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I'm going to Minsk.

Minsk. It's in Russia.
—The writers of Friends get it wrong. Perhaps they were thinking of Murmansk?

Belarus is a largish, landlocked country just to the left of Russia and the right of Poland (and that's only meant trouble for them). Its capital is Minsk.

Although the Belarusian people (sometimes called "Litvins", "White Russians" or "White Ruthenians" in older historical sources) have been around the area some time (nobody is sure when they split off from proto-Slavonicity; most scholars agree that it happened at some point between the area's incorporation into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 13th century and its annexation by the Russian Empire in 1795), there was no state of Belarus until the end of World War I. In fact, while the name of White Ruthenia existed back in Kievan Rus, the region, along with Aukštaitija, was known as Litva (Lithuania) for the most of Late Medieval / Early Modern period. In 19th century the administrative politics of the Russian Empire, however, changed that state of things, separating the territory of modern Belarus from Lithuania into "White Russia", and forming a new variant of Lithuania from Aukštaitija, Samogitia and other ethnographic regions of Baltic Lithuanians. The identity of Slavic Lithuanians (known in late Medieval as Litvins and being the dominant ethnic group in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania) was thus transformed into Belarusian (or Byelorussian) identity.

In the havoc of the Russian Civil War, a German backed National Republic (actually called the People's Republic but idiomatically translated here as it was decidedly un-Bolshevik), flying a new white-red-white flag. When Germany left, the BNR found itself with about as much credibility as their German backers, and lasted only as long as it took the Red Army to arrive. The republic was carved up between the USSR (who commified it) and Poland (who denied its existence, considering it to be Poland, but swampier). Wars were fought between the USSR and Poland (no, not that one), which brought the Byelorussian SSR as it was called closer to its modern geographic divisions.

The Belarusians were not happy and as in Ukraine and the Baltic nations (and indeed Russia) some nationalists briefly co-operated with the Nazis before they realised that the whole "Slavic untermensch" thing hadn't just been a campaign promise. The Belarus Central Council, or Rada, as the Nazi puppet government was called, co-opted all the symbols of the previous German puppet government, the BNR (with unfortunate implications). Unlike Russia's imperial army and Ukraine's independent Cossacks, Belarus did not have a celebrated military history before the 20th century (at different points in history its soldiers fought for Lithuania, Poland and Russia), so the fierce struggle of the Belarusian partisans (guerillas frequently in service of the Red Army), against the Nazis came to be seen as a national Crowning Moment of Awesome. Likewise, because of the BNR in part, the Belarusian nationalist movement lacked credibility--something that would doom their effort to take over after the Soviet breakup.

The Soviets, of course, won and took over Poland's bit, dumping the substantial Polish population into eastern Germany in order to straighten up the lines on the map. Post-war Soviet Byelorussia had to be rebuilt largely from scratch (as did much of the USSR), and little resembled the pre-war nation: huge urban projects turned Minsk into a modern Soviet metropolis, and industry (traditionally concentrated in certain parts of Russia and Ukraine) was brought to the republic. State planning meant that Belarus would have an emphasis largely on light industry, not heavy or military industry, producing a disprorportionate part of the country's larger consumer products (refridgerators, televisions, washing machines, etc.) Consequently, with some mondery industry, a large agricultural base, and not being invaded by Poland, Germany, or the Tsars, the BSSR was considered to have one of the highest standards of living in the USSR. Since independence, though, Belarus' pre-war image as Ruritania has come back into vogue--outside the USSR, where Belarus was largely unknown, that has always been the image.

With the break-up of the Soviet Union, Belarus found itself a little adrift - the country had never really had a chance to form its own national identity, and it wasn't long before an authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, took power and began to undo some of the trappings of independence. The country's flag was changed back to the Soviet-era flag (minus hammer and sickle and a reversal to the red-white pattern on the left side), the economy was taken back into state control and greater ties with Russia have been sought. The local State Sec, called KDB in Belarussian or KGB in Russian, also regained much of its influence.

An official union between Russia and Belarus was agreed in 1999 and came into effect in 2000 with talk of the two being officially unified under one flag, citizenship, currency and so on. However, enthusiasm seems to have waned again, with customs controls being re-introduced and no joint "national" symbols having been agreed. It seems likely that, while Belarus is keen to rejoin a stronger Russia, the Russians have no particular wish to subsume their new-found national pride to yet another union of states. Well, it's either that or, more likely, the leaders of Belarus and Russia can't agree on the details, and therefore, no progress.

Tropewise, most of what applies to Russia will apply to Belarus as well, and you'd be hard-pressed to find many westerners who would be able to tell you anything about the country. Russian media tends to portray Belarus as a swampy Ruritania where everyone eats lots of potatoes and speaks Belarusian Russian with a funny accent (Truth in Television to some extent, since Russian is the first language of more than 70% of Belarusians). Also, quite a lot of Soviet films that are set in Belarus are about World War II and the Belarusian partisans. When it was first independent, English-speaking media couldn't quite decide what to call it - Byelorussia or Bielorussia was popular at first but we seem to have settled on Belarus (pronounced "Bella-roos", or "byella-roosh if you're trying to impress someone[1]).

