Midwinter Minsk: Socialist Modernism in the ‘Soviet Florida’

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If you close your eyes, perhaps you can almost see it: a clean white city of blocks and towers and domes. Stars and flags decorate extraordinary works of Socialist Modernist architecture. Monuments to the soldiers who fought for it stand beside murals of the cosmonauts who would carry its legacy into the stars; the perfected Soviet city.

Such was the template for modern Minsk – the Hero City – and the reality, at least in visual terms, is not far off what you’d imagine. But Belarus is changing.

I visited in early January 2017, and even since then the country has made international headlines twice. First, they cancelled visa requirements for short-stay tourists from a list of 80 countries (I was one of the last to pay for the privilege); and then in late February, protestors hit the streets in response to a state tax levied against the unemployed.

Going in, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The newspapers like to call it ‘Europe’s Last Dictatorship’; an article on The Telegraph listed reasons why “rational travellers might not have considered a trip Belarus,” citing the death penalty, the country’s record of human rights violations and Minsk’s title as the “least liveable city in Europe.”

Meanwhile, various travel blogs I’d skimmed through painted a familiar post-Soviet stereotype: cold, unfriendly, with draconian laws and an apparently universal hostility towards foreigners taking photos.

The airport immigration desk seemed to confirm those stereotypes, and I approached it with a sensation as if entering a time warp. The border felt incredibly militaristic, a series of desks staffed by men and women in starched green uniforms; cotton fatigues and star-shaped chest medals, a dress code that appeared to have changed very little since the 1940s. I reached the front of the queue, and the border official – a balding, middle-aged man in a decorated WWII uniform – took my passport and squinted at the visa through a magnifying eyepiece.

Suddenly his frown broke, he beamed a warm smile at me and said, in English, “Welcome to Belarus.”

 

A Soviet-era monument watches over the frozen Belarusian capital.
A Soviet-era monument watches over the frozen Belarusian capital.

 

Back in the USSR

I didn’t go to Belarus for Soviet tourism. On the contrary, the Soviet connection was all I previously knew about the place, and this week I was determined to see beyond that; to meet local people, and transcend post-Soviet stereotypes in the hopes of discovering the ‘Real Belarus.’

Of course, it didn’t help that I visited Minsk in the dead of winter… a time when real people were mostly hidden away indoors, and all that was left out for the tourists was a mass of Soviet-era architecture covered in snow.

I arrived in the country at midnight, or close enough. The temperature outside was around 20 degrees below freezing. It didn’t hurt – not yet – but rather I found it exhilarating; after all, this was exactly what I’d signed up for. A Belarusian winter. I zipped up my jacket, fastened my hat beneath my chin and went looking for a taxi.

 

Minsk-2: the main international airport serving the Belarusian capital.
Minsk-2: the main international airport serving the Belarusian capital.

There were no taxi touts waiting for me at the airport gates; instead I had to find them, sleeping under blankets in snow-crusted cars around the forecourt. I managed to wake a driver and he hurried me into the vehicle, to a heated leather seat that smelled of tobacco and bad wiring.

The drive to the capital was long and straight, on roads that changed very little. Snow lay piled down the verges, a crisp, pure white. Sometimes it blew across the tarmac in torrents and eddies, so cold and powder-dry that it moved like dunes in a sandstorm. Lit by the car’s headlights, the effect was hypnotic.

At night, the city looked like some kind of fairground utopia. Colourful lights danced on white boulevards, Christmas decorations hung from lampposts. Fairy lights twinkled in the trees. There was hardly a human soul in sight. We passed the National Library of Belarus, a huge iridescent rhombus, then down mural-lined streets to the city centre. The neoclassical dome of the State Circus building glowed in alternating shades of crimson and green.

 

Midnight in Minsk: colourful street decorations light up the snow.
Midnight in Minsk: colourful street decorations light up the snow.

The Palace of Railway Culture, just over the road from Hotel Sputnik.
The Palace of Railway Culture, just over the road from Hotel Sputnik.

I received a confused welcome at Hotel Sputnik. Communication wasn’t the problem – I started the conversation in Russian, she finished it in English – but rather, I got the feeling that Westerners didn’t stay here very often.

Sputnik’s restaurant was closed, but the on-site bar worked through the night. I had the place to myself: a small room that felt more like a canteen, decorated in block whites and blues, festooned with tinsel and vintage Coca Cola signs. A hotel employee sat watching television in a room behind the bar. I rang the bell – and her automatic scowl gave way to a curious smile when she heard my accent.

