Belarus

IMG_1632When you think of popular or desirable travel destinations, Belarus may not be the first place that comes to mind. Indeed, nestled among Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, and Poland, the former Soviet republic of Belarus is about the size of Kansas and is outranked only by Moldova and Liechtenstein as Europe’s least visited country. Owing in large part to its self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world, little is known about Belarus to the average person outside the former Soviet sphere. But, to dismiss this often forgotten land as a mysterious place you only ever hear about when the Olympics roll around would be a grave mistake, as I learned for myself recently when I had the very rare, and perhaps even once-in-a-lifetime, opportunity to spend a weekend in Minsk.

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Minsk may top your list of desired travel destinations, but the big red bus is ready for you. In case you are wondering, yes, I did see people actually riding it. Not many, but some.

Although nearly half of the country’s land is covered by forest, Belarus is home to about 9.5 million people, most of whom live in urban areas. Minsk, Belarus’ sprawling and somewhat sleepy capital, has a population of approximately two million, though it certainly didn’t feel that crowded.

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Government ministry buildings line either side of Independence Square. On a cloudy Saturday afternoon, the plaza was quite empty.

For citizens of the USA, Canada, European Union, and almost every other country in the world, visiting Belarus is not as simple as showing up with your passport. Currently, citizens of only Russia, Cuba, Macedonia, Montenegro, Qatar, Serbia, Turkey and Venezuela are permitted to visit Belarus without a visa. Obtaining a tourist visa typically requires an official invitation from a Belarusian citizen or tourist company.

When M. was given a temporary duty assignment at the U.S. Embassy in Belarus for three weeks, I jumped on the opportunity to visit. I was able to travel as a guest of the embassy, and, following a rather tedious process to be approved for a single entry visa, I flew to Minsk on a Friday afternoon at the end of July. Given my relatively sudden travel plans, I had a limited amount of time to read about Minsk and prepare for the trip. Often referred to as “Europe’s last dictatorship,” Belarus has been under the leadership of President Alexander Lukashenko since the country’s first post-Soviet democratic election in 1994. As such, I had no idea what to expect.

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The statue of Lenin in Independence Square stands tall in front of Belarus’ government ministry buildings.

Admittedly, when I landed in Minsk, I felt a bit like I was about to pull back the Iron Curtain and enter a world that would conjure up memories of visiting East Berlin as a ten-year-old in 1989, or at the very least, of my first few visits to Sofia as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2002. What I found instead surprised me on multiple levels. Although my visit was far too short and barely scratched the surface of Belarus’ Hero City, an honorary distinction bestowed upon Minsk in 1974 in recognition of its heroic efforts on behalf of the Soviet Union during World War II, I had a most memorable experience.

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Minsk – “Gorod-Geroi” (“Hero City”).

With its wide boulevards, modern infrastructure, and clean, crisp architecture, Minsk is a cosmopolitan city in every way. And though it felt European, it was so completely different from any city I have ever visited. Whether owing to the almost uniform, stately buildings that line its main thoroughfares or the unmistakable Soviet undertones that pervade the entire city alongside a wealth of capitalism that would make Lenin roll over in his grave, I would put Minsk in a category all its own. Harley-Davidson and Apple logos abound… as do hammers and sickles.

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Typical architecture along Nezavizimost (Independence) Avenue. TGI Friday’s has crept its way to the ground floor of this building.

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Not far from the TGI Friday’s is this, the KGB Headquarters of Minsk. Notably, it sits on Independence Avenue.

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The clock tower at Railway Station Square in Minsk.

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Railway Station Square, is a classic architectural example of Stalin’s legacy.

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Modern, glassy office buildings stand tall among some of the more Soviet-esque block buildings.

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“We have arrived!” This ad for McDonald’s outside Minsk’s main train station speaks for itself as a sign of the times….

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… As does this. In case you were wondering how McDonald’s might be received in Minsk, this was the scene at every McDonald’s I passed during my visit. I believe there are about seven locations throughout the city.

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American films are popular and readily available. They are usually dubbed in Russian and do not have subtitles.

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Notice the large hammer and sickle at the top of one of the towers at Railway Station Square.

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Here, an old Soviet mural flanks the front of the entrance to Minsk’s Oktyabrskaya subway station. On the bottom is a memorial to the April 2011 domestic terrorist bombing of this station.

