Going for your roots, staying for the nature

Belarus tempts Israeli tourists with a fiddler on the roof and, once they get there, fresh air, pristine forests and abundant wetlands.

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September 29, 2010 16:25
Oksana Salkovska with Valery playing a gusli

311_Belarus hottie. (photo credit: Moshe Gilad)

Yanina Kozuk has a vision. In it she sees happy guests larking by a rippling stream, learning old-time handicrafts in traditional log cabins, trekking or biking through dense forests just up the hill, and relaxing on the leafy grounds of what once had been a Polish nobleman’s manor house.

The vision continues with her guests devouring platefuls of the heavy local cuisine and raising endless toasts of fiery moonshine vodka called samagon around supper tables buckling under broad platters and brimming pitchers, before sweating it out in a homemade sauna in the yard – and then starting all over again the next morning.

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The last part – the food, drink and sweat – is already part of the scenery at Urisa, Belarussian for “Richard’s Place,” a small farmstead in northwest Belarus just a short drive outside the Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park. Richard is Yanina’s husband, and the farm, on some 60 dunams of gently rolling land, is where he grew up. Together, they’ve begun turning it into something of a bed-and-breakfast-cum-museum, and even the basis for a mini-empire of rural tourism, Belarus-style.

Belarus is a country of some 10 million people.

That’s only about a third more than Israel’s population.

But at just under 210,000 square kilometers, it’s almost 10 times the size. More than a third of the land is covered by forests – some of them considered the oldest in Europe – of mostly pine and birch trees, but also numerous mighty oaks. There are also more than 10,000 lakes, with vast swaths of wetlands. In fact, with all this nature, it calls itself the “lungs of Europe.”

Minsk and other cities in Belarus were literally flattened during World War II (the “Great War,” as it’s known there), and there is nothing in the way of Eiffel Towers, Big Bens, Empire State Buildings or other man-made wonders to draw in tourists. Save for small pockets of prewar neighborhoods that have been repaired and even renovated to their former charm, much of the country’s urban architecture is 1950s-era Soviet – which is to say bland and all too often imposing.



What it does have to offer tourists lies chiefly in the countryside, which is perfect for hikers, cyclists, bird watchers and nature lovers, as well as anyone who yearns for a simple, quiet getaway. The problem is, who needs to fly or drive long distances for something that can usually be had a lot closer to home, and even in one’s own backyard? The answer, at least when it comes to Israeli wanderlust, lies in what’s increasingly being called “roots tourism.”

IT’S BELIEVED that Jews first came to what is today Belarus in the 14th century. Two hundred years later, when the area was part of a Polish-Lithuanian federation, they started living in Minsk, but for the most part, until the Holocaust, they lived in the countryside, in shtetls that still dot the landscape with lots of small, prewar dwellings built mostly from unpainted, deeply-weathered wood. Today, it’s estimated that the country has some 40,000 Jews, almost all of them living in urban areas.

At the Israeli Embassy in Minsk, Ambassador Edy Shapira, who, having been born in Tashkent, speaks fluent Russian, proudly shows visitors a specially made video and the accompanying glossy brochure that together highlight just how deep the connection with Belarus goes not just for Jews, but for the Jewish state.

“Three presidents of Israel came from here: Chaim Weizmann, Zalman Shazar and Shimon Peres,” Shapira says with emphasis. “So did two prime ministers – Peres and Yitzhak Shamir. You can even visit the little house that Chaim Weizmann was born in.”

Indeed, the village of Motal, near Pinsk in southwest Belarus and today more of a mid-size town, considers the Weizmann house enough of a draw to include Yiddish on the large sign that welcomes visitors.

The dwelling itself – moved a few dozen meters from its original site – has actually been turned into a museum dedicated not only to Israel’s first president, but to the Jewish life that once flourished in the region. And while the house in which Peres was born (in Vishneva, near Volozhin and its famous yeshiva, northwest of Minsk) no longer exists, you can still see the renovated but nondescript well from which his family is said to have drawn its water.

Which is why, at least according to Igor Leshchenya, Shapira’s counterpart from Belarus, Israelis just might be enticed to enjoy the natural beauty of his country’s rural areas.

