Mean Streets of Minsk – Street Photography on Belarus Independence Day
These days, most foreigners are welcome to enter and observe the formerly mysterious Republic of Belarus. Citizens on the official list of acceptable nationalities receive a visa on arrival at Minsk National Airport. This involves only a brief interrogation, with at least two smartly dressed government representatives. Then you’re free to wander around Minsk, the spotless capital city, with almost the same level of restricted freedom and Soviet-era comfort that’s mandatory for all Belarusian citizens.
Trying to make sense of Minsk, you may conclude it’s quite nice, and that Europe’s last dictatorship makes for a surprisingly on-trend weekend escape in a quirky kind of way. Or, that Minsk is mysterious and surreal, a strange post-Soviet city, where everyone lives inside a hellish collective nightmare and you just can’t seem to awaken them. Both opinions would be correct.
Either way, for the casual tourist Minsk is wondrous. There aren’t many cities where such a jarring juxtaposition of experiences can occur. One moment, you’re walking along mostly empty downtown streets, bathed in the geometric shadows of an imposing collection of Soviet-era architecture, watching Chinese business tourists take selfies in front of Lenin statues, and wondering why the KGB still exists here.
Then, you’re inside a classical eighteenth-century building, constructed in the nineteen-eighties. Sipping a strawberry daiquiri from a Polynesian Tiki mug decorated with pink umbrellas, you notice the smoke, wafting from a miniature marijuana-cigarette, a little treat the bar person carefully pegged to the rim of your cocktail. You’ve swapped the grim shadows of Soviet-modernist architecture, for the dappled multi-coloured glow of a Ukulele-playing Hawaiian-girl in the form of a neon light. And now, you’re peering through the grassy decorations of an indoor thatched-roof hut, wondering why that guy in the ill-fitting suit, wearing an earpiece and dark sunglasses, is standing alone at the bar speaking into his collar.
This is Minsk, and that’s the most sense it will ever make.
Exactly one year ago today, I wrote about my first erotic journey to Minsk. Following in the footsteps of Rochelle Rochelle, the idiosyncratic capital city quickly became one of my favourite destinations in the former USSR. However, soon after leaving I was devastated to discover I missed, by only one day, the Belarus Independence Day parade.
Back in Kiev, through damp eyes, I watched the parade from afar. Highlights included made-in-Belarus tractors dressed with top-hats and adorned with giant cardboard mustaches, performing synchronised tractor-ballet, followed by a convoy of flatbed trucks proudly displaying processed meat-products and made-in-Belarus toilet bowels. Realising that Soviet-era parades are still very much a thing in 21st-century Belarus, I vowed to return.
Belarus Independence Day is the busiest and most nationalist day of the year. From early morning in Minsk, large queues are formed on the normally off-limits grass. For your own safety, security forces will thoroughly examine everything you’re carrying, check for explosive residue on your sleeves, pat you down (separate aisles for men and women), and wave you through with a hand-held metal detector.
Entering the designated celebration zone, you’ll be permitted to view the parade strictly on one side of the street only, and constantly told to stand back from the guardrail an arbitrary distance by one of the many security personnel. It’s an understandable set of necessary inconveniences, to be able to witness the world’s last, and only, tractor-ballet.
Sadly, this year there were no tractors. No meat-trucks. Not even any made-in-Belarus toilet displays. Everything had been replaced with a scarily modern display of high-tech missiles, machine guns, tanks, anti-aircraft systems, weaponised drones, jeeps, soldiers, and all sorts of armored vehicles and military hardware. The enormity of the parade rumbling through the city center was genuinely impressive.
Even better, was seeing the smiling faces and happy eyes of the local Minsk children, quietly cheering and waving little Belarus flags, as the parade of weaponry purely designed to cause unspeakable horrors, gruesome death, and the loss of innocent lives, rolled on by.
Minsk citizens may be restricted from walking on the grass in city parks, a bottle of water can be difficult to come by in the city center, and you’ll never ever see anyone cross the road on a red light. For a population of two million people, Minsk is often disconcertingly quiet, and it’s clean to the point of sterility. However, there is no denying that Minsk is a fascinating city, especially on Belarus Independence Day.
On each visit to Minsk, I’ve been randomly approached by locals who are eager to just have a chat and speak with any tourists – of which there are few. There aren’t many places left in Europe where that still happens, and it’s probably the best way of getting to know a place.
But, after two visits, I feel like I have no idea about this city at all.
And so, I’m going to return to Minsk, soon, and hopefully for longer next time.
PS, for continuity, after spending three months in Iran, I travelled to the Persian Gulf, Dubai, Ashgabat, and Minsk, and I’m currently in Kiev, Ukraine.
