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  • 186 - the logo again.jpg

Minsk

  
  - darkometer rating:  3 -
 
The capital city of Belarus – and a city like no other in Europe. Since the old city was almost completely destroyed in WWII, it was built anew virtually from scratch after the war, and that in large parts in fabulously grandiose Stalinist style as well as later in typically socialist (brutalist) styles, plus there are some remarkable more recent modernist additions.
  
Soviet-era symbolism and monuments are plentiful in this sprawling city, and it still seems somewhat stuck in the olden days too, with none of the contemporary vibrancy of the likes of Moscow or Saint Petersburg. So if you want to get an impression as close as possible to the Soviet era, go here instead (or to Tiraspol in Transnistria). Minsk has a number of specific dark sites too, in particular related to WWII, a couple of them quite significant.  
More background info: The history of Minsk goes back nearly a thousand years. For many centuries it was part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which later united with the Kingdom of Poland. In the 18th century, Minsk was briefly occupied by Russia and then Sweden, then went back into Polish hands. At the end of the 18th century, following the second Partition of Poland it firmly became part of the Russian Empire.
  
The city's growth and development under Russian rule was interrupted in the early 20th century, especially when Minsk became a front-line city in World War One. At the end of the war, Minsk briefly came under German rule due to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, but by December 1918 was captured by the Red Army and shortly after was proclaimed the capital of the new Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR). After a few years of being contested between Poland and the Soviet Union, the BSSR was formally established with Minsk as its capital in 1921/22. Within the USSR, Minsk saw tremendous development and industrialization for the following two decades.
  
Then came the very darkest chapter in the city's history in World War Two, when it was quickly occupied by Nazi Germany in 1941 in the early stages of “Operation Barbarossa”. The Nazis set up one of the largest Jewish ghettos of the Third Reich in Minsk, with up to 100,000 inhabitants crammed into it, including countless Jews deported here from the cities of the German Reich (including Hamburg, Berlin and Vienna).
  
Almost all of these people did not survive. Many succumbed to the harsh living conditions and forced labour, thousands of others were massacred, e.g. at the site of what is now the “Pit Monument” (see below) and especially at the death camp of Maly Trostenets just beyond the outskirts of Minsk. At the turn of the century, more than half of Minsk's population had been Jewish. After WWII and the Holocaust, almost none remained.
  
Minsk itself was also almost completely destroyed in WWII, especially during the ferocious battles between the defending Germans and the advancing Red Army in 1944. The Soviets did eventually recapture Minsk, but about 80-90% of all houses and the city's factories and infrastructure had been reduced to rubble, and the population had dwindled to barely 50,000. Yet Minsk had also been one of the main centres of the partisan resistance, for which the city would later be awarded the Soviet title of “Hero City” (cf. also Kiev, Murmansk and Volgograd).
   
The Museum of the Great Patriotic War was already established as the war was still raging on. And after the war Minsk saw an extraordinary rebuilding programme. However, instead of many efforts of reconstruction, an almost entirely new city was built in the late 1940s and the 1950s, giving Minsk its characteristic grandiose Stalinist architecture.
  
Industrialization also resumed and Minsk's population grew again, hitting the 1 million mark in 1972. Today there are almost 2 million people living in Minsk, mostly in sprawling residential housing complexes that ring the inner city. Minsk was the ninth Soviet city to be given a metro system, the first line of which opened in 1984.
  
Minsk is still the industrial centre of Belarus, and much of what is manufactured here is exported (mainly to other CIS countries), including in particular tractors, trucks, machines and electronics (esp. TV sets under the name “Horizont”). The tractor factory MTZ alone has some 30,000 employees!
   
Since the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, Minsk has been the capital city of the now independent Republic of Belarus. Its authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko has several residences (palaces!) within Minsk.
  
One aspect that may strike you when in Minsk is how clean and tidy it is kept. This is in fact part of the politics here – instead of unemployment, the old Soviet tradition of drafting people in to do communal services, such as keeping the streets clean, is being continued in Belarus … and in that respect there actually is a similarity to Pyongyang in North Korea.
  
   
What there is to see: Apart from the “Soviet time-travel” factor already mentioned in the intro, Minsk also has a few specific points of interest for the dark tourist, in particular these two, which are therefore given their own separate chapters:
  
  
  
  
Amongst the best Soviet relics and Soviet-like places is first and foremost Independence Square. This used to be called Lenin Square (and the associated metro station still bears this name) A particularly magnificent Lenin statue atop a black marble plinth/monument still stands at the heart of the square right in front of Government House No. 1. Nominally you're not supposed to take any pictures of any government buildings in Minsk (clue to the rule: if there's a Belarusian flag flying at the top, don't photograph!). Here, however, my guide (see below) not only steered me right in front of the monument to take a picture of it, but none of the guards on the square seemed to mind that the government building (with flag!) was necessarily also in the frame.
  
