Belarus has fascinated me for the last 20 years, but it was only in May 2015 that I finally visited for the first time. I knew immediately that I was in love.
I am an academic by profession, in the field of urban and regional planning and my projects and research have always focused on the former Soviet space.
This fascinating world that had been hidden from our western eyes by an iron curtain for half a century was suddenly opening up, and I wanted to explore it!
My reflections about Belarus are based on the two very different – in 2015 as a tourist and three years later as a volunteer – but equally positive experiences.
A child in a sweet shop
On arrival by train, I was immediately awestruck by the very impressive Minsk Gates outside the station. Wow! Due to my profession, I have a great interest in urban planning and architecture, particularly modernist and brutalist/Stalinist styles.
The tragedy that resulted in Minsk being flattened in the Great Patriotic War and the way the Hero City was rebuilt in the post-war period means that the city is by far the best example of Stalinist urban planning and architecture.
The sight of the Minsk Gates confirmed that I would love the city. I am interested in the so-called Soviet legacy, which manifests itself in physical terms (the buildings, monuments, a layout of the streets) but also in psychological, cultural and social terms.
The norms, values and attitudes of society are undoubtedly different from those in the UK and that either frightens or fascinates people. In my case, it obviously fascinates me and in Minsk, I was like a child in a sweet shop and did not know where to explore first.
The beauty and the beast
The monumental scale of Independence Avenue and Independence Square, the House of Government with Lenin keeping watch outside, the colossal October Square, Victory Square with its towering monument are simply awesome.
The bas-relief depicting Soviet workers and peasants on Nemiga Street leaves you in no doubt that the physical dimension of the Soviet legacy endures. Although I am not sure what Lenin would have made of the Kentucky Fried Chicken shop below!
Minsk retains respect for its Soviet heritage more than any other big city in the former USSR where independence was often followed by the removal of monuments, statues and other symbols of Soviet power.
The centre of Minsk is compact enough to be easily walkable and once my wife got tired of walking I went out running along charming streets and riverside paths to explore.
I was thoroughly enjoying walking, walking and walking until suddenly I saw one of the biggest urban planning disasters I have ever seen!
Walking towards Trinity Hill and the Island of Tears I stopped suddenly in absolute astonishment, I was speechless, as the architecturally horrific monstrosity that is the Dom Chiza apartment complex came into view!
As an urban planner, I did not know whether to laugh or cry. We have many architectural and urban planning disasters in the UK, but nothing on this scale.
The grotesque block, particularly in such a sensitive location next to the old town was so obscene in terms of style and scale.
I would like to think that something like this would never be permitted in the UK in such a sensitive location no matter how much money and influence an individual may have.
Looking for bad service and rude staff
The hotel in Minsk was as good in terms of quality and extremely good value for money, certainly a lot cheaper than a similar hotel in a major UK city.
The service and staff were brilliant and this experience was repeated in all of the places that we went to eat and drink in Minsk.
Based on my experience of the former Soviet Union, I was actually a little bit disappointed that we could not find anywhere where the service was atrocious and the staff was rude.
I need not have worried, during my second visit in 2018 when I had the opportunity to visit Mozyr and got the full Soviet experience when went for a meal.
We had to wait 90 minutes before finally the meals started to arrive, not at the same time obviously. And my starter arrived after my main course when we were ready to pay the bill.
It appears that UK visitors will receive the high standard of service they expect in most places in Minsk, but there may be room for improvement in the provinces.
Visitors from the UK will not tolerate poor service and rudeness, unless of course, they are mad like me and deliberately seek the Soviet experience.
More on the topic:
We accomplished our desire to experience some elements of the Soviet “eating out” experience twice in Minsk, once deliberately and once by accident.
We went to the very impressive Tovarisch restaurant, complete with retro Soviet décor, busts of Lenin and hammer and sickle motifs, but disappointingly the service and food were both excellent.
We did get to feel like members of the Soviet elite as we were the only people in the restaurant, vastly outnumbered by the friendly and attentive staff.
Adjusting to reality
When I visited with Chernobyl Children’s Project, the amusing meal in Mozyr was the only time we went out for a meal. The rest of the time we ate on site at Ptich sanatorium where we were based near the village of Kapatkievichy.
Luckily I had already experienced proper Belarussian cuisine, which I particularly like. The food at Ptich, near to Kalinkiavichy, was like school dinners in the UK in the 1970s.
The volunteers spent most mealtimes wondering what had been put in front of us, and even more perplexing how to eat it. The allocation of cutlery appeared to be completely random and bore no relation to the food that we had been given.
All cutlery was apparently multi-functional and after 2 weeks we volunteers were experts at eating soup with a teaspoon and eating yogurt and spreading butter with a fork!
Charity and its peculiarities
My second visit consisted of volunteering at a holiday camp for children and young adults with physical and learning difficulties at Ptich in summer 2018.
The visit to Ptich revealed a number of cultural idiosyncrasies that would completely baffle first-time British visitors. The sanatorium is a holiday camp and health spa where visitors can also receive health treatments.
The site is in the middle of a forest with a number of imposing accommodation and administration blocks dotted throughout the very well-maintained grounds.
There were approximately 50 children and young adults in our group and numerous other school parties on the site. The concept of summer camps for kids has disappeared in the UK.
The English volunteers found it interesting to see the teachers leading the kids out each morning to do a range of fairly strenuous exercises before breakfast.
The thought of groups of English school children doing strenuous exercises before breakfast is highly amusing and it simply does not happen.
The individualism that dominates capitalist societies, whereby too many kids spend their lives on their own in front of computer screens.
This contrasts sharply with the enduring collective mentality in Belarus where group activities remain the norm.
The UK policymakers should take note that as we become more and more aware of an impending obesity crisis in young people that I have yet to see an obese child in Belarus.
The Belarussian mentality seems to be extremely conservative. Anything that we tried to organise for the children that were even slightly different to their usual activities was met with resistance.
We wanted to organise a forest walk for some of the children, the site was in the middle of a forest after all, but we were told that this was “impossible”. In the end, we did it but it took days of endless negotiations and form filling.
Culture shock and how to deal with it
One significant difference between the UK and Belarus is the attitude of society and the government towards people with disabilities. This can be quite a culture shock to British people
who are unfamiliar with Belarus.
From a British perspective, people with disabilities appear to be undervalued in Belarus. They tend to be hidden away out of sight in institutions and to a certain extent excluded from society.
For somebody from the UK this can appear to be harsh, as many of these amazing people can make a valuable contribution through integration into society.
On the other hand, all of the British volunteers on our trip were extremely impressed with the wonderful warm relationship between the children and their carers who clearly invest their heart and soul into the children’s welfare and happiness.
Having said that, I do not like making direct comparisons between the UK and Belarus. They are two very different countries with very different histories which have shaped very different attitudes, norms and values.
There is significant evidence that societal attitudes are changing in Belarus and steps are being taken towards integrating people with disabilities into society. But things will change slowly and us foreigners need to accept that we should not make rash judgments or criticisms.
I am looking forward to hopefully continuing to be part of this process of change next summer when I will be volunteering in Zhuravichi and Rechitsa.
Text by Neil Adams