Why Minsk is not Like Other Capitals
It jumps out at you right after you come back from a foreign land: Minsk is not like Vilnius, Warsaw or Prague. Indeed, it is not like anywhere else.
And obviously, this concerns not only its "deserted streets" or the perception that there are "a lot of police." At least, it's not all that simple. Let's try and deduce the reasons that make our favourite city exceptional.
Almost no graffiti. Few areas with tags in underground walkways (e.g. on Kalvaryjskaja Str. near Itera's never-ending construction project) and in the car parking lot along the railway tracks painted with the consent of the Minsk City Hall — that's all there is of signs of Banksy's followers' presence in Minsk. Here, graffiti lasts but for a few days or sometimes even a few hours. We've got used to it already but it's a miracle! Look at what's happening to Paris!
No street food. If you are hungry in Brussels and don't want to spend 30 Euros on mussels, there will always be a kebab nearby. The Berliners joke that their national dish is now a döner, which completely pushed out currywurst. But the Berliners still had currywurst in the beginning and then döner; the residents of Minsk have neither döner nor currywurst. Unless you buy smazhanka [a Belarusian-style pizza] at the train station…
No good and bad areas. In any U.S. city they will tell you: here we have a "good area" and there we have a "bad area." You go here and you don't go there. Especially at night. In San Francisco, the neighbourhoods where you can get beat up by gangs from various ethnic minority groups share a border with exceptionally expensive districts.
In Minsk, there is no separation between neighbourhoods with the distinction of "good" or "bad" ones. In downtown area, it is as safe and as dangerous as in, say, Malinaūka. Especially as chaps from Malinaūka only sleep in Malinaūka and they hang out in the downtown because "there are more chicks there." Some fifteen years ago, it was common practice to scare children with Šabany and "Šaryki" but this is a thing of the the past: now even in Čyžoūka one can take a girl on a date without being a certified boxer.
Hence another interesting singularity. Prices in cafés in the downtown and "in the hood" are almost identical. There is a Pizza Planet almost next door to the City Hall and there are two Tempo joints at on Karl Marx street; these chains are in the budget price range. In any other capital city, the city centre is a bastion of idiotic prices for everything.
We do not put on airs any longer when we get a $7 bill for a cup of no-frills coffee in central Rome. You move two kilometres from the Coliseum towards the train station and coffee will cost you an honest one Euro. This is not at all true in Minsk where coffee costs almost the same in the restaurant of Vadzim Prakopjeu and in a run-down café where people booze it up without taking their hats off.
City history is hidden. In Prague, history has been commodified (i.e. transformed in a commodity). You do not even have to have a guidebook; special signs on the streets tell you the particularities of the city's buildings. The history of Minsk is hidden deep inside; you must have a friend among Minsk residents to have all the beauty and antiquity of this city be opened up to you.
You will never find a building where the Belarusian Democratic Republic was proclaimed. You will hover on the corner of Niezaliežnasci avenue and Engels street and never know that the Kruger's school of drawing, where famous Chaïm Soutine studied, stood at right there at the exact same place.
Genuine history has been replaced by ersatz. If you are not a shrewd European antiquity scholar you will end up hovering in the Trajeckaje pradmiescie in the full conviction that this is the oldest thing they have in Minsk. You will see Soviet history, take some pictures of Plošča Pieramohi and marvel at the Stalinist Empire style.
You may even have your picture taken against the background of one of these weird structures that were erected on Niamiha Str. over recent years, on the sites where a clumsy imitations of actual historical buildings were (buildings that were destroyed just to free up space for the new buildings). The copies forced out the originals. The Soviet spirit is indigenous.
And here is yet another singularity: no business hub in Minsk. Any capital city in the world has a district where skyscrapers cluster, harbouring headquarters of banks and national financial, industrial, insurance and other companies. Belarusbank's headquarters is on Dziaržynski Ave, almost in the middle of nowhere. We have skyscrapers in Minsk but they are not gathered in a uniform ensemble; they are scattered on the horizon as pines over a pasture. I am not going to make any mention of the Čyž's building. And forget Herostratus.
The first analogue of Starbucks has just opened in the city. At the same time, what kind of a city has no inhabitants running about with paper cups of coffee? Now, the Coffee Box chain is growing rapidly; Boxes regularly emerge in new downtown locations. But we still have only one chain of this kind for more than two million residents. Amazing!
And elaborating on the topic: no Burger King or KFC in Minsk (the latter will allegedly open soon but none have opened yet), or even a Sbarro. McDonalds is a monopolist in the lower price range and T.G.I. Friday in the medium price range. That's it. Experts say that it is all related to the difficulties in running any business in Belarus but we are not talking about the investment environment here. These all come impressions from the city. And these impressions become all the more extraordinary because of the utter absence of brands that are commonly found crammed in other capitals.
No affordable housing in Minsk. You should have seen the faces of some Europeans when I told them a while ago that there was only one hostel in the Belarusian megalopolis. All other visitors to the capital stay in either the hotel Europe or Crowne Plaza where you have to pay for a night the same amount that an average bargain traveller can expect to spend in Eastern Europe in a week.
No migrants. Despite the fact that in these latter days you see lovely Chinese faces in the downtown with an ever increasing frequency, these are still isolated incidents. What is happening in Moscow with migrants from the Caucasus or in Western Europe with Muslims from the Middle East is not happening in Minsk and is never expected to happen. It may be that we have too low of an income level or tough immigration laws or too many police.
No squatting — such as the abandoned buildings that are spontaneously colonised by homeless (such as the famous 12 Pushkinskaya Str. in Sankt-Petersburg or Tacheles in Berlin). Vagrants in the CIS have an anecdote: if you ended up in Minsk without a place to crash and some money, you should not look for old abandoned buildings (there are none) but rather for unfinished newly-built buildings (of which there are plenty).
And here is another very strange trifle: in any city of the world there is an "observation point", a place from where you can look over the city centre. Let's recall the "pendulum tower" in Vilnius, the Galata Tower in Istanbul, the television tower in Berlin, and the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
You won't see the centre from above in Minsk! Before, there was a sub-celestial restaurant in the hotel Belarus, but it was closed down together with the hotel. The sky deck on the National Library, first, is not that high and, second, it is not in the centre, to put it mildly. Though, it would be nice to understand what the "centre of Minsk" actually is, where it begins and where it ends (yet another particularity of our city).
I'd like to point out that all said is not about what’s wrong with Minsk? but about what’s so special about it? In a globalised world, to find a city that is not like the others is a great miracle. Let's be proud of living in it!
Originally published in Belarusian on budzma.by