WELCOME: The Gates of Minsk await those wanting to see the grand boulevards and buildings of Lukashenko’s town.
VILNIUS - Due to questionable politics and the ongoing allegations of human rights abuses inside its borders, Belarus has recently been referred to in the ‘World’ section of newspapers, rather than the ‘Travel’ pages. Photographs of riot police throwing batons into peaceful protests were of late more common than any other sights and sounds from within a city as filled with marvels as its capital, Minsk.
So in early August, the impetus for this author was there: to visit Minsk as a tourist. To be awed by the bold architecture of its famous national library, gawk at the stature of its huge shopping streets, and wander through its parks and Botanical Gardens gazing at gigantic statues of dead Russian poets. And to try to find out, in a fleeting glimpse, what life was like within what multiple news outlets referred to as ‘Europe’s Last Dictatorship,’ and how it existed on a day-to-day basis.
Not exactly the darling of travel brochures, reports had alerted me that the railway to Minsk was more like a time machine than a train.
Just three hours’ ride away from Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, and you entered a zone known like North Korea, that could today be described as a living Soviet memorabilia museum. There were steadfast visa restrictions for outsiders. An invitation from somebody inside was a necessity to be allowed in. Luckily I located a long-lost cousin who lived and studied in Minsk, who would take on the role of my tour guide.
As the train rolled along, I wondered. What could be expected here, in a landlocked city so regularly vindicated by global media?
Soon it would all become clear. The city was rolling into view - monoliths jammed the horizon. These were the housing complexes, brimming from the city’s million-plus population. The train had made it to the Iron Curtain’s final frontier. My cousin met me at the station.
“Hi, nice to see you,” she greeted me with open arms, and I reciprocated. And no sooner had these words been spoken, did I notice the landmark of the so-called City Gates which dominated the backdrop.
Soviet statues lined the gates like snipers: somehow, a strange sight to see. Hearty soldiers and buxom farmer lasses, beckoning the crowds, all of us equal, with fearsome waves of welcome.
Down in the metro station, the first notable image which smashed Western normality like, well, a hammer, was a beach-ball-sized slogan of Bolshevik times, which pillared over the platform.
Televisions were mounted beside it, blaring synchronous broadcasts: grainy propaganda footage of roller-skating couples and laughing children, layered into a montage of men laboring. The builders were sweating and smiling, apparently from the satisfaction of a work ethic. Get the message? It seemed to be saying, “Socialism is great!”
For 2011, it was a stun-gun to the senses. I scanned the starring actors of this new movie which was manifesting around me. Young men sporting red star badges and camouflage gear were the first noticeable breed.
“Men must go to the military for one year once they finish university. University starts around age 17 here, so they have to go in pretty early. Without a higher education, men must serve from age 18, for 18 months,” my guide informed me.
Military culture continues to serve as a major portion of Minsk existence, at least visually. As the bus leads you into the city center, billboards of anonymous generals dot the main roads as reminders.
As we approached the Minsk main shopping district, I realized: everything was very tidy, elegant and grand. Along the way there, my cousin, who preferred not to be named for this article due to possible ramifications it could cause her, explained about elements of everyday life lived under the thumb of a ‘dictator,’ here known as President Alexander Lukashenko.
She studied at a university, was free to learn languages, meet friends, take trips. Lukashenko was not all bad, she told me. As a ruler, while he had spoilt many things, and selfishly barred his enclave from being able to join modern Europe, he does do a bit for the Belarusian present.
“The new communications faculty by the main train station is just one of many new projects,” she enlightened me, pointing towards a glimmering glass shark’s fin of modern architecture. And the streets were admittedly spotless - later in the evening we even saw a cleanup truck individually torch-lighting, from the passenger seat, every bin it drove past.
But the weak points of the politics, in her perspective, shining sidewalks aside, soon surfaced. “Lukashenko does not give his people a say,” she told me, shaking her head.
Each week, protests try to take place in different locations around the city, to create coverage for democracy and fair rights, though demonstrators involved often faced the threat of imprisonment.
“Belarusian authorities deny fundamental civil and political rights to the people. It’s impossible to organize a peaceful demonstration in Minsk,” Lars Buenger, the chairman of German-based human rights association, Libereco told TBT.
“NGOs are forced to work without a legal status which means their members could be put into prison at anytime because of Article 193.1 of the Belarusian Criminal Code [which decrees that activities in unregistered organizations are forbidden]. Dissidents were persecuted. Everybody who’s speaking out against the regime in public puts themself into danger. Students were expelled and people fired from jobs, for political reasons. Political prisoners have been tortured in detention,” he claimed.
