The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true inspiration in art and science” – Albert Einstein
“Belarus? at Christmas? You can forget it. No way!” – this was my girlfriend’s predictable response when I first suggested going to Europe’s least-known and probably least fashionable travel destination sometime in early 2012, perhaps fancifully imagining a romantic, alternative festive holiday to the usual over-indulgence.
So, for a while, I forgot it. Slowly but surely, though, somehow, the idea grew and gestated, and by November 2012 we were well on our way to finalizing plans. I had acquired the only stand-alone English language guide to the country (the Bradt guide to Belarus), sent off for our visas (a lengthy and pricey process, only practically achievable from my base in Krakow by way of a travel agent), and had commenced research into what on earth we were going to find in this freezing, remote country in the middle of winter. Internet resources, in English at least, are still surprisingly scant. This was, to a large extent, a trip into the unknown.
Belarus had long fascinated me, and I had regrettably aborted a trip back in February 2003 due to doubts about the sanity of a visit in sub-zero temperatures; additionly I was put off by the prohibitive visa price. Costing about 100 Euro today for UK citizens, it is the most expensive visa I have seen, and the only country outside Russia in Europe requiring a visa at all for EU citizens. On that occasion I ended up doing a tour of the Baltic States instead. Nine years on, and Belarus was the last country in the old Eastern Bloc that I had not visited. In that time, a lot had changed in Eastern Europe. Poland, along with the Baltic States, Czech, Slovenia, Slovakia, Hungary and recently Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia had all joined the EU. I had seen rapid improvements in my adopted country of Poland, as shopping malls had sprung up, roads and homes had been built, flat prices had sky-rocketed, Poles had become better-educated and the economy had generally boomed. The crisis in 2008 had barely made a ripple on most people I knew in Krakow. Even the Maluch (Fiat 126), a much-loved Communist-era institution on the roads in Poland well into the 2000’s, had practically disappeared. The story was similar over Central Europe, though Poland is perhaps the best example of post-Communist economic achievement. Meanwhile, Belarus remained, steadfastly and stubbornly, aloof; the so-called last dictatorship in Europe (as then-U.S Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice dubbed it in 2005), seemingly lurching from one economic crisis to another, permanently on the edge. Associated in the western mind, if at all, with Chernobyl (unfairly, as it was a victim of it), coldness, greyness and being a Communist time-capsule, Belarus was, and is, an enigma. Alexander Lukashenko remains in power, having ridden the storms of protest and near-revolution in Minsk in 2011 to emerge stronger and more consolidated than ever – a ruler since 1994, and seemingly, for life. Belarus, it appeared from the outside, was trapped in amber, like the insects found in the precious and beautiful stone along the Baltic shores north of its borders. I wanted to go to Belarus though not to ogle at the Communist relics that remained or to tut at the backwardness of it all – I had seen enough of these things on my travels elsewhere – but with the aim of trying to make sense of this strange world on the edge of Europe’s version of the VIP club, and, I hoped, to find a new way of seeing this mysterious land on the periphery of my vision.
The week before departure brought an icy Arctic blast of winter, as temperatures plummeted to -20C or lower in much of western Ukraine, Poland and Belarus. Several people died of hypothermia in Ukraine. On the day of departure, December 22nd, it was -10 in Krakow. I had prepared for this by stuffing my rucksack with thick socks, jumpers, vests and long-johns, and I looked like the Michelin man in my thick winter duffle coat as I alighted my train to the eastern Polish border town of Bialy Podlasie. A night in this uneventful border town was necessary due to the vagaries of train timetables and the fact that Belarus is two hours ahead of Poland in winter time due to it sticking to Moscow times. Our first destination in Belarus was to be Brest, a mere 10km from the Polish border but psychologically on a different continent for me. Queues at the border check point at the train station were long, and people were carrying with them all manner of goods, from TVs and hi-fi equipment to bottles of liqueur and luxury chocolates – Christmas presents bought from Poland at, we were to discover, much lower prices than what they’re available for in Belarus, presumably due to high import tax levies. The train journey to Brest took approximately twenty five minutes as we took a local train; international trains are known to be stuck at the border for upwards of five hours, due to a different train gauge requiring trains to change wheels. More queues at the other side, a declaration to fill out, a few cursory questions from border guards enquiring where we were going with a raised eyebrow and we were in, with a friendly “Welcome to Belarus!” ringing in our ears. Not the stern welcome we were expecting.
We walked through the rather smart train station building – I had become accustomed to grandness and opulence in post-Soviet train stations; from Lviv to Tashkent, station buildings gleam and glitter, even in the most provincial-seeming town. Police officers were immediately evident in large numbers around the station, though we seemed to be watched with curiosity rather than suspicion. Crime rates in Belarus are said to be amongst the lowest in Europe, probably due to the ubiquitous police, so at least that felt reassuring. Changing money wasn’t a problem – our Polish zloty were eagerly swapped for Belarusian roubles – which before devaluation in 2000 were affectionately known as ‘Rabbits’ due to some of the colourful animal pictures adorning the notes – and we were given large wads of notes in a perplexing variety of denominations. The country does not use coins, so the smallest value note is worth around a U.S cent. As is my habit on entering a new country, I bought a beer in the train station café, drably decorated with cheap Christmas decorations. I was shocked to find that it was about $3 for a Baltika #7, a Russian brand; double what it would be in its Polish equivalent. My dreams of a holiday on the cheap diminished as I generally find beer prices a good rule of thumb as to the prices of things in general. And so it was to prove.
