The first Belarusian river cruise: Belaja Ruś – Belarus Photo Digest

In recent years, the Belarusian leadership has been attempting to create a positive image of the country to attract foreign visitors. So far, Belarus seems to appeal mostly to Russian tourists.

Russians perceive Belarus as a nostalgic holdout of the USSR with quality food and good cheap ‘Soviet’ service. They see tourism in Belarus more as a trip down ‘memory lane’. For several decades, most Belarusian health resorts have relied on Russian tourists for business.

However, the launch of the cruise ship Belaja Ruś is a new pearl for Belarusian tourism. This motor ship is a restored and altered OS-2 technical vessel. Its restoration lasted more than five years, as the project was short of funds, and the total cost of the project remains a secret to this day. Local workers at the ship-repair yard jokingly call it the Titanic.

Local water channels still lack interesting and distinctive infrastructure, but hopefully development will gain momentum as more tourists arrive. The cruise’s route will run along the Dnieper-Bug Canal on the rivers Bug, Muchaviec, Pina, and Pripyat, from the city of Brest to Mazyr over 8 days. Over the course of the voyage, tourists will relax and visit tourist attractions during the daytime and cruise the river at night.

The interior of the ship room. Decorations are mostly of Belarusian origin.

 

Open deck for evening gatherings and fresh air.

 

The honorary launch of the ship’s maiden voyage took place at the Pinsk shipyard. Local officials and plant workers were invited to the ceremony. Speakers expressed their hope that this new tourist itinerary would be profitable enough for the plant to finally regain its former glory and attract new orders for ship manufacturing.

 

Officials speaking at the shipyard near the skeleton of a new ship.

 

In accordance with long-standing tradition, a bottle of champagne was smashed against the ship board. The bottle only shattered on the third attempt.

 

A blessing by an Orthodox priest is an indispensable part of any ship launching ceremony.

 

Officials did not reveal the final cost of the ships, saying only that the works lasted for many years and it is hard to calculate the costs.

 

The city of Pinsk has its own river station with distinctive wooden architecture.

 

View of Pinsk from the Pina river.

 

Shipyard workers stare bemusedly at the first tourists.

 

Although many small technical ships sail along the Pina, the appearance of a tourist motor ship has sparked unprecedented interest.

 

The captain and his crew set out on their first trial voyage.

 

A notable marketing move: the name of the ship, Belaja Ruś, is the name of an official pro-government public association, which unites Lukashenka’s power vertical and is widely referred to in official ideology.

Local officials and journalists were the first to embark on the ship’s trial voyage. Tourists have been able to book cruises since 29 April.

About the photographer: Siarhei Leskiec is a freelance photographer whose work focuses on everyday life, folk traditions, and rituals in the Belarusian countryside. Originally from Maladzeczna region, he received a history degree from the Belarusian State Pedagogical University.




Is Belarusian Government About to Close Down the Ukrainian Border?

On 16 December, President Lukashenka requested that Belarusian security agencies not neglect the consequences which the situation in Ukraine created for Belarus. He referred to the recent case of a former Donbas war veteran detained with weapons and explosives at the railway station in Minsk.

Meanwhile, the Belarusian State Border Committee reported about serious rise in illegal attempts to bring weapons and munition from Ukraine.

Minsk is worried about possible movement of weapons, radical activists and ideas from Ukraine. The authorities started to fortify Belarusian border with Ukraine just as the Maidan protests began in 2013. But Belarusian government tries to avoid provoking Kyiv by turning the border into an iron curtain.

Do arms and militants come to Belarus from Ukraine?

On 15 December, Belarusian Minister of Internal Affairs Ihar Shunevich told the Russian news agency RIA Novosti that his Ministry referred the materials concerning 12 participants of Donbas war to the Investigation Committee. The Committee decides about their possible criminal prosecution. The complete list of Belarusian citizens who are suspected to fight in Donbas includes more than 100 names, emphasised Shunevich.

