Brest Fortress

   - darkometer rating: 7 -
The No.1 sight in the city of Brest in western Belarus: a major memorial to the Great Patriotic War (i.e. WWII), and indeed possibly the very grandest and visually most impressive such memorial complex anywhere in the former Soviet Union (together with Volgograd maybe), if not the whole world. An absolute must-see when in Belarus!   
More background info: Construction of the fortress was begun in the 1830s, as a Russian Imperial bulwark against potential attacks from the west. The Citadel at the heart of the complex was constructed on an island at the confluence of the Bug and Mukhavets Rivers, with a set of three fortifications with casemates and artillery positions surrounding the Citadel on all sides, including one to the west actually on the other side of of the River Bug.
In the years just before WWI, further defensive forts were built in a ring around the main fortress. By 1914 a total of 14 forts plus barracks and artillery batteries were in place. The 5th Fort is the only one that has been largely preserved and can be visited still today. 
Yet despite all the effort that had gone into the construction of this defensive system, when the German/Austrian troops advanced in 1915, Brest Fortress was abandoned. The Russians took ammunitions and other valuable materials with them as they relocated elsewhere for the defence of other strongholds. So the enemy captured the emptied Brest Fortress without a fight.
After the October Revolution of 1917, the new Soviet Russia sought a truce. Negotiations began at Brest Fortress in December and on March 1918 the Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty was signed at the White Palace inside the Fortress. In it Russia ceded large territories to Germany and its allies, but when WW1 was over in the West too and Germany's monarchy ended with the abdication of the Kaiser, the young Soviet Union declared the Brest-Litovsk Treaty annulled. After a few years of fighting over the contested territories with Poland,(which had only just declared its independence again in 1918), Belarus was partitioned and Brest and the area around it came under Polish control.
At the beginning of WWII, as Nazi Germany's armies raced through Poland, the Wehrmacht seized Brest Fortress on 17 September – only a bit over a fortnight after the invasion had begun. However, the Germans soon left again and the Soviet Red Army moved into Brest. The River Bug henceforth formed the border between the USSR and German-occupied Poland. This territorial arrangement was part of the secret agreements made between Hitler and Stalin in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
When Nazi Germany broke this nominal non-aggression treaty by launching its invasion of the USSR (“Operation Barbarossa”) on 22 June 1941, Brest was one of the very first targets. Shelling began before dawn and the Red Army troops suffered severe losses. Moreover, escape routes were cut off through the destruction of bridges across the Mukhavets River, trapping the defending troops inside the Fortress. Parts of the Fortress also became separated from the others and the units inside each section had to fend for themselves. All communication links had been cut off.
For the next few days, heavy fighting between the attacking Germans and the defending Soviet troops continued. I won't go into the military details here, though (they are laid out in the museums on site as well as on the memorial's website, also in so-so English, so if you are interested go there – external link, opens in a new window … but note that some of the details given there are contested!).
In the end, despite all brave resistance, and holding out longer than could have been expected, the defenders never really had a chance of anything beyond simply delaying the German advance by keeping the Wehrmacht “busy” with capturing the Brest Fortress. Over 2000 Soviet soldiers died in the battle and many thousands more were taken prisoner. The German losses, on the other hand, were far lower.
Yet the defence of Brest Fortress became one of the key legends of “heroism” in the Soviet narrative of the “Great Patriotic War” – and as it became fuelled by Soviet propaganda, the actual historical facts were “bent” accordingly. So it was claimed that the defenders held out much longer than was evidently the case, and the legend that they refused to surrender (when a majority in fact had) was blown out of proportion.
The narrative of the legendary heroism of the Defenders of Brest Fortress became more and more reinforced within the Soviet Union especially from the mid 1950s onwards, namely by means of movies, novels, plays, etc. – and not least though memorialization at the site itself. In part this had already begun in the early years after the war, albeit only in the form of isolated plaques. A first small museum exhibition in one of the Fortress buildings opened in 1956. But a proper holistic memorial design had to wait longer:
After the 20th anniversary of the liberation of Brest from the Nazis by the Red Army in July 1944, the USSR awarded the Brest Fortress the title “Hero Fortress” (similar to the “Hero Cities” such as Minsk, Stalingrad/Volgograd or Murmansk). Following that ideological boost, the design planning for a proper, expansive memorial complex to celebrate this was begun in 1966.
