An Insider’s Guide to Minsk: Beyond Mainstream Sightseeing
Minsk attracts more and more foreign visitors. Tourism clearly develops. The Ice Hockey World Championship in May of 2014 marked a big mile stone here. It brought numerous first time guests to Minsk.
Many guides provide a standard list of the city's attractions. But what discoveries await those willing to leave the main tourist trails?
In Search of an Old Town
World War II, but also post-war city planing left little of the old Minsk. This is the conventional wisdom about the Belarusian capital. A second glance will probably get you to Trayetskaye pradmestsye— the Trinity Suburb.
This neighbourhood along Svislach-river is where the settlement of Minsk started. Yet, the houses you find here today were all build in Soviet times. Similar attempts to construct an old town are made around Ploshcha Svabody with buildings like the Old Town Hall, build in 2003.
Not far away though you get a better sense of Mink's past. In streets like Rakauskaya or Revalutsyonaya many 19th century brick buildings have survived.
Sometimes old structures also hide behind post-war architecture like the Catholic Church of the Holy Trinity near the intersection of Nezaleszhnasci avenue and Masherova avenue.
When back in the city centre also make sure to stop by the Pobeda Cinema on Internatsyanalnaya street. Notable is not only its pink exterior but also the posters advertising the films currently in show. A closer look reveals that they are all hand-painted. If you are lucky you can even get in for free, as Pobeda hosts a number of film festivals throughout the year.
Meet the Real Minchanin
The façades of Minsk's main boulevards seem quite impressive. But they can also be intimidating and impersonal. To meet the real Minsk, take a turn through the many plaster-decorated arches into the backyards of Minsk. Here you will find authentic Belarusian life and meet the real inhabitants of Minsk – also known as Minchanye.
Babushkas discussing the latest gossip or feeding cats. Children playing. And men enjoying an after-work beer. Lovers of old Soviet cars may spot an old Moskvich or Volga and with a bit of luck – even a Pobeda. Some of them have even retained their original Soviet-era white-on-black licence plate. Walking through the backyards will also allow you huge short-cuts as you can simply walk through a street block, instead of walking all the way to the next corner.
A Trip to the 18th Century
From the heart of Minsk it is only a short metro-ride on Autozavodskaya line to Pushkinskaya station. Walk along the main avenue – Prytytskyha street – until you reach the gates of Kalvarya cemetery. As one of the few places in Minsk to do so, this cemetery offers a trip back in time. Some of the graves have remained untouched for over 200 years. Quite remarkable given Minsk's troubled past in the 20th century.
The inscriptions on the tombstones – some in Cyrillic, many in Polish – also reveal Belarus' heritage at the crossroads of different cultures. Finding a national identity remains an issue in today's Belarus. Many of the graves deserve to be repaired. Time has clearly taken its toll and decay is all around. But that is exactly what makes the morbid atmosphere of this unique place.
Heading out the Flea Market
Minsk's flea market scene still has room to develop. What is considered vintage in the West is either still in use in Belarusian homes – and repaired until it completely falls apart – or thrown away, considered junk. Still, a visit to Zhdanovichi market is worth while.
A short and inexpensive eletrichka train ride gets you to Lyabyazhi station. Leave the babushkas on the train aside – they are heading out to the dacha. Just follow the crowd getting off at the station. The huge market spans over several acres and offers quite literally everything you may want to buy. Food, electronics, clothing and much more.
At the very end – after taking the underpass to cross Tsimirazyeva street – you find the flea market section. Soviet memorabilia, old tools, second hand clothing and every thing else vendors may want to make a few roubles with. The best time to hit the market is a Saturday morning with good weather. Bring sufficient cash and enough Russian to negotiate prices.
For those shopping for second hand books, the book store on the intersection of Marks and Engels street has a separate section for old books. A similar shop called Bookinist is located on praspekt Nezalezhnosti – just north of Akademiya navuk metro station.
The Bunny in Your Wallet
Spending a few days in Belarus you may already have fallen in love with the Belarusian rouble, or rather: its many colourful bank notes. Today they take you on a trip to the most important sights and buildings of the country.
Back in the 1990s, Belarus also had its natural beauty on display on its currency. All Belarusians remember the one-rouble note with a bunny on its front side. It even earned the whole currency the nick name of zaichik – the Russian term for a small bunny.
The entrance hall of the BelSwiss Bank at Ploshcha Svabody features a collection of all Belarusian bank notes of the past 25 years. From the last Soviet rouble – bearing Lenin's profile – to the current series.
Minsk is a Village
A ride down the main roads into town through areas like Kamenaya Horka creates the impression that most houses in Minsk are 20 stories high and have the shape of a box. But Minsk can also be quite the opposite. There are several parts of town with little old wooden houses that take you on a trip to a Belarusian village.
Old water pumps in the yard, colourful houses, unpaved roads and blossoming gardens you find north of Kyivsky Skver, around Hrushauka metro station or on the upper section of Bahdanovicha street. And Minsk even still has cobblestone roads like the short strip near the intersection of Bahdanovicha and Amurskaya streets.
Make friends with Belarusians
Minsk and Belarus remain an extraordinary tourist destination. But be rest assured that even wandering out of the city centre is safe, as crime is generally low in Belarus.
Therefore go out and explore. And Belarusian are eager to meet foreigners. Platforms like couchsurfing will help you to make friends in Belarus. They will introduce you to the real secrets of their country.
Thomas Bergmann served in the European Voluntary Service in Minsk in 2012/2013.
