Armed with a pen and camera George Pavlopoulos, the traveling writer from Greece, made it to Belarus. In his personal and touching letters to Barbara, he reflects on everything he has seen and experienced in Minsk.
A rocket man in Europe’s last dictatorship.
I know that you are wondering why I chose Minsk as a destination. The comparison is inevitable: from the sunny and sandy Greek islands to the darkness of Minsk. That’s exactly the reason though: the city’s darkness.
I know you’re smiling while reading this statement. But I am attracted to dark cities and this is a habit that gets worse as time goes by.
The truth is that I’m here for a story. Or, for a story within a story. I’m not going to write anything more about it right now. But, I’m gonna tell you this: Minsk is not as dark as you might think.
Arriving in Minsk
The country seems to be green and despite talking about a certain degree of darkness, it’s a sunny afternoon here in Minsk. The horizon is clear, the sky is blue and I’m surprised to find 18 degrees in Belarus in the middle of October.
The airport is big and totally grey. It looks like a remnant of the Soviet past of the country (or shall I say present?) but to be honest I find it somehow charming. I have heard stories about ill-tempered employees at the airport but those stories are untrue. Everybody is polite to me.
The non-smiling attitude seems to be a cultural thing, and not something of the collective temperament. Straight after exiting the airplane, I have to buy a health insurance. This is obligatory for everybody visiting Belarus. The cost is low (one euro per day) but it’s still an odd regulation.
After buying the insurance and having my passport stamped, I’m approached by a hive of men screaming “Taxi! Taxi!” straight into my ear. I reject the offers and I order an Uber: it’s prime time and I’m afraid I’ll have to pay a fortune in the taxi.
The car goes first through forests and later finds its way to the motorway. We are driving towards the sunset of Minsk but we don’t say a word: the driver doesn’t speak a word of English and I don’t speak Russian at all. Sometimes you spend one hour with somebody and the only memory is the silence.
And then, on the way to the city the radio plays that beloved song by Elton John, Rocket Man. Shortly before visiting Belarus, I read on a travel guide that a Russian astronomer has discovered a minor planet in 1979 and named it 3012 Minsk, as a tribute to the city.
I listen to Rocket Man and I see a country that seems to be a planet of its own. I feel like a Rocket Man as the car drives through the Belarussian landscape: I’m far away from home and unable to speak a word of Russian.
A city like you
All of a sudden, I find myself in a trance. I expect Minsk to be dark and joyless and what I see is an energetic city. And also, it’s very green.
After leaving the Island of Tears I think that I won’t see any more greenery. To my surprise, every now and then a park crops up.
After walking along the Janki Kupali street, I enter the Friendship Alley and I walk through yellow autumn leaves. The Svislach River is visible and it flows slowly. A young couple is canoeing, an old lady is sitting on a bench, a bunch of youngsters is talking loud.
Then, I see briefly the Victory Monument, an obelisk in the middle of a big square and this is the last image before starting to wander around the Gorky Park.
This is hands down one of the nicest parks I’ve seen lately, and I’m sure you’d love to walk here. It’s only at Gorky Park that I realize the twofold abilities of Minsk: it’s both lively and quiet at all times. I have no idea how can this even be possible.
There are motion and stillness, there are voices and silence, it’s hot in the sun and cold in the shadow, there is past and there is future, there is grief and there is hope.
The island of tears
The river Svislach flows through Minsk and exactly opposite of the Old Town, there is a small island. I cross the bridge and I find myself on the Island of Tears.
This is a highly lyrical name with a political background. The tiny island serves as a memorial to the unsuccessful USSR campaign in Afganistan (1979-1988). A lost combat and thousands of dead soldiers, this war was Russia’s Vietnam.
For several years the veterans didn’t receive any sort of recognition but since 1996 Minsk is paying a tribute to the dead soldiers. There is a small chapel in the entrance of the island and on the walls, the figures of mothers and widows are sculpted. In the middle of a busy city, this is a peaceful spot.
There are only a couple of people visiting the Island of Tears this morning, a young girl among them. She starts running up and down the small island and she’s probably unaware of the symbolical meaning of the place.
A moment later, her parents shout at her. I find their reaction extreme. The girl’s unawareness is some sort of a symbolical statement: it’s a proof that innocence can flourish even in the bleakest places.
To know how George risked a KGB interrogation for a photo, talked to a Belarusian cat lover with Greek roots, and spent some time in a diamond in the outskirts of the city – visit his cozy and insightful blog.