Getting to Know Belarus: Guide for Expats in Minsk
Establishing oneself as a foreigner in a new city can be a challenge, not only because of cultural and linguistic barriers, but also due to social norms.
It’s often easier to meet and befriend fellow expatriates or members of the international community than it is to blend into the local crowd. Of course, some cities have a much larger international community than others, and, as it were, Minsk is not one of these cities.
The international community in Belarus is very small, consisting of diplomats, foreign language teachers and students, missionaries and volunteers, and some people who simply love Belarus, coming from the United Kingdom, The United States, Germany, China and some of the other former Soviet States (although in Belarus, these may not be considered foreigners). Most of these foreign visitors are located in Minsk; there are hardly any foreigners in other parts of the country.
Though the situation seems bleak for those wishing to establish a social circle in Minsk, there is hope. In spite of the limited community and closed social structure it is becoming easier to develop a network of people in Belarus. Thanks to a burgeoning vibrant international community and the establishment of a number of youth social and educational organisations, like Fialta, Lamora, Dom Fishera, and the Open Ultimate Frisbee Club, Minsk is starting to give a more positive impression of its future as an international city.
Becoming Involved with the Right Crowd
To become involved with the right crowd of Belarusians, one must have a deep understanding of the Belarusian culture and some of the languages. After spending a great deal of time with colleagues, you might be invited for tea or dinner at their home. Even when a relationship has developed so far, it can hardly be called a friendship. Eastern European culture sets the bar for “friends” very high, and newcomers, particularly foreigners, are often at the bottom of this social food chain, labelled as eternal acquaintances.
One solution to this predicament is to simply seek out the other foreigners, who are easily spotted in the many cafes and bars in Minsk’s city centre. Though the bar culture, as it is understood in Western Europe or the United States, is quite weak, there are several places where connecting with other internationals has become quite easy. Such popular cafes include Tapas Bar (Internationalnaya vul.), News Café (Karla Marksa), and Gambrinus (Ploshcha Svabody).
Another solution is to seek out some sort of organisation or group that brings together people of similar interests. It is difficult to compare Belarusian cities to some of its neighbours in Russia and Ukraine, especially for foreigners. However, there are some niches emerging for the active expatriate looking for something to become involved with during their time in Minsk.
Though it may be hidden in plain sight, Fialta is definitely worth the search. This Youth Education Centre, no more than a two-minute-walk from the centrally located Red Church, hosts discussion groups, language clubs, and other events on a regular basis, all for free! A project of the European Volunteer Service, the centre hosts three to four volunteers from around Europe each year to help conduct operations and organise meetings. The atmosphere is casual and welcomes students of all ages to come in and learn something new, from the basics of German language to new yoga postures to the impressions of an American living in Minsk.
One of the most useful and popular meetings is the weekly Russian for Foreigners class. Once or twice a week, what seems like half of Minsk’s international community gathers at Fialta to practise their basic Russian skills. While some students are more advanced than others, the encouraging attitude of all those involved creates the perfect environment for learning and laughing over tea and cookies.
Before the new metro stops opened on the Moskouskaya line in November of 2012, it seemed nearly impossible to get to the House of Culture Lamora. This small, innocuous cabin in the Grushauka neighbourhood of Minsk hosts open cultural events and gatherings on a regular basis for anyone who is interested in attending. Advertised through a carefully maintained Facebook group, one need only contact the administrator to organise an event of one’s own.
Some days, the floor of the cabin will be covered in pieces of paper and magazine clippings for a Christmas Card making workshop, other days the yard is arranged to make a make-shift stage for an outdoor concert or dance performance. On any day, you will find a group of culturally open Belarusians willing and able to tell about their inter-cultural experiences. Find more info at
Dom Fishera – the Anti-Café
Cafes as most of the world knows them are places where you take a seat and pay for a coffee or a snack from the Vending machines Perth while you spend time with friends. The Anti-café Dom Fishera takes that idea and turns it upside-down.
Located near Park Chaliuskinsev, it’s a convenient space to spend time with friends, if you’re looking to get out of the house, but not necessarily looking to sit down in a real café, or walk around in the cold winter weather. Dom Fishera quickly became popular after it opened in September of 2012 and, along with its usual services, hosted a variety of events, including several all-night-movie-nights and handmade craft fairs on a regular basis. Upon walking in, give your name at the at the door, and pay by the minute for your time spent there, helping yourself to unlimited coffee, tea, get well gift delivery cookies, games and fun for the length of your stay.
Apart from the above, Dom Fishera is also a good place to start a night out. Friday nights are open board game nights, where tea and mafia are the perfect prologue to a night of partying with friends. What’s more, people are more than welcoming when it comes to such games, and you may find yourself playing charades (or krokodil) with some complete strangers! Check them out on Facebook.
Minsk Open Ultimate Frisbee
A popular game around the world was finally brought to Minsk about two years ago. Ivan came to Belarus from China with two goals in mind: to learn Russian and to teach Frisbee. Since he started the Minsk Open Ultimate Frisbee group, it seems like hundreds of young people have visited the field on the Svislach by the Minsk Stella to play Frisbee on Sunday afternoons, and sometimes other days of the week, too! Although the game can be competitive, the group welcomes new players all the time, and encourages beginners to jump into the game and to the cheerful Russian and English banter.
What makes the Ultimate Frisbee group unique is its tenacity. The group’s leaders send encouraging messages by Facebook before every game to remind players of the time and place (which hardly ever changes) and also includes a fun bit of Frisbee inspiration, like “Carpe diem — it means grab the Frisbee.” Whether in the sunny springtime or in the brutal rain or snow, the Frisbee group is always ready to play, and with rotating teams, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll be on the winning team once in a while!
