Days 9-10: From Moscow to Minsk (the rude awakening)

As I write this, we’re driving through the piney forests of Latvia, up the coast of the Baltic Sea. We’ve said goodbye to Riga, Latvia, and now it’s onwards and upwards to our final Baltic capital — Tallinn, Estonia.

Seeing as I have about four hours to kill while bumping along on a bus, I’ll take this time to pick up where I left off. As you might deduce from my love letters to Russia (a two-part ode to St. Petersburg and Moscow), there’s a special place in my heart that no other country can ever take, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy what the other countries on our tour have to offer.

Clearly we're not in Moscow anymore. This was taken while driving along the pancake-flat fields of Belarus.
Clearly we’re not in Moscow anymore. This was taken while driving along the pancake-flat fields of Belarus.

From Moscow, we bid farewell (a tearful one on my part) to the beautiful country of Russia. Nine hours and about 720 kilometres later, we made our way down to the capital of Belarus.

Belarus is full of state farms. Some are privately owned now, but back in Soviet days, this was all collectively farmed land.
Belarus is full of state farms. Some are privately owned now, but back in Soviet days, this was all collectively farmed land.

Fun fact: Belarus directly translates into “White Russia.” (“Beliy” is “white” in Russian.) Some say it’s because the Belarussians have lighter complexions (I didn’t notice this when we were there). Others say it’s because the birch tree (with bright white bark that peels off in sheets) is the national tree of Belarus. I tend to side with the latter explanation.

Minsk — and I’d venture to say Belarus as a whole — isn’t a popular tourist destination. When I told people I’d be stopping there for a couple of days, the general reaction was, “But why?! What’s in Minsk?” I didn’t know … but I was about to find out.

We spent two days in Minsk, which in my humble opinion is plenty long enough. Going from Moscow to Minsk is — shall we say — a most sobering experience.

Here's the last Lenin statue remaining in Minsk. You can find him -- fittingly -- in Lenin Square.
Here’s the last Lenin statue remaining in Minsk. You can find him — fittingly — in Lenin Square.

Minsk is exactly what I pictured a former Soviet state to look like — grey, plain and somber. In its defence, Minsk has a pretty sad history. It’s played host to several ugly battles simply because of its strategic geographic location. Most of the buildings are only about 50 years old since many didn’t survive WWII.

Still in Lenin Square, but further away from the Lenin statue, things start to look a little more lively, but this is really the extent of it.
Still in Lenin Square, but further away from the Lenin statue, things start to look a little more lively, but this is really the extent of it.

Maybe it’s because Minsk doesn’t get a lot of tourists, but I found people are a lot more serious. Not many have the patience for tourists. I tried English and broken Russian, which served me well in St. Petersburg and Moscow, but all I got in Minsk were cold stares.

As an example of how sombre this city feels, this is the memorial on what's called the Island of Tears. This is the memorial on the Island of Tears. The Communist Party tried to cover up how many soldiers they lost in the Soviet war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. This memorial was commissioned by widows and mothers to ensure their soldiers were never forgotten.
As an example of how sombre this city feels, this is the memorial on what’s called the Island of Tears. This is the memorial on the Island of Tears. The Communist Party tried to cover up how many soldiers they lost in the Soviet war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. This memorial was commissioned by widows and mothers to ensure their soldiers were never forgotten. See? SAD.
This is an angel found on the Island of the Tears. He's weeping because he was unable to protect the soldiers who went off to war. The statue actually cries! (It's hooked up to a fountain.)
This is an angel found on the Island of the Tears. He’s weeping because he was unable to protect the soldiers who went off to war. The statue actually cries! (It’s hooked up to a fountain.)

That being said, the absolute highlight of Minsk was an evening we spent in the countryside, about an hour’s drive outside of Minsk. And when I say countryside, I mean dusty dirt roads, rolling hills and smack in the middle of it is Anatoly and his family. Not only did they feed us a wonderfully generous dinner made completely with veggies and sausages they make themselves, but they also had a family band to serenade us with lively folk songs in Belarussian and Russian (and even the occasional English tune).

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What a talented family. They were incredibly warm and welcoming. Maybe the rest of Belarus is like this, but you really have to get to know the people better.

So I guess I stand corrected. Belarus is not Russia. It is neither as grand nor as colourful, but Minsk does have its own beauty. You just have to look for it.

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