Tourism in Belarus: Things to Do
Though numerous wars and rebellions have resulted in the destruction of many architectural landmarks, Belarus has plenty of tourist attractions undiscovered by mainstream tourists from the West.
Belarus Digest prepared an interesting list of places that you need to see in order to say that you truly experienced Belarus. One can reach these places by bus or car from Minsk – distances from Minsk appear in brackets.
Most Popular Destinations
Once in Belarus take the opportunity to visit Mir and Niasvizh. Both are included in the UNESCO World Heritage list and probably have the best tourist facilities in the country. You will find it easier to find detailed information in English and plenty of souvenirs there.
Mir (100 km) is a small town with cafes and an old Catholic church adjacent to the famous castle complex built by the Duke Yuri Ilyinich in the 16th century. Its architecture represents a harmonious mixture of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles that embodies the volatile history of the region, one located at the crossroads of different cultures. If you have ever wanted to spend a night in a castle, you can take advantage of their on-site accommodations.
A system of underground tunnels supposedly connects Mir with the beautiful Niasvizh castle located just 60 km from Mir. The legend goes that the noble Radziwill family hid their treasures in these tunnels.
This prosperous family played a major role in the history of Niasvizh and the politics of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania which kept its state archives in the castle. Many prominent Radziwills are buried in the family vault located in the 16th-century Corpus Christi Church just opposite the castle complex’s main entrance. This unique domed basilica with a Baroque facade was the first of its kind in the world and the first Baroque building in Eastern Europe.
Tourist Sites near Minsk
Those who prefer to stay closer to Minsk may find it interesting to visit some small cities and museums in its neighbourhood.
One of them is Zaslauye (24 km) that can easily be reached by the same modern city trains that operate between the Minsk-Arena and the Chyzhouka-Arena. According to the Chronicles, Vladimir the Great from Kyiv founded the town for his wife Ragneda and their son Izyaslau in 985 AD.
Though the current state of Zaslauye does not fully represent its rich history, it is nevertheless a worthwhile tourist attraction. Beautiful landscapes surround the 16th-century Saviour Transfiguration Church which was formerly Calvinist. It reflects the protestant segment of a multi-religious Belarusian society.
Those interested in the history of WWII may also be willing to visit the Stalin line (30 km). Though many dispute its historical value and original location, the memorial is nevertheless interesting for its large collection of Soviet military equipment (tanks, artillery, etc), which visitors can explore.
Two other landmarks are the ethnological museums in Strochycy (5 km) and Dudutki (50 km). They both offer an introduction to the old life of rural Belarus, but they each have a different focus.
Strochycy exhibits the folk architecture of 6 distinctive Belarusian ethnographical regions over a large area. A visitor can see authentic houses and windmills that museum organisers have brought together into one location outdoors from different parts of the country.
In contrast, Dudutki prioritises an exhibition of rural cuisine, traditional crafts and culture. One can taste homemade butter, bread, cheese and even samogon – a traditional variety of alcohol which is usually made illegally in villages and towns throughout Belarus.
Cultural Landmarks for More Adventurous
Some farther Belarusian landmarks require having a car or taking a regional train to visit them which can be a challenge in a country where it is hard to find good English speakers outside Minsk. However, such a trip would allow to see the cultural heritage of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – a medieval Belarusian-Lithuanian state.
Hrodna (290 km) is a good place to start. The city experienced a significant expansion in terms of its size and role during the times of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Every third general Sejm of the Commonwealth (parliament convention) took place in the city, so it held the unofficial status of a third capital after Warsaw and Vilnius. Hrodna currently has the most preserved historical centre among all Belarusian cities with landmarks of different architectural epochs.
These include the magnificent Baroque St. Francis Xavier Cathedral and the 12th-century Kalozha church which is the only monument of Black Ruthenian architecture that has survived.
The Old Castle near Kalozha, which was one of the main residencies of Lithuanian and Polish rulers such as Vitaut the Great and Casimir IV Jagiellon, is also found here. A 300-year-old arch bridge connects it with the New Castle. The building hosted the last Sejm of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth before Russia and Prussia partitioned the country in 1793.
Synkovichi and Muravanka (250 km from Minsk) represent an original variety of Orthodox fortified churches located in the same region. The adjacent Brest region contains several prominent palace ruins currently under reconstruction.