Within a few minutes I was sat with a bottle of beer and a plate of microwaved, meat-stuffed pancakes, watching the small television that hung in the corner. It showed a woman in a headscarf, cooking over a stove. Suddenly there was a knock at the door and she went to answer it – to find none other than Vladimir Lenin waiting outside. The programme morphed into the strangest cooking show I’ve ever seen, as Lenin schooled and scolded the woman like some kind of bolshevik Gordon Ramsay. The programme ended, and the kitchen scene was replaced with newsreel footage of pompous military parades.

 

A late-night session in the 24-hour bar at Hotel Sputnik. Snapped on my phone.
A late-night session in the 24-hour bar at Hotel Sputnik. Snapped on my phone.

I finished my pancakes and retreated to my room. My plan was to draw a map that night, my own little walking tour of Minsk – but the wifi just wouldn’t allow it. The hotel’s login screen was a relic of the Windows ’95 era, and the button labelled ‘Connect’ did nothing. Eventually I gave up. I slept, and saved my energy for the city.

 

The Hero City

More than 2 million Belarusians died in WWII – just over 25 percent of the nation’s population. Minsk was all but destroyed, much of it levelled to the ground, leaving only a few select pre-war districts that are cherished now not for any particular beauty, but rather their stubbornness. The narrow streets, the churches and wooden houses of old Minsk are only a memory. But the city survived nonetheless, and a massive rebuilding project was undertaken to house a nation of displaced people. The Soviet Union rebuilt Minsk in its own mid-century modernist image, and in 1974 awarded it the title ‘Hero City’: one of 12 cities in the USSR to receive this highest of distinctions.

 

"Minsk – Hero-City," reads this sign above a modernist building in the city centre.
“Minsk – Hero-City,” reads this sign above a modernist building in the city centre.

The streets immediately outside Hotel Sputnik didn’t feel particularly heroic to me. They looked much like any suburb of any city I had visited in Russia or Ukraine… only cleaner. Icicles dangled from drainpipes. Snow had been swept aside in mounds, to expose black ice on the roads and pavements. Walking down Moscow Street however, crossing the railway bridge and joining the southwest end of Independence Avenue, I soon began to appreciate the grandeur of Minsk’s design.

Independence Avenue is the city’s main artery. Along with streets in Moscow, Berlin, Warsaw and others, this whole thoroughfare is soon to be pitched to UNESCO in a transnational nomination titled ‘Socialist Postwar Architecture in Central and Eastern Europe.’ A pompous promenade built by Soviet volunteers and captured German prisoners, it slices through Minsk’s Independence Square, past the Belarusian Parliament, to the State Circus and beyond.

I stopped to take a photo of the parliament building – a lovely blocky thing from the 1930s, complete with a statue out front of Lenin at a podium.

 

Belarusian Parliament Building (Josef Langbard, 1934), Independence Square, Minsk.
Belarusian Parliament Building (Josef Langbard, 1934), Independence Square, Minsk.

Photographing government or military buildings is not permitted in Belarus (it’s an easy rule to follow, just don’t point your lens at anything with a flag on top). I could already see the guard whose job it was to stop me: sheltering from the cold in a small booth, with fifty metres of icy pavement between us. I took a quick shot and moved on. The guard watched me – but did nothing.

Independence Square was known as ‘Lenin Square,’ until 1992. The local metro stop was also renamed, from ‘Lenin’ to ‘Independence’ – but the station kept its sculpted signs and Lenin busts, and people kept calling it ‘Lenin Square Metro’ regardless. In 2003, the station’s name was officially changed back to ‘Lenin.’

Outside the next metro station, a marble mosaic depicted colourful scenes of combat. Red Army soldiers rush into battle. A Nazi plane falls out of the sky, its engine on fire. In another panel, the future: Soviet cosmonauts float in zero-gravity space; one films with a video camera as another carries a potted plant, a symbol of new life, towards the stars. But modern Minsk is a city of contradictions and just two blocks away from this anti-Nazi public art, the Nazis’ own outfitters, Hugo Boss, now enjoy perhaps the grandest shopfront on the boulevard.

 

Mural above the entrance to a metro station on Independence Avenue. Minsk, Belarus.
Mural above the entrance to a metro station on Independence Avenue. Minsk, Belarus.

These colourful works of public art depict Soviet-style scenes of combat and space exploration.
These colourful works of public art depict Soviet-style scenes of combat and space exploration.

