‘Mini-break’ and ‘Minsk’ don’t trip off the tongue. And if you’ve never considered a visit to the Belarusian capital, you aren’t alone. Anita Isalska explores why the city makes for an interesting trip.
Firstly, there’s the popular perception of Minsk as a grey, post-Soviet megalopolis. Another disincentive is the Belarusian visa, a requirement for visitors from the US, Australia and many European countries including the UK. Finally, some travellers avoid Minsk on point of principle. Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus for an eyebrow-raising two decades, has attracted opprobrium – and sanctions – for numerous human rights violations by him and his officials.
Should you explore a place whose politics you abhor? That’s for each individual traveller to figure out. But with remarkable history, impressive architecture and some intriguing flavours and handicrafts, tired stereotypes don’t do Minsk justice. If you’re curious about the capital of the so-called ‘last dictatorship in Europe’, here’s a primer to get you started…
Soviet stylings and epic monuments
It’s not just Belarusian politics that whiff of Soviet nostalgia: this city of nearly three million people is decorated with Soviet style murals at metro stations and on tower blocks.
But the architecture here doesn’t suffer from Soviet uniformity. Many of Minsk’s monuments create a weirdly wonderful skyline. Among the most neck-craning is the obelisk in central Victory Square; beneath it lies a memorial hall that glows with amber light.
A 15-minute walk west from here to the Svislach River and the Island of Tears – a memorial to those who fell in the ten-year war with Afghanistan – comes into view. Reachable by a narrow footbridge, this lonely monument broods with veiled statues and weeping angels.
There are more uplifting buildings to enliven this sprawling city, too: like scarlet Church of Saints Simon and Helena off Independence Square and the neoclassical National Opera and Ballet of Belarus.
After ambling around Minsk’s old town, admiring the twin bell towers of its Orthodox Church and stopping in quaint taverns, you could almost mistake Minsk for any other charming Eastern European city. Until you notice that the old town isn’t old at all. Historic buildings don’t exist in a city that had to be almost entirely rebuilt from smouldering rubble.
Border shifts and bombardments
The city has undergone seismic shifts in ownership, language and culture over the centuries. Historians pinpoint the city’s founding as 1067. Minsk grew in prosperity as part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the thirteenth century, before becoming a capital of the Poland-Lithuania commonwealth. Then came Russian rule, occupation by the Swedes, followed by the return of Russian rule – but the twentieth century would be the bloodiest period yet.
After enduring the World War I as a battlefront city, Minsk made a grab at heading a new Belarusian People’s Republic in March 1918. Only months later the Red Army marched in and Minsk became the capital of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic instead.
In World War II, not even one-tenth of Minsk’s buildings escaped bombing. The city became host to one of WWII’s largest ghettos imprisoning around 100,000 Jews, most of whom would be murdered in camps. Starvation and disease were also rampant outside the ghetto; Minsk’s pre-war population of 300,000 was 50,000 by 1944.
When the Soviet Army took over, Minsk ballooned with swift industrialisation and a population boom. Meanwhile, the city was rebuilt from the rubble with vast Stalinist boulevards and stark angular buildings taking shape, most of which you still see today.
The rise of modern Minsk
For the best vantage point over modern Minsk, you need to get high. To the top of the National Library of Belarus, that is. At the top floor of this space-age-style building, which rather resembles a huge indigo diamond, is an open-air viewing deck with the best views of the city.
Expect a thrilling, rather than classically beautiful, panorama. The skyline is a forest of cranes, skyscrapers and bulldozers. Construction workers, tiny as ants, scuttle in building sites below. Skyscrapers proudly bearing Soviet style murals thrust towards the clouds. You can see the city growing before your eyes. Head to the vintage-themed Graf Cafe on the same floor as the viewing deck for excellent coffee.
There’s also detailed English-language explanation in Minsk’s most expansive museum, the Museum of the Great Patriotic War. Another sci-fi edifice, the museum’s enormous wartime dioramas and hallways crammed with tanks and missile launchers all take place beneath a metallic dome.
The surprising ease of exploring Minsk continues across the city. The metro, itself jazzed up with amber lighting and statues galore, is simple to navigate. English-language menus abound in restaurants. And locals are exceedingly patient when foreigners fumble their currency as they buy brightly coloured matryoshka (Russian dolls) and intricate straw handicrafts. Presently there are more than 15,400 Belarusian rubles to the Euro – expect to feel like a millionaire as you buy those souvenirs.
Drinking and dining, Belarusian style
With souvenirs bartered for, space-age architecture admired and museums thoroughly perused, you’ll be in need of refreshment. And while many Western Europeans imagine Minsk as dull and staid, you can have one heck of a blow-out here.
Even the most gluttonous traveller will plead to skip dessert at a Belarusian restaurant. Slurp on lip-smackingly sour solyanka soup at Vasilki (Independence Ave 89), a casual eatery with all Belarus’ classic dishes. Minsk’s top choice is Kamyanitsa (Pervomayskaya St 18), where plates arrive piled high with mushroom-stuffed pork and gravy-dipped pancakes (known as draniki). As the evening rolls on, Minsk’s young and beautiful pile into German-style beer taverns. U Ratushi (ul Gertsena) in the old town has live music and generous grills while Rakovsky Brovar is hop-head heaven (Vitebskaya 10).
And somewhere amid the city lights, astonishing architecture and haze of home brew, you’ll never think about Belarus in the same way again…