In lieu of International Women’s Day on March 8th, ALEX POGORELOV celebrates Belarusian women throughout the ages and all around the world.
There were three of us: my Belarusian friend Ales, Mike, a businessman from Chicago, and myself. We were sitting in front of a TV screen in a suburban house in Portland. On the table, we had a bottle of Swedish Absolut vodka and a huge platter of fresh, warm Belarusian potato pancakes called drinkie. We were watching an event on the other side of the world in Australia – the Australian Open. Victoria Azarenka, a top Belarusian female player, was playing in the final against Maria Sharapova. What had started as an evening of tennis quickly grew into sports fandom. We saw Azarenka, not only her athleticism, but also her perseverance, and we were entirely consumed. She exuded a combination of natural beauty, femininity, emotional depth, and fearless determination. She demonstrated full devotion to the game, as though her life depended on the outcome. Even her name meant Victory. I thought then, maybe at that moment, I was seeing what it meant to be Belarusian…
Much has been said and written about Azarenka’s signature scream. It’s not worth focusing, though, on the nasty cliché remarks of sports bloggers. There was something more in this cry, repeated with each swing of the racquet. It was as if life began with every punch of the racquet, and all the strength of this woman was invested in each hit, along with an outcry of hope. I began to think that maybe the entire essence of a Belarusian woman was reflected in these instances, giving life, hope and victory to these young but great, magnificent Belarusian people. Every single moment of that game looked like a concluding chord of a sports symphony.
Each day, Belarus, a country of wholesome and brave people, fights for its dream of having a good life and the future of its children. And it has been this way for centuries, because little Belarus stands in the path of conflicting European giants. Many days in Belarus’s history have been days that determined the fate of its history. For many people, this tragic past of Belarus is unknown.
In the four decades of my life, I have personally known quite a few Belarusian women. They are not Russian, not Ukrainian, nor are they Polish. In the West, I often hear that Belarusian women are defend as ballerinas. Many visitors to pristine Belarus come with the secret goal of meeting exceptional Belarusian women. Among Belarusians, there are many faxen-haired women with translucent blue eyes. Although these women possess many physical similarities, they differ immensely on the inside, and each one is quite unique. Even so, the most wonderful, shared characteristic of most Belarusian women is that they are not affected by difficulties and hardships. Belarusian women are naturally filled with an enormous drive to move ahead, to win and to build a life for themselves.
In Belarus, people tell a bitter joke, stating that they lie on the path of Russia, China and America, even though these countries are on different continents. There is a lot of truth in this. From a geopolitical point of view, Belarus never stood a chance of survival. For centuries, the country has remained sandwiched between empires, with no access to the sea. Tis country was trampled upon by the likes of giant neighboring armies, including those of Germany, Russia, and Poland. Standing in the path of Hitler’s Nazi plague, Belarus lost a large percentage of its population during World War II. But the country never lost its main asset, the reason it survived through all its hardships – wonderful women.
Throughout Belarus’s history, we can see many beautiful, heroic women. Perhaps, the most interesting point is that the women of Belarus were regular people, but can also be characterized as those who saved their country and defend their era.
The first Belarusian woman who comes to mind is Princess Rogneda – the Princess of Polotsk. During her time, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus did not exist yet; there were only feudal principalities. Novgorod was what would become Russia, Kiev would become Ukraine, and the city of Polotsk was the precursor for what would become Belarus. Wedged between pagan Novgorod and Orthodox Kiev, Polotsk became the quintessence of freedom and acceptance of all people and religions. Rogneda developed into a great diplomat, stopped a war, reconciled princes and came to be known as the most influential woman of her time.
EUPHROSYNE OF POLOTSK
A 12th century princess of Polotsk, Euphrosyne, became a nun at age 12 and spent her life helping the poor and building churches and monasteries across Belarus. She was a phenomenal woman, and she used her great teaching abilities to develop literacy and set the foundation for what is now known as human rights. Euphrosyne additionally established educational centers in Belarus, where the concepts of national independence and individual sovereignty were laid out long before they were presented in Western Europe. It’s worth mentioning that she is considered the first female author, believed to have written the book The Life of Euphrosyne of Polotsk. She died while on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and her relics were only returned to Belarus in 1910. The canonized Euphrosyne endures as the heavenly patroness of Belarus.
The world’s first female professor of mathematics descended from a noble Belarusian family and spent her childhood in the Vitebsk province of Belarus. When she was 11 years old, the walls of her room were covered with pages of lecture notes on differential and integral analysis, forming what was her early preparation for calculus. She became the first woman to hold a doctorate in mathematics in Europe, and her work focused on mathematical analysis, mechanics and astronomy.
REGINA SALOMÉE HALPIR
Regina Salomée Halpir of Novgorod was an entirely new kind of woman. She authored the famous book, published in 1760, entitled The Adventures of My Life. Halper worked as both a doctor and a writer, and her travel memoirs about Vienna, Istanbul and St. Petersburg are striking, both on the written and historical scale. Ideas related to liberation and the emancipation of Belarusian women soon attracted many followers to Halper, who defended not only individual rights and freedom for women, but also national values and the independence of her country.
Let’s not forget outstanding Belarusian gymnast, Olga Korbut, who won four Olympic gold medals, three of them at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. That same year, Korbut was recognized as the best athlete in the world.
I could go on and on about Belarusian women, turning this piece into an essay on the history of women in Belarus. But let’s go back to that day in 2012 when I started this article. I remember how crazy-happy we were when Azarenka won her first Australian Open Title. Even happier, that Sharapova, a Belarusian by blood, was there fighting for the title as well. Scream for scream. Hit for hit. Although Sharapova is now a highly paid athlete and tennis legend, her path tragically began in the Belarusian city of Gomel on an April day in 1986, when a nuclear disaster took place in the Chernobyl power plant. Her family took the difficult path to victory in life, the path to phenomenal success, for which they had to lay it all on the line. Essentially, this was a path of faith and devotion, which many years later would see Sharapova become a huge success on tennis courts all over the world.
The episode I just recounted is one of the most striking examples of life in this country. Belarusian women have preserved the nation and gifted the world to their people.
Every nation boasts beautiful women. But Belarusian women remain special in their softness, unblemished beauty and the richness of their internal world. Don’t believe me? Come to Belarus and see for yourself!