing importance in the country:
For the first time, important Belarusian firms decided to be partners of this event. The Belarusian light industry concern “Bellegprom” as well as the shoe producers BelWest became partners of the fashion event. The new location, the BelExpo exhibition complex underlines the rising significance of the event as well as a close cooperation with the Belarusian “Belteleradiokompanija”, responsible for state TV and radio channels. The international cosmetics company “Artdeco” was international creative partner of the event. More than 70 Belarusian designers participated in the Belarus fashion week.
The clothes those Belarusian designers present are high quality, not very expensive and they absolutely fashionable. The question of journalists, therefore, have developed from their standard question” Is there fashion in Belarus” to a more pointed “How do you get buyers for your collections” at the press conference according to Irina Zhukova, who commented on the event for the Belarusian news portal tut.by. Indeed, there are several clever mechanisms to make the excellent collections available to interest customers.
Currently, there are three places where the designer clothes can be bought in Minsk during any season: the Show Room of the Central Fashion Market in 3, Revolutionary Street in the old town of Minsk. Here, Belarusian designers present their clothes in a little shop enclosed to a studio where clothes are made. Another shop can be found in the new shopping centre Nemigoff (3, Nemiga Street), shop Nr. 55. Moreover, the coffee bar “Newton” in Minsk sells designer clothes.
Promising Young Designers from Belarus
Apart from those permanent places, fashion markets take place in Belarus three to four times a year. Those fashion markets bring together young designers and potential buyers. Most designers also have websites or sell their clothes through their social network websites, as the designer Anna Yanchilina, who makes beautiful clothes mainly from Belarusian linen. Affinity to social media and very personal customer relations are common characteristics for the new generation of Belarusian designers.
One of the stars among Belarusian designers is Maria Dubinina. Having graduated from the Belarusian Technological College in Fashion Design in 2006, she took part in the Belarusian fashion contest “Melnica Mody” and several international competitions. Today, she designs costumes for the Belarusian band “Krambabulya”- which are, by the way, famous for their eye-catching stage outfits.
Maria is highly professional and traded as one of the most talented young designers. After her debut at the Belarus Fashion Week this year, she is now presented in the glossy Belarusian magazine “Belarus Fashion Collection”. Her clothes can be bought not only in Belarus but also in Russia and Smolensk. Maria works in a little workshop not far from the centre.
She told Belarus Digest, that so far, it was not possible to live on income from selling fashion clothes at the moment. Her current collection, called “Shark” targets those who buy her clothes – successful middle class business women who know their standing in life.
The number of middle class women buying domestic designers and wearing them proudly is certainly rising in Belarus- thanks to the growing professionalism of the fashion industry and the designers. It is certainly worth keeping an eye on the designers and their successes- not only for fashion addicts but also for clever businessmen interested in quality products from Belarus.