They say that when the Soviet Union was dissolved, nobody bothered to tell the Belorussians. US President Bush calls the country the “last dictatorship in Europe”, and sets out to end the tyranny there. That all seems rather far-fetched, as we enjoy a cappuccino in a friendly coffee shop on the main drag in the capital Minsk.
Hero City Minsk
Belarus is wonderful and strange. Arriving at the train station in Minsk early on a Saturday morning, the city has an eerie feel to it. Wonderful wide avenues with impressive massive buildings, statues and Soviet memorabilia everywhere. But most disconcerting, there was no immigration control. We just jumped on the train in Moscow, and suddenly we were in Minsk. Nobody stamped our passports, nobody even checked them. For what is supposed to be a police state, they seem to have a very lax stance on immigration. During our entire stay nobody ever checked our visas, for which we went through so much trouble to obtain. Maybe big-brother isn’t watching after all?
Minsk certainly is special. The river Svislach runs through the tidy and well-planned city. Its parks, art and monuments are laid out in an orderly fashion, making the place a very welcome retreat from Moscow. The place must be even nicer in summer. Best of all, the Belorussian people are much friendlier than the Russians are in Moscow, and the standard of service accordingly higher. While Minsk is very cheap, there isn’t really all that much to spend your money on. Shopping is probably best done elsewhere. But this is a fascinating place, and as a tourist you feel very safe.
While we as tourists were quite happy with everything, not everybody who lives there is. We had gotten in contact with the Belarus Free Theater before coming, and went to visit them in their make-shift theater – a shabby old house on the outskirts of Minsk. This illegal theater group is regularly detained by police when they perform, and the venues where they have performed are closed, or threatened to close if they let the group perform again. The actors have lost their jobs in the state run theaters, and are unable to get new ones.
But they get by, and thanks to international support they travel a lot. But it is not easy for them. The oppression is evident, but still there are no restrictions on their traveling or communicating with the world. And they are not “put away” or directly threatened in any fashion.
We also stumbled across an opposition rally during our stay. The demonstrations were chanting slogans and marching to the central government building. Very little police seemed to pay attention to the 50 or so protesters, although some of the several people running around with cameras, probably worked for the secret police…
Some of course say that a very small and weak opposition is tolerated and allowed in order to deny more serious international charges about oppression.
Circus or classical?
The circus was sold out, so we got tickets to the state philharmonic orchestra instead (not quite so popular apparently). There was a certain dissonance between the cost of the concert tickets ($2) and the newly refurbished swanky concert house and the standard of the ensemble. Come to think about, everything seemed very new and shiny in the city. Maybe state subsidies are the way to go? Lovely concert in any event.
While waiting for Beethovens 7th, we shared a bottle of cheap Belorussian sparkling wine (glamorously named “Golden-domed Moskva” to appear more up-market) at a very democratic place called El Pomidoro. True, the regime has made legislation requiring all radio stations to play 75% Belorussian music. Naturally tiresome, seeing that Russian music is also “foreign”, and many of the good Belorussian bands are blacklisted after appearing at opposition rallies. However, this rule doesn’t seem to apply to in-restaurant music etc. And the Belarussians never stops surprising. While enjoying our cheap sparkling, the music was new, foreign and even tasteful. But the biggest surprise was when they played one of my favorite bands, Kent – a cool Swedish pop groups, with Swedish lyrics.
Not many guidebooks cover Belarus. And unfortunately the ones I could get my hands on were all rubbish. Lonely Planet Russia & Belarus has only 14 pages about Minsk, and most of it must have been dated already when the guide went to print back in March 2006. Another possibility is the free pdf-distributed In your Pocket. This claims to be updated July 2007, but clearly isn’t as the prices are all wrong. But then again, the guide is for free, and better than nothing.
A good example of the “outdatedness” was when we tried to go to an Indian restaurant called Taj, which both Lonely Planet and In your pocket recommended. However, when we arrived at the hotel Sputnik, where it was supposed to be located, they could tell us that it closed down 2-3 years ago.
Another place, which is not in any guidebooks is the five star Hotel Europe. But then again, the most luxurious hotel in Minsk was only opened this year, after president Lukashenko ordered it. Regardless, they have a wonderful winter garden for enjoying a hot coffee on a cold summers day. And if you’re on business they claim to have rooms that “even surpass the general standards of five-star hotels”.
For updated listings pick up a copy of the free bilingual Where Minsk magazine (distributed in hotels and bars etc) when you get there.
Fun facts about Belarus
- The economy is mostly state-controlled, and Belarus’s major export is heavy machinery such as tractors and defense equipment. The client list for their arms exports include, what the US State Departments calls, states of concern (including sponsors of terrorism). Such as Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Libya.
- All visitors are required to obtain a visa before visiting, except for certain ex-Soviet Unions Stats and six other carefully selected friendly nations such as North Korea and Cuba.
- It is illegal for kids under 18 to be in the streets after 23.00 unless they are accompanied by a parent.
- And even weired for a country that is close to Russia culturally, it is illegal to drink alcohol in the streets.