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Belarus: Minsk and Dudutki, September 2000
This story is the second one in the year 2000 pack that tells about places far away from Moscow. No, I am not going to betray the initial goal of showing you the life of a Muscovite. But fortunately the life sometimes brings us to distant destinations. Once these trips were a part of vacations, and a few years ago I was telling about Karelia, the land of empty roads, that a group of Muscovites visited on a backpacking adventure in the Russian North.
Now, surprisingly, I could have used the same title, Empty Roads, for the story of a short business trip to Belarus. The country is one of the independent states, a former Soviet Republic, that has got sovereignty after the USSR fell apart in 1991. This one, though it has borders with both Russia and Ukraine, is seriously different from either of the two. I told you about Ukraine approximately a month ago on the these pages, and now am ready to offer a few pictures of Belarus.
The title of the story may sound strange, but believe me it does make sense. In the mail I receive from the visitors of Moscow Life site, now and then I read letters full of nostalgic memories. The authors compare the visits to Russia (or even the USSR) several years ago and recent experiences in our country. They often say that now Russia lacks some of its attractive differences; the life in big Russian cities becomes too much westernized, and sitting in a Moscow office or a Moscow restaurant it is getting difficult to tell where in the world you actually are.
Visiting Belarus brings you back in time. I am not sure that many foreigners are ready to take all the risks of such a trip, because Belarus in no way may be considered a visitor-friendly country. That is why I offer you a virtual tour, a few selected photos of Minsk and the countryside around. Enjoy - and refresh your memories of the USSR...
As always in my stories here, you can zoom in on any picture. Just click on an image and a larger and better quality photo will open. Many of the photos are worth looking at in postcard size.
Late September in Belarus - like in Moscow - is the time of beauty, of leaves changing colors, of emerald green of winter crops, of pale and hazy skies. Riding the roads near Minsk is like watching an SF movie about New Hampshire after neutron bomb attack - or some other fantastic plague that kills people with no damage to anything else. Only on the highway leading to Moscow (it connects Moscow with Eastern Europe) traffic is a bit heavier, but the license plates on the vehicles mostly do not belong to Belarus.
Small surprise. The country has an average salary well below $100, but a gallon of gas costs $2. That's why horses are usual even in the streets, and quite frequent in the fields (on a small private patches of land in particular, mini-tractors are still a luxury here). It all looks like a dream of a Greenpeace activist - but I would not say I like it.
We were staying in IBB Minsk, International Education and Meeting Center built by Germans as a facility supposed to help European integration. Unlike modern business centers in Moscow, this one in Minsk looks like an UFO. From the windows of our rooms on Saturday morning we were watching patches of small vegetable gardens starting right where the Center lawns ended. A skinny horse dragging the plow - with standard concrete apartment blocks in the background was an unusual sight, but perhaps just the right one for European visitors normally staying in IBB, a reminder of where they are.
Minsk was severely damaged, in many areas completely destroyed during the WW II. Only a few really old buildings survived, and the center of the city - almost like Moscow - looks like a strange mixture of almost faceless modern buildings, a few cozy old houses, and a large Roman Catholic Church in the middle of the city is definitely an outstanding sight.
A new chapel built in memory of Belarus soldiers and officers killed in Afghanistan war - almost like a grave of Unknown Soldier in Moscow - became a memorial place traditionally visited by newly married couples. One of the most inspiring sights is that of young men carrying their brides across the bridge to the chapel.
Still, compared to Moscow, St. Petersburg or Kiev, Minsk offers less for sightseeing - though some observations in the streets may be a bit funny - or sad, depending on the viewpoint. There is an area in the downtown Minsk similar to Arbat or Izmailvo Vernisage in Moscow where one can buy all sorts of hand-made local souvenirs.
The tables are full of matreshkas (nested dolls) - and like in Moscow too - they are not only painted traditionally, but also have drawings of modern celebrities. Quite a few carry Putin's images - and obviously being in the capital of Belarus I asked about ones with Lukashenko's, President of Belarus, images. Reaction was quite inadequate for me - salespersons immediately looked truly frightened. Later I was told that Belorus is not a place where any jokes about authorities are permitted. I promised you time travel - here it is, in Belarus you are like in old communist USSR, where a joke could cost a visa for a foreigner and freedom, for a local. Good old police state where people are afraid of speaking and joking aloud - if you have never seen one before, visit Belarus while Lukashenko is still in power.
On the other hand, some examples of local humor I found slightly weird. Belarus suffered seriously from infamous Chernobyl accident in 1986, and nuclear power plants supposedly are not among most favorite or trusted facilities here. Still, guess what is the name of a popular night club in Minsk? The name is "The Reactor" and the decorations are based on radiation hazard signs. I wonder, is there an "A-Bomb" club in Hiroshima? Anyway, the service and food are good even if the music is way too loud.
But enough of Minsk! On a weekend in the middle of Indian summer we better go out of the city - and our generous guests are ready to spend some expensive gas to bring us to Dudutki, a fabulous museum of folk art and craftsmanship. Empty roads winding through spectacular colorful groves and neat fields add to the mood of fall melancholy. (By the way, about the neat fields. Not much flies above Belarus. The picture of an empty airfield of a huge international airport that opens this story is typical. Poor country with very few international contacts can hardly generate much air traffic. But people say there is a helicopter that everyone knows. All the farmland belongs to the state and every farm master is completely controlled by the central authorities. The President likes to fly and watch the land from his helicopter, and if he observes what he does not like, that means immediate end of career for a local boss. Some people say that efficiency of that method proves that ultimate state control is better than any market...)
The asphalt keeps getting narrower and finally turns into a dirt road that comes up to the gate of a museum. Inside you will find amazing example of living history - alas, there is nothing comparable in Russia. A paradise for the city kids, horse rides and a chance to feed the horses, real blacksmith house with blacksmiths at work, a pottery where you can try sitting at a real potter's wheel and feel the clay spinning under your fingers.
And the place offers fantastic food and drinks. In the bushes by the museum the guides will show you a small hand-made distillery - yes, this of course is a traditional folk skill, but very few places preserve it in a museum and offer the products to visitors. Of course it is strictly legal here, the museum holds a license for traditional liquor production in small quantities. The guides will offer you prickled cucumbers with honey - you won't believe it, but that strange combination will go wonderful with local moonshine vodka, samogon. Later in a small restaurant you will taste cheese and bread made also at the museum. This meal is worth a trip from Moscow!
Again, you will find yourself inside a time machine, but now taken so much deeper into the past. Into the times of live music, real food, and physical labor. But even then sometimes the power of elements was required for certain tasks. Windmills are great examples, no modern power plants harnessing the winds to generate electricity look as natural and time-resistant. Alas, sometimes the winds can damage their own friends, and the windmill at Dudutki lost its wings in the storm of the last spring. With its very thin flow of visitors, museum has no funds to pay for repair work. Hopefully, next year...
...One more hour of almost empty lonely roads takes you back from the fragrant haystacks of Dudutki to the international airport, looking abandoned and a bit out of time in the silent woods. Another hour - and we are back to Moscow, my camera ready for taking pictures for the next story of October that will follow soon...
Andrey - firstname.lastname@example.org
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