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BelarusBasic facts |  Geography |  History |  Travel information |  WWW
БЕЛАРУСЬ

Basic facts

Official Belarus Flag
  • Official name:  РЭСПУБЛІКА БЕЛАРУСЬ (Respublika Belarus') = Republic of Belarus. Another quite common name is White Russia, although this name is slightly confusing. The word "-rus" does not derive from the word "Russia" but from the ancient (Kievan) Rus, which also gave Russia its present name. The word 'Bela-' (resp. belo-) means 'white' in many Slavic languages. However, hundreds of years ago the same word had many more meanings, such as 'pure', 'free', 'western' but also 'northern'. There was also a historic region called 'Black Russia'. To cut a long story short - 'belo' might have nothing to do with the colour. Historically, the name White Ruthenia was widely used, too. Nowadays, the most common name is Belarus.
  • Area:  207,600 km² Roughly the same size as Kansas. "Thanks to" the 2nd World War, present-day Belarus is much bigger than it was 100 years ago.
  • Population:  Around 10.3 million* (2004). Compared to other European countries, Belarus is rather sparsely populated. And the trend is negative - the growth rate is far below zero.
  • Ethnic groups:  Around 81% are Belarusians, some 11% Russians. Other minorities (sorted by their share) include Ukrainians, Germans, Poles, Jews, Latvians etc. Before World War II, there was a very strong Jewish community in the country.*
  • Religion:  Around 80% are Orthodox, but there is also a strong Roman-Catholic minority as well as Protestants and Jews. *
  • Time zone: GMT +02 hrs (one hour behind Russia, 1 hr before Central Europe), with daylight-saving time (+1 hour) in summer.
  • Language: Belarusian is the official language, but in 1995 Russian was appointed to be the second official language. As a matter of fact, Russian is gradually pushing back the Belarusian language. Belarusian is very close to the Russian language, but it has some distinctive features, e.g. a large number of Polish loanwords. Clickable map of Belarus Partially, Belarusian shows strong similarities with →Ukrainian, which is the closest language to Belarusian. Belarusian uses the Cyrillic alphabet, but there are some differences to the alphabet used in Russian. Differences in writing and pronunciation include:
    • A (a): Every 'A'- sound (as in large) is written with an 'A', which is different to Russian (see 'o').
    • Г (г) - In Russian, this letter as a 'G' as in 'gap'. In Belarusian, it's a fricative sound close to the 'ch' in the Scottish word 'loch'. Which means, that for example the town Гродна is not pronounced 'Grodna' but Hrodna.
    • Ґ (ґ) Not being used now, but this letter might be re-introduced in the near future. Pronounced as "ch" (see the letter above).
    • Ë (ë) is pronounced 'YO'. In Russia, the letter is often substituted by a simple 'E' (although the pronunciation is the same). In Belarusian, this letter is consequently used.
    • I (i) substitutes the Russian И (и). Always read as a simple 'i', shorter than the 'ee' in 'need'.
    • O (o) is very often read as an 'A' in Russian. In Belarusian, every 'O' that is pronounced as an 'A' , is written as an 'A'. Belarusian writing is more consequent so to say. Anyway, for people being familiar with Russian, Belarusian might look a little bit funny in the beginning.
    • Ў (ў) Transliterated as Ů (ŭ) and pronounced as a 'U', although it's actually a semivowel. Not used in most other Cyrillic scripts and therefore unique.
    • Щ (щ) (shtsh) - is not used in Belarusian.
    • Ъ (ъ) (hard sign) - also not used in Belarusian.
    • Э (э) is pronounced 'e' as in 'get' and much more often used than in Russian.

    Despite numerous dialects it's fairly easy to get around with Russian. Most print media and tv channels use Russian, too. Don't expect to meet many people being able to speak English. Compared to other countries in Europe, English is not very useful, and due to the lack of foreigners most people expect you to be fluent in Russian. Travelers who don't understand any Russian or Ukrainian may find it difficult to communicate. Not surprisingly, registration forms etc. are exclusively in Russian.
    I have tried to use the Belarusian place names in these pages as often as possible. However, in some cases I couldn't find out the Belarusian name, so I used the Russian name. Note that almost all city maps and other maps in Belarus are written in Russian, but the difference between Russian and Belarusian place names is rather small (often it's only about the different 'i' and a/o, see above).
  • *Source: CIA World Factbook   


