Belarus – The Last Dictatorship In Europe

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Belarus – The Last Dictatorship In Europe?

In 2005, Condoleeza Rica described Belarus as the ‘last outpost of tyranny in Europe’. So when England played Belarus in a recent World Cup qualifier, I took the opportunity to visit Minsk to see the football and spend a few days looking round the city.

I arranged my visa direct with the Belarus Embassy in London. Although it may seem a bit of a paperwork nightmare, the procedure is fairly simple. For a tourist visa, you need an application form (from the embassy website) and your visa invitation. This is a document that is usually provided by your hotel. It states where you will be staying in Belarus and for how long. If you are staying in more than one hotel, you will probably need an invitation from each hotel. As a general rule, you need to have paperwork to account for every night you will be in Belarus. If you are unsure, contact the embassy. I took the documents down, along with my passport and after a few minutes wait, I was allowed in where I filed my documents paid my fee of ?63. The visa would be ready one week later. You don’t need to go to the embassy in person, you can post your documents to them. Check their website for more details.

Direct flights into Minsk are only available a couple of days a week using the national airline, Belavia. If you want to fly to Minsk, there are a few options flying via other European cities. However, I chose to fly to Vilnius and then take the 4 hour 40 minute train ride. Flights to Vilnius from the UK are quite easy to get and my return ticket by train was around ?12. Facilities on the train are limited (to say the least) and we had to wait at the border as first the Lithuanian officials came on to check passports then 30 minutes down the track, the Belarus officials also took their turn. However, we arrived right on time in Minsk.

Apartments are a great low cost option for accommodation in Minsk. We arranged an apartment via a website. It was located on the main Prospekt Nezavisimosti, just up from the war memorial (which you can’t miss). They also arranged our visa support (invitation) and transfers. It was clean and comfortable. The kitchen was well equipped there was a little shop a few minutes away where we could buy food.

As our apartment was fairly central, it was very easy to get around. The centre of Minsk is quite small so it is possible to walk everywhere but we also used the metro which is a very cheap alternative. There are only 2 lines so it is fairly simple to find your way around. However, one word of warning; the station maps and metro map is only in Cyrillic. Tickets are in the form of a small plastic coin which are bought from the ticket desk for 600 roubles each (15 pence). One coin is for a single journey, there are no zones. The metro operates between 5:30am and 1:00am. The one occasion we took a taxi, it cost 10,000 roubles (about ?2.60) which seemed to be a tourist rate for most places within town.

Tourism in Minsk and throughout Belarus is relatively small. They get around 75,000 visitors per year (less than the number of people stranded abroad when XL collapsed recently) and of those, just 4,000 are British. That doesn’t mean that Minsk isn’t an interesting city. It has a complicated history and was all but destroyed during the war as the Germans went through it as they advanced into the Soviet Union then retreated back again as the Soviets countered. In human terms, the population suffered a staggering casualty rate with around 1:3 citizens being killed.

After the war, a huge rebuilding program took place and as this was in Stalin’s time, you could be forgiven for expecting to see dreary concrete buildings everywhere. However, although some typically Soviet buildings do exist, there are plenty of examples of other types of architecture which add to the charm of Minsk.

The time in Minsk will determine just how much of the city you can see. I started with a short city tour. This type of quick overview is a good idea in any city as it allows you to get your bearings and you can always go back at look at things in a bit more details. I hadn’t realised that Minsk had briefly been home to Lee Harvey Oswald and his former residence is mentioned in a number of Guides to Minsk.

The Island of Tears is a memorial to the 1,700 young men from Belarus who died during the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. The focal point of the little island is the small chapel which is quite haunting. It is also a place where newly weds go. Many couples leave padlocks with their names on the gate on the bridge and further round the island is a small statue of a boy-like angel.

Victory Square (Ploshad Pobedy) can be found on Prospekt Nezavisimosti and the centre piece is a towering spire with an eternal flame at the base. Access is gained by going under the road and directly below the spire you will find a large amber ring. On the walls are listed the names of soldiers who were made Hero of the Soviet Union.

Heading back towards to centre is the imposing (and still active) KGB building. Nearby is the Church of Saints Simon & Elena. Dating back to 1910, this red brick catholic church was build by a trader as a memorial to his two young children who died at an early age.

The oldest church in Minsk is the St Peters and Paul Church which dates back to 1613 and can be found on Njamiha. Although the church is well looked after, it is surrounded and dwarfed ugly concrete buildings.

The Museum of the Great Patriotic War is well worth a visit and has some excellent displays and exhibitions, including an array of tanks including the iconic T-34 and an Ilyushin aircraft that looks suspiciously like a DC-3 (Dakota). The museum is quite sombre as it highlights the suffering in the concentration camps with some graphic images.

The match between Belarus and England was played at the Dinamo Stadium which was a roofless bowl which looked typically Eastern European with 4 large, imposing floodlights. The stadium was sold out expect for the upper section of the main stand opposite us. The following day, we walked round the outside of the stadium where there was a market. After seeing all the bland new stadia springing up all over Britain, it was refreshing to see a stadium with a bit of character. The statue of the 3 athletes behind the main stand and the letter “D” carved into stone at regular intervals around the stadium (“D” is for Dinamo Minsk).

I was very impressed with my short time in Minsk. I found it to be an incredibly clean city and I felt safe at all times. There is a relatively small tourist industry so there no hint of a rip-off culture that tourists experience in many cities around the world. You’ll find that your money goes a long way but you would find it useful if you can understand a bit of Russia or at understand Cyrillic writing. If you wanted to stay a bit longer in Belarus, there are places to see outside Minsk. Sadly, I didn’t have time but hopefully at some stage I’ll have the chance to return. In my opinion, Minsk is definitely worth considering a destination for a short break.

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