Apr 21, 2011 -- posted by Emile
On the edge of Europe (but still in Europe’s heartland somehow), lies the country we all know as Belarus. Widely regarded as Europe’s last dictatorship, it is ruled by president Lukashenko, who has been in office since 1994. Unlike its neighbouring countries Lithuania and Ukraine, Belarus has been looking east rather than west after the Berlin Wall fell. It still holds good relations with Russia and even has a border treaty with them (meaning that there are no customs controls on the Belarus/Russia border).
Traveling to Belarus feels like time traveling. The moment you cross the border into Belarus (like I did last summer, when I journeyed from Vilnius to Minsk by train), you will be confronted with a semi-Soviet like treatment. Strict border control means that (if you’re traveling by train), customs police will enter the train to check your visa and health insurance. According to varies travel guides, odds are high that your luggage will be checked, but this wasn’t the case when I visited.
Upon leaving the train station in Minsk, you will be confronted with Stalinist-era architecture. Immediately in front of the station, you’ll find the “city gates”, two large concrete towers with statues of workers on top.
Close by is the BSU, Belarusian State University, whose buildings lie on the Independence Square. Around this square, you’ll also find the Belarusian parliament (with a statue of Lenin in front) and a red church, which has been named Red Church in a stroke of originality. Furthermore, the square is littered with cupolas, which are in fact part of the roof of the large underground shopping mall.
Independence Square is part of the main street through the centre of Minsk: the praspekt Nezalzhnasci (Independence Boulevard). Along this street you’ll find (continuing in a northward direction from Independence Square):
– the headquarters of the Belarusian secret service, which is still called the KGB
– the GUM, the large state warehouse
– the McDonalds, quite a rare restaurant in Belarus and ironically located in the crossroads of Independence Boulevard and Lenin Street
– Oktyabrskaya Ploshchad (October Square), a large square with the Palace of the Republic in its middle. The giant grey concrete building on its north side is the Museum of the Great Patriotic War (Second World War). This museum holds interesting displays on the Belarusian resistance during the war, but unfortunately, the signs are in Russian only.
– Ploshchad Pobedy (Victory Square), this round square has a large column in its centre. The column is decorated with sculptures depicting varies events from the Second World War and has an eternal flame in front of it.
Behind October Square, you will find one of the two “old” suburbs of Minsk. “Old” as in “it was bombed to hell during the Second World War, but after the war, these suburbs where the only parts of town to be reconstructed like they were before the war.” In this suburb you’ll find the city hall of Minsk as well as the Holy Spirit Cathedral. When I visited, they were still rebuilding some old buildings next to the cathedral, so in future, it will look even more the way it used to be.
The second “old” suburb is across the river and is called the Troitskoe (Trinity) suburb. Here you’ll find some nice restaurants. Also, from here you will see a large concrete tower standing on the banks of the river. This concrete behemoth is Hotel Belarus. I stayed here when I was in Minsk and I can recommend it. It has nice renovated rooms and is close to the centre of town. Also, its rooms are quite cheap.
I wish to conclude this little guide to Minsk with the following: if you go to Minsk, keep in mind that you are in a dictatorship. In daily life you will not encounter problems and everything is normal, but do refrain from the following:
– Do NOT take pictures of the KGB building. Before you know it, you will be questioned by a member of the militia, and things might go for the worse.
– The same applies for the parliament building and the president’s residence.
– Avoid demonstrations or rallies if they happen to be there at the moment you visit. Belarusian militia have the reputation of charging into even the most peaceful demonstrations and arresting people at random. Demonstrations of the political opposition can be recognised by the white-red-white flag protesters carry.
Apart from this, I must say that Minsk is truly a beautiful and interesting city. Visiting Minsk is an experience for life!