Belarus is exceptional in the panorama of post-soviet countries. Maybe thanks to its geographical location, next to the heart of Europe yet in the closest vicinity of todays Russian Federation, this large piece of almost flat and fertile land is the contact point of two civilizations and ways of life – Russia and core Europe – which merge here in an inexplicable harmony. And this is perfectly reflected in the appearance of its unique capital town – Minsk.
If you have never been there but you are not new to former-communist countries in Europe, what you might expect from the capital of very little-mentioned Belarus, a republic once in the realm of the USSR, is a chaotic town, full of rotting, stripped buildings built with the huge volumes typical to the peripheral areas of Moscow and St. Petersburg, old and smoky Ladas and Chaikas rumbling along rough roads full of puddles, like ten years ago in Sofia or Bucharest (see for instance this chapter). Once there, you will soon understand the picture is really different.
The impression is that of a rich country, with infrastructures right at the level or even above those of western Europe, large and paved roads, modern cars, gas stations everywhere, freshly painted buildings, leveled walkways, colored lights and nightlife.
Of course, the soviet grand architecture is all there. Actually, since Minsk was totally destroyed in 1944, in a fierce battle between the Red Army and the slowly retreating German Wehrmacht – an episode which gained the town the high honor of ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’, still eagerly displayed today – after the war was over, a master-plan for the reconstruction in a perfect Stalinist style was put in place. As a result, Minsk is a rare – perhaps unique – example of a Soviet model-capital from the early Cold War era, when the USSR ruled by Stalin had just triumphed on the stage of a world conflict, and it was setting about to keep up its hold on all eastern Europe. In this sense, at least for a westerner Minsk looks today a town more soviet than others in Russia.
Another element you perceive clearly, not so typical to bigger and way more populated metropolitan areas in the nations of eastern Europe and even in Russia, is a strong sense of order. Nightlife is quiet and not bombastic, cars move around at moderate speed and without creating jams, everything is very clean and calm. Minsk is both busy and quiet, thriving and disciplined – maybe this is just how a soviet capital should have looked like? Belarus suggests how the Soviet Union might have evolved in our days, had it survived its own social and economic failure.
Still today the strong ties with the Russian Federation help feeding the economy on the one hand, but on the other make entering this country a complicated business, like the case is for Russia – anticipated invitations, visas, stringent time frame limitations, … All these rules are gradually being lifted, but the country remains oriented mainly towards its huge eastern neighbor – something you see confirmed looking at the airport timetable in Minsk, from where you can fly to anywhere in Russia, but almost nowhere in Europe. While possibly difficult to deal with, all these controls and bureaucracy help preserving some ‘soviet aura’, which may add to an uncommon travel experience.
This post presents some photographs from central Belarus, taken during a visit to Minsk and some neighbor sites – conveniently reached with a car in less than two hours – in spring 2018.
Map and Visiting
The majority of the sites listed on this chapter can be reached with a relatively short walk from whatever hotel in the city center. Nonetheless, the city is not small and some perspectives are really broad and long. For a more relaxed visit as well as for reaching Khatyn and the Stalin’s Line a car is highly recommended.
Entering the country with a car can be a nightmare, but flying into Minsk and renting a car is indeed possible – I landed in Minsk from Kiev in the Ukraine, and got my car from Avis. Differently from most former countries of the Eastern Bloc, roads are well in line with the highest European standard. Gas stations are abundant, and they accept credit cards. Plus traffic is really well-disciplined, totally different from the Balkan states or even Russia. Parking is generally not a problem, so hop-on/hop-off from your car allows for a time-saving, very effective way of moving in downtown Minsk.
Of course, if you are not planning to go beyond the city limits, you may choose to move around with the public transport system, with a fairly extensive network. Generally speaking, everything is like in the western world from the viewpoint of services, most top-tier western hotels are represented, there are shopping malls with international brands, and so on.
Minsk and its surroundings are unrealistically ordered, you feel perfectly safe both day and night – totally to the other end of the spectrum, compared to other post-soviet cities in eastern Europe.
I spent three full days visiting Minsk and its surroundings, including some historical sites not covered in this chapter, located farther west in the country. I would say this is a good compromise for getting a decent insight of this city.
Sights in Minsk
Praspyekt Nyezalyezhnastsi – World’s longest boulevard
The backbone of the Stalinist architectural master-plan put in place in Minsk is a multi-miles boulevard called Praspyekt Nyezalyezhnastsi, the longest boulevard in the world at least in Minsk’s tradition, cutting through the most monumental districts and connecting the executive airport to the southwest of downtown to the eastern peripheral belt of the city. The end of the boulevard to the east is not evident, for at some point it changes into a highway, leaving Minsk behind, heading for Smolensk and Moscow.
If you are coming in town from the main airport, located well out of the urban area to the southeast, you are likely to be driven along the full length of this boulevard – with its unpronounceable name.