I was surprised by the amount of advertising in Minsk. Most articles I’d read promised an ad-free experience – but I’ve been to ad-free countries (see: Cuba, North Korea), and Belarus is not like that at all. It isn’t quite like Western cities, either; where adverts get plastered so densely across walls and shopfronts that they become easy to tune out, to ignore. In Minsk, they are more effective for their conservatism.

The city seems largely to be sponsored by Samsung. The tech company’s logo marches in scrolling marquee text around the body of the National Library of Belarus; Samsung ads play several storeys high on screens in the centre and they dominate the billboards at Minsk International Airport.

On Pieramožcaŭ Avenue (formerly ‘Pobediteley,’ or ‘Victors Avenue’) the Soviet-era House of Fashion is marked by a massive Socialist Realist relief entitled ‘Solidarity’ (curiously, the name of the piece is engraved in English). It’s as bold an example of Soviet art as any you’ll see, yet now it frames one of the city’s seven KFC restaurants. A few doors down, a glitzy glass building containing a shopping centre and a Hilton Doubletree hotel is fronted with a two-storey screen playing Coca-Cola commercials. That bright red Coke logo could not have been more conspicuous; it was practically the only colour for as far as the eye could see.

 

House of Fashion (Vasilizh Iosifovich Gerashenko, 1962-1967) featuring the sculpted relief ‘Solidarity’ (Anatol Yafimovich Arcimovich). Minsk, Belarus.
House of Fashion (Vasilizh Iosifovich Gerashenko, 1962-1967) featuring the sculpted relief ‘Solidarity’ (Anatol Yafimovich Arcimovich). Minsk, Belarus.

Palace of Sports (architects Sergey Filimonov & Valentin Malyshev, project engineer W. Korzhevsky, 1963-66), Minsk, Belarus.
Palace of Sports (architects Sergey Filimonov & Valentin Malyshev, project engineer W. Korzhevsky, 1963-66), Minsk, Belarus.

The rest of that day was mostly spent walking through parks. Between the trees, the snow sometimes lay waist-deep. I watched a family ice skate on the frozen Svislach River, and from time to time I stopped in little cafes to warm up. These places were generally empty but the coffee was consistently good.

I visited a barber, who slipped with the scissors and managed to cut into my ear. He immediately telephoned a friend to ask the English word for “sorry,” then he used this new word over and over again as he dabbed at the blood with a swab from the shop’s first aid kit.

Unlike my hotel, the streets of Minsk offered reasonably fast Internet. My phone picked up BelTelecom hotspots throughout the city, with a signal strong enough for maps and emails, at least. I returned to Hotel Sputnik for dinner, then I was out again after dark, taking the metro towards the National Library of Belarus.

 

Sun breaks through the trees in Yanka Kupala Park.
Sun breaks through the trees in Yanka Kupala Park.

A family skates on the frozen Svislach River.
A family walks on the frozen Svislach River.

There seemed to be a satisfying rhythm to the city. At 5.30pm, the lights came on – illuminating towers, monuments, theatres and libraries, often with bizarrely colourful displays that looked all the more dramatic for their snowy surroundings. At midnight, most of the lights started to switch off. The metro closes at 1am, then sometime between midnight and 2am the streets were swept of snow by a battalion of trucks, tractors, and men armed with scrapers and shovels.

When I reached the library, two diggers were sat outside the front; five men worked with shovels as another man smoked and watched them.

It was colder now, minus 36 Celsius, and I was beginning to suffer. My eyelashes were frozen together in clumps. There was a strange crackling sensation in my lungs whenever I breathed in. Airborne snow had begun to catch in the hood of my coat, forming drifts inside the folds of my scarf; but even where it touched the skin, my face and neck were so numb that I never felt it. My clothes were stiff and brittle, dusted white. I was a walking snowman.

 

National Library of Belarus (Mihail Vinogradov & Viktor Kramarenko, 2006).
The National Library of Belarus (Mihail Vinogradov & Viktor Kramarenko, 2006).

Elaborate light shows flicker across the National Library building. Pictured here at minus 36 degrees Celsius.
Elaborate light shows flicker across the National Library building. Pictured here at minus 36 degrees Celsius.

With gloves on, I found I couldn’t properly operate my camera. I had to peel them off to photograph the library, exposing my fingers to the stinging air. First they hurt; then they went numb. But after the numbness came another kind of pain, a deeper, aching sensation as if the cold had penetrated the bones. Ice formed on the rear screen of my camera, where my breath touched it. Every so often I had to scrape it away with my nails.

