Generally speaking, Belarusians are quiet, polite and reserved people. Because they tend to be shy, they seem less approachable than Russians and Ukrainians, but they are just as friendly and generous (often more so) once introductions are made.
Belarus was one of the most Jewish territories in the world before WWII, but these days the country is overwhelmingly Slavic. Of the approximately 9.5 million people in Belarus, 83.7% are Belarusian, 8.3% Russian, 3.1% Polish and 1.7% Ukrainian, with the remainder unspecified or consisting of other groups. Prior to WWII, 10% of the national population was Jewish; in cities like Minsk, Hrodna and Brest, Jews made up between one-third and three-quarters of the population. Today, they make up less than 0.25% of Belarus' population.
Atheism is widespread. Of believers, 80% are Eastern Orthodox and 20% are Roman Catholic (about 15% of the Catholics are ethnic Poles). During the early 1990s, the Uniate (Greek Catholic) Church was reestablished and now has a following of more than 100,000. There's also a small Protestant minority, the remnant of a once-large German community.
Assumed by many to be Russian or French, painter Marc Chagall (1887–1985) was actually born and raised in Belarus; he is by far the country's best-known artist. Born to a Jewish family in a village near Vitsebsk in 1887, Chagall lived and trained there before moving to St Petersburg aged 20, then to Paris in the 1930s to set the world alight with his surrealist images and trademark flying people. His family home is now a small museum, although there are very few Chagalls in Belarus today – the Soviet government clearly didn't think much of his work, refusing multiple offers of canvases from the artist during his lifetime.
The hero of early Belarusian literary achievement was Francysk Skaryna. Born in Polatsk but educated in Poland and Italy, the scientist, doctor, writer and humanist became the first person to translate the Bible into Belarusian. He also built the first printing press in the country. In the late 16th century, the philosopher and humanist Symon Budny printed a number of works in Belarusian. The 19th century saw the beginning of modern Belarusian literature with works by writers and poets such as Maxim Bohdanovich, Janka Kupala and Jakub Kolas.
The 1986 Chornobyl disaster took its toll on the local environment, especially in the southeastern quadrant of Belarus. The most contaminated areas are now part of the uninhabited Polesye State Radioecological Reserve, a vast protected area dotted with abandoned hamlets. It's one of several conservation reserves in Belarus, which protects 6.4% of its territory.
It's safe to say that Belarus does not enjoy a wildly exciting geography. It's a flat country, consisting of low ridges dividing broad, often marshy lowlands with more than 11,000 small lakes. The highest peak is a mere 345m above sea level. In the south is the Pripyatsky National Park, Europe's largest marsh area, dubbed locally the 'lungs of Europe' because air currents passing over it are reoxygenated and purified by the swamps.
Because of the vast expanses of primeval forests and marshes in the country, Belarusian fauna abounds. The most celebrated animal is the zubr (European bison), the continent's largest land mammal. It almost went extinct, but thanks to rigorous breeding efforts it has recovered and today you can spot these animals in the wild in Belavezhskaya Pushcha National Park or in Prypyatsky National Park. The former is the oldest wildlife refuge in Europe, the pride of Belarus and the most famous of the country's five national parks.
The 1986 disaster at Chornobyl has been the defining event for the Belarusian environment. The dangers of exposure to radiation for travellers, particularly in the areas we cover, are almost nonexistent. Ironically, the exclusion zone has proved a boon for nature – the absence of human habitation seems to have improved biodiversity more than the nuclear explosion damaged it.
Food & Drink
Belarusian cuisine rarely differs from Russian cuisine, although there are a few uniquely Belarusian dishes. Meals are largely meat-based and the concept of vegetarianism is not exactly widespread, but it is possible to find some dishes without meat: draniki (potato pancakes) and some versions of kletsky (dumplings) and khaladnik (beetroot soup) are all vegetarian-friendly local dishes. Eating vegan will be considerably more difficult.
Belarus is well known for several of its beverages. Belavezhskaya is a bitter herbal alcoholic drink, while of the Belarusian vodkas, Charodei is probably the most esteemed (but can be hard to find). Other popular souvenir-quality vodkas are Belarus Sineokaya (from Brest) and Minskaya Kristall. Beer is also much loved. Local brews are widespread and very cheap, and the higher-end bars in Minsk and Brest serve pricier imported lager from Western Europe as well.
Restaurants and bars usually open around 10am and close around 11pm or midnight, or 2am on weekends, with several bars in Minsk's old town staying open later. Smoking is allowed in bars and restaurants only with proper partitioning; smoking areas can either be outside, or inside with proper ventilation.
Essential Food & Drink
Belavezhskaya A bitter herbal alcoholic drink.
Draniki Potato pancakes, usually served with sour cream (smetana).
Khaladnik A local variation on cold borshch, a soup made from beetroot and garnished with sour cream, chopped-up hard-boiled eggs and potatoes.
Kindziuk A pig-stomach sausage filled with minced pork, herbs and spices.
Kletsky Dumplings stuffed with mushrooms, cheese or potato.
Kolduni Potato dumplings stuffed with meat.
Kvas A mildly alcoholic drink made from black or rye bread and commonly sold on the streets.
Machanka Pork stew served over pancakes.