    Geography

    Belarus is land-locked and doesn't have any mountains, so it's not really attractive to alpinists and snorkelers. The entire country has been shaped by glacial processes. Some people might call it a boring landscape, but it has its certain charme. Lakes, rolling hills, lakes, dead plain lowlands, lakes - am I repeating myself? Belarus has at least 11,000 lakes. Many of them can be found in the north-eastern corner of the country. A marvellous landscape it is. The area in the south of Belarus along the river Pripyat' is dominated by vast swamps. The north and the south are separated by a long ridge starting in Poland and continuing all the way to Smolensk in Western Russian. The "highest peak" of the country lies in the middle of the ridge and is called Dshyardshinskaya Hara. The breathtaking altitude is 345 metres.
    Belarus' climate is rather continental, with the climate getting more and more continental the further you get to the east. This means that the winter is quite long and can be very chilly. Summers are usually very warm and wetter than winter. Annual precipitation is around the same is in other parts of Central Europe - around 700 to 800 mm. Already in November, temperatures usually drop below zero (Celsius) in all parts of the country.
    On the one hand, Belarus has numerous national parks, on the other hand large areas suffering massive environmental damage, caused by the reckless industrialisation after the 2nd World War. However, since many industrial complexes shut down after 1989, the situation gradually improved. This can't be said about the southernmost stretch of land near the Ukrainian town of Chernobyl (Chornobyl'). The immense radioactive contamination of the area (see map above) has left behind a large region which will remain uninhabitably for a very long time.


    History

    Today, Belarus is a souvereign and fully independent country, which is not for the first time in its history, but historically spoken rather an exception. The country has always marked the crossing point of various historically important cultures such as Russia, →Lithuania, →Poland and during the 20th century, exclusively in a negative meaning, Germany.
    A closer look at the Archeological Museum of →Brest unveils, that there was not very much going on until the year 1000 A.D. Many small settlements consisting of small wooden houses dominated the countryside (well, and still do so today in some areas). After the year 1000, first small and souvereign principalities developed. After the 13th century, large parts of present-day Belarus became a part of the →Grand Duchy of Lithuania, initiating its first period of prosperity. Belarusian even became the official language of the duchy. The situation was not about to change substantially within the next centuries. However, the Russian influence grew stronger after the year 1800. Finally the region was taken over by the Russian empire. Until 1905, the Belarusian language was forbidden by the Russian rulers.
    The 1st World War didn't spare the Belarus. In 1918, Belarusians tried to make use of the post-revolutionary confusion and proclaimed the White Russian People's Republic. Soon the new republic was doomed. A few months later, the Bolsheviki invaded the country. Poland asserted its claim to the area, too, and so the Belarus was divided - the western part of the country up to a line between the capital →Minsk and →Nyazvizh (aka: Nesvish) belonged to the →Republic of Poland, the eastern part was declared Belarusian Socialist Soviet Republic. The Soviet part was granted certain autonomous rights, with Belarusian, Polish and Russian as the offcial languages. But during the years before the 2nd World War, Stalin's reign of terror hit the Belarus. Countless Belarusians were deported or murdered within a few years.
    According to the secret protocol of the Treaty of Nonaggression between Germany and the USSR, Poland was about to be divided between the two countries. And so the Red Army and the Wehrmacht were facing each other near →Brest since 1939 along the present-day Belarusian-Polish borderline. In 1941, the Nazi blitzkrieg against the Soviet Union hit the Belarus first. Within a couple of weeks, the entire country was invaded. The intruders destroyed virtually everything - all towns and almost 10,000 villages were levelled. The German tactic of scorched earth was most consequently applied to the Belarus. Hence, it doesn't come as a surprise that there are not many buildings left from the time before the war started. It was not before 1944 that the Red Army recaptured the Belarus.
    Belarus: Marching lock-step
    Still common practice: School class marching
    lock-step in the fortress of Brest
    As in almost all countries invaded by Nazi Germany, the highest toll was taken from the Jewish population. Hundred thousands of Jews started settling in the Belarus since the late medieval age. In many towns such as Minsk, Hrodna or Brest they had a share of almost 50%. As in many other Eastern European countries, the Jews occasionally suffered more or less severe pogroms, but things became much worse during the German occupation from 1941 to 1944. The majority of the Jewish community was wiped out. But there were also large Jewish partisan groups hiding in the forests and fighting against the German invaders.
    As a result of several conferences dealing with the post-war order of central Europe, Poland was simply moved a few hundred kilometres to the west - to the disadvantage of Germany and to the advantage of the Soviet Union and the Belarus respectively. Belarus' area almost doubled. After the war, the reconstruction of the country following Stalin's principles as well as a massive industrialisation started. Together with the industrial progress, the process of Russification was enforced. Due to the russification, the Belarus culture was headed for obscurity within the next decades.
    In 1991, Belarus followed the general trend and declared its independence again. The Communist Party was forbidden, and the government started to privatise formerly state-owned enterprises. This and other reforms caused a breathtaking inflation and the general plummeting of the standard of living. But despite all the side effects, a positive trend was in evidence. However, the communists gained strength again. In the year 1993, the government acknowledged the Communist Party again. As a result of the direct presidential election in 1997, Alexander Lukashenko became the president of the Belarus. Ever since, he is turning back the clock and sticking to the power by expanding his authority. Among other measures, Lukashenko enabled the change of the Belarus constitution so that he can be re-elected. Belarus now shuts itself away from the West in favour of a strong partnership with its eastern neighbour Russia. But there are also recent problems between Russia and the Belarus. According to various sources, basic rights are more and more restricted. To give an example, Belarus planned to abolish the freedom of travel for underage persons in the end of the year 2004. Another example is the fact that Belarus' print media and tv etc are forced into line. A great example for this is the weekly English journal Minsk Times. Sometimes visitors will feel like traveling back in time, visiting the Soviet Union before 1989. With all of its negative consequences.
    One can only hope that the Belarus does not develop into a European North Korea. As a frequent traveler of Eastern European countries I can only conclude the following: No country in Europe is further away from a united Europe than the Belarus. I even got the impression that countries like →Transdniestr can learn something from Lukashenko. Anyway, the people are usually very nice and it's a rewarding destination for travelers looking for the chance to get a glimpse again of the Ol' Soviet Union.


