And at last, we are in Lukashenkistan itself. What really set the tone for the entire trip – the point when I realised that I had unwittingly managed to get myself into Belarus – was the discovery that our apartment was located on Lenin Street. As soon as we arrived and unpacked slightly, I dragged one of my travelling companions outside (although it was 11:30 at night and windy) and we went on a wander around Minsk to get our bearings.
Going south on Lenin Street, you quickly reach Nezalezhnosti (Independence) Street, Minsk’s central avenue [right]. Turning left, you reach the Russian-language entrance to Oktyabrskaya metro station – the Belarussian-language entrance to Kastrychnitskaya station is on the other side of the road – and then the Palace of the Republic, the first properly Stalinist building.
Ahead of you is Republic Square. In the centre of the square is the Stalinist Palace of the Republic, which looks like it might serve as Lukashenka’s mausoleum in the future. And on the other side of the square is (for best results, read in an exaggerated Russian accent:) the State National Museum of the Great Patriotic War [below]. This is the gold standard by which all other Belarussian Stalinist architecture is judged, not merely because it contains one of the last statues of Stalin in the former USSR and has the dimensions and appearance of a vast concrete brick (top tip: the windows are for show), but also because, mounted above the roof on stilts are enormous letters – and Cyrillic does look awfully good in concrete capitals – spelling out the phrase “the feats of the people live forever”.
Perhaps this doesn’t give you quite the right idea. Let me rephrase that. Above the building are mounted the words:
ПОДВИГУ НАРОДА ЖИТЬ В ВЕКАХ
The Minsk Opera House [right] is the result of another of those fantastic Soviet obsessions whereby any town of magnitude must have a theatre and opera house, ideally built along the designs of pre-existing buildings in Russia. Thus the Minsk Opera House is virtually the same as the Yerevan Opera House. This is not to do them down – it’s an excellent design, and the knowledge that there are others which are virtually identically strewn across a quarter of the globe can be overwhelming when you’re visiting one. Besides, while a Russian opera house in Tashkent or Ashgabat could be attacked as ‘foreign-influenced’, the Belarussians are closer to Russians than the many ethnicities who are Russian by nationality rather than by blood. If they’re going to complain about Russian interference – and they have every right to – the existence of a Soviet opera house is one of the worst places to start.
Other Socialist remnants include Victory Square [left], the road to which is lined with posters depicting the emblem of the Belarussian SSR, and which now ominously sports bunting not only in the colours of the Belarussian flag, but also in those of the Russian flag. It also has the only other mounted propaganda in central Minsk, although this time the words are not concrete and thus come a poor second-place to the Patriotic War Museum. On the river next to Trinity (the tiny suburb which is all that remains of pre-1945 Minsk) there is a memorial to another bit of violence: the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan [left]. It is sobering to contemplate that for Afghan historians, that invasion and the current one are part of the same civil war. There is also a large Socialist-realist mural positioned above some rather ordinary shops just up the road from Minsk Cathedral. Lenin Square [left], outside the train station, has two remarkably Stalinist towers outside it, one sporting the crest of the Belarussian SSR. If you turn right down Nezalezhnosti Street from our flat instead of left, you reach GUM – the State Universal Store (Gosudarstvennyj Universal’nyj Magazin). Since the fall of the USSR, the branches of GUM in Russia have been renamed General Universal Store (General’nyj), but the one in Minsk retains its Soviet-era name. A similarly anachronistic institution awaits further down the street on the right-hand side. Opposite a narrow park which leads down to the National Stadium is a vast yellow building with bunches of aerials on the roof, a row of pillars in neo-Classical style in front of the (very small) door, and no identification save a large Belarussian state crest. This is the KGB building [left, though a window – the only safe way to take a photograph of it]. Much further down, towards Lenin Square, is Independence Square, which is full of fountains, eagle statues, and bizarre circular domes. To one side of the square is the Minsk regional government, with a statue of Lenin outside it. To the other, a few ministries. Underneath the space between them, curiously, is a shopping mall.
These are just the most obvious relics, but really the city’s whole existence is a monument to the Soviets. In truth, the volume of Soviet hangover architecture and modern propaganda is so colossal that it’s more or less impossible to present it in any order. The Belarussian national crest is on nearly every large building in the centre, and if there are no available buildings a poster is slung above the road. The Belarussian national colours, green and red, are reflected everywhere in bunting, posters, flags, book covers, menus, public buses, and school uniforms. Despite all this nationalist fervor, I saw not a single poster of Alexander Lukanshenko the whole time I was there. As a veteran of Syrian-style dictatorship (“Why of course I’ll put my face on the banknotes!”), I found this vaguely disappointing.
Our last and strangest stop is the Minsk Tractor Factory [above], also known by the brusque Russian abbreviation Mintrakzav (Minskij Traktornyj Zavod), or MTZ, located at Traktornyj metro stop, and across Traktornyj Prospekt from the Tractor Workers’ Palace of Culture. It has primacy over the nomenclature of all that surrounds it. Mintrakzav was the largest tractor factory in the entire Soviet Union, and it produced tractors not only for the Russians but also for shipment to the entire Communist block. Lining the path that takes you towards it are mounted plaques of thanks sent to the factory from the Socialist incarnations of various European states – Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, the DDR, Romania and Yugoslavia, and even Hoxha’s Albania (during the brief period before he decided the Soviets were ‘revisionists’, one assumes). Now it occupies an entire suburb, and still manufactures tractors for Moscow.
Minsk exists a parallel world – until you go to the rest of Belarus. Then you realise how expensive, how cosmopolitan, how cultured, how – dare I say it? – capitalist Minsk is.
(all photos are taken by me, Duncan Wane; copyright 2012)