Useful Notes: Belarus

I'm going to Minsk.
What?
Minsk. It's in Russia.
The writers of Friends get it wrong. Perhaps they were thinking of Murmansk?

What am I, from Minsk-a-Pinsk?

Belarus (Belarusian: Беларусь), officially known as the Republic of Belarus (Belarusian: Рэспубліка Беларусь), is a largish, landlocked country just to the left of Russia and to the right of Poland (and that's only meant trouble for them). Its name literally translates as "White Russia." Its capital is Minsk.

Although the Belarusian people (sometimes called "Litvins", "White Russians" or "White Ruthenians" in older historical sources) have been around the area some time, there was no state of Belarus until the end of World War One. In fact, while the name of White Ruthenia existed back in Kievan Rus, the region was actually known as Lithuania for most of the Late Medieval/Early Modern period.

There's an explanation for this but it can get pretty confusing. In short, in modern times we have the nation-states of Lithuania and Belarus. However for centuries both lands were united, and were known as "The Grand Duchy of Lithuania." What's more, while it was founded by ethnic Lithuanians, this Lithuania was not primarily Baltic in culture, but Slavic. For one, the official language of the Grand Duchy was Ruthenian (the ancestor to Belarusian), not Lithuanian. Also the upper class became highly assimilated into Slavic culture and Orthodox Christian religion. Later the Slavic portion of Lithuania was detached by Russia and renamed "Belarus," leaving only the remnant which we would recognize as "Lithuania." However this presented a problem: with Belarus detached from Lithuania and renamed, the entire history of "Lithuania" became associated solely with the modern state of that name. Thus it is the modern state of Lithuania which lays claim as the successor to the Grand Duchy, while Belarus was left basically without a history. This was exploited by the Soviet Union, for whom it was quite convenient to paint in terms of "poor Slavic peasants versus foreign feudal oppressors." Since independence the idea that it is Belarus which is the heir to the Grand Duchy has steadily grown in popularity, particularly among nationalists and those who wish to distance Belarus from Russia (whether they'll grant that Lithuania can also lay claim depends on just how nationalist they are). note 

In the havoc of the Russian Civil War, a German backed National Republic (actually called the People's Republic but idiomatically translated here as it was decidedly un-Bolshevik), flying a new white-red-white flag. When Germany left, the BNR found itself with about as much credibility as their German backers, and lasted only as long as it took the Red Army to arrive. The republic was carved up between the USSR (who commified it) and Poland (who denied its existence, considering it to be Poland, but swampier). Wars were fought between the USSR and Poland (no, not that one), which brought the Byelorussian SSR as it was called closer to its modern geographic divisions.

The Belarusians were not happy and as in Ukraine and the Baltic nations (and indeed Russia) some nationalists briefly co-operated with the Nazis before they realised that the whole "Slavic untermensch" thing hadn't just been a campaign promise. The Belarus Central Council, or Rada, as the Nazi puppet government was called, co-opted all the symbols of the previous German puppet government, the BNR (with unfortunate implications). Unlike Russia's imperial army and Ukraine's independent Cossacks, Belarus (per se) did not have a celebrated military history before the 20th century, so the fierce struggle of the Belarusian partisans (guerillas frequently in service of the Red Army), against the Nazis came to be seen as a national Crowning Moment of Awesome. Likewise, because of the BNR in part, the Belarusian nationalist movement lacked credibility — something that would doom their effort to take over after the Soviet breakup.

The Soviets, of course, won and took over Poland's bit, dumping the substantial Polish population into eastern Germany, now conveniently part of Poland, in order to straighten up the borders. Post-war Soviet Byelorussia had to be rebuilt largely from scratch (as did much of the USSR), and little resembled the pre-war nation: huge urban projects turned Minsk into a modern Soviet metropolis, and industry (traditionally concentrated in certain parts of Russia and Ukraine) was brought to the republic. State planning meant that Belarus would have an emphasis largely on light industry, not heavy or military industry, producing a disprorportionate part of the country's larger consumer products (refridgerators, televisions, washing machines, etc.) Consequently, with some mondery industry, a large agricultural base, and not being invaded by Poland, Germany, or the Tsars, the BSSR was considered to have one of the highest standards of living in the USSR. Since independence, though, Belarus' pre-war image as Ruritania has come back into vogue—outside the USSR, where Belarus was largely unknown, that has always been the image. It still has a higher HDI and IHDI than Russia, however.