Towards the north-eastern corner of the large square, by the steps leading up to the red brick St Simon & Helena Church stands a “nuclear monument”. This includes capsules with earth from both Trinity (first atomic bomb test in 1945) in the USA and from a village in the south of Belarus that was severely affected by the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, plus there are a couple of plaques relating to the atomic bombing of Nagasaki in Japan. In addition there are flags from all these nations plus one from Kazakhstan (where the USSR's main nuclear testing ground was located near Semipalatinsk).
   
If you look north from the very north-easternmost corner of the Independence Square area you can catch a glimpse of a grim-looking prison – right in the heart of Minsk!
   
In the league table of grand squares, Independence Square may be good, but October Square (also known as Republic Square) is perhaps even better as a square as such. This is found a couple of miles (2 km) further up (north-east along) the main thoroughfare Independence Avenue and the main landmark here is the Palace of the Republic. This imposing, though austere, free-standing edifice looks as Soviet as can be, but apparently was only finished in 2001. It is not, as you might assume a parliament or a president's residence, but a cultural palace, where concerts etc. take place. At the north-eastern corner stands another theatre in more classical architectural design. What gives the space between a distinct Soviet aura are the many ensembles of national flags, big billboards celebrating the Belarusian nation and flowerbeds to match the national colours (red and green).
   
The third grand square along Independence Avenue is another three quarters of a mile to the north-east and is called Victory Square. Its main landmark is a tall obelisk in the centre of the square that features bas-reliefs on the plinth all commemorating scenes from WWII. The ensemble of buildings around the square are amongst the finest of the early 1950s Stalin-era grand architecture that dominates the core several miles of Independence Avenue. But there is more of this stunning architecture elsewhere too, e.g. along Lenin Street.
   
More Lenins can also be found, such as a forlorn-looking grey bust of the man that I spotted somewhere outside an industrial plant south of Independence Avenue not far from the Dinamo Stadium. Smaller-scale symbolism from the Soviet days can be seen everywhere, especially hammer-and-sickle symbols galore on all manner of buildings and on fences around parks.
   
Socialist-realism artwork on a grander scale can be discovered too. The very largest example I spotted in Minsk was at the southern end of a huge building complex on the corner of Nyamiga (Nemiga) Street and the flyover that takes the continuation of Lenin Street northwards (Prospekt Peramozhtsau). This superbly oversized bas-relief depiction of revolutionaries marching forward in unison is somewhat marred by the fact that right underneath it there is now a sign advertising a well-known American fast-food chain that has a branch inside the building. Anti-imperialist revolution versus modern-day cultural imperialism! Size-wise the former still wins, but in practical terms it's clearly the latter that has the upper hand these days – even though such commercialization is still not as dominant in Minsk as it is in other former Eastern bloc cities these days.
   
A bit further up the boulevard, past some grand sports palaces on the Svislach River embankment, a sharp left turn onto Melnikaite Street takes you to the somewhat hidden Pit Monument ('Yama Memorial'). This commemorates a massacre at this spot of some 5000 Jews during the Holocaust (see above). Its most powerful element is a row of faceless bronze figures descending down into the pit, as if in complete fatalistic submission. The figure at the back of the ensemble is depicted playing a violin. You can almost hear some sad Jewish music in your inner ear. At the bottom of the pit are two memorial stones, one of them in the shape of a menorah, and to the side of this a short avenue of plaques dedicated to Belarusian “Righteous Among the Nations” (cf. Yad Vashem).
  
To the east of this, in a bend of the Svislach River opposite all those sports palaces is a small islet called “Island of Tears”. This is Minsk's memorial to the fallen of the USSR's ill-fated war in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989.
   
A smaller more recent memorial can be found at Kastrychnitskaya metro station commemorating the 2011 bombing of the station in which 15 people were killed. Officially the incident was classed as a terrorist attack, and two suspects were soon found, tried, sentenced to death and executed within less than a year. However, doubts remain and it has been suspected that the state security service could have been behind the atrocity instead, as it came at a time of economic problems and rising protests against the rule of Lukashenko. There were some politicians in the West who condemned the Belarusian investigation and execution of the suspects, but that was it.
   
