mercredi 11 mars 2009

Belarus – 23 January 2008 – What is a country?

We are going to cross Belarus, or Belorussia – an almost non-existent country.

Its territory has been part of Lithuania, Poland, Russia, then the USSR. No independent tradition, then: a place always dominated by a more powerful neighbour. But Belarus is a country, officially, and you need a visa to cross it.

The name itself – “Belarus” or “White Russia” – also designates those Russian aristocrats who migrated through Europe after the Bolshevik revolution. Thus it was that my father had known a family of “white Russians” during his childhood: musicians and photographers for whom he worked at Grau du Roi. “Princes of Kiev,” if I recall correctly – Ukrainians, then. (Or were they an aristocratic family from Belarus, princes of Minsk rather than Kiev?) For my part, I’ve inherited a nostalgic fascination for those images of excessive spending, that myth of Russian restaurants, and a bizarre association between Belarus and a man called Daniel – postcard-maker at Grau du Roi, living in a marina at Port Camargue, and brutally dead from a heart-attack a few years ago.

On the map, Minsk sits between two catchments: that of the Dnieper along the north-south axis of the old Russia, where Smolensk, Lyubech and Kiev are found, and that of the Niemen, which today marks the border between Lithuania and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. This last river is historically important for relations between Russia and France: Alexander and Napoleon signed the treaty of Tilsit on a raft here in 1807; in 1812, the Great Army crossed it, marking the start of a Russian campaign interrupted by winter and the Berezina.

Therefore Belarus and its capital form a kind of summit region, unsure which way to lean – towards the Courland and the Baltic, or towards the Black Sea and Crimea? These regions served as pathways in former times – for Vikings, Byzantines – and they are still linked by canals. It’s the heart of the last European isthmus.

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