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Recalling complex history, relishing natural beauty

A nun and other Sunday afternoon faithful on the grounds of the Saint Efrosinya Monastery in Polack.
A nun and other Sunday afternoon faithful on the grounds of the Saint Efrosinya Monastery in Polack. (Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / November 18, 2007

POLACK - Layers of time are reemerging inside the 12th-century chapel set in the St. Efrosinya Monastery in this city that was once at the center of regional rule.

In recent years, restoration specialists have been removing 18th-century frescoes on chapel walls, bringing back to light long-covered faces of Christian Orthodox saints painted 600 years earlier.

On a Sunday afternoon, a white-haired woman, her shoulders covered in a heavy brown coat, her head wrapped in a red and green scarf against the damp autumn air, stood beneath shadowed arches and considered these icons of another age.

"We don't know them yet," she said.

Schoolchildren and tourists wandered the concrete plaza of the monastery grounds, as bells chorused to announce a service in the larger church next door.

"It is good," said the woman, who has come to the church from her nearby home to pray in the years since the end of the Soviet Union.

"It's interesting when they open up the old things."

So it is in Belarus, a 16-year-old state struggling to find its contemporary course. For centuries, this swath of land the size of Minnesota was often a borderland turned battlefield by powers passing through. Today, as Belarus is slower than other nations swinging from communism toward capitalism, it makes a dynamic destination of its own.

Belarusians point to the use of an earlier form of their language in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which existed for hundreds of years until Russian rule came west in the 18th century, as one example of a unique cultural identity at the very center of the continent. Belarus sits midway between the Ural Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, between Barents Sea blue and Mediterranean breeze.

Beneath the current political debate waits a landscape rich in hard history of wider war, in natural beauty of rivers and lakes and one of Europe's rare tracts of flat forest, and in the fleeting fun of a cosmopolitan capital.

Consider, for example, a hilltop monument on the outskirts of the capital city, Minsk, first spotted on the drive in from the airport. Steel bayonets rise as an obelisk at the top of the hill, and it all seems normal enough until the story behind it is told: The Hill of Glory, as it is called, is said to have been made with dirt from hundreds of villages burned during World War II. More than 2 million Belarusians died, many of them Jews, who before the war were some 50 percent of the population in many towns and villages originally established as the Pale of Settlement. Today, an estimated 50,000 Jews live in Belarus.

For another example of Soviet remembrance, turn to the Brest Fortress monument, which commemorates resistance against Nazis in the western city that once was part of Poland.

There is no shortage of epic locations of earlier wars: Napoleon's troops, for example, suffered a colossal defeat near the city of Barysau on their retreat from Russia. But if history hangs too heavy, there is plenty of urban escape in central Minsk, where order reigns and distractions of dance and drink can be found in the bustling pub setting of 0,5, or the pulsing all-night scene at West World, a nightclub attached to the Soviet-era Hotel Belarus. By day, Independence Avenue offers high-end shopping above ground, in jewelry and linen shops, and beneath, in a mall with international tastes.

Or simply stroll: The elegantly balconied Stalinist buildings show that on the surface, at least, Soviet ideas were not without promise. Many miles of Independence Avenue, reconstructed after Minsk was leveled in the war, have at times been considered for UNESCO World Heritage status.

Yet many of the 4,000 Americans that the Belarusian government says come to the country each year do so not to ponder inanimate objects, but to meet women. Several online services offer matchmaking, and any traveler coming and going brushes against the romantic commerce that springs from such disparate economic worlds. Before stepping aboard a Lufthansa flight with his first-class ticket back to San Francisco, one middle-aged man who works for an international technology company told a stranger: "Great trip. Just met the woman who's going to become my wife in three weeks."

For intimate encounters of a more natural sort, head west from Minsk to Belovezhskaya Pushcha, the forest that straddles the Belarus-Poland border. In a palace in the forest, erstwhile hunting grounds of Polish kings and today a national park, leaders of the Soviet Union in 1991 signed papers that marked the superpower's end.