Also at this station (actually two stations and the only point where Minsk's metro lines 1 and 2 intersect), some marvellous Soviet mosaics can be seen near the entrance at the south-western corner of October Square. They're made from different coloured marble and depict glorious achievements of the USSR in industry, aviation, military and space exploration.
   
Across the street, in Alexander Park, there's a small memorial commemorating a Nazi atrocity committed during WWII. And opposite the eastern corner of the the park, outside the Central House of Officers, you are treated to the most Eastern-bloc type of monument: a T-34 tank on a plinth!
   
Another government building/presidential residence is to the south of the park (only to be photographed surreptitiously) and south of that a hotel with the telling name “President” – which is presumably where he houses his guests.
   
Back on Independence Avenue, THE most ominous official building in the city deserves a mention here too: the Headquarters of the KGB of Belarus (unlike in Russia, the original name was kept in this country!). It's one of the grand Stalinist-era piles and stands on the corner of Komsomolskaya Street.
   
Perhaps the very grandest of all the city's Stalinist architecture, though, is further south, right opposite the main train station: an ensemble of two symmetrically-designed towers standing opposite each other on either side of the bottom of Kirava Street. Together they are known as “Minsk Gate”. One is bearing a giant clock, the other the coat of arms of the BSSR.
   
The Minsk Metro is perhaps also worthy of a mention here. It is in no way as grand as many stations on Moscow's famous metro are, but it too follows roughly that style, and the trains themselves are of the very same design.
   
As mentioned above, manufacturing tractors is one of Minsk's main branches of industry, and it's celebrated. Seeing the logo of a tractor factory proudly advertised atop residential buildings is also something you won't find so easily anywhere in the West!
   
A complex of remarkable modern architecture is located towards the northern edge of the city along Prospekt Peramozhtsau, comprising of the elegant BelExpo national exhibition centre, the State Flag Square to its north-west and, in particular, the new Palace of Independence, another one of Lukashenko's “babies”.
   
Probably the most visually stunning modernist structure of recent times has got to be the National Library with its extraordinary shape and illuminated blue glass façade, way out in the eastern suburbs of the city. For Belarusians, however, it's controversial, mainly for the enormous costs that were “wasted” on its construction, when many feel the money could have been much more usefully spent on other things.
   
The library sits within an area that is mostly characterized by ordinary, typical Soviet-era residential blocks of flats. Possibly the shabbiest-looking ones, but at the same time intriguingly, unusually shaped, are those residential towers colloquially known in Minsk as the “corn-on-the-cob buildings” along Viery Kharuzhai, located a few blocks north-east of the city centre.
   
Round shapes and other unusual geometries feature quite a lot in the modernist buildings of Minsk, whether Soviet-era or post-Soviet. One prime example of a Soviet-era hotel is the classic star-shaped Hotel Belarus (with a circular casino adjacent to it) which stands prominently on a peninsula formed by the meandering Svislach River north of the Island of Tears and east of the War Museum.
   
Along the river embankment south of the hotel you can see prime examples of really quite ugly modern developments, just north of the small Old Town. These towering monstrosities reminded me a bit of similar urban developments I'd seen in Astana, Kazakhstan, which were similarly soulless.
   
I saw most of the things described above as part of a half-day private city tour (see details below), with a guide driving us around in his own vehicle. This really helped covering the vast distances in this extremely sprawling city. If you were to cover all this independently by public transport and on foot, you'd probably need a couple of days extra time. So I found it was worth the investment given how little time I had in Minsk.
   
Apart from my two guided tours (the other was a whole day and took in Khatyn, the Glory Mound, the Stalin Line and Maly Trostenets), I also had some free time in Minsk and just wandered around in the more central parts. I found it a rather pleasant city, I must say. It does have its dose of Soviet-ness, but this is nowhere near as oppressive as the real thing used to be back in the 1980s (when, for instance, I visited Leningrad, Prague and East Berlin before the cracks in the Eastern bloc were even showing). Especially now that the visa regime has been so relaxed (see under Belarus), I can only recommend a trip to Minsk.  
 
  
Location: almost exactly in the very centre of Belarus, ca. 200 miles (330 km) from the border with Poland at Brest to the west, and ca. 150 miles (250 km) from the border with Russia to the east.
  