Lukashenko, an avid ice hockey fanatic, seemed to ignore the calls of his people, but placed importance on extravagant events, like preparing to host the 2014 Men’s World Ice Hockey Championships.
“He builds huge new stadiums, and our main railway station [Minsk Passazhirsky] was said to be one of the best in Europe. But when it comes to repairing hospitals? I went with a friend of mine to one in an outlying district, and it looked like out of a horror movie. Walls peeling and all,” my cousin/guide revealed.
The center of Minsk, where the Lukashenko media’s main eye was, did not look like it was without money. Freshly painted power-block buildings stretched into the distance. As if someone had taken a Polaroid of baroque Vienna, enlarged it by ten-fold and slapped it full with hammers and sickles, here would stand the blueprint of inner Minsk. It was clean, beautiful and not just slightly bizarre - the checklist for travel hopes was now close to completed.
But it was unexpected, considering the massive debt the country was currently weighed underneath. “On television, the government tells us the economy is good, much money is being earned. But then, why do things cost four times as much as six months ago? They are lying to us,” the guide scowled in scepticism.
Belarus encountered an all-encompassing currency crash in May, when their money was devalued by 56 percent. A kilogram of apples today costs around 12,000 roubles, when before it cost just 3 or 4 - yet citizens still earn the same wages.
We strolled on. The buildings around us seemed to be more daunting, dominant, than previous streets, such as Lukashenko’s residence and the KGB police headquarters.
Then, at the source of Soviet saturation, there stood Vladimir Lenin. Superhuman-sized, his statue brought a look of distaste to my cousin’s features. Behind him, the Belarusian parliament house waved her flag of red and green.
Another aspect to the city was the paraphernalia. In the Baltic States of Lithuania and Latvia, the hammer and sickle Soviet slogan was banned, and production of it was counted as criminal. In Poland, the distribution of such symbols can carry a sentence of two years in prison.
In 2010 a call was put forward for an EU-wide ban of this symbol, which to many stood for Soviet war crimes. Ministers of the aforementioned countries composed a letter to the EU stating that the denial of Soviet war crimes, and their underlying connection to the hammer and sickle, “should be treated the same way as the denial of the Holocaust. They must be banned by law.” But they’re not in Belarus.
Here the Soviet hammers own awnings of buildings young and old - including above a McDonalds restaurant. Interestingly, McDonalds, the capitalistic chain, was a trendy choice for young Minskians. “Some people go there every night. It’s always crowded. Don’t ask me why!” my guide laughed.
So Minsk was like a Soviet memorabilia museum, but alive and buzzing. For all the civil rights infringements, though they assuredly exist, this day I saw a different side to the city. The sun glinted off the glasses of the girls who strolled past, immersed in chatter with companions. Families sat sharing a giggle or a grill-plate, and groups of young men, wearing berets and singlets, commemorated an Air Force holiday, and partied long into the afternoon. It was, in short, a sunny day anywhere, free world or far away - and a hospitable place, coated in flowers and peaceable people.
Suddenly, as these impression soaked in, we were standing outside a metro station with colorful CCCP (USSR) murals branding its exterior. A cluster of candles on black boxes were positioned at the entrance, between crucifixes and holy icons. “This is where the bombings happened, in April,” my guide spoke solemnly, as it had affected her, too. “A music teacher from my school was injured. Another boy, from my uni, was badly hurt.”
She was referring to the results of a bomb attack this year which killed fourteen people and injured at least two hundred others. “It was just so strange, to happen in Minsk. We are such a small country, we can’t harm any others. The only people we could injure are our own,” she said in grief.
Nobody really knows who was behind the bombings. A growing media myth was that Lukashenko set it up, to detract attention from political opposition.
Whatever the case, Minsk remained a contradictive city - unburdened from the outside turmoil of what Lukashenko has called “nauseating” democracy, though at times, at war within itself.
While we plodded the way back home, in the twilight, we wandered by a spectacular scene: the nightly strobe show which emitted from the thousands of bulbs attached to the rhombicuboctahedron (that’s right) shaped national library, newly built in 2006. The lights danced like fireworks, around the back boroughs of the city, well into the evening - providing a lasting look at the ever-mysterious Minsk.
For information on human rights in Minsk, visit Libereco-Partnership for Human Rights association at www.lphr.org/en.