As I picked up my tripod, the metal stuck to my bare hand. All I could do was yank it free, and it pulled several layers of skin off with it.

I got my photos, then I left – shivering all the way back to Hotel Sputnik on the metro, then standing in a hot shower until the water ran cold, slowly trying to massage the feeling back into my hands.

 

The Real Belarus

A few days into my stay, I was realising that Hotel Sputnik was anything but Belarusian. It catered to a very specific breed of Russian tourists, those travelling to Minsk to indulge in a kind of Soviet nostalgia. With hindsight, the name should have been a giveaway.

 

Socialist Realist sculptures straight out of the 1950s adorn the newly refurbished Patriotic War Museum in Minsk.

Soldiers and snow: recurring themes throughout my stay in Belarus.
Soldiers and snow: recurring themes throughout my stay in Belarus.

Throughout the week I tried my hardest to meet up with locals. I wanted to see past the Socialist Modernism of Minsk, the hammers and sickles, the Brutalist towers, and get a glimpse of the Real Belarus. Mostly though I would have these icy streets to myself; and when I did get into conversations, many of the people I spoke with turned out to be Russian tourists, migrants or retirees.

Early in my stay I booked a private tour, visiting a handful of Soviet memorial sites around the capital: the Mound of Glory, the Stalin Line and the Khatyn Memorial Complex. Andrei, my guide, met me in the lobby of Hotel Sputnik and on the long drive we talked about the culture, history and politics of Belarus. I was a novelty, it seemed: “Seventy percent of the tourists who come here are Russian,” Andrei told me. Later he revealed that he was Russian, too.

I told him about my quest to find the Real Belarus, and Andrei seemed to find the idea amusing. In his opinion Belarus was hardly even a real country – “Russia’s political and economic buffer against the EU,” he called it. A puppet state. It sounded almost as if the Real Belarus had died in the war, along with a quarter of its citizens, and what remained after that had been worn like a skin by the Soviet Union.

 

Cinema 'Moskva' (Viktor Kramarenko, Vladimir Shcherbina & Mikhail Vinogradov, 1980). Minsk, Belarus.
Cinema ‘Moskva’ (Viktor Kramarenko, Vladimir Shcherbina & Mikhail Vinogradov, 1980). Minsk, Belarus.

As we passed the National Library, Andrei caught me gazing up at the massive, improbable diamond of its main structure. “It’s impressive,” I said.

“Fine,” he replied, “if you like that sort of thing.” But he explained how the building – constructed at an incredible cost of tax-payer money – had come to stand, for many Belarusians, not as a symbol of national pride (its stated purpose) but of national exploitation under a tone-deaf, grandstanding dictator.

I asked Andrei what he thought of Lukashenko, the long-standing and much-critiqued President of Belarus. “He surrounds himself with people who are loyal, instead of people who are capable,” he answered.

The wind was incredible that day, blowing hard at temperatures twenty-something below freezing, and coming back down from the steep concrete steps of the Mound of Glory, I slipped. I turned as I fell (instinctively, to protect my camera) and I landed with my own fist in my lung. It knocked the air out of me so hard that I couldn’t speak for five minutes. It was still hurting by nightfall, when Andrei dropped me off back at Hotel Sputnik.

 

The Island of Tears monument was created in 1988 to commemorate Belarusian soldiers lost in the Afghan War.
The Island of Tears monument was created in 1988 to commemorate Belarusian soldiers lost in the Afghan War.

The Island of Tears memorial consists of a symbolic chapel, flanked by the figures of grieving wives and mothers.
The memorial consists of a symbolic chapel, flanked by the figures of grieving wives and mothers.

When I first arrived in the city, I had posted a message to a Minsk travel forum in the hope of meeting some locals. I got one reply, a Belarusian who invited me to go snow tubing and then drink hot wine with her friends. I had accepted, and we set a date.

Getting back from my day trip though, I could barely move for the pain in my ribcage. I sent her a message and asked if we could postpone. “Next week would be better,” I wrote. “I slipped on ice, and now I’m in a lot of pain.”

I don’t know if perhaps that sounded like a made-up excuse… but she never replied. That particular window to the Real Belarus seemed to have closed on me as quickly as it opened. (Three weeks later, still in pain, I would get an x-ray and finally have it confirmed: I had been walking around with a broken rib for all this time.)

 

View across the icy Svislach River in Minsk, Belarus.
View across the icy Svislach River in Minsk, Belarus.