    Travel information

  • Prologue:  I've been to this country already in 1992, when I passed it on the Berlin-Moscow express, stopping in Brest for three hours and running around in the dark. But that doesn't count. And so we used the tour to the Baltic States to cross the Belarus on our way back. It was during the beginning of December - definitely not the best time to travel this region. I can only recommend to visit the country in summer.

  • Visa:  Only most CIS citizens do not require a visa for the Belarus - all other nationalities do need a visa. However, there is equality: The fee is always the same, no matter which nationality you are. And there is good news: Since 2004, either an officially acknowledged Letter of Invitation or vouchers are necessary to get a visa. Before, both was required. And here is the bad news: By now, everyone entering the country requires a visa. Which means, that even if you pass the country on a night train from Central Europe to Moscow or wherever you will need a transit visa. Note that the visa will not be granted upon arrival so you need to get it in advance.
    Belarusian visa
    Expensive pleasure: Belarusian visa, valid one month

    There are tourist, business, transit and normal visa. A transit visa is good for three days and will ONLY be issued if there is a valid visa for one of the neighbouring countries or (when you travel to a country where you won't need a visa, e.g. Lithuania, Latvia or Poland) if you can show an onward ticket. The latter is hard to get when traveling around by train or by bus.
    Travelers without a contact in Belarus who do not want to travel in a group or buy expensive vouchers should consider employing a visa service or a travel agency in one of the neighbouring countries. Sure that this costs a little bit more, but usually you will get back your passport on the same day. In that case, vouchers or a LOI are not necessary - all you need is your passport, pictures and some cash. Travel agencies in →Vilnius for example offer Belarus visa support. A normal visa which is good for a stay up to one month will set you back 65 Euro (the actual fee of the visa is 50 Euro). The travel agent takes care of the vouchers. An express visa (which means that you can enter the Belarus already the next day) costs 110 Euro.