PPS, just a few seats remain for next years 2019 Yomadic tours through Iran and Chernobyl/Ukraine (sorry, 2018 is completely sold out). These tours are incredibly popular, and numbers are intentionally limited. I’d love for you to come along, and make sure to bring your camera.
34 thoughts on “Mean Streets of Minsk – Street Photography on Belarus Independence Day”
Always a treat when one of your dispatches hits the inbox!
Thanks Gringo, my pleasure to send them to you.
Bang-up article Nate. Good luck on your travels and stay Safe.
Cheers Mike, much appreciated.
Hope all is well with you and your’s. I look at these Eastern European spots you spend time in and wonder, do you ever go into the art galleries. Are there any that you have seen and can get photos of what is current and historical. Just want to see what they are producing. Political, societal, whimsical.
You can sometimes get a feel of the world through artists work. Unless there is a draconian imposed art structure in place
Hi Laurence! All is well here, I really can’t complain.
I do occasionally visit galleries – the last real job I had was actually managing/curating an art gallery. Agree with your comments, it’s a great way to get a feel of a place – the tricky bit is finding out about the contemporary/underground/pop-up style galleries, featuring those artists who work right on the cutting edge of things. But I do my best…
Cheers, hope you’re well!
Cancer sucks, but to tell you the truth. The off target affects of immunotherapy, at least for me, is and are worse. And be in my third act of life. Well that is a bother.
Keep up and keep posting!
Hey Laurence, yes indeed, cancer does suck. People I know very dearly, the closest people to me, have also been affected. Stay strong brother.
OT, but in your realm of great architecture photography, this link:
If you already know of it, sorry to be redundant. If not, maybe submit your work to them?
Cheers Laurence, very familiar with that website, great stuff indeed.
Just a heads up:
The journey thru cancer has hit a milestone, it seems my immunotherapy has worked in removing a melanoma tumor ( metastasized) as if It was never there, long journey ahead with off target affects I won’t bore you with
Head up, eyes focused on the horizon
Nate, I’ve been a long time reader and have enjoyed your posts throughout the years. Your ability to get across the nature of a place with your photography and words is inspiring, educational, and enlightening. Many times your posts have prompted me to seek out additional information about a place in order to learn more. Thank you.
Thanks Kijo, that’s a really nice compliment, and exactly what I’m trying to achieve here – just to spark a little curiosity about the world…
Hi Nate, Great post! I reached out a few weeks to see if you wanted to meet up in Kyiv. I’d love to take you out for a coffee or whatever and chat. I produce a lot of content from Ukraine and I really like your style and think we have some common ground.
It’s rarely that I come across someone with your mindset, so I’d love a conversation if you have any time. And if you don’t, I completely understand.
Again, great posts on the world that touch at a very human level. It’s harder to find this kind of content these days.
Thanks Peter! So yes, we will be meeting, and I look forward to it…
Great post – I did like how everyone looked so happy and enthusiastic in the pics…well the Chinese tourists anyway :-\
haha nicely spotted Kevin ;)
Fine photos and report as ever Nate! It’s your subtle and dry texts that always do it for me….the “bustling” main railway station hit the literary spot!
Btw, that market in the photo advertises “products” for sale in its window message – couldn’t be more precise. Will definitely go shopping there when I visit!
Hey Alex, how are you mate!
Yes, products are very popular in Belarus, indeed all throughout the former Soviet Union… ;)
Slick words mate. Slick photos. Slick city.
Cheers Slick Han!
Looks like a street photographers dream there
Hey Richie! Yes, it really is…
Over and over I have looked at the Belarus photos . . . they bring back so many memories of my twelve trips to Russia and ours to Macedonia & Albania. I continue to travel with Asia as a main destination. Tanzania is next. My books are now available at ISSUU for a free download:
I still hope to connect again with you and Phillipa. Cheers, Bart
I’m hoping we cross paths as well Bart!
Completely strange reason or fact on celebrating the independence day. So far I guess, Belarus is the only country which celebrates its this way. Stay Safe and Enjoy your journey as well.
Great article. The city really does lend itself to unique photos, the architecture and the people! Thank you for a peak into a city that is such a contrast from western cities.
STOP LYING.TEMPERATURES IN MINSK NEVER REACH MINUS FORTY DEGREES IN WINTER.
WELL TELL ME WHAT NUMBER TO CHANGE IT TO AND I MIGHT BUT PROBABLY NOT.
Soviet-era legacy, and the Soviet-era architecture.This is the story of all the countries that were part of the USSR. Therefore, this does not surprise me! Thanks for the review. People in your photos are so gloomy)…
Nice pictures. You should mention that there is no pandemic, it’s all fake. they created the “virus’ in a lab. It’s abio weapon as well as the so-called “vaccines” who are killing tens of thousands and harming millions.
But great site
Love the candid portraits! Felt like I was walking the streets.