Belarus, one of the most culturally and historically interesting republics of the former Soviet Union, is also among the least known. Today, it is an independent country operating in a loose economic association with Russia and Ukraine.
Once commonly called White Russia, Belarus forms a border with Latvia and Lithuania on the north, Poland on the west, Russia on the east and the Ukraine on the south. It is 207,600 square kilometers in size - roughly four times larger than Nova Scotia. Similar in makeup to Eastern Ontario or inland Nova Scotia, Belarus is a land of forests, lakes and marshes. The landscape is flat with woods covering approximately one-third of its territory.
Belarus has roughly 10.5 million people. Eighty per cent of the population is Belarusian. The remainder is comprised of Russians, Ukrainians, Poles and Jews. Two-thirds of the population are urban dwellers, the result of rapid industrialization after World War II, before which only 20 per cent of Belarusians lived in cities. Major centers include Minsk (the capital, a city of roughly 1.8 million), Gomel, Mogilev, Vitebsk, Brest and Grodno.
The devastation of World War II practically wiped out Belarus' agriculture and industry, leading to intensive postwar restoration efforts. As a result, a largely rural society was transformed almost overnight into a modern industrialized state.
As part of the Soviet Union, Belarus' role was to supply the empire with trucks, cars, agricultural machinery, fertilizers and other agri-chemicals, timber products and agricultural produce, mainly potatoes and flax fibers. In return, it relied on the rest of the Union for oil, coal, natural gas, metals, cotton, synthetics, canned goods and pharmaceuticals.
In 1991, the collapse of the Soviet regime gave Belarus its independence. It unfortunately was left in a state of economic chaos that has worsened during its first years as a free country. Today, Belarus struggles to make order from that chaos and, as with other republics that were dependent on the Soviet system, it still faces drastic shortages that are basic to a functioning society.
In his book, Belarus - At a Crossroads in History, historian Jan Zaprudnik comments:
"The structure of the national economy inherited from the Soviet period is indeed out of joint. The restructuring and retooling of the republic’s various industries of which 40 per cent has been geared to military production, require not only much time but huge sums of money. The barter character of such deals burdens the procurement of raw material imports. The labor force must be retrained. New markets must be found and the quality of goods improved. Finally, better management techniques have to be worked out and learned."
Belarus' proximity to the Baltic Sea provides a major moderating effect on the climate. The average July temperature is 64F (18C) with high humidity. January’s average temperature is 21F (-6C) with frequent thaws. Average annual precipitation is 22 to 28 inches, similar to Ontario and Quebec but only one-half to one-third the average annual levels found in Atlantic Canada.
2.5 Language and Communications
Until recently, Russian was the language used in schools. During the Soviet years, Belarusian was discouraged and even outlawed in schools. In many regions the language fell out of use entirely among generations educated after the 1950s. This is changing in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of Belarusian nationalism. Belarus has 28 daily newspapers. For every 1,000 residents, there are 303 radios, 315 television sets and 108 telephones.
Belarus has a rich and varied cultural history; its poets, writers, artists, playwrights and musicians are recognized the world over. It is also renowned for its achievements in sports, architecture and applied arts, especially its decorated linens, carved wooden dishes and threaded belts.
2.7 The Future of Belarus
The following excerpt, again taken Zaprudnik, summarizes the modern status of this remarkable country and places it in the world.
"In the modem world - particularly in the complex passage of Eastern Europe from communism to democracy, threatened by the disruptive forces of chauvinism Belarus can be viewed as a laboratory of changes, to which a careful evolutionary approach must be taken. Located in the geographic middle of the European continent and straddling the East and West, Belarus has been the arena for hundreds of military battles and encounters of sundry tongues and creeds. By necessity, the Belarusian people have become deeply imbued with a tolerance of other people's views and needs. Their historical experience shows that force and violence do not solve problems but, only postpone and aggravate them. This experience has translated into political cautiousness, gradualism, and an evolutionary methodology in solving problems. Taught throughout their history by suffering and sacrifice, the Belarusians have indeed developed a deep sense of humanity.
"Of modest size and economic potential on the world scale, Belarus epitomizes both the woes of history and the predicaments of the modem age. It lost more than two million people to Stalinist genocide and as many more in the whirlwind of World War II. Twenty-five per cent of its present-day population of more than 10 million, including 800,000 children, lives in the area affected by 70 per cent of the nuclear fallout from Chernobyl. Yet amidst all its shortages and dire needs, and beset by a burdensome legacy of yesteryear that has significantly slowed progress, the republic continues to display an overall calmness (sometimes mistakenly interpreted as meekness and docility) that could serve as an example for others."The outside world is finally beginning to become acquainted with this East European nation that had been all but hidden in the shadow of a military superpower. Emerging from behind the information curtain as an independent state, Belarus will gradually present itself to the world in all of its colors and shades, offering humanity both its historic experience and its peaceful nature."