The Truth about Belarus By Liza Kotar
“Sorry, but where is Belarus?” the polite, but marked confusion on my coworker’s face was not an uncommon occurrence as I relayed my summer travel plans. Like many people in America, Belarus is often lumped in with Russia or the former Soviet Union. Therefore, not many know that it even exists, or perhaps how it differs from Russia. Admittedly, the roots of Russians and Belarussians are the same and they share more similarities than differences. However, my perception that we were going to arrive in little Russia was not completely accurate—instead, what I came to learn was the Belarus has a unique, Slavic and orthodox spirit.
As our bus rolled through the green hills and birch trees during our trip, we would often reflect that this is a small, but mighty country. We saw a milder temperament than the Russian spirit, but we also saw the same resilience. We learned from our guide that Minsk had been rebuilt eighteen times, yet as you walked the streets, you felt the pull of history. Although it had been destroyed, it had been rebuilt with the same prestige and dignity. Soviet ideals, western agenda and Russian values pulled from all sides. In a conversation with a relative of mine from Belarus, discussing the difficulties of living in a country with a struggling economy like theirs, he said, “They always tell us that there’s something difficult ahead and we will soon fall apart again… yet somehow we are all still here, standing, working and praising God.” This is the Belarussian spirit- fervent, resilient and rooted in an Orthodox history.
Within a few minutes of arriving into Minsk, we were taken to the monastery dedicated to my saint, St. Elizabeth the Grand Duchess. The monastery was infused with her feminine and sophisticated spirit. It was clean, detailed and constantly radiated her warmth. The nuns took such great care in honoring her, I even noticed the lily, her favorite flower, planted near the pond. Not everyone is able to personally connect to their saints’ story, but after reading her life, I knew why my parents had specifically chosen her for me. Just as St. Elizabeth did, I want to dedicate myself to helping others with creativity and excellence, to live in the world, but not be of the world, to stay constant when faced with fame, fortune, or disaster, to develop a wide range of talents and be fully present in a Christian life.
As we traveled to orphanages, I saw people dedicating themselves to helping others with this same fervor. Working with limited resources, often without being compensated, we witnessed people give their lives to take care of bedridden children, that were often not even their own. We were reminded of the ferocity of World War II as we walked through the museum and read about Belarussian casualties. However, we were again reminded of their resilience as they rebuilt and lived on. Many of us began to feel reconnected to our roots, to our faith and to something larger than our limited experiences. With the conclusion of the trip, we understood how we must personally bring this spirit of strength shown by Belarus and St. Elizabeth back to our parishes and expand this sentiment outwards into our local communities.