With the break-up of the Soviet Union, Belarus found itself a little adrift - the country had never really had a chance to form its own national identity, and it wasn't long before an authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, took power and began to undo some of the trappings of independence. The country's flag was changed back to the Soviet-era flag (minus hammer and sickle and a reversal to the red-white pattern on the left side), the economy was taken back into state control and greater ties with Russia have been sought. The local State Sec, called KDB in Belarussian or KGB in Russian, also regained much of its influence.

An official union between Russia and Belarus was agreed in 1999 and came into effect in 2000 with talk of the two being officially unified under one flag, citizenship, currency and so on. However, enthusiasm seems to have waned again, with customs controls being re-introduced and no joint "national" symbols having been agreed. It seems the leaders of Belarus and Russia just can't agree on the details (most likely the dictator of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, prefers being leader of his own country rather than some bureaucrat in Putin's cabinet).

Tropewise, most of what applies to Russia will apply to Belarus as well, and you'd be hard-pressed to find many westerners who would be able to tell you anything about the country. The main Russian stereotype about Belarus is that they all eat lots of potatoes. Russian media tends to portray Belarus as a swampy Ruritania where everyone speaks Belarusian Russian with a funny accent (Truth in Television to some extent, since Russian is the first language of more than 70% of Belarusians) and is constantly short on (Russian) gas. Russians generally treat Belarusians like brothers, maybe strange and rustic but still beloved (unlike people from that certain other former Soviet republic with a history of bad blood with Russia); Belarusian citizens are even exempt from most laws limiting migration to Russia. A nationalistic minority in Belarus does not like Russians, but most of the people in the country are glad to reciprocate the friendship. Also, quite a lot of Soviet films that are set in Belarus are about World War II and the Belarusian partisans. When it was first independent, English-speaking media couldn't quite decide what to call it - Byelorussia or Bielorussia was popular at first but we seem to have settled on Belarus (pronounced "Bella-roos", or "byella-roosh if you're trying to impress someonenote ).

For their military forces, see Belarusians With BT Rs.

Famous Belarusians include:
  • Isaac Asimov, the famous, groundbreaking American science fiction author. He was born in 1920 in the village of Petrovichi in the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic, which was later absorbed by Russia.
  • Victoria Azarenka, currently the World No. 1 tennis player (in women's tennis). She won the 2012 Australian Open singles title, becoming the first Belarusian player to win a Grand Slam in singles.
  • Andrei Gromyko (Andrej Hramyka in Belarusiannote ), Soviet Minister for Foreign Affairs, a member of Brezhnev's inner circle and the face of Soviet diplomacy for nearly thirty years. His obstinate negotiating style earned him the nickname "Comrade Nyet" in the West.
  • Pavel Sukhoi (Pavieł Suchi), Soviet aircraft constructor and designer and the founder of the Sukhoi Design Bureau. All Soviet planes whose names start with "Su" (e.g. Su-17 and Su-24) were designed by his bureau.
  • Vladimir Mulyavin (Uładzimir Muliavin), Russian-Belarusian rock musician and founder of the folk-rock band Pesniary, one of the most popular bands in the Soviet Union. They were even given permission to tour the US in 1976.
  • Zhores Alferov (Žares Ałfioraŭ), Belarusian-Russian Nobel Prize winning physicist, inventor of the heterotransistor and one of the most prominent Communist politicians in modern Russia.
  • Alexander Rybak (Aliaksandar Rybak), Belarusian-Norwegian musician and the record-breaking winner of the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest.
  • Marc Chagall (Mark Šahał), modernist Belarusian-French artist and a member of the once sizeable Belarusian Jewish community that is now almost entirely gone, thanks to the Holocaust and emigration.
  • Chiang Fang-liang (born Faina Ipat'evna Vakhreva), the first lady of Taiwan from 1978 to 1988, as wife of President Chiang Ching-kuo (the two met in the Ural Machine Plant in the USSR).
  • Evgeny Morozov, writer, scholar and blogger. Born in Belarus, his experiences prior to settling down in America has influenced his opinions on various topics, including a skepticism of technology's potential.
  • Svetlana Boguinskaya (Svyatlana Baginskaya), artistic gymnast and three-time Olympian (for the Soviet Union in 1988, Unified Team in 1992, and Belarus in 1996). She was called "the goddess of gymnastics" and "the Belarussian Swan" for her balletic, flowing style and dominance in the sport.
  • Meyer Lansky, born Meyer Suchowljansky (in then-Grodno-now-Belarus), immigrated to the U.S. in 1911. The "Mob's Accountant," friend and partner of Charlie "Lucky" Luciano and Bugsy Siegel, largely responsible for the "organized" part of "organized crime."

