A dense, unmoving fog lay spread across the landscape. Out of its depths one can make out the faint outlines of familiar figures: houses and cars and fences making their presence known through their clouded, somber forms. Above all of these rises an unfamiliar silhouette, the bulbous dome of an Eastern Orthodox Church, its figure sitting unceremoniously through a view splintered by the bare branches of a nearby tree. We are in Belarus and one could say that a similar fog lay over our understanding of the country; our knowledge of its culture and history just as obscured as our view of its landscape. Luckily, we were visiting our friends, one of whom grew up in Belarus, so our knowledge about the country, unlike the fog that would occupy its terrain for almost the entirety of our time there, would become significantly less hazy.
If asked to name a fact about Belarus, most people would struggle to come up with one. When calling to inform my bank that I would be visiting the Eastern European country and not to block my card while there, the teller on the other end asked which country Belarus was in. Now, while we at least knew it was a country, and could perhaps point it out on a map, nestled in between its better known neighbors of Russia, the Ukraine, and Poland, the ceiling of our knowledge topped out there. Some may recognize Belarus from its cameo in HBO’s Chernobyl and most anyone would recognize its translated name “White Russian” as an alcoholic beverage. But, like a landscape obscured by fog, there is much more to the country than one might initially think. For starters, Belarus is a proud owner of several European superlatives, including being home to the continent’s largest forest, which earned it the nickname “the lungs of Europe” and is even represented on the country’s flag in the form of a large, green stripe. It is also home to Europe’s largest land animal, the bison, and its most dictatorial state, with pride in the latter varying depending on who you ask. And, so as not to end the list with mention of a dictatorship, Belarus manufactures the world’s largest dump trucks.
Our time in the country began at our friends Emmet and Olga’s guesthouse (Holiday Home Olenia), which sat on the outskirts of Belovezhskaya Pushcha Forest. As the fog surrounding the guesthouse dissipated, we realized that it was hiding far less than we had imagined, namely, a collection of sleepy cottages, the quirky blue body of the church, and, of course, trees. “It’s better during the summer,” they reassured us, painting a picture of green across the landscape filled with flowers and life, though this was unnecessary as we found the scenery beautiful even at its blandest. Inside the homestay, the Danish concept of hygge (pronounced “hoo-gah” which is appropriate given that adhering to the concept feels like getting a warm hug from your living space) was in full effect. Heated floors created a warm and cozy environment, decorations were derived from the natural world, and hot beverages were always on tap. A day spent entirely in the homestay would not have been a day wasted. However tempting it was though to while away our time in Belarus relaxing there, especially since it had come at the heels of our 800-mile hike through Spain, we were eager to get out into the country, see its sights, and learn about its history and culture.
The first historical site we would see was the Kamenets Tower. It was our first glimpse into Belarus’s rich history, one as equally grand as any of its European counterparts, filled with castles, knights, princesses, and, as we would be seeing at Kamenets, medieval watchtowers. The tower, whose name translates to “White Tower” in English, though its red brick facade suggests nothing of the sort, was built in the 13th century. Spotting it from afar, it looked like any other brick building in that it appeared to be the whole of many parts and thus, like a puzzle, we didn’t have to do too much imagining when picturing how to dismantle it. Looks can be deceiving though, and the tower, as we would find out, is more akin to a column of solid stone than a column of Jenga pieces, with each brick being impossible to remove; as evidenced by the generations of frustrated peasants who have tried to do just that in order to use the bricks for their own construction projects only to fail time and time again. Luckily, we wouldn’t have to worry about finding a way to penetrate the impenetrable as the front door was standing open upon arriving, signifying the tower’s transition from a closed-door establishment as the essential component of an kingdom to an open-door one as the essential component of the tourism industry. We were happy for the change as we roamed its levels and heard its stories.