“It’s clear we can’t expect people to come for what they can get elsewhere just as easily,” Ambassador Leshchenya tells a group of journalists who have gathered in a conference room at his Tel Aviv embassy prior to a trip to Belarus. “But if we can somehow convince them to stay on after they’re finished visiting the villages their ancestors came from” – and here, he throws in a sheepish grin – “maybe they’ll spend a little more money.”

Back at Richard’s Place, in the southern reaches of the Grodno Oblast (an oblast is similar to a state or province, and Grodno is in northwest Belarus, where the country shares borders with Poland and Lithuania), the final corn pancakes, potato-stuffed chicken breasts and slabs of home-smoked fish and sausage go down, as do the last of too many shots of samagon. The accordionist on the patio outside lets the concluding strains of a lively Belarus folk song fade into the night air, and Yanina, in traditional Belarussian dress, effervescent and forever on the move, seems worried that she cannot make her guests feel comfortable enough. So she bounds in with yet more linens, feathered quilts and towels as they prepare to bed down in the small, rustic cabin that, for now, is the Kozuks’ sole guest house.

“Did you eat enough?” she demands to know. “Are you comfortable? Another blanket?” She sends Richard, as quiet and unobtrusive as Yanina is loud of voice and everywhere at once, to bring what’s necessary from a storeroom on the farmstead where he lived as a boy.

Before you head to bed, you hear Yanina speak of the trip she made to Israel last spring as part of a 14- member delegation of mostly rural tourism entrepreneurs, brought by MASHAV, the arm of the Israeli Foreign Ministry that’s responsible for the country’s quiet version of foreign aid. They were shown what some of their Middle Eastern counterparts had learned, mostly in the field of bed-and-breakfasts and other countryside attractions, and returned home with some ideas of their own.

“Tomorrow,” Yanina says, with more than a hint of both pride and mystery, “we’ll show you the mansion.”

BELARUS IS said to have retained the most centralized government and economy of the major countries that emerged from the Soviet Union two decades ago, and there’s still more than a faint whiff of the hammer and sickle. Indeed, a mustached President Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994, peers out of portraits in official offices and many shops with the same no-nonsense visage of the bureaucrats who seemed to typify the Soviet era. What’s more, you can still see statues of Lenin – and even Stalin – in some public squares, a clear sign that this landlocked and mostly flat country has not entirely moved on.

The sluggishness of Belarus’s bureaucratic wheels, at least when it comes to tourism, might well be typified by the attitude of Semion B. Shapiro, whose calling card identifies him as chairman of the Grodno Oblast Executive Committee, which in more Western terms makes him governor. As such, he presides over a mechanism with an annual budget of about $1 billion.

A friendly, bearish man who looks to be in his 50s, Shapiro is considered the highest-ranking Jew in official Belarus. He’s been to Israel twice, once as Grodno governor and once when he was the nation’s agriculture minister. He is felt to hold the Jewish state in high esteem for what it’s accomplished. He is also said to be a close political ally of Lukashenko.

During a meeting at the modern office building that serves as headquarters for the oblast’s leadership, Shapiro meets with the same journalists who had gathered with the Belarus ambassador to Israel two weeks before in Tel Aviv. Flanked by senior subordinates, he speaks mainly about the need for closer economic ties between the two countries, and for increased investment in industry and infrastructure by Israeli business circles.

His words come through a translator, which classically illustrates the frustration felt by one of the Israeli journalists, who complains to Shapiro that no one he has met in the countryside or on urban streets – literally no one – seems to speak anything but Russian or Belarussian.

“If you want to attract tourists from abroad,” the journalist says, “people here have to be able to communicate.

Further, the country’s main highways, almost as good as any in Europe, have signs that are solely in Cyrillic, meaning that unless you read the language, it’s difficult to drive on your own – and the proprietors of rural tourism will be counting on exactly that type of traveler.”

With this, the heads of the officials on either side of Shapiro bob up and down, but the governor remains outwardly unmoved and fleetly skirts the issue with talk of bureaucracy and the need for time – as well as investments from Israel – before summing up by saying, “When you write that we are waiting for investors, we’ll be speaking the same language.”

