hidden europe 25

Belarus: Tanya's Story

by Nigel Roberts

Picture above: The memorial stone and bell commemorating the losses of the Chernobyl catastrophe in Vetka — erected in front of the newly built Orthodox church (photo © Nigel Roberts).


Vetka is a small town in the southeast corner of Belarus. This community and the surrounding landscape of lakes and forests were terribly affected by the nuclear catastrophe at Chernobyl in 1986. Nigel Roberts, a first-time contributor to hidden europe, knows Vetka well. Here he introduces us to Vetka life through the eyes of one family.

In hidden europe 22 we reviewed the new Bradt Travel Guide to Belarus by Nigel Roberts. While reading the book in anticipation of reviewing it, we were very struck that the author concludes his study of the country with a brief account of the town of Vetka, an out of the way community in the far southeast of the country. "Vetka," he wrote, "is my second home and in many ways my spiritual one." Intrigued, we contacted Nigel Roberts and invited him to write a piece for hidden europe that captures the spirit of Vetka.

Olya's eyes flashed with resentment. "You simply don't understand how tough things can be here, Nigel. You think that everything in Belarus is so much better than in your country. But in Vetka there are families who cannot afford to buy clothes and food for their children. That is life for us. In the West you have everything; here we have nothing. It is not as you think it is." We were facing each other across a rickety table in the kitchen of a flat far from Vetka. All that separated us in that small room were two bottles of beer and a plate of bread and cheese, but in terms of upbringing and experience, the gulf was vast. She from a town in rural Belarus, I from England. Two very different Europes.

But this is not Olya's story, which remains to be told another day. And I shall certainly tell it, one day. Instead, this is the story of Tanya, Olya's mother. Tanya's tale is one of hardship, personal tragedy and resilience against the odds.


Vetka is the sort of place you could easily miss. It sits on the east bank of the River Sozh, amid a wilderness of forest and marshland. Across the centuries, it has shared the fate of many communities in this part of Europe and witnessed great conflict and misery. It was twice burned to the ground by troops of the imperial Russian army, and between August 1941 and September 1943, it was occupied by the Nazis, who murdered over six hundred of its citizens. And as if all this wasn't enough human misery for one small town, in 1986 the prevailing wind blew the deadly Chernobyl radiation cloud over Vetka and its outlying villages. The stricken reactor was only 160 kilometres away to the southwest.

Related note

Rail update: Russia, Ukraine and Belarus

New rail timetables for the former Soviet Union come into effect later this month. There remains some uncertainty about some services, but for travellers heading east, here are a few thoughts on what to expect: the return of the Berlin to Kaliningrad night train, a new link from Riga to Minsk, a direct daily train from Berlin to Ukraine and more.