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My Own Brest Interests (in Belarus)

People commonly travel the world over to see rivers and mountains,
new stars, garish birds, freak fish, grotesque breeds of human; they fall into an animal stupor that gapes at existence and they think they have seen something – Soren Kierkegaard

I can live without problems in Belarus – Diego Maradona

 

There are two Brests!

This is about the Brest of Belarus, not the Brest of France.

Brest! That odd Russophile satellite given to mostly benevolent dictatorship, it seems, possessing until recently a completely open border with Russia, that other dictator-friendly European country

Historically, it is not so odd, to sport a dictator. Napoleon was one. So was Julius Caesar. And so forth. Somehow, today this notion stinks of Old School strangeness. Russo-Europe plays by its own rules, don’t you know? Russians of all stripes Bela or straight up just seem to need dictating to. Film Director Andrei Konchalovsky told me in an interview that Russia was not like the USA after I had said that they were two sides of the same coin. He demurred. “No,” he said. “Russia is like Mexico!” The progeny of Tolstoy enjoy a country that has endured the Mafia state of Stalin l to and his ill-k to inherit the gangland escapades of Put-in.

And what of Belarus and its throwback to the Soviet past. It’s a backwater. The main street is named for Lenin and is accordingly adorned with a statue of the Master. (Lenin always makes me laugh. He spent his life in revenge for his brother being put to death for trying to assassinate Czar Alexander III, father of Nicholas, whom Lenin put to death. Revenge or what?)

Things change. Yes, they get worse. Watching that prescient Mike Wallace-Aldous Huxley interview from 1958, deep in the Cold War, leads me to consider that in the future there may well be a touch of Minsk-type dictation ahead for us all. Huxley nails our age, way out in front. Well done, Aldous

And now—I’m sitting on the border in Daddy Like’s Chrysler minvan—with two lithesome Belarussian lady hitchhikers in tow– waiting to cross the border. You cannot cross the border on foot. Car or bus mandatory. Although you can cycle across if you’ve a mind to.

We wait. It’s a tedious yet expected interval. Here we are perched on the edge of where the EU now meets Putinland. And Belarus is like a prisoner trying to escape from itself.

So, who wants to go to Brest? You may well ask.

 

***

Belarus has been in borderless union with Russia since 1999. Recently the dictator Lukashenko, who rules the country with a velvet glove, has realized how much Belarus could benefit from Tourism. So he is opening the major urban areas to trippers. One can alight in Minsk and stay for a month now without a visa. Brest and Grodno on the EU border are also open to visa-free travel for a few days, provided one orders local accommodation through a travel agent approved by Belarus. There is one in Warsaw adjacent to the Opera. The Falstaffian Daddy Like, my driver and all-around fixer, a man to be reckoned with, all 300 pounds of him.

Belarus has its adherents in the most unlikely places. Take Diego Maradona, infamous for being infamous, he has just become the coach of the Brest Dynamo football club. Wonders never cease.

 

 

After the deal, told ESPN:

“I want to make a photo with Lukashenko, I hope he will become our fan,” Maradona said at a news conference after landing in Brest to the cheers of two dozen supporters and being given a traditional welcome of bread and salt.

“I can live without problems in Belarus,” he added.

Dynamo Brest has never won a league title, and a local supporter told Reuters that until a couple of years ago the club had so little money that supporters sometimes were asked to raise funds for team jerseys.

(Then a sheik invested in the team and I’d bet in a local “harem” of lithesome Belarussian females.)

***

So where are you when you get to Brest – spiritually, that is?

Well, there is an old Cold War joke about a Russian leaving Moscow for Paris and a Frenchman leaving Paris for Moscow.

When they get to Warsaw, they each think they have reached their destination. The point is that if Poland is where Western and Eastern Europe meet then Brest is on the spot.

Indeed.

 

This sleepy city of 350,000 lies on the River Bug on the border of Poland and Belarus. It’s opposite number on the Polish side, Terespol, is even more somnolent, being located on the edge of the poorest region in the EU, near the great Bialowieza forest and the tiny Muslim enclave of Kruszyniany, hard up against the border to the north. It is an interesting and rather forgotten region, it’s nooks and crannies offering to the curious some fine bucolic if not metropolitan rewards. The countryside beckons, the city-life bores.

Owing to its odd-man-out status in contemporary Europe, Belarus needs foreign cash like Mars needs women.  To wit: Belarus has been experimenting with the limited lifting of visa restrictions for several years. This began with the World Hockey Championships in 2015.