The sum this billion-dollar oblast apportions to its tourism department each year amounts to about $250,000. By contrast, the municipality in Jerusalem, Israel’s “poorest” large city, has been allocating close to $800,000 a year out of an overall budget that’s some $200 million smaller than that of Grodno Oblast (and earlier this month announced plans to gradually increase the sum it spends on tourism to a whopping $18 million a year within 10 years).

GRODNO OBLAST is governed from the rather pleasant city of Grodno. Like much of western Belarus, it was once part of Poland – the part shorn off by the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939 – and many of its quarters retain a distinctly European flavor. A municipal tour guide says this is because the Germans, who occupied the city for several years after abrogating the pact and invading the Soviet Union during World War II, looked upon it nostalgically as a former part of East Prussia and were hesitant to destroy it when the Red Army pushed them back.

Whether this is true or not, much of the city clearly lacks the drab yet overpowering “Soviet look” that so typifies Minsk, and has more than a few historic buildings dating back several hundred years, including a church believed to be from the 12th century.

Grodno’s Jews, who once numbered nine out of every 10 residents, comprised about half the city’s population of 60,000 on the eve of the Holocaust, in which they suffered the same fate as the Jews in the rest of the country, which is to say that few survived.

Today they number some 2,000 out of a total city population of about a third of a million.

One of the Jewish landmarks that remains is the Great Synagogue, whose original structure was built in the 14th century. (It was one of 42 synagogues in Grodno when the Germans invaded.) Although it’s fallen into deep disrepair, many among the city’s Jewish population use a small room on the second floor for Shabbat prayers, while the soaring, arched sanctuary, with its peeling and faded white paint, is used on the High Holy Days – “weather permitting,” says Boris Kahovsky, 65, a teacher and historian who serves as chairman of the city’s general Jewish population, as he looks up at what is presumably a leaky ceiling.

When someone asks why the synagogue is in such poor shape while so many of the city’s churches have been restored to their former magnificence, he simply shrugs and says a Jewish benefactor from Florida has already been very generous, but that more funds are needed. Later, in talks with others, it emerges that most local, regional and central authorities in Belarus prefer to wait for “wealthy Jews” to step forward and pay for the renovation of “their” synagogues, yeshivot and other historic buildings.

Indeed, in the historical context, “Jews” and “Jewish” are barely mentioned on the many memorials to the country’s war dead. At sites where the Nazis rounded up and killed only Jews, it usually says something to the effect that “here died this number or that number of Belarussians.”

The countryside around Grodno is hillier than in other areas of the nation, and the green, coniferous groves and golden fields of wheat make for truly picturesque touring. The Augustow Canal, in the very northwestern tip of the country, connects Poland’s Vistula River with the Neman River in Belarus, and is a prime tourist attraction, with its green, forested banks, excellent fishing, and a series of locks that raise and lower specially built passenger boats from one level of the canal to the next. Across the road from one of the locks, a local woman has dedicated part of her home to a museum that depicts the canal’s history, from its construction to its current use. She has original blueprints, documents and artifacts, including a rusty set of gears and ball bearings that were used to open one of the original sluice gates.

A short drive away, Oksana and Valery Salkovska are waiting to serve lunch to visitors from Israel. They own and operate a small bed-and-breakfast on the banks of the Neman River. They’re much farther along in developing their property than Yanina and Richard Kozuk, and wide beds of flowers and a wellmanicured lawn surround a large, beautifully furnished house and two cabins farther back in the large yard, one of them sunk halfway into a small embankment, its low roof covered with lush grass.

Oksana, like Yanina, was part of the delegation brought to Israel last spring by MASHAV.

“I loved your land,” she says through the ever-present interpreter, her banged and braided blonde hair converging with her traditional dress to give her the air of a true country girl. “I hope you love mine.”

With that she seats her guests under a pergola at an outdoor table that – as it is everywhere the journalists have traveled – is so loaded with local cuisine and liters of samagon that there’s barely a place to put the plates and glassware. An hour later, the platters and decanters empty, Valery sits down with a gusli, a traditional stringed instrument held between the belly and the lap that appears to be a cross between a zither and an autoharp.

The beautiful, fragile notes could come straight out of the soundtrack of a cinematic love story set in the Middle Ages, and the hypnotizing melody seems to bring the samagon to the fore with what is admittedly a very satisfying post-meal buzz.

