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March 28, 2006

Impressions of Belarus

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Belarus has been in the news because of its recent controversial election and reactions to it in the West and on the streets of Minsk. The country has the reputation of being the last of the Communist-like dictatorships in eastern Europe.

I won't go into the details of the political situation. Instead, I thought I should simply pass along my impressions of Belarus, which I briefly visited last September.

I was there only a few hours. Our tour was in Belarus for the sole purpose of getting from Smolensk (in Russia) to Vilnius (in Lithuania). Because previous tours found hotels in Smolensk distinctly sub-par, our tour was timed to overnight in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, a city with a population of around 1.7 million.

We arrived in Minsk at the end of a long day on the road. The bus left Moscow in the morning rush hour and rolled west to Smolensk. We drove into Smolensk for a brief visit to the cathedral, but it was Smolensk itself that interested me -- I had had my fill of churches by this point in the tour.

Compared to St. Petersburg and Moscow, Smolensk struck me as pretty ratty. Most of the building we saw were in disrepair; I don't recall seeing any significant new construction along our route.

A short while later we crossed into Belarus, leaving a conventional four-lane highway and entering a toll freeway that whisked us to Minsk. The freeway cut through the countryside, seldom getting near villages or towns. The ground had a slight roll to it, fields being punctuated by woods. From time to time I saw in the distance clumps of buildings that I took to be collective farms -- barns, outbuildings, possible dormitories or apartments.

The overall impression was one I'll characterize as "tidy."

This same tidiness carried over into Minsk. (For an overview of Minsk, see here.)

Minsk was pretty well destroyed during World War 2 and the Soviet regime made no real attempt to recreate it. Aside from a small, semi-restored downtown, the city seemed to be mostly comprised of apartment blocks interspersed with parks and lakes.

Our tour bus made a pass through downtown on its way to our hotel. There were parks, a McDonald's and some older stone-faced buildings. Young people were everywhere, conservatively dressed for the season. People-wise, the street scene was hardly Parisian, but not grossly different from what one would find in northern Europe. I didn't notice trash along the curbs or in the parks. There was a fair amount of traffic.

The hotel (pictured below) was a modern-looking tower on the edge of a park. Its interior was less impressive, having been built perhaps around 1980-85 and experiencing no renovation since. Also of interest was that each floor had a desk near the elevators, the desk on our floor occupied by a pudgy, middle-aged woman with a big smile and (likely) direct phone lines to the police and internal security services. She had possession of our room-keys when we were away from our rooms.

Aside from our night in the hotel we experienced Belarus from the bus. We did not explore Minsk on foot. We did not exchange Dollars or Euros for Rubles because we purchased nothing. Dinner and breakfast were in the hotel. In the morning we boarded the bus and drove to Lithuania without stopping. As best I recall, everyone was relieved to be out of Belarus, tidy and park-like place though it was.

Minsk Gallery

Minsk - shows hotel.jpg
Minsk -- Our hotel is the tall building to the left.

Minsk - general view.jpg
Minsk -- General view.

Minsk - street and park.jpg
Minsk -- Downtown scene.

So appearances, as they say, can be deceiving. A visitor knowing nothing about the political system and the lack of freedom would be impressed by the tidiness, the cleanliness, the seeming modernity of the buildings, the parks and ponds, the dress of the people. None of the grit of New York or London. No graffiti as in New York or the Parisian banlieus. Truly a paradise of the almost-Communist sort. No doubt the trains and subways run on time too.



posted by Donald at March 28, 2006


Descartes certainly added to the elegance of the dialog, didn't he?

Too bad Balarus is so darn ordinary. The name is so poetic and romantic-sounding. It should be the setting for some great detective novel...whisking though the mountains of Belarus in a two-seater convertible, and then jumping on a train to Geneva. Somehow that world, and that view of Europe, seems very far away these days, doesn't it?

Posted by: annette on March 29, 2006 9:57 AM

I will only add this link to your post, Donald. It's in Russian, by a guy born in 1978, who was in Belorussia during recent "elections".

No comments or translation necessary.

Posted by: Tatyana on March 29, 2006 11:06 AM

The trouble is that trains did not run on time in Communist Russia, although they probably did in East Germany.

Posted by: Alexei on March 30, 2006 7:53 AM

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