Belarusian pricing for all things a foreigner might need – hotel rooms, restaurants, bars – are all at western European levels, and alcohol even in shops is more expensive than in Poland. Perhaps the economy is not the basket case it has been portrayed from outside though; Belarus has a relatively strong export industry, and its 2013 GDP level of around $15,000 is similar to Turkey’s, making it only the 11th poorest European economy. As we strolled to the hotel we had targeted for the night, the aptly named Hotel Bug, one cliché was ticked off the list: our first glimpse of a statue of Lenin. He stood by the side of the road, imperious and proud, pointing accusingly at the west. Our hotel was a delightful throwback to times gone by: dominated by frowning middle-aged women guarding each of its three thread-bare floors, we had to walk an entire corridor and flight of stairs to find a sink and toilet (one of which had a burst pipe and was flooded) and also we were obliged to receive and fill in a little hotel voucher as proof we had stayed here – just in case. Of what, I never knew, and no one ever checked it. A Communist left-over, in all likelihood; best not to question it. There were no breakfasts and woe-betide you if you try to bring someone into your room at night. At less than $15 a night each though – a rare budget option here - we weren’t complaining. Our rooms were spartan but comfy enough and happily they didn’t live up to the hotel’s name, containing neither creepy-crawlies or (as far as we knew) devices with which we were being monitored. In fact, the place takes its name from the nearby River Bug which borders Poland.
Brest has changed hands several times over the years between Russia and Poland, and many of the locals understand Polish – it is much closer to Warsaw than to Minsk. Belarusian and Russian are mutually comprehensible languages and pretty much everyone speaks both. Associated with the 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk which formalized Russian terms of surrender from WW1, the town is, and was, strongly politicized. In general it is a fairly uneventful town, lacking any must-see sights in the centre though there are a number of Catholic churches and some impressive neo-classical architecture. Much of the city was rebuilt after it was destroyed in WWII in typical Communist style – or lack thereof - and there is little, if any, historical heart, and few museums to visit. A fascinating train museum on the outskirts of town, containing old Soviet steam relics from a bygone age, is well worth a visit though, and conjures up a yesteryear feeling which becomes familiar when travelling in the country.
What most visitors come to Brest for though is to see its massive fortress on the outskirts, and this did not disappoint. The fortress, which is a national treasure, dates from the 19th Century and has changed hands between Russia and Poland several times. It commemorates in particular the 1941 siege against advancing Germans during Operation Barbarossa, and tells the story of this harrowing period of Belarusian history in which around 25% of the population was killed at the hands of the Wehrmacht. Its sheer immensity impresses most, set over hundreds of acres of land; it’s not a fortress as you would imagine it, more like a town within a town, its grey walls only visible in the distance beyond lines of red brick barracks and tanks. Just entering it, you feel a tinge of national pride even as an outsider as Russian military music blares through speakers at the huge red star-shaped entrance. Many assume this to be a Soviet war monument, but it’s the closest thing Belarus has to a national monument for war heroes. It has always been a puzzle to me how Belarusians can feel within themselves any sense of national pride, their country never having existed before the break-up of the Soviet Union and having always been dominated by Russia or Poland politically, linguistically and culturally. Although it has played its part within the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth and later as an industrialised and relatively wealthy part of the Soviet Union, it had never had full independence before 1991, its nationhood never allowed to flower. It has been, like Poland, a battleground for centuries, and, more often than not, a martyred nation in terms of its huge losses. Brest fortress though gives a clue as to where nationalistic feeling may be stirred and is an excellent introduction to the country’s (mostly tragic) history. The lasting image is of a huge 40m concrete construction of a grim-faced defender’s head flecked with snow dwarfing a nearby chapel; a bizarre and incongruous sight which somehow sums up the hideous nature of what went on here. To me, Brest and its fortress seemed to sum up the nation – a place of desperate struggle for survival which has been shot by both sides for so much of its history that it has an air of exhaustion and weariness, but nevertheless a fierce determination to live on. Perhaps, like the weeds poking through the melting snow beneath our feet, Belarus exists today because of this spirit.
I wanted to find out more about this spirit, and where better to do that than in the nation’s rebuilt capital, Minsk? The mysteries of Belarus were just beginning to unfold - and inspire me.
After a couple of pleasant if uneventful days spent wandering around Brest’s provincial streets, it was time to move on. Temperatures had risen 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 US dollars, 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 9:30 AM and getting dark at 6:30 PM, which has an oddly discombobulating effect on the body clock, though it’s ideal for late risers like myself. Minsk, a city of two 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 rouble. 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 Soviet-era store still exists, 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 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.
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. 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.
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, guilelessly. 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.
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 whilst simultaneously standing still and looking back. 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.
Originally published: neweasterneurope.eu