After touring the tower, we spotted an Eastern Orthodox Church nearby and decided to check it out. On the stairways leading up to the church, beautiful displays of flowers were laid strewn across the ground, a kaleidoscope of colors and dimensions seemingly exploding from the crevices of the steps. Almost immediately after entering the church, we ran into the backs of a large congregation assembled inside of it. Having lost track of what day of the week it was, we just thought it must be a popular day for worship, like a Sunday or Holy Day of Obligation. Soft, beautiful music filled the church’s interiors and paintings and decorations unlike anything we had ever seen before were hung about its walls. As our eyes trailed about, feeding our voracious appetites to take in our new surroundings, they were met with a most unfortunate sight: a gray, expressionless body lying in an open wooden box. “Corpse!” popped into our heads first, followed shortly after by an, “Oh no.” Suddenly the plethora of flower displays, groups of children playing outside the church, somber music, and, most notably, the sad faces that looked at us questionably as we entered the church, all made sense, we were at a funeral and we were crashing it. Like a dog who’s just been discovered having a snack from the family garbage can, we put our metaphorical tail between our legs and slinked out of the church as quickly as possible.
One of our last experiences before leaving our friends’ guesthouse and exploring the wider Belarus was to head back to Puscha Forest and visit Ded Moroz, the Slavic world’s equivalent of Santa Claus. Bearded, wearing bright colors, giving gifts to children at year’s end and delivering those gifts from a flying sleigh, Ded Moroz, or Father Frost as we would come to know him, bore many resemblances to his Western counterpart. However, he is slender not rotund, wears blue instead of red, gives gifts on New Year’s Eve instead of Christmas Day, and has a sleigh pulled by moose rather than reindeer. If you are thinking, “Hey, Father Frost just sounds like a cheap, copyright infringed version of Santa,” you should know that the two are equally ancient and that many of the modifications to Ded Moroz’s character came with the dawn of Communism in the Slavic world as the U.S.S.R. tried to distance it’s cultural icons and holiday festivities from those celebrated in the West.
While on the topic of modifications, it’s worth noting that Ded Moroz has gone through one of the more miraculous transformations in history, making the incredible leap from snow demon who lurked in forests and kidnapped children for ransom to heroic gift-giver bringing joy to children most in need of it during the holidays. Somewhere in that transition, he also experienced a brief foray into Communism where he lectured the benefits of the ideology to children, encouraged all of them to work hard for the good of the country, and reminded them that Stalin was the ultimate good in the world.
There would be no discussions about Stalin during our trip to Father Frost’s woodland hideaway. Instead, we would be given a tour of the grounds by none other than Ded Moroz himself. Throughout the tour, we were offered tidbits of information about the legends associated with him in a monotone, deadpan fashion (he had also missed out on inheriting Santa Claus’s jolliness) that was apparently infused with humor as the Russian speaking people huddled around us would occasionally giggle gleefully. Most of the people in our privileged tour group were adults, with only a few children amongst them, though at times it was hard to distinguish between the two. Like going to Disneyland, everyone is made a child again in front of Santa Claus or Father Frost, and it was fun watching all of the adults in the group, us included, act just as giddily as the children when being asked to partake in certain parts of the tour.
As we got to Father Frost’s residence we were handed off to Snegurochka, his granddaughter and helper. The family lineage that takes us from Father Frost to Snegurochka travels through some pretty murky genealogical waters. Among the many stories about her, the one we were told was that she is the offspring of the personification of January and a snowman…or woman…? How Father Frost came into play with all of this was a mystery to us and we left it at that. A bit more enthusiastic than her grandfather, Snegurochka continued taking us around the grounds, letting us partake in different traditions like…
With our view of Belarus a bit clearer after our time in and around Pushcha Forest, we eagerly awaited to find out what else the country had to offer as we loaded our belonging’s into Emmet and Olga’s van the next morning and pushed through the fog towards the far-off places still obscured.
Read on for a poem by Kate:
Deep in the Pushcha Forest
Father Frost greets us,
clad in flowing
white and golden robes,
his snowy beard
nearly sweeping the floor.
We succumb to the magic
of the legend,
and the faces lit up around us
as he and Snegurochka
lead us around
their wintry, wooden palace.
Passing gardens for wishes
and letters from children,
we forget for an hour
that we are adults.