WHILE NATIONAL, regional and local authorities in Belarus are giving rural tourism entrepreneurs tax breaks, more than one entrepreneur said he was willing to pay for everything himself “in order to keep the authorities out of my way,” adding that “once the government sees something that works, it tends to take advantage of its leverage and enjoy the benefits.”

Be that as it may, the authorities are turning over state-owned property to people with drive and initiative – on condition that it’s improved, maintained and used productively. Mikhail and Marina Makey are two of these people. They once lived on a kolkhoz, the Soviet Union’s version of a kibbutz.

While several collective farms remain in Belarus, the government has dismantled the others, entrusting some of the land to members, including the Makeys, who decided to make a go at farming.

“Where did you get your start-up money?” someone asks Mikhail. “Did the government give out loans?” “At first, I managed to buy a few surplus tractors very cheaply,” he replies. “Then came a period of steep inflation, and I found that if I sold then, I could make a huge profit. That’s how I originally financed the farm.”

Then the Makeys discovered rural tourism and realized the value of the surrounding land’s beauty. They built a guest house that overlooks a small lake with a well-kept garden, all of it surrounded by their fields, in which they grow rye, potatoes and vegetables.

(They also raise pigs and turkeys, and are assembling a museum of farm implements.) Sitting on a veranda outside your room with a cup of coffee and feasting your eyes on the land’s golden colors in the early morning – even with a slight drizzle – is a wonderful way to start your day.

But land is not all the Belarus government is handing out. There are also mansions. Lots of them. They were built as year-round homes by local aristocrats, or as vacation getaways by wealthy families from Poland and the Russian Empire, in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. Almost all were requisitioned by the Soviets and used as hospitals, military headquarters or for other general purposes. Today, they are being snapped up by individuals or investors, usually foreign, who envision using them as hotels or spas. The only catch is that the new owner returns it to its original condition and begins using it within three years; if that doesn’t happen, the property reverts to the state, most likely to be handed over to someone else willing to give it a try.

The Kozuks, Yanina and Richard, are among the willing, and they drive their Israeli guests in an older-model Plymouth van for the 15-minute ride from Urisa to a long, tree-lined driveway leading to a large, green, wooden structure. This is the mansion she was referring to as her guests got ready to bed down the night before.

It’s clearly a large structure, with room for an additional story under a steep mansard and occasionally turreted roof, today sheathed in what appears to be galvanized tin. Inside, the building has about 1,000 square meters of floor space. It was built in the 19th century as the home of a Polish nobleman when the area was under the control of a liberal Russian tsar.

The region returned to Poland following World War I, and the mansion remained in the nobleman’s family until 1939, when the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact brought in the Soviets. The USSR turned it into a hospital, which it remained until 2001, through the German occupation, the return of Soviet control in 1944, and finally the independence of Belarus.

“We’d like to turn it into a hotel and spa,” Yanina says, as Richard, characteristically quiet, remains in the background in a yard that extends for dozens of meters past a stand of trees and down to a nearby stream. “If we don’t do it within three years, we’ll have to give it back.”

Her guests look over the outside of the building, and then traipse through its long hallways and small rooms, which until less than a decade ago was hospital wards. It’s what a real estate broker somewhere else might advertise as a “fixer-upper.” And that’s being charitable.

But Yanina and Richard seem to have guts. They both left their jobs in the medical sphere – she as a midwife, he as a salesman – to turn a family farmstead into what has all the makings of a successful bed-and-breakfast. They are already building added attractions there, such as log cabins for guests and other visitors seeking to learn old-time crafts, and a central lodge that’s half-finished, but which already has a large stone fireplace and even a gigantic, oldstyle billiard table standing ready for a game of snooker or pool amid the sawed-off beam-ends, wood shavings and other construction debris.

“I estimate it will take a million dollars to put the mansion back in shape,” Yanina says, looking it up and down.

“Where will you get it?” she’s asked.

“Maybe from relatives and friends,” she replies. “And also from investors. Do you know any in Israel?”

The writer traveled to Belarus as a guest of Country Escape – Belarussian Association of Rural and Ecotourism, and Sun D’Or International Airlines.


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