Brest Fortress

In the summer of 1941, two years into the onset of World War II, German and Soviet soldiers were still serving side by side in a fortress in Belarus, their complacency with one another kept afloat by the buoy of a non-aggression pact signed two years earlier. Tides were rapidly turning though as Hitler grew increasingly dubious of the slumbering Soviet bear lurking in the north. The pact, like a buoy in the face of a tsunami, was doomed. 

On June 22, with the tactical flip of a switch, Operation Barbarossa, whose end goal was nothing less than the seizure of Moscow and the extinguishing of the Soviet empire as a threat to the Nazi agenda, was initiated. At Brest Fortress in Belarus, German soldiers began firing on the Soviets, forcing them to scramble into a frenzied counter-offensive against people who had been perceived allies just moments before. The capture of the fortress, like the operation that spawned it, did not go as planned though. For one, the Soviets offered far greater resistance than the Germans had anticipated. Also, the Soviets had an important ally, the Russian winter, and their lopsided immunity to it when compared to their German foes, who died in the hundreds of thousands due to their ill-equipped gear.

Brest Fortress was captured long before winter arrived, or fall or even mid-summer for that matter, entering German hands on June 29. Despite the swift takeover though, the defenders of the fortress were stingier than anticipated (the last Soviet soldier wasn’t captured until July 23), which did its part in interrupting the Nazi push towards Moscow. Because of this, the fortress played a pivotal role in the turning point of the war and earned it a mythical standing among the annals of Soviet propaganda; an esteemed status still appreciated among its visitors today.

Just outside the fort’s gates lied the remains of a Bernardine Monastery, whose ruins we explored as best we could.
A hole in the monastery’s ruins that looked a lot like an eye
At the Brest Archaeological Museum, log cabins and wooden plank roads from the 13th century were miraculously preserved and on display. It was the first time in all of our travels that we had come across wooden ruins.
A view of the fortress through its wooded surroundings
Entering the fort through one of its gates
The fortress dates to the early 19th century, when construction on it began


Inside the fort, you can still see remnants of the fighting that ensued once Operation Barbarossa began and German soldiers open fired on their Soviet counterparts. The holes in the white facade of this building are from bullets aimed at Soviet soldiers looking to take refuge behind the doors of the gate.
Caught entirely off guard, Soviet soldiers had to hole up in any building they could find in order to form a resistance and avoid surrender. Their biggest enemy then became thirst, with many soldiers dying as a result of their blocked access to a water supply. The building in this picture is one of the places Soviet soldiers took refuge. Floodlights and machine guns were set up by German soldiers along the river. Once dehydration set in, the Soviets had to choose between ending their resistance for a sip of water or holding their ground and dying from a lack of it. Because of this affliction, there is a statue in the fort called “Thirst” dedicated to the soldiers who perished as a result of their dehydration.
Heading to an Eastern Orthodox Church in the fort. We were thankful to find that a funeral was not taking place, given our experience at another church just a day earlier.
Before entering the church, our friend Olga showed us a picture of Hitler and Mussolini inside it during their celebration of the fort entering Axis hands. It was strange knowing we were standing on the same ground that those infamous figures once stood.
Lighting candles inside the church
One of the most imposing sights during our time in the fort was of “Courage,” a massive statue that, like contemporary art, is up for interpretation. We learned that the statue, a giant, stern face emerging from a metaphorical rock, was originally supposed to have arms. After deciding to erect a monument inside the fort, officials called for submissions from local artists. The artist who designed “Courage” made his model out of clay and, on the way to submitting it to the selection committee, the arms fell of. The officials liked it as it was and, so, the statue was built without any appendages.
Fisherman along one of the rivers that run through the fort