65,080 steps around a masterpiece of socialist-realist urban planning
Rather than bore anyone with a step-by-approximately-47 km-worth-of-steps commentary that Tony and I (mostly I) wandered around Minsk, I will just share impressions. But first I want to throw some shade at BBC, whose meteorologists can not forecast weather for Minsk any better than they can for Vienna. Forecast 16° days that began at 8° turned into 23° days, so I had to tromp about with a sweater tied around my waist, ugh.
It will help your impressions, too, to picture Minsk as one large memorial, from the Great Patriotic War Memorial to the National Poet Adam Mickiewicz Memorial, with so, so much marble in between. (Mickiewicz is actually Polish, but is beloved by the Belorussians nonetheless. Small matter.) In fact, go one step further and imagine a time warp where Communism fuses with Capitalism, but where there are no Starbucks.
Now let us explore the extremely clean—nay, cleaner than Vienna! city of Minsk. Near our hotel, the Catholic Church of Saints Simon and Elena, so named for the deceased children of the Polish architect who designed it in 1910. Pope John Paul II visited in the 1980’s; and this was our first stop on this sunny Sunday, the church decorated to celebrate the couple of dozen young people having received their First Holy Communion. Families were enjoying ice cream in the adjacent Independence Square, the children running about perhaps not so piously. We approached the ice cream vendor for a couple of cones (who seemed excited to practice her English); pistachio for me and chocolate for Tony. The total cost was 3BYN (€1,25), about half of Vienna’s cost, for comparison.
Lenin (still) watches over Independence Square, though I feel certain his smile turns upside down at the three-level underground mall just across the street when no one is looking. Which was open on Sunday. While Minsk is far from a shopper’s paradise, the mall offered several brands that we have here in Vienna, as well as a MilaVitsa, the Soviet-era lingerie shop (having much more on offer than granny panties in white and beige.)
Continuing, we walked, and walked, and walked past the former (?) KGB temple that holds court along an entire block, just up the street from Lenin. Passing by, how is it not possible to feel uneasy, wondering who is watching from the ominous-looking windows of this enormous Baroque-yellow Neoclassical structure? Or perhaps those on the inside are just gazing at the park across the street and its bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the man who founded the KGB’s predecessor, in admiration?
A fabulous bookstore just across the block was a step back in time: creaking floors and old book aroma, ahhh. I spent almost an hour admiring beautifully crafted Belarusian wooden products, handmade Matroyshka dolls, leather journals and other un-tchotchke-esque souvenirs, eventually settling on a few choice pieces to bring home.
GUM was next, the state department store, and first of its kind to offer self-service as early as 1969. Who knew. Socialist Realist architecture at its finest with a beautiful entrance foyer; and although In Your Pocket described it as “fairly dreary shopping,” I was giddy with the quality kitchen and table linens at non-Viennese prices. Now our dining table will look just like my grandmother’s once did! On the lower level, lotions, potions, and notions from a favorite French label that I can not find in Vienna; plus, a few new products from a Russian label that I researched on GUM’s free WiFi: Natura Siberica Daily Detox Crème, made from Siberian wild herbs, just sounded like something my bathroom cabinet was missing.
Continuing along Independence Avenue we were dwarfed in October Square, its concrete plaza going on for what seemed like forever and ever until it reached the pillared Palace of the Republic. The October Square subway entrance, an unabashed Communist propaganda mosaic. And just across from the square, a McDonald’s—I mean, Макдоналдс, its outside tables filled with young Minskers lovin’ it.
A tank memorial to the soldiers who defeated the Nazis and liberated Minsk. The big Bolshoi, with a small orchestra on the front performing Nutcracker music to the delight of those gathered. Gorky Park filled with families; the Ferris wheel design eerily similar to the one I saw in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone at Pripyat; and the apartment building where Lee Harvey Oswald lived after he denounced his U.S. citizenship, before begging to return to the U.S. Nearby, the First Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers Party Museum. So important was (is still?) the building that it was rebuilt after The Great Patriotic War; the fence posts around it all featuring the hammer and sickle, too.
From Gorky Park to Victory Square, its greyish obelisk seriously commanding attention in the roundabout.
Towards the edge of Minsk, The Great Patriotic War Memorial rises like something from a sci-fi movie. Even if WWII isn’t your thing, to not be impressed by this dramatic structure might call into question why you were in Minsk in the first place.
Within the city, a more poignant reminder of Minsk’s dark days, the Holocaust Memorial sits in a quiet park that marks the location of where more than 5.000 of Minsk’s executed Jewish persons were unceremoniously collected. This is also the USSR’s first Holocaust Memorial, and the first to include Yiddish inscriptions. As I approached the site I thought to myself that the grounds were in need of some care; as I was departing, a group of city gardeners were walking toward the memorial. Divine intervention?
Closer in to the center, the pretty Mary Magdalena Church and its gold domes sparkled on our visit. The church was used as a film archive during the Soviet period, and was the first religious building in the city to be given back to the religious community after the Cold War ended.
On the Isle of Tears in the Svislach River, the somber memorial to the thousands of Belarusians who died in the Afghanistan War. On one side of the river, a riverfront of shimmering skyscrapers that could be anywhere; and on the other, a portion of the Old City, recreated after demolition during and after the war, is now a hot spot for tourists (relatively speaking) with little shops and restaurants.
The city truly is a masterpiece of socialist-realist urban planning, one of the most ironic examples being a massive concrete wall extolling socialist virtues, perched atop the capitalist virtues of a KFC.
While anyone can view all of this on the Internet, it is only when you are there in person that you begin to realize how mysterious Belarus is. By the end of our first day I was wishing that I had had the time to travel outside of Minsk…