It’s curious how I only noticed that Minsk lacks billboards and ubiquitous advertising when I got back to Vilnius. The avenues are wide, and the Soviet architecture dominates the entire city. Minsk was completely destroyed during WWII, so in the decades following the Great Patriotic War, the city was carefully rebuilt to inspire the communist movement. I flew from Vilnius to Minsk in 30 minutes, but in that time warp, I probably went back 20 years.
There are few tourists in Minsk. I heard that Vilnius gets more visitors in one month than Minsk gets in a year (and clearly Vilnius is not a major tourist destination). Belarus has a bad reputation, due to the dictator Lukashenko’s being in office since 1994. There is a definite military vibe, and a lot of homage to the days of the USSR. The city was preparing for the July 3rd celebration of the liberation of Minsk in 1944. Military jets flew over my head, and the parade route was adorned with flags. Nearly one-third of the Belorussian population died during that war, so it is the major celebration of Independence. They even still have a holiday for the October Revolution of 1917. But it is noticeable that the country doesn’t have a national holiday for its 1991 independence from the USSR.
The Belarusian Great Patriotic War Museum is the place to see tanks and airplanes and life sized replicas of the partisans in their forest hovels. The horrors of the war are omnipresent, but in a way, this museum glorifies the conflict. The most chilling section is of the German death camps. Here there is some space devoted to the holocaust, but the emphasis is on how many Belorussian civilians and soldiers perished. After leaving the museum, I would have liked to have had the feeling that war is an atrocity that should never be repeated. Instead I left knowing that the Soviets were the victors, and it was honorable. I got the same feeling at the WWII museum in New Orleans, USA. In my mind a war museum should be horrific, and not a place for children to fantasize about guns and tanks.
At the ballet, Orr and Ora, watching the audience was actually more interesting than the ballet. The performance had world class dancers, but the story was rather cliché and the music repetitive. But the dresses and outfits of the women in the audience were from a different era. Women showed off their long flowing gowns of bright flowery colors. Their hair dyed and friseured in ways not seen in Western Europe or the USA. High spiky heals. See, there is no H & M in Minsk, no Zara, no Marks and Spencer. That is why these stores in Vilnius are full of the wealthy Belorussians who cross the border for their shopping sprees. Besides McDonald’s and Coca Cola, I didn’t see much in terms of Western branding. Here I saw avant-garde Belorussian.
In terms of art, I saw the exhibition of Belorussian artists at the Arts Palace. Marc Chagall is the most important Belorussian artist, but again, he is forgotten here. There are very few of his paintings in the country, because the Soviets didn’t like his style, and he was Jewish. This exhibit is an attempt to revive him to national prominence. I also liked the paintings by Bakst and Zarfin. I visited the Belorussian National Arts Museum, on Lenin street. Here there was also a small exhibit of Chagall’s prints. It is a grand old style museum that houses with a collection spanning centuries.
Would I go to Minsk again? Probably not for a while. Most of my Lithuanian friends were surprised that I had any interest in Minsk. I didn’t get to see the botanical gardens, but I did take the subway, taxis, trams and buses. I saw how clean the city is, and how it is actually nice to not be bombarded by advertising all the time. People were super friendly, although English is not widely spoken. I like knowing that in every culture, people are brainwashed, and there is underlying propaganda that subconsciously affects us. But in the end, we are all more or less the same. Minsk is fun and fascinating; like a strange dinosaur moving in a different direction.
Getting to Minsk
At this point, July 2017, if you fly to Minsk, you can enter Belarus for 5 days without a visa (EU or American citizens). This is only if you fly to Minsk. If you take a train or car, a visa is required. The flight from Vilnius to Minsk is only 30 minutes, but ended up being late in both directions. When you arrive at the Minsk airport, you must buy the travel insurance. The counter is right before the passport control. It is cheap, about 1 euro/day. I would recommend to rush off the plane to get the travel insurance first and then stand in the passport control line. It takes a while to get through. They thoroughly examine each person’s passport with a magnifying glass. Then you go through baggage claim and the green channel with nothing to declare. We had a hotel transfer waiting (arranged beforehand with Hotel Belarus). Taxi to the city costs 50 Belarusian rubles, which is about 25 euros. It takes about 45 minutes to get to the center of Minsk from the airport. If you are going to buy any chocolates buy them inside the duty free area, because they are half price after passport control.
I wasn’t in Minsk long enough to really explore all the options. At Hotel Belarus, the breakfast buffet had plenty of vegan salads and fruits. Vega Burger is near the Victory Square about a minute from the mighty obelisk. It was quite good, with salads, and a variety of vegan burgers. I had a tofu and tomato salad, and a nice lentil burger. They do the burgers, in a panini style. The atmosphere has a yoga center vibe with Indian music. It’s a nice place with qualities of a typical vegetarian restaurant.