Later in the week I took a trip down south to Brest, a city that straddles the Belarus-Poland border; and coming back, I got talking to a stranger on the train.

It was one of those sleeper carriages – I had a five-hour trip to Minsk but the train itself was going further, due to arrive in Saint Petersburg the following day. My cabin-mate was a young Russian, who introduced himself as Vitaly. We didn’t have much language in common (his bad English, my bad Russian, and both of us sharing some terrible German); but we had plenty of time and Vitaly had beer, so a rudimentary conversation evolved.

“Sankt-Peterburg,” he began with a knowing smile, to which I replied: “Nyet. Minsk.” He seemed disappointed. I had to reassure him that I had visited and dearly enjoyed his city, but now I was exploring somewhere new.

Vitaly referred to Belarus as a dictatorship. Russia was far from perfect, he explained, but at least people there had relative freedom to live as they chose. They could start their own businesses in Russia, and the taxes weren’t so bad considering the lifestyle that they bought.

According to Vitaly, Belarus’s taxes were nothing short of criminal. They restricted private enterprise, and even the unemployed were taxed as a punishment for not contributing to society. He referred to President Lukashenko as a “mafia boss.”

“They have good monuments,” I offered, still reeling from my visit to the spectacular Hero Fortress in Brest.

“It’s all they have,” said Vitaly. “They are stuck in history. Old Soviets come here to spend their pensions and pretend that nothing changes.”

“The Soviet Florida,” he finished, as he opened another beer.

 

A Socialist Modernist Utopia

On my last full day in Minsk, I did an incredible amount of walking. The light in the capital had not been good for photographs this week – cold but bright, with a low sun that cast hard blue shadows over the buildings. That last day, I rose early to beat the sunrise… but the sun never appeared, and instead I was treated to pale, cloudy skies all day, that bathed the buildings and monuments of Minsk in a soft even light.

 

Belarusian socialist modernism: Faculty of Architecture and Construction (Igor Esman & Viktor Anikin, 1983). Minsk, Belarus.
Faculty of Architecture and Construction (Igor Esman & Viktor Anikin, 1983). Minsk, Belarus.

I caught a taxi from Hotel Sputnik at 7am, heading for my starting point at the far end of the city. The driver was in his sixties, perhaps, a gruff older man with a shock of white hair, who seemed intrigued to have a foreigner in his car.

He wanted to know where I came from (Britain), what I was doing in Belarus (tourism), and why I decided to visit in the middle of winter (I’m an idiot). He enjoyed my answers, then he gave me a lecture that I only half understood about the evils of gambling. I told him I was more interested in architecture. He nodded approval, then explained how he’d served as an officer in the Soviet Red Army, fighting in Afghanistan. He was Russian, he said, but he’d taken his pension and moved here to Belarus.

“May,” the driver suddenly told me, and I assumed he meant it was better to visit Minsk in springtime (the month of ‘May’ is pronounced similarly in Russian). I smiled and nodded. “Nyet,” he said. “May. Theresa May.”

He followed this with an alternating thumbs-up, thumbs-down, inviting me to pick one. I gave him the thumbs-down sign and he laughed.

Winston Churchill was next. I replied with a thumbs-up, and was rewarded with a hearty pat on the shoulder. “Khorosho,” he said. “Churchill, khorosho.”

I seemed to be passing the test so far, but the next question was more difficult. “Stalin?” he asked, turning to watch me with a slow smile. I realised this was going to take more than a yes or no answer, and wondered if my Russian would be up to it.

A good friend in war, but maybe not good in peace, I managed, clumsily. But that answer won me a handshake, and my driver was still laughing when he dropped me off in the Vostok district, outside the National Library of Belarus.

 

Cinema ‘Oktyabr’ in Minsk, Belarus (Valentin Malyshev, 1975).
Cinema ‘Oktyabr’ in Minsk, Belarus (Valentin Malyshev, 1975).

I photographed the library as dawn broke behind it, the sun rising from the direction of Moscow. The building sits at the far end of Independence Avenue, five miles from Independence Square. I walked back to the centre, between parks and palaces, around the clamshell dome of the ‘Oktyabr’ Cinema, right to the obelisk monument in Victory Square. The Victory Monument stands at the centre of a roundabout and in the underpass beneath, a commemorative banner displayed a colourful hammer and sickle motif. (While neighbouring Ukraine is busy removing communist symbols, Belarus is still printing new ones.)

