Belarus has been billed as Europe’s last dictatorship. Aleksander Lukashenko has totally controlled the government apparatus for almost thirty years. This has made Belarus an outlier in Europe, Soviet style state that continues to be a political pariah. Currently, Belarus does not have much in common with either Poland or Lithuania, thought it has been historically connected to both. While the latter pair have joined the European Union and grown increasingly prosperous, Belarus continues to languish far behind the rest of Europe. Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, which was partly launched from Belarus only served to set the country back even further. Belarus has a long way to go when it comes to human rights, freedom of the press and openness to democracy.
In 2000, Belarusians learned that they had something more than historical ties in common with both Poland and Lithuania, a claim that the Geographical Midpoint of Europe was in Belarus. This claim was received with a great deal of skepticism, which did not come as a surprise. The Center of Europe on Belarusian territory, even it was just geographical, was a thought that many were not willing to stomach due to the nature of its government. Adding to the skepticism, the midpoint’s location was in the countryside, but marked with a monument in the city of Polotsk sixty kilometers to the northeast. Despite such misgivings, the Belarusian midpoint does offer those searching for the Center of Europe an opportunity to visit a country that most know little about.
Natural History – A More Ancient Europe
At the beginning of the 21st century, a couple of Belarusian scientists published findings that the Geographical Midpoint of Europe was located near Lake Sho in the northern part of the country. The location was exceedingly remote by European standards, but also quite beautiful. Thick pine forests and pristine lakes dot the area. When people think of Belarus, they often think of the Soviet Union and industrialized, urban cityscapes. There is another Belarus though. One full of serene nature, extraordinary bird life and shimmering waters. Anyone traveling deep into the countryside on a journey to the midpoint is bound to discover this Belarus, one only known to its inhabitants and the odd traveler that has taken the time and energy to explore this entrancing landscape. This is a land of natural wonder, where the draconian political environment of Minsk is a world away.
The Belarusian claim to the Center of Europe may be open to question, but it is not out of the realm of possibility. Consider that the first claimed midpoint in Sucholow, Poland, the most scientifically accurate one near Girija, Lithuania and the Belarusian claim near Lake Sho could all hypothetically be visited on the same day on an eight hour drive. The proximity of the three midpoints means that the true Geographical Center of Europe is likely somewhere in this area. The area also acts as a corrective to the image of Europe that many have of a heavily urbanized and ultra-modern continent. The Europe found in northeastern Poland, southeastern Lithuania and northern Belarus is the more natural one that has existed since time immemorial. The next time someone refers to Old Europe, it is unlikely that they are talking about this region, but they should.
Crossing Over – Lithuania & Europe
Crossing the border from Belarus to Lithuania on the way to visit yet another the Geographical Center of Europe also means crossing one of Europe’s greatest geopolitical fault lines. From autocracy to democracy, dictatorship to the peaceful transfer of power, fixed elections to free elections, unity by force to unity by choice, Belarus and Lithuania could not be any more different. While the differences are glaring, there are also some striking similarities, specifically in the natural world. Lithuania, like Belarus, has thick forests and stunningly clear lakes. Like Belarus, Lithuania also has a claim on the Center of Europe which can be found in the countryside. Of all the claims for the Geographical Midpoint of Europe, Lithuania’s has the most scientific backing. The fact that this claim for the Center of Europe did not originate from Lithuanians gives it a degree of credibility that the other claimants lack. It came out of France which, except for the time Napoleon and his Grande Armee spent in Lithuania during his invasion and retreat from Russia, has no clear connection to Lithuania.
Calculations done by the French National Geographic Institute placed the midpoint in a field near the village of Girija, just half an hour by bus from the capital of Vilnius. The claim has been wholeheartedly embraced by the Lithuanian government, which saw it as a way of bringing the small Baltic country that much closer to Europe. Of all the monuments that have been placed at the various midpoint claims, the one in Lithuania is by far the most grandiose. It is an expression of Lithuania’s need to be recognized as European. The work of sculptor Gediminas Jokubonis, the monument is a white granite column crowned with gold stars. A little further back stands a nine-ton boulder which was placed on the site several years earlier. The Lithuanians wanted to make it as clear as possible that the Center of Europe was within their borders.
Frontier To Forefront – Present At The Center
The Center of Europe monument in Lithuania is part of a reserve which was created at the site in 1992, incorporating nearby Lake Girija and Bernotai Hill which contains the archaeological remnants of a castle that stood atop the latter from the 1st through the 5th centuries AD. This deep rooted cultural history adds to the aesthetics of the site. The monument for the Center of Europe was unveiled on May 1, 2004, the same day that Lithuania joined the European Union. Flags of the member states of the European Union fly on-site with the Lithuanian tricolor in all its red, yellow, and green glory unfurling alongside of them. For Lithuanians, joining this exclusive club of the most progressive and prosperous countries in Europe was the ultimate culmination of their fight for independence.
Freeing Lithuania from the yoke of foreign rule had been centuries in the making. The scientific claim that the Center of Europe resides within its territory is a point of great pride for all Lithuanians. Rather than being located on the far flung frontiers of Europe and subsumed within Greater Poland, the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union, as it was for hundreds of years, Lithuania is now part of what might be called mainstream Europe. The country has come a long way since it gained independence in 1991, but as the French National Geographic Institute’s calculations showed, Lithuania was already at the Center of Europe.
Click here for: Floating Away – Saaremaa: An Estonian Island (Searching For The Center of Europe #6)