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This large mural is one of many reminders of Soviet times throughout the city.

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Some signs are more subtle than others, such as this one on a wrought-iron fence outside the Belarusian National History Museum.

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Another Soviet-era tower, complete with hammer and sickle.

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These Soviet-era block apartment buildings remind me of what I saw and lived in myself as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bulgaria.

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Here, a massive apartment complex stands along the banks of the Svislach River.

Belarus was hit particularly hard by World War II, losing approximately one-third of its population. The city of Minsk was essentially demolished, with very few pre-war buildings left standing. As a result, the Belarusian capital was rebuilt and restored from the ground up in the years following the war.

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The Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Spirit survived the war and is one of the Minsk’s most notable landmarks. It was originally completed in 1642.

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A side view of the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit.

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This unique building, formerly the Church of the Holy Spirit, was built in the 17th century. Today, it serves as the Children’s Philharmonic Hall and is just a few dozen yards from the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit.

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Minsk’s City Hall stands tall on the edge of Liberty Square. Originally conceived of in the 17th century, the City Hall building changed purposes over the years, serving at different times as a court house, police guard house, and city theater, until it was destroyed in 1857 by order of Emperor Nicholas I. Reconstruction on the current building began in 1980. More than 20 years later, City Hall was restored to its appearance at the beginning of the 19th century. It was dedicated in November 2004.

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City Hall at night.

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Liberty Square at night.

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Across the boulevard from Liberty Square stands the Cathedral of Saint Virgin Mary. Although this Catholic church survived both world wars, the two towers were deliberately destroyed by the Soviets during the 1950s, and the church was used as a sport hall. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, religious services resumed and the church was restored.

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The Church of Saints Simon and Helena is Roman Catholic and sits on the edge of Independence Square, just a few dozen yards from the giant statue of Lenin. Just 13 years after the church first opened in 1910, it was robbed by the Red Army and then closed in 1932. Before and after World War II, the church operated as a cinema. In 1990, the building was returned to the Catholic Church and has since been restored.

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Petunias line the short wall along Independence Square leading up to the Church of Saints Simon and Helena.

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Lenin looms over Independent Square.

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M. in the middle of Independence Square.

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Panoramic view of Independence Square. Believe it or not, there is a three-level shopping mall under this vast plaza. I had to see it for myself to believe it.

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Bronze sculptures like this one commemorate Belarus’ cities along Independence Square. This one represents Vitsebsk, the country’s fourth-largest city.

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Remember what I said about the three-level shopping mall under Independence Square? This is it. From newspapers and magazines to clothing and jewelry to liquor and confections, shoppers can find just about anything here. And it’s all underground.

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A couple of miles down the road from Independence Square is Victory Square, prominently marked by the Soviet Victory Tower and an eternal flame in the middle.

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Here, a closer look at Victory Square.

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The Palace of the Republic, just off of Independence Avenue in October Square, plays host to large-scale concerts, meetings, and political conventions.

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Also in October Square is the Trades Union Palace, featuring this neoclassical sculpture at the top.

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Belarus is known for its rich circus arts. Here, the Belarusian State Circus building is home to the country’s greatest circus performances.

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Situated on the outskirts of town, the National Library of Belarus boasts a collection of more than 8.5 million items. Originally established in 1922, the current building opened in 2006. I wanted to see it from the inside, but alas, I ran out of time.

Given that about 40% of Belarus is covered by forest, it came as no great surprise that parks and green spaces were plentiful in Minsk. In contrast to the rest of the city, whose squares and boulevards are perfectly manicured with nary a speck of litter to be found, the city parks through which we strolled had a more natural feel, with densely wooded areas and wild grasses. Especially refreshing was wandering through these parks at dusk and seeing lone women doing the same, without worry.

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You’d never guess you were in a city of 2.2 million walking among these beautiful green trees.

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As we walked through the city, a group of women celebrating what we understood to be something similar to International Women’s Day stopped me and gave me this beautiful gerber daisy. I carried it with me throughout the rest of our tour of Minsk on foot on Saturday.

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The Svislach River meanders through central Minsk and is surrounded on either side by lush green spaces and bike/pedestrian paths. We walked along both sides of the river during our visit.

