A Trip to Belarus
This past summer I traveled to Belarus. This was part of a larger trip to Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Finland, and Sweden. To begin, Belarus never played a large part in my imagined travels. Belarus was one of those formerly Soviet countries that I memorized for a geography test in Mr. Bergstedt’s class. The first conversation about Belarus that I ever had was with Adam. Belarus was featured in the 1980s Soviet Life Magazine on our tabletop. The magazine mentioned that some marshes were drained near Pinsk to make way for agricultural land. We debated if marshes should be drained. I thought it was a terrible idea and he thought that marshes were mosquito spawning wastelands. His opinion on this matter has since moderated. In any event, it planted a seed in my mind that somewhere a country called Belarus exists and that it is marshy.
I read a book about Belarus last November. It was Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship by Andrew Wilson. There aren’t many books about Belarus. I learned a bit more about Belarus and its slow start at becoming a nation and the flip flopping policies of the Lukaschenko regime. The idea of going to Belarus became a little more concrete. At least, I could imagine it as a nation…albeit a forgotten nation with a dictatorship and dim sense of nationalism. With that said, I decided that since I was planning on going to the Baltic countries, it would be easy to visit Belarus. After all, Minks is just a few hours from Lithuania. And so, I did.
Travelling to Belarus was not terribly easy. Belarus requires a visa. To get a visa, a person must be booked with an official tour. However, I was traveling on my own. In lue of this, travelers can get a letter of invitation or an official document from their hotel. I stayed at a hostel and found it was challenging to get the hostel to send me the appropriate document with the official stamp-so that this could be included in my visa application. They did oblige, but there seemed to be confusion over what I was asking. I used a visa service in Washington DC, so that my documents would be delivered to the embassy there. In all, I had to send them that official document, a photo, my flight information, and my hostel confirmation. I also had to send them proof of travel insurance that specifically covers Belarus. In total, my visa cost about $300 with all of the fees and postage. The visa itself was only good for three days. In this respect, Belarus was rather spendy. Beyond the initial challenge of getting a visa, there isn’t much tourist infrastructure. There is some, but none of those common tourist features such as day tours, English websites, Hop on Hop Off buses, kiosks selling maps, etc. are absent. I booked a private evening tour of the city with Andrei, who offers a variety of private tours and who is a fixture of tourism in Minsk. Again, a private tour is spendy but I wanted to get a good sense of the city. Andrei was very well informed about the city and was the most knowledgeable tour guide that I have encountered. So, it was well worth the additional expense. There are also minor challenges of visiting Belarus. I found that the currency was extraordinarily confusing. The exchange rate was about 15,000 Belarussian Rubles to the Dollar. Because of this, I found myself giving people bills that were off by a zero. So, a bottle of water that may cost 30,000 BYR I would give 3,000. I was seeing too many zeros to make sense of the currency as there are no coins, only bills. Another item of confusion was that streets and metro stations had both Russian and Belarussian names, though maps or directions might only list the Russian names and both names did not always appear together. On a side note, Russian is taught in schools and used in public life. Belarussian is actually less used than before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Language aside, I felt a little confused and challenged during my visit.
The country was certainly unique. I flew to Minsk from Kiev, arriving at the airport, convienently located over an hour from the city. Still, I was proud to navigate the airport to city bus, saving money on a cab. Leaving the airport, I was met with forests and fields. Within my first half an hour in the country, I saw three shiny blue Belarus tractors. It was odd to see agricultural land outside the capital. Rather than sprawling subburbs were villages and expansive farms with herds of shaggy round haybales. I got off the bus at the last stop on the metro, which I took to my hostel. I stayed at Hostel Revolucion, which was tucked down Revolution Street near the older part of town. The hostel had charming revolutionary décor, a tortoise, a spiral staircase, and was pretty inexpensive-which was good, considering how much I spent on the visa. It was oppressively hot during my stay in Belarus. At least the upper 90s.
