Sometimes there’s a synchronicity of intent and action. Red light turns to green: Go. Now.
When people asked me which country I most wanted to visit in Europe, I would answer without hesitation: Belarus. This is probably not surprising to those who read my blog, but for others this answer was often met with confusion or horror. Why on Earth would I want to visit what’s considered to be “the last dictatorship in Europe”?
Because I wanted to see. With my own eyes. Belarus was a total enigma. Unlike other countries that are considered as rogue by Western nations, not much was said about it. It has no coveted natural resources and is not a threat to its neighbors.
When I moved to Poland seven years ago, I was right next door. And yet, I hesitated. Almost no tourist information was available. I hadn’t yet got my bearings in Europe. I went to the Baltics instead.
Then I moved to Hungary. Every winter, when I thought of the coming year’s voyages, I’d check into Belarus once more. Flights to Minsk were outrageously expensive and involved long, sometimes overnight, layovers. I read in travel forums that the visa process was a nightmare: dour embassy staff, nebulous requirements that depend on the embassy and the mood of the staff, “mistakes” in visa dates which result in last-minute trip cancellation. Plus it was expensive. By then, I was used to the antics of government employees of former Soviet satellite states, but for Belarus the volume was turned up to eleven. You had to have the right mindset. It was best to think of it as part of the whole experience. Like the long lines at Disneyworld. But, frankly, I was not in the mood.
There was also talk of being trailed by KGB agents if you fit a certain profile: solo traveler in his or her 30s or older. I thought this was rather amusing. What’s it like to be in a police state where communications are monitored, due process is minimal, and the media is controlled? Because, if you’ve got nothing to hide, there’s nothing to fear, right? Isn’t that the question that we increasingly ask ourselves in our “free” Western countries?
This past January, I chose Moldova over Belarus when I made my travel plans. I could visit Transnistria and see the Soviet thing on a smaller scale, but without the visa hassle. Once again, Belarus could wait. Then, in February, Ukraine went off. My first reaction was, Oh no. Transnistria. Then immediately after: Uh oh. Belarus. Such chaos had a tendency to spread. I wanted to go while Lukashenko was in power. It was time.
I found a relatively low-priced flight via Warsaw. Five hour layover. I downloaded the visa application form and booked a hotel. I took a deep breath and called the embassy in Bratislava. A gruff voice informed me that a printed copy of the hotel invitation was enough. The original wasn’t needed. I applied for the visa a few days early, in case this turned out to be a “mistake” and I would need to ask for an original to be sent to me.
The young man behind the window was an imposing presence: tall, big-boned. Military grade buzz cut. His voiced boomed in the tiny room as he interviewed me. When you deal with Eastern Europeans, both government workers and civilians, it’s natural to feel like you’re being scolded. Even have a nice day can seem like a command. I’ve lived in this part of the world long enough to know that it’s just their pattern of speech. I detected a hint of curiosity in his voice along with some suspicion. Very few Westerners go to Belarus as tourists, especially solo females. I very possibly fit a profile, and the government was understandably jittery. Keep your facial expression pleasant, but neutral. Don’t smile too much, I reminded myself. After I cleared up some doubts about the hotel invitation, he presented me with the visa. And some travel advice on things to see. A huge smile lit up his face when I said that I’d always wanted to visit Belarus.
I had my ticket. I had my visa. What would I find behind the borders of this mysterious land? After my recent, enlightening trip to Transnistria, I really had no idea and no expectations. I would see some interesting architecture, but beyond that was a blur.
Passengers at Minsk airport are led by officers to the immigration checkpoint. They stand behind and make sure no one moves out of line. Literally. A supermodel in uniform glared at my passport and then at me in ominous silence three times. Then she checked my passport with a magnifying glass. The travel guide who provided my transfer to the city referred to his tours as “missions”. It was weird and fascinating. I was finally in Belarus.
I spent three days wandering the streets of Minsk. I had seen a few photos of the opera house and a couple of other buildings, but I was totally unprepared for the quantity and quirkiness of the retro Stalinist buildings. Minsk was almost completely destroyed during World War II and rebuilt in the Stalinist aesthetic. All of it is in mint condition, like a lovingly maintained classic car. I was awestruck. It is spartan, yet grandiose. The architecture of a lofty ideal. An unattainable utopia. The specter of Lenin is omnipresent. Rising above, hat tightly in his grip, leaning forward. Watching.
I’m able to separate the political ideology from the architecture, but I couldn’t help but wonder why it is that, in all of the former Communist states, there’s a feeling of nostalgia for this regime that was just as brutal as the Nazis. There are some, particularly of the older generation, who miss the system of order. If you did as you were told, you would have a place to live and food to eat. You didn’t need to take responsibility for much.
I walked until I got the largest blister of my life and couldn’t walk anymore. I left with the feeling that there were too many buildings that I missed. Apart from the sights, the city has a very pleasant atmosphere. Almost no police presence. Young people everywhere. Stunning, tastefully dressed young women stride down the sidewalk as if on a catwalk. Having my camera hanging around my neck and looking confused by the cyrillic writing prompted people to help me rather than try to take advantage of me. I ate pelmeni and holodnik at the same cafe twice. The diaphanous sounds of a flute wafted over on the wind from a music school across the street.
*Since I’ve been back, I’ve been overwhelmed by the quantity of photos that I took. These are a teaser for future posts. Along with the photos, I also came home with a delightful buoyancy. Experiences like this are priceless. I’m not one to give travel advice, but if anyone out there is compelled, yet hesitant to go somewhere, just GO. Your mind will tell you when is the right time. Listen to it. *