The Minister's statement became even more pronounced politically as Shunevich underlined that among these 12 persons are those who fought on both sides of the conflict. Unlike in Belarus, in Russia fighting against Ukraine's government forces in Donbas war is not crime, but a laudable deed.

Minsk wants to prevent its citizens from taking part in the Ukraine conflict. In June, the Chairman of State Security Committee Valery Vakulchyk announced that the Belarusian combatants would face prosecution as mercenaries. In August, a state TV channel reported that security agencies found in Minsk a recruiting scheme which facilitated sending mercenaries to Donbas.

On 26 November, a Belarusian citizen who previously fought on the Ukraine side in Donbas has been detained at the Minsk railway station as he had with him arms and explosives. Belarusian non-state media could confirm the identity of the man and his participation in war.

On 17 December Leanid Maltsau, chairman of the State Border Committee, Belarusian security agency responsible for border control reported that in 2015 Belarusian border guards seized 53 items of weapons, 500 rounds of ammunition as well as some drugs on the Belarus-Ukraine border. That is a lot, because on the borders with Lithuania and Poland they interdict only single pieces of weapons.

No iron curtain on the border with Ukraine

Minsk clearly fears that instability and war in Ukraine gives new opportunities for both political radicals and criminals. As a result, Belarus started constructing its border with Ukraine as the situation in that country became unstable in November 2013. Demarcation of the border will expectedly take eight years and cost about $10m.

On 2 December the biggest Belarusian Internet-media outlet Tut.by published a story about the demarcation. So far, at the westernmost end of the Belarus-Ukrainian border it looks harmless: workers have installed border marks and removed vegetation along the five metres wide strife on Belarusian side. By now, is has been done on about 400 km out of the total 1,084 km.

The State Border Committee, however, said Tut.by that at the moment Belarusian government has not taken any decision on installing on the Belarus-Ukrainian border more sophisticated fortifications and control equipment such as alarm system, barbed wire, control strife – similar to those installed on the Belarus-Polish border.

It means that Belarusian officials feel comfortable with the situation on the southern border. Indeed, in October, Belorusskaya Voennaya Gazeta, the official Defence Ministry daily published a remarkable report describing loose fortification of the Belarus-Ukrainian border. The article described a border outpost which controlled 40 km of border with difficult natural conditions – lakes, Dnyapro-Buh Canal, woods and few settlements. No easy job especially given the developed smuggling routes in the region.

Soviet military standard requires a company be stationed at such border outpost. The outpost in vicinity of Pinsk described in the article hosts only a strengthened platoon. That means about 30 men. Even though new equipment like electronic control devices and drones assist them in guarding the frontier that means quite loose border control of the frontier with Ukraine.

This relaxed approach is probably dictated not only by the lack of money in Minsk's pockets but by some major decision to avoid a rupture between the two countries. A comparison with a similar situation in the former Soviet Union can illustrate this point. For instance, when Uzbekistan faced in 1990s the risks related to political radicalism, instability and war in neighbouring Tajikistan it simply introduced visa regime and mined its borders regardless of how dramatically this move tore the relations between the people.

Minsk concerned about economic issues

The statements of Belarusian officials also prove that they do not see any major threat in the south, except for general instability and economic decline. On 17 December, Leanid Maltsau, chairman of the State Border Commitee, characterised the situation on Belarus-Ukrainian border as “usual.” He emphasised “complete mutual understanding” with Ukrainian border guards.

Lukashenka himself at the conference with Belarusian top security officials on 16 December looked more concerned about economic issues involving the border with Ukraine rather than any security risks. He reminded that on 1 January 2016 the free trade agreement between Ukraine and the EU would enter into force and members of the Customs Union had to defend themselves before the arrival of the EU's goods. Belarusian government expressed concern that these goods can enter the country without customs control via Ukraine and Belarus-Ukrainian border and cause serious damage for Belarusian economy.

That corresponds with how Belarusian government behaves itself toward Ukraine in recent years. In particular it refused to support Russian interventions in that country and willingly cooperated with Kyiv in economic and defence spheres.

