Letters From Minsk: The Pripet Marshes

Historic downtown Pinsk, once part of the Russian Pale of Settlement, now in Belarus.

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

Before leaving the Brest Fortress (on the Belarus-Polish border) I inspected various museums and monuments from the Second World War, when again the fortress was a bastion fought over by Russians and Germans.

For the museum directors, that narrative is much easier to display than the 1918 capitulations of Brest-Litovsk, as there are only heroic Russian soldiers of the people’s Red Army and wicked Nazis—although explanation about the 1939 partitioning of Poland requires some mental gymnastics.

Here’s how the display cases explain the 1939 Nazi-Stalin partition of Poland: “The international situation and the state interest of the USSR determined the Soviet Government’s decision of September 17, 1939 to deploy the Red Army troops in Western Byelorussia and Western Ukraine. On September 22, 1939 Red Army troops entered Brest and its fortress.”

The Brest Ghetto

From the fortress I rode my bicycle back into town, to see what remains of Jewish Brest, which is where former Prime Minister Menachen Begin was born (the house is gone) and the family of the Israeli prime minster, Benjamin Netanyahu, once lived.

Before the war, nearly half of the population was Jewish—this was a prime corner in the Pale of Settlement—and some 30,000 residents were killed in the Holocaust, beginning in 1942, when the invading Germans were in full control. The date of the Wannsee Conference, at which agreement was reached on the “final solution”, was January 20, 1942, and Brest was an early casualty.

One old synagogue in town is now a movie theatre. Others have become stores or were destroyed in the war. I found only one memorial, a tombstone monument, engraved with a menorah and wreathed in fresh flowers, in a small downtown park.

I thought that the City History Museum might have more on Jewish life in Brest, but the small house (on the edge of a park) only had a few pictures, some wooden animals, a samovar, and samples of embroidery. History isn’t what it used to be.

Before retreating to my hotel for the night, I stopped by the railroad station and asked about tickets to Pinsk, a city near the Pripet Marshes, about four hours east of Brest.

Over the course of my stay in Belarus, I was often in Brest station, which is something of a gateway for the Russian-dominated east.

The station dates to the early twentieth century, and has a massive waiting hall, where passengers, surrounded by luggage wrapped in string, sit impassively. It has the air of socialism’s waiting room.

The Morning Train to Pinsk

I bought a ticket on a Pinsk morning local that departed around 8 a.m., which gave me time for my hotel breakfast (back in the Irish pub) and to bike up and down the overpass between my hotel and the station.

A few other passengers were on the train, but neither they or the conductor paid any attention to my folded bicycle, and I passed the time reading, sipping tea from my thermos, studying my maps, and looking out the window at the marshland.

What took me to Pinsk was a bit of family business. When our children were small, my favorite book to read to them in the evenings was It Happened in Pinsk written by Arthur Yorinks and delightfully illustrated by Richard Egielski.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux published the book in 1987, the same year that our first child was born, and sometimes I think the reason we had children is so that we would have an excuse to read It Happened in Pinsk once a week for the next twenty years (which covers the consecutive bedtime reading of our four children).

Maybe Arthur Yorinks thought up the story, but more likely he retold a tale from the worlds of Issac Bashevis Singer or Sholem Aleichem, or someone similar.

Irv Irving

In the story, set, of course, in Pinsk, shoe salesman Irv Irving (“Nice clothes…Good food…A Telephone…”) loses his head, so his wife Irma makes him a new one from an old pillow. (She says, in wifely fashion: “Oh, Irv. Every day you lose something. Your keys. Your glasses. Now this.”)

Wanting to find his real head, Irv searches frantically through the town, where none of his old friends, including Seymour the barber, recognize him. (Seymour actually thinks he’s Leo Totski, who owes him for five shaves.)

In fact, the Pinsk police chase him, thinking the pillow-headed Irv is that hardened criminal, Igor Kalinski (“I’ve got you now,” the police shout, as they race after him through the city streets).

Finally Irv discovers that his real head is for sale in the shop window of Hats by Petrov. He steals it back, eludes the police, and returns home to his wife, who is happy that her husband has been reunited with his head. The book ends with these words: “After this, Irv was not known to complain hardly ever again.”

Not Happening in Pinsk

Pinsk today looks nothing like Irv Irving’s hometown—a Jewish shtetl in the Pale of Settlement.

Belarusian Pinsk is regional city, with a pedestrian main street, some churches, a few museums, the people’s parks, and some of the ugliest hotels in the former Soviet Union.

I know about the hotels, as, after riding into town from the station, I checked into one of them, the Hotel Andre (room 601), which was straight out of the box of a five-year plan.

It had a single bed that sagged, a concrete balcony, a small refrigerator that didn’t work, and a television set that must have gone up with Sputnik.

At least I was in Pinsk. I dropped my gear on the sagging bed and set out to explore the town, where I discovered several lovely streets of old houses but no merchants pushing carts or Hats by Petrov. (But then even at the Public Garden in Boston, I don’t find many lines of marching ducklings.)

