Europe | Belarus
May 26, 2008
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Video Diary: Belarus - May 08

Pt 2: Brest and Pripyat Marshes

Soviet War Memorial, Brest Fortress, Belarus.
A quarter of the Belarusian people died during WWII. This stark fact goes a long way to explaining why I came across moving and self-evidently raw reminders of the conflict almost everywhere I went.

From the haunting forest memorial at Khatyn to the rings of hurriedly-constructed post-war apartment blocks thrown up around cities like Gomel and Pinsk, WWII changed the nature of this country profoundly. However, perhaps nowhere does the echo of fighting - and the lurking sense of grief - come closer to the surface than within the colossal Soviet War Memorial on the Polish border at Brest. While in other contexts it would be tempting to laugh off the outsize monumentalism as just another example of Soviet kitsch, to do so would be disrespectful of the aging men and women - and their children and grandchildren - for whom the memorial so obviously means so much.

In contrast, one area where few visible signs of war intrude is the wonderfully vibrant and far-away Pripyat Marshes - a huge sponge of swamp running along Belarus' southern border with Ukraine. Squelching over the waterlogged ground, you can hear the marshland teeming with life: insects drone, frogs spring from beneath your feet and grass snakes slither off into weed-choked pools, as all the while wildfowl swoop overhead filling the air with their keeing cries. The Prpiyat Polesje is also the aboriginal homeland of all the Slavic peoples - from Bulgaria to Poland and easternmost Siberia, and the pace of life feels hardly changed since the 19th-century (at least). Burly peasant women wearing headscarves chase stray chickens from their cottages. Men head for the fields on horse-and-cart. Such scenes of village life could have been lifted from the pages of Chekhov, and as a tableau of pastoral quietude, and antidote to the look-over-your-shoulder strictures of Belarus' cities, the marshes came as a soothing and unexpected delight.

Video diary entries:

1. Brest Fortress Memorial.

2. Pripyat Marshes - Wildlife and Rustic Villages..

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