At the begining of new 2015, wanting to extend a little the holiday time, we decided to visit Minsk. Belarus is an orthodox country and celebrates Christmas according to Julian calendar. The difference between it and Georgian one is 13 days. So when the western countries already said goodbye to good old Santa Claus, Christmas is still to come in Belarus and this special mood is still in the air. Minsk streets were beautifuly decorated with lights and Father Frost was waiting for kids.
Minsk is the capital city of Belarus. It has the population of almost 2 milion people, which is 20% of the whole country. Belarus itself is not big (it covers around 200 000 square km) and rather flat – the highest point of the country is only 324 meters high Dzayrzhynsk Hill. So one thing is pretty clear – we will not rather go climbing to Belarus.
Belarus used to be a part of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth; its modern history started in 1991 when the country was established. Belarussian sovereignty was not so obvious: in national referendum in 1990 83% of Belarusians voted for remaining in USSR. Regardless the result Belarus became an independent country maintaining however close relationship with Russia. Until today Belarusian identity has been a problematic issue. Russian language is next to Belarusian an official one. Vast majority of people use Russian in their everyday life. National Belarusian music, language and art are not well perceived. Some say they are prohibited reminding that Belarus is has not became a democratic country. What is interesting it’s mostly youth who emphasize their nationality and oppose totalitarian rule of president. But it’s a topic for a whole other story.
Minsk is a developing city. When we approached it from the west side we saw nothing but construction sites, huge apartment buildings growing to the sky. It must be some general Belarusian way of building because the city is full of such huge structures of countless apartments. They are characteristic for the city lanscape.
Main artery of the city is Independence Avenue which is an excelent example of soviet style architecture. It starts with Independence Square with its main decoration – standing a little to the side a statue of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov – Lenin, revolutionary leader, head of Council of People’s Commissars of the Soviet Union.
Behind his back, making kind of a background to his figure, there is a monumental Government House (Dom Urada) from the 30. of 19th century. Today this structure built in constructivism style is the house of Belarusian Parliament.
On the same square there is Belarusian State Pedagogical University, which facade is usually used for hanging banners celebrating different occasions like New Year now or Victory Day on 9th oh May.
In the square we will also find another distinctive building – Neo-Romanesque church of Saint Simon and Helena. This is a catholic church built at the begining of 19th century withe the participation of Polish designers and suppliers. Through its history besides its natural sacral function, the church has been a theater and cinema. Since 1990 it’s been again a catholic temple.
Square hides another interesting object. Literally hides because underneath the plaza there is a 3 storey shopping mall with multi level parkings as well. A solution known also for example from Kiev – very sensible and practical. Walking through the square, not knowing what is below, one will not even suspect walking on the roof of shopping center.
Number 17 is the Belarusian KGB headquaters, previously the State Security Comitee, today national intelligence agency still keeping this infamous name. A symetrical building with four Coryntian column portico has one specific element – an additionl booth on top of right hand side of the building. It was probably built especialy on request of chief of KGB.
On the other side of the street we come accross the bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of KGB’s predecessor – Cheka, famous for its cruelty and ruthlessness.
Heading down the avenue, we pass still functioning the symbol of past times GUM – the central department store. Open in 1951, is still functioning in the same decor contrasting with other shopping malls of Minsk. Worth visiting to get back in time and imagine crowds of Belarusians in fur caps queing for different hardly available commodities. By the way – furs are still much in vouge in Belarus.
A little further on the corner of Independence Avenue and Lenin Street we find a symbol of alleged opening country to the west – Mc Donald’s restaurant. Passing this sanctuary of western lifestyle we reach October Square. Main object on the square is monumnetal Palace of the Republic. It offers space for concerts, political events, meetings , congresses, exhibitions and so on. This huge building finished in 2001 is a pride of Minsk. Although it declares to provide excursions to visitorsthey wanted us buy a ticket for some event to get inside.
On the same square there is Palace of Culture of Trade Unions at this time of the year wishing citizens happy New Year. Since it’s the time just before Orthodox Christmas right at the Palace there is a small Christmas market with the most important point – Father Frost, here with his helper Mickey Mouse?!?
Later at night same day in this place we found out an important thing – it’s forbidden to take pictures in the city using the tripod! In the evening Square is nicely lit up with Christmas decorations but police officers patrolling the city (there is full of them there) kindly informed us that tripod is something that should not be used. By the way – beautiful Christmas lights and buildings’ illumination are turned off right after 23:00.
Just before the river Svislach on the opposite side of the street there is a building of the city circus. It was aslo built in the 50. and opened for the 40th anniversary of Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic and the Communist Party of Belarus. It can seat 1667 people.
See the nicely lit facades of Independence Avenue buildings:
Further on Independece Avenue, on the left hand side, on the bank of Svislach there is a green wooden house – a one of a kind museum. Theoreticaly this is the House – Museum of the 1st Congress of Russian Social -Democratic Labour Party and indeed they exhibit communist related objects.
But what do Neo, Morpheus and Gandalf do there? Even Marks and Engels would not answer this question.
We actualy didn’t know what to think about this colletcion. Leaving this strange institution we came back to main road to enter the heart of patriotic Minsk. This is the Victory Square – a place commemorating soldiers of the Soviet Army and Belarusian partisants. Eternal flame burns at the base of 38-meter-high obelisk crowned by Order of Victory (the highiest military decoration in Soviet Union for WW II service). Each side of the base is decorated with a relief praising the war heroes.