Belarus And Poland: Brought Together By Russian Sanctions?
On 28-29 August the head of Belarusian diplomacy, Uladzimir Makiej, met with the top Polish officials in Warsaw.
The war in Ukraine and Russia’s self-imposed isolation can bring Belarusand Poland closer together.
Following the Russian ban on food from EU countries, Polish officials and food producers are hoping to find new markets for their products, and among their targets is Belarus.
Despite political disagreements, trade turnover dynamics indicate that the business is, against all odds, doing well. Poland remains one of the largest business partners for Belarus in the European Union.
Although both countries are on the outer edges of the tense EU-Russia relations, they both may actually find a common language through joint business creation.
One Polish Apple a Day, but not in Belarus?
Belarus decided not to join in on the Russian ban on food products from the European Union. However, Belarusian Minister Lieanid Zajac confirmed during a meeting with a senior Russian official, Siargey Daknvert, in Minsk on 12 August, that Belarus would not re-export banned goods from the EU to Russia. The Belarusian BelTA news agency and other state-run news media like to portray the authorities treating the issue of re-export seriously in their coverage.
After the Russian sanctions were imposed on 14 August, the Polish Minister of Agriculture and Development, Marek Sawicki, hastened to Minsk for talks with his Belarusian counterpart, Minister Zajac. They discussed the possibilities to increase cooperation in general, but also increase of Polish exports to Belarus. Minister Sawicki said later that the countries would consider the establishment of joint Polish-Belarusian food plants in Belarus. These joint venture companies could then go on to sell their goods to Customs Union member states.
"Belarus is open to cooperation with Poland, we will discuss the conditions until the end of August", Marek Sawicki tweeted after his meeting in Minsk. After his second visit to Minsk at the beginning of September, the Polish minister announced that the Belarusian side was interested in buying 200 thousand tonnes of milk from Polish producers each month to produce it and sell to Russia.
At the moment, the sale of apples and other fruits still remain one of the biggest concerns of Polish farmers. Expectations that Belarus would purchase more from Poland turned out to be in vain. On 4 September, after a visit of Polish fruits producers to Minsk, it became clear that the Belarusian side actually wants to decrease apple imports for the time being. Previously it re-exported part of these imports to Russia, now it is afraid to do so.
Uladzimir Makiej comes to Warsaw
On 28 August Uladzimir Makiej came to Warsaw on a two-day visit where he met with the head of Polish diplomacy, Radoslaw Sikorski, Janusz Piechocinski, the Deputy Prime Minister and other officials. There would be nothing spectacular to report about this visit if not the fact that a top level official meeting of Polish and Belarusian officials of this kind last took place a few years ago.
Since November 2010 when Radoslaw Sikorski, and his German colleague, Guido Westerwelle, met with Alexander Lukashenka in Minsk, relations appeared to be "suspended". Eventually, due to the results of the presidential elections, accusations of violations of human rights and electoral procedure fraud, Brussels tightened the screws on Belarus.
However, media in Poland and Belarus covered the recent meetings between Makiej and Sikorski without much enthusiasm. The Belarusian state-run Channel 1 just briefly mentioned the visit. Similar coverage was found on the Polish state TVP 1, which also did not pay much attention to the event.
The Polish press focused more on the economic aspect of the recent intensification of Poland-Belarus relations, and chances for Polish food producers with the potential to export Polish goods to Belarus.
When Two Parties Quarrel, Belarus Wins?
At the press conference following the Sikorski-Makiej meeting both officials commented on the meeting in a positive way. As both noted the issues related to Ukraine dominated the agenda of their discussion.
Minister Makiej argued that any problems between both countries should be solved through dialogue, to prevent them from escalating into a conflict. He also pointed out the positive tendencies in their mutual relations. Both countries are “destined to live together as neighbours”, he noted.
The Russian sanctions against European Union member states continue to severely affect Polish farmers and food producers. The losses appear to be tremendous for not only farmers, but also other companies specialising in transporting goods east. Polish exports of apples to Russia is worth nearly 500m Euro annually. The financial compensation to be given to Poland from the EU is clearly insufficient.
As Minister Sawicki said, Minsk offered to purchase raw products from Polish producers to produce food in Belarus and then to sell it domestically and to Customs Union member states.
Although it seems that Minsk is wary of buying food from Poland, Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Michail Rusy stated that Belarus was ready to increase its food exports to Russia, including the Kaliningrad Oblast. By doing so they would actually need to allow Poles and the Baltic states to enter their market.
A Close Neighbour Makes for a Good Partner?
The geographical proximity of Poland and Belarus makes the countries close neighbours and convenient business partners.
Given that Minsk would be willing to find a compromise with Brussels, Warsaw could be helpful in Belarus' modernisation and breaking the long-standing international isolation in Europe. Poland could also potentially be an advocate for Minsk in Europe, as it is for Ukraine.
When the relations between Belarus with Poland or other EU countries are tense, Minsk is forced to rely increasingly on Russia and move away from the West.
It seems, however, that businesses are coping regardless of the current political climate. In 2012, Poland remained the second largest exporter of its goods to Belarus in the EU, following Germany. It was also a key country for imports of Belarusian goods (fifth overall). Trade turnover between the countries was the fourth largest in the EU.
The recent activation of Belarus-Poland relations means profits for both sides. In any case, Belarus is already making money on Russian sanctions against the West. Although the recent meetings have not led to any breakthroughs, still they have let in fresh air, even for business relations.