This article is a series of observations from my recent week-long trip to Minsk and surroundings, and will be comprised of a few sketched notes around some general topic that I observed, which together will hopefully help create a picture of Belorussia. It was the first time I visited Belorussia – I haven’t been there even while living in USSR and was curious as to how the land and the people fared.
Interestingly, my trip went through Finland – another country that I visited for the first time. Despite the turbulent history of the 20th century, Finns still keep the history of their federative association with the Russian Empire, keep the monuments and stellas, and do not re-write history as is the want in the other Western European countries.
Only a few Western European countries have diplomatic relation with Belorussia, and Finland is one of them. I could have applied for Belorussian visa in Finland, but I chose another venue, contacting consular services at the Minsk airport, submitting all the paperwork there beforehand, and getting my visa on arrival.
Roads and transportation
The first thing that meets you when driving from Minsk airport is the road. One of an exceptionally high quality. And this high standard of quality roads persists not only in the capital itself, but also outside – in the surrounding towns that I travelled to. Another thing that Belorussia is famous for, is its railroad network. You can set clock by departures and arrivals, and travelling by rail is a real pleasure. There are modern regional trains and well as trains with cars from the Soviet period, though maintained with care. Belorussia is the only country of the former USSR that has not squandered its Soviet heritage, but built on it and multiplied it.
An interesting detail: all the man-hole covers in the streets are new and, moreover, painted to prevent them from rusting. In Lithiania, for example, all manhole covers are from 70s-80s and are thoroughly worn-out. Or take the traffic lights… The vast majority of them are of a modern bright LED kind, with the central circle showing the number of seconds until the light shifts from red to green or back, allowing the drivers to plan their acceleration and breaking. All are small details, but quite telling.
Industry and agriculture
The second thing you notice are the fields, ploughed and planted. The land is not left idle and in desolation, as is the case in the neighbouring Lithuania, but is serving the country’s needs as well as producing enough surplus for export. The industrial complex is also intact and fully functional. A small fragment of an impression: my hotel room was equipped with flat-panel TV and a Peltier element mini-bar. This is expected of any world hotel with a name to itself. But while in most countries the TV and the mini-bar would have been made in China or Malaysia, here they were Made in Belarus. I checked. The TV model, by the way, is called Horizont – a mark that I’ve known since the Soviet times. I am quite particular when the picture quality is concerned, and I would give that TV quite high marks.
Coming to Minsk, I felt an acute sense of deja-vu, like I’ve already been there. And then I realised that I felt myself like in Moscow of my youth, back in the 80s. It was the combination of many factors. People speaking Russian in the kind of ‘a’-sounding dialect typical of Moscow (I’ll come back to the language later). The vast expanses – wide roads, wide pavements, distance between blocks that can be up to 100 meters. In Western Europe I became accustomed to the compact, overcrowded building plan, and did not realise what I was missing of the old days. Then there is a feeling of security and stability – something that you never feel now days in a big city. I walked around Minsk by night and all was quite and orderly. And finally, the architecture was also reminding me of the centre of Moscow.
That’s not a coincidence, by the way. Belorussia got the brunt of the first hit from the German Nazis. Everything was wiped out. Of the whole historic Minsk, all that remains are a dozen houses in the Trinity Neighbourhood. The rest of Minsk was razed to the ground by the Germans. After the War, it was rebuilt in the neo-Classical style that you see today.
Today, the city of Minsk is getting a lot of modern buildings – you can see a lot of construction sites a little bit off from the centre. The apartments can either be bought privately (with loan level, comparable to most Western European countries) or with state subsidy. Besides, Misnk is expanding it’s Metro system with the 3rd line being built now.
Another characteristic feature of Minsk (as well as other towns of Belorussia) is their cleanliness. You won’t see any litter in the streets – not a scrap of paper, not a cigarette stub. And the reason for this lies not only in the nightly cleaning/washing of the streets. It is primarily in the mindset of the people. As one of the locals told me: you wouldn’t throw litter around your house, so why would you around your city? I think that is an important, fundamental feeling when you know that the land you live on is yours too, and not just some abstract state.
