I joined the Minsk Free Walking Tour that meets at 11am at City Hall on Svabody Square. The tour lasts two hours and finishes at Victory Square right next to Dreamy Castle Hostel.
My guide was Roma and he is Belarusian and has been living and working in Minsk for 8 years.
He said something I’ve never heard before – If you are here then you are an experienced traveller. Nobody who isn’t comes here.
Here is my Minsk overview.
A settlement has stood here for 950 years but the Minsk of today was born after the original town was utterly obliterated in World War II; almost everything you see was built during the Soviet era. Belarus has a population of about 9.5 million, making it fairly middle of the road size-wise. Minsk was small before WWII, with a population of 200,000. After the war the population had hugely dropped due to a staggering level of the population being murdered or deported by the Nazis. Pre-war, 50% of the population of Minsk had been Jewish (70% of the city of Pinsk in the south). Post-war, and up to now, only 0.5% of the population is Jewish and the synagogues are mainly theatres.
Outside of Minsk, to the south east across the river Svislach, lay Trosinets death camps, one of the most active death camps of Nazi Germany, with over 200,000 citizens killed in three years from 1941. In total in the occupied territory of Belarus, more than 2,357,000 were killed, over 1.5 million of these were citizens of Belarus.
The civic parts of the city were barely reconstructed during Soviet times, so city hall and most of the churches are new. Any churches that survived the war were used as other venues (for example, the Holy Mary Cathedral was used as a boxing ring) during Soviet times.
There were grand boulevards built during Stalin’s era in the neo-Classicism style. This was a major entry point for visitors to the Soviet Union so Minsk was rebuilt in a huge powerful style to ensure people experienced awe and believed it and the Soviet Union was a powerful place.
In 1953, after Stalin died, there was a gathering of the planners and they forbid fancy pretty buildings. From 1955, every building that wasn’t massive, functional or cheap wasn’t approved. The plan was to give everybody free accommodation so it was all going to be the same. If they were built too nice, they would be too expensive and the money would run out. There are suburbs all around Minsk that were built to meet this principle, tower blocks with just the right amount of space for each person.
As religion was forbidden during the Soviet occupation, Belarus is another place where pagan traditions are front and centre, with New Year being the biggest celebration here. I’ve been reliably informed that it’s worth being in Minsk, Kiev or Lviv for New Year…
Moving on towards the more modern aspects of Minsk. The best panoramic views of the city can be found at:
The National Library, Oschod Metro Station, 3.5 BLN to go up. Open from 1200-2300 every day.
The View Restaurant in the BSB building, 10 minute walk from Niamiha Metro, free to go up, tea/coffee is reasonably priced, alcohol is a bit more expensive.
Hotel Belarus Panorama Restaurant, at least 20 minute walk from the Niamiha Metro Station, I heard it was 1.5 BLN to go up but perhaps not if you are eating there. It’s the one I didn’t visit.
Interestingly, another part of Minsk history that you’ll rarely hear; there’s a hotel called Manastyrski Hotel and this did used to be a monastery, however then it became a Gestapo execution spot and then afterwards it was taken over by the KGB for the same purpose. When the developers went in to make it into a hotel, they had to clear away bodies. Now that isn’t advertised on the hotel website…
There are two small hipster-ish areas in Minsk, Zubickaya Street was set up less than 5 years ago and now serves food and drinks at prices that only tourists, bankers and IT sector workers can afford. It’s got a good atmosphere in the evening and it’s central. Less central, but definitely worth a visit is Kastrychnitzaya Street (5 minutes walk from Piershamaiskaya Metro), here you will find a strange quiet area that suddenly opens into a colourful graffiti spot with 24-hour cafes and bars.
The population of Belarus is 9.5 million, with 2 million in Minsk. Before WWII Minsk was a small and not particularly remarkable city and it was during the Soviet era that it was built up as a settlement.
In 1936, Belarus had four national languages; Belarusian, Russian, Polish and Yiddish, then after the war, there were so few Jews, and the Soviets banned local languages, so the languages were neglected, with no books or speeches made in Belarusian for many years. Luckily here there is no hate for the Russians and the language.
Most land remains government owned so the government also stipulates that establishment owners must also clean 20m around their property. They also put people to labour at nights cleaning the streets for minor punishments.
The story behind the Island of tears is that it is a memorial to the Soviet-Afghan war in 1979-89. The Soviets tried to break the ring of allied states that the USA was trying to build around the Soviet Union.
In the tower there are 40 strings connected with 5 underground bells so when the wind vibrates the strings, the bells comfort the dead. There are labelled rocks on the island from every province of Afghanistan that the Soviet armies fought in.
In 1939 the opera was created on the outskirts of the town. During Nazi Occupation it was used as a “warehouse of horses” but they believe that it was actually a warehouse to store the items confiscated from the Jewish ghetto. And the Nazi officers were able to peruse the shelves as if it were any market and buy those treasured possessions.
The opera and ballet is on summer holidays in July and August, performances are back on in September. Nutcracker and swan lake are excellent.
Life in Belarus
Belarus as a country has a tough balance to strike. If you start to turn your back on Russia then they threaten to put the gas price up and the politicians have absolutely no desire to wean themselves of Russian gas and onto renewable energy.
