Updated: Mar 31, 2019
After a couple of pleasant if uneventful days spent wondering around Brest’s provincial streets we moved to the capital, Minsk. Temperatures had risen to zero and there was a thaw in the air, slush underfoot, which was making getting around a soggy affair. The train network in Belarus is extensive and inexpensive – the three hundred kilometre journey took four hours and cost $5, though queuing up and buying tickets proved a challenge with all signs in Cyrillic, no English speakers anywhere, and long queues. We travelled on December 25th, but there was no disruption to our travel plans as Christmas is celebrated two weeks later (January 6th) in Belarus as in all Orthodox Christian countries. It was getting light at around 9.30am and getting dark at 6.30pm, which has an oddly discombobulating effect on the body clock, though it’s ideal for late risers like myself. Minsk, a city of 2 million people, for most people conjures up no exotic images, and is synonymous with drab, Soviet conformist architecture and cold, wide, featureless boulevards, having been almost completely rebuilt after the destruction of WWII or ‘The Great War’ (as Russian speakers refer to it). This was indeed the first impression, and with a persistent cold sleet falling as we left the station – another grand building – it was not the most memorable entrance to the capital.
Gradually though, after a couple of days spent wandering the city, its frostiness melted away slightly. It may not have fired my imagination but the neo-classical, functional grandness and glitziness of Minsk’s main shopping street, the unpronounceable Nyezhavisymosty (replete with most of the high street brands you’d expect in a European capital) was fascinating and unexpected. Hummers, Mercedes and BMWs line the roads - there is hardly a Lada to be seen - whilst people are well-dressed, young men and women in all the latest fashions. The streets are spotless and orderly, graffiti is entirely absent. Police are everywhere but don’t bother the tourist. Not the backward city I had been expecting, in short. Yet appearances are often deceptive. The majority of Belarusians live on the breadline, basic commodities are pricey for most and the country has been close to financial meltdown with several devaluations of the ruble.
Soviet-era Time Capsule?
How this added up was a mystery until Alexei, a student at Minsk University I met one night, explained to me: “Appearance is important here so although you may own a smart car and a widescreen TV, you might be eating bread and cabbage soup every day. Meat maybe once or twice a week. Vodka is the one luxury people allow themselves.” Like Russia, Belarus has some of the highest alcohol consumption rates in the world, and obviously the health issues which go along with that. Life expectancy is only 69 for men, 70 for women. Interestingly, cigarettes were also very affordable. The point of having savings in a country where you’re not sure if your savings will be worth anything the next day must have a powerful effect on consumerist instincts though, and alcohol is also seen as an escape. He also pointed out the costly bars: “People cannot afford to go out unless they are on western wages, which is why restaurants and bars in Minsk are so pricey – they are not for locals.” It seemed a kind of Alice Through the Looking Glass-effect had taken hold in Minsk, which gave it a bizarre curiosity factor. Whatever western observers may say though, Minsk is no Soviet time–capsule when it comes to shopping. Although the famous GUM and TSUM Soviet-era store still exist, stocking often dated, kitsch or tawdry Russian products, huge shopping malls like Stolitsa near Ploshad Lenina with all the latest western brands attest to the fact that the consumerist spirit is alive and well in Belarus.This does not extend to the hostel scene in Minsk unfortunately, the city being more or less bereft of quality budget accommodation. Our cosy place, New Hostel was more like a homestay than a hostel with only a couple of dorms and a small kitchen, but was well-placed and central. It was one of the very few places in the lower price range, Minsk being more aimed at the business traveller than the backpacker. Our hostel owner, though reluctant to speak her mind regarding the president (a common feature in the country after years of repression), did opine that the government makes it extremely difficult for such small businesses to exist, with mountains of bureaucracy and high taxation preventing lower prices being an option.
Provided you have a moderately sturdy wallet, Minsk also offers the visitor a decent array of cafes, bars and restaurants, many of which are surprisingly swanky. Local food is well-represented, the best place to try local specialities being one of the point-and-grab style places where workers tend to go such as Lido or Maestro. The advantage of such places is that you get charged local rates, unlike in some restaurants where the English menu often does not feature any prices, leaving the tourist wide open to being overcharged. Sushi, as in Warsaw and everywhere else these days, seems to be the latest craze sweeping the city, and there is everything from Azeri to French to Thai dotting the city, whilst young urban types pass their days in mellow cafes sipping lattes, much as they do in the rest of Europe. By night, the city lets its hair down – well, at least half-way, and there are plenty of bars serving a surprising array of western brands around the centre. Rakovsky Brovar is a place serving a micro-beer brewed on the premises, and the Belarusians certainly have a growing taste for the frothy stuff after years of vodka consumption.
No Logo A thing you notice in Minsk, and the whole country, is a lack of advertising hoardings adorning every available public space, and this, along with no high-rise buildings and plenty of green areas, gives the city a sense of space, of open skies. You are able to breathe, especially when you escape the traffic along the river Svislach or Gorky Park. Minsk is often compared favourably to Moscow in this respect, and with good reason – Russia’s capital suffers from some of the worst traffic and pollution problems in the world, and is a place where escaping ambient noise is virtually impossible. Surprisingly, unlike other countries I had visited with autocrats in charge, there are very few pictures of the leader around, though there are plenty of nationalistic messages on buildings and billboards to stir the patriotic heart.
