Lost in Translation in Minsk - The "Real Belarus" Travel Tips

Last week, leading Belarusian newspaper Nasha Niva announced that in Minsk there will be signposts put up in English and in Russian. This reveals several facts about contemporary Minsk. There are no signposts in English. Putting them up is so extraordinary that they publish an article about it.

You Better Read Cyrillic

If you have traveled around Minsk without speaking Russian and reading Cyrillic, you will understand why. Apart from one road sign in the Western suburb of Minsk announcing the way to “Inturist”, there are no street names or metro stations in Latin script. Only in the newly renovated park around Komsomolskae ozero will you find signs indicating the way to "Youth Island" and other promising places in English.

For a Western visitor, it means that you will need either a photographic memory or a good interpreter to get around in Minsk. Upon arrival, you may buy an English-language map of Minsk.  But it will not help much, as the names indicated in English on your map will be hard to compare with the Cyrillic writing on the road signs and metro stations.

Even if you can speak or read some Russian, you will notice that this is the language most people speak in the streets but not the one used for road signs. They are in Belarusian, and Belarusians think it is very funny if a foreigner does not understand that if he is supposed to meet somebody at “Oktyabrskaya” station he actually has to get out when “Kastrychnickaya” is announced in the metro. Both words mean the same, but one is Russian, the other is Belarusian.

Don’t Take Your Granny or Your Baby with You

You will be able to use your Russian in those shops that still have no self-service and where you need to ask the salesperson to give you what you want. A few years ago, there were many such shops in Minsk. Today, most shops in the city centre are supermarkets but you can still find the corner shops and they are pervasive in the countryside.

So do not be frustrated when shop assistants pretend not to understand the language you are speaking (even if you are quite sure it is Russian). They are not used to hearing foreign accents. And, of course, they do not speak English or any other Western language. Some will think that you are not speaking proper Russian in order to annoy them.

No matter what you are planning to do in Minsk, make sure you do not have a wheelchair or buggy with you. Minsk is absolutely not barrier-free. It is impossible to access most shops and almost all means of public transport. Even if  you can get on the metro in Uruchie you cannot leave it in any other station because there are no lifts or even ramps. This shows that disabled or the elderly do not have wheelchairs or are not moving around in Minsk. Moreover, young mothers with babies in buggies are supposed to stay at home and should not go shopping or travel by metro.

Be Sure to Check Out Minsk Metro

The Minsk metro is quite impressive. Most people are amazed to see that the country reported to be on the edge of bankruptcy has large flat screens at many of its metro stations (and has had them for several years now). Every station is designed and decorated according to a specific theme: Lenin, Proletarian Revolution, Sports, etc. Minsk metro is clean, efficient and very speedy. When riding it for the first time make sure you have a seat or a stack to hold on to, otherwise you will fall down. With time, you will learn to keep your balance and “surf” like Minskers do.

But of course it's not this efficiency that put the metro on the front pages of the world media last year, but the bomb explosion . Although the two young men allegedly responsible for the blast that caused the death of 15 people on April 11 2011 have been sentenced to death, many in Belarus still believe that behind the bombing were the Belarusian security services.

Many people had a strange feeling when going by metro for the first time after the explosion, and the bored police agents that pretended to look into your bags and backpacks in order to prevent you from bringing more bombs to the metro did not make anyone feel safer.

But normality soon returned, and going by metro is now once again a usual part of everyday life; the only thing to remind you of what happened is that they have removed the benches on the platform so that no more bombs can be hidden below them (and no more people can have a rest when waiting for their train). Only at some stations were the benches back at the end of the last year. 

If you get the impression that Minsk is a city for young, healthy russophones, you are right. So far, it is impossible to be lost in translation as there are no translations into English. The Minsk Tourist Information Center still has not decided whether to put up signs in Russian or Belarusian or English. Putting them up in English would bring Minsk a step closer to being an international capital and would make it seem a lot more welcoming to foreigners.

Three Survival Tips

So, our three survival hints for this week:

First, make sure you have a Belarusian friend or colleague to show you around. Treat him or her well, otherwise you might get really lost without reading Cyrillic. 

Second, if you have to go by metro, count how many stations you have to go. Do not try to understand what the voice in the train announces unless you are a fluent Belarusian speaker. 

Third, if you are hungry or thirsty and you do not speak Russian or Belarusian, stick to shops like Zentralny (next to McDonald’s in the centre) or Evropeiski (next to Porsche centre in the east of the city). There you can get what you want yourself and then pay for it without having to explain anything. 

NL

Nadine Lashuk is a German political scientist, currently working on the first German-Belarusian binational PhD thesis.

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