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About Minsk

Exotically provincial. Beautifully Soviet. Quietly cosmopolitan. In short, Minsk redefines contrast.

In the early 1990s, Minsk emerged as the capital of a newly independent Belarus. With cityscapes relatively unchanged since the time of Stalin, the capital city quickly built itself up as the center of the newly formed Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), effectively taking the mantle abandoned by Warsaw when it left the Warsaw Pact in pursuit of its eventual place with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Today the city stands out with an ambience recognizable as having been developed under the leadership of Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, and Leonid Brezhnev.

Whether arriving by plane, bus, or train, new arrivals in Minsk will typically end up standing on Privokzalnaya (Train Station) Square in front of the so-called Gates of Minsk. These twin 11-storey classical Stalinist structures were designed by Leningrad architect Boris Rubanenko to remind guests of the power of socialism in the Soviet Union. They have stood guard at the start of Vulitsa Kirava (Kirov Street) since 1953. Each appears as a sort of medieval structure that watch over the entrance to the city, and looking out from each corner are replicas of the Soviet-era statues that originally adorned the building, depicting the four professions most respected during the era: the worker, the collective farmer, the engineer, and the soldier. One tower features the coat-of-arms of the former Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, while the other holds a clock taken as a war trophy from Germany at the end of the Second World War. This timepiece appears every New Year’s Eve on Belarusian state television as the official countdown clock for the country.

Another nearby site that many visitors see early after arriving in the city is Ploscha Nezalezhnastsi, or Independence Square. Outside of the city administration building, the Belarus State Pedagogical Institute, and the House of Government, the square also features the so-called Red Church, dedicated to saints Simon and Helena. Built by Edward Voinilovich in honor of his two deceased children, the church was completed in 1910. Under the anti-religious Soviets, the structure was confiscated from Catholic church authorities and used first as the State Polish Theater, and then as the House and Museum of Byelorussian Cinema. Only in 1990 did it return to its original purpose.

Out of the square runs Prospect Nezalezhnastsi along approximately the same line as the one-time Moscow-Vienna postal tract. It was first improved in 1801 when Minsk became the center of a new Guberniya, or Imperial province, at which time it was named after the first governor as Zakharyevsky Prospect. During the brief Polish occupation in 1920 and 1921, the street was named after Adam Mickiewicz, but then after Minsk was given over to the Soviet Union following the Treaty of Riga, it was named Soviet Prospect. During the Nazi occupation, the street was renamed by the German authority as Hauptstrasse, or High Street. By 1952, the city plan, following restoration, was finalized, and Soviet Prospect became Stalin Prospect until 1961, when it was renamed for the last time under Soviet authorities as Lenin Prospect. After independence, the prospect was renamed Skaryna Prospect (after Francysk Skaryna, the 16th century Vilnius book printer credited for laying the groundwork for the development of today’s Belarusian language), under which name it remained until 2005, when the government under President Alexander Lukashenko changed it to Prospect Nazalezhnastsi.

Across the surface of the square can be seen skylights that bring light into the first modern shopping mall of Minsk, the Stolitsa Trade Center. The Stolitsa has since been joined by the even more modern 7-floor Galileo Mall above the Central Bus Station (directly adjacent to Central Train Station), but this 100-store center opened to much fanfare in 2007. Among the clothing stores and souvenir-oriented shops that dominate its directory, the mall retains one of the few remaining Internet cafes in the city, where a person without a laptop can still go to check E-mail (bring your passport).

The Stolitsa and the train station both share the same stop on the Minsk Metro, Lenin Square. There are 29 stations in the underground train system, set on two lines that have a combined length of more than 37 kilometers. The Maskouskaya Line (usually depicted in blue) opened in 1984 during Konstantin Chernenko’s short term of office. The Autazavodskaya Line (usually depicted in red) opened at the end of 1990, just a year before the break-up of the Soviet Union. The most recent station added to the system was Malinauka, which extended the Maskouskaya Line a stop further in the southwest on June 3, 2014. Future plans involve the construction of a third line running north and south from Lenin Square station.

The Metro provides a convenient tour of Minsk, and some of its more important neighborhoods. From Lenin Square Station, the center of the city stretches eastward, and by taking the train toward Uruchcha (Brookside) Station, Belarus’ capital can be easily introduced to an eager tourist.

Currently, the main junction of the Metro system is where Kastrychnitskaya (or October) Station and Kupalauskaya Station connect the two existing lines. On the surface above the junction is the section of Prospect Nezalezhnastsi between Vulitsa Lenina (Lenin Street) and Kastrynchnitsksaya Square. This is an area heavy in restaurants, including McDonalds (currently the only takeaway restaurant open late on any given night). Also in the general vicinity is the GUM State Department Store, the Central Book Store, the Central Gastronom (or Supermarket), KGB Headquarters (the oldest building on the street by virtue of the fact that it was the first to be constructed after World War II), the Palace of the Republic, the Offices of the President, and the Yanka Kupala National Academic Theater. A block off the prospect on Lenin Street is Ploscha Svabody (Freedom Square), where sits the Ratusha, or restored historic city hall, and Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary – administrative center for the Catholic Archdiocese of Minsk-Mogilev. On the opposite side of the Ratusha from the Catholic diocese seat is the 18th century Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, the recently restored administrative center for the Belarusian Orthodox Church.

