Although European explorers set up to discover the “new world” hundreds of years ago, there are corners in their home continent that are as mysterious today as they were then. Located in eastern Europe, the country of Belarus has a long and rich, albeit tragic history. Here are some interesting facts about Belarus.
Facts about Belarus
1. The “Bela” in Belarus stands for “white”.
Most etymologists believe the modern word Belarus to stem from Belaya Rus’, “belaya” meaning white. There are several accounts of the country being referred to as “white”. Why is not conclusively determined. Rus on the other hand stands for Ruthenia or Russia.
2. Belarus shares land borders with 5 countries.
Belarus is bordered by Russia to the east and northeast (1,312 km / 815 mi), Ukraine to the south (1,111 km / 690 mi), Poland to the west (418 km / 260 mi), and Lithuania (640 km / 398 mi) and Latvia (161 km / 100 mi) to the northwest. Belarus is a landlocked country.
3. Belarus claims the geographical midpoint of Europe.
Many countries have claimed to have the geographical center of Europe, among them Belarus based on a report by a group of Belarusian scientists. Located in the small town of Polotsk, even its locals take the claim with a grain of salt. Still, you can visit the monument and read the inscriptions in Swedish, Russian, Greek, English, and Belarusian. While you’re in the area, you may want to visit Vilnius, Lithuania which is presumably the more accurate center point of Europe.
4. The highest peak in Belarus is Dzyarzhynsk Hill.
Reaching an elevation of 345 meters (1,132 ft), Dzyarzhynsk Hill is the highest point in Belarus. Interestingly, it is named after Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the KGB. In general, Belarus is a fairly flat country with an average elevation of only 160 m (525 ft) above sea level.
5. Belarus has been part of many great empires.
Belarus has a long and tragic history with its lands being handed from one great power to another. In the early middle ages, it was part of the Kievan Rus’, followed by the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Russian Empire. It experienced short-lived independence after World War I before it became part of The Republic of Central Lithuania and later was properly incorporated into Poland. As the Byelorussian SSR, it was part of the USSR before finally gaining its independence in 1990.
6. Belarus has the oldest existing government in exile.
In 1917, Belarus was under German rule. That year, the Rada BNR was founded which later declared itself supreme power in the Belarusian Democratic Republic. Germany did not recognize this newly created government and negotiations with the advancing USSR were also unsuccessful. Eventually, the Rada moved to Vilnius in Lithuania and then to Hrodna, and finally to Kaunas. The current president resides in Canada. Although not officially recognized, it is considered the oldest existing government in exile.
7. Belarus was the hardest-hit Soviet republic in World War II.
Although much of the USSR suffered during World War II, Belarus was hit particularly hard. Germany destroyed 209 out of 290 cities in Belarus, 85% of the country’s industry, and more than one million buildings.
8. About 40% of Belarus is covered by forest.
Belarus has one of the largest forest areas in Europe and covers about 40% of the country. Białowieża Forest at the Polish-Belarusian border is one of the last and largest remaining parts of Europe’s primeval forests. It covers a total area of 1,418.85 km² (547.82 sq mi).
9. Lee Harvey Oswald lived in an apartment in Belarus.
You may remember that Lee Harvey Oswald was a US marine who defected to the Soviet Union in 1959 before returning to his homeland a few years later only to (allegedly) assassinate president John F. Kennedy. But did you know that Oswald was relocated by the Soviets from Moscow to Minsk? In his diary, Oswald described the city and his life in the Soviet Union as drab and uninspiring.
10. Belarus is highly urbanized.
In Belarus, approximately 80% of the population lives in cities, making it one of the most urbanized countries in Europe. The largest city and urban center is the country’s capital, Minsk.
11. Belarus is the only country in Europe where capital punishment is legal.
While the rest of Europe has abolished corporal punishment, Belarus retains the death penalty for “grave crimes”. At least two people were executed in Belarus as late as 2019, although exact numbers are not known to the public.
12. Belarus has held only one free and democratic election ever.
The first free election in Belarus after its secession from the USSR took place in 1994. It was also the country’s last democratic election. Alexander Lukashenko won 80% of the votes and has ruled the country ever since. In 1995 and 1996 several referenda increased the power of the president to a degree because of which Lukashenko is commonly called the “last dictator in Europe.” He is currently serving his 6th term as president of Belarus. The EU, UK, US, and Canada do not recognize Lukashenko as the legitimate president of Belarus.
13. Belarus is the least democratic country in Europe.
Ranking 148th in the world, Belarus is one of the least democratic countries in the world and definitely the least democratic country in Europe. In the last years, it has also slipped to below a 3 on the democracy index, classifying it as an authoritarian regime.
14. Jews used to be the second-largest ethnic group in Belarus.
Today, Belarus consists primarily of ethnic Belarusians (85%) and Russians (7.5%). Before World War II, however, the second biggest ethnic group behind the Belarusians were the Jews, constituting about 7-8% of the total population and more than 40% of the population in the cities. The holocaust took the lives of most Jews in Belarus and many others emigrated. Today, Jews only contribute about 0.1% to the total population.