Back to the border and the tedious crossing… Leaving or returning to the EU by private vehicle We might have taken the bus or the train, which are much faster. But we had our hearts set on a run across the bright summer fields of eastern Poland, Podlachia. The day was bright and breezy. The sun was favorable in the last week of June and the light lasted long into the evening. Being situated on the main railway line connecting Berlin and Moscow, and the transcontinental highway, Brest is a principal border crossing since World War II in Soviet times. Today it links the European Union and the Commonwealth of Independent States.

 

It was somewhere on the approach to Terespol that we spotted a strange monument on the horizon. As we drew closer it became apparent that this statue was made of human stuff. In fact, it was a young woman standing tall on the backrest of a bus-stop bench, with her thumb held in the international position. We flew by and I noted another young hippie girl smiling broadly at me.

Should we stop? Mr. Like inquired.

Sure, back her up! I said.

We live life in fast-forward, but we only understand it in rewind.

 

The two girls were very happy. They had heavy backpacks. They had spent the night at the train station in Krakow. It had rained. But they were young enough not to care. They were headed home after two weeks away from Minsk, having got as far as northern Greece. It seemed a long way to go for such a short visit, especially via the thumb. At any rate,, they were patient and grateful to have a ride through the border. One cannot walk through.

 

We got through the Polish/EU border check fairly quickly. The border guards seemed perfectly happy to see the back of us. We passed through the border to the Belorussian side. There was a little bridge over the Bug (pronounced Boog) River. They checked our passports. They seemed unimpressed but somewhere between bemused and curious to see Americans visiting. We sat on the bridge for a while. Gradually they let us through and each car then had to pull into a layby where each, in turn, was registered as an import. The process took about 4 hours.

Brest is an historic crossroads as well as the location of the Union of Brest by which the Polish-Lithuanian kingdom became Papist and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk by which Russia withdrew from WW1.  No one knows why Brest is called Brest. It just is. It might be from the Slavic root beresta meaning birch, or bark or from berest meaning elm or from the Lithuanian word brasta meaning ford It most certainly does not come from the English word it sounds like.

 

We checked into our flat on Lenin Street – a nice lady was waiting for us. It was like Aladdin’s cave. Nothing to see from the outside but inside a very nice accommodation. The lady pointed us in the direction of the best restaurant in town—the Jules Verne. It’s a western affair on the corner of one of the streets off the main drag, Lenin street. We took the young backpacker ladies for supper. They looked starved, both veterinarians and vegetarians. The place was clean and well-lighted. The food was pretty good. The clientele was well-heeled. It was getting late. The girls had a train to catch. They had their backpacks stashed. We wished them well. They were on home turf so we weren’t worried about them. One of them, Nastia, had told me that her father was in the local KGB. So there was that, too.

We went for a drive around the city to orientate ourselves. DL was also looking for a currency exchange. We ended up in the Intourist Hotel tinged with vestiges of bygone days. The lobby was empty. The concierge was friendly, mostly out of boredom it seemed. We didn’t stay long.

We drove back to the flat on Lenin Street and parked. Then we went for a walk to the main square—a renovated brick-paved expanse of show-off newness. We decided to walk over to the pedestrian Sovietskaya street, passing a surprising number of hipster hair boutiques. We wondered where the Old Town was… It was about midnight by now. The pedestrian street was dead. We walked along stretching our legs and ended up in a second-floor bar called the Korova on the pedestrian street near the end where the Intourist is. The bartender spoke English and had lived in New York and was looking to go back. It being a Thursday the bar was fairly empty so there was plenty of time to talk about things in America, a place far away that none of us had spent very much time in lately. We sipped beer slowly and conversed with a couple of local ladies, an IT expert, and teacher, who found us to be a fascinating curiosity, apparently…

 

The next day was bright and extremely hot right off the bat. We ate breakfast at the Times Café, which he had discovered the night before as we walked down the street. It looked welcoming, and it was. There was staff in white and black neatly turned out. The menu was as welcoming as it had looked. A little investigation on the web showed that this restaurant was owned by the same people as the Jules Verne. I had an English breakfast that brought to mind the White Cliffs of Dover. Not really, but it was good. DK ate five croissants with jam and butter, about ten eggs, toast with honey, a slab of ham, a blueberry tart and a pot of coffee. He was hungry, I guess.

 

Later we toured the immense Brest Fortress and then stopped off at the locomotive museum, a very Old School Soviet thing to do it seemed to me. Founded by Slavs a thousand years ago and then taken by the Kiev-Rus, Brest has been kicked back and forth between countries over the ages. The city has been, invaded multiple times and often laid to waste. In the 13th century, it was the Mongols, in the 14th the Teutonic Knights. The khan of Crimea burned it down in the 15th century and in the 17th and 18th centuries it was invaded by Swedish armies… During medieval times, part of the Kingdom of Poland from 1020, it was taken by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in 1319 and became part of the Polish Lithuanian-Commonwealth in 1569 and then incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1795. After World War I, the city returned to Poland only to be lost to Nazi Germany and then the Soviet Union. After the war, the city became part of the Soviet Union until the breakup of the USSR in 1991. Brest is now a part of an independent Belarus. The construction of the Imperial Russian fortress started in 1833a .

