The day after our whirlwind tour of Minsk, my two travelling companions and I somewhat inveigled ourselves into a berth on a train bound for Brest (train station, left). It was one of these luxurious Soviet affairs with large bunk beds and an attendant who brought tea and was otherwise lusciously uncooperative. That four-hour journey cost the princely sum of £2.27.
A word about the tickets: An odd feature of ticketing in Belarus is that it seems to be impossible to get hold of a return. Instead, you have to buy another ticket when you arrive. Of course, there are no ticket machines either, just rows of surly railway employees. Any journey, no matter how short, requires a booking – even on our jaunt to Borisov (the Belarussian equivalent of going from London to Guildford), we had assigned seats – and every booking will be printed in spontaneous complexity, replete with so many numbers and codes that you might imagine that you’d reserved a whole carriage by accident. The issue with these tickets is not that the relevant information is hard to find, as they’re very simple is you can read Cyrillic, but rather that alongside your destination, time, seat number, type, train number, and so on, there is about ten times as much other information.
I am convinced that the purpose of this is to provide work for the train attendants, and I am only slightly joking when I say this. After all, the people of each carriage cannot require that much tea or coffee, and once one passanger from each four-person berth has been shown to the bathroom no further directions are needed. Between stations, then, the attendant’s work is limited. However, soon after the train leaves each station, the attendant will come round and confiscate your ticket. It is returned to you, folded up to a fifth of its original size, about 10 minutes before you need to disembark. I firmly believe that during the interim, they are in their office, painfully copying out all the information from each ticket in immaculate handwriting, bitterly aware that it will all eventually be filed away in the basement of the Ministry of Transport.
If the destruction of the country at the hands of the Germans in World War Two is the foundation of Soviet (and therefore Lukashenkite) conceptions of Belarussian identity, then the martyrdom of Brest Fortress is the central pillar of that identity. For that reason alone it is a mandatory stop for anyone who visits the country for more than a day. The town of Brest is located by the Polish border in far western Belarus, and the fortress itself, on an island in the river dividing the two, could physically not be any closer. On the map below, the Fortress is the large island in the centre and the purple line to the left is the Polish border.
In a past life, under the name of Brześć-Litowsk (Lithuanian Brest), the fortress lent its name to the 1918 Treaty of Brześć-Litowsk, which ended Russian involvement in the First World War. The city was conclusively within Poland until 1939, when the country was split between Germany and the USSR, a division which led to the present Polish-Belarussian border. When Hitler ordered the surprise attack on the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa, in June 1941, Brest fortress was therefore on the absolute frontline. The Wehrmacht stormed the town and, capitalising on the element of surprise, captured it swiftly. But the 4,000 Soviet soldiers and civilians inside the fortress citadel recovered and mounted a spirited defence, flummoxing the German army. Subsequent attempts to storm the citadel led to heavy infantry losses and little gain. The soldiers within held out against an increasingly punishing German siege for another seven days, by which time the frontline had moved deep into modern Belarus.
As you would expect with a legend of this importance, there are conflicting accounts. Soviet sources wildly exaggerated the frustration that the fortress’s resistance caused the German army, claiming that the siege had taken important resources away from the war front and allowed Stalin a crucial gap in which to mobilise his troops. It is regularly claimed that the resistance lasted for more than a month. More curiously, there is also a tale that the Germans allowed one soldier to slink away for unknown reasons, although the official and verifiable history records that everyone in the fortress was eventually killed. In 1957 the events were publicised and in 1965, on the 20th anniversary of the German capitulation, Brest fortress was given the title of “Hero Fortress.” The Soviet decree stating this is chiselled into the wall underneath the entrance.
From a fair distance away you can see the entrance to the Fortress Complex, which was built during the Soviet era. Over the remains of the outermost defensive wall sits a metal block with the outline of a star cut through it at various angles. As you walk through underneath this, speakers play boisterous Soviet marching anthems at you. Afterwards, you come to a row of tanks on the left where children get dressed up in military uniforms and have their photographs taken. This militaristic spirit is, I’m sure, in no way connected with the proximity of Poland (that the row of tanks happens to be cheerfully facing NATO from the CIS is a total coincidence). Across the river is the memorial complex, around which run the ruins of the fortress walls. At the centre of the complex are a church, an eternal flame, an enormous slab of rock from which the image of a determined soldier’s face has been hewn, a row of medals showing the Soviet Hero Cities, and a metal spike called the Bayonet. The fortress itself is to the right across another bridge. It was my first experience of Soviet war memorials and it impressed in my mind that at these places everything is gigantic.
Despite being the centre of a form of national military enthusiasm verging on a cult, Brest has surprisingly little paraphernalia apart from the Fortress. There is a line of red plaques bearing the names of those who were killed which graces the main road towards the border (left) and a few other local memorials, but otherwise the city is devoid of tat. It’s more far more rural and languid than Minsk, and the lovely City Park and older quarters in the centre make it feel like a village rather than a provincial capital (residential area, left). I’ve not found any evidence of it, but I would not be surprised to discover that Brest did not suffer as much physical destruction as the rest of Belarus during the German occupation, although its Jewish population was obviously destroyed. Naturally, there are spots of governmental influence: statues of Lenin, 24-hour news screens, and towering administrative centres. But in Brest, which only became a recognised part of Belarus in 1945, it’s far clearer that these things have been inserted into an existing community rather than used as a basis for a new one, as in Minsk.
(all photos are taken by me, Duncan Wane; copyright 2012)