Politically speaking, it may well be on the very edge of Europe, and in more ways than one given some of its government policies, yet in many other ways the mysterious land known as White Russia is an integral part of Central Europe with its rich culture and its depth of history.
Belarus has had a fractured history; fleeting moments of independence either side of long lasting unions with Poland-Lithuania first, and then Russia and the Soviet Union, and finally independence once more, granted after the breakup of communism in 1991.
The country is widely regarded as the last dictatorship in Europe – ruled by the authoritarian President Lukashenko since 1994, it is a land that looks to the east rather than the west, unlike its neighbors in Ukraine and Lithuania.
Belarus is also a land where time appears to have stood still, and a fascinating place for anyone looking for a taste of what Eastern Europe was like pre-1991. Upon crossing the border you can expect to be confronted by gruff, Soviet-style immigration officers demanding to see your passport and know you business in the country, while your luggage will almost certainly be rigorously searched – a real throwback to the Cold War era.
The capital city Minsk will leave you in awe with its Stalinist-era architecture – immense, monolithic concrete buildings built with purpose in mind and nothing else. Arrive by train at Minsk Station and you’ll see the two large concrete towers, the ‘city gates’ – featuring the obligatory hard-working Soviet Man statue at the top.
Other monolithic highlights in the city include Independence Square, a huge expanse of public walkways littered with cupolas, which feels like the perfect setting for one of those classic military parades the old communists were so fond of. Highlights at the square include the BSU, the Belarusian State University, and the Belarusian Parliament building, featuring the customary Lenin statue standing at the front.
Intersecting Independence Square is the Praspekt Nezalzhnasci, the main thoroughfare of Minsk which cuts right through the center of this unique city.
Along this street you’ll find many more reminders of the time when the ‘Reds’ were in control, including the Belarusian KGB headquarters (yes, they are still known as the KGB), a large state warehouse known as the GUM, and October Square, another equally huge intersection featuring an intriguing museum of the Great Patriotic War (World War II) where you can learn all about the struggles of the Belarusian resistance during the conflict.
There are many other examples of what life used to be like in the old Soviet Union – many parts of Minsk are unchanged from how they were twenty years ago, but there are simply too many to mention them all here.
All we can say, is that if you have an interest in what life used to be like in Soviet times, Minsk is one of the few places left where you can see it with your own eyes.