An Eastern European country, formerly part of the Soviet Union, and of all the ex-Soviet Republics the one that retained the USSR's character most (its secret service is even called the KGB still!).
Since 1994 the country has been ruled by President Alexander Lukashenko like a Soviet General Secretary, and the country has been referred to as “Europe's last dictatorship”. Yes, the country is ruled in an authoritarian manner, freedom of expression is restricted, there's cronyism, a partly planned economy, BUT this isn't North Korea. There is plenty of advertising (including for big Western brand names), a certain portion of the population is apparently wealthy enough to drive flashy cars and shops are well stocked, people are well dressed, and you don't get the impression of an omnipresent police state.
Yet the old Sovietness is still very visible. And that's partly an attraction for the dark tourist, of course, especially in the capital Minsk. But beyond that, it is mainly the extremely dark chapter of WWII that gave rise to a range of sombre memorials as well as sites of war hero glorification.   
Belarus is landlocked, wedged in by Poland to the west, Russia in the east, Lithuania and Latvia in the north-west and Ukraine in the south.
It was also from the south, from Ukraine, that Belarus was hit by the worst disaster in the post-war era: the radioactive cloud that drifted north from Chernobyl. Large areas of southern Belarus are still radioactively contaminated – more territory than in Ukraine itself, in fact.
In WWII, Belarus suffered more than most in the invasion and occupation by Nazi Germany. One in four Belarusians lost their lives in the war! To this day population levels haven't returned to pre-war figures. Of the once strong Jewish community and culture all but nothing remains.
The capital Minsk is the natural hub and main place to go in Belarus. It's here that you can indulge in a bit of time travel back to the USSR (matched only by Transnistria). The really dedicated dark tourists could try and go to Maly Trostenets – the site of a "forgotten" death camp of the Holocaust on the south-eastern edge of Minsk.
Outside of Minsk, the memorial complex of Khatyn (not to be confused with Katyn!) commemorates the villages burned down by the Nazis in WWII which were never rebuilt, their populations wiped out. A less sombre type of war commemoration can be found at the so-called “Stalin Line”. This is really more of a theme park with big military gear and re-enactments, which may not be to everybody's taste.
Further away, Brest (near border with Poland) with its gigantic WWII memorials at the famous Brest Fortress, however, is not to be missed. It has to rank as one of the very best Soviet-era memorial designs to be found anywhere.
Getting into Belarus has just become a lot easier in 2017 with the advent of visa-free travel for stays of up to five days. And that amount of time should just about suffice to do everything listed here, provided you are prepared to go at a somewhat fast pace and are willing to pay for guided tours to the otherwise less easily accessible places (such as Khatyn).
Some 80 nationalities are eligible for this new visa scheme. If your citizenship is not amongst those or if you want to stay longer than five days, then you still have to apply for a regular tourist visa. It's slightly less of a hassle than for some other former Soviet Republics, but is not cheap (currently 60 EUR). Furthermore it takes time and pre-planning, as you will require a LOI (letter of invitation) from a Belarusian tour operator or hotel. Annoyingly you also have to purchase extra travel/health insurance, even if you already have cover at home or a general travel insurance policy – but unless that explicitly states that it covers Belarus (something like “world-wide cover” does not suffice!) it won't be accepted for the visa application.
Apart from the usual applying at an embassy or consulate, you can now also get your visa on arrival if you fly into Minsk airport – however, you still have to submit your application in advance. So better get it done in your home country before setting off. Most nationals need a visa for stays exceeding five days, with a few notable exceptions of most (but not all) former Soviet states, several Middle Eastern/Arab countries as well as a small selection of Latin American and Balkans states, plus Macao (don't ask me why). Citizens of Poland and the Baltic states enjoy reduced visa fees.
Travel to Belarus is either by plane to Minsk international airport or by train – the main east-west rail line from Moscow to Warsaw (and onwards to Berlin and Paris) runs through both Brest and Minsk, so offers a very useful alternative to flying. But book well in advance.
Culturally, including in terms of food & drink, Belarus is VERY similar to Russia (and/or Ukraine), some minor Baltic, Polish and German influences notwithstanding. So at traditional restaurants expect a bias towards meat-and-potatoes mains, but vegetarians can get away with sticking to soups, salads and starters (zakuski). Another saviour, as in all former Soviet Republics, are Georgian restaurants, and, as everywhere in the world: pizza. Compared to other countries (including contemporary Russia), ethnic cuisines from further away are not so common in Belarus, not even in Minsk.
The climate in Belarus is moderately continental, so with fairly cold winters and summers that can get quite hot, with only short periods of spring and autumn, but all that not normally to the same extremes as can be encountered in Russia.
Belarusian is officially a separate language, but is quite similar to Russian. Russian is also the second official language in Belarus. English, on the other hand, is not widely spoken, except at the upper end of the tourism industry (see under Minsk).
  • Belarus 1 - flag and flat landBelarus 1 - flag and flat land
  • Belarus 2 - national emblemBelarus 2 - national emblem
  • Belarus 3 - national coloursBelarus 3 - national colours
  • Belarus 4 - the national airline still has some Soviet-era planes tooBelarus 4 - the national airline still has some Soviet-era planes too
  • Belarus 5 - rural sceneBelarus 5 - rural scene
  • Belarus 6 - fish vendor vanBelarus 6 - fish vendor van
  • Belarus 7 - ski jump in the forestBelarus 7 - ski jump in the forest
  • Belarus 8 - hearty mushroom soupBelarus 8 - hearty mushroom soup
  • Belarus 9 - folk danceBelarus 9 - folk dance

©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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