Twenty-eight years ago Belarus declared its independence from the USSR. Since then a lot has changed but Soviet habits die hard and some of them are alive and breathing.
Belarus is often described as the last holdout of the Soviet Union in Europe, a throwback to the communist society or small USSR.
Whether it’s due to Stalinist architecture, streets named after prominent Soviet figures, Lenin statues or the fact that October Revolution is an official celebration, almost every foreigner in Belarus speaks about an unobtrusive spirit of the USSR.
Those born and raised in the USSR also like to compare postcard-like Belarusian cities to the cities of the past with wide avenues, many trees, monuments, few cars and people on the streets.
Where does it all come from and how much of it is true?
Statues, murals and bas-reliefs
During the Soviet era, numerous murals were used to glorify the builders of Communism – workers, scientists, soldiers, miners, athletes, and cosmonauts.
Brightly colored mosaics of hardworking men and women are still found on the walls of factories, schools, government buildings, and apartment blocks of Belarusian cities.
Amateur and professionals photographers, locals and tourists capture the Soviet-era relics before they eventually peel off and fade away. And only the statues of Lenin is very much alive.
There is at least one in nearly every Belarusian town or city. Sometimes he looks quite new, sometimes old and sad. Anyway, while in some European cities they dismantle Lenin and other socialist sculptures, in Belarus he is safe and sound.
The Soviet-era statues of other historical figures, fallen soldier and heroes of the socialist labor are scattered across the country.
Twin towers known as the ‘Gates of the City‘ are one of the most remarkable examples of Stalin Empire style. The grand sculptures of a worker and kolkhoz woman, engineer and soldier greet every traveler who arrives Minsk by train.
Colossal bas-reliefs showing ideal scenes from the life of workers and peasants, achievements in industry, agriculture and space also remind about the past. The most impressive ones are at Vulica Nyamiha and Plošča Pieramohi.
Also, don’t forget to raise your heads and look around when passing the metro stations in Minsk, almost all old stations are decorated with bas-reliefs.
And if that’s not enough, recall that most of the monuments in Belarus commemorate the Soviet soldiers and civilians who died fighting back the Nazis during WWII.
Victory Monument, Minsk Hero City Obelisk, the Khatyn memorial complex, the Mound of Glory, Stalin’s Line complex, Brest Hero Fortress, Trastsyanets Memorial, Pit Memorial to Holocaust victims, just to name a few.
The country’s tradition of annual military parades is also a sort of a nod to the past. One of the highlights of the Soviet calendar, 9 May was a chance for the communist superpower to show off its military might.
Parades in Belarus take place twice a year – on Victory Day, and on 3 July, the official Independence Day.
They usually involve helicopters, planes, missile systems, tanks and military vehicles, and marching soldiers accompanied by the orchestra.
Patriotic songs, slogans and well-known figures out of people performing acrobatic tricks can’t but add to the Soviet era atmosphere.
The Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopanosti aka the KGB was the state-security organization, involved in everyday life of people in the Soviet Union. Belarus is the only ex-Soviet republic to retain the name for the country’s security agency associated with communist secret police and political repressions.
For those who ever wanted to take a glance at one of the most secret intelligence force hubs, a virtual tour to the museum is now available on the site of the State Security Committee of Belarus.
Recall that in the Soviet Union, every adult able-bodied person was obliged to work until official retirement. Those who refused to work, study or serve faced a social parasitism criminal charge.
The ‘law on parasites’ of 1961 identified up to 130,000 people as leading the “anti-social, parasitic way of life.” Similar policies introduced in Belarus in 2015 included a tax for those who fell under the category “social parasites”.
Another hello from the past is the attempt to introduce a ‘dry law‘ last year. Minsk authorities banned night-time sales of alcohol at kiosks and stores as a part of a nationwide drive to reduce alcohol abuse and promote a healthy lifestyle.
However, the band lasted less than 24 hours and was lifted by the president. In the Soviet Union, there were three major anti-alcohol campaigns in 1958,1972, and 1985.
The last one by Mikhail Gorbachev increased prices on alcohol and restricted its sale in amount and time of day. People who were caught drunk in public were prosecuted.
GUM and TSUM
Known as ‘the main universal stores’ till now, they provide a variety of goods and services – from food, clothes and cosmetics to kitchenware and gardening stuff.
Besides old-fashioned service, the stores are interesting for their architecture. The buildings themselves bring back memories of an inimitable Soviet architecture. Smaller replicas of the capital’s department stores can be found almost at any city of Belarus.
- in Brest – TSUM
- in Hrodna – Nieman
- in Homel – Univermag Homel
- in Mahileu – Tsentralny department store
- in Vitsebsk – Vitsebski department store
Read also: Shopping in Belarus and how to do it right
Agricultural land in Belarus is state-owned, as it was in the Soviet Union, except for the small household plots that have been privatized. The number of collective and state farms also didn’t change much, decreasing from 2,500 in 1990 to 2,250 in 2003.
Over time collective farms were renamed to agricultural enterprises but the rebranding didn’t change much due to the lack of major shifts in its structure – they keep functioning according to the Soviet pattern.
Nostalgy for the USSR
Do Belarusians miss the USSR? This is the question that bothers many foreigners in and outside Belarus.
BelarusFeed has an elaborate answer on it –the recent poll revealed what else besides cheap sausage, old songs and pioneers triggers nostalgy for the Soviet Union.
Belarus’ President Lukashenko also likes to recall the old good times. Here are just some of his bittersweet quotes about the USSR:
I’ve got more to tell you. Can’t say how I miss it. I’m a Soviet man. I grew up in that country. I am the only deputy in the Parliament who voted against the collapse,” he said back in 2013.
Recalling his impressions about the U.S. President Barack Obama in 2008 he also described the period just after the USSR dissolution.
When I came to power after the downfall of the Soviet Union, the store shelves were empty, a severe financial crisis.”
During the meeting with Chairman of the Communist Party faction in the Russian parliament Gennady Zyuganov in 2016, he again expressed his regrets on the matter.
We have lost the country, but the worst thing was that we lost the system which took decades to create and which was unequalled in the world.
If we had polished and improved it, we would have become an absolutely different state even after the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
Patiently waiting in long queues, sharing your personal space with strangers and lining up ‘just in case there’s something I might need’ was a near-daily occurrence in the USSR.
No wonder many tourists are now a bit baffled when locals start queueing after them or stand too close at the money exchange, stores, banks or polyclinics.