The Western Bug River winds quietly past Brest from its source in the Volhynian region of Ukraine down to the Narew and Vistula rivers, near the southeastern limits of Warsaw. The timeless nature of this ancient city, only a few years short of celebrating the millennial anniversary of its first mention in chronicles, still lurks on its frontier town streets.
A frontier town it has been from its start. Founded as Berestye, a town built along Kiev Rus’ frontier with the Poles, it lasted two centuries before the Mongols came from the east and destroyed everything in their 1241 invasion of Europe. When the Lithuanians finally rebuilt the city in 1275, the original wooden ruins were left in the forests to be quietly buried by time. These would only be unearthed when archeologist Pyotr Lysenko unearthed their remains in 1968. Today a professor with the Institute of History in the Belarusian Academy of Science, Lysenko organized in 1982 the creation of the Berestye Archeological Museum, a huge structure that houses the remains of the ancient Rus settlement. Today, it is considered one of the 15 most incredible museums of Belarus by Tourism and Vacation (Turizm i Otdykh) magazine.
The rebuilt city again served as a frontier town. After being burnt by the Teutonic Knights in 1379, it became a rallying point for Mikolaj Traba’s alliance between the Lithuanian Grand Duke Vytautas, Polish King Wladislaw II Jagiello, and the Crimean Tatars, where he organized the army that defeated the Germanic knights at the pivotal Battle of Grunwald in 1410. After the Union Treaty between the Lithuanians and the Poles was signed in Lublin in 1569, the city became known as Brzesc-Litewski, or Brest-Litovsk (“Lithuanian Brest”).
For nearly a century, the city served the Commonwealth as a part-time royal residence, and developed slowly into a major transportation hub with the inception of a canal that would connect the navigable Bug River with the Dnieper in the east. This canal was still on the drawing table when the Russians wiped out the Polish population of the city in 1660. It would be left to Stanislaw August Poniatowski, the favorite of Russian Tsarina Catherine II the Great, to finally complete the works.
Despite its importance being eclipsed by railroads that run alongside it, the canal continued to be an important waterway, particularly during the war between Poland and the newly-formed Soviet Union in the 1920s. Even in peacetime, it remains an important waterway in today’s Belarus.
Of course, the biggest attraction of Brest is the Hero Fortress. Built after its capture by Generalissimo Alexander Suvorov during the fall of the Commonwealth, the fortress was built over top of the Polish Old Town and the Royal Castle. Its brick walls stood as a bastion between the Catholic Poles in the west, and the Orthodox people to the east during the Russian Imperial period of the city. In the Interwar period of the 20th century, the city served as an eastern bulwark against the Soviet threat, failing only with the approach of Nazi tanks during Hitler’s invasion. When the Soviets marched into town on Sept. 22, 1939, the day effectively became for the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic the day in which its modern boundaries were effectively established.
The celebrations in Minsk, though, lasted only 21 months, as German forces crossed the frontier of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, in its ill-fated invasion “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.”
During the German occupation, of course, this frontier city was yet again transformed, with most of its Jewish population being transported to death camps. Before this atrocity, however, the city was a thriving center for the so-called “Brisker” movement (named for the city - “Brisk” is the Yiddish name for Brest), a tradition that encouraged the use of a formulaic approach to religious questions in the Jewish faith. The region between Brest and Pinsk had been, as a result of so prominent a movement, the birthplace of many prominent Jewish leaders of culture and politics. Before the Nazis, many of its urban centers were majority Jewish, as opposed to today.
However, as with the Minsk community, Brest’s remaining Jewish community continues to work hard at preserving what is left of its traditions. A Jewish Museum continues to keep the memory of the Soloveitchik “Brisker” tradition alive, and the synagogue of Brest, the first ever to be built in ancient Lithuania, has been carefully restored.
There are many other sites to see in Brest, including the oldest outdoor railroad museum in Belarus, and the Museum of Rescued Art Treasures, which has a remarkable collection of icons. But near to Brest is a true natural treasure, the Belovezhskaya Pushcha, or Forest of the White Tower. Named for the Tower of Kameniets, actually a red brick tower that was never white (built back in the 13th century to defend the northern frontier of the Grand Duchy of Halych-Volhynia), the forest is 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, however, 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.
Plenty to see, relatively easy to reach on the main railroad line between Moscow and the West, Brest makes a perfect jump off point for any tour of Belarus