Google maps locators:
  
Independence Square Lenin: [53.89559, 27.54545]
  
“Nuclear monument”: [53.89607, 27.54715]
  
Republic/Oktober Square: [53.9027, 27.5615]
  
Victory Square: [53.9087, 27.5751]
  
Grandest socialist-realist bas-relief: [53.9052, 27.5525]
  
Pit Monument: [53.9099, 27.5429]
  
Island of Tears: [53.9098, 27.5551]
  
Memorial and mosaics at Kastrychnitskaya metro station: [53.9016, 27.5604]
  
Tank on a plinth outside the House of Officers: [53.90162, 27.56499]
  
Independence Palace and BelExpo: [53.927, 27.524]
  
National Library: [53.9315, 27.6459]
  
Corn-on-the-cob buildings: [53.9213, 27.5693]
  
Old Town core: [53.9042, 27.5563]
  
  
Access and costs: much easier now than it used to be, not necessarily cheap.
  
Details: Since most nationals now enjoy visa-free travel to Belarus for up to five days (enough for Minsk), one of the main obstacles in visiting this city has been removed as of early 2017. And that is of course great news. I was still obliged to get a regular tourist visa in 2016. But otherwise the red tape wasn't actually so bad – immigration at Minsk airport went smoothly and some of the border officials even smiled and welcomed me to their country. So that bit wasn't quite so Soviet.
  
Most people will indeed fly straight into Minsk, whose international airport is well served by both the Belarusian national carrier Belavia as well as a number of other airlines, including Austrian, Lufthansa, LOT and Aeroflot. The airport is quite far out of the city (a good 25 miles / 40 km), though. I had arranged for my guide to pick me up, but you can also go by regular taxi (ca. 25 EUR) or bus or a combination of bus and train.
  
For getting around Minsk I opted for a combination of guided tour by car and walking. I only used the metro twice, and it was cheap and easy. It works similar to Moscow and other former Eastern bloc metro systems, i.e. you either get an electronic card (only makes sense if you're using the metro a lot) or you buy tokens for single rides. One ride cost a mere 0.55 Belarusian roubles (a few cents). Navigation is helped by the fact that the Cyrillic names of stations are transliterated into a Belarusian version of the Latin script too. I never used any other public transport so I can't say anything from first-hand experience about trams, buses and trolleybuses.
   
The guided city tour I booked was with a competent guide who spoke near perfect English and was very informative. It cost quite a bit, but on balance I thought it was money well invested, especially given the great distances between many sights within Minsk. (Contact me for details.)
  
For accommodation there is quite a range in Minsk, from cheap and totally uncheerful Soviet-style hotels and simple hostels to swish, modern upscale places that charge rates accordingly inflated. As a compromise, I followed the suggestion of my guide and rented an apartment instead. The flat was actually too big for just my wife and me (it could have slept 4-5 people) and thus not quite as cheap per person as the lower end of the hotel price range would have been. But the location right opposite the Palace of the Republic was unbeatable, and it allowed for self-catering (there was an excellently stocked supermarket right next door).
  
For food and drink: in addition to self catering, I also ate out once, namely at a pretty good Georgian restaurant (named, unimaginatively, “Tiflis”, the Russian name of Georgia's capital city Tblisi) which is located a bit out of the centre near Park Chalyuskintsay. I also lunched once at the Kuchmistr restaurant in the centre (near the President Hotel), which comes especially recommended by the In-Your-Pocket guide and was indeed quite appealing (they serve Belarusian and Lithuanian food). Otherwise I just popped into a couple of bars for a drink in the Old Town when I explored that area. I found price levels not as low as in some other Eastern capital cities, presumably because I had picked either upscale or touristy places.
  
   
Time required: I had three nights/three days in Minsk, of which one was spent on excursions out of the city. So two days should be sufficient for the things mentioned here, especially if you do a guided city tour. Otherwise you should add at least an extra day if you want to explore everything independently and want to use public transport.
  
  
Combinations with other dark destinations: A few dark attractions of Belarus can be quite easily reached by tours from Minsk. I thus booked an all-day out-of-town excursion that took in the following: Maly Trostenets, Khatyn, the Glory Mound and the Stalin Line. Again, it wasn't cheap but it was the only way of doing all this in a single day and took the hassle of transport/navigation out of the equation.
  
Further away, but within a few hours' reach is Brest, with its magnificent Fortress and WWII memorials. This city right on the border with Poland can easily and quite cheaply be reached by train from Minsk – which is what I did (before then travelling onwards into Poland).
   
Further afield still, there are also countless other sites of interest in Belarus, which may or may not be quite so easily reached from Minsk, and which mostly are also related to WWII – see the Belarus tourism website, which is surprisingly good and informative, on belarus.by (external link, opens in a new window). But for any of these you'll need extra time – more than the visa-free five days in total allow.
 