Belarus and the Chernobyl Disaster
In April 1986 a training exercise at the Nuclear power plant at Chernobyl went horribly wrong and Reactor Number 4 went critical. The prevailing wind blows across Belarus to Moscow, and that just couldn’t be allowed. Clear day not a single cloud. A plane was sent up to circle and circle and circle. Then they cloud seeded to create rain across Belarus. Two-thirds of the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl landed in Belarus.
A Scottish scientist called Alan Flowers was kicked out of Belarus for proving that this happened.
5-6% of territory is radioactive national park. There is a proposal for solar power generation. Near Gomel city.
65% GDP comes from refining Russian crude oil and selling it on.
There are a couple of running “jokes” about Belarusian politics.
In an area with a population of 60,000 there were 75,000 votes for president.
The president was asked “85% popularity, don’t you think that’s a bit high to be democratic?” And he responded “Ok well would 75% be more democratic?” And guess what, that was the next result.
Lee Harvey Oswald in Minsk
Lee Harvey Oswald was born in New Orleans, spent his army duty in Pacific ocean. Came back to USA hating democracy and decided to go to Soviet Union. He got a tourist visa to Finland then got on a train to Moscow. He was given an obligatory guide and then that night he went to the embassy and threw away his passport.
Idiot by Dostoyevsky. He was refused citizenship. And he cut his wrists but was saved. Then he was offered free accommodation in Minsk and, thinking it was a camp in Siberia, he almost turned it down! sent to Minsk. He received a train ride on 7th January was given a free apartment.
His apartment was made smaller before he arrived because the KGB made a listening cell in his apartment. And one time his upstairs neighbors were told to go out to the countryside so that the KGB could install a camera in the chandeliers of Oswald’s apartment.
Oswald was taught Russian by a teacher who twenty years later became the first president of Belarus.
He hated it here as his job and life was boring. After 2.5 years he went to get his passport back, went back to the US and a couple of years later he killed JFK.
Everyone involved in the case is dead. The police officer that Oswald killed and the man who shot Oswald also died of cancer on death row in Texas.
KGB general was bribed to give access to the information from when Oswald was in Minsk.
In summary, If you keep walking around and exploring then Minsk will keep surprising you.
I kept on walking…
Entry to the Belarusian National Art Gallery is 8 BLN. It has a great painting collection interspersed with small sculptures.
There is an impressive Powerful Horses exhibition across the main hall downstairs and the balcony area upstairs.
Downstairs there is my favourite set of exhibits, a collection of maritime scene paintings by Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900) which totally blew me away.
The only shame is that there’s only one place to sit in this part of the gallery in front of a painting called the Storm on the Sea of Azov in April 1886, which depicts a poor young sailer clinging to the mast of his shipwreck. He was there for more than two days before he was rescued by a merchant ship.
There is a spectacular embroidered kimono from late 1970s Japan. The colourful cranes on it are beautiful. One of my favourite non-painted pieces. there is also a rather large portrait gallery if that’s your thing along with plenty of religious artwork dating back to the 16th century and beyond.
After the art gallery I walked to the Brazilian street art and bought a coffee and pastry.
I absolutely loved this long colourful building. Behind me in the courtyard there are some 24 hour bars and coffee shops! Lavka 24h and Enzo both had a nice seating area outside.
On the journey back to the city centre I passed some random AstroTurf sculptures along the main road near the Pervomayskaya subway station.
I took the metro to Niamiha station and then had a long walk to reach the
Museum of the Great Patriotic War which is out in the middle of a big park near the river.
They are really strict on Belarus with closing times so in general don’t try to enter a museum in the last hour of opening.
I didn’t really find the downstairs exhibits very interesting as they were mainly a showcase of weaponry and armour that I had seen before.
I had my own personal Babushka escorting me around, not to explain anything, but to shoo me and make sure I didn’t turn back as they were trying to close!
There was a great exhibit showing the lives of the Belarusian partisans who fled to the forest and fought against Nazi occupation. There is a large darkened hangar filled with wooden huts showing the different workshops.
The top floor houses a memorial to those who died in the world wars and is a spectacular dome.
The monuments outside are impressive, one of a mother embracing her son going off to war and the other of an angel sounding trumpets. The niceest thing up here was to see the kids practicing skateboarding, integrating this monument into their daily lives.
Next, I walked to a powerful memorial called The Pit. It is memorial to the victims of the Holocaust in Minsk and was the site where, on 2 March 1942, Nazi forces shot around 5,000 members of the neighbouring Jewish Ghetto.
There is a sculpture called The Last Way which depicts the doomed being led to their deaths down the stairs and it’s pretty powerful. You have to walk down the stairs next to them to get into The Pit.
I walked to get dinner at a restaurant called Kali Laska and enjoyed Machanka with pancakes for 14 BLN.
It was a delicious meal! Afterwards I headed up to The View bar/restaurant at the top of the BSB building for a sunset view.
The panoramic elevator is really cool and the bar itself is plush on the inside and has a decent sized terrace outside with great views over the edge of the city.