Famous Belarusians include:
  • Isaac Asimov, the famous, groundbreaking American science fiction author. He was born in 1920 in the village of Petrovichi in the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic, which was later absorbed by Russia.
  • Victoria Azarenka, currently the World No. 1 tennis player (in women's tennis). She won the 2012 Australian Open singles title, becoming the first Belarusian player to win a Grand Slam in singles.
  • Andrei Gromyko (Andrej Hramyka in Belarusian[2]), Soviet Minister for Foreign Affairs, a member of Brezhnev's inner circle and the face of Soviet diplomacy for nearly thirty years. His obstinate negotiating style earned him the nickname "Comrade Nyet" in the West.
  • Pavel Sukhoi (Pavieł Suchi), Soviet aircraft constructor and designer and the founder of the Sukhoi Design Bureau. All Soviet planes whose names start with "Su" (e.g. Su-17 and Su-24) were designed by his bureau.
  • Vladimir Mulyavin (Uładzimir Muliavin), Russian-Belarusian rock musician and founder of the folk-rock band Pesniary, one of the most popular bands in the Soviet Union. They were even given permission to tour the US in 1976.
  • Zhores Alferov (Žares Ałfioraŭ), Belarusian-Russian Nobel Prize winning physicist, inventor of the heterotransistor and one of the most prominent Communist politicians in modern Russia.
  • Alexander Rybak (Aliaksandar Rybak), Belarusian-Norwegian musician and the record-breaking winner of the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest.
  • Marc Chagall (Mark Šahał), modernist Belarusian-French artist and a member of the once sizeable Belarusian Jewish community that is now almost entirely gone, thanks to the Holocaust and emigration.
  • Chiang Fang-liang (born Faina Ipat'evna Vakhreva), the first lady of Taiwan from 1978 to 1988, as wife of President Chiang Ching-kuo (the two met in the Ural Machine Plant in the USSR).

And it's often said that Belarus produced many famous Lithuanians, Russians and Poles...

Belarus and its locals in fiction:
  • An episode of The Unit is set in Belarus.
  • The Third World War has Minsk get nuked by the US and UK in response to the Soviet Union nuking the British city of Birmingham. It doesn't feature at all in the rest of the two books.
  • The Moe Anthropomorphism of Belarus in Axis Powers Hetalia is an Elegant Gothic Lolita girl named Nathalia Arlovskaya, who wants VERY badly to become one with Russia. Russia is much less enthusiastic about the prospect (not to mention terrified of her - and y'know, she's also his SISTER.)
  • Come and See, a 1985 film by the Russian director Elem Klimov. Probably the most famous war film set in Belarus, it averts Do Not Do This Cool Thing so hard that some see it as less of a war movie and more of a psychological horror movie. Notable for being one of the few Soviet films to not just mention, but to actually show the Nazis massacring an entire village, as well as one of the first Soviet films to seriously deal with the topics of collaboration with the occupiers and cruelty coming from both sides.
  • Defiance, a 2008 film directed by Edward Zwick, details the actions of the Bielski Brothers and their attempts to save Jews from extermination at the hands of the German occupation. It's notable in that it's an American film set in Belarus, though it tends to make the same assumptions of most of American films about Russia--'Byelorussia' is only mentioned less than a half-dozen times. It also doesn't mention the historical anomaly that non-Jewish Belarusian partisans were willing to work with Jews, and lacked their own strong nationalist partisan group, instead rallying to the remains of the Red Army and taking on a distinct pro-Soviet stance (very much unlike their neighbors) as the Bielski Brothers did.
  • The Brest Fortress, also known as Fortress of War, is a 2010 joint Russian/Belarusian film about the defense and surrender of the Fortress of Brest immediately after the German Invasion, with several well-known Russian actors, including Pavel Derevyanko.
  • Minsk is the terminus of a young girl's strange, erotic journey in Rochelle, Rochelle, the fictional movie (later a stage musical, starring Bette Midler) within the Seinfeld universe.

The Belarusian flag

You sometimes see a white flag with a red stripe - this is the first independent flag, and that of the German and later Nazi puppet governments, but is now only used as a protest.

  1. the last consonant is actually not a sh-sound, but a palatalised s, sometimes transliterated with an apostrophe. The distinction is important in Belarusian, where the word Belarus' means the country and the word Belarus means a Belarusian man
  2. the names of many famous Belarusians are more commonly transliterated from Russian, even though sometimes their Belarusian spelling differs significantly. Also, Belarusian has its own transliteration system that is quite different from the conventional Russian translit scheme. Incidentally, the placenames on the map above are written in Belarusian, but using the Russian translit scheme.