Not far from the Victory Monument, just past the Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre, I stopped to visit the memorial chapel on the Island of Tears; and then I followed the frozen Svislach River north and around, beneath the towering Hotel Belarus until I was back on Pieramožcaŭ Avenue again. There were cars on the roads, a constant, smokey stream of them, but pedestrians were rarer. The few people I did pass were either dashing about in hats and heavy furs, or city employees, scraping ice from pavements or shovelling snow.

Further along the avenue, somewhere between the Palace of Sports and the Great Patriotic War Museum, I noticed the traffic beside me begin to slow down. Cars pulled in to the pavements, as if an ambulance were coming – but there was no siren, only police cars positioning themselves at regular intervals down the boulevard. The drivers, apparently, had seen this before: they knew what to do.

 

The Minsk Hero-City Obelisk (architects Kramarenko, Evseev, Romanenko, sculptor Zankovich, 1984) outside the Great Patriotic War Museum.
The Minsk Hero-City Obelisk (architects Kramarenko, Evseev, Romanenko, sculptor Zankovich, 1984) outside the Great Patriotic War Museum.

The icy plaza overlooking the Great Patriotic War Museum in Minsk, Belarus.
The icy plaza overlooking the Great Patriotic War Museum in Minsk, Belarus.

The traffic ground to a halt, then moments later a convoy of four black cars shot past down the empty tarmac. Belarusian flags crackled in the wind, fixed to the hood of the lead vehicle. They sped off towards the city centre, and as the road came back to life the police cars melted into the traffic and disappeared. I carried on up the avenue, to the War Museum.

Belarus’s ‘Great Patriotic War Museum’ was created in 1944, before the war was even won; Belarus, liberated from Nazi occupation, was already celebrating a victory. The collection’s current venue is new however, opened on Victory Day 2014. A modern facade of mirrors, steel and gold – studded with Socialist Realist friezes straight out of the Stalinist playbook – forms a gallery around the 1985 ‘Hero City’ obelisk. In the snow, it looked quite wonderfully surreal.

Past the museum, the striking modernist buildings that framed the street began to give way to somewhat less glamorous housing districts. I walked another half hour along the edge of Victory Park, while white and yellow blocks rose in sawtooth effect across the avenue; before reaching the Palace of Independence.

 

Palace of Independence (Uladzimir Archanhielski, 2011-2013), on Pieramožcaŭ Avenue, Minsk.
Palace of Independence (Uladzimir Archanhielski, 2011-2013), on Pieramožcaŭ Avenue, Minsk.

As I walked the perimeter fence, a man emerged from the fir trees. He wore a black polo neck sweater and looked everywhere except at me, in a way that felt immediately suspicious. Then he retreated back into the greenery and as I continued around the building occasionally I would spot him, keeping pace, always between me and palace. Only later did I get the chance for a photo – skulking behind the spacey curves and contours of the ‘BelExpo’ pavilion, that overlooks the palace from a raised courtyard – before deciding to stop for lunch.

Just over the avenue, billboards directed me to a restaurant on the top floor of some commercial-looking building. It didn’t seem like much from outside, but behind the brick and glass facade hid a massive multi-level shopping centre. The place was packed. I made my way through the crowds, up escalators, past large glass windows that gave a perfect view of the Palace of Independence over the road (so much for my earlier discretion).

On the top floor I found a skating rink. Children in sequinned bodysuits were doing twirls and spins and pirouettes on the ice while parents watched. Beyond that lay a self-service canteen area, decked out in traditional-style wooden beams that gave the effect of some massive, timeless mountain lodge. For nine rubles (about €4.50) I got a hot meal, and found myself an empty table in the corner.

 

Belarusian socialist modernism: residential buildings on Pieramožcaŭ Avenue, Minsk.
Belarusian Socialist Modernism: residential buildings on Pieramožcaŭ Avenue, Minsk.

The Soviet-era architecture of Minsk becomes more repetitive further out from the city centre.
The Soviet-era architecture of Minsk becomes more repetitive further out from the city centre.

It was disorientating: I hadn’t seen this many people all week. It felt like a different world to the bleak boulevards outside, with their snow and Soviet symbolism. Everything about this place (the mall, the faux-rustic restaurant) looked either very old or very new – there was nothing in the middle, no reference to the 20th century at all.

The Soviet architecture of Minsk had looked stranger for its emptiness; a lonely, bleak utopia. But if those Stalinist streets and post-modern palaces had appeared as if almost abandoned, it was simply because the citizens they were built for were busy pursuing consumerist pleasures in modern establishments elsewhere.