 

The broad Mukhavets River flows gently west through the city meeting the Bug River at the Brest Fortress. The Dnieper-Bug Canal was built in the mid-nineteenth century to join the river to the Pina, a tributary of the Pripyat River which in turn drains into the Dnieper. Thus Brest has a shipping route all the way to the Black Sea. If not for a dam and neglected weirs west of Brest, north-western European shipping would be connected with the Black Sea also.

 

It was hot and humid as we left the car in the Citadel parking lot. This is the main attraction of the city. Imagine. That is a measure of Brest’s commitment to its Soviet past. We walked through the city-side entrance into the vast grounds of the old fortress. It is huge. The crouching Soviet war memorial in concrete commemorates the 1941 defenders.  In the middle of the 19th century, the town was completely demolished in order to make a way for the new Brest fortress. The new Brest was built 2 km eastwards. (So that was why there was no old town.) the In November 1918 the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed here. In June 1941 there were some days of heavy fighting between the German Wehrmacht and the Red Army with thousands of Soviet soldiers ending up as POWs and some 2.000 more killed. A kind of Russian Alamo, the defense of the Brest fortress” that lasted a month the occupants fighting to the death. In 1965 the fortress was given the title “Hero Fortress” and a huge propaganda complex was erected. See the Museum of the heroic defense of Brest. This is real Soviet stuff.

Walking the grounds of this massive fortification makes you think and gives some sense of the difficulties of the encircled forces that were besieged there.

 

In the evening we went to Sovietskaya street, sat in the garden of the Korova and dreamt of the good old Soviet days, when men were men and women were, too. We talked of Lee Harvey Oswald who met his bride in Minsk and then murdered a president. We spoke of our friend John who also married a woman from Minsk, but so far has not even raised so much as a slingshot in anger. Ah yes! It’s good to reminisce over Campari and orange in the evening. The Friday night strollers passed us by content with their Friday thoughts, caught up in the rhythm of the main promenade in a podunk town.

 

Later, we went upstairs to the bar where we’d been the previous night and watched an expressionless girl sing various dance hits to a backing track. It was oddly entertaining.

 

“What do you think of the place?” Daddy, I asked

“Daddy Like,” he said.

 

Maradona has no idea what he has been missing.

 

Things to Do and Don’t in Brest

 Do visit the former main synagogue of Brest on ul. Sovetskaya, now the cinema “Belarus'”.

Don’t worry about terrorism. According to the US State Department, they have none.

Do stroll by the Riverfront/Naberezhnaya. Willow trees, ducks. What more could you want?

Don’t trip over your own feet staring at the beauties sunning there.

Do enjoy Brest City Park.

Don’t get carried away by the millions of mosquitoes descending on the park in the evening.

Do visit the exhibition on Jewish history, the only place in Brest where a visitor can learn something about these people who once formed nearly half of the cities population.

Do see the Soviet Choo-choo museum for some old school iron horses.

Don’t miss the Monument to the Atomic Missile troops, if for the name only.

Do visit the Lenin monument at 3 AM for most pleasurable micturition. 

Don’t forget to promenade on Ulitsa Sovetskaya, Brest’s Broadway. ))

Do see Grodno is the Belarusian Lviv, an old and beautiful town north of Brest. ,

Don’t miss Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park (Belavezhskaya Pushcha), an ancient woodland straddling the border between Belarus and Poland, located 70 km (43 mi) north from Brest. It is one of the last and largest remaining parts of the immense primeval forest which once spread across the European Plain. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Do remember that violent crime directed against foreigners is relatively uncommon.

Don’t fall for local marriage and dating scams via the Internet. Do remember that since the Chernobyl nuclear accident resulted in the largest short-term, accidental release of radioactive materials in the atmosphere ever recorded and areas affected by the disaster are fenced off and restricted.

Don’t eat food that exceeds European norms for radiation. (The government says it has an effective program of monitoring fresh foods and meats sold in local markets.) Street purchase of produce should be avoided. Wild berries, mushrooms, and wildfowl/game should be avoided, as these have been found to retain higher than average levels of radiation.
Do remember that individuals are required to carry personal identification documents, and it is common for law enforcement to conduct identification checks. No “probable cause” is required.

That is all. Have fun!

 

(to be continued)

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