And it's often said that Belarus produced many famous Lithuanians, Russians and Poles...

Belarus and its locals in fiction
  • An episode of The Unit is set in Belarus.
  • The Third World War has Minsk get nuked by the US and UK in response to the Soviet Union nuking the British city of Birmingham. It doesn't feature at all in the rest of the two books.
  • The Moe Anthropomorphism of Belarus in Axis Powers Hetalia is an Elegant Gothic Lolita girl named Nathalia Arlovskaya, who wants VERY badly to become one with Russia. Russia is much less enthusiastic about the prospect (not to mention terrified of her - and y'know, she's also his SISTER.)
  • Come and See, a 1985 film by the Russian director Elem Klimov. Probably the most famous war film set in Belarus, it averts Do Not Do This Cool Thing so hard that some see it as less of a war movie and more of a psychological horror movie. Notable for being one of the few Soviet films to not just mention, but to actually show the Nazis massacring an entire village, as well as one of the first Soviet films to seriously deal with the topics of collaboration with the occupiers and cruelty coming from both sides.
  • Defiance, a 2008 film directed by Edward Zwick, details the actions of the Bielski Brothers and their attempts to save Jews from extermination at the hands of the German occupation. It's notable in that it's an American film set in Belarus, though it tends to make the same assumptions of most US films about Russia—'Byelorussia' is only mentioned less than a half-dozen times. It also doesn't mention the historical anomaly that non-Jewish Belarusian partisans were willing to work with Jews, and lacked their own strong nationalist partisan group, instead rallying to the remains of the Red Army and taking on a distinct pro-Soviet stance (very much unlike their neighbors) as the Bielski Brothers did.
  • The Brest Fortress, also known as Fortress of War, is a 2010 joint Russian/Belarusian film about the defense and surrender of the Fortress of Brest immediately after the German Invasion, with several well-known Russian actors, including Pavel Derevyanko.
  • Minsk is the terminus of a young girl's strange, erotic journey in Rochelle, Rochelle, the fictional movie (later a stage musical, starring Bette Midler) within the Seinfeld universe.
  • In the Star Trek 'verse, the Klingon orphan Worf is adopted by Starfleet Chief Petty Officer Sergei Rozhenko and his wife Helena, who raise him in Minsk. Minsk is thus Worf's adopted Earth hometown, as firmly established in the finale of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

The Belarusian flag
Reflecting the Lukashenko government's past aspirations for a union with Russia, Belarus reuses its old Soviet flag (sans the hammer and sickle, of course). While the original Soviet version had no symbolism, the current government attributes to red and green the meanings of the sacrifices of the past and hopes for the future, respectively. To the hoist is a traditional pattern in Belarusian embroidery. This flag replaced the first post-Soviet flag — a white field with a crimson stripe — ostensibly because it was also used by the Nazi puppet government, though it still finds favor with dissidents and expatriates (while not outright banned, flying it in public is still frowned upon by authorities).