Belarus has thousands of lakes, rivers, and streams, and nearly every rural turn retains pastoral rhythms. Villagers, though, go without many safety nets of modern times. And in the south of the country, which bore the brunt of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster across the border in Ukraine two decades ago, locals face longer-term risks. Many travel to Boston and elsewhere for medical evaluation of the continuing toll of radiation.

The tourism ministry's strategy includes no talk of Chernobyl or of repression by the government of President Alexander Lukashenko, criticized by many inside and outside of Belarus for his dictatorial rule. The government would rather promote the country's natural beauty.

Even preservation of the past is controversial. Activists are fighting to preserve historical buildings in the western city of Hrodna, and to be more careful with projects such as the restoration of the 12th-century chapel in Polack. Adding heated floors, they fear, could ruin the 900-year-old frescoes.

A visitor need not ignore politics. Even those fighting the regime think tourism can only help their cause, importing more outside ideas. Stanislaw Shushkevich, the president in the early 1990s who now heads an opposition party, said in an interview that any economic gain from tourism is "only one drop in the ocean" of the government's larger economic control.

Prepare, then, to explore and engage. Casual chat at a table in a cafe, for example, or at a produce market on the edge of the city can easily turn to civil discussion about the fate of a nation.

If You Go

IN TRANSITION Experience Belarus, a country of contrasts, in an audio slideshow at boston.com/travel.

How to get there US citizens need a valid visa for entry to Belarus. Regulations are available from the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (mfa.gov.by/en/consular/visa/), or through the consular section of the Belarusian Embassy in Washington (belarusem bassy.org; 202-986-1604). Several tour companies arrange package trips and handle logistical details for individual travelers. Some to consider: Belintourist, national tour operator (belintourist.by, 011-375-17-203-1143); AlatanTour, in Belarus (welcomebelarus .com, 011-375-17-227-7417); Baltics and Beyond, Britain-based operator (balticsandbeyond.com, 011-44-845-094-2125); Kutrubes Travel, Boston-based agency (kutrubestravel.com/tours-belarus, 800-878-8566, 617-426-5668). For independent travelers , Lonely Planet includes an extensive section on Belarus in "Russia & Belarus" (Lonely Planet, 4th Edition, 2006). Extensive listings of rural cottages can be found online at ruralbelarus.by/eng and greenbelarus.com.

Where to stay in Minsk Hotel Belarus Storozhevskaja, 15-201 011-375-17-209-7537 hotel-belarus.com A Soviet-era tower with updated interior that caters to business travelers. Worth a stay for the lobby alone. Double $170. Hotel Minsk Nezavisimosti, 11 001-375-17-209-9062 hotelminsk.by Historic building in the heart of the city, upgraded to international standards. Double $215. U Fontana Amuratorskaya, 4 011-375-17-203-5818 ufontana.com A small hotel with modern accommodations on a central side street. A great bet as a base for a few days. Double $100. Where to eat in Minsk Pechki-Lavochki Nezavisimosti, 22 011-375-17-227-7879 Casual atmosphere, authentic potato pancakes, and borscht. Dinner for two $40. Gourmand Kommunisticheskaya, 7 011-375-17-236-6774 tifani.by/e/gourmand Fresh cuisine in a bustling neighborhood. Try the Greek salad and lamb or pork pelmeni, or ravioli. Lunch for two $30. 0,5 Pub and Restaurant Gercena, 1 011-375-17-226-0643 A beer hall that draws a dancing crowd with live rock after dinner. Dinner for two $40. Information The Virtual Guide to Belarus belarusguide.com A thorough site edited by Belarusians living abroad and including sections on history, culture, tourism, the current political climate and more. US State Department Travel Information on Belarus http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_1033.html President Alexander Lukashenko president.gov.by/en/ The view from inside the regime, published on the president's home page. Belarusian Association of Journalists hrw.org/english/docs/2007/04/20/belaru15871.htm Reality as seen by independent journalists in Belarus. Charter '97 charter97.org Independent news and commentary about political situation in Belarus. Free Theatre dramaturg.org Online home of the acting troupe. Upcoming performances include shows in New York in January.

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