By Natalya Lenskaya
— And who travels in the swamps and forests, such an enormous crowd coming to light?
— And what do they wish for, oppressed for centuries?
— To be called a people.
(Poem by Yanka Kupala, People’s Poet of Belarus)
Our world is a giant being. The eyes are the oceans, rivers are the arteries, and the forests are the lungs. And each continent and every territory encompasses a unique history. An individual purpose and soul belongs to nations globally. A soul, and I know exactly where the soul of my country hides itself – in the geographical center of Europe, in my native Belarus. Have you ever had the chance to look inside a soul? Let’s look together and get to know the heart of Belarus and its people.
More than 2000 ethnic groups with distinct cultures, languages, traditions and religions inhabit our planet. But only one nationality in those thousands represents the whisper of spring in a birch grove, the screech of a stork in the bright blue sky, the rustling of the oaks in Belovezhskaya Forest or the sad sound of bells, scorched during World War II, crying out, “Belarus, Belarus.” Our land, singed by the fames of war, lacerated by mines and grenades, drowning in rivers of tears and grief, and afterwards suffering the test of the Chernobyl catastrophe, retained its purity, because her name means WHITE RUSSIA. The people here live with a light heart, for the souls of the citizens are naturally at peace. The optimism of the public can be heard in the first line of the national anthem, “We, Belarusians, are peaceful people.” Having lost every third inhabitant of the country during World War II, we know the price of freedom, peace, and friendship. For this reason, our little country of Belarus always willingly stretches a hand to anyone in the world needing help, understanding, support or partnership. We have come to realize that for other countries to appreciate our nation, we ourselves need to know our history, culture and character.
During the early 2000s, the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies conducted a survey to ascertain which traits Belarusians claimed as most inherent. Te top three:
Other main attributes included kindness, spirituality, conscientiousness and bravery. Although descriptive, these words are actually meaningless unless I add context.
Hospitality is a special word in our language. If you find yourself at a huge table piled with delicacies, after having the door opened by a smiling welcoming hostess, you can be sure that you are in a Belarusian household. Tis also means that you will be fed, kept warm, and even given a place to sleep if necessary. I am not just giving lip service; this unwritten law of hospitality can be observed in any Belarusian home. As a centuries-old tradition in Belarus, hospitality means that a person must give everything that they have, and never disoblige a guest.
Participants of major sporting events repeatedly stay in Belarus. In 2014, the World Hockey Championship brought many different delegates to the country. For this major event, the entire nation prepared. There were 14 new hotels built in the capital city to suit different tastes and budgets. New roads were constructed, local workers learned foreign languages, newly designed event souvenirs lined shops, and chefs honed their cooking skills and mastered fresh recipes. Like a huge, busy anthill, the work carried on in full swing in anticipation of the huge sporting event and all the foreign guests. Interestingly, Belarusians readied for their visitors without financial gain, but instead as volunteers. They provided free rooms and apartments to the foreigners, food at the citizens’ own expense and pleasant and fun excursions. We really wanted our visitors to discover a new country, Belarus, of which they had perhaps only known through secondhand knowledge. And we did it! How pleasant it was to hear from surprised wide-eyed foreigners: “What a clean country!” “What delicious food!” “How beautiful it is here!” “THIS is Europe!” Of course we already knew this, but Belarusians, in our modesty, do not boast about our strengths and achievements. We are proud of what we have, but it’s a quiet respect for ourselves, and for others. Or maybe it is a fear of losing what we have worked so hard to build. A stranger’s envy certainly has destructive potential.
Since the Championship visit, tourism to our country has noticeably increased. Musicians arrive more frequently as well, taking advantage not only of the opportunity to perform in places with great acoustics, but also in a country where they will be comfortable. For both world-famous performers and Belarusians, the most pleasant aspect of visiting Belarus is not doing an airport-hotel-arena-airport tour, but rather enjoying the opportunity to stroll the streets of the capital city Minsk, to shop and dine, and to simply smile and chat with locals. We are so tired of being a fat dot on a map that we are thrilled by the attention of guests, those who taste and appreciate our fine cuisine, notice our local culture and customs, and gif us with a smile. And you definitely need to visit more than once! Some of the many artists who have performed at the largest Belarusian complex, The Minsk Arena, include A-HA, DuranDuran, Rammstein, Sting, Elton John, Shakira, Robbie Williams, Jennifer Lopez, Lana Del Rey, Chris Rea, and Eros Ramazzotti. The concerts sell out quickly because we welcome our guests warmly and happily.
Scientists, writers, politicians, diplomats, journalists and everyday tourists find a delightful spot for themselves under the Belarusian sun. Travelers relish in sipping birch sap, fishing in the multitude of lakes, observing unique wild animals, hunting for mushrooms and berries in the forest or even simply listening to the blowing of the wind in the trees. Belarusian nature offers generous gifs to its admirers. Those who call themselves eco-tourists are guests to us, and we become fast friends.
The majority of Belarusians follow the Orthodox faith; Catholics comprise the next largest group. An especially dynamic group in Belarus is the Protestant group. In the small country of Belarus, you will find 1,300 churches!
The tolerance of the Belarusian people can be understood in their quiet respect for people of different religions (there are about 30 in the country), beliefs, skin colors and lifestyles. Belarus provides a home for people from 140 varied nations. The only requirements for those choosing Belarus as a second home are no violence towards other citizens and to live according to the laws of the nation.
