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by Oliver Smith, The Daily Telegraph, August 26, 2016
To mark 25 years since an independent Belarus was formally recognized, here are some remarkable facts about it.
1. They love a drink
Belarus is the world’s most sozzled state . The average citizen consumes the equivalent of 17.5 litres of pure alcohol annually, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). That’s equal to 179 bottles of wine a year or almost five shots of vodka a day.
2. And a smoke
Doctors must be busy in Belarus. In addition to being the world’s booziest country, its residents smoke more than every other nation bar one (Montenegro), the WHO says. How much exactly? 3,830 cigarettes per adult per year (by comparison, Britons chuff their way through 827 each).
It all adds up to an average life expectancy that is lower than most of Europe : 72 years. Only Russia (69), Moldova, Armenia and Ukraine (both 71) fare worse.
3. It has four World Heritage sites – none of which you’ve heard of
They include the castles at Mir and Nesvizh, both of which date back to the 16th century.
4. It has a brutal modern history
As many as 40 per cent of residents of the Soviet Republic of Belarus (between two and three million) were killed during the Second World War – a higher percentage than any other territory. It fell into Nazi hands between 1941 and 1944, during which time 209 of its 290 cities were destroyed and its Jewish population wiped out. It wasn’t until 1971 that the republic’s population returned to pre-war levels. And in 1986 it bore the brunt of the fallout from the Chernobyl disaster.
5. It’s been dubbed Europe’s “last dictatorship”
Under the unwavering rule of Alexander Lukashenko, president since 1994 and owner of stereotypical bad-guy moustache, Belarus is described by seasoned travellers as a real-life slice of the old USSR – they even retain the death penalty.
“The first impression I have of Minsk [the capital] is still of the city built by Stalin,” wrote Sankha Guha for Telegraph Travel this week. “The original was all but destroyed in the Second World War, and on that wasteland the Soviets created a showpiece to demonstrate their resilience. Uncle Joe and his builders weren’t big on nuance. Mini-me despots like Kim Jong-un can only aspire to such strutting pomposity. The eight-lane boulevards, the parade ground squares, the neoclassical palaces of the people are all intended as a thumping display of state power.
“On Independence Avenue I come upon a bust honouring the Belarus-born Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the notorious Cheka (the precursor of the KGB). It is in a small park across the road from the imposing headquarters of the KGB. The Russians have acknowledged the toxicity of the brand and renamed their own security service – but in Belarus, KGB it stays.”
6. And is home to some bossy babushkas, too
“If you want to be reminded of how it feels to be reprimanded like a small child, then commit a minor infringement in Minsk,” wrote Mark Rowe, after a visit for Telegraph Travel in 2008 . “Upon entering the Belarusian National Fine Arts Museum, I kept my coat on. A heavy hand swiftly landed on my shoulder. The hand was attached not to a policeman, but to a babushka, those frontline foot soldiers of Soviet times. Everyone takes their coat off, she said, eyeing me witheringly. “But I’m cold,” I replied feebly in weak Russian. “Look at these children,” she snorted, jabbing at a school group gallivanting around in shirt sleeves. My jacket was going to be hung up in the cloakroom, with me still inside it, if need be.”
7. You can see bison
So discovered Sara Evans in 2011 . “The heaviest land mammal on the continent, bison once roamed all over Europe,” she explains. “But by the 15th century they were all but extinct. Only a few hundred survived, protected and fed in royal hunting grounds.” Around 800 still roam the Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park, within Białowieża Forest, in south-west Belarus.
8. Its capital is Europe’s least liveable city
Minsk placed 190th in Mercer’s most recent Quality of Living Rankings, which is based on factors including political stability, crime, currency exchange, recreational facilities, housing and climate. That’s somewhere between Beirut and Islamabad.
9. It’s pretty flat
Like its neighbours Latvia and Lithuania, Belarus isn’t built for mountain climbing. Its highest point, Dzyarzhynskaya Hara (try pronouncing that after a couple of ales), is just 345 metres (1,130ft) above sea level.
10. They invented Viber
Last week we told you how Estonians were responsible for Skype. Its rival, Viber, was founded by a group of Belarussians and Israelis in 2010, and it still has a development centre in Minsk.
11. Its National Library looks like something out of Star Wars
And contains eight million items. “The 236ft building is hard to miss during the day, though by evening there is a chance its silhouette could subtly merge into the night,” wrote Sankha Guha. “To mitigate against any such possibility the designers have installed LED displays on every facet of the diamond. After dark it becomes the most fabulous disco ball in Europe.”
12. Every town has a Lenin Street
At 27 Lenin Street, Minsk, there’s even a Soviet-themed shopping centre, which opened last year.
13. They gave us Spartacus
Kirk Douglas, who is fast approaching his 100th birthday, is the son of Jewish immigrants from the Belarusian town of Chavusy. Scarlett Johansson and Harrison Ford can also trace their ancestry back to the former Soviet republic.
14. And Marc Chagall
The artist was born in Liozna, in present day Belarus. Other famous Belarusians include Olga Korbut, Victoria Azarenka, Vasil Kiryienka and Louis B. Mayer.
15. It’s watery
There are 11,000 lakes in Belarus, and three major rivers flow through it: the Neman, the Pripyat and the Dnieper.
16. But landlocked
Lots of water, but none of it salty. Belarus is one of 45 landlocked countries around the world .
17. It blows hot and cold
Temperatures in Minsk regularly fall to -25C and below in winter – but can reach as high as 35C in summer.
18. And has some obscure cities
Most have heard of Minsk, but not its next four most populous cities. Gomel (twinned with Aberdeen), Mogilev (home to the convent of St. Nicholas, a contender to become a Unesco World Heritage site), Vitebsk (site of the annual Slavianski Bazaar art festival), and Grodno. None of them are on Ryanair’s route map.
19. They love potatoes
The potato pancake - Draniki - is the national dish.
Potato pancakes go down very well in MinskCredit: lanapopoudi - Fotolia 20. Ice hockey is huge
Almost as big as football.
21. It’s produced five Nobel prize winners
Step forward Svetlana Alexievich, Literature, 2015, Zhores Alferov, Physics, 2000, Shimon Peres, Peace, 1994, Menachem Begin, Peace, 1978, and Simon Kuznets, Economics, 1971.
22. And World of Tanks
The popular online game was developed by Belarusian-Cypriot company Wargaming.
23. It’s green
Around 43 per cent of Belarus is covered in forest, more than nearly every other European country, while Minsk’s Botanical Garden, at 100 hectares, is one of the world’s largest.
24. It won just one gold at Rio
Hats off to trampoline star Uladzislau Hancharou.
25. And they drink sap
The sap from birch trees is still used to treat all manner of ailments including lung diseases and gout. Belarusian villagers swear by it.
More amazing facts about former Soviet republics
This article was written by Oliver Smith from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.