I met my travel buddy Maggie in Amsterdam, and we flew into Minsk to begin a two week tour of Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova. Former Soviet republics with a complicated and fascinating history, Belarus and Ukraine have been on my bucket list for a while as the origin of my family on my mother’s side. Moldova, frankly, I knew nothing about, but that’s part of the adventure!


Our MIR Corp. tour leaders met us at the airport and brought us to our hotel in downtown Minsk. I was surprised at the beautiful green fields along the highway and the modern architecture once we got to the city. I was expecting grim, soviet-style apartment blocks. 40% of Belarus is covered with forest, although in the past it was as much as 70%.


We spent the evening getting to know our fellow tourists and our tour manager, Iryna. I can’t say enough about the wonderful job Iryna did in managing every detail of this trip. We also met Lucy, our local guide for Belarus. Next morning we started off on our tour of Minsk. Independence Square is across the street from our hotel.

Independence Square

This is the main square of downtown Minsk, the capital of Belarus. The square is huge and includes, besides churches, universities, and government buildings, an enormous underground shopping mall and metro station.


Our first stop is known as the Red Church, officially called Church of St. Simon and Helena.  It was built by a government official in the early 1900s in honor of his two children who died very young. In 1921 the Soviets took over and Belarus became the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. The church was closed and later used as a theater and a cinema. It was briefly reopened as a church during the German occupation in WWII. As we visited this Roman Catholic church we began to learn about the many varieties of religious institutions in this part of the world: Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, Russian Orthodox, etc. The Uniate Church is also popular here. It began as a sort of compromise between orthodox and Catholic forms of worship, using orthodox religious rites and images while remaining under the jurisdiction of the Pope.


Some more recent history is commemorated here at this Chernobyl memorial.  Our guide Lucy talked about her childhood experiences with using a radiation detection device her father gave her to test an area before she was allowed to play there. Chernobyl is in Ukraine but the fallout cloud headed straight to Belarus. The memorial also honors the friendship between Minsk and Nagasaki, Japan.

One of our guides in Belarus told a story that illustrates the complexity of trying to understand the history of this region. Her grandfather’s birth certificate says he was born in Russia. Her father’s says he was born in Poland. Hers says she was born in the Soviet Union, and her son’s birth certificate says he was born in the Republic of Belarus. It might sound as if her family were nomads, yet they were all born in the same village!  As I have often heard Hispanic people say in South Texas, “We never moved. The border did!”

We kept this in mind as we drove through the city, noting the buildings from different eras. Downtown held some remnants of the Soviet era amid the thriving commercial area, including the KGB headquarters and the GUM department store. The Lenin statue still stands, although in many other Eastern European capitals they proudly show off “the place where Lenin’s statue used to be!” Belarus still has a fairly authoritarian form of government, and was the only one of the three countries we visited that required a complicated visa application process for US citizens.

We seemed to go back in time when we left the downtown area and entered the old Freedom Square with its historic town hall.  Minsk developed as a city in 1067, granted “Magdeburg rights” under the Holy Roman Empire. Since then it has been ruled at various times by Poland, Lithuania, and Russia, and occupied by the Germans in WWII. A lot of the city was destroyed in the war which is why there is so much new architecture.

The main Orthodox church is the Church of the Holy Spirit. The icon at the top shows the archangel protecting the city.

Crossing the Svislach River, we entered a part of town our guide called Tatar Suburbs. This was a Jewish neighborhood at one time and holds a museum in the former synagogue building. It’s become very trendy with new condos. It’s a beautiful setting for the memorial known as Isle of Tears.

This haunting monument was built by the parents of the Belarusian soldiers who died in the decade-long Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The statues portray some of the mothers holding bowls of water, in hopes their sons will return. Others hold photos, hoping to learn their sons’ fates. The ones who hold nothing know their sons will not return. Inside are beautiful frescoes and metal sculptures, featuring the names of the soldiers and their home towns.

