back to the future
D saw very little of the USSR during the ten years he lived in Moscow. Most people didn’t travel much around the Soviet Union. D vaguely recalls a trip to the Black Sea and a visit to St. Petersburg (then Leningrad). Thanks to his work, D now has set foot in five of the former Soviet Republics in the last few years: Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, and most recently Belarus and Lithuania*.
The visit to Minsk, the capital of Europe’s self-styled “last dictatorship,” was steeped in cognitive dissonance for D, whose fuzzy memories of his childhood did not map neatly onto contemporary reality. Lenin statues still abound, for example, but they share space with graffiti-covered hipster cafes, iPhone stores, and Western fast food chains. The country’s first McDonald’s, in fact, sits proudly on the corner of Lenin Street and Independence Boulevard.
The WWII museum, which still flies the Soviet flag and is a point of pride for a city that was designated with hero status on account of Minsk’s partisan resistance movement, is a popular hangout for mohawked skateboarders. Minsk was razed during the war, with only about two dozen buildings surviving the Nazi occupation and subsequent recapture by the Red Army. The city was completely rebuilt and vastly expanded, and now reflects the clash of two epochs: Stalin-era buildings rubbing shoulders with modern-day construction.
Minsk is home to at least 15 universities and approximately a dozen research centers, and its wide boulevards and clean streets were filled with young people behaving exactly as one would expect young people to behave in any major city in the world: strolling arm-in-arm along the waterfront, hanging out in malls, scrolling through social media feeds on smartphones.
It’s hard to reconcile these ordinary manifestations of modern living with the vestiges of the country’s socialist past. For example, an article printed in a local paper during D’s visit extolled the accomplishments of an army regiment that had been dispatched to pick potatoes over the weekend. Being sent to harvest potatoes, of course, is about as visceral a hallmark of what life was like in the Soviet Union as one can imagine.
At the end of a workweek of meetings, D took the train to Vilnius, a mere two-and-a-half hours away. To cross the land border with the European Union in either direction one needs a visa. However, as of August it is now possible to visit Belarus visa-free, so long as one flies into and out of Minsk and stays no more than 30 days. Caught between East and West, both geographically and metaphysically, Belarus is certainly worth a visit.
*The four hours D spent in Vilnius for work meetings wouldn’t count as a country visit, according to our criteria.