Along this boulevard, or very close to it, you will meet the majority of the sights described in this chapter.
You may get a really striking impression from this boulevard visiting at night, for every building along it is lighted. The pictures below give some examples.
Locating the actual focal point in the center of Minsk is not easy, but a choice may be Independence Square, once Lenin’s Square – as the name of the underground station recalls. This may be also a trail-head for your tour of the town.
This long and narrow square hides an underground shopping mall. The crystal cupolas on the ground are a distinctive feature of the square. The central monument is centered on the stork as a subject. This bird is not uncommon in this part of Europe, and is the national bird of Belarus.
Around the square you can find some notable buildings. On the northern side is the Roman Catholic church of Saint Simon and Saint Helena, dating from the beginning of the 20th century, and closed for the long decades of the communist dictatorship.
In the northwest corner it is impossible to miss the huge Palace of the Government, with a prominent statue of Lenin. Similar to Russia, the father of pragmatic communism and of the Soviet Union is still kept in high respect.
Continuing around the square, the tallest building to the west and the adjoining facades on the southern side are all part of the Belorussian State University. To the southeastern corner you can spot an office of the Department of Justice.
Central Post Office
Leaving the square along Praspyekt Nyezalyezhnastsi to the east, a first distinctive building is the central post office. The hammer and sickle emblem is still proudly standing on top of the eclectic, soviet-classicism façade. You can find also an interesting clock, looking like a gigantic copy of a vintage radio alarm from the 1960s.
Inside, the small cupola covers a fully functional post office, where also many items of philatelic interest from the Eastern Bloc can be found (they accept credit cards).
Stately apartment and office buildings can be found on both sides of the boulevard as you walk east.
Yes, the name is correct. It is not an exaggeration. Differently from the Russian Federation, the Belorussian government did not change the name of the world-famous State’s security service since the time of the USSR. The huge building of the headquarters is clearly the same. The façade looks impenetrable and grim.
The shield and sword emblem is still prominently standing on the wooden front door.
The ‘soviet aura’ around here couldn’t be more intense. This building is really magnetic, a living witness of a bygone era.
Cross the street, where a nice boulevard – with the very Soviet name of Komsomolskaya Ulitsa – takes to the south going slightly downhill, you can even spot a bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky, a Bolshevik, Lenin’s friend, revolutionary, and founder of the Cheka – the revolutionary executive repression service, years later to evolve in the KGB.
Dzerzhinsky was the armed hand of Lenin, and due to its clear and heavy responsibility in the killing of many of the early victims of the October Revolution, he was put aside even in Russia, his statue being reportedly removed from ahead the Lubjanka, the KGB headquarter in Moscow. The same did not happen in Minsk, possibly because the man was from a noble family from around here.
Crossing with Ulitsa Lenina
Moving on, you will find more buildings with nice soviet-themed friezes and decorations, including the building of the Central Bank of Belarus.
The crossing with Ulitsa Lenina – not unexpectedly – is another focal point of the architectural master-plan. Clearly, here is McDonald’s – probably the neatest in the world!
One block to the south from this crossing along Ulitsa Lenina, you can find a house with tons of marble commemorative tablets on the front, where many notable people have lived. They include Felix Dzerzhinsky.
Taking again Praspyekt Nyezalyezhnastsi and going west, you soon find to the north of the road a huge square – Kastrycnickaya Square – with the modern-soviet building of the Palace of the Republic right in the middle. This building was designed in the 1980s and partly built under soviet leadership. Following the collapse of the USSR, construction was halted for years, and the building was completed only in the late Nineties. It is basically an auditorium for artistic performances, conventions and public governmental meetings as well.
To the eastern side of the square the Labor Union Palace of Culture is a great example of soviet classicism, with sculptures adorning the façade and corners of the greek-temple-like building.
Cross the road there is a garden going gently uphill. There is no car access to the eastern side of the garden, and you can spot the stately, grim front of a building of the Armed Forces – once the Soviet Red Army. Today this is mainly a representative building, featuring also a theater. On the southern side of the park you can find the Presidential Palace, a pure soviet-style monster occupying the majority of the block. You will see policemen discreetly keeping a watch on the area.
There are other smaller government-connected buildings around, some with soviet insignia. On a corner of the park there is the Yanka Kupala National Academic Theatre, which for the location and style may be one of the few remains of pre-soviet Minsk in the area.
Television Center and Lee Harvey Oswald’s Home
Again on Praspyekt Nyezalyezhnastsi, the road goes downhill and crosses a small waterway. The area is really nice, and looking northeast from the bridge you can spot the Television Center, with a distinctive tower made of iron beams and likely dating from soviet times.
Getting close to the center, you see the building right ahead of the tower, still today hosting a TV channel, is just another Soviet neoclassical building, still part of the Stalinist master-plan.