We finished our morning with a stop at the Art Museum, which contains many works by local artists. The most famous is Marc Chagall. We think of Chagall as Russian but he was actually born in Belarus when it was part of the Russian Empire. Another local artist did the heroic painting of the liberation of Minsk above, which I particularly liked because it seemed to glow with natural light.

Roast duck for lunch

I don’t usually take pictures of my food but I made a lot of exceptions on this trip.  Every meal was a monument to local cuisine, tasty and beautifully presented. The baked apple had cranberries inside. While we were doing the museum and lunch, one member of our group went with a private guide to visit the village where her ancestors lived before leaving for the US in 1905 (around the same time as my family).

Belarus was occupied by the Nazis from 1941-44. During that time hundreds of towns and villages were destroyed and all their people killed. Khatyn was only one of these tiny villages, but this unusual memorial was built to commemorate it as representative of them all. The Unbowed Man is a statue of Josef Kaminsky, the only adult survivor. Because the surviving families from these villages had no graveyard to visit, part of the Khatyn memorial is the Graveyard of Villages, with a headstone for each village.

Next morning we left Minsk heading west toward the city of Brest, on the Polish border. We saw more interesting architecture leaving Minsk. Along the highway at the border between the Minsk and Brest regions is this statue of the iconic European bison that used to roam the forests and hills. Only a few remain today. Our planned stop along the highway was not this magnificent palace, owned by a wealthy family, but the humble home across the road, the birthplace of Thaddeus Kosciusko.

I remember learning about Kosciusko as a Polish man who helped us win the American Revolution. And once again, technically, he was Polish, because at the time of his birth this area of Belarus was ruled by Poland.  Lucy translated for the museum guide, who narrated the tour in Russian. They are especially proud of some exhibits highlighting a recent visit by cadets from West Point. Kosciusko was known as a brilliant military architect who built the fortifications at West Point during the revolutionary war. Today’s lunch stop was at a private home that specializes in traditional Belarusian cooking.

Our final destination for today was the city of Brest in the corner of western Belarus near the Ukrainian and Polish borders.  The original city of Brest was moved a few miles away to make room for the construction of the Brest Fortress by the Russians in the early 19th century. We toured the fortress, which was named a “hero fortress” by the Soviet Union for its defense against the Nazis in Operation Barbarossa in WWII.  A lot of Soviet monumental architecture can be ugly and grim, but the monuments at Brest Fortress are some of the best examples of the genre.  The symbolism of the star motif at the entrance refers to the original star shaped structure of the fort.  The statue called Thirst commemorates the heroic survivors of the siege who were cut off from the water supply.

The fortress is in a beautiful setting on islands created where two rivers cross. You can see part of the original wall of red brick encircled the entire fort, large enough for barracks to house thousands of soldiers.  There were originally four gates but only the Kholm gate remains standing. At the gate is a plaque commemorating Efim Fomin, who was captured defending the gate.  The Nazis particularly targeted Jews, communists, and officers, and Fomin was immediately executed for being all three.

In the center of Brest, we strolled through parks and pedestrian streets. The city seemed busy and prosperous. Brest has a long history and is perhaps best remembered as the site of the 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The treaty gave Russia’s new Bolshevik government some relief from its WWI obligations to the Central Powers, while it was also fighting a Civil War at home. The treaty was never really enacted as the Germans surrendered to the Allies shortly afterwards. The unusual metal sculptures in the park came out of a contest that invited local artists to create unique lamp posts for the park. Tomorrow we will have a busy day, crossing the border from Belarus into Ukraine.


6 thoughts on “Belarus”

  1. Very interesting for an area I am not very knowledgable about. Food, I always am excited about food! And fabulous art! Funnnnn !


  2. Fascinating. I appreciate your sharing of your travels so much. I know I will never see many of these places, so I am grateful to be able to “armchair ” travel with you!


  3. Glad you share your lovely travels with us. You have such a gift for describing the places you travel and the lovely pictures.


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