The prospect of visiting an unreconstructed Soviet-style republic for pleasure may seem mildly masochistic and possibly verging on the perverse. Geographically the most westerly of the USSR's former republics, unlike its former comrades -- many of whom who have sold their tractors and either joined the EU or at least embraced the glittery bits of a capitalist free market - Belarus maintains a steadfastly solid Soviet outlook.
Over 80% of the country's economy is still state-controlled, with massive collective farms dominating an agriculture industry earnestly engaged in pig breeding and the cultivation of potato, flax and beet.
However, as Bradt's Belarus author Nigel Roberts observes, those in search of the travel equivalent of a jolly good spanking will be sadly (if not sorely) disappointed by Belarus. ‘A visit to this astonishing country really is one of those life-defining experiences. It is so completely unspoilt by the trappings of modern tourism and Western materialism that it's easy to feel a sense of having slipped into another time and dimension. In many ways, the country is a living museum of Soviet communism, but to treat it as such would be a gross disservice to the astonishing resilience of its people.'
Roberts's guide explores the iconic capital of Minsk, the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Mir and Njasvizh and covers the country's primeval green forests, clear rivers and lakes together with rare flora and fauna lost to much of western Europe.
Of the Belarusians themselves, Roberts describes ‘a people whose warmth, honesty and open hospitality must be experienced to be believed'. Spectacles with rose tints are not standard issue for Bradt authors, and amongst nostalgia for an old Europe the catastrophic reality surrounding the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster is explored, highlighting the plight of an estimated two million Belarusians who inhabit areas still contaminated by radioactivity.
Formerly Byelorossia (‘White Russia'), Belarus became independent in 1991, in the wake of the failed anti-Gorbachev coup. Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko, a staunch opponent of Gorbachev's perestroika, was later elected first president and continues in office with apparent overwhelming popular support to this day. In a contemporary Europe that has already experienced velvet and orange revolutions, and may be on the verge of a green one, for the time being Belarus continues as an island of red.
Nigel Roberts is a lawyer actively engaged in conservation projects in rural Belarus. A Russian speaker, his interest in the Soviet Union was kindled as a boy, cultivated by seeing Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin in a freezing school hall and later developed at university in Cambridge. He has travelled extensively in the former Soviet bloc.