  • Registration:  It is necessary to register with the local authorities during the first day of your stay in Belarus. The registration is quite a hassle, but usually hotels take care of that. Hence, the first night in a Belarusian hotel is more expensive for foreigners than usual (at least in some hotels). The procedure involves filling in some forms (all in all four forms), and the forms are in Russian (at least at the places whe've been to). After that, a Spravkan (certificate) will be issued. It is definitely a good idea to keep the spravkans until you have left the country. Every hotel isssues spravkans. Theoretically, these small papers must be handed over at the border upon departure. However, when we crossed the border in →Brest, no one seemed to be interested in it. But I would not rely on this, so it is wise to keep all the papers you will get during your stay.
    Private accommodation means that you will need to register with the closest OVIR office. Again, maybe the border guards are not interested in the certificates, but not having them when they ask for it would definitely cause some trouble.

  • Money:  The Belarusian currency is - not surprisingly - called БР - Belarusian Rouble, the most common (Latin) short form is BYR. Originally, the rouble was divided in 100 kapiejkas, but due to the inflation the kapiejkas (aka kopekes) vanished. Also due to the inflation, the paper money was often completely replaced. Note that for example many bills issued before the year 2000 are not valid any longer. The inflation seemed to have stopped - the question is for how long and by what measures. Note that there is no longer a shadow exchange rate. In 2004, the rate was 1 Euro = 2,880 BYR. A monetary union with Russia was planned, but obviously the plan was terminated.
    Belarusian Rouble
    Worth 0.003 Euro: 10 Rouble-bill
    The Belarusian money can drive you crazy. The reason for this is the large number of bills. There are no coins at all. Paper money comes in 10, 20, 50, 100, 500, 1,000, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 and 50,000 BYR. After a few rides on the subway and some minor purchases you will soon end up with more than 20 bills, worth together less than 1 Euro.
    In major cities such as →Minsk and →Brest there are ATM's, but only a few so that it might take a while to find them. They accept all major credit cards as well as EC, Cirrus and Maestro cash cards respectively. Many smaller towns have neither ATM's nor exchange booths so it is better to bring enough cash.
    Attention: When telling the price, the word for "thousand" (tyisyach) is often omitted. This means when someone tells you that the price would be "dve sto" (2-100, i.e. 200) it often means 2,100 (actually dve tyisyacha sto!) BYR. This can be confusing at the beginning.
    It goes without saying that it's virtually impossible to exchange Belarusian rouble outside the country. Therefore it is better to change back the remaining roubles while still in the country. The margin between the EUR↔BYR and the BYR↔EURO rate is rather narrow, so it is not a big loss to change money back.

  • Costs:  Belarus would be a comparatively cheap destination in Europe, if there wouldn't be the archaic three-tier price system in hotels and museums, where prices vary according to the nationality of the guest.
    Three-tier pricing system in hotels
    Three-tier pricing system in hotels (per person, in €):

    Suite
    Single
    Double
    Triple
    Belarusians
    27
    7.3
    5.7
    4.7
    CIS-citizens
    67
    16.7
    13.7
    10.9
    Foreigners
    80
    20.7
    16.7
    13.7
    You might avoid this in museums when you speak some Russian - just mumble "One ticket please" in Russian and you might get away with the price the locals pay. Things are different in hotels. As soon as you ask for the room price, they will ask "What's your nationality?". Since everyone has to flash an ID-card or passport for the registration, it doesn't make sense to not tell the truth. This practice seems to be common in every place - even in the countryside.
    This means that accommodation will devour a large part of the budget. When traveling together with someone else, a bed in a double room usually costs around € 15. A decent meal in a restaurant with starter and dessert and a couple of drinks will set you back € 3 - 5 per person. But it's also possible to have lunch for less than 1 Euro. A package of local cigarettes starts from 0.15 €, a bottle of beer is around 0.2 €. A train ride on the elektrichka (see below) from →Minsk to →Brest costs slightly less than € 4.
    Travelers being reliant on hotels should allow for € 25-30 per person and day. There aren't many expensive museums and restaurants in the country, so it's hard to spend more (except for accommodation, of course). However, the price-performance ratio in Belarus is rather poor. Prices in the →Ukraine for example are quite similar, but the quality is often substantially better.

