Letters From Minsk: Coming in From the Cold War at Brest-Litovsk

The frontier station at Brest-Litovsk on the Polish-Belarus border, where West meets East. Photo by Matthew Stevenson.

This is the seventh in a series about train and bicycle rides from Switzerland to Belarus, in those carefree days before pandemic lockdowns.

My afternoon train to Terespol, on the Polish border with Belarus, left Warsaw central station around 2:30 in the afternoon. Although I had my visa for Belarus, I didn’t quite know how I would get across the border.

Several times a day there’s a shuttle train from Poland into Belarus, but I also figured that I could ride my bike the short distance (as the crow flies less than five miles) from Terespol to Brest, although from long experience I know that nothing is ever easy when it comes to crossing East European borders. (In December 2019 I had to walk from Albania into North Macedonia, and then do the same between Greece and Turkey.)

The landscape between Warsaw and Brest reminded me of the American Great Plains, although the farm land is more divided. At least the sun was shining; on a bicycle, cold and wind can be tolerated, but rain is soul-sucking.

Once these lands would have been part of the Pale of Settlement, but now all I saw was the occasional village and the croplands of small farms out on the prairie.

Crossing the Border at Terespol

Terespol is where my trip became challenging, as I missed the last shuttle train across the border and was told that bicycles could not be ridden on the divided highway (slightly out of town) that crosses into Belarus.

I thought of a taxi to the border, but none were parked near the station. Nor did I see one when I rode, with the sun setting at my back, into the small downtown of Terespol, to ask about border-crossing options.

Finally someone in the town square told me about a local bus that ran to Brest and pointed toward a stop. I stood, with my bike folded, by a signpost for about thirty minutes, until a crowded coach (everyone had packages) stopped in front of me and all of us waiting at the stop pushed aboard with lifeboat abandon.

I paid the $4 fare and sat with my bags in my lap and the bicycle piled in an open space near the driver. The lighting on the bus was dim, as if we were crossing into the Underworld.

At the border (think of an autoroute gas station), I had to schlep my bags and the bicycle through a series of kiosks that marked the exit from the European Union and into Belarus. At least “my papers” were in order.

In between, in no man’s land, there were duty-free shops selling mounds of vodka (Polish and Russian, making me wonder about the difference). An hour later I got back on the bus for the ten-minute ride into Brest, in history known as Brest-Litovsk.

Some of the disembarking passengers on the bus stood around me as I pieced the folding bicycle together and attached my saddle bags. It had the feeling of show-and-tell. Then I followed the directions that I was given for the Molodezhnaya Hotel (6, Komsomolskaya str.), said to be near the station.

Actually it was near the tracks. I could see the ornamental station from my street, but to ride there involved a convoluted obstacle course over a bridge and down and around a cloverleaf.

The Molodezhnaya had everything I ever want in hotel life, which is dinner, breakfast, and tolerance when it comes to keeping my bicycle in the room.

I laid out my maps of Belarus on the desk, piled my books on my bedside table, scanned my computer for incoming emails, and then ate dinner (“chicken surprise…”) in what felt like an Irish pub with a TV.

I did think about an after-diner ride around the darkened streets of Brest, but by then the cold evening winds (this was March after all) were blowing (as if from Siberia), and I went to bed.

Brest-Litovsk – Brest – Brześć – Brasta – Berestia – Brisk – Lietuvos Brasta – Brześć Litewski – Brest-on-the-Bug

I loved my two days in Brest although I never did figure out why it was called Brest-Litovsk during World War I, and all googling has achieved is to find a string of names previously associated with the town.

In the past 100 years, Brest has been Russian, Polish, Austrian, Ukrainian, Soviet, German, Jewish, Lithuanian, and Belorussian, and now it’s an overgrown, slightly forgotten, small city on the Polish border where East meets West in Belarus (in a way the River Bug is the new Berlin Wall).