Ukraine notices that position. Speaking on 21 December before Ukrainian diaspora in Warsaw the governor of the Ukraine's Odesa province Mikhail Saakashvili emphasised that “there [were] effectively no differences in how Ukrainian and Belarusian leaderships assess the situation in the region.”

Belarusians and Ukrainians never in their history were divided by a real state border. Now they construct a border. Fortunately, so far this drawing a boundary resembles more cautious demarcation of own territory rather than rupture of links out of fear before security threats. After all, good fences make good neighbours.

Furthermore, Belarus constructs its fence with Ukraine after Minsk consistently supported the Ukrainian statehood since the Russia-Ukraine conflict started. If other regional and global powers acknowledge and support this policy of Minsk, it may lead to a more secure and solidarity-based region in the future.




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.

Belarusian Venice

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.

Photo: Siarhei PlytkievichNo 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. 




CBS International Summer School for Belarusian Studies in Poland

The Center for Belarusian Studies at Southwestern College (Winfield, KS) invites undergraduate and graduate students to participate in its first International Summer School for Belarusian Studies from July 6 to August 7, 2009. The program, to be co-sponsored by the Poland-based Belarusian Historical Society, will be held at the Belarusian Lyceum in the town of Hajnówka in the Podlasie region of northeastern Poland, an area of great natural beauty and home to Poland’s ethnic Belarusian minority — an ideal setting for the study of Belarusian language, history and culture, as well as for the study of a broad range of issues relating to cultural diversity and minorities policies in the expanded EU.

Coursework will include intensive Belarusian language instruction (beginning and intermediate levels and individual advanced-level tutorials) and lectures in English and Belarusian on Belarusian history, literature, contemporary politics and society. The program will also include a regional studies component, with lectures and events focusing on the history, culture and current status of the Belarusian minority in Poland, as well as of the Podlasie region’s other ethnic groups, including Poles, Jews, Tatars, Lithuanians, and Russian Old Believers. Faculty will include instructors from Białystok University and the Belarusian Lyceum in Hajnówka, as well as Hrodna University in Belarus. Additional guest lectures on Belarusian history, politics and culture will be given by visiting researchers from Europe and North America. Students will have a choice of dormitory accommodations at the Belarusian Lyceum, or homestays with Belarusian-speaking families in Hajnówka.

Coursework will be supplemented by a rich and diverse cultural program, including visits to Belarusian minority cultural organizations and media outlets, meetings with Belarusian writers and artists, films, concerts, theatrical performances, and excursions to important sites related to Belarusian and Orthodox culture and other attractions of the Podlasie region: the city of Białystok, the recently restored Orthodox monastery in Supraśl, the Białowieża (Belaveža) National Park (the largest and ecologically most diverse remnant of the primeval forests of the Northern European plain), the historic town of Bielsk Podlaski, the Holy Mountain of Grabarka (the most important Eastern Orthodox pilgrimage site in Poland), and the Borderland Foundation in Sejny, a unique institution dedicated to preserving the rich multicultural heritage of the borderland region and promoting dialogue and new forms of cooperation between its many ethnic groups and cultures. In mid-July students will also have the opportunity to attend Basovišča, the annual festival of Belarusian rock music organized by the Belarusian Students’ Association in the town of Gródek (Haradok) east of Bialystok.

At the end of the program, from August 8-19th, students will have the option of traveling to Belarus on a tour including Hrodna, Navahrudak, Slonim, Niasviž, Mir, Minsk, Połack, Viciebsk, Mahiloŭ, Pinsk and Brest. The program cost, including tuition, room, board, cultural program and excursions is $2,900 (the cost of the optional Belarus tour at the end of the program will be announced as details become available). For further information and application materials, please contact the program director: Dr. Curt Woolhiser, Harvard University, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, Barker Center 327, 12 Quincy St. , Cambridge MA 02138-3804; e-mail: cwoolhis@fas.harvard.edu; tel. (617) 495-3528. Please note that the due date for all applications is May 15, 2009.

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