Europe | Belarus
August 5, 2008
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2008, Tuesday May 13: River Dniepr, Belarus

The River Dniepr (or Dnieper) at Zaspa, Belarus.
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The hire car was old and its radiator hose had sprung a leak a couple of hundred kilometres back, so I treated the potholed gravel roadbed with caution. Rolling gingerly through the two-horse village of Zaspa, I spotted an earthen side track squeezing between stockaded compounds. Passing the wooden cottages of peasant farmsteads on either side, I nudged the battered Astra down it. Within a minute, I found what I was looking for. The ground dropped abruptly down a grassy bluff, and in front was the wide River Dniepr, bursting its banks across a myriad of marsh-fringed channels thanks to a strong spring flood.

OK, I'm unusual, but I’ve always thought of the world's great rivers as deeply special. Not only are their names old friends from the dusty wall-charts of geography classrooms, but in the years before I could travel I would spend wet childhood afternoons tracing their routes in my parents’ Readers' Digest Atlas. In the case of the Dniepr that means a curling arc from low hills west of Moscow to the Black Sea near Odessa. At almost 1500 miles, the Dniepr is longer than any Western or Central European river save only the Danube. But during my childhood it had been effectively invisible, hidden entirely behind the Iron Curtain; something, which of course, only added to its allure.

So here I now was, and walking over the sodden turf to the very edge of the water I felt an immediate pull back to classroom and childhood kitchen table. But there was more, a pull back through centuries of history. For, as I'd discovered to my fascination as a teenager, a millennium ago the Dniepr had served as the royal road linking northern Europe to Byzantium and the east.

While in Britain the word 'Viking' summons thoughts of wild warriors interested only in rape and pillage, back home in Scandinavia, it's their eastern brethren - the Varangians - who are considered the more important. Men of trade not slaughter, they steered their longboats through the great rivers of the Russian forests and ultimately across the Black Sea to the treasures Byzantium. The Scandinavian assessment has history's flow behind it. One of the Varangians, Rurik, ultimately settled among the leaderless Slavs of the Dniepr's banks and went on to found the Rurikovich dynasty. First Tsars of Rus, they were the progenitors of the Russian nation.

The Varangians too came with the spring flood, using it to float them over shallows and low water rapids and to ease their annual passage down to Byzantium. Perhaps they had passed on a day very like this one, with lowering sky and a biting wind seemingly left over from winter. I couldn't know. But as I climbed back up to drier ground my imagination reached out across the centuries to share the fear and wonder that the armada of northmen would have aroused in any Slavic tribesmen looking out from the great boreal forest then still cloaking this spot.

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