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  1. Belarus has been recognized as an independent country since 1991, and ratified their Constitution in 1994. Its capital and most populous city is Minsk. It's the home of 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature recipient, Svetlana Alexievich, who gained fame for writing in a journalistic style about the Chernobyl disaster with "Voices from Chernobyl." The most famous of all Belarusians is possibly Marc Chagall; not far behind is "The Sparrow from Minsk," Olga Korbut. Belarus is landlocked, and surrounded by five countries: The two "Ls" (Latvia and Lithuania) to the Northwest, and the big "PUR" (Poland, Ukraine, and Russia) which wraps around the rest of the country. Belarus is approximately the same size as Kansas, albeit with more than triple the population (9.5 million vs. 2.9 million). It is neither considered a "Baltic" (Baltic Sea) nor a "Balkan" (Balkan Mountains) nation.
  2. Have you ever seen those old bumper stickers? The ones that said, "A little nukie never hurt anybody!" You haven't seen them in awhile now, have you. Yesterday, I finished "Voices from Chernobyl," one of the two masterworks by Belarussian journalist Svetlana Alexievich - winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature (her other notable work being "Zinky Boys" - a tragic nickname for Russian soldiers shipped home from the Afghanistan war in zinc coffins). The title, in Russian, is "Чернобыльская молитва," translating to "Chernobyl Prayer" (which is the British title; "Voices from Chernobyl" is the American title - both are appropriate, as the book is essentially a meditation on the aftermath). This book follows a pattern completely foreign to what I'm familiar with when it comes to Nobel Prize Winners in Literature: Not only is it non-fiction, but Alexievich didn't even write it; she instead spent several years interviewing hundreds of people affected by the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, and compiled their lightly edited anecdotes into a series of "short stories" - stories obtained, compiled, arranged, and presented by Alexievich, but not written in her own hand. Before reading this book, I had done virtually no research into Chernobyl, and that's why I chose it over Zinky Boys - all other things being equal, I viewed it as a chance to educate myself about what might become the single deadliest event in human history (up until now). The final death toll from Chernobyl will not be known for centuries, but it could conceivably be over one-million people, even though only 49 people died immediately. A United Nations study estimates 4,000 deaths as the final toll, but different reports vary wildly, as you might imagine. I will add that these aren't merely "deaths," but some of them are the worst types of deaths imaginable - I won't sicken you with pictures, but they're out there, on the internet: You'd be doing yourself an intellectual service if you searched for them, but I must warn you of their grotesque nature. "Deaths Due to the Chernobyl Disaster" on wikipedia.com "Chernobyl Death Toll: 985,000, Mostly from Cancer" by Prof. Karl Grossman on globalresearch.ca "25 Years after Chernobyl, We Don't Know How Many Died" by Roger Highfield on newscientist.com The Good If you haven't read "Voices from Chernobyl," the odds are probably pretty good that you don't know much about the Chernobyl disaster. The Soviet Union - only several years from complete collapse - did a magnificent job of covering up the meltdown, and it's only because they detected radioactivity in *Sweden* - many hundreds of miles away - that any problem manifested itself. Within days, scientists traced the problem back to the Soviet Union, based primarily upon no obvious faults in Swedish reactors, and wind patterns from earlier that week, blowing from the southeast. The Soviet Union confessed only when they were backed into a corner, and even then downplayed the magnitude of the calamity - even to its own people, some of whom suffered (and continue to suffer) the most horrific deaths and birth defects imaginable - some of these people simply do not look human, and you wonder how they could possibly be alive. To my knowledge, this is the most comprehensive work ever published about the after-effects of Chernobyl on its victims, and it was absolutely courageous, bare-knuckled journalism on the part of Alexievich that produced this incredibly important book, without which, Chernobyl might have been completely forgotten in future generations. There are dozens of anecdotes from "liquidators" (800-or-so workers who cleaned the ceiling of the core), widows, teachers, children, residents, exiles, farmers, scientists, and any other person you could imagine would be affected by proximity to "The Dead Zone." Alexievich did a masterly job of gathering and assembling anecdotes, and arranged them in a way that gave the book a steady progression - by the end, you'll have been hit with so many tales of tragedy and sorrow, that there's no way you'll emerge from this book unscathed. The gravitas of both the stories and the "positions" of people telling them seems to escalate as the book advances, lending a natural crescendo to the recollections. The final anecdote, only about ten pages long, is one of the most beautiful - and tragic - love stories I've ever read. The Bad I need to be careful how I say this because I mean absolutely no disrespect to Alexievich. The author did not ask to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, for this, or for any of her other works, so it's not her "fault" that she won. However, I feel it would be more appropriate to have awarded Alexievich the Nobel Peace Prize, rather than the Nobel Prize in Literature. The stories become bogged down towards the middle of this book - all starting to run together - and it's because of sheer quantity, even more than quality, that you come away from this tale a changed person. If enough people shoot enough paint balls at you, no matter how badly they shoot, you're eventually going to be covered in paint. Having finished Voices from Chernobyl, I could now read anything by Alexievich - anything at all - and I would have no clue that it was she who wrote it, because I have absolutely no idea what she writes like, or what her voice is. In removing herself almost entirely from this book, and allowing the words of the people to take center stage, she remains a complete unknown to me as a writer. Is that Nobel Prize-worthy - organizing the words of others, and presenting them in some semblance of order? Is what I do here Nobel Prize-worthy? The Ugly Literature or not, you really "should" read this book. It is an undeniably important presentation of information, and you will walk away enlightened and educated about the horrors of Chernobyl. And isn't that why she wrote it? You will need supplemental information, because this deals *only* with the aftermath of the meltdown, and not the actual mechanics or politics of the reactor or the government - you will almost surely have a desire to read additional material about what, exactly, happened, because this book just doesn't tell you. It is, in essence, a "tribute piece" to the victims of Chernobyl's fallout; it is not an indictment of the Soviet Union, nor is it a primer about nuclear physics. You will finish the book not having a clue what happened at the reactor, but you'll have painfully detailed memories of what happened to those who were near it. Voices from Chernobyl, despite not being enjoyable, is required reading. It's not as painful as I'm making it out to be - whatever suffering you incur will come from within yourselves, as the book merely presents memories from survivors; not cries from the dead.
