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At Minsk National Airport in the Republic of Belarus, they take immigration security seriously. With the exception of Israel, no country has so thoroughly checked my passport.
The frowning young woman in the baggy green uniform examined it through a loupe, shined every page through a UV light filter, checked all my stamps, held it up to my face, and then did it all again.
"Where is your health insurance?" she asked robotically.
I handed her a letter from the insurance company. She read every single line of it, before deciding it was not acceptable. She radioed a colleague, who pointed at a bureau selling health insurance by the doors. New insurance in hand, I lined up again, and went through the process one more time.
Past Immigration, it was a Herculean task to find a working ATM or change bureau in the deserted hallways. Outside, we were set upon by taxi touts from every company except the one tasked by the government with providing taxi service to the airport.
It was a poor introduction to Belarus, but you can't blame them. They're not used to tourists, and are struggling to provide the infrastructure for it. It was only on February 12 this year they allowed visa-free tourist travel into the country, for citizens of 80 countries, including Canada.
This is a place I had to visit. After months wandering Europe and running out my Schengen visa, Belarus promised to be a different world from the rest of Europe. Often called "Europe's last dictatorship," Belarus is an ex-Soviet state wedged between Russia and Poland. Belarusian is a language but no one in Minsk seems to speak it, most of them preferring just plain Russian. Nine and a half million people live there, in a country about half the size of Newfoundland.
Like most dictators, Belarussian strongman Alexander Lukashenko isn't keen on lots of foreign visitors. Like most economies though, Belarus likes the hard foreign currency they bring. Thus, the decision to allow tourists visa-free, even if only under limited circumstances.
Beyond the airport, there are few signs this is the kind of place that locks up its dissidents, breaks up peaceful protests, and censors the press, though it does all three. Portraits of Lukashenko do not hang from every wall. On the highway from the airport, there are more ads for casinos then there are notices imploring public order. And there are far more soldiers on the streets of Paris and Rome than there are in Minsk—the only ones we saw were unarmed, off-duty layabouts hanging around the National Art museum.
Our Airbnb host, Svetlana (name changed, I don't want her getting in trouble for unwittingly harbouring a journalist), was a wonderful babushka who cooked us Russian pancakes called blinis in the morning, foisted jars of homemade apple jam on us, and loved her two grey cats, one of whom was in desperate heat.
"She needs a man," Svetlana said. "She knows you are a good man, so she is very noisy!" Here I was in Europe's last dictatorship, with a woman who wanted me to fuck her cat.
The allotted five-day entry period leaves little time to visit anywhere outside Minsk without a car, and since my license had expired and I couldn't afford a guide, I kept to the city. I understand how this can give a flawed view of a country—you wouldn't want to spend five days in Toronto and then say 'I've seen Canada, and man is it full of assholes.' But then Canada gives most tourists three months to go coast to coast to coast.
So I can't speak for the rest of the country, but Minsk was awesome. The old quarter, or "upper city," isn't much of anything, housing a restored town hall, a few churches, and some overpriced tourist restaurants. But it's the city that spirals away from this that's worth all the trouble.
Most of the city was razed in World War II and was rebuilt to Soviet specifications. Long government buildings, occupying whole city blocks, are the order of the day. Far from being the dull, drab concrete monstrosities of western imagination, most of them are tall, awe-inspiring buildings. But you'll have to imagine them, since taking pictures of government buildings is a quick way to get hauled off. Great marble squares occupy swaths of downtown—in Lenin Square, you can see a statue of Vladimir Ilyich himself, leading the workers to revolution.
Traveling through the ex-Soviet states, you find different reactions to the dissolution of the once mighty Soviet Empire. Some miss it (Russia), some are ambivalent about it (Moldova, Kazakhstan), and some are thrilled it's gone (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania).
In Belarus, it's like it never went away in the first place. The flag is different but a lot of the rest seems the same. The secret police, headquartered on praspiekt Niezalienznasci near Svetlana's apartment, is still called the KGB. Oktyabrskaya Subway Station is walled with mosaics celebrating socialism. In the Minsk Boshoi, where I saw a rousing performance of Adolphe Adam's ballet Giselle for the equivalent of only 10 Euros, the dancers are flanked by golden filigreed hammers and sickles. Civil servants still wear green uniforms, including the enormous peak caps Russian generals wear in Cold War thrillers. I had always assumed they were exaggerated by Hollywood. They aren't.
This hasn't stopped McDonald's, H&M, Coca-Cola, and the rest of capitalism's distributors of shit from setting up shop throughout the city. But they seem invisible behind the socialist realist façade.
