I never had a chance to visit Belarus before. My recent interest for this country was additionally fueled by the constantly negative mass-media reporting on Belarus during last few years. This trend is common for both Russian and Western media; and I also noticed the absence of any meaningful information like documentaries and such. And as it happens all the time, this negative coverage doesn't match at all with what real people from Belarus tell about. The idea to visit Belarus' capital Minsk was especially timely during the celebration of V-Day (May 7-10). We all remember how much people of Belarus contributed toward the victory in WWII, when Belarus was still a part of USSR. This is for sure our common celebration.
It took us almost 12 hours to drive from St. Petersburg to Minsk. In lieu of foreword I will describe the road, and Belarus villages and small towns along it. And I will be making comparisons with their Russian counterparts, of course.
There was no fee for crossing the Russian border. But they required to pay for automobile insurance and toll for that (awful!) roadway.
Soon after border-crossing we noticed the first differences: houses and huts are more orderly; the fences are often freshly-painted. There are occasional stones like this one, with pictures and "Save the forest" signs.
Roads here are almost of European standard, especially when you compare them to the Russian ones. Practically everywhere are normal asphalt, road markers and signs. Bus stops are in good condition in each village: clean, freshly-painted, and even with a garbage bin (!).
We repeatedly met various agricultural machines, tractors hauling assorted goodies, and just in general everything looked bustling with an activity. So unlike the St. Petersburg's environs.
Along the highway there is an amazing variety of rest stops: with perches, sheds, and benches. Sometimes even with little huts. They are all colorful and -- again! -- are freshly-painted and not in disrepair.
You can see lots of new roads construction, and widening of the old ones. And it seems they have built enough road junctions already.
Quite often we noticed the cottage developments like this one.
Small towns here if not look very prosperous, but are certainly more decent than their Russian twins.
In the meantime we've arrived to Minsk. Let me remind you that though Minsk is old city -- it was reportedly destroyed first time in the year 1067 -- but because it was completely wiped out during WWII, the whole city is newly rebuilt afterwards.
The photo shows the central avenue: F.Skorina Prospekt. Most of the center is in Stalin Empire style. The Prospekt is considerably wide, almost as wide as Moscow Prospekt is in St.Petersburg.
Belarus is preparing to celebrate the Victory Day, which explains all these banners and memorial posters.
Minsk’s Coat of Arms. Rather strange-looking, I'd say.
We drove and walked many areas in Minsk. The general impression is that they stopped Perestroika on time, and converted its destructive process into constructive one. That was never done in Russia and in Ukraine.
Yes of course they have market economy here. But it sure looks different from its Russian version. Large and small factories are operational, science institutions are too. For us it was surprising to walk late at night and see night lighting in the factory floors. The public transit goes on schedule. Street lighting is fine.
You can constantly feel that most processes in Belarus society and economy are not running free-fall, but been controlled and directed. It could be seen in so many everyday details. And I will talk about it further.
The Palace of the Republic.
The 60th anniversary of V-Day gala was performed here.
Folk songs and dances.
Regarding various national symbols, traditions and alike: the government seems to deal with it very competently and in calculated way. It prevents a customary opposition's moves along the lines of "national pride", "independence", etc. Ukraine government had failed to do the same, and its opposition won.
Oh, I just recalled about the mobile phone operators. Judging from the ads, there are at least 3 of them. Most pervasive is one called VELCOM.
From my observations people do use mobile phones widely and frequently.
The same city square: paintings sale.
The shopkeeper asked me to mention that this particular cat is the actual hostess of the Minsk's show :)
T-34, the best battle tank of WWII.
It's not somebody's mansion, but just a public restroom. St. Petersburg' readers could wonder how come it wasn't converted to a restaurant? But for Minsk it's not unusual, and public restrooms are plentiful in this city, or at least in its central part.