  3. "Because the winds were blowing to the northwest that day." Continuing Al Dente's quest for the remote, mysterious and dangerous parts of our world, I'd like to add the Polesie State Radioecological Reserve to the list. In 1986, the main reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant experienced a full meltdown, and the U.S.S.R. covered up the incident for as long as they could - several days - until one day, in *Sweden* of all places, nuclear-plant workers began setting off dosimeters - meters that read how much radioactivity is on your body and clothing - sort of like when you step through a metal detector - started showing abnormally high readings. Workers at Forsmark, a nuclear power plant a couple hours north of Stockholm, began setting off these detectors, and naturally, all attention turned towards Forsmark itself. When nobody could find anything wrong, people began suspecting a nuclear bomb went off somewhere in Europe, but there were no reports; eventually - within a matter of days - the trail led to Chernobyl, and the U.S.S.R. government had no choice but to end their cover-up and admit that the worst-possible situation had occurred: Chernobyl's core reactor had experienced full meltdown. Yes, it is the *Swedes* we have to thank for alerting to the world to Chernobyl! How could this be, when Forsmark was over 2,500 kilometers away from the accident? And nothing at all was reported, or even detected, in Kiev, which was less than 150 kilometers away from the disaster? "Because the winds were blowing to the northwest that day." Other than at Chernobyl itself, where a relatively small number of people quickly died of radioactive burns, there weren't any immediate symptoms - the skies were blue, the birds were singing, the animals were being animals, and everything looked and seemed normal, except for this strange, unearthly light coming from the center of the reactor. and the Soviet men working on the ceiling - "liquidators" they were called - bore the brunt of it, and many died quickly - but what was yet to come was an invisible, silent killer. Instead of dying quickly from nuclear burns, people began dying more slowly of radiation sickness, and it occurred in a much larger perimeter - miles and miles in diameter, instead of immediately on the rooftop of the reactor. I will soon be reporting on a book about the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster - an important book, a book that everyone should read. But for now, I'm here to discuss the Polesie State Radioecological Reserve - a park immediately to the northwest of Chernobyl, just beyond the village of Pripyat (which got hit the hardest), and across the border into Belarus. Many people think Chernobyl is in Belarus, but it's actually in northern Ukraine (see the town at the northern end of the Dniepper River? And see how close Kiev is down on the southern end?) This map also shows that the Reserve is almost all inside of Belarus - because the winds were blowing to the northwest that day. The Reserve - acting as a buffer between the population and Chernobyl - was founded in 1988, two years after the explosion, and is not all that large: less than 40 square kilometers. Ironically, due to the virtual absence of humans, both flora and fauna are developing in beautiful and encouraging ways that has caught the attention of biologists. Nevertheless, if a human were to live there for an extended period of time, radiation sickness or related conditions would occur, just as they'll be occurring for tens of thousands of years. Sadly, that is not a typo, and yes, the flora and fauna have shown signs of nuclear contamination, but you cannot stop birds from flying unless you kill them all, and believe me, an early effort was made to shoot *all* animals within proximity of the plant. This surely qualifies as being one of the most mysterious and dangerous places on earth, even though it's unfortunately not one of the most remote. Here is their official website. If this hasn't jogged your memory about the nuclear plant being struck by the 2011 tsunami in northern Japan, it probably should. Sushi lovers have conveniently put things out of their minds, but they must be out of their minds, so to speak.
  4. Sooooooo I travel a lot as an extension of my interests in food, art, and politics. I had wanted to go to Belarus for a long long time and made the jump finally last year. First off go!!! It's a very special place that doesn't get enough attention especially from nature lovers. Not that I am a nature lover BUT it is a very beautiful country that is sorta covered by some of the last forests of its type in Europe. They even have a national park (has a very long hard to write name) that have buffalo that are among the last buffalo in Europe!! So anyway GREAT for nature and even history etc but also interesting for food...... Forget the restaurants YOU NEED TO EAT AT THE MARKETS. The cold cuts and dairy as well as some of the candies are really really good. CANNOT EMPHASIZE THE DAIRY ENOUGH. The dairy products, in my opinion, were among the best I have ever had. The yogurt, sirok candies (hard to describe but online they call it a cheese cake thing which sorta describes it), all really top notch. Also very nice cold cuts particularly the salo!!! NOW I don't usually eat lard on the reg BUT they really know what there doing with it here and its a must try. Also the bread, CANNOT FORGET THE BREAD!!! The dark (rye?) bread with the salo is a winning combo!!! Restaurants were kinda forgettable BUT that dairy I won't ever forget.... Also if you can do a home-stay, at least at my one, they had amazing food. Really top notch meal particularly the stuffed cabbage. I wished I could've eaten more but that meal still remains among my best in the former soviet union and among the most memorable of my travels! If I had been a poster on this website then I would've kept more info on specifics so sorry about that BUT AGAIN GO TO THE MARKETS!!!
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