Wherever there is celebration of the Soviet Union, there will be nostalgia for World War II, or "the Great Patriotic War" as it's otherwise known. Except for Poland, no country was ravaged in the war like the Soviets, and Belarus, being in the Soviet far west, got it the worst. Belarus lost a third of its population, including 800,000 Jews. Maly Trostenets, 12 kilometres east of Minsk, was the fourth worst Nazi death camp, after Auschwitz, Majdanek, and Treblinka.
Memorials to the war are everywhere, and the Museum of the Great Patriotic War is its supreme monument. Housed in an enormous glass dome, with a Soviet flag flying unapologetically over it, this is the greatest war museum I have ever visited. Most museums would dream of having a quarter of this collection. From the tanks, guns, and planes—both German and Soviet—to the medals, uniforms, and photographs, this is three stories of mummified shock and awe.
Sure, it's propaganda—the Baltic republics were invaded and occupied, not "incorporated" into the USSR, as the explanation panels would have you believe. But when the Nazi war machine kills a third of your people and burns your country to the ground, you tend to view things through a certain lens. At the gift shop on the way out, you're welcome to buy coffee mugs, flasks, and shot glasses with Joseph Stalin's countenance and CCCP stamped on them, beginning about $2 and going up from there.
It isn't confined to the museum either, or just dull monuments. Strolling past Victory Square, there were parades of soldiers in formation around the 38-metre tall column with the red star on top. Once we got closer though, I realized they weren't soldiers at all, but high school kids, dressed up in green uniforms that looked military—maybe they were cadets. I couldn't get a clear English explanation out of anyone—the level of English even in tourist centres is miniscule, and in fairness, I don't know either of their languages—but "war" was one word they did know, and they mentioned it again and again. It wasn't, as far as Svetlana or me could tell, a memorial day or holiday of any kind. It was just a regular ceremony, on a day like any other.
All this said, the people of Minsk know how to party. Belarus is ranked by the WHO as the hardest drinking country in the world, consuming an astonishing 17.5 litres of pure alcohol per year, per person. (The government disputes this figure.) Vodka and brandy are poured and sold everywhere, and the bars are packed with beer and wine drinkers. Falling down drunks aren't too common though—even when getting loaded, people watch themselves.
On Saturday, at the Palace of Art—not a palace at all, but more like a small convention centre—plenty of alcohol was being consumed at the Recast Moto Show. I don't know what recast moto means, but it apparently involves lots of vintage motorbikes.
I met a woman called Claudia Liebenberg, a South African artist who does watercolours of bikes, and had flown all the way from Cape Town just for the show. She expressed what a relief it was to speak in full sentences again.
Downstairs, they had a bunch of steampunk-y animal sculptures made from rusty gears. There were kids everywhere and they really liked these. They also liked the bands playing outside—families were dancing together to live rockabilly and alternative acts, in a courtyard ringed with food and beer trucks.
Over the river, past the Oktyabrskaya Train Station and behind Lenin Square, was Doodah King, a rock bar Google Maps had promised would be good. It was appropriately grungy, smoky, and smelly, and despite the English cocktail list and joke signs—"Warm beer! Lousy food! Bad service!"—it was strictly Belarusian and Russian only, like the rest of the country.
There were two bands, and both played a variously Green Day-ish pop punk, including numerous covers, all sung in English. I didn't think much of it, but I can understand how playing this kind of music might seem like pure rebellion to these kids.
On Monday, our cab driver charged us the meter price rather than the regular flat fare to the airport, but we weren't in any position to argue with him. Clearing Immigration on the way out there was no line, but we again waited five minutes while a severe young woman examined every page in my passport, put half of them through UV, and looked at it through a loupe like she was examining diamonds. I get why they're nervous about letting us in, but I thought they'd be thrilled to get us out.
On the people mover to our Air Baltic flight to Riga, we met a young woman from Denmark who was visibly shaken. "I overstayed my five days," she said, gulping down water. She had assumed that the five days was done in 24-hour periods from landing, rather than including the days you fly in and out. She was taken into a small room, asked a shitload of questions, had her bags checked, and was fined. When I asked her how much the fine was, she said she didn't know—she guessed they would send her a bill.
I wonder if she'll pay it. I sure as shit wouldn't—when you're an isolated pariah of the international community, you don't have much leverage forcing people to pay fines from abroad. The only way they can nab you is if you return. And I'd be happy to do so, but only if they give us more time, and not under pain of seeing a Belarusian immigration cell.
Follow Dave Hazzan on Twitter.