Shops and food
Whichever shop you come into, the assortment and quality of food is impressive. In my conversations with the locals, I got to know that the state owns only about 20% of the stores, while the rest is private business. The shelves are full of local produce, with a few imports. Below is an exhibition window of a bakery shop Karavai – a must-stop for anyone with a sweet tooth.
Eating out is also a pleasure – there are a lot of places to chose from, catering to all kinds of tastes. I found one restaurant, serving delicious selections of Russian “varenniki” and “pelmeni” – stretching it a bit, you can call that a kind of pasta. The place is called Gurman, and though it is a walking distance from some of the tourist points of interest in Minsk, it is frequented by the locals.
Language is both a big and a small issue, depending on how you look upon in. As we’ve seen on the example of Ukraine, language (or an artificial separation of dialects into languages) can be used divide people and start wars.
Simply put, everywhere I went, everyone was speaking Russian. And, moreover, the type of speech typical for Moscow, with the predominant “a” sound where “o” would be written. (Moskva becomes Maskva, Belorussia becomes Belarusia). It is written Belorussian that makes one pause. Jokingly, people told me that they write with all the grammatical and pronunciation errors one can make in Russian. Or What You Hear Is What You Write. Basically that’s the same first step in making a dialect into a language, that was also taken in Malorossia/Galicia in 1800s, leading to Ukrainian.
Then, there is a more complex perspective. There is an official Belorussian language, which no one speaks. I only heard it once at the railway station. I was quite amusing – at first I thought they were announcing all the trains twice in Russian, and only after having listened closely, I noticed some subtle differences. A taxi driver, to my question of how widespread the official Belorussian was, told me that he hears it approximately once a year from some of the more radically-mooded youths. And that people don’t pay much attention to it. Maybe they should?
And then there is an even more troubling development. Take a look at the route of bus #1 that goes along the central avenue of Minsk:
At first glance, nothing untoward – names in Cyrillic for the locals and in Latin for the guests of the capital. Then you take a closer look. That’s not simply translations of the names. That’s essentially a Latinisation of them, along with Czech-looking umlaut characters of “č” and “š”. Let’s remember that attempts to Latinise Russian language were were ongoing for several centuries. This may be yet another vector of attack on the Slavic roots.
Moreover, the names, which are basically lifted from Ukrainian – as I wrote above, I did not hear a single person call them that. Two examples:Independence Avenue in Ukrainian (and official Belorussian) is “Praspiekt Niezaliežnasci”, while in Russian it’s “Prospekt Nezavisimosti” (“independence” from what? History? Roots?); The Victory Square in Ukrainian/Belorussian is “Plošča Pieramohi”, while in Russian it is “Ploshad’ Pobedy”.
Man Is A Fool
Man is a fool,
When it’s hot, he wants it cool,
When it’s cool, he wants it hot,
He always want what he has not
I already mentioned the sense of security and stability that I felt in Belorussia. What I found peculiar, is the kind of grumbling from the locals, aimed at this stability “oh, yeah, we have STABILITY, but you are luckier being there in Europe”.
Another point of discontent comes from a kind of inferiority complex, comparing themselves to how much better it is in Europe, while saying that Belorussia only tries to catch-up. One example: I asked in one of the taxis that I rode, if I can pay with Visa card. The reply was along the lines of “yes, but the connection is slow and patchy, we try to make it appear like in Europe at stop when the appearances are satisfied, without bothering about functionality”. Well, payment went through very well. And never mind that in Germany, when calling for a taxi, you need to say in advance that you want to pay with VISA, or you may get a car, which is not equipped with a terminal.
One manifestation of such expectation that everything is better on the other side, was a song/rap that I heard on one of the radio stations – something about dreaming of Jamaica, but only having “Minsk sea” to do diving in. “Minsk sea” being a somewhat bitter, self-derisive joke. Seemingly quite an innocent one, but setting a subconscious undercurrent of discontent in the youth.
Let us hope that such undercurrents would no be nurtured by the outside forces into the kind of tsunami that finally destroyed Ukraine in 2014.