Crossing Borders

Ingo Petz:

Ingo Petz was born in Stolberg (North Rhine-Wesphalia) in 1973. After studying Eastern European history and Slavic studies in Cologne and Volgograd, Russia, he volunteered at the Kölnische Rundschau newspaper. He traveled to New Zealand for two years in 2002, where he worked as a freelance correspondent for the German media. In 2004 he received a scholarship from the Marion Gräfin Dönhoff exchange program and traveled to Baku, Azerbaijan. He has lived in Berlin since 2004, and works for newspapers and magazines such as the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Der Standard, Geo Special, and brand eins among others.

Mr. Petz is considered one of the most distinguished authorities on Belarus, a country that he has been visiting for 15 years. In addition to his work as a journalist, he has also organized concerts and readings for Belarusian musicians and writers. He is the publisher of the Red Book of Belarusian Music and a compilation CD with Belarusian bands and musicians, and he is also a member of the German-Belarusian Society’s board. On top of that, he also published two books: Kuckucksuhren in Baku. Reise in ein Land, das es wirklich gibt (“Cuckoo clocks in Baku – a trip to a country that really exists”) (2006), and Kiwi Paradise. Reise in ein verdammt gelassenes Land (“Kiwi paradise – a trip to a damn relaxed country”) (2008).
Wo bitte geht’s nach Belarus – Meine Reisen in die unbekannteste Mitte Europas (Which way to Belarus – my travels to the most unknown center of Europe)

Nothing’s obvious in Belarus. Anyone that wants to get to know this Eastern European country needs to be patient, adventurous, and have a good eye – because who knew that the Renaissance, the Reformation, and even Judaism influenced Belarusian heritage? Who has heard the name Uladzimir Karatkievich – a writer who almost single-handedly led the Belarusian literature into the modern age? Who today travels to Vitebsk, the birthplace of Marc Chagall, which at the beginning of the twentieth century was a thriving center of cultural modernity? Ninety years later, a colorful landscape picks up where those times left off. Belarus has hundreds of lakes, which from space look like age-old eyes staring into the present, and the Pripet Marshes are located here – the largest swamp area in Europe – with a peaty aroma so powerful it even follows you into your dreams. And nowhere does the sky hang as mesmerizingly high as it does here, on the edge of Europe.

Politically, Belarus is the “North Korea of Europe” – inaccessible terrain. Not only because the autocratic President Alyaksandr Lukashenka led the country into isolation. Belarus, or “Weißrussland” (“White Russia”), as it is called in German, seems to have been forgotten when the rest of the region was tearing down the Iron Curtain. With its monstrous neoclassical boulevards and wild collective farms, it looks like an open-air museum of socialism. Globalization, capitalism, the EU, in fact even the twenty-first century have all steered clear of this island where time stands still. Many believe Belarus is only a Russian satellite, and view it as politically ill, anachronistic, bleak, and even sinister.

But anyone who spends enough time and comes with an open mind will be surprised by this country with its hospitable people and its complex history, which holds few simple answers but remains an inseparable part of European identity. Because in Belarus, where empires, political systems, and armies have clashed for centuries, often in bloody battles, and left a devastated country and millions dead in their wake, history is still shaped by the legends of the victorious in Warsaw, Vilnius, and Moscow. Historical monuments that honor the period before World War II or the Soviet Union are rare. The country’s occupation by the Nazis was a particular social and cultural disaster for the country and its inhabitants. One out of every four Belarusians died. Towns and cities were wiped clean off the map, and Jews, who often made up more than half of a city’s population, were murdered. After Stalin had the intelligentsia executed in the thirties, the remaining elite were killed off in the war. Belarus was robbed of its history – and its future.

With this project, Ingo Petz wants to throw open the door to this unfamiliar country in the heart of Europe. The book strives to tell story – in an entertaining yet also deep and dense manner – of a country that is still above all else associated with the Chernobyl disaster and the label “Europe’s last dictatorship.” Blending journalistic, literary, and essayistic styles, the book introduces the reader to Belarus’s history, culture, and current political developments – and does so through the critical enthusiasm of the author, who became well acquainted with the country during his intensive travels over the past 15 years.

The essay was published in April 2011, in a book about Belarus by Eastern Europe historian Thomas Bohn. In addition, Ingo Petz is currently working on a book about Belarus, which will most likely be published by Suhrkamp/Insel.

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I have been traveling to Belarus for 15 years – and I had no doubt that at some point I would write a book about my second home. These trips can also be considered part of the research that led to this book. In the end, I once again traveled to the land between Warsaw and Moscow during the last two years, to the marshes in the south, to the west, which for many Belarusian patriots is the direction of their longing, to Vitebsk, the birthplace of painter Marc Chagall, to historic sites, to remote villages, to the banks of the Neman River (known as the Memel in Germany). I met with musicians, writers, and politicians as well as with farmers, construction workers, and bums. I listened to them and also drank with them – quite simply to understand why I was so fascinated with Belarus and why this country is so unknown in Europe.