From a bicycle standpoint, Brest has little traffic and quiet back streets, and to amuse myself I could wallow in the story of the 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which in World War I ended the fighting between Germany and Russia, and which (for a treaty that no one remembers) had a profound effect on the configuration of the modern world, especially in Eastern Europe.

The treaty explains much about the collapse of Austria-Hungary and the rise of the Soviet Union, if not Germany’s obsession (which became Hitler’s ) of Lebensraum to the east, as well as many of the issues that have defined the more modern Cold War.

If I were a college professor, I might be tempted to teach a course on its legacy (extra credit would be given for those coming to class on a bicycle and there would be a field trip to the White Palace).

Across Siberia on a Belarusian Sleeper

To get to the Brest Fortress, the citadel on the river, I biked through the downtown (lots of pedestrian streets and some monumental Soviet architecture) and headed in the direction of the railway museum (officially The Museum of Railway Engineering).

I was there when it opened at 10 a.m., and spent a happy forty-five minutes, in the misty cold weather, inspecting the rolling stock that was parked outside, including many engines with red stars under their head lamps. The agent selling tickets at the front door served me tea, as I was the only visitor that morning.

The sleeping cars on display in the yards reminded me of my only trip on the Trans-Siberian (I was the speaker on a privately organized train from Moscow to Ulan Bator), on which I was quartered in a Belorussian sleeper.

I had a compartment to myself (the trip took eight days), and on the bunk opposite mine I lined up my books, maps, computer, postcards, and camera, as if taking up permanent residence (which in some sense I was).

On the Trans-Siberian there’s less to see than meets the eye (imagine endless country that looks like Kansas). As it was June, I passed much of the time in the dining car, standing at an open vestibule door that was partly covered with a wrought-iron gate (to keep people like me from falling out). On that open-air perch I crossed Siberia. (Russians like to say: “God is high above, and tsar is far away.”)

Inside the Brest railway museum, I looked at model trains in display cabinets (one showed the Pride of Africa on its way from Dar es Salaam to Cape Town, part of which I rode in 2017).

Then I got back on the bike and followed street signs to the fortress, which was built across five islands in a strategic estuary between the rivers Bug and Mukhavets.

The Forgotten Peace Conference

At one time the fortress guarded the Russian borderlands from western invaders (although Napoleon passed around it to the north and Hitler blasted right through it in summer 1941).

Now the grounds of the fortress are a park containing six museums (each charge their own admission), but only one museum touches on the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and then only in passing. The Soviet Union and now Belarus have never dwelled on Russian defeats and the 1918 capitulations.

I rode my bicycle around the massive Soviet-style park, stopped for pictures of tanks and rusting artillery, inspected plaques and hulking medieval gates, and dutifully went into each museum, sure that somewhere I would discover where Leon Trotsky had memorably negotiated with the Germans. It was not to be.

All I could find, relating to the 1918 treaty, were these short paragraphs on one plaque, which reads:

On March, 3, 1918 the Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty was signed in the White Palace of Brest Fortress. According to it, Russia withdrew from the war, ceding an area 780 thousand square kilometers with population of 56 million.

Following the outbreak of the revolution in Germany, the Soviet government annulled the Brest-Litovsk Treaty on November 13, 1918.

Along with a few photographs of the treaty delegations, that was it. Imagine going to Versailles and finding almost nothing about the 1919 Peace of Paris.

Where the story of the peace treaty comes alive is in the pages of John W. Wheeler-Bennett’s Brest-Litovsk: The Forgotten Peace – March 1918, which was published in 1938, when the historian could still interview some of the participants in the negotiations.

It took me a long time to track down an affordable copy, as for some reason, for months, the only copies on Amazon were selling for $806.

Finally I found an affordable paperback in the United States. It looked like a former college textbook, with heavy underlining in the first and last chapters; the rest of the book, which tells the story of “peace without indemnities or annexations” (as Lenin so hoped), was untouched.

World War I Ends in the East

Wheeler-Bennett begins his history with the resignation of Tsar Nicholas II in March 1917, and carries the story (always set in Eastern Europe) to the armistice that ended the war on November 11, 1918.