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Wedged in the corner where the Svislach River intersects Praspyekt Nezavisimost (Independence Avenue) stands the apartment building that was home to Lee Harvey Oswald in the years preceding the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Oswald, a former U.S. Marine, defected to the Soviet Union in 1959, claiming to be a Marxist. He lived on the third floor of this building until he pleaded to be allowed to re-enter the U.S. in June, 1962.

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Several people prepare for a wedding on the steps overlooking the Svislach River. We saw at least six wedding parties during our walk on Saturday. I’m not sure what the building in the background is. I wasn’t able to find its name online.

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Giant statues like this one are to be found throughout the city. This one is of the Belarusian writer and poet Yanka Kupala. He’s just a little bit taller than me.

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Not all of Minsk’s statues depict art and literature. This one, ironically just off of Independence Avenue, is a bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder and developer of the Soviet Secret Police. Dzerzhinsky served as Chief of the Soviet Secret Police from 1917-1926.

Of all the cities I have visited, Minsk is easily among the cleanest. Graffiti and litter were rare sights; even the underground passages were spotless.

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A pristine sidewalk along one of Minsk’s main thoroughfares.

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I don’t think I’ve ever seen a tidier subway entrance in my life.

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A flower market takes up a large portion of this underground passage near the central train station.

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The clean passageway each side of the boulevard in front of the central train station.

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We decided that this underground passageway, in front of the hotel where we stayed and devoid of the usual shops and vendors, looks like something out of a Stanley Kubrick film.

Our most profound sightseeing adventure in Minsk, aside from simply taking in the city  itself, was visiting the Belarusian State Museum of the History of the Great Patriotic War. The museum commemorates Belarus’ role in World War II and is a must-see for any visitor to Minsk. Originally opened in 1944, just weeks after Belarus’ liberation from the Nazis, the museum has been updated and moved several times over the years. Its current location  next to Victory Park opened just last year and is ultra modern and extremely well done, featuring 144,000 exposition items spread across three levels and covering 4,200 square meters in area. The exhibits take visitors through the beginnings of World War II and Belarus’ role in particular, as well as through civilian life under Nazi occupation. Descriptions and explanations of each exhibit item are provided in Belarusian, Russian, and English.

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Approaching the Belarusian State Museum of the History of the Great Patriotic War. There are eleven sparkling rays of stainless steel to represent both the Soviet victory and the 1,100 days and nights of Belarusian occupation.

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The sculpture Mother Motherland, outside the museum’s entrance.

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This plaque, affixed to the 45-meter victory tower outside the museum’s entrance, celebrates Minsk’s status as gorod-geroi, or “hero city”.

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Installation “Tank Ram”.

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“The Road to War” installation.

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A panoramic view of Victory Hall, on the third floor of the museum.

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Bronze statue outside the museum. I’m not exactly sure, but my guess would be that it depicts a Belarusian soldier and his wife.

During my brief visit to Minsk, I had the chance to sample some of the city’s many and varied restaurants. Traditional Belarusian food is similar to Russian food (think meat, potatoes, and cabbage), but Minsk boasts a wide array of cuisines, including Italian, American, French, Georgian, and Japanese, among others.

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My first meal in Minsk was at a small, quaint Ukranian restaurant. I had a small salad featuring beets, potatoes, pickles, and carrots alongside a bowl of cold Ukrainian borsht (beet soup).

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Following our long walk from one end of Minsk to the other, we had a cozy dinner at Talaka, a small tavern in central Minsk featuring traditional Belarusian food.

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Live music at Talaka. Songs varied from traditional Russian folk songs to Sinatra.

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The decor at Talaka, served with a side of old Russian (or Belarusian) films.

After becoming accustomed to using Euros since our move to Riga, it was quite a change to switch to the Belarusian ruble for a few days. Owing to high inflation, 15,000 Belarusian rubles is equivalent to one U.S. dollar.

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For the first time in my life, I was a millionaire! Here, 1.5 million Belarusian rubles… equal to about $100.

As with any trip, my time in Minsk passed much too quickly for me to see everything. I wish I could have stayed longer, and more so, I wish I could have explored the pristine countryside and forests that I have read about. Given the tight restrictions on tourism, it’s hard to predict whether I will have the opportunity to visit Belarus again one day. I certainly hope so. But if not, I will always have my weekend in Minsk.

Thank you for reading!

Interested in visiting Belarus? Find out what you need to know before you go.

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