The majority of Belarusians follow the Orthodox faith; Catholics comprise the next largest group. An especially dynamic group in Belarus is the Protestant group. In the small country of Belarus, you will find 1,300 churches! Interwoven into Belarusian faith is an ancient worship of nature and ancestors. Along with belief in God, believers look towards other higher powers and pray to these for a good harvest by giving an offering of local foods. We also celebrate a special and beloved national holiday – Midsummer Festival. Tis happy holiday is based on the myth of a magical flower in the forest. It is said that the flower blooms from a fern on the night of the festival. If a person can find the bloom, they will assume the power to understand the language of wild beasts and acquire an ability to find hidden treasure in the land. They will also be rich and happy for life. Alas, the story can only be a legend since none of the world’s 20,000 species of fern put forth flowers. And yet, each hot July evening during the festival, some hopeful hunters go into the woods in search of this flower of happiness. Tis subconscious belief in a miracle is not a game, but representative of the childlike innocence and purity of the people.
Belarusians have established a love of hard work over the centuries, whether hunting in the forests, toiling in the fields, or farming and gathering the fruits of the Earth. In spite of its urbanization, Belarus remains known as an agrarian society. Assuredly, this is because the nation ensures its own food supply by producing dairy products, meats, vegetables, fruits and grains, within its own borders. As the Belarusians say, “A healthy person is a working person.” Humans maintain a respectful relationship with the land, viewing it as a nursing mother.
Only once in history, during the chaotic 1990s, did Belarusians leave their homes and gardens in the villages, in order to move to the cities in search of an easier life. I remember sadly how my little, old aunt watched the departing inhabitants and prophetically announced, “There will come a time when you will miss your land and your roots. No amount of money can ease languishing for the land on which you grew up.” And she was right! People returned to their homes as do migratory birds, back to their land to build fresh nests. These days every bit of land carries great value and has an owner. New homes replace dilapidated huts, and Belarusians once again cultivate the land, either to make money or simply for enjoyment and to please the soul.
And Belarusians characteristically epitomize power! Our land, specifically the Belarusian city of Brest, received the first blows on the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany the night of June 22nd, 1941. The pain and courage of Belarusian soldiers is embodied in one sentence written by an unknown soldier on the wall of the Brest Fortress: “I’m dying, but I will not give up.” Even when dying, shot in masses, burnt alive and sent to concentration camps to be tortured and starved, Belarusian men, women, even the elderly and children, refused to give up. However, pain flows through the veins of generations of Belarusians, having lost 3 million of 9.2 million inhabitants during World War II. Even decades later, while viewing the Victory Day Parade, my grandmother cries for the young soldiers and the veterans, who protected the country from the Nazis. All her life, she has made sure to eat every morsel of food and leave none to waste, remembering the hunger during the war, when she had six children to feed.
Please remember one important fact: Belarusians have never attacked any nation first. We have only ever defended ourselves. And we protect ourselves even now, in times of peace. We protect ourselves by ensuring our independence and maintaining our own state and freedom. We steadfastly hold onto our dream of living in a world without war.
Our traits do not include aggressiveness or unpredictability. Belarusians generally display a contemplative and sensible nature. We follow the proverbs “Measure seven times and cut once” and “Think before you speak.” We see what is taking place within the country and at our borders. We fear situations where brothers must fight brothers and understand that redistribution of land occurs at the cost of human life. The ability to negotiate and hear your opponent, whether friend or foe, no longer exists in modern politics. That Belarus now acts as a peaceful and neutral territory for negotiations between Russia and Ukraine further proves the harmonious policies of the nation. I recall when the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and the Germany met in Minsk in February 2015, and carried out negotiations for over 16 hours. These talks resulted in the Minsk agreement, the only legitimate peace agreement held by Ukraine. Many did not believe that the peace talks in Minsk would bring together all of these leaders or an amicable accord. However, as you can see, our destiny is to protect and defend others.
Kindness and spirituality, two native sisters, also define the Belarusian people. Having experienced much throughout our history, we empathize with human pain, and we understand faith and love. We also run charities within the country to support large families, children with disabilities, the elderly, and the seriously ill, along with many others. These charities exist because of volunteers, who have given all they could to help search for missing people, care for children in orphanages, love those who need it, and help neighbors who may suffer in extreme cold or heat. In Belarus, natural disasters such as tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis and foods almost never occur. For the most part, the weather in this region complements the sensible character of the Belarusian people, but, on rare occasions, fare-ups do occur. One year, Hurricane Javier brought violent gales that took the breath from people, stung their eyes, and knocked them over. The hurricane also caused sleet and a snowstorm that blew sideways. Transportation stopped, and many could not return home, and were stuck on the road with no food or water. Each day of the storm, citizens became rescuers, offering those stranded a place to sleep or carrying hot tea to them. Some people even risked driving, in order to take children to safety. Tis natural disaster united Belarusians. It also reminded us of the reason that we all live for: love. Belarusians also live so that we can be “called a people,” as in the opening poem by Kupala. It would be so wonderful if the entire planet wanted to live for this reason.
I hope I have been able to tell you a bit about Belarusians. And I hope that the next time I travel that, when my country comes up in conversation, I will no longer have to explain where Belarus lies by describing neighboring countries. No, we are not Poland. Nor Ukraine. And we are not Lithuania, nor are we Russia. We are the independent country of Belarus, with our own beating heart and soul. Please come get to know us!