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Useful Notes / Belarus

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I'm going to Minsk.
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 Eastern European 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 Rus." 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 I. 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. note 


In the havoc of the Russian Civil War, Germany backed a Belarusian 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, after which, they had the fierce struggle of the Belarusian partisans (guerillas frequently in service of the Red Army), against the Nazis. 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 (refrigerators, televisions, washing machines, etc.) Consequently, with some modern 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).

Belarus is the country hardest hit by the Chernobyl disaster, even though it actually occurred in Ukrainian territory. It's estimated that 60% of the fallout alone hit Belarusian lands and almost 5% of the country is contaminated (compare this with Ukraine, where barely 1% is affected); one Belarusian village folk described that there was a year where funerals due to radiation were held everyday. Openness isn't one of the lessons learned from the disaster, though, and unlike in Ukraine where the disaster is a national reminder of its Soviet past, the fallout is a big Elephant in the Living Room in Belarus, and the government would rather speak of the disaster as seldom as they could.

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. This may actually be a bit Truth in Television; Belarus has never managed to form a steady identity like Ukraine did. Historically, this is particularly prevalent in language: in particular, after a few years of attempting to find a compromise between competing languages alongside political representation in newly-annexed Western Byelorussia, the Polish government made speaking languages other than Polish a major crime, often resulting in hanging (on the charges of committing treason against the new authorities). Every Belarusian language school in the country was shuttered, with Polish becoming the educational standard in the fight against irrendentism in what is generally called Polonization today. In Soviet East Belarus, a revival of the language was the cornerstone of a short-lived Golden Age of Belarusian-ness (with Russian itself being temporarily banned in civil use as a concession from Moscow!). This came to an abrupt end under Josef Stalin's overriding "Socialism in One Country" policy, with a heavy Russification campaign coinciding with a bloody purge of the old Belarusian revolutionaries (and their language), going as far as to even liquidate revolutionaries who'd fled from Poland, in favor their younger offspring, conditioned for orthodoxy in the Soviet mixer. A similar process, on a smaller scale, occurred with Belarusian Jews: the 1939 unification of the country saw the old, isolated Jewish communities of Western Belarus replaced with the Soviet ideal of the cosmopolitan Belarusian Jew: Yiddish rather than Hebrew speaking, possessing citizenship, more secular and anti-Zionist.note 

Take the combination of temporary Polish military rule and Soviet Russification (and the Russian cultural leanings of Lukashenko's government), and you get a country where most of the population speak Russian as a main language.note  Belarus has a distinct Slavic language that's actually quite a bit different from Russian, but only the really rural people speak it as a mother language, and speaking the language today automatically marks you as a hillbilly, even though the names of the people are still in it (to give you a distinction, the ubiquitous Slavic masculine name "Vladimir" has the Belarusian form "Uladzimir").

Meanwhile, 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 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 ). The problem is because everyone generally agreed on "Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic" when it was a part of the Soviet Union, Russian then being the main language for even the separate republics, but since the breakup there's much more debate on that (to this day, Russia still refers to the country as "Byelorussia"). Actually, the problem extends to place names and even people's names, too, since to this day outsiders use the Russian translation for famous figures, yet they use the Belarusian translation (using the Russian translit scheme) for place names, and that's not mentioning the Belarusian translit scheme used by the Belarusian government, which is another beast entirely.note  So it's like the whole Kiev/Kyiv thing, except much worse. Some of the difference in spellings are listed here:

  • Grodno (Russian) / Hrodna (Belarusian)
  • Gomel (Russian) / Homyel' (Belarusian) / Homiel (Belarusian gov.)
  • Mogilev (Russian) / Mahilyow (Belarusian) / Mahilioǔ (Belarusian gov.)
  • Vitebsk (Russian) / Vitsyebsk (Belarusian) / Viciebsk (Belarusian gov.)
  • The name of the president: Aleksandrnote  Grigoryevich Lukashenko (Russian) / Alyaksandr Ryhoravich Lukashenka (Belarusian) / Alâksandr Rygoravič Lukašènka (Belarusian gov.)

Probably Europe's most authoritarian state and the only UN member on the continent still to use the death penalty.

For their military forces, see Belarusians With BTRs.

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 Belarusian), 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.
  • Fortress of War, also known as The Brest Fortress, 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.
  • The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode "Eye Spy" takes place in Belarus.
  • 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 opening of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation takes place in Minsk.
  • Also features in the Sherlock episode "The Great Game", where an English murderer is about to be hung. Sorry, hanged.
  • In The Hitman's Bodyguard, Gary Oldman stars as Vladislav Dukhovich, Belarus' brutal but now deposed dictator who's on trial before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Since neither Russia nor Belarus were particularly happy with this scenario, their respective dubs turned him into a Bosnian instead.
  • OVA 2 of Code Geass: Akito the Exiled has its big battle take place in the town of Slonim.
  • Three missions in Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain take place in Belarus: 2 in Mazyr and 1 in Minsk.
  • Birth place of John Wick.

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).


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