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Belarus, a generally flat country (the average elevation is 162 meters above sea level) without natural borders, occupies an area of 207,600 square kilometers, or slightly smaller than the state of Kansas. Its neighbors are Russia to the east and northeast, Latvia to the north, Lithuania to the northwest, Poland to the west, and Ukraine to the south.
Belarus's mostly level terrain is broken up by the Belarusian Range (Byelaruskaya Hrada), a swath of elevated territory, composed of individual highlands, that runs diagonally through the country from west-southwest to east-northeast. Its highest point is the 346-meter Mount Dzyarzhynskaya (Dzerzhinskaya, in Russian), named for Feliks Dzerzhinskiy, head of Russia's security apparatus under Stalin. Northern Belarus has a picturesque, hilly landscape with many lakes and gently sloping ridges created by glacial debris. In the south, about one-third of the republic's territory around the Prypyats' (Pripyat', in Russian) River is taken up by the low-lying swampy plain of the Belarusian Woodland, or Palyessye (Poles'ye in Russian).
Belarus's 3,000 streams and 4,000 lakes are major features of the landscape and are used for floating timber, shipping, and power generation. Major rivers are the west-flowing Zakhodnyaya Dzvina (Zapadnaya Dvina in Russian) and Nyoman (Neman in Russian) rivers, and the south-flowing Dnyapro (Dnepr in Russian) with its tributaries, Byarezina (Berezina in Russian), Sozh, and Prypyats' rivers. The Prypyats' River has served as a bridge between the Dnyapro flowing to Ukraine and the Vistula in Poland since the period of Kievan Rus'. Lake Narach (Naroch', in Russian), the country's largest lake, covers eighty square kilometers.
Nearly one-third of the country is covered with pushchy (sing., pushcha), large unpopulated tracts of forests. In the north, conifers predominate in forests that also include birch and alder; farther south, other deciduous trees grow. The Belavezhskaya (Belovezhskaya, in Russian) Pushcha in the far west is the oldest and most magnificent of the forests; a reservation here shelters animals and birds that became extinct elsewhere long ago. The reservation spills across the border into Poland; both countries jointly administer it.
The most notorious legacy of pollution from the communist era is the April 26, 1986, accident at the Chornobyl' nuclear power plant in Ukraine. Some 70 percent of the radiation spewed was carried by the wind to Belarus, where it affected at least 25 percent of the country--especially the Homyel' (Gomel' in Russian) and Mahilyow (Mogilėv in Russian) voblastsi (sing., voblasts'), or counties, in the south and southeast, and 22 percent of the population. Although more than 2 million people (including 600,000 children) lived in areas affected by fallout from the disaster, the Soviet government tried to cover up the accident until Swedish scientists pressed for an explanation of the unusually high levels of atmospheric radiation in Sweden.
The Belorussian government's request to the Soviet government for a minimum of 17 billion rubles to deal with the consequences was answered with Moscow's offer of only 3 billion rubles. According to one official in 1993, the per capita expenditure on the accident was one kopek in Russia, three kopeks in Ukraine, and one ruble (100 kopeks) in Belarus.
Despite the government's establishment of the State Committee for Chornobyl', the enactment of laws limiting who may stay in contaminated areas, and the institution of a national program for research on the effects, little progress was made in coping with the consequences of the disaster, owing to the lack of money and the government's sluggish attitude. In 1994 a resettlement program for 170,000 residents was woefully underbudgeted and far behind schedule. To assist victims of Chornobyl', a Western organization, the Know-How Fund, provided many Belarusian doctors with training in the latest bone-marrow techniques in Europe and the United States.
The long-range effects of the disaster include an increasing incidence of various kinds of cancer and birth defects; congenital defects in newborns are reported to be 40 percent higher than before the accident. Tainted water, livestock, farm produce, and land are widespread, and the extensive wetlands retain high concentrations of radiation. Cleanup of the disaster accounted for 14 percent of the state budget in 1995. Other environmental problems include widespread chemical pollution of the soil, which shows excessive pesticide levels, and the industrial pollution found in nearly all the large cities.
SOURCES: Library of Congress Country Studies/Area Handbook