TYPE OF TRIP
- Day trip
- Solo travel
- City trip
How does one decide to come to Minsk? Belarus is not exactly a common destination for travellers to Eastern Europe. Whether because of visa requirement for many foreign nationals, lack of any outstanding sights or symbols or limited international coverage, foreigners often overlook it altogether. It seems likely that not many people, especially outside of the European continent, would be prompt to name its capital city or find it on a blank map. Or even on a labelled one. It also seems likely that most people have never heard much of this republic, unless (perhaps) they saw that episode of Friends where Phoebe’s boyfriend ran off to Minsk.
While living in Russia (and in being Russian), I always thought of Belarus as Russia’s little brother. In fact, it is a pretty common reference across Russian mainstream media, although not necessarily in a patronising way. Since our mutual history goes way back to the times of Kievan Rus’, we are quite alike. We speak the same language, we share many customs, and - very important - we cook similar food. It is not rare that civilians and politicians from either side talk about us being one family, where we should look after each other and have their back. So naturally, when I happened to be in Lithuania for a weekend, I figured I should pay fellow comrades a quick visit (because, you know, why not). For once I didn't have to worry about getting a visa or facing a language barrier. "Bring on the good times!", I said half-asleep while heading to the train station at 6.40 in the morning.
I was boarding my train and realised I did not really know what to expect. What did I really know about the city? It was almost completely destroyed by the end of the WWII, and later rebuilt in accordance with Stalin’s urban vision. For this reason Minsk, even though first mentioned in documents in 1067, looks like a showpiece Soviet city today with minor traces of its pre-Stalin days. I could recall hearing that Belarus once used to be one of the most prosperous republics of the USSR. Their economy has been on a rapid decline since independence, but despite getting poorer and poorer Belarusians are often portrayed as very kind, calm, and warm people. I remembered reading a piece by a Russian tourist who described his trip to Minsk as “travelling to a better version of Russia”, an opinion that appears to be quite popular. Apart from that and, of course, their (infamous) president Aleksandr Lukashenko, the only other thing I could think of was potatoes - Belarus’ unofficial symbol. Rumor has it Belarusians know of 2,438,543 ways of how to make them. To my embarrassment, that is all I could think of off the top my head.
A hidden gem of the Post-USSR
Vilnius - Minsk - Vilnius
It was an early Sunday morning, and the weather was not looking too promising - drizzle and wind. As I stepped off the train, the only thing on my mind was how much I needed coffee. See, I had just gone on a spree through Warsaw and Lithuania and had not properly slept for a few days, which was finally catching up on me. I also wanted to generate a walking tour around town with an app on my phone, so I headed to the shopping mall next to the railway station. In all honesty, had I not known where in the world I was, at that point I could have easily confused it with a provincial city somewhere in the Motherland. It wasn’t sleep deprivation. Everything and everyone looked bizarrely familiar.
By the time I finished my 3rd cup of coffee in a row, the skies cleared up and I was all good to go on my 5-hour impromptu tour. The city walk created with the help of Triposo (one of the apps I mentioned in this post) was supposed to cover most of central Minsk with all symbolic and interesting sights - primarily governmental buildings, WWII monuments, theatres, and a few churches. As I hit the road, the very first thing that caught my eye was the cleanliness of the streets. Squeaky clean, almost sterile! And not because of the Half Marathon event held that day, especially with the official celebrations of the Minsk Day 12 hours earlier. Apparently it is the norm for Minsk as well as for other cities around Belarus which strikes many visitors regardless of background. Pleasant surprise.
Next local peculiarity that got my attention was the language. Whereas I am still pretty sure I did not hear a single word of spoken Belarusian throughout that whole day, it was prevalent in traffic and street signs, billboards, and murals. It was especially surprising as everybody around me spoke perfect standard Russian (both are official languages) with no hint of any regionalisms. The Belarusian language in writing, on the other hand, was quite amusing to look at - it is very much like Russian minus Russian orthography. Just ignore any spelling rules you ever learned for Russian and you’ve got Belarusian… My 8-year-old sister seems to be fluent in it.
Speaking of billboards, the one that stood out right away is about this October’s presidential election (picture above). Painted in the national colours, red and green, they were around every corner boasting just this reminder: “October 11th. Election of President of the Republic of Belarus”. No names, no pictures. That should not be too surprising. Belarus is often described as “Europe’s last dictatorship” in Western media due to the current president’s authoritarian and reactionary tendencies. Aleksandr Lukanshenko, or Bat’ka (‘daddy’) as he is often called in Post-Soviet media outlets, has been in office since 1994 and is now running for his 6th term. He positions himself as a “man of the people” which, ironically, involves a cult of his personality and prevalent Soviet nostalgia. The people, on the contrary, might appear to make an obedient and enduring electorate, but that’s deceiving - they don’t have much of political freedom or choice either way. To me, these posters sounded like a subtle smirk at the inevitable outcome of the election.
I couldn’t help but think that the time must have stopped here some decades ago. In a way, Minsk is a living museum of the golden Soviet days. The overall ambience is very much that of the USSR indeed: wide avenues and squares, concrete block structures and hints of communism left, right, and central. Not too fascinating for someone who grew up around almost identical buildings, but if you are into Stalinist architecture, Minsk is right up your street. As the city was 90% wiped off the face of Earth in WWII, today’s urban landscape is Stalin’s masterpiece. The most prominent part of town is Independence Avenue: about 15 km long street housing the National Bank, Palace of the Republic and - are you ready for this - KGB Headquarters (they are alive and kicking). Another important landmark is Victory Square. The sight commemorates Minsk’s “Hero City” status, a honorary title given to the 13 places in the Soviet Union that particularly suffered in the War. Minsk survived a brutal three-year long occupation that cost lives of over 400,000 residents, so WWII memorabilia is highly noteworthy. Belarusian Great Patriotic War Museum hosts an impressive collection of over 140,000 items and is a absolute must-do for anyone interested in Belarus' role in the War.
If I had to summarise my impression of Minsk in only one word, it would be “calm”. No mess, no disorder. Peaceful locals going about their day. The elderly playing chess in well-kept parks. Many buildings and objects across the city look properly maintained and are clearly much better taken care of than those in Russia. The police presence was much less obvious than you’d expect in a place under a political regime, the only policemen I saw stood along the route of the Half Marathon. Belarus might sound like a somewhat scary place to live in, but as a tourist I felt very comfortable and safe. Even though my visit fell on a Sunday, I am pretty convinced that the rhythm is not all that much different during the week. Minsk has the vibe of a city where everyone knows what they are doing and this quiet routine feels great.
Foreigners are likely to find the country and its capital cheap: after the devaluations in the past couple of years the Belarusian ruble is very weak: for example, a subway ride would cost you €0.22, or $0.25 (4,420 Belarusian rubles) at most. Always wanted to be a millionaire? You are one in Belarus: 1 million BR would be equal to only €51 or $57. With plenty of cafés, shops, and bars to choose from, tourists can self-indulge like there’s no tomorrow. Yet that is not Minsk’s real appeal. It is all about the incredible way its dramatic past is entangled with its uneasy present. The way you can travel to another historic era within a mere couple of hours. The way Belarusians carry their dignity and genuineness despite the difficulties. I hope that upon my next trip to this lovely country will prosper the way it really deserves to.