In between he dwells on the treaty negotiations that took place at Brest Fortress, and—hard as it might be to believe—the book is a page turner.

In Russian history there were six months of uncertainty following the resignation of the tsar, before the Bolsheviks came to power promising to end the war at any price, when they renounced “secret treaties secretly arrived at.”

During the 1917 democratic interregnum, Kerensky’s Provisional Government continued the Russian alliance with the West (with the stipulation that no member would sign a separate peace) and to fight the Germans along a front that stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea and involved millions of soldiers, most of whom saw no hope in the misery of the endless war.

Wheeler-Bennett writes of summer 1917: “Peace with Germany at this moment and the convoking of the Constituent Assembly would have removed one of the highest trumps from Lenin’s hand, and would have done much to restore the confidence of the people in the Provisional Government. As it was, the Provisional Government treated the world to a performance of political suicide.”

Kerensky, however, continued fighting until the revolution swept him and his government aside in October 1917 (November by the new calendar).

The decision by Lenin’s government to sign a separate peace with Germany ended any hope of proletarian revolution in Germany (Lenin was handing the German monarchy a stunning victory in the East), and the Russian surrender to Germany was viewed as a betrayal in the West, which then had to fight alone the entire German army on the western front.

Wheeler-Bennett writes: “For what Lenin had decided upon was no less than the temporary abandonment of world revolution to save the Russian Revolution…. Bolshevism was but a new form of nationalism, and, also, to secure ultimately the eastern territories for Germany under the guise of self-determination.”

Talk is Strategically Cheap

The peace negotiations in winter 1918 at the Brest Fortress were like no others in history. As its evolved, Lenin’s strategy, which his peace negotiator Leon Trotsky carried out brilliantly, was to stop fighting but also to refuse to sign a peace treaty.

The Bolshevik goal was to consolidate power in Russia, stop the fighting, and tie up the Germans in endless palaver at Brest Fortress (while in the West the abandoned allies kept up the good fight in the trenches). Lenin’s slogans might have been utopian but his policies were as ruthless as Bismarck’s or Stalin’s.

Wheeler-Bennett describes the conversation in which Lenin dispatched Trotsky to the Brest frontier to engage the Germans in endless discussions on self-determination, dialectical materials, and the rights of man. He writes:

Lenin realized that to achieve this end someone of heavier calibre than [Russian diplomat Adolph] Joffe was required in charge of the operations. “To delay negotiations”, he said to Trotsky, “there must be someone to do the delaying.” Trotsky agreed. “You’ll do it, Lev Davidovitch? ” And again Trotsky agreed. The history of Brest-Litovsk had taken on a new aspect…. Against the might of German militarism Russia had but one remaining weapon, the incalculable capacity of the Slav for interminable conversation, and this weapon Lenin was prepared to use to its utmost capacity while he prepared in secret for a strategic retreat.

The scene at the Brest Fortress took on the air of a university debating club. The two delegations ate their meals together, discussed philosophy, and poured over maps. The Germans even supplied the Russians with a fleet of cars, for them to tour the area. (As I learned on my bicycle, there is little to see outside the town.)

As it was the German high command that had repatriated Lenin and his revolution (on that sealed train) to tsarist Russia, the Germans in Brest thought, for a while anyway, that they were playing with house money and that the negotiating wheels would be tilted in their favor. They misunderstood Trotsky.

Trotsky Holds Forth


It was the German high command back in Germany, not the feckless Kaiser, that drove the hard-line German position at the Brest peace talks.

While the Germans could militarily conquer Russia on the battlefield, they were unable to defeat Trotsky in negotiations. Wheeler-Bennett describes him this way:

Broad-chested, his huge forehead surmounted by great masses of black waving hair; his eyes strong and fierce, yet with traces of much human suffering about them; heavy protruding lips, with their little beard and moustache, Trotsky was the very incarnation of the revolutionary in caricature. Dynamic and tireless, he was consumed with the flame of his ardour, uncompromising and bitter in opposition, fearless and scornful in defeat. Versatile, cultivated, and eloquent, he could be charming in his rare occasions of good-humour, but in his more usual attitude of contemptuous anger, he was a freezing fire.

