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Modern reality of old fortress

Legendary Brest Fortress – courageously defended in 1941 – was constructed 170 years ago

By Valentina Kozlovskaya

Brest and Brest Fortress are connected by many centuries of shared history, although the city is a thousand years old and the citadel was built only 170 years ago: opening on April 26th, 1842.

Brest Fortress is situated on the site of former Berestie, listed as a 1st class fortress of the Russian Empire. It is associated with two major events: the signing of the Brest Peace Treaty at the White House in 1918, and the heroic defence of the citadel in 1941. Modern Brest residents view their fortress as a place of historical significance, boasting a glorious memory, associated with patriotism and inspiring tourism.

In summer 1914, WWI began. To ensure the strength of Brest-Litovsk Fortress, several more forts were constructed, and the first line of defence was fortified. People worked day and night but, in November, a storehouse of weapons exploded, killing around 200 people. Moreover, most of the weapons were destroyed. The Kaiser’s troops were approaching, so the fortress garrison was evacuated in August 1915, leaving the city to be occupied by German and Austrian troops. Interestingly, a commemorative coin was minted to honour the seizure — featuring General Field Marshal von Mackensen (and a German soldier against the background of the fortress on fire on the reverse).

On March 3rd, 1918, the Brest Peace Treaty was signed between Soviet Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey. Several years ago, Brest local researcher Anatoly Gladyshchuk discovered documents confirming that the peace agreement was agreed in December 1917: not in the fortress but near Brest — at the village of Skoki’s Nemtsevich mansion (which then housed the Commander of the Eastern German front, General Field Marshal Prince Bavarsky). Meanwhile, the Brest Peace Treaty was signed at the White House.

During the years of the Soviet-Polish War (1918-1921), the fortress and the city many times changed ownership. The Riga Treaty gave Brest-Litovsk to Poland, with a Polish garrison settling at the fortress. The military town’s headquarters included a court, a prosecutor’s office and a military hospital. On September 1st, 1939, Germany attacked Poland, launching WWII, and, on September 14th, the 10th tank division of the 19th army squad of Lieutenant General Guderian attacked Brest-on-the-Bug (the city changed its name many times). The fortress was under siege, with the garrison finally evacuating on the night of September 16-17th, leaving it to occupation by the German 76th infantry.

The Soviet Union signed a treaty of friendship with Germany on September 22nd, 1939, with Brest hosting a solemn march of Russian and German regiments. The Germans left the fortress to the Russians, moving beyond the Zapadny Bug River after the march.

Of course, on June 22nd, 1941, the fortress was again attacked by the Germans, as documented by many films (including Brest Fortress) and books — all devoted to the heroic defence of the citadel by Soviet soldiers.

Over the past fifteen years, 30 Brest Fortress sites have been restored, with CIS governments allocating funds for reconstruction: Belarus and Russia are providing $300,000 each, with the remaining states each allocating $175,000. Belarus and Russia have already fulfilled their obligations, paying even more. Ukraine has allocated the agreed sum, while Kazakhstan has provided $130,000, Azerbaijan — $80,000, and Moldova — $2,000.

The Orthodox Convent of the Holy Nativity and Mother of God, at Volynsk Fort, has been renovated, while Fort #5 now hosts a museum of fortification. The Defence Museum has undergone major reconstruction, featuring an open-air exhibition of armoured machinery. The Kholmsk Gates now host a gallery and, last year, a grave of unknown Soviet soldiers was discovered at the fortress; their remains have been re-buried with all possible honours.

No doubt, the present memorial encapsulates more than mere memories, as it is ever changing. The southern defensive barracks are soon to be restored, housing an exhibition for the Defence Museum. The 333rd rifle regiment’s barrack is also being revamped and the Brest authorities are preparing Pogranichny Island border checkpoint for free access for tourists.

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