For those looking for a break from the burbling streets of Paris or the boggled-eyed sightseers of Barcelona – Minsk is not a tourist city!
When my partner and I traveled to Minsk in December 2017, we tourists experienced no tyranny, nor hostility, nor conservatism, or any type of political mishmashery (once we actually managed to get into the country. It can be a trying process if you’re not going by plane, as I laid out in my blog post Taking the Train: Moldova to Belarus). Though I can’t speak for the experiences of the country’s citizens, we had an amazing time seeing the capital. We met a tour guide with excellent English, responsive and friendly librarians, a rather curious gift shop cashier and excellent wait staff. Our Airbnb hosts were warm and obliging.
Now, I could play provocateur. I could provide an anecdote of a country covertly censored on grounds of ideology. I could mention my photographer friend who traveled to Belarus, twice, to photograph an underground school and free theater that were attempting to educate their students free from the stipulations of their country’s regime. I could include that both free-spirited institutions struggled to survive in the face of government restrictions, crackdowns and even jail sentences. And I could state that my photographer friend was blacklisted, denied entry to the country when he attempted to return the third time.
But I will focus, instead, on our trip to the country’s capital.
We stayed in Belarus for 3 days. We did not travel outside of Minsk, a city of architectural cliché: you know Soviet when you see it. A walk around the city is a promenade in a canyon of austere grey buildings and unnecessarily wide streets. But the fat lanes were apparently intended as a show of grandiosity: Minsk was supposed to be a diamond of the Soviet Union, and its architects reimagined the city after the devastation of WWII.
While one person may feel claustrophobic in a place like New York City, Minsk is a challenge for those who struggle with feeling exposed. However, this also means there seem to be few people in the streets. You could swing your arms wide and pirouette, and you would have a chance of success without someone socking you in the eye.
One of our favorite walks was the free walking tour, where we picked up a few facts about our destination country. The walking tour of Minsk meets every day at 4:00 pm in front of the City Hall, next to the statue of an official holding the key to the city. I checked out what I could remember online – our guide was good.
Country Overview and Big Metal Beasts
Belarus is an agricultural country, also known for its manufacture and machinery. Our guide mentioned tractors, but she should have boasted like the Minsk Tractor Works website – apparently, “every 10th tractor in the world” is from small Belarus.
A quick peek at Wikipedia also highlights the country’s successful service industry. The average monthly salary of a person living in the capital is about 400 Euros – less, as could be expected, in the countryside. Most Belarus citizens live in cities and only about 20% of the population regularly speaks Belarusian – nearly everyone else speaks Russian.
Religion and Space Travel
Our Minsk tour guide mentioned an attempt around the early 17th century to unite the Catholic and Orthodox churches. The schism healed, apparently, to form a political scar that would stem conflict and consolidate ruling power. The church would come to be known as the Uniate Church, or the Greek Catholic Church. The Uniates held sway for about 2 centuries, until the Orthodox Church rose again under Russian Czarist influence.
That is, until the Soviet government began to force atheism. The Soviets took over the Minsk churches and turned them into hospitals, storage spaces, and other public buildings. One of the city’s monastery buildings still symbolizes the appropriation: it is now a hotel near the center of the city.
To illustrate the strict atheist ideology of the Soviet regime, our tour guide pulled out a postcard from her tour company with a re-purposed Soviet propaganda poster of Yuri Gagarin. The astronaut had proclaimed, upon reaching outer space, that God was nowhere to be found.
The collapse of the Soviet Union gave way for a fresh religious swoon. Today, religious practitioners in Belarus are largely Russian Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic, though atheism is also common.
Money (or, Getting Used to Heavy Pockets)
After a generation’s hiatus, coins were re-introduced to Belarus in 2016. Before, the country’s residents relied on paper denominations, but now any resident’s (or happy tourist’s!) pockets can swing low. The Belarus government printed the coins in 2009, but the economy crashed, which accounts for the late release. It’s a collector’s dream: all of the late-coming coins are marked with 2009.
The KGB Still Sneaks!
There is a massive KGB building near the heart of Minsk. Unlike the Russian FSB, the Belarus secret service retained its name after the fall of the Soviet Union. Though the history of the service is formidable, this doesn’t preclude some silly stories about its building and operatives.
There’s a legend that the tall tower on top of the KGB building was constructed (it’s unusual architecture compared to the rest of Minsk) because the head of the KGB at the time was a huge football fan. There was, and is, a stadium at the end of the road leading away from the KGB building, and the KGB director wanted to watch games from his post. Now, however, there’s a lot of construction to beautify the stadium – and it looks as though the walls that now surround it would block any potential viewer, even were he to roost on the tippy top of that KGB tower.
And there are two other towers that were built to mirror the first. One is perched parallel to the first; the other, across the street diagonally, is faced with a clock. Legend has it that the clock tower was the brainchild of a fed-up official. Watches were scare at the time, but this KGB operative had one of his own. Colleagues and acquaintances harangued him daily. Tired of people endlessly asking him for the time, the official ordered the clock tower’s construction.
Food, Food, Food! And You Won’t Even Empty Your Pockets
When the waiter brought our fatty fritters to the table, I cringed with memories of feasts at US buffets. The meat sauce wasn’t translucent, nor was it transparent, nor opaque – like the state of plasma, it’s a consistency somewhat difficult to grasp. I expected disappointment.
“Don’t judge a crock by her cover,” dear!
