Stalin's Model City
Trip Start Aug 31, 2007
90Trip End Apr 19, 2008
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I confirmed my belief this morning that there is a good and a bad side to homestays. The good is the authenticity and price. The bad is the location. Glena gave me directions downtown, more in Russian than in German, and I set off around 10, determined to do my best to follow them. Overcoming my fear of city buses (if you don't know where you're going, how do you know when to get off?? someone please explain this to me) I catch number 33 and eventually find a metro station. During Soviet times, when a city reached 1 million people, they got a metro system. Ergo, Minsk has one while Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius do not
So I can't do buses, but I am all over metros. Minsk's is neither as deep nor as crowded as Moscow's, though it still goes fast enough to make your ears pop with the differential pressure. I quickly find myself downtown.
Ninety percent of Minsk was destroyed by Nazi bombing during WWII, giving Stalin a virtual clean slate from which to erect the perfect Soviet city. The result has become Minsk's main tourist attraction. Wide boulevards and imposing building abound, statues of Lenin and other revolutionaries litter the parks, and there's a monument to the Great Patriotic War (aka World War II, which they are quite proud of winning) in every square. I take a stroll down the main thoroughfare, absorbing as much of the "back in the USSR" atmosphere as possible. Minsk is experiencing an Indian summer at the moment, and today has the best weather of the whole trip so far. It is difficult to feel sufficient Soviet somberness, surrounded by so many smiling Belarusians - and they smile so much! I hadn't realized how much I'd missed it in the Baltics. You'd never guess that they were third last in a recent 50 country happiness survey, only beating out Bulgaria and Moldova. Makes me really look forward to visiting those countries..
But for all this cheeriness, I never forget that I am in Belarus. I avoid going camera crazy unless others are doing so (opted out of a shot of the block-long KGB headquarters) and I never jay walk. I hear the police love giving tickets for that, and Belarus is reported to have one of the highest police per capitas in the world. As my guide says (yes, I know I quote it a lot, I think it's funny) "What's the main ingredient in a police state? Police, of course. Without them, dictatorship just wouldn't be as fun."
In addition to the KGB building, I check out the GUM department store, Belarusian State University, Belarusian Government Building, and Palace of the Republic. All muey Soviet.
For a break, I find myself in a huge, 3-story underground mall, where 4 pairs of brides and grooms are participating in a scavenger hunt, near as I can tell. Looking beautiful and rushing everywhere. Fun to watch. The mall is a little heavy on liquor stores, and I duck into one. Two aisles devoted to vodka. Not sure I knew that wide a selection was even possible.
I also take advantage of the mall to engage in a favorite Belarusian past time: boot shopping! Everyone here wears boots with 1 to 5+ inch heels, coming up to the ankle, mid-calf, or above the knee. I happen to love boots (they make me taller) and the selection in Belarus is far superior to that in North America. I fall in love with a leathery-looking faux-fur lined, mid-calf pair, and it's a good thing the store doesn't take visa (apparently it's not everywhere you want to be) or I'd be $130 poorer and wondering how I was going to carry a huge pair of boots around for the next three months
Back in the sunlight, I visit the red brick church of Saints Simon and Elena, as well as the Island of Tears, containing a memorial to the Russian-Afghan War in the eighties. For those of you who may not know, that's when the US armed Osama (yes, that Osama) and taught him to be a soldier. The Russians were the bad guys back then, remember? The statues of mourning mothers on the memorial are thoroughly depressing, but the park around it proves a lovely place to rest my feet for a bit.
I finish the day with a trip to the Museum of the Great Patriotic War. Unlike similar museums in the Baltics, this one has no discussion of the Soviets (they were and are the good guys) but rather focuses on the Nazi occupation. Like the Baltics, Belarus was on the front line between the Nazis and the Red Army. Between 1939 and 1945, 25% of Belarus's population was killed, many in the 200 plus concentration camps the Nazis set up.
The museum is wholly in Russian, but the pictures do an excellent job of conveying the misery and destruction of the occupation. Particularly harrowing are the shots of hangings in recognizable Minsk locations, the dead holding signs reading "I am a partisan. I shot at German soldiers." What a terrible thing to come across on the street.
I also spend a good chunk of my day trying to go to the ballet. Consistent with many Soviet cities, Minsk is supposed to have an excellent ballet, considered by some to be better than Moscow's Bolshoi. Better yet, it's priced to be accessible to the proletariat (e.g me)
Minsk's Prague Factor: Hmmm...Minsk is the anti-Prague. Prague is quaint and old. Minsk is grandiose and new. I'll give it 10%. They're both cities and they both have rivers. On that point, I'll have to give Bangkok 10%, too.