The nice apartment building to the the southern side of the TV channel headquarters has some historical significance, since it was there that Lee Harvey Oswald used to live when he spent some years in the Soviet Union in the Fifties.
Much has been said about the intricate plot leading to the shooting of President Kennedy, and the actual part of Oswald will probably remain largely unknown. Especially his relationships with the USSR are shrouded in mystery, but looking at the building – stately and very nice even for todays standard – the idea that Oswald could live there while being a poor, anonymous worker in a soviet factory does not seem very credible.
House of the First Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party
This small and modest house belonging to the pre-soviet era was until the end of the USSR a pilgrimage destination from all over the Union. It was here that the embryo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, namely the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, held its first congress. This happened back in 1898, and the reportedly largely unsuccessful meeting was held in secrecy among only a few notable political figures, known as troublemakers to the government of the Tzar.
Besides the political-historical interest, the small museum offers interesting memorabilia and furniture from the late Tzar’s era. This house was visited also by communist dictators and dignitaries from around the world, including Nikita Khruschev, Walter Ulbricht and Fidel Castro, whose visits are witnessed by signed documents and photographs.
Going back to Praspyekt Nyezalyezhnastsi and proceeding slightly farther east, you immediately find an oval square, with an eternal flame and a tall obelisk in the middle. This is the Soviet Victory Monument, celebrating the triumphal march of the Red Army against the invading forces of Nazi Germany. Passing under German control soon after the invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, Minsk was hit with extreme violence by the maneuvers of both contending armies three years later, in a crucial battle which opened the Red Army the gate to the last rush through Poland to Berlin. The town was besieged by the Red Army, and as a result of the heavy fighting it was almost leveled when the front line moved west.
The monument celebrates without excesses the sacrifice of many soldiers and civilians in the struggle. Minsk and a handful of other Soviet towns – Stalingrad, Kursk and Murmansk, to name a few – were later decorated with the title of City Hero of the Soviet Union. These towns, which were the stage of as many fierce battles, are remembered here with stones bearing their names.
The monument is particularly striking at night, thanks to the eternal flame ahead of it and the accurate lighting of the buildings nearby making for a nice scenery.
Yakuba Kolasa Square
Further east along the Praspyekt Nyezalyezhnastsi buildings start to look more average, but there are also more nice examples of soviet architecture. You soon meet the Yakuba Kolasa square, with a the philharmonic theater and other office buildings presumably from Stalin’s time or a little later.
National Library of Belarus
Closer to the eastern border of Minsk, where big apartment buildings from soviet times as well as more modern ones frame the road, you can find one of the most prominent modern buildings of Belarus, the state’s National Library, dating from 2006. The large glass volume over the main building is nicely lighted at night, but unfortunately I could not get a picture.
Close to this point, the long Praspyekt Nyezalyezhnastsi changes into the M2 highway, leaving Minsk to the east.
Mound of Glory
An incredible Soviet relic lies about ten miles along the M2, right on the interchange with the road leading to the main airport of Minsk a few miles south. This monument is a further celebration of the victorious battle of 1944 against Germany.
It is built in the form of a mound with an assembly of four bayonets on top, representing the cooperation of various armies and local partisans, and a victory crown with the faces of representatives of the branches of the army and of soviet society. The monument is really soviet in style, and while not necessarily esthetically pleasant, is not excessively bombastic either.
The monument on top of the mound can be reached with a flight of stairs. From there you can enjoy a 360° view of the hilly and relaxing countryside around.
The monument is lighted at night, but I could not take a picture at that time.
Belorussian State Museum of the History of the Great Patriotic War
This fantastic museum alone may easily justify a trip to Minsk! It is hosted in a building prepared on purpose, overlooking a huge green area in the city center. At the base of the hill you can spot a kind of triumphal arch, presumably built with the main building itself and forming an interesting ensemble.
The always growing collection relocated from a previous venue, where it had been opened to the public back in 1944, before the war had ended! By the way, the Great Patriotic War is WWII in the Soviet/Russian culture. Website here.
The collection is really huge, with rooms devoted to the many major battles fought by the Red Army in WWII. There are tons of memorabilia, including a very good collection of light weapons, and even a few larger crafts – tanks, aircraft, Katyusha rocket launchers, anti-aircraft guns, field cannons, …
Similar to other museums in the USSR, it is packed with material from Nazi Germany, which by comparison cannot be found in Germany, nor in this measure in western Europe or the US. Among the countless items, you can find also display cases devoted to soviet war spies in the west, modern dioramas and uniforms from the time.
On the top floor there is a large modern commemorative installation, with the names of fallen soldiers, and hammer and sickle insignia. This installation is recent – or recently refurbished – so the presence of abundant Soviet symbolism produces a strange ‘dystopia effect’.
Outside, on top of the building you can find a further monument, with an obelisk, some sculptures, and a Red Banner waving above the cupola. Behind, there is a Lisunov Li-2, a licensed USSR-built Douglas C-47.