Minsk, I concluded, was not what it appeared to be.

 

Europe’s Last Dictatorship

At first glance, Minsk seems like a wealthy city. The streets are immaculately clean and lined with extraordinary modern buildings. The parks are well tended, while the locals I met were well-dressed, well-fed, and very often driving around in expensive modern cars complete with electric heated seats (with emphasis on: the locals I met).

Culturally, though, I had seen nothing to distinguish this place from neighbouring Russia. In my mind I kept coming back to Andrei’s words, to the notion of a make-believe country that served only as Russia’s discreet back door to Europe. Or, as Vitaly had put it on the train from Brest, the ‘Soviet Florida.’

 

Ferris wheel in Gorky Park, Minsk.
Ferris wheel in Gorky Park, Minsk.

This ice skating rink in the centre of Minsk is said to be a favourite hangout of President Lukashenko.
This ice skating rink in the centre of Minsk is said to be a favourite hangout of President Lukashenko.

It wasn’t just the Stalinist, Brutalist or Socialist Modernist architecture that made Minsk seem overwhelmingly Soviet. It felt it, too, thanks to a sense of omnipresent authority that conjured almost cartoonish stereotypes of a Soviet-style dictatorship: billboards plastered with pictures of military personnel; the black, flag-flying convoy on Pieramožcaŭ Avenue; the hordes of red-cheeked young boys in military uniforms who filled the waiting halls at railway stations; the KGB building on Independence Avenue, with its covered windows and CCTV cameras establishing an intimidating one-way gaze. Symbols of state power surrounded me.

My own run-ins with Belarusian authority were unexpectedly benign, however.

Late one night, for example, a police officer stopped me as I boarded the metro with a bag full of camera gear. He had frowned as my bag went through the scanner – but then I opened it, revealing the strange apparatus inside to be no more than a camera tripod. He sighed, smiled, and politely waved me through.

 

Academy of Public Administration on Independence Avenue. Minsk, Belarus.
Academy of Public Administration on Independence Avenue. Minsk, Belarus.

Another time I spotted a striking Brutalist tower on a backstreet. I was just lining up for a photo when the doors opened, and a flood of several dozen police officers suddenly came gushing out. For a split second, I panicked – but they moved around me like a tide, talking, laughing, straightening their uniforms, like students spilling out of a lecture hall.

But a tourist doesn’t experience a city the same way that its citizens do. Six days walking the empty streets at sub-zero temperatures (and staying in an unapologetically Sovietesque hotel throughout) had shown me nothing but the most superficial projection of Minsk. Most of the people I met may have seemed happy enough – but looking back now, I know that they were only weeks away from launching nationwide anti-government protests.

 

Hotel Belarus rises to a height of 73 metres over the centre of Minsk.
Hotel Belarus rises to a height of 73 metres over the centre of Minsk.

After lunch at the mall, I caught a taxi. The first car was a pristine BMW, its driver a young man in a sharp three-piece suit. He introduced himself as Sasha and he drove me to the Minsk Arena – where he waited patiently while I took photos in the snow.

Sasha gave me his business card when he dropped me back at Hotel Sputnik, and the following morning I called him for a lift out to the airport. He came prepared, with a voice-translation app freshly installed on his phone. We managed to have a pretty serious conversation on that long drive.

 

Minsk Arena (Valery Kutsko, Vladimir Budayev, Alexander Nitiyevsky & Anatoly Shabalin, 2010).
Minsk Arena (Valery Kutsko, Vladimir Budayev, Alexander Nitiyevsky & Anatoly Shabalin, 2010).

Sasha had previously worked as a refrigeration specialist, he told me. Now he was driving a taxi.

“People in Belarus used to earn $500 per month… but now it’s more like $200,” he said. “Our currency is volatile and lately Belarus has had one economic crisis after another.” Meanwhile, the Belarusian ruble is pinned to the dollar and the euro, he explained, and as those currencies inflate it raises the cost of living in Belarus.

Sasha was fairly well-travelled (Egypt, the Czech Republic, America, and so on), though these days it was harder since he had a wife and family to support. He told me, with a little embarrassment, that he’d recently entered his family into the Green Card Lottery – a scheme which offers “persons from underrepresented countries,” the opportunity to live and work in the United States.

 

National Opera and Ballet of Belarus (Iosif Langbard, 1939).
National Opera and Ballet of Belarus (Iosif Langbard, 1939).