During the construction of the memorial complex, many artefacts were discovered within the perimeter of the Fortress, some of which ended up in the museum(s). Remains of those who had perished here were found too, and these were reburied as part of the memorial under rows of granite slabs.
The whole memorial complex was finally opened in September 1971, incorporating both original parts and ruins of the Fortress itself plus specially created monuments, including the iconic giant head at the heart of the Citadel. Other elements, such as the eternal flame, were added later.
In more recent years, especially in the early 2000s, major refurbishing work was undertaken, including repainting of the monuments, conservation of the ruins, strengthening of the huge obelisk monument, and the original museum exhibition about the defence of Brest Fortress was rearranged. A second museum exhibition, officially entitled “Museum of War, Territory of Peace” was added even more recently and opened in 2014, on the day of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Belarus from the Nazis. Yet more restoration work is in progress or at a planning stage.
What there is to see: A lot! And a lot that is visually stunning, plus a couple of museums providing historical background information and illustrations through photos, documents and artefacts.
The main thing, however, is the open-air memorial complex. And this has several distinct elements. It is all officially named “Brest Hero Fortress”.
The first large-scale element you see on the approach avenue to the main entrance is the gigantic hollow Soviet star cut into a huge concrete slab above the gateway into the Citadel. The big slab rests on the old ramparts of the Fortress and is 10m high, 44m wide and 35m deep. Size matters here.
Underneath this monstrous construction are a few plaques in Cyrillic and sombre Soviet-style military music is piped from invisible speakers, alternating with recordings of radio announcements of the outbreak of the war and sounds of shelling and shooting. To the side you can also peek into the the old red-brick casemates underneath the ramparts.
The design of the central hollow star is actually quite clever – and to a degree it is an optical illusion. It only looks like a star from a distance. As you get near and walk through the gate, the star “fractures” into weird abstract shapes forming the roof of the passage. And yet as you look out ahead the silhouette of another star frames your view. This star at the other end of the gateway then “fractures” too as you keep walking, only to regain its star shape as you put some distance between yourself and the gate again.
As you then carry on your approach towards the centre of the complex and the main monument, which you can already see looming large in the distance, you pass some open-air displays of old WWII-era Soviet tanks. They must all have been recently repainted, as they looked as good as new.
As you arrive at the large ceremonial square in the centre of the complex you pass a smaller, though still quite sizeable monument that is called simply “Thirst”. It depicts a crawling soldier trying to get some water from the river with his helmet.
The tallest element of the complex is the “Bayonet” obelisk. This shiny silver needle stands over a 100m high and is supposed to represent the bayonet of a Red Army rifle.
At its foot is the field of graves covered with marble slabs, some 200 known names of the fallen are given in gold letters on the slabs and wreaths are placed at regular intervals along the front of each row. To the left of the obelisk and field of graves is the obligatory eternal flame, and here it is still flickering away.
But the main focus invariably has to be on the huge central monument. It's entitled “Courage” and is a depiction of a giant head with a (very) stern facial expression, dragging a Soviet banner behind him (spot the hammer-and-sickle symbol!).
This semi-abstract, semi-(socialist-)realistic sculpture is truly stunning for its gargantuan size alone (over 30 m high!), even though not everybody sees this in a positive light. Wikipedia claims that it has even been declared “the world's ugliest monument”. I beg to differ on this. It's not exactly elegant, sure, but still a very impressive prime example of Soviet-era memorial monumentalism. And I kinda like it for that.
The giant soldier's gaze falls onto the ruins of one of the oldest parts of the former Fortress, apparently what originally was a Jesuit College.
Walk round to the back of the giant head monument and you can see a number of bas-reliefs on the rear, depicting soldiers in battle, pouring over battle plans, approaching battle and so on. By the way, despite its heavy-duty appearance this big blob is not solid concrete but a hollow structure of a steel-and-wood inner frame with plasterwork around it.
