Woman walking cross October Square, Minsk, Belarus.

Minsk – An Eastern European time machine

I was in no man’s land, right between the European Union and one of the most closed countries in the world. A dense forest, surrounded by barbed wired fences on each size. A mist swept in over the platform. Military men entered the wagon. ”What’s that?”, he shouted, pointing at my bag. ”It’s just a camera”, I assured. He frowned, and continued down the aisle. The train started to move again. Two hours later, I arrived.

Soldier walking the streets, Minsk, Belarus.
Soldier walking the streets, Minsk, Belarus.

There are two ways of getting to Minsk. The boring way, that is, with an international flight to the airport, situated 40 kilometres west of the city. And the unreliable, surprising, never-know-what-to-expect kind of way, by train from Vilnius in the neighboring country Lithuania. Of course I opted for the latter.

It was was still rush hour when I arrived. A twin tower building, simply called the Gates of Minsk, greeted me with a discreet sense of nobleness. But it oozed with grandeur, luxury, and clean cut symmetry, just as anything else in this Stalin constructed “empire”. Meant as a symbol of the city, it was also a place for the railway workers to live. In the same time, a constant reminder of how small and interchangeable the people on the streets are.

A twin tower building, simply called the Gates of Minsk, greeted me with a discreet sense of nobleness. But it oozed with grandeur, luxury, and a clean cut symmetry, just as anything else in the Stalin constructed “empire”.

Minsk is not the place you go to on honeymoon. It’s not the place for a romantic getaway either. It’s a journey to the past. A journey to the last remaining country with that raw Eastern European feeling. Known as the last dictatorship in Europe, it’s like time stood still since the end of the Cold War. And the heritage from the Soviet Union is always present.

The Gates of Minsk, Minsk, Belarus.
The Gates of Minsk, Minsk, Belarus.
Where time stood still, Minsk, Belarus.
Where time stood still, Minsk, Belarus.

A city theatre, Minsk, Belarus.
A city theatre, Minsk, Belarus.
Old hotel sign, Minsk, Belarus.
Old hotel sign, Minsk, Belarus.
Lenin Street, Minsk, Belarus.
Lenin Street, Minsk, Belarus.
Woman smoking outside the Central Station, Minsk, Belarus.
Woman smoking outside the Central Station, Minsk, Belarus.

If you are into Soviet style architecture and large empty squares, you have come to the right place. Minsk, totally destroyed during the second World War, was rebuilt in a monumental social realist style. You will probably feel like walking around in a ghost town from time to time, but the grand atmosphere soon makes you very forgiving.

Stop by the rotunda shaped Opera House, the Palace of the Republic, or the House of Government. Belarus is also the only post-Soviet country that still use the name KGB for their national intelligence agency. You find the massive KGB headquarter building on Nezavisimosti Street. Just don’t take any pictures, if you don’t want to spend the remaining days of your vacation in a wet basement.

You will probably feel like walking around in a ghost town from time to time, but the grand atmosphere soon makes you very forgiving.

To satisfy your daily need of nationalistic Soviet painters and modern Belarusian art, head to the National Arts Museum. The light open interior of the museum is in itself worth seeing. Another conspicuous landmark is the National Library. Situated in the eastern suburbs of the city, it’s easily accessible by metro. Climb to the top for a panoramic 360 degree view.

Woman walking cross October Square, Minsk, Belarus.
October Square, Minsk, Belarus.
A Soviet T-34/85 tank, Minsk, Belarus.
A Soviet T-34/85 tank, Minsk, Belarus.
Lenin statue in front of the Government House, Minsk, Belarus.
Lenin statue in front of the Government House, Minsk, Belarus.
Lenin Street, Minsk, Belarus.
Lenin Street, Minsk, Belarus.
The Opera House, Minsk, Belarus.
The Opera House, Minsk, Belarus.
The National Library, Minsk, Belarus.
The National Library, Minsk, Belarus.

When night falls, the eternal flame at Victory Square lights up, as an honour to the Soviet soldiers lost in the war. This in when you start to realize that it’s a bit tricky to find a good restaurant in Minsk. Plain Russian food, gloomy cafeterias, and over-the-counter pizzerias. Every new place seemed worse than the previous. I was about to give up. That’s when I found the Pinky Bandinsky.

Pinky Bandinsky is that kind of place you don’t think exist. Located in a backyard on a small side street, it’s hard to find even if you know where to look. Let it be a symbol for the hidden social life in Minsk. An eclectic European styled restaurant with a big summer terrace overlooking a hidden courtyard. Shiny happy people in colorful dresses and reflexive sunglasses. Mesmerizing.

That’s when I found Pinky Bandinsky. “Pinky” is that kind of place you don’t think exist. Let it be a symbol for the hidden social life in Minsk.

Interestingly, the most popular places in Minsk tend to have western names; Café de Paris, News Café, and Enzo. Delve into the restaurants at Verkhniy Gorod and find a hidden burlesque cocktail bar at Karla Marksa Street. Walk the outrageous bar street on Ulitsa Zybitskaya or head south of the city center and explore the Kastryčnickaja Street area, the alternative nightlife scene in Minsk.

Victory Square, Minsk, Belarus.
Victory Square, Minsk, Belarus.
Woman at a café on Karla Marksa Street, Minsk, Belarus.
Woman at a café on Karla Marksa Street, Minsk, Belarus.
Couple in a café, Minsk, Belarus.
Couple in a café, Minsk, Belarus.
Pinky Bandinsky, Minsk, Belarus.
Pinky Bandinsky, Minsk, Belarus.
Cocktail bar, Minsk, Belarus.
Cocktail bar on Kastryčnickaja Street, Minsk, Belarus.

You can’t leave the city without an honour to the Great Patriotic War Museum. As one of the most extensive World War II museums in the world, it recapitulates the 1,100 days Minsk was occupied by Nazi Germany. So much in the city relates to its 19th century history; to understand a country, you should understand the wars it fought.

I passed by the 45-meter obelisk, ornamented with the hero star, the highest distinction in the Soviet Union, and stepped up to the Mother Motherland statue situated outside the museum. Given to Belarus as a gift from the “motherland” itself, it immortalizes the Great Victory. Dark clouds were piling up. I looked up. It started to rain. A red Soviet flag, with the golden hammer and sickle, waved in the wind. Yet another anachronistic detail. As so many other things in Minsk.

The Mother Motherland statue, Minsk, Belarus.
The Mother Motherland statue, Minsk, Belarus.
Great Patriotic War Museum, Minsk, Belarus.
Great Patriotic War Museum, Minsk, Belarus.

All images © 2020 Erik Ekberger.

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