Mean Streets of Minsk – Street Photography on Belarus Independence Day

soviet architecture minsk
Soviet-era architecture, Minsk, Belarus : “House of Fashion” – architect Vasilizh Iosifovich Gerashenko, 1962-1967 -featuring the sculpted relief “Solidarity” by Anatol Yafimovich Arcimovich.

T hese 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.

 

sovmod architecture minsk belarus
One of the finest examples of Soviet Modernist architecture – ‘BelExpo’ Pavilion of International Exhibitions, Leonard Moskalevich, 1988, Minsk, Belarus.
minsk metro interior
Passengers on the Soviet-era metro system of Minsk, Belarus.
belarus national day minsk
Belarus Independence Day, Minsk.Celebrated on July 3rd each year to commemorate the date that Belarus was liberated from the Nazi’s in 1944 – not the date that Belarus became an independent nation.

 

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 street photography
Independence Day, July 3rd 2018, Minsk, Belarus.
soviet metro station minsk
Interior of Lenin Square metro station, Minsk. After Belarus separated from the Soviet Union in 1992, this station was renamed “Independence Square”. In 2003, the decision was made to again rename the station, to celebrate Vladimir Lenin, communist revolutionary and former leader of the Soviet Union.
minsk wolf man
Downtown Minsk, Belarus.
axl rose minsk belarus
Axl Rose, American singer and songwriter, Belarus Independence Day parade July 3rd 2018, Minsk.
minsk tour belarus
Celebrating Belarus Independence Day, Minsk, 2018.
minsk tourist attraction
Svislach River, central Minsk, Belarus.
street walk minsk
It’s hard to do justice to a city like Minsk with just the words of a brief dispatch. The photos I normally see of Minsk, are mostly of the Soviet-era legacy, and the Soviet-era architecture. I know street-style photos aren’t to everyone’s liking, but as with most places around the world, it’s the local people that have the biggest impact on the experience of any tourist. So, I wanted to show you, the reader, some of the regular people who live in Minsk. I’d also like to thank the people of Minsk for treating me so kindly. I’ll be back.
metro interior minsk
On May 30th, 1999, thunderstorms, rock and roll music, and young people, lethally combined – resulting in a stampede that caused the deaths of fifty-four, and injured more than one-hundred, here at Nemiga metro station in Minsk, Belarus.
minsk flea market
Daytime temperatures during Winter in Minsk can reach down to minus forty degrees.
minsk stalinist architecture
A bus passes in front of the “Gates of Minsk”, a grand Stalinist architectural project located opposite the main city train station.
minsk train station
Market outside the bustling Stantsiya Minsk-Passazhirskiy, the main train station of Minsk, Belarus.
belarus national day parade
Independence Day, Minsk, Belarus.
minsk moscow cinema interior
Inside the Soviet-modernist “Moscow” cinema: architects Viktor Kramarenko, Mikhail Vinogradov, and Vladimir Shcherbina, 1980, Minsk.
national day belarus minsk
Palace of Independence, Minsk, Belarus. Architect Uladzimir Archanhielski, 2013. On completion, President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko said; “this is a visual demonstration that Belarus is a country that has everything: the land, the coat-of-arms, and this Independence Palace, and other things too”.
parade national day minsk
Independence Day Parade, Minsk, Belarus.

 

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.

Nate

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. Finally, pop your email address in here and I’ll send you the next post from somewhere random (one click unsubscribe, no spam ever)… it’s the easiest way for us to stay in touch. Cheers.

 

 

18 thoughts on “Mean Streets of Minsk – Street Photography on Belarus Independence Day

  1. Nate,

    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

    Be well
    Laurence

    1. 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!
      Nate

      1. Nate,
        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!

        Be well
        Laurence

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

    Best,
    Peter

  4. Great post – I did like how everyone looked so happy and enthusiastic in the pics…well the Chinese tourists anyway :-\

  5. 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!

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