Behind the main monument is the shiny refurbished St Nicholas Church. Badly damaged in the battles of the war it had long been a ruin too, but has in more recent times (since the dissolution of the USSR) been restored to a fully-functional Orthodox Church (hence women entering it are obliged to cover their heads and shoulders and one must not wear shorts, mini skirts or anything else too revealing).
The southern flank of the Fortress is formed by a long row of red-brick barracks, some restored, some still in ruins, and interrupted by two gates. The first one is the Kholmsk Gate. It's whitewashed on the inner, courtyard-facing side, but raw red brick on the other, outer side. This is riddled, absolutely pockmarked with bullet holes and scars from the shelling. It's hence one of the most iconic images of the old Fortress.
The other gate, Terespol Gate, is further west, and though it's less dramatically scarred by war it is worth walking through it. On the other side you get a nice view of the River Bug.
Note that at this point the river is not the border, so the land on the other side of the river is still Belarus, and in fact it was still part of the outer fortifications of the Fortress. You can't get there from the Citadel, though there are bridges both further upstream and further downstream. I didn't go that far, though, so I can't say whether you are allowed to use them. Presumably rather not, as the western edge of this piece of land forms a land border to Poland.
South of the Kholmsk Gate is a bridge that crosses one of the arms of the Mukhavets River just before it flows into the Bug. This bridge is open to the public and leads, amongst other things, to the archaeological dig site of Berestye (see below). Further south are yet more fortress ruins, a monastery in a restored brick building, and if you walk all the way to the southern end of the former fortress you'd come to the Belarus side of the border crossing checkpoint for road traffic.
Opposite the Terespol Gate, back inside the Fortress, is another set of memorial sculptures. This ensemble is actually quite new, having been unveiled as recently as 2011. It celebrates the border guard service and carries the rather long and cumbersome name “To the Heroes of the Border, Women and Children, who Stepped into Immortality with Courage”.
To the north-western end of the main Fortress there are only a few more ruins of former ancillary buildings and yet more casemates. Outside the inner Citadel to the north and east more ruins of the outer fortifications and ramparts can be seen, but these have not (yet) been especially commodified for visitors.
In contrast there are as many as three museums inside the Citadel. The oldest (though recently rearranged and expanded) is the Museum of the Defence of Brest Fortress. It's inside a rebuilt former barracks in the north-eastern part of the Citadel.
The museum has ten halls on various sub-topics such as the history of the Fortress and the different stages of the battle of 1941 as well as the eventual victory in the war. It contains various artefacts from the battles, including inscriptions scratched into bricks by dying soldiers. Some of the messages left behind, such as “I am dying, but I am not surrendering! Farewell the Motherland”, are very much part of the glorifying official narrative of the legendary Brest Fortress from Soviet times (see above). Nothing much seems to have changed in that regard here.
There are short (and not always particularly good) translations into English of the overview panels at the beginning of each section. However, most of the exhibition and all the labelling of artefacts is in Cyrillic only (Russian and Belarusian). Some exhibits speak sufficiently for themselves, such as models, weaponry, maps, etc., but others will remain obscure to international visitors without the prerequisite language skills.
Outside the museum are some ruins of the basements of the former White Palace (where the Brest-Litovsk Treaty was signed – see above) which was otherwise completely destroyed in the war.
South of these ruins is the newer “Museum of War, Territory of Peace” exhibition inside some restored Fortress building. This is a somewhat more modern and much more visual affair – and thankfully it comes with English translations throughout. With one exception: there are panels quoting at length from a diary of a German officer. To understand these (often quite revealing observations) you have be able to read German.
In addition there are QR codes dotted around – so using a smartphone you can access bilingual (Russian & English) extra information. That way you get basically a detailed electronic guide to the museum, even including audiovisual material.
Topically this exhibition is quite similar to the other museum, though it also looks at a wider context, including also, for instance, the plight of Soviet POWs in the German Reich. One especially interesting section in this museum, I found, was on the design competition for the main monument of the Brest Hero Fortress memorial complex. Apart from the eventually winning design with its giant head, the other options could also have been quite impressive. But the little models on display can only give an indication. You have to use your imagination here.
Outside, a bit further to the west, there is also another open-air display of WWII-era artillery as well as some older cannons. Plenty of opportunities for kids to clamber around (as they invariably do at such open-air displays).