In his endless histrionics Trotsky was buying time for the revolution and calling the German bluff to occupy Russia militarily, as Wheeler-Bennett makes clear:

From this conviction sprang the germ of what Trotsky himself terms “that pedagogical demonstration ” which was expressed in the formula “We shall stop the war but we shall not sign the peace treaty.” It was necessary to test whether or not the Germans were able to send troops against Russia. If they were not, it would mean a definite victory with far-reaching consequences; while, if they were, it would be possible to capitulate at the point of the bayonet.

There were subplots in the negotiations that complicated the positions of both side.

Germany was handicapped because its ally, Austria-Hungary, was on the brink of collapse and needed grain from the Ukraine to stave off hunger and revolution (of the Leninist kind).

On its side, the Germans used the delays to bolster the negotiating position of an independent Ukraine, which in turn would become a German satellite. (If today you’ve noticed Russian troops mobilized on the Ukraine border, you can see that we’re still having this discussion.)

The Tilsit Peace

Finally, the German generals at the conference got fed up with Trotsky’s rhetorical flourishes, and they imposed what in the East is known as a “Tilsit peace”—harsh terms of the kind that Napoleon had imposed on Prussia at Tilsit (in what is now Kaliningrad) in 1807.

Wheeler-Bennett describes the terms of the 1918 peace:

It was just five o’clock on the afternoon of March 3, 1918, when the ceremony of signing the treaty of Brest-Litovsk was completed. By this agreement Russia lost 34 per cent of her population, 32 per cent of her agricultural land, 85 per cent of her beet-sugar land, 54 per cent of her industrial undertakings, and 89 per cent of her coal mines….At one stroke Germany had extended her control of Eastern Europe to the Arctic Ocean and the Black Sea…. such was the price which Lenin paid for the salvation of the Russian Revolution.

Russia lost not only Ukraine but what we now call the Baltic states (then Livonia and Estonia). And if you are looking for a modern analogy to Brest-Litovsk, keep in mind that after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the West expropriated Ukraine and the Baltic states from the surrendering union of socialist republics (a tsarist empire of another kind).

But consider this: after Lenin gave away the store to the German high command (which would then turn its guns to the west), Russia would not be trusted in western capitals for the next one hundred years, if not beyond.

Who Won at Brest-Litovsk?

For much of 1918, Germany appeared to have been the winner at Brest-Litovsk.

It took occupied much of Poland and western Russia (loosely defined) and shifted its forces to the west for the great offensive of spring 1918, which failed only because the Americans arrived in Europe in time to turn some key battles. (As Marine Corps Major Lloyd Williams said to a French officer who was ordering him back from the front lines near Belleau Wood: “Retreat, Hell! We just got here!”)

Ironically, it would be Trotsky and Lenin who emerged victorious at Brest-Litovsk, despite their endless concessions to the German negotiators. Wheeler-Bennett writes:

The Germans were now paying the price for the Napoleonic complex which had inspired Ludendorff in the negotiations of Brest-Litovsk. He saw himself bathed, in the sunlight of victory, creating and distributing kingdoms as had the Emperor of the French after the Peace of Tilsit. Lenin had been more accurate than he had dreamed when he described the peace terms of Brest as a Tilsit peace. It was true of both victor and vanquished…Yet, even in this moment of ephemeral triumph, there could almost be heard the voice of Nemesis crying through the Chamber the gibe that [Russian Karl] Radek had hurled into the indignant face of [German negotiator Max] Hoffmann, “It is your day now, but in the end the Allies will put a Brest-Litovsk treaty upon you”.

They did, and it was called the Treaty of Versailles, imposed a year later.

Next: The morning train to Pinsk. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.