I had lunch and coffee in the old quarter and went to something called the Museum of the Polish Occupation, which was less about the 1919-20 Polish–Soviet War (won by Poland, which then occupied Pinsk) and more about farm tools—butter churners, nets to trap ducks, etc. The director proudly walked me around the exhibits.

In the lobby of the Occupation museum a crafts fair was in progress, and at one of the stalls a man was selling engraved spoons. With Christmas (always) in mind, I reeled off the names of my wife and daughters, which prompted a manhunt—so to speak—as he and his co-workers poured through the vast spoon collection searching for their names in Cyrillic. (We got close: my wife became “Konstantsiya” and one daughter “Elena”.)

The Pripet Marshes

After spooning, I decided on a bike ride through the Pripet Marshes (a bit like the Everglades, but spread out on the steppe). I rode on a main road out of the city along the banks of the Pripet River and very quickly was in the countryside, some of which was swampy, although I think the main part of the marshland is more to the east. (In the last hundred years both Nazi and Soviet officials contemplated draining the swamps, as they were often hideouts for insurgents.)

On my two-hour ride (sometimes into a stiff, Siberian wind), I came to better understand why the marshes get a shout-out, as a black hole of sorts, in so many books about the world wars in the east or invasions of Russia.

In World War I, for example, the marshes disrupted the advances of the Austrian Fourth Army, allowing the Russians to capture the Austrian city of Lemberg (Lviv).

In World War II, when Hitler had to divide his invasions into three prongs (toward St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Stalingrad), the marshes became a wedge in the advancing German lines that the Russians filled with irregulars.

In Alan Furst’s game-of-shadows novel The Polish Officer, about the outbreak of World War II in the east, one of the characters says to a potential recruit to the spy world:

We want to offer you a job, but I’m going to emphasize that you have a choice. You can go out to one of the regular combat divisions—we’re going to make a stand on the Bzura River, and, in addition, some of the units are going to try and hold out in the Pripet Marshes in the eastern provinces. The nation is defeated, but idea of the mustn’t be. So, if that’s what you want to do, to die on the battlefield, I won’t stop you….Or come to work for us.”

In some histories that I have read about the 1941 German invasion of Russia (the best is Alan Clark’s Barbarossa), one reason given for the failure is the divide that the marshes (nature’s tank trap) spread apart the advancing German lines, which were slowed and stretched just far enough so that they stalled in front of Moscow and St. Petersburg, as winter set in.

The Overnight Train to Minsk

Originally I had planned to spent two days in Pinsk, but the second of those days was to be a Sunday, when, I discovered, there were no direct train connections to the Belarus capital. The last through train left late on Saturday night, and there wasn’t another direct train until Monday morning.

I could have stayed over until Sunday and caught a bus to Minsk, but the prospect of five hours on Belorusian Trailways didn’t fill me with delight. Instead, after brooding over my unattractive choices, during my day in Pinsk, I paid $7 for a berth on the Saturday night sleeper, which left Pinsk around midnight and arrived in Minsk at 6 a.m. I could decide later whether to use the ticket or spend the night in Hotel Andre.

As with the bus, the night train wasn’t an ideal solution, but I was paying $7 for an insurance premium that would get me out of Pinsk. (Furst recalls a Hungarian saying: “One should never enter a room or country the door of which cannot be opened from the inside.”)

With my get-out-of-town ticket in hand, I ate dinner in the large main dining room of the Hotel Andre, where there was a wedding in progress and several other parties. Vodka seemed to be the plat du jour.

I listened to the band, which played rock classics with the lyrics translated into Russian, and in the half-light read my Kindle (I wasn’t exactly a wedding crasher), and then around 11 p.m. I made up my mind to skip town, checked out of the hotel, and rode slowly on my bicycle to the train station.

Skipping Town

On a cold March Saturday evening, Pinsk was desolate. I chose a new route to the station, through what I imagined had once been part of the shtetl, although now all I saw were Soviet-era bungalow houses surrounded by well-tended gardens.

Since the Pale of Settlement closed out-of-town (so to speak), Pinsk has been Russian, German, Polish, Ukrainian, Nazi, Soviet, and Belorusian—and in that list I might have omitted a few people’s republics that flew flags from the town square.

Pedaling along in the darkness I recalled the first words to Arthur Yorinks’s book, in which he writes: “Ah, Pinsk, could there be a lovelier city? No. And in all of Pinsk, there is not a more beautiful boulevard than Nevsky Avenue.” But I was a long way from Nevsky Avenue.

The station waiting room was locked, so I had to stand outside in the chilly air with a handful of other travelers until a little before midnight, when the blue cars of the long sleeper backed into the platform.

My compartment was large, and I had it to myself. On a European train that feels like a lottery win, especially when you’ve paid only $7 for the berth. (Sleepers on Amtrak are now $500 a night—so much for “mass” transit.)

I feel asleep instantly and slept well as the train meandered and shunted through the Belorusian night. Just before 6 a.m., I was unfolding my bicycle on a platform in Minsk, wondering if the Garni Hotel (where I had reserved for that night) would grant me an early check-in. As a race, East European hotel clerks tend not to be very forgiving, but I did leave the station with a spring in my step, well, pedal.

Next: Arrival in Minsk. 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.