There is yet another museum inside the Fortress, but this one is an art museum unrelated to the war or any other dark themes – so I gave it a miss.
All in all: I admit it – I really love looking at Soviet-style monumentalism, and so the key elements of the Brest Hero Fortress memorial, in particular the entrance star and the giant head, truly impressed me. The museums were somewhat less convincing for me, and I struggled to keep up my attention when it got a bit too deep into military details for my taste. But they are nonetheless important informational supplements to all the sheer symbolism of the monuments. There's no doubt in my mind that Brest Fortress has to be the No. 1 dark-tourism site in Belarus!
Location: To the west of the centre of Brest, in western Belarus, right on the border with Poland, on (mostly) the eastern banks of the River Bug.
Google maps locators:
Main entrance with giant star: [52.0851, 23.6642]
“Thirst” monument: [52.0829, 23.6601]
Central monument (giant head): [52.0821, 23.6562]
Defence of Brest Museum: [52.0837, 23.6580]
Museum of War: [52.0821, 23.6589]
Kholmsk Gate: [52.0812, 23.6565]
Terespol Gate and River Bug: [52.0825, 23.6512]
Access and costs: a bit out from the centre, but walkable; partly free, partly an admission fee is charged (for the museums).
Details: To get to the Fortress from the centre of Brest you can simply walk it – all the way west along Gogolia Street, which is initially quite a pleasant walk, though less so along the second half. At the end of that road turn left, and some 400 yards south you get to the main approach avenue of the memorial complex (it's signposted, even in English). Alternatively take a taxi (ca. 3-4 BYR). Allegedly there is also a bus, but that only runs hourly. In the unlikely event that you're driving here, you'll find plenty of parking spaces by the eastern main entrance and a limited number of extra spaces at the northern entrance too.
Admission: the memorial complex as such is freely accessible, but the museums both charge an admission fee of 4 BYR each (adult rate), and one of them levies an extra 1.5 BYR for a photo permit.
Opening times: the Museum of War is open 10 a.m. to 6 or 7 p.m. daily except Tuesdays and the last Wednesday of each month. I couldn't find officially displayed opening times for the other museum, but I would presume they are the same or very similar.
Guided tours are available too (also in English), but I didn't go on any, so cannot comment on their quality.
If you need some refreshments during a long day of exploring the Fortress, then you can find sustenance in the Cafe Citadel, just north of the Defence of Brest Fortress Museum on the opposite bank of the northern arm of the Mukhavets River (but don't expect an English menu here). Some simple snacks and drinks can also be purchased from vendors outside the main entrance and by the open-air tanks displays.
Time required: A lot! Even though the “official” recommendation is 3 hours, you won't be able to do the place justice to the full in that short amount of time. Realistically you'll need the best part of a whole day, if you don't want to rush it (which would be a shame). Not only is the complex quite sprawling so you need time just for walking around, but the museum exhibitions also require attention. And if you are into photography, you won't easily be able to drag yourself away from the fantastic photo ops you get here, especially with the grand monuments, from various angles and in changing light.
Combinations with other dark destinations: See under Brest.
The most natural combination would be a visit to the 5th Fort, which once formed part of the larger fortification ring that Brest Fortress was the heart of. It's quite a distance away, though, too far for walking, so you should grab a taxi from the Fortress complex. There are usually a few waiting by the main car park to pick people up from the entrance.
Of the other forts and bunkers that formed part of the wider outer ring of fortifications around the Brest Citadel, various remnants could also be found, as well as a variety of smaller memorials, but in order to find these you'd have to have your own means of transport and preferably somebody with local knowledge to guide you. Most of these structures are derelict and overgrown anyway, so wouldn't be a match for the main Fortress and the 5th Fort.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Just south of the main fortress complex, indeed within the border area strip between the Bug river and the Kholmsk Gate of the Fortress is a hidden sight that will appeal to those into archaeology. It's called Berestye (also spelled 'Biarestse' or variants thereof) and is a genuine archaeological dig site, covered by a protective roof. Inside the “museum” you can stare down a few metres to where some remnants of wooden houses of a village from about a thousand years ago have been excavated.
See also under Brest in general.