Another interesting oddity in the suburbs is that many of the grey blocks are brightened up with colourful patriotic images of soldiers, healthy-looking farm workers and proletariat happy at work – bygone images from a lost age which would look out-of-place even in Russia or China today but which seem oddly at home in Belarus, nostalgic as it seems to be for bygone times. We trekked out to the outskirts of town to check out Minsk National Library, a fabulous piece of modernist architecture completed in 2006. Designed in the shape of a massive octagonal rhomboid shape of 22 floors, 72 metres tall, it is unquestionably the most impressive architectural icon in Minsk today, and from its viewing platform you can gaze out on the forests of concrete that comprise its expanding suburbs.
Best viewed at night when lit up, the building is an interesting variation on the conformity of most of Minsk’s urban landscape. Coming back by metro, I noticed some superb mosaics and inscriptions on the walls of the station similar to Moscow – patriotic Soviet symbols like sickles and scythes, workers and soldiers abound, along with portraits of Marx and Lenin (though not Stalin), while glittering chandeliers light them up. The Soviet system bequeathed some unexpected artistic wonders and its metro stations are usually well worth a visit for this reason. While Minsk's don't in any way compare to the opulence you can see in the virtual subterranean proletarian art galleries of Moscow, they still impress. Costing about $0.20 for a ticket, the underground is also extremely good value, although its clocks which count upwards from each departing train are annoying to non-locals.
A Bit of History
Minsk is blessed with some superb museums, and probably the best two are the Great Patriotic War Museum and the National Art Museum. The former, opened barely three months after Minsk was liberated by the Red Army, presents the horrors of the war from the perspective of the Soviet Union and you don’t get much of an idea of Allied efforts – most Russians considered it to be purely a war between the Motherland and Nazi Germany – but you do see a lot of insights into the suffering of the Belarusian people against the ‘Fascist-German’ (sic) occupiers. The overall effect is to inspire awe and outrage at the aggressor to the Motherland, and you come out feeling somewhat drained. The National Art Museum is vast and takes several hours to take in fully, and despite the surprising omission of work from national icon Marc Chagall, contains enough artefacts from the likes of Huber Robert, Chagall’s teacher Yehuda Pen and Mikhail Sdavitsky, amongst many others from Belarus and beyond dating from the 12th to 20th centuries. I was disappointed not to find any work by Minsk-born Igor Barkhatkov, whose landscapes capture the light so well at times that it is frightening. I was also keen to see the work of Zair Azgur, a sculptor born in Vitebsk who is one of the most celebrated artists of the Soviet era. His busts of Lenin, Stalin, Marx and other elite party cadre and soldiers still grace plinths throughout the country, but his works have been brought together in a little, forgotten museum in the suburbs called the Zair Azgur museum. Twin massive heads of Karl Marx and Lenin greeted us, and the whole space was dominated by floor to ceiling shelves of busts which our guide was, despite extremely limited English, bursting with pride and enthusiasm to tell us about. There seemed to be no irony in the placement of a bust of a corpulent Churchill between Mao Tse Tung and Brezhnev. “This is our history, we are proud of it. England is our friend” claimed our guide, genuinely, and heart-warmingly.
It strikes me as odd that I grew up in a time and place where Russia and her empire were to be feared – I have never had a feeling of antipathy from the erstwhile ‘enemy’ whilst travelling in the old Soviet Union. This to me was a touching and nostalgic experience, and summed up what I believe many Belarusians, certainly of the older generation feel: nostalgia for a lost time of security, confidence, togetherness and strength and an acknowledgement of, if not apology for, the present state of affairs and a hope for a better tomorrow.
One little-known fact about Minsk, and an odd one at that, is that for three years, between 1959 and 1962 – at the zenith of post-war development in Minsk - John F Kennedy’s alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald lived there. Defecting from the U.S Marines and claiming Soviet citizenship, Oswald ‘went native’, teaching himself Russian before finding himself a job as a lathe operator in a local electronics family, meeting and marrying a 19 year old Minsk girl, and having a child. The one-room flat which the Soviet authorities allocated him is on aptly-named Kamunicheskaya (Communist Street – number 4, for any Cold War buffs). The authorities had his room bugged and followed him for his entire time in Minsk, and eventually he got fed up and went back to the U.S, citing boredom as the main reason. Minsk is one place where the locals won’t have a bad word to say about the infamous Oswald, and most refuse to accept or believe that he could possibly have committed what is probably the crime of the twentieth century. They, along with a million conspiracy theorists around the world, simply don’t believe he was capable of shooting the president acting alone, and that he was set up. The fact he lived here may just have made him the ideal patsy. Either way, it adds to Minsk’s oddball air of intrigue and forgotten memories and seems to sum up the randomness of the place. The fact that the original disco where Oswald met his wife (Alcatraz, on October Square) is still open for business only adds to the weirdness.
Air of a Survivor
Minsk indeed has a curious effect on the visitor, and in some ways I still find it hard to put into words how I really feel about it, but I am certainly glad I went. It is a city which does not dazzle, but impresses if you allow it by giving it a few days of your time.Its museums, smart national theatre, opera house, main boulevards and burgeoning restaurant and bar scene attest to its development, yet at the same time, there is the ubiquitous police presence waiting to pounce, you feel, on the slightest grumbling of discontent of the populace in Minsk. Lukashenka may not be seen or heard for much of the time, but his shadow hangs over the city, and keeps it firmly entrenched in one of the twentieth century’s most discredited systems of government. It’s a humble capital city which dreams of greatness and has the air of a survivor, moving forward at a glacial pace, with its sights set firmly on the past. In a word, a paradox. I needed to see more of this country. I was about to head to the far north next, to Chagall’s hometown – Vitebsk.
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