The Sapieha noble family chose the Ruzhany Palace (230 km from Minsk) as their main seat. At one time it kept the arsenal and state treasury of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
The neo-Gothic Kosava castle (220 km) overlooks Merechevschina – birthplace of the American, Polish and Belarusian hero Tadeusz Kościuszko. He enjoyed a close friendship with Thomas Jefferson and advanced the ideals of freedom and human rights in the American Revolutionary War.
Ecotourism and WWII Memorials
Belarus officially aims to develop ecotourism and has many precious natural assets, such as an extensive system of lakes in the north-west of the country that includes Narach and Braslav lakes.
If you have plenty of time, a trip to another UNESCO World Heritage site, the Belavezhskaya Pushcha (360 km) might be worth a visit. Shared by Belarus and Poland, this national park is home to a rare species of European bison and 450-year-old oaks. In addition, it contains the hunting estate Viskuli where Belarusian, Ukrainian and Russian leaders signed Belavezha accords that declared the Soviet Union effectively dissolved in 1991.
Just outside the Belavezhskaya Pushcha is the well-preserved Tower of Kamyanyets erected in the 13th century which attracts many tourists and offers beautiful views from the top.
You can continue your trip through this region by visiting the famous Brest Fortress located not far from the Pushcha where Soviet soldiers fought against the Nazi invasion for more than a month in 1941.
Not many people are aware of its presence, but there is also an interesting archaeological museum just near the fortress where one can see the excavations of the 11-13th-century historic town of Bierascie.
Every fourth Belarusian died during the course of WWII and the country suffered immense damage as a result, so many WWII monuments can be found throughout Belarus. One of the most important sites to see, and definitely worth a visit, is the Khatyn memorial, a site that commemorates the tragedy of an entire village burned alive with all of its citizens.
Tourism for Many Persuasions
Belarus is yet to be discovered by tourists from Europe and North America. Once you reached Minsk, do not limit yourself only to ice hockey arenas and Minsk's museums, restaurants and night clubs. Belarus is a very safe country to travel.
Friendliness of people and very low prices will compensate possible problems with communicating in English outside Minsk and at times rudimentary customer service at tourist destinations. Being the only foreigner around will make it an interesting experience.
They demonstrate how different Belarus was before the Soviet period and how today the country balances its Soviet heritage and deep European roots.
George is a graduate of the London School of Economics where he studied under the OESS scholarship financed by the European Commission.
New Polls: Belarusians Support Lukashenka and Do Not Want an Euromaidan
At the end of April, the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies published the results of two polls.
The polls demonstrate that the crisis in Ukraine became an informational tidal wave that has been sweeping over Belarus, with 90% of Belarusians following the events. Belarusian society has become strongly politicised for the first time in many years.
However, most Belarusians consider the ousting of Yanukovych a coup and do not want to host a similar revolution in Belarus. Moreover, Belarusians prove reluctant to participate in mass protests and enjoy the current stability provided to them under the Lukashenka regime, which the growth of his approval rating proves.
For Lukashenka, the crisis has been a challenge and a gift at the same time. Relations with Russia have deteriorated and Belarus may yet lose its valued Ukrainian markets. Yet Lukashenka still now has the chance to become a true national leader and consolidate the nation as the protector of sovereignty of Belarus.
Mass opinion on Euromaidan
Broader Belarusian public opinion on the events in Ukraine remains largely unstudied, since very few polls are held in Belarus. Those made by the government usually remain confidential. Perhaps the only publication on their public opinion recently appeared in a study done by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, the oldest independent polling institute of Belarus currently registered in Vilnius.
The IISEPS conducted the poll in March, therefore it did not include the events surrounding Crimea or the current conflict in Eastern Ukraine. However, it provides a good picture of attitudes of Belarusians towards mass protests and coups, as well as shows the level of their attention to Ukraine events.
Did you follow political conflict in Ukraine, which ended in the ousting of president Yanukovych?
The poll shows that the crisis in Ukraine has been hugely influential in Belarusian media space. Almost 90% of Belarusians followed the crisis' developments. Moreover, a third of Belarusians reported that they followed the Ukrainian crisis every day. In Belarus, where real political struggle has not existed for quite some time, and most people are interested only in routine and private issues, these figures look like a populace awakening after a long political winter.
