The third Ruthenia was "White." This "Byeliy Rus" or Belarus was said to be a Russia that somehow remained free from foreign rule, in particular from the dreaded Golden Horde of the Mongols. Although there was no direct succession of White Russian states that descended from the original Grand Duchy of Kiev Rus (the surviving Grand Duchy of Volhynia-Halych eventually fell to its western neighbors), the idea of a White Russia lived on to the modern era, resulting first in the creation of an independent Byelorussian state in 1918 under German protection, followed by the creation of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic months later. At the end of 1991, this Kremlin-dominated republic joined the 14 other post-Soviet states in complete independence.
There are many reasons for Belarusians to be proud of their country, which remains terra incognita to most Westerners. Its over 10,000 blue lakes reflect the blue eyes that adorn many of its citizens - it's not without reason that its schoolchildren are taught to call Belarus the "blue-eyed country." Folk tales intertwine with folk traditions to create a cultural "rushnik" enriched by a love of the land.
In the western part, the gleam of Belarusian natural treasures shines brightest in the Belovezhskaya Pushcha, or Forest of the White Tower. Perhaps better known by Westerners as the place where leaders of the republics of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, met in early December 1991 to declare their countries' intentions of independence, the forest is even more significant as one of the few remaining reserves set aside for the wisent, the European bison. A number of ancient "named oaks" serve as navigational landmarks for visitors exploring this remnant of the ancient trans-European Hercynian Forest. For Belarusian children, the park encompassing the forest is of particular interest in that it recently was declared the home of "Ded Moroz" or Grandfather Frost, the Russian version of Santa Claus.
South of Minsk, meanwhile, sparkles a gem of Belarusian culture, the village of Dudutki. This very ancient battlefield, where fought the grandchildren of Vladimir the Great in the Battle of the Nemiga River for the very fate of Kiev Rus, is today a center for the preservation of traditional Belarusian crafts. Described as a "romantic trip to history and back," this spot today is the site of one of Belarus' largest cultural attractions. Workshops preserve traditional crafts, the Miller's Inn House keeps alive ancient recipes for baked goods, cheese, and "aristocratic vodka" for the adults, and cart rides, balloon rides, and an ancient windmill conspire to give visitors of all ages a memorable experience.
Not far from Dudutki to the west stands a monument to the Radziwills, one of the great families of Belarus. The ancient Nesvizh Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is in fact said to be haunted by the ghost of Barbara Radziwill, the wife of Polish-Lithuania King Sigismund II Augustus. He married her for love, to the dismay of his Italian-born mother Bona Sforza, who sought instead a more politically beneficial marriage. It is even said that the king's mother poisoned Barbara. Whether true or not, her death left Sigismund distraught, and he eventually turned to a magician who promised to reanimate her, but with the warning to the king not to try to touch her while he brought her back. When Sigismund saw his beloved wife, though, he couldn't help himself, and in a scene reminiscent of Orpheus and Eurydice, she disappeared from his sight when he tried to embrace her, never to be seen by him again. However, she has been seen by many visitors to Nesvizh Castle ever since as the "Black Lady." While touring the halls of the ancient aristocratic castle, this victim of love might yet again appear to those lucky enough to catch a glimpse of her.
There are many still-standing castles and revered military sites across Belarus, including the Hero Fortress of Brest. One of the most important sites that glorify the Soviet defenses in the early days of the Nazi German Operation Barbarossa, Brest Fortress faced heavy bombardment by tanks and aircraft as Soviet troops, backed by civilians who assisted in the defense of the fortress, held out for a month, many choosing to die rather than give up. Inscriptions on the walls proclaim the valiant words of defenders who refused to surrender: "We'll die, but we will not leave this fortress." Such spirit encouraged the Russian Army to fight and defend Moscow and Leningrad, and eventually helped turn the tide against the Nazis at Stalingrad. In remembrance of this important stand by the fortress' defenders, the location today continues to be called a "Hero Fortress."
At the center of it all is Minsk, a city rebuilt from a war-damaged Soviet republic capital to a modern cultural center. An opera theater and modern concert halls share neighborhoods with restored places of worship, including a synagogue that is the pride of the Belarusian Jewish community. A modern national library, noted for its unusual architectural shape, continues a nearly two-century reading tradition, and the many institutes of higher learning give it the occasional air of a college town.
There are many things to see in Belarus. To see it all requires getting on a plane and exploring it yourself.
10 MUST-DO THINGS IN BELARUS
1. To look for the treasures of the Radzivill family, the most prominent and influential magnates of the Grand
Duchy of Lithuania.
2. To visit the legendary Brest Hero-Fortress, one of the largest 19th century defensive forts ever built.
3. To take a picture of an impressive Belarusian zubr in Belavezhskaja Pushcha Nature Reserve, one of the
largest primeval forests in Europe, included in the UNESCO world heritage list.
4. To get a real appreciation of the suffering Belarus endured during WWII, visiting world-famous memorial
complex in a small village of Khatyn, burned to ashes by fascists in 1943.
5. To visit at least 2 of the preserved medieval castles, included by UNESCO in the list of the world heritage sites:
Mir and Nesvizh Castle complexes.
6. To participate in the intricate masquerade celebration of one of the annual pagan holidays, much loved and
widely celebrated by all Byelorussians - Maslenitsa and Kupalle.
7. To taste freshly made butter, cottage cheese, potato pancakes, home made sausages, pickles, salted
cabbage as well as a traditional primordial Belarusian alcoholic drink – “samogon” in the open-air ethnological
museum complex Dudutki, located a short drive from Minsk.
8. To visit the world famous residential complex of Viskuli, the very place where the leaders of Belarus, Russia
and Ukraine sealed the fate of the USSR by signing “The Belavezha Accords” that declared the dissolution of
9. To ride a tank and try your skills in shooting the rifle while visiting “The Stalin Line” Complex, an open-air
museum with the largest park of military equipment and artillery of different years.
10. To escape from city hustle and bustle spending a day or two on the shore of the largest and most picturesque
in Belarus Lake Naroch.