  • Brest Fortress 01 - approachBrest Fortress 01 - approach
  • Brest Fortress 02 - the great star portal closer upBrest Fortress 02 - the great star portal closer up
  • Brest Fortress 03 - clever designBrest Fortress 03 - clever design
  • Brest Fortress 04 - star silhouetteBrest Fortress 04 - star silhouette
  • Brest Fortress 05 - dark passagewaysBrest Fortress 05 - dark passageways
  • Brest Fortress 06 - old bulwarkBrest Fortress 06 - old bulwark
  • Brest Fortress 07 - Soviet tanksBrest Fortress 07 - Soviet tanks
  • Brest Fortress 08 - main monument and needleBrest Fortress 08 - main monument and needle
  • Brest Fortress 09 - smaller monument in the foregroundBrest Fortress 09 - smaller monument in the foreground
  • Brest Fortress 10 - playing with perspectiveBrest Fortress 10 - playing with perspective
  • Brest Fortress 11 - giant main monument, chapels, needleBrest Fortress 11 - giant main monument, chapels, needle
  • Brest Fortress 12 - metal needle piercing the skyBrest Fortress 12 - metal needle piercing the sky
  • Brest Fortress 13 - namesBrest Fortress 13 - names
  • Brest Fortress 14 - wreath and eternal flameBrest Fortress 14 - wreath and eternal flame
  • Brest Fortress 15 - Soviet hammer and sickleBrest Fortress 15 - Soviet hammer and sickle
  • Brest Fortress 16 - sternly looking over ruinsBrest Fortress 16 - sternly looking over ruins
  • Brest Fortress 17 - more ruins and Kholmsk GateBrest Fortress 17 - more ruins and Kholmsk Gate
  • Brest Fortress 18 - shrapnel-scarred gateBrest Fortress 18 - shrapnel-scarred gate
  • Brest Fortress 19 - the border river BugBrest Fortress 19 - the border river Bug
  • Brest Fortress 20 - Terespol GateBrest Fortress 20 - Terespol Gate
  • Brest Fortress 21 - guns and churchBrest Fortress 21 - guns and church
  • Brest Fortress 22 - inside the churchBrest Fortress 22 - inside the church
  • Brest Fortress 23 - museumBrest Fortress 23 - museum
  • Brest Fortress 24 - inside the museumBrest Fortress 24 - inside the museum
  • Brest Fortress 25 - flagBrest Fortress 25 - flag
  • Brest Fortress 26 - dummy Nazi soldierBrest Fortress 26 - dummy Nazi soldier
  • Brest Fortress 27 - battle modelBrest Fortress 27 - battle model
  • Brest Fortress 28 - messages left on bricksBrest Fortress 28 - messages left on bricks
  • Brest Fortress 29 - exhibits suspended from the ceilingBrest Fortress 29 - exhibits suspended from the ceiling
  • Brest Fortress 30 - in popular cultureBrest Fortress 30 - in popular culture
  • Brest Fortress 31 - entrance to the other museumBrest Fortress 31 - entrance to the other museum
  • Brest Fortress 32 - somewhat more modernBrest Fortress 32 - somewhat more modern
  • Brest Fortress 33 - eerie figuresBrest Fortress 33 - eerie figures
  • Brest Fortress 34 - watchtowerBrest Fortress 34 - watchtower
  • Brest Fortress 35 - exhibits under glass floorBrest Fortress 35 - exhibits under glass floor
  • Brest Fortress 36 - Patriotic War medalsBrest Fortress 36 - Patriotic War medals
  • Brest Fortress 37 - alternative design submissions for the main monumentBrest Fortress 37 - alternative design submissions for the main monument
  • Brest Fortress 38 - winning design in grim but impressive realityBrest Fortress 38 - winning design in grim but impressive reality
  • Brest Fortress 39 - reliefs on the rearBrest Fortress 39 - reliefs on the rear
  • Brest Fortress 40 - another monumentBrest Fortress 40 - another monument
  • Brest Fortress 41 - yet another museum, but unrelatedBrest Fortress 41 - yet another museum, but unrelated
  • Brest Fortress 42 - the selfie-stick has even conquered the Belarusian militaryBrest Fortress 42 - the selfie-stick has even conquered the Belarusian military

©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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