People were discussing Ukraine in the streets and in public places, which is the first such instance perhaps since the beginning of the 2000s. Every media outlet had Ukraine headlining, and these stories garnered a virtually unfathomable number of comments. Heated discussions were unfolding, dividing people into pro and against Maidan camps.
Many Belarusians were able to articulate for themselves their values on the matters of freedom, material wellbeing, national identity and violence. The events in Ukraine have had a significant on the minds of Belarusians, making them consider their own position and future choices.
President Yanukovych was ousted in Ukraine. What do you think of these developments?
A question on their personal perception of Euromaidan showed that a majority of Belarusians (55% ) consider the ousting of Yanukovych a coup and not a democratic revolution or fair retribution. However, almost a third seems to support Euromaidan.
Would you like events similar to Ukrainian happen in Belarus?
In this question Belarusians demonstrated their famous love for stability. They would rather not have a similar revolution even provided that it is peaceful. 23% of respondents would accept a non-violent revolution in Belarus, while only 3.6% are ready to shed blood in the fight against Lukashenka regime. This means Belarus will hardly ever experience a revolution, at least until people have a minimum level of wellbeing and sense of security.
Although economically Belarusians feel that they are only slightly better off than Ukrainians in terms of corruption and security. For them, Belarus looks to be in a considerably position overall and people appreciate it. Ukraine has indeed become a fine example of poor government, associated, in public opinion, with scuffles in parliament, oligarchs and omnipresent corruption.
If events similar to Ukraine happen in Belarus, would you take part in them?
This diagram supports the previous one, and still sheds light on some interesting details. While most Belarusians state they are reluctant to participate in any kind of mass protests, only 11% are ready to defend the current political regime. This means the majority would simply observe the developments without interfering with them.
Perhaps some of them would change their mind and take one side or another, but the general trend seems to be relatively clear. And importantly, 15% are ready to struggle against the regime via a Belarusian Maidan, which is more that the number of its active defenders.
In the end, however, a majority Belarusians would accept any developments of potential conflict and largely prefer not to interfere – a strategy they have typically employed throughout their history.
A Present for Lukashenka before Elections
The same institution, IISEPS, also measured Lukashenka's approval rating in March 2014. Since December 2013 it has grown from 35% to 40%. Lukashenka surely remains far behind Putin, who currently enjoys an 82% approval rating according to Russian Levada-Centre estimates, and who has capitalised pretty well on the intervention in Ukraine under the “protection of Russian civilisation” mask.
Dynamics of Lukashenka's Approval Rating
But despite a much lower rating compared to Putin, Lukashenka has shown himself to be a true national leader in the Ukrainian conflict. Despite Belarus' heavy economic dependence on Russia and political and military union, he refused to recognise the annexation of Crimea and Belarus' official position remains in favour of the territorial integrity of Ukraine. He also spoke out against the federalisation of Ukraine, a point that Russia is strongly advocating for in negotiations with the west.
He is also continuously accusing Yanukovych of outrageous levels of corruption in Ukraine and named it the root of Ukraine's current malaise. Moreover, Lukashenka quickly recognised the new government of Ukraine, personally met with Turchynov and later discussed with him some developments in Ukraine over the phone – a move Vladimir Putin would hardly approve of.
In his address to the nation and parliament on 22 April, Lukashenka for the first time spoke about protecting the Belarusian language and ordered the KGB to identify pro-Russian "diversionists". He also criticised the position of Russia on the Eurasian Union, the main geopolitical project of Vladimir Putin.
The moves of Lukashenka appealed not only to his traditional electorate, but also to many of his opponents who agreed with him on at least some of his points. Ahead of the 2015 presidential elections, Lukashenka may appear to be a true national leader and protector of Belarus against Russian aggression. Meanwhile, his opponents remain in the shadows and are largely unknown to the majority of Belarusians.
Although economically quite damaging for Belarus, Lukashenka received an invaluable present before the next elections – the chance of becoming a truly popular leader and consolidate the nation. At this point it looks like Lukashenka can already be called the next president of Belarus, and maybe this time around he will not even need to use fraud to do it.