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FLAS Notes from the Field: Tracing the Former Western Border of Belarus

Castle in Belarus

August 22, 2016

By Chris Collison

UW Jackson School of International Studies REECAS M.A. student Chris Collison is currently on a Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowship (FLAS) at the Belarusian State University in Minsk, Belarus. Chris is also exploring the country with his camera and the deep regional knowledge he has gained in the Jackson School’s Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies program (REECAS) and the Ellison Center at the University of Washington.

“For much of its history, Minsk has found itself at the crossroads of civilizations. Belarusians are well aware of the past and embrace their heritage as a transit hub for merchants and warriors who traversed Europe as the borders of various empires shifted eastward and then back again. Belarus acquired its current boundaries at the dawn of the Second World War, when the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact paved the way for the German and Soviet invasion of Poland. Map of BelarusThe two powers divided the country among themselves and managed their conquered territories separately until the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. At the end of the war, Poland was liberated from Nazi Germany, but its borders were shifted westward and the eastern, Soviet-occupied eastern regions were incorporated into Lithuania, Ukraine, and Belarus. More than 70 years later, that legacy can still be found in small towns and villages on opposite sides of the old border. As a FLAS Fellow in Belarus for summer 2016, I hoped to document through photos ways that Belarus’s history as a crossroads of cultures still persists.

I set out with three Belarusians and a Pole to retrace some of the old Soviet-Polish border. We headed toward the Minsk suburb of Dzerzhinsk, named after Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the notorious Soviet secret police. Dzerzhinsky was born in a nearby village, and statues of the father of the Cheka can still be found throughout the region. Bust of Felix DzerzhinskyJust outside Dzerzhinsk, we came across the remains of an old guard tower, which once stood on the border between Poland and Belarus. Overgrown with weeds and surrounded on all sides by a lush wheat field, it was the only visible reminder that the area was once divided.

Further down the road, Polish heritage became more clear. Nearly every town we encountered was home to at least one Roman Catholic Church. Others boasted centuries-old castles like the one in the town of Nesvizh. Polish heritage was even more striking at cemeteries and memorial markers, where we saw as many Polish names as Belarusian and Russian. CemetaryTwo of my companions on this road trip, a Belarusian named Anton and a Pole named Piotr, are cousins who were searching for relics of their own history. They recalled the Soviet campaigns to Russify the country, purging prominent scientists and cultural leaders and discouraging the use of the Belarusian and Polish languages. Now, these groups are defining their identities all over again.

Like western Ukraine, modern day Belarus was historically Achitecture a mix of ethnicities and religions—Belarusians, Poles, Jews, Catholics, Orthodox. Having spent time in predominately Orthodox Ukraine, I was struck by how strongly the Catholic Polish heritage has survived in Belarus. Signs are often written in three languages: Belarusian, Russian, and Polish. But despite the range of written languages and the mix of cultural heritage, Russian is the language heard almost universally on the streets, albeit with a sight Belarusian accent.”

Chris’s participation in this six week Russian language program has been made possible by a Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowship (FLAS), which pays tuition and a stipend for travel and living. Qualified graduate and undergraduate students of every major are eligible for FLAS fellowships to study abroad and also at UW. Learn more about the FLAS program and how to apply here.