15. The first president of Israel was born in Belarus.
Chaim Weizmann was elected the first president of Israel in 1949 and served until his death in 1952. Interestingly, Weizmann was actually born in Belarus in 1874. He left Belarus for Germany in 1892.
16. Christianity is the main religion in Belarus.
About 55% of the inhabitants of Belarus identify as Christian with Eastern Orthodoxy as the biggest denomination by far. Interestingly, 41% of the population do not adhere to any religious beliefs (officially), a legacy of the state atheism of the Soviet era.
17. Most Belarusians can’t speak Belarusian.
The two official languages in Belarus are Russian and Belarusian. Interestingly, only about 12% of Belarusians actively use the Belarusian language in their day-to-day lives and only about 30% of the people in Belarus are actually fluent in Belarusian. The majority of the people in Belarus use Russian as their primary way to communicate. Belarusian is used so rarely that it is classified as a vulnerable language by UNESCO.
18. 22% of Belarus was affected by radiation fallout from the Chernobyl disaster.
In terms of area, Belarus was most severely affected by radiation fallout following the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. 22% of the country experienced a high level of contamination.
19. Marc Chagall was born in Belarus.
Marc Chagall, originally Moishe Shagal, was born in Vitebsk in Belarus to Belarusian Jewish parents. He first moved to St. Petersburg, Russia before realizing his artistic career in France. His birth home in Vitebsk serves as a museum today.
20. The European bison is the national animal of Belarus.
This may be one of the more surprising facts about Belarus, but its national animal is indeed the European bison, also referred to as “wisent”. About 2,000 specimens of this impressive species still live in Belarus today.
21. The national bird of Belarus is the white stork.
Although not quite officially, the national bird of Belarus is the white stork. In fact, the birds are considered holy in Belarus and associated with several myths and superstitions. It is considered a particularly auspicious sign if a stork decides to nest on your house in Belarus and that its inhabitants will live happily ever after.
22. The national flower of Belarus is the flax flower.
Flax is commonly grown in Belarus so it should not come as a surprise that the flax flower is the national flower of Belarus. The blue flower has been cultivated in the country for over 200 years.
23. The flag of Belarus contains a traditional Belarusian pattern.
The flag of Belarus we know today was adopted only in 2012. It consists of two horizontal bands in red and green as well as a vertical band in a red pattern. The pattern imitates flowers and is a common motif in Belarus. The pattern on the flag was designed by Matrona Markevich in 1917.
24. There are 4 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Belarus.
Thanks to its long history, Belarus is home to 4 UNESCO World Heritage Sites – 3 cultural sites and one natural site. They are Architectural, Residential and Cultural Complex of the Radziwill Family at Nesvizh, Mir Castle Complex, Struve Geodetic Arc, and Białowieża Forest.
25. Belarus first competed in the Olympics in 1994.
As an independent nation, Belarus first competed at the Olympics in Norway in 1994. They had, in fact, competed already in 1992, albeit as part of the Unified Team, made up of several former USSR nations. Since 1994, Belarus has won at least one medal each year, with most of them won in athletics, gymnastics, wrestling, and biathlon.
26. Only 2 Belarusians have ever won a Nobel prize.
Belarus has brought forward two Nobel prize laureates. In 2015, Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature while Zhores Alferov was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2000. A third, Menachem Begin, was born in Minsk but is largely recognized as being a Polish-Russian laureate.
27. The national dish of Belarus is draniki.
Draniki, the national dish of Belarus, is a kind of potato pancake shallow-fried in pork fat. It has been prepared in Belarus since the 19th century and can be eaten either as a side dish or as a meal by itself.
28. In 2011, inflation in Belarus reached over 100%.
In 2011 Belarus went through a devastating economic crisis during which inflation reached 108.7%. Belarussians were panicked and exchanged their local ruble for US dollars – so much so, the National Bank could not keep up with the demand and a black market for foreign currency started to flourish.
29. Belarus uses the Belarusian ruble (BYN).
The currency of Belarus is the Belarusian ruble. In fact, it is now the third ruble in use in Belarus. It was first introduced in 2016 to fight inflation.
30. The National Library of Belarus is a rhombicuboctahedron.
Located in the capital Minsk and completed in 2006, the National Library of Belarus is one of the country’s top attractions. The building has the shape of a rhombicuboctahedron, consisting of eight triangular and eighteen square faces. It is home to the biggest collection of Belarusian printed materials and a vast collection of Russian books.
31. Belarus is the land of buried treasures.
Thanks to its long history, the earth beneath Belarus seems to hide several buried treasures. One of the biggest was dug up during construction in 2018 in Grodno – gold coins and jewelry valued at over 20,000 USD.