The Republic of Belarus is located in Eastern Europe, bordering Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Ukraine. Independent since 1990, this country is known for its pristine landscape of virgin forests and rolling green plains, and the staunch efforts of its citizens to maintain their cultural identity.
Although the region was settled in the 6th century, an independent, uniquely Belarusian state would not come into existence for another 1400 years. In this early period, the territory of modern Belarus and surrounding areas were settled by Slavic tribes and Varangians, or Easter Vikings, who founded the state of Kievan Rus’ in 862–the precursor to modern Russia. As Kievan Rus’ declined in the 11th century, Belarus was absorbed first by Lithuania, then the Russian Empire, who demarcated its present borders and officially established its name. The people of Belarus took advantage of German occupation during World War I to form the short-lived Belarusian People’s Republic, which fell to the Soviet Red Army after only ten months of independence in 1919. Its territory was divided during the Polish-Soviet War of 1921, and invaded once again by Germany during World War II; Belarus was among the hardest hit of the Soviet republics in this war, suffering tremendous infrastructural damage and casualties estimated at at least one quarter of the population. After Germany’s defeat, it was reabsorbed as a constituent Soviet republic, and Russian leaders instituted a policy of Sovietization to encourage the spread of the Russian language and culture in Belarus. This only provided further impetus to the cause of Belarusian nationalist groups, who gained steam in the late 1980s. Amid the wave of Eastern Bloc independence movements in 1990, Belarus held elections and declared itself a sovereign republic.
Belarus benefits from heavy industrial development implemented during the Soviet era. After independence, it was the most prosperous of the CIS states for a time; although it suffered a downturn in subsequent years, it has recently entered a period of high growth, and benefits from low unemployment and a high literacy rate. Nevertheless, many Western governments and NGOs accuse the country of restrictive internal economic policies and a low level of human rights and political freedoms, resulting from the continuance of Soviet-era policies by Alexander Lukashenko, president since 1994. This has strained Belarus’ foreign relations, and consequently inhibited its international trade. It enjoys close ties with Russia, and has long-term goals of forging a political union with its neighbor, but has so far made little progress in this arena.
Travelers to Belarus face numerous bureaucratic hurdles, as the government is quite concerned with the possibility of political dissidence and foreign interference in its affairs. Hence, NGO work is practically out of the question. Paid positions seem to be rare as well. However, there are several good universities in the country, with a few particularly good options for Russian language study. Students are sure to enjoy Belarus’ numerous cultural festivals, as well as the low prices relative to the West.
Russian is, ironically, the more widely-spoken of Belarus’ two official languages. Around 30% of the population speak Belarusian, a knowledge of which might come in handy for travelers who like to stray from the beaten path.