By Anne Coombes
There’s no denying that most of the world’s population have little idea that Belarus exists. Those that have heard of it are likely to associate the country either with gas supplies or with ‘Europe’s last dictator’ – as Condoleeza Rice refers to him. However, this modest country has a far greater legacy than most of us can imagine, giving the world a significant number of its notable sportsmen, writers and artistes.
How many of us would have guessed that gravel voiced Kirk Douglas – known for his roles in Spartacus and Lust for Life - was born to Belarusian parents? They emigrated from Gomel to the USA when Kirk was just three years old, in 1919. Likewise, top American designer Ralph Lauren’s parents are from Belarus (his father from Pinsk and his mother from Grodno) – although they immigrated to the US before he was born.
Belarus also has its fair share of writers. Science-fiction king Isaac Asimov was born in the village of Petrovichi in the Mogilev Region of Belarus. Over his lifetime, he was involved in writing more than 500 books (and has works in nine of the ten major categories of the Dewey Decimal System – all but Philosophy). Few realise that Fyodor Dostoevsky - one of Russia’s greatest prose writers – was born into a Belarusian family. Although his parents had moved to Moscow by the time he arrived in the world, they hailed from the small Belarusian village of Dostoevo in the Ivanovo District. Last autumn, the village celebrated the 500th anniversary of the famous family. Sadly, their home was destroyed during the 1960s land reforms.
On a melodic note, Irving Berlin was born in Mogilev in 1888. His family left for the US in 1893 and he grew up there – considering himself a dedicated patriot. He composed an amazing 3,000 songs in his lifetime - including such greats as ‘God Bless America’, ‘White Christmas’, ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’, ‘Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)’, ‘Cheek to Cheek’ and ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’. He was also responsible for 17 film scores and 21 Broadway scores.
Belarus has brought forth some of our world’s most prominent athletes. Just think of Olga Korbut – from Grodno – who won four gold medals and two silver medals at the Summer Olympics of 1972 and 1976 (on the Soviet team). Known as ‘The Sparrow from Minsk’, she won judges and audiences over with her technically miraculous moves. She was the first person to do a backward somersault on the balance beam, a standing backward somersault on the bars and a back somersault to swingdown (still known as the Korbut Flip) on the beam. Moreover, her open displays of emotion contrasted wildly with old eastern bloc stereotypes – making her the darling and idol of every teenage girl; worldwide, they flocked to join gymnastic clubs - inspired by plucky Olga. The focus of the sport shifted from mature elegance to high-energy acrobatics performed by willowy adolescents, truly changing the face of modern gymnastics.
Belarus also has a knack for producing wonderful tennis players. Among the most well known is Minsk’s Max Mirnyi (nicknamed The Beast for his aggressive play and his height of 6ft 5in/ 195cm). He won the US Open Doubles in 2000 and 2002, the 2005 French Open and reached Wimbledon’s 2003 doubles final (ranking doubles number one that year). He has amassed around US$7 million in winnings so far. Another well known figure in the world of tennis is Maria Sharapova – whose parents fled from Gomel in Belarus in 1986 - to escape fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear accident. They settled in Siberia and their baby girl was born less than a year later. Her father brought Maria to the United States for training at the tender age of 7 – where she has resided ever since. At the end of 2006, she was the world’s highest-paid female athlete, having won two Grand Slam singles titles, the 2004 Wimbledon event and the 2006 U.S. Open. Other notable sporting heroes include Yulia Nesterenko from Brest, who took the Olympic gold at Athens in 2004. Her 10.93 second finish in the 100m made her the first non- American to win since 1980 (when the American team boycotted the Moscow Games). At the Sydney 2000 Olympics, Yekaterina Karsten took gold for rowing, Yanina Korolchik for shot-put and Ellina Zvereva for discus.
Finally, we must mention Marc Chagall, who was born in Vitebsk - the oldest of nine children in a Jewish family. His father was a herring merchant and he described his young years as happy though impoverished; he drew inspiration from the simple Belarusian peasant existence surrounding him. At the age of 20, he moved to St. Petersburg to study but regularly visited his home town. It was there that he met his future wife, Bella. He later moved to Paris but returned to take an active role in the Russian Revolution of 1917. He became a Commissar of Art for the Vitebsk region, where he founded an art school. However, he found life difficult under the Soviet system and took his wife back to Paris in 1923 – making himself persona non grata for the rest of his lifetime in the USSR. Following Nazi occupation, they escaped to the US. Vitebsk’s Chagall Museum – founded in 1997 - stands in the building where his family lived but contains only copies rather than originals.
Shimon Peres, Israel’s new President, was born in Belarus in 1923 in the village of Vishnevo in the Minsk Region. This Nobel Prize winner served as Prime Minister of Israel from 1984-1986 and from 1995-1996