Something like 90% of Minsk was destroyed during WWII, so I expected a dreary, gray Stalinist city. Actually, where I was staying there were areas that had not been destroyed in the war or older parts that had been rebuilt. My hostel was near a Jesuit church, a Catholic church, and a mideival townsquare. On my first evening, I explored the area around my hostel and took a city tour. I think the highlight of the city tour was the giant library that looked like a Droid cube spaceship and the former residence of Lee Harvey Oswald. Other sites included various churches, government buildings, war memorials, etc. Interestingly, tourists are not allowed to take photos of government buildings. Government buildings are marked with Belarussian flags. Unlike other places where flags may appear anywhere or are waved around patriotically, the flag is used sparingly and mostly to mark government buildings. Again, like the Belarussian language, there does not seem to be strong attachment to the flag.
On my second day I was supposed to take a trip outside the city to The Berezinksy Nature Reserve. However, because of the extreme heat, the reserve closed. This was very disappointing, as I had been looking forward to seeing zubr (bison). Instead, I went to The Museum of the Great Patriotic War, or as we would call it, a WWII museum. Belarus suffered terrible losses during WWII. Minsk was bombed and occupied, as well as the site of a large Jewish ghetto of 100,000 people. Belarus also served as a site of resistance-such as the Jewish resistance of the Bielski brothers who hid in the Belarussian forests and . The museum was interesting because it still flew the Soviet flag. This is also something worth noting. Whereas most post-communist countries have renamed streets and torn down soviet monuments, Minsk has not. The streets are still named things such as Marx, Lenin, revolution, October, victory, etc. Buildings still featured red stars and sickles and hammers. With the large police and military presence, tractors driving in the city, and older ladies sweeping debris from the street, there was a sense that communism had never left. Of course, this would ignore the Chinese and Iranian investment in hotels, apartments, and other buildings, along with McDonalds, Papa Johns, sushi, casinos, luxury cars, and Starbucks. Anyway, the museum was quite interesting, with large dioramas and local art. Not far from the museum was a large park and a nature reserve called the Island of Birds. I spend the afternoon in the shade of the island, avoiding the sinister heat with a book about Hitler and Stalin’s atrocities in the lands between Germany and Russia. An intoxicated man from Uzbekistan chatted me up while I was reading, trying to become friends and get me to agree to meet him later. I pretended not to understand and wandered away after he didn’t move along on his own. This ended my relaxation on the Island of Birds.
Another highlight of my visit to Minsk was a visit to the Museum of the Founding Congress of the Social Democratic Labor Party. The green building was tucked behind some trees, not far from a WWII memorial and the apartment of Lee Harvey Oswald. The small museum contained some early 1900s art along with some artifacts from this meeting and other events hosted at the house over the years. The museum was mostly in Russian so I did not leave with much additional information. The visit to the house was mostly symbolic or historical as a site of the origins of the Bolshevik party. The green hammer and sickle fence around the house was a highlight of this visit. Afterwards, I visited a park, an amusement park, and the National Art Museum of Belarus. I enjoyed becoming familiar with Belarussian art. The museum housed a very large collection of icons.
Overall, Belarus was interesting. It is a place where I saw almost no tourists and heard very little English. Unlike other formerly communist countries, there is less distance between the communist history and symbols. This isn’t to say that globalization and capitalism are absent, but there is less idealization and strong ties with the West. While I was there, I saw people petitioning to have candidates on the ballot in the national elections this October (which Lukaschenko just won…making this his 5th term as president). In the past, the police would have cracked down on this. I also saw a lot of construction and a disparity of wealth between luxury and everyone else. Minsk felt rather safe if not sleepy. The sense of safety might arise from the number of police and how common it was to see families in public spaces, going for strolls and enjoying public fountains. With that said, as with everything, the experience was dialectical. Forces of change clashed with forces of conservatism.
Apply for your visa early (I gave myself about a month and a half and felt stressed that I hadn’t given it enough time.)
Carry a calculator (for currency conversions)
Study or brush up on Russian (I used Russian in museums, shops, tourist sites)
Buy a map (I had a hard time finding a city map in stores)
Books to read: (There are not many books to read on Belarus, but the ones I read during and before the trip were: Bloodlands, Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder as well as The Reconstruction of Nations by the same author and Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship by Wilson)