Military Officer's Hall
The subway in Minsk has about 25 stations. Most of them are in the center. It's not very deep underground, and the tunnels were built as "trenches". Therefore the interior design isn't as rich as Moscow or St. Petersburg underground transit. But still it's more similar to Moscow. Cars are made in Russian factories in St. Petersburg and Mytischi. And they are even painted the same way as ours. Even the amount of ads is almost the same. Here you see the very common type of subway entrance: combined with the underground street crossing. They were constructed in recent years, and they fit very badly to the surrounding architecture.
Fare is paid with either magnetic card or token. The latter are plastic with metal embeddings. Oddly enough, the ticket gates display the current time. On the train the next stations are announced in Belarusian.
You can snap pictures inside subway, unlike in Russia. I'm not quite sure if rules allow it, but I just asked patrolmen, and they said OK.
The construction was completed just recently, after it was going on for almost 20 years, I was told. Here's example of rather uncharacteristic for Minsk building, similar to the style of those subway entrances. Looks like just another carbon copy from a contemporary European designs. We have them around us (in Russia) all the time, but in Belarus it's more of an exception.
Arches at the stadium.
The number of posters and banners for 60th anniversary of V-Day is really huge. They are everywhere: in windows of every office, cafe or enterprise. And remarkably, there is enormous variety of them.
Government Hall at Independence Square.
This square is being reshaped currently: there going to be the underground shopping and entertaining center. But more important is that they redesign the facades facing the square, creating the unified look of it. I bought the magazine "Architecture and Construction" (www.ais.by) at the newsstand, and was impressed by the prevailing attitude.
The articles confirm what one could merely observe around: style and ensemble are indeed valuable for architects and customers alike. Or, more likely, it's important for the regulation bodies.
As I learned later, the UNESCO almost had proclaimed the center of Minsk to be the largest unified-style architectural complex, but those covered subway entrances spoiled the whole thing.
Now, about the mass-media outlets. There are 4 or 5 TV channels available plus few Russian ones. For example, RTR. Local OHT channel is very similar visually to our ORT, and perhaps it's not a coincidence.
TV stops at around 1am. Of course, there are newspapers & magazines politically in the opposition to the government.
One time we’ve bought a paper "Narodnaya Volya" ("People's Will"), which wasn't really original at all, but instead is very similar to our "SPS" or "Yabloko". They demand freedom for political prisoners, calling Lukashenko "the first" president, implying illegitimacy of his current presidency, etc. We saw “Belarus Today", the English-language paper like "St. Petersburg Times" or "Moscow Times", even with the reprinted articles from them.
I simply point to the availability of such sources. I would call the tone of the official media 'optimistic and mellow'.
Needles to say this place is considerably to the south from St. Petersburg. It's still too early for us to even have grass, but here everything is green and some trees are in blossoms already.
Here they paint the edges of sidewalks and tree-trunks in white -- and for me this is unmistaken sign of a southern culture.
The Academy of Science Building.
Have you noticed these shiny rails? I've seen them everywhere: in subway, and at the entrances of restaurants and other private enterprises. I was told it's an official requirement for any new construction or remodeling. The same way in a small town 50km from Minsk
I saw a row of ordinary single-family houses, obviously built by different owners. But the picket fence was the same for them all. I was told that local government supplied it free of charge, even helping seniors with the installation.
All that just to have a better look of the few central streets. I guess such actions speak loudly.
Even though the Academy of Science building was erected in Stalin Empire style, too, it seems much more modern because of its light color. It is really nice (pre-war) building.
Very few large buildings survived the war: Government Hall, Military Officers Hall, and Opera House.
Across the street: Pediatrics Cardiology center. Contemporary.
Adjacent to it there is the older building of General Hospital, but their styles match just fine.
Stalin Empire style again, but with obvious folk elements of decor.
There are two official languages: Belarusian and Russian.
Most of street signage is bi-lingual. People, especially in cities, converse mostly in Russian.
Sometimes you can distinguish local dialect, sometimes not. TV is constantly in Russian.
In general the language preference seems to be a non-issue here.
In the next album we will have a chance to observe some contemporary buildings in Minsk.