  • Getting there:  By plane, bus or train. There are several direct bus, plane and train connections from the neighbouring countries as well as other destinations in Central and Eastern Europe. Major transport hubs of the Belarus are →Minsk and →Brest. Both towns have direct train connections to Vienna, (from Minsk 22 hrs), →Prague (22 hrs) →Kiev (14 hrs), Moscow (12 hrs), →Vilnius (4½ hrs), →Warsaw (10 hrs), Berlin, (19 hrs), →Riga (12 hrs), →Chisinau (27 hrs), Brussels (27 hrs) and even to Novosibirsk (67 hrs) and Irkutsk (99 hrs). Note that there is an extra fee of € 11 on international night trains. Not all trains run daily so it's better to read the timetable carefully.
    The cheapest way to go to the Belarus from Central or Western Europe would be via Berlin: Take the Berlin-Warszawa-Express to →Warsaw (6 hrs, around 32 Euro) and from there a local train to Terespol at the border (4 hrs, 7 €). Another local train hops the border for a few Zloty to →Brest. All in all, it takes less than 12 hours, the fare is 40 € only.
    Attention: When crossing the border in Brest, all customs and emigration procedures need do be completed inside the train station. Hence, passengers have to show up at least one hour before departure, or else chances are high that they'll miss the train. Note that the local train from Brest to Terespol is very popular with smugglers (mostly cigarettes and booze), so the customs procedure, especially on the Polish side, might take a little bit longer.
    There are also numerous direct international bus connections. Among others, there are busses to →Vilnius (4 hrs) and to →Riga via Daugavpils. The latter needs some 10 hours and costs 9 Lats (€ 13.5) during the day or 10 Lats (€ 15) for the night bus respectively. The night bus at least is very comfortable. Note that there are no direct bus or train connections to →Estonia!
    Of course there are also regular international flights to the Belarus. However, it's probably difficult to get a good bargain. Most connections will be either via Moscow or via Kiev.

  • Border crossings:  Belarus shares numerous border crossings with →Poland, →Lithuania, →Latvia, Russia and the →Ukraine. Attention: Several minor border crossings, esp. to Russia and the Ukraine, are only for locals and cannot be used by foreigners!

  • Local firewater: Vodka 'USSR'
    Local firewater: Vodka 'USSR'
  • Border procedures: : According to various sources, customs inspection can be fierce (e.g. the import of electric appliances is strictly forbidden - don't know if that is true). I also heard that travelers need a special health insurance. So much about the theory. We didn't encounter any problems at all - customs was closed and so was the insurance office (we crossed at a minor post somewhere in the forests at 2 am). When we left, customs officials only wanted to see a foreign currency declaration. As mentioned above, it's better to keep all the papers you will get from the hotels etc. We were told that we would have to pay a 2.5 Euro emigration tax before leaving the country, but no one asked for a receipt...

  • Food and drinks:  Not surprisingly, Belarusian food is heavily influenced by Russian cuisine, i.e. the typical heavy mayonnaise-soaked salads, pelmeni, more or less suspicious meat dishes, butter creme tarts etc.
    A very popular dish are the typical Belarusian Dranniki - some sort of savoury potatoe pancake. Crepes can be found as well. By now, there aren't many international restaurants in the country, although you can see a (pseudo-)Chinese or an Italian restaurant here and there in the capital and outside. There's also at least one nice fish restaurant (see →Brest).
    Generally spoken, the number of restaurants - even in Minsk - is comparatively small. In many small towns, there is only one place to go - the local hotel restaurant. There, the service is often Soviet style, which means either hearty or lousy. By the way, there are even some McDonalds outlets in →Minsk.
    Don't expect good coffee - most places serve really bad, Turkish-style coffee. Note that some of the mineral waters sold in kiosks or shops are really mineral waters - the taste can be revoltingly bitter or salty - or both. Of course, vodka is very popular, with prices for a bottle starting at around € 1.2. But beer seems to become more and more popular. Acceptable local beer brands include Kryinitsa, Brestskoe or Lidskoye.


  • WWW

  • president.gov.by: Official website of the president. Here you can find out more about the "democratic" process. In Russian and English. Sad, but true - there is not even a Belarusian version of the website!
  • www.belembassy.org: Useful gateway to all Belarusian embassies worldwide. In English.
  • www.belarustour.com: Private (!) travel agent's in Belarus. Offering tours, private accommodation, guidance etc. However, 50 USD for the visa support is way too much! Other travel agents offer the same service for 3 to 4 USD. The whole website is in English.

  • Do you have or do you know a good website on the Belarus? Don't hesitate, let me know! After checking it, I would love to add it to the link list. Please note that commercial websites will be declined. For e-mail link see menu on the left.


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