The dishes might not have been molecular gastronomy, but they were delicious (particularly for carnivorous souls).
We went to two Belarusian restaurants: Васiлькi our first day, and Свои the second.
Васiлькi served more standard Belarusian fare, particularly dumplings, meat and all things potato. This was the restaurant of first impressions, a two-floor family style. We had a shepherd’s pie-type pork hock and potato dish (бабка), the famed draniki potato pancakes (драники) with a crock full of thick pork slices in that aforementioned fatty sauce (мачанка), and for dessert, a bowl of blueberry dumplings (пельмени) with sour cream. We left satiated.
Свои would be Васiлькi’s rugged-chic cousin. The restaurant had me thinking of a well-groomed bearded man with a cheesy graphic tee under his fitted suede jacket. It was a one-floor space where you could choose plush armchairs or a seat at a semi-hardwood bar, but many of the decorative signs featured cute slogans in English. I chose a pumpkin-cream soup with pepitas and lush pork chops with lemon. My partner ordered a chicken roulette stuffed with cheese, bacon and mushrooms. We both finished our meal with some glintwein, a perfect finish for another round on foggy streets. The food was more “classy” than what we had at Васiлькi, but not as hearty.
The Minsk Cat Museum! (Live cats! Pretty Cats! Take a Friend Home!): The cat museum was one of our first stops. There are cat crafts, cat artwork, other cat lovers, free coffee and tea (if you forgive the small entrance fee), and a small army of fusky felines. If you’re patient enough, you might entice one of the little guys to clean himself on you!
These cool cats are picked up off the streets – but instead of interning them, they get a second chance at commune life. If a visitor spots a resident she’s particularly taken with, she can take her out and on to a permanent home.
National Library of Belarus: You have to take the metro out of the city to get here, but it’s worth it. (Particularly worth it if you like to collect Pepto Bismol pink plastic Metro coins.)
You can visit only the first 3 floors of the alien structure. There is no way for tourists, or anyone other than library employees, to visit the space inside the dominant dome-like structure in the center where they keep the majority of the books. There’s a slick mechanized book-return system you can see from the open levels of the building. Little metal baskets zoom the books along tracks suspended from the ceiling and up into the Death-Star dome.
There is still much to explore. There are museums in the hallways, a restaurant downstairs, and even a small gallery of Belarusian artwork on the walls of the hallway leading to its many side rooms.
And apparently, they still use the Dewey Decimal system. Or at least, some kind of tedious cataloging system…
National Art Museum of Belarus: The National Art Museum of Belarus is great visit for someone seeking a short history of Belarusian art. For two non-Slavic Westerners, the formidable exhibit celebrating Lenin came as a surprise. I had never seen so many depictions of Lenin. From my time studying Russian culture in America, I remembered his profile and his glare; from study and travel in Russia and Moldova, his striking figure and serious stare.
I found a portrait of Lenin surrounded by youth to be the most impressive, but also unnerving. The leader was depicted as a benevolent figure; I recalled the stained glass depictions of Mother Mary and her sibling saints surrounded by cherubs at my grandparent’s church. But Lenin’s youth were not so adoring: only 2 of the 8 struck me as aware. Another 2 gazed seriously ahead, perhaps to martial in the new future – but the remainder stared blankly, smiles plushing their lips.
Lenin, as I had almost always seen him, welcomed the onlooker directly with his deep gaze: almost detached from his youthful entourage. I didn’t want to interpret the scene any further.
I have one recommendation: for those fans of surrealist freak fantasy, you should hunt for a small corner on the top floor where they’ve housed the contemporary art (which I found lacking). There are a few etchings of hellish beasts secluded in an unassuming corner.
State Puppet Theater of the Republic of Belarus: We also went to a children’s puppet show at the national puppet theater. We had little choice – although there are different shows every day, the kid’s shows far outnumber the performances for adults.
We chose to see Snow White at 2:00 pm, and paid about 4 Euros per ticket. Since it was Christmastime, we had the good luck of meeting Santa Clause (or as he is known in Belarus, Grandfather Frost) before the puppetry.
We were the only adults without a child.
But the show was fantastic! Since it was written for a young audience, I understood nearly the whole script (minus the rollicking songs). And though we were somewhat disappointed that it wasn’t just a puppet show (it was a people show, too), the creative use of props (some shadow puppetry for the shining prince and his horse, plush roses lowered from the ceiling, a massive undulating snake to ornament the evil queen and liquid nitrogen to illustrate the zing of her poison potions) had us both enthralled.
Graffiti Cats: Finally, there’s a day’s romp waiting for any feline fanatic. Though we had a bus to Lithuania at 12 pm our last day, my partner and I scurried over to one of Minsk’s residential districts to scout for the clowder of 14 graffiti cats that has bedecked the city since 2015. A few local artists have bedecked public spaces with these funky figures, and there’s even a great map that can guide the cats curious enough to find them.
Unfortunately, we only made it to three – an hour was just enough time for a casual hunt. But if we return, we’ve sworn to spend a full day in search of the rest.
We’re not the touristy types, and so the cultural capital of Minsk met all of our needs.
We agreed that Belarus was the best part of our three-country trip (other stops included Vilnius, Lithuania and Warsaw and Krakow in Poland). You shouldn’t be afraid of fearsome labels or visa restrictions. As long as you care to learn a bit about the culture, any extra effort would be well worth the trip.