Published: September 17th 2010September 6th 2010
"You know, some tourists come to Minsk because it's supposed to be the most 'Soviet' city. Can you believe that?" - Natalia, a Belarusian "(mumble)" - me
So, this place is supposed to be "Soviet"?
Hammers and sickles, stars, and other Soviet emblems still prominently and non-ironically displayed? Check. Minsk's relationship with Lenin is complicated. Плошча Леніна/Площадь Ленина (Lenin Square) was renamed Плошча Незалежнасці/Площадь Независимости (Independence Square), and for a while its associated subway station was also ostensibly renamed to Independence Square, except no one ever changed the signage on the subway. Residents of Minsk protested the confusion and demanded that the signage be updated. Instead, it was decided to rename the subway station back
to Lenin Square, though the place where it's located is still called Independence Square. Got it? Interestingly, on several of the little route maps on the subway trains, I observed that the word "Lenin" had been (very un
officially) gouged out. Stalinist architecture
. I understand now that there's a big difference between what I thought of as "Soviet" architecture - concrete, square, hyper-modern, functional, hideous - and "Stalinist" architecture - neo-Classical, richly decorated, and not altogether unpleasant to look
"For Belarus, for the people!"
at. Very much like, in fact, the Empire State Building. Central Minsk has a lot of the latter and much less than I expected of the former. It turns out the apartment where I'm staying, which was explained to me as "one of the most beautiful buildings in the city", is often cited as a classic example
of the Stalinist style!
Impossibly wide boulevards and generous sidewalks? Check. A city of two million couldn't make all these lanes (six to eight for an arterial street was common) look full even at rush hour. Traffic flowed smoothly thanks to pedestrian underpasses nearly everywhere, and lots of lights and signage.
Vast public squares, with inspiring names and inspiring monuments, suitable for military parades? Check.
Unnervingly clean? Check. I did see a cigarette butt on a sidewalk. Like, once. I was told they teach children in school to take pride in their city and keep it clean, but I think every city tries that and in other places it doesn't work. More plausibly, I was also told a lot of city funds are spent to pay people to clean the sidewalks.
Inspiring art and slogans? Check. Upon arrival at
I prefer to view the "Amerikanka" prison from THIS side.
the airport, I was greeted by countless small billboards with red, white and green color schemes and smiling children and diversely Belarusian-looking smiling adults, saying things like "Мы Беларусь!", "We are Belarus!" In the city, building-sized banners announced "Minsk Day 2010". My personal most favorite and most Soviet-seeming, on top of the Museum of the Great Patriotic War
(yes, that's what they call WWII): "Подвигу народа жить в веках", "The heroism of the people lives for centuries"! But from the window where I was staying, I could see scaffolding on the building next door that clearly used
to hold some inspiring slogan and doesn't any longer. On the day I left, it was being fitted with new commercial advertising.
Painfully obviously rigged elections? Check
. In 2006, tens of thousands of Belarusians demonstrated against the presidential election result in spite of government threats. They stood, and even pitched tents, on Плошча кастрычніка/Площадь Октябрская (October Square) - right underneath "The heroism of the people lives for centuries" - until the protests were broken up by Belarusian riot police. The next presidential election is scheduled for this December.
Creepy secret police? Check. They're even still called the KGB
here - Russia's
aren't any more! The main KGB building is prominent in the central city, and in its basement is, of course, a prison, which I learned is nicknamed the "Amerikanka" - "because," Nikolay told me on our tour, "it's every agent's dream to catch an American and put them in there". Scarier, to me: across the street from the KGB building is a lovely little park with a statue of Belarus native Felix Dzerzhinsky
, the founder of the Cheka, a precursor to the KGB. So you're going to move Lenin's statue, but keep Felix around? Yikes.
While we're at it, suspicious suicides? Check. This
happened the day before I arrived in Minsk, no joke. Russification
? Check. But it's complicated. As you've noticed, street and place names are all given in both Belarusian and Russian - which can be confusing because they are sometimes quite different. I met a total of four people here, all of whom explained that both Russian and Belarusian languages are taught in schools in Belarus. (They're noticeably different; Belarusian is closer to Polish.) Two of the people I met assured me that the teaching of Belarusian is merely a formality, that it's archaic and nobody
Awesome art gallery
Its name, "Ў", is a letter only found in the Belarusian alphabet so therefore makes a bit of a patriotic statement, and in the café inside, they spoke Belarusian.
really speaks it any more after they pass their exams. The other two speak Belarusian regularly and prefer it. I will say that when viewing corporate websites in Belarus, I found they were primarily in Russian, and were more likely to provide an English translation than a Belarusian one. Interestingly, though it sounds awkward, the new official pronunciation is "belarooshan", which the government encourages to try to differentiate it more from "Russian". (One of the speaks-Belarusian-at-home people, though, interestingly, pronounced it "belarusshan", the old way.)
So, then, is this "Soviet"?
I dunno. But...
Gray? Nope. Ugly? Nope. Depressing? Nope. Downtrodden? Nope.
Thanks to CouchSurfing, I met a different young Belarusian each day I was in town, and their enthusiasm and pride in their city can be measured in the number of ibuprofen I had to take at the end of each epic sightseeing walk! I swear Nikolay and I must have covered 10 km in an afternoon, and we finished up at a fascinating new art gallery and café. Natalia made sure I didn't miss the exquisite National Art Museum
. Anna helped me find a fabulous traditional Belarusian meal at LIDO (a rather cheesy cafeteria chain
Belarusian youth and history meet
Anna having fun in front of "the heroism of the people lives for centuries" - Soviet Minsk meets NEW Minsk!
- but easy to navigate and delicious). This place is full of youth and energy and creativity.
Much like eight miserable years under George W. Bush, perhaps, even for those who find their president to be backward and embarrassing and perhaps even dangerous, everyday life goes on.
See all my pictures from Minsk on Flickr: Мінск 2010 Set