The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

Browsing Posts tagged Belarus

Brest Fortress, Belarus

The Brest Fortress complex commemorates the heroic defence of the Soviet garrison against the German invasion of June 1941.

I entered the Hero Fortress at its new ceremonial entrance: a giant concrete slab with a Soviet star cut into it. Stirring martial music plays as you enter. The gateway was rather grayer and drabber than I expected, but still very impressive. It looks better seen from inside the fortress than from outside.
[Brest Fortress Entrance]

[Brest Honour Guard]

I arrived just in time to see a set of local teenagers do a “changing of the guard” ritual at the eternal flame, complete with high-stepping precision marching. In a small concession to the intense cold, they had their ear flaps folded down.
The fortress complex includes various large Soviet-era memorials. There is a fine concrete sculpture “thirst” of a soldier reaching his helmet out to gather water.


The main monuments are a giant obelisk (100 m) in the form of a Soviet bayonet and an enormous concrete head of a scowling Soviet soldier. Unfortunately while the head is large, it is poorly formed and unsympathetic.

I also ambled through the Fortress Museum, which has some displays of the 19th c. fortress, and even a very short display on the 1939 Polish defence, but which is naturally focused on the 1941 defence, with many photos of the defenders.

Commentary: In 1941 the Soviet Union desperately needed some heroic myths, and the “Defence of the Brest Fortress” fit the bill.  A small group of heroic defenders, stemming the flow of the German invasion.  It’s a good story and I don’t doubt the defenders were truly heroic.  However the German advance seems to have been focused on deep penetration and encirclement, which implies bypassing fortresses and fixed defence points and leaving those to be mopped up later by secondary forces. So the leisurely siege is unlikely to have impacted the main invasion.

The following day: At the Brest station, I met three unhappy travelers, two Americans and a Dane.  They had been taking the train from St Petersburg to Warsaw and hadn’t realized that their train took a non-obvious detour through Belarus.   There are no immigration checks at the Russian-Belarus border, so they had been able to enter Belarus, but then when they were exiting at Brest they were caught by Belarus immigration.  Traveling in Belarus without a visa: not a good situation!  They were removed from the train and delayed for two days in Brest.  They were finally allowed to exit after signing “a big stack of forms” and paying moderate fines (about $200 for the American couple) for having entered Belarus illegally.

Post-Election Minsk

I got into Minsk on December 21st 2010 (Tuesday), coming in from Smolensk.  I’d seen news reports in Russia of large scale protests and large scale arrests in Minsk on Sunday, after opposition supporters decided to express their skepticism of Mr Lukashenko’s reported 80% share of the vote in the Belarus presidential elections.  I hadn’t got any news of what had happened since Sunday, so I was feeling distinctly timid as I got off the train.

But the city was completely quiet and calm when I got in.  One of my first sights was a policeman issuing a motorist a routine traffic ticket, which, oddly enough, felt very reassuring.  I visited the Independence Square and the Oktybrskaya square, which are both traditional center for protests, but they were calm, with light pedestrian traffic and only a couple of militia (police) ambling around.

The giant KGB building on Nezalezhnastsi Avenue was tranquil. (Yes, in Belarus they are still the “KGB”.  See their website.)   Opposite, a large bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky (founder of the Cheka, later the NKVD, then the KGB) gazed serenely on the passers by.

At Oktybrskaya Square a few people were skating around a giant New Year’s tree.  Yes, the benign authorities of  Minsk had converted the middle of the (protest) square into an ice skating rink for the holidays.  How thoughtful.

There were apparently some very small protests last night but in general things seem to be pretty much back to the Minsk version of normal.

Anyway, I look forward to traveling on to the provincial calm of Pinsk tomorrow…