Belarus or Bust

Minsk2

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.

Minsk4

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?

Minsk3

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.

Minsk1

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.

Minsk7

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.

Minsk6

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.

Minsk5

*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. *

43 thoughts on “Belarus or Bust

    • Who knew indeed. Definitely go, if you can. The visa process is intimidating, but you know what I mean about Eastern Europe bureaucracy, so you can handle it.

  1. Ive spent a week in Minsk a long time ago but remember only the street and square from your first photo. Great post! Loved the description of visa process. 🙂

  2. I have not been to Belarus but the process of getting a visa, not to smile too much and the Stalinist grandiose statues all bought back memories of such experiences in the countries,of Central Asia that were previously part of the Soviet Union. The second picture reminds me of the monument in Tashkent to the earthquake in 1966, the statues of Lenin that kept reappearing, the Soviet heavy architecture.

    We were warned about surveillance in Turkmenistan and the photos on my phone and camera were all checked as we left the country. He stopped at one for a long time. My guess was it was of my grandchildren feeding a kangaroo.

    Such interesting countries to visit and no matter what the people are going about their daily lives.

    • You have had such interesting travels. I’d really like to go to Central Asia – especially Kyrgyzstan. Were the buildings and monuments in those countries well-maintained? I ask, because Minsk was spotless and super calm, as opposed to Chisinau (Moldova) which was very run down and chaotic, though it had an interesting atmosphere.

  3. It seems to me, the more complicated it is to get from Point A to Point B, the more you find the adventure to your liking. The harder the journey, the greater the prize. I admire your ability to take on the challenges of governmental bureaucracies. Sun Tzu would be very proud of you for you follow his advice:

    “Ponder and deliberate before you make a move.”

    Your photographs are spectacular. Looking forward to more!! It is as if I was there with you.

    • Thank you. I’m very pleased with how they turned out.

      There is definitely a sense of accomplishment after making the effort to travel to “difficult” places. In this case, the hardest part was before the trip itself. After I arrived in the country, it was one of the least stressful journeys I’ve ever taken.

    • The city center did seem eerily empty, but that could be because it’s summer and I was there during a weekend. I’ve got some photos of people hanging out on the river and having fun in a vintage amusement park, which was really crowded. I think everyone was there. 😉 As always, thanks for reading/looking, LD.

  4. I really enjoyed reading this. I lived in Minsk for a year 10 years ago and I love going back to visit, though it’s been 3 years since my last one, too long…

  5. Your photos of Minsk are fantastic. Its have changed my view on this city. I thought the city is so-so attractive :-). Beauty is in an eyes. Thank you for your eyes.

  6. That gave me a flashback to 1978, as a young Aussie on a group coach camping tour. Our couple of days in Minsk, part of the USSR then, was dominated by a visit from Brezhnev. Poster sized portraits of him and flags lined every boulevard. So NOW I get to see the actual building behind them 🙂

      • It certainly was, but I was keen to get behind the Iron Curtain. Our chat prompted me to pull out my old diary. We came in from Finland, and visited Novgorod, Leningrad, Moscow, Smolensk and Minsk. I described the GUM store in St Petersburg – a favourite with tourists now – as “just like a large draughty barn, but it had all that was available”. I had my 23rd birthday in Moscow. I have not diarised anything significant, as my diary could have been confiscated. But I still have clear memories of certain events.

        • What an amazing trip. Going “behind” was the resaon I wanted to visit Belarus now. Though I’m sure it doesn’t compare with how it was when you visited. Thanks for sharing your memories.

  7. Interesting to hear your take on this city. I laughed when I read this: “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.” But it was interesting picturing the rest…

    Great writing, again.

    • For those of us from “smiley” Western countries, the rudeness of Eastern Europe can be a shock. After seven years over here, I think I’m used to it. However, I lost my temper at the post office here in Bratislava (Slovakia) just yesterday. Most of the time state workers are okay, just lacking in social skills, but every once in a while you get one who gets off on treating you like crap.

      I expected people in Belarus to be very rude. After all, they’re supposed to be living in a dictatorship. I was pleasantly surprised. You need to be more observant, because emotions are more subtle in that part of the world. They don’t smile with their mouths. Most of the faces I peered into were kind, if rather timid. Thanks for reading, T.

      • Lol. It is a shock. I had a really good friend in college who was Eastern European, we’ve grown apart in life with the arrival of family/work/recession based struggles but she is absolutely one of my favorite people in the world. And she was the one person — the one person who said to me about “Mask,”Why would you make a film like this? Why? It’s so dark, it’s too dark. I don’t like it.”

        Lol. But I loved that she watched. And it was classic her. Very sharp, blunt, bed side manner aside.

        An education, my brand of filmmaking isn’t for everyone. She then told me she enjoys happier things. From her I know some people will react this way. But when I first met her, her manner was (shocking). It’s just a very different way, but she has a *very* good heart when you get to know her. Genuine at every moment – tho rough.

        Ugh, the post office. Just what you need right? You’re there to get something done and the person who is helping you is crass. The thing is that person was probably miserable, and using her position to take it out on someone. It’s okay to lose your temper, people like this have to be backed up across the line. Otherwise they step further and further past it and maybe when you’re not around.

        Hmmmm the last observation, is wonderful. That is great that you have learned to get past what we are a little bit trained on (well I’m trained out of but was trained into – how I notice the gap), and can experience the emotion embodied in a different manner. Because at the end of the day, it’s about what is in the heart anyway…

        Nice chatting with you, and my pleasure always to read your stuff.

  8. Wonderful photos. And, as you may have guessed, this part of your post rang big loud bells for me “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?”

  9. Julie when I came to the blog I wanted to skip all of the other post and wanted to read this one first, the photos are amazing, the first one just scream dictatorship, I will have to see all of the other pictures, the architecture is so surreal. God now I want to be there right now.

    • The architecture does provoke a strange feeling. My mother’s comment after looking at the photos was “it reminds me of something out of the Stepford Wives”. Even though it’s a little eerie, Minsk is very pleasant, modern, and super safe. It was really a joy to not have to worry about being harassed or taken advantage of, as is so often the case in the rest of Europe.

Comments are closed.