When my colleague, Shona, was given the Belarus trip earlier this year she wondered what to expect. Here she shares her experiences of the capital, Minsk. Best wishes, Mark!
Before my recent visit to Minsk I definitely had preconceptions about what the capital of Belarus would be like. I was curious to find out whether it was as coldly Soviet as is suggested in the media, whether the still active KGB’s presence could be felt and whether my very basic Russian language skills would be enough to stop me getting lost.
Belarus has maintained close ties to Russia since becoming independent on 25th August 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Bordered by Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia the country is completely landlocked. As part of the former Soviet Union, Belarus (also sometimes referred to as White Russia) had a relatively well developed industrial base. Today its economy is mainly driven by service industries and manufacturing.
The country is renowned for being ruled by ‘Europe’s last dictator’, Alexander Lukashenko, who came to power in 1994 and has remained the country’s president ever since. Subsequent elections have been criticised internationally for not being free or fair, and the regime faced sanctions and travel bans for its handling of protestors after the 2010 election. When a Swedish group dropped teddy bears brandishing pro-democracy slogans over Belarus from a light aircraft, Lukashenko was outraged: Swedish diplomats in Belarus were expelled and border guards were arrested for failing to prevent the incident. At that time, he also went as far as to ban clapping in public, as anti-government protestors were using this as a method of protest. Absurdly, a one-armed man was arrested for defying this ban- he was later charged and fined for the offence. Behaviour like this from the Belarusian leader earned him, and the Belarusian KGB, the IG Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 (a parody of the Nobel Prize).
Minsk, which can boast having been burned to the ground 18 times in its history, was flattened during the Second World War and suffered massive civilian casualties after the Nazi invasion in 1941. It received the Soviet title of ‘Hero City’ in 1974, recognising the strength and bravery of the anti-Nazi resistance, and was an important centre for partisan activity (the 2008 film, Defiance, recounts the role of the Belarusian partisans in protecting Jews during the war).
As a former Soviet city that was completely rebuilt after the Second World War, with an entrenched dictator, I expected to encounter Stalin-era style buildings, expansive boulevards and some serious language barriers in Minsk. I was not disappointed. In addition, despite being April, it was snowing, adding to the cold, grey vibe of the city.
The main road, Prospekt Nezavisimosti, is wide and clean, lined with shops, cafes and restaurants. It is still home to the old Soviet department stores TsUM and GUM but it also has large well-stocked supermarkets such as Korona, where I couldn’t believe the size of the Asian foods aisle! There are high-end stores like Hugo Boss to be found too, while the Zamok shopping mall houses dozens of international brands. McDonald’s and TGI Fridays are also present.
Getting about wasn’t too difficult in the end as the city has an efficient metro system and taxis are prevalent. However, although taxis had meters, the fares for the same journey varied suspiciously, seemingly in line with the amount of English spoken by the driver. Bar this issue, my lack of Russian (or Belarusian) language skills didn’t hinder me too much. Although the weather meant that those out and about were marching along quickly, heads down, no eye contact, just as I had been warned, the locals I did encounter were generally friendly and helpful. Staff at restaurants and cafes all spoke enough English for me to get by. It certainly helped being able to read the Cyrillic alphabet and this went a long way in preventing me from wandering down the wrong streets.
Despite the noticeable police presence and the fact that KGB agents roam the city in plain clothes, Minsk did not feel particularly oppressive. In fact, the police were fairly disinterested when one passenger started shouting and attacking other passengers just before boarding my flight back to London!
Belarus has been continually in the economic news in recent years due to the incredibly high levels of inflation and currency depreciation, and this has once again taken a turn for the worse as a result of the depreciation of the Russian rouble. To counter this, the Belarusian government has levied a 30% tax on purchases of foreign currencies and doubled interest rates to 50%. The problem I had in dealing with Belarusian money was that there are just too many 0s involved, resulting in me being accosted for walking out of a restaurant having only paid 10% of the bill. While 25,000 roubles sounded quite a reasonable amount to be leaving it only equated to around £1. Happily, the situation got resolved pleasantly enough and the KGB didn’t have to be brought in!
So did Minsk live up to those preconceptions I had prior to my trip? It definitely felt like an old Soviet city – gloomy and a bit depressing- but turned out to be much easier to navigate than I had expected and with a significant number of familiar shops and brands, and a good variety of international food options which always makes the life of an International Data Reseracher easier!
Shona is part of ECA International’s International Data Research team. She travels the world regularly, capturing price data for goods and services to assist with cost of living comparisons around the world.