Towards a More Diverse Minsk
It takes courage to come to Belarus as a foreigner, but it takes even more courage to make friends in what some may consider the stifling social environment of Minsk. Use this courage wisely, take advantage of any and all invitations that will put you in unique situations, and attend any event that may catch your interest. Most importantly: maintain contact with people who interest you, whether they are Belarusian or foreign. You will quickly find that all the cool people in Belarus seem to know each other!
While not as laid back and social as some other European cities, Minsk is, in fact, European. Two factors are quickly bringing about a strong international community in Belarus: the youth’s interest in all things international, and a growing population of foreigners coming to Belarus. As these interests grow, Belarus will continue to become a stronger and more diverse Eastern European nation.
Monika was a Fulbright scholar teaching in Belarus in 2012-2013.
Human Rights for Dummies, Belarusian Collegium – Belarus Civil Society Digest
A new project from “Human Rights for Dummies” campaign started recently. The Centre for European Transformation invites individuals for a series of analytical seminars. BEROC and the British Embassy in Minsk organise a student school for young economists.
Human Rights for Dummies. On 16 September activists of the “Human Rights for Dummies” campaign presented a new project – the human rights school “Pcholka”. The event was attended by students from law faculties, journalists and volunteers of the human rights center “Viasna”. The human rights school “Pcholka” is organised with the support of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, Human Rights Centre “Viasna”, Legal Transformation Centre Lawtrend and others. The project is aimed at young people under 35 years old who took part in human rights programmes before and want to deepen their knowledge in this sphere.
State-appointed expert labels Ales Bialiatski’s book as dangerous for the state. Ales Bialiatski’s book “Enlightened by Belarusianness” (“Asvechanyia Belaruschunai”) “could damage the image of the Republic of Belarus”, reports the results of an expert examination ordered by the Ashmiany customs department. 40 copies of the book were confiscated from human rights defender Tatsiana Reviaka on the Belarusian-Lithuanian border on 3 July this year.
Lawtrend Digest. The Legal Transformation Centre Lawtrend and EuroBelarus released the sixth issue the Digest of international news on Human Rights. Release covers the July-August 2013 and includes a Belarus’ report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, decisions of the UN Committee on Human Rights on Belarus, a Russian version of the EU report by Justas Paleckis and other documents.
Seminars and lectures
Belarusian Collegium announces a new round of studies. Belarusian Collegium is a non-governmental platform for public lectures and discussions as well as a place for intellectual and cultural dialogue. The Collegium offers education in journalism, contemporary history and philosophy/literature. Senior students or persons with higher education are invited to participate. The classes are free of charge.
EuroCafe lectures in Minsk. On 7 September a public lecture by Professor Timm Beichelt “Germany and the EU face to face with its eastern neighbours” took place in the Minsk TUT.by gallery. The lecture was organised for the “European Café: open space in Europe” project. 80 people attended the event.
The Third BEROC School for Students. Belarusian Economic Research and Outreach Centre (BEROC) in cooperation with the British Embassy Minsk will organise the Third School for Students on Modern Economics and Economic Research to be held in Minsk in September-December 2013. Among the lectures there are BEROC economists who have obtained PhD both from leading Belarusian universities and abroad, as well as a visiting professor. The working language of the school is English. Participation in the School is free of charge.
School of environmental lawyers. The Green Alliance invites senior students of law to participate in the legal service training of the Green Alliance. The series of trainings will address issues related to environmental law and developing strategies to protect it.
CET analytical seminars. The Centre for European Transformation opens a series of regular analytical seminars. Participants will analyse the situation in Belarus, to offer guidance and action strategies for cultural and political actors. The first seminar was held on 17 September. The lecturer is Head of CET, Andrei Yahorau.
Campaigns and projects
Belarusian politicians at Press Club Belarus. On 9 September Press Club Belarus in Warsaw hosted the initiators of the “People’s referendum” Alexander Milinkevich, Uladzimir Niaklajeu, Andrei Dmitriev, and Yuri Gubarevich. At the Press Club Belarusian politicians spoke about the results of a meeting with Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski which earlier took place, as well as their vision of the situation in Belarus, the capacity of the “People’s referendum”, etc. The Press Club Belarus was established by the Solidarity with Belarus Information Office in 2011.
Mova ci Kava gathered more 100 people. On 16 September the first session of the second season of the Belarusian language courses “Mova ci Kava” (Language or Coffee) brought together more than 110 people. About half of the participants were new students. The place and time of the classes have not changed – every Monday at the Minsk Gallery “Ў”. The courses were started in late 2012 by a Belarusian journalist Katerina Kibalchich.
New student think tank. On 17 September in Minsk, a new student think tank – the Analytical Laboratory at the Centre for Student Initiatives Development – presented its activity and prospective work. The Analytical laboratory plans to focus on the study of the issues of higher education and student self-government in Belarus. The Laboratory will conduct research and develops policy papers, as well as organise public events on topical issues of the student movement and the academic community.
Belarus Future. Portal newspeak.by invites individuals to participate in the project “Belarus’ Future” under the campaign “Citizens’ Club.” Belarus’ Future is a project aimed at discussing which transformations are needed for Belarusian society, and how to implement them in practice. The organisers will select the best participants who offer the most profound, reasonable and attractive concept of transformation in Belarus.
Call for start-up battle. BEL.BIZ, a coordinator of the Global Entrepreneurship Week in Belarus, invites ambitious projects to take a stab at the Battle of pitches, which is to be held on 21 November 2013 at the 3rd International Entrepreneurship Forum. BEL.BIZ BATTLE is a competition aimed at fostering entrepreneurship and promoting a “start-up culture” in Belarus. The finalists will go on to the Baltic Bay Area Startup Roadshow.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.