  
Combinations with non-dark destinations: For the usual mainstream tourist, Minsk offers decidedly less than it does for the dark tourist. Sure, the grand Stalinist architecture along Independence Avenue will appeal to non-dark tourists too. But what in Minsk is marketed as its “Old Town” is really not very much. It's comprised of a small cluster of houses just south of the Island of Tears, and, more importantly, the ensemble of old churches, a monastery, the old town hall and a theatre around Svabody Square north-west of the Palace of the Republic. Behind the grander buildings you can also spot the odd typical wooden building. But it all feels rather artificial – maybe they overdid it a bit in terms of refurbishment. Maybe some of these are actually reconstructions. I don't know. Yet it seems to be the main draw, and it is here that you can see the most foreign tourists (still not many) and leisure-seeking locals alike.
   
Of course Minsk also has its share of mainstream cultural offerings such as theatres (including its own Bolshoy Theatre), concerts, opera, art museums and parks (including its own Gorky Park – cf. Moscow). But I doubt that Minsk will be seen as similarly attractive to ordinary tourists as, say, Prague, Saint Petersburg or Budapest any time soon.
  
   
   
  • Minsk 01 - Independence SquareMinsk 01 - Independence Square
  • Minsk 02 - big Lenin overlooking Independence SquareMinsk 02 - big Lenin overlooking Independence Square
  • Minsk 03 - monument to nuclear disastersMinsk 03 - monument to nuclear disasters
  • Minsk 04 - prisonMinsk 04 - prison
  • Minsk 05 - October SquareMinsk 05 - October Square
  • Minsk 06 - Belarusian coloursMinsk 06 - Belarusian colours
  • Minsk 07 - Victory SquareMinsk 07 - Victory Square
  • Minsk 08 - Stalin-era architectureMinsk 08 - Stalin-era architecture
  • Minsk 09 - smaller LeninMinsk 09 - smaller Lenin
  • Minsk 10 - other small relics of Soviet times are everywhereMinsk 10 - other small relics of Soviet times are everywhere
  • Minsk 11 - as are some larger onesMinsk 11 - as are some larger ones
  • Minsk 12 - The Pit MemorialMinsk 12 - The Pit Memorial
  • Minsk 13 - commemorating the Nazi massacres in Belarus during the HolocaustMinsk 13 - commemorating the Nazi massacres in Belarus during the Holocaust
  • Minsk 14 - and the violin played onMinsk 14 - and the violin played on
  • Minsk 15 - Island of TearsMinsk 15 - Island of Tears
  • Minsk 16 - sombreMinsk 16 - sombre
  • Minsk 17 - commemorating the war in AfghanistanMinsk 17 - commemorating the war in Afghanistan
  • Minsk 18 - memorial to the 2011 terror bombingMinsk 18 - memorial to the 2011 terror bombing
  • Minsk 19 - old Soviet industrial gloriesMinsk 19 - old Soviet industrial glories
  • Minsk 20 - and space exploration tooMinsk 20 - and space exploration too
  • Minsk 21 - small memorial commemorating a Nazi massacre in the park oppositeMinsk 21 - small memorial commemorating a Nazi massacre in the park opposite
  • Minsk 22 - tank on a plinth outside the Central House of OfficersMinsk 22 - tank on a plinth outside the Central House of Officers
  • Minsk 23 - government buildingMinsk 23 - government building
  • Minsk 24 - and President HotelMinsk 24 - and President Hotel
  • Minsk 25 - KGBMinsk 25 - KGB
  • Minsk 26 - BSSRMinsk 26 - BSSR
  • Minsk 27 - metro stationMinsk 27 - metro station
  • Minsk 28 - metroMinsk 28 - metro
  • Minsk 29 - tractorMinsk 29 - tractor
  • Minsk 30 - tractor factory logoMinsk 30 - tractor factory logo
  • Minsk 31 - the Independence Palace of the presidentMinsk 31 - the Independence Palace of the president
  • Minsk 32 - stunning contemporary architectureMinsk 32 - stunning contemporary architecture
  • Minsk 33 - National LibraryMinsk 33 - National Library
  • Minsk 34 - corn-on-the-cob buildingsMinsk 34 - corn-on-the-cob buildings
  • Minsk 35 - Hotel Belarus and casinoMinsk 35 - Hotel Belarus and casino
  • Minsk 36 - more recent architectureMinsk 36 - more recent architecture
  • Minsk 37 - small old townMinsk 37 - small old town
  • Minsk 38 - with churches and monasteriesMinsk 38 - with churches and monasteries
  • Minsk 39 - BolshoiMinsk 39 - Bolshoi
  • Minsk 40 - in the city centre by nightMinsk 40 - in the city centre by night
   
   
   
   
   
   

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