Brest (Брэст, brɛst; Брест; see also alternative names), formerly also Brest-on-the-Bug and Brest-Litovsk, is a city (population 312,950 in 2008) in Belarus at the border with Poland, where the Western Bug and Mukhavets rivers meet. It is the capital city of the Brest voblast.
Being situated on the main railway line connecting Berlin and Moscow, and an intercontinental highway, Brest became a principal border crossing since World War II in Soviet times. Today it links the European Union and the Commonwealth of Independent States.
Because of the break of railway gauge at Brest between the Russian broad-gauge system and the European standard gauge, all passenger cars continuing service beyond Brest must have their bogies changed here, and cargo in freight trains must be transshipped. Some of the land in the Brest rail yards remains contaminated as a result of the transshipment of radioactive materials here since Soviet days.
There are several theories of the city name origin. The most common are as follows,
The city was founded by Slavs. As Berestye it was first mentioned in the Russian Primary Chronicle in 1019 as a town in Kievan Rus. It was subdued several times by Poland and by Lithuania, laid waste by the Mongols in 1241 (see: Mongol invasion of Europe), and was not rebuilt till 1275, in 1390 received Magdeburg rights; its suburbs were burned by the Teutonic Knights in 1379; and in the end of the 15th century the whole town met a similar fate at the hands of a khan of the Crimea. It was renamed Brest-Litovsk in the 16th century, after it became part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569 (see: Union of Lublin).
During the reign of the Polish king Sigismund III Vasa, diets were held there; and in 1594 and 1596 it was the meeting-place of two remarkable councils of the Roman-Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church bishops of the region; the 1596 council establishing the Uniate Church known also as Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine. In 1657, and again in 1706, the town was captured by the Swedes; in 1794 it was the scene of Suvorov's victory over the Polish general Sierakowski; Brest passed to Russia when Poland-Lithuania Commonwealth was partitioned for the third time in 1795 (see: Partitions of Poland). During Russian rule in the 19th century a large fortress was built in and around the city.
The town was captured by the German Empire in 1915, during World War I. In March of 1918, in the Brest-Litovsk fortress on the western outskirts of Brest at the confluence of the Western Bug and Mukhavets Rivers, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed, ending the war between Russia and the Central Powers and transferring the city and its surrounding region to the sphere of influence of the German Empire. This treaty was subsequently annulled by the treaties which ended the war.
The newly reconstituted Poland took control of Brest in 1919. The city changed hands twice during the Polish-Soviet War and eventually stayed inside Polish borders, a development that was formally recognized by the Treaty of Riga in 1921. In the fortress, heavily damaged during World War I, Polish Army troops with the headquarters of the 9th Military District were stationed, and the city itself became a capital of Polesie Voivodeship In 1930 Wincenty Witos and some other prominent Polish statesmen were detained here before the notorious trial in Warsaw.
During the Invasion of Poland in 1939 the city was defended by a small garrison of four infantry battalions under Gen. Konstanty Plisowski against the XIX Panzer Corps of Gen. Heinz Guderian. After four days of heavy fighting the Polish forces withdrew southwards on September 17 (more in articles: Battle of Brześć Litewski).
The city was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1939 in accordance with the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact's Secret Protocol effectively partitioning Poland signed with Nazi Germany in August 1939. Some Belarusians considered it a reunification of the Belarusian nation under one constituency (BSSR at that time).
On June 22, 1941 the fortress and the city was attacked by Nazi Germany at the beginning of the surprise war, codenamed Operation Barbarossa, but held out for six weeks. Nearly all the defenders perished. Brest's Jewish community was decimated under Nazi rule in 1942. The city was occupied once more by the Red Army on 28 July 1944. An interesting fact was the large number of ethnic Chechens in the contingent of the fortress, which politically always contradicted the somewhat stereotypical view that Chechens were collaborators of Nazi Germany. According to the agreements of the Yalta Conference of February 1945, Brest's status as part of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic was officially recognised and the Poles, the majority of the inhabitants, were expelled. It is now part of the independent country of Belarus.
A majestic Soviet style war memorial was constructed on the site of the 1941 battle, to commemorate the known and unknown defenders of the Hero-Fortress. This war memorial is the largest tourist attraction of the city. In addition, an archeological museum of the old city Berestye is located on the southern island of the Hero-Fortress. It offers objects and huts dated back to the 11th - 13th century, that were unearthed during excavations in the 1970s.
Brest also hosts the first Belarusian outdoor railway museum.
Brest contains a synagogue, which was regarded in the 16th century as the first in Europe. It is also the seat of an Armenian and of a Greek Catholic bishop; the former has authority over the Armenians throughout the whole country.
Brest City Park is 100 years old, but looks quite new after the recent reconstruction.
Brest has several stadiums, indoor sport halls and many outdoor sport facilities.
Belavezhskaya Pushcha National Park, 70 km north of Brest, is a biosphere reserve of world distinction and can be reached by car or bus. This medieval forest is home to rare European bison (wisent). There is a museum and a zoo, available for tourists in the forest, animals can be seen in enclosures all the year round. 2 hotels and some restaurants and bars are there. Excursions can also be taken by horse and cart into the interior of the forest. As a new tourist attraction, the forest features the residence of Grandfather Frost, known as Ded Moroz, the Eastern Slavic Santa Claus, that works all the year round.
Brest also hosts the first Belarusian outdoor railway museum. Brest City Park is old, but looks new after the recent reconstruction.
The village of Kosova, where Tadeusz Kościuszko was born, is also in the Brest region and features a 19th-century palace and a nice Roman Catholic church. Brest can easily be reached from Warsaw (Poland) by taking the daily sleeper train to Brest Centralnaya (Brest Central) from the central train station in Warsaw, although visas must be sorted out for EU passport holders before travelling. There are a few hotels in Brest, including "Intourist" on Praspekt Masherava (Masherova Prospect).