“Belarus is always building, always borrowing,” he explained, as if justifying his willingness to abandon ship. Sasha told me how state money was spent on vanity projects, when it should be improving the lives of the Belarusian people. We were driving through the far end of the city now, past the National Library, and I nodded towards it.

“Like that?” I asked.

“Precisely.”

“Do you think more tourism could help?” I asked him. “More income, more opportunities.” I was thinking about Andrei, whose perfect English allowed him to offer guided tours for Westerners at prices that would make most Belarusians faint.

“Yes,” said Sasha, then thinking for a moment, he added: “but people do not change. And Belarus will never improve under this current leadership.”

His voice wavered with the faintest flicker of anger, as he told me to look up the term ‘social parasitism.’ Weeks later, I would wonder if Sasha had been amongst the young Belarusians who’d taken to the streets to protest.

 

Minsk's Palace of Sports rises from the pines beyond the Svislach River.
Minsk’s Palace of Sports rises from the pines beyond the Svislach River.

Minsk, at least in winter, was every inch the Soviet time warp that I’d read about… but as grand as the city looks today, it wears an identity born out of trauma. If the recent protests are anything to go by, it seems as though the people of Belarus have evolved past the ideological architecture of their capital; the Soviet Socialist Modernist Hero City. Only their leadership remains dogmatically set in the past.

While Soviet nostalgia might draw a steady stream of tourists in from Moscow (plus the occasional curious Westerner, too), during my stay I could never shake the feeling that beneath the surface, under all that ice, the Real Belarus was struggling to break free.

Next time, I think I’ll visit in summer… and see what the thaw reveals.

 

‘BelExpo’ Pavilion of International Exhibitions (Leonard Moskalevich, 1988). Minsk, Belarus.
‘BelExpo’ Pavilion of International Exhibitions (Leonard Moskalevich, 1988). Minsk, Belarus.

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  1. Man, I wish I could live half as dangerously as you. The winters there really lives up to its’ reputation, I’d easily wither at that kind of temperature, as I come from the tropics. I love the conversations you had with the people you encountered. I wanted to hear just a little more. Looks like you’ve found a little bit of the ” Real Belarus” after all 🙂

    • I wonder what that man Sasha implied when he told you look up social parasitism, was it something that he wanted eliminated in his country? Because it’s pretty scary to be branded as a parasite based on a very narrow set of beliefs. I’m pretty sure he is aware that his former Communist rulers busied themselves with eliminating such people

      • Exactly, yes – Minsk felt like a ghost town when I first arrived, but even though I didn’t speak with many people those conversations were still some of my most fascinating experiences by the end.

        As for the social parasites, I believe he was talking about the country’s leaders…

  2. Really enjoyed reading that! Fabulous photos and a fascinating insight. Would love to go sometime, but maybe in summer as I can’t handle the thought of my hand and several layers of skin sticking to my tripod 😉

    • Yes, I think summer would be much more enjoyable – though I’m glad I saw it like this, just once. It’s magical in the snow. Anyway, glad you enjoyed it!

  3. Wow. What a great adventure and nice, long ( in a good way 😀) write-up. Soviet Florida….lol. Enjoyed it very much, thank you

    • Thanks, I’m happy to hear that. Yes, it was quite a long piece – but I felt it needed to be. Minsk is a complicated city, with a lot of layers, so even just listing my first impressions became a fairly major task.

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed this! it is so interesting to see different experiences in Belarus as the country kind of presents itself differently to each and every person. Mine was somewhat the same and somewhat different. I met a lot of locals because I like bars (so embarrassing to admit). I still keep in touch w/ people I met at bars there. Belarus is a fascinating place with a very controversial governing (I’m trying to remain a bit PC here). I read every word of this post but I have to admit that ‘a man emerged from the fir trees’ is one of my favorite lines from anything I’ve ever read 😛 Whenever you go back, I would love to connect you with some of my friends. Some are musicians and some are TV presenters and movie stars- they all have varying opinions on their country and is it ever fascinating. These pics makes me want to book a trip back as soon as I can! Wonderful read!

    • That’s really interesting Megan, and yes – I very much got the feeling that there was a whole world of life there I was missing. I’m sure if I went back in summer, or frequented different places (there’s nothing wrong with bars!) I would have a completely different experience of it. Sounds like you’ve met some interesting people there, and I’d love to take you up on an introduction next time.

  5. Thoroughly excellent, well written and enlightening article…and some fantastic architecture.

See all 11 comments on “Midwinter Minsk: Socialist Modernism in the ‘Soviet Florida’”

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