Down the hill from the Cathedral is Vulitsa Niamiha (Nemiga Street). This street has a special place in Minsk’s history, as the first mention of the city was the result of a battle that took place on the banks of the river of the same name, which happens to be channeled under the street today. Where now stands one of Minsk’s more popular shopping centers, it is said that the river’s bloody banks were sewn with the bones of young Russian men about a millennium ago in 1067. Where the street crosses the Svislach River is about where the Niamiha River joined the bigger waterway. With all the tall buildings, it’s hard to imagine the area as a place of battle, but every so often, heavy rains will flood the street, reminding people of the river’s continued existence below the surface. Niamiha Station on the Autozavodskaya Line serves the area.

On the Maskouskaya Line, the next stop after Kastrynchnitskaya is Ploscha Peremohi, or Victory Square. This part of Minsk carries great interest for those who are fans of American history, as this was the neighborhood in which Lee Harvey Oswald stayed when he attempted to defect to the Soviet Union, just before his fateful rendezvous with President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas. When Oswald first declared his intentions to leave the United States for the USSR, the Soviet authorities under Khrushchev decided it was in their best interest to decline his application. However, when his subsequent attempt at suicide put him in Moscow’s Botkinskaya Hospital, those same authorities changed their mind and accepted his application, mostly to keep the affair quiet. They moved him out of the way to Minsk, where a constant eye could be kept on him.

The center of Oswald’s world was his 24.7 square meter apartment, No. 24, within the yellow building at Kamunistychnaya Vilutsa No. 4, just west of Ploscha Peremohi on the Svislach River. Normally, such an apartment went to a family of three or four, which gave him something of a privileged existence as a single man. However, he was given a short leash within what the KGB called a “kolpak,” or a controlled community that extended only a few blocks in any direction. He would go to work at the Horizont plant three blocks away on Chyrvonaya Vulitsa and Masharava Prospect, and do little else but attend social gatherings at nearby places like the Trade Unions Palace of Culture at Nezalezhnastsi No. 25, where he met his wife, Marina Prusakova. Every minute, though, he was under observation and his every move was recorded up to the time that he, his wife, and daughter left the Soviet Union.

Ploscha Peremohi Station also provides Metro access to Gorki Park and the Belarus State Circus, both destinations of great interest to children. The attractions at Gorki Park, the oldest public recreation ground in Minsk (originally named Governor’s Garden), are devised specifically for kids of all ages (from baby swings and boats to the 54-meter tall Ferris wheel), while the Circus, under the direction of People’s Artist Tatiana Bondarchuk, maintains an active show schedule that often requires advanced purchase tickets to see. Behind the circus, meanwhile, the new 10-story five-star luxury Kempinski hotel is making its debut.

Further along the Maskouskaya Line, Yakub Kolos Square sits at the center of another area of night spots, buffets, and fine dining. On the square itself, near the westward side of Ploshcha Yakuba Kolosa Metro Station, sits the Philharmonic Concert Hall, the front of which looks out down Vulitsa Very Kharuzhai (Vera Kharuzhai Street) toward the modernized Kamarovsky Rynok, still one of Minsk’s more traditional shopping centers. On the eastward side of the Metro Station on the square itself is the Tsentralyny Univermag, or TsUM, the partner state department store to the GUM at Kastrychnyskaya Station. Behind the TsUM and the Philharmonic runs Vulitsa Zalataya Horka, which when followed back to Vulitsa Kazlova, leads one to the Catholic Church of the Holy Trinity, sometimes called the Church of St. Roch. Built in 1864 to replace a wooden church that burned down at the site, it was constructed from donated funds collected by leading Russians living at the time in Minsk. Its Gothic Revival structure houses the main English-language Catholic service in the Belarusian capital.

The next stop on the Maskouskaya Line services the institutes associated with the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus, including that of the museum of the academy’s history. Further along the Metro line is the Park Chalyuskintsau Metro Station, which is named for Chelyuskinites Park, a 78 hectare urban forest named for the sailors of the SS Chelyuskin, who were trapped on the ice during the first attempt to sail a steamship in 1933 along the Northern Route from Murmansk to the Bering Strait. Their ship sank after being crushed the following winter by pack ice; half of the 111 crew were flown out, while the other half made it across the winter ice to Uelen on the Strait. (Despite the loss of the ship, the information about when the pack ice moves in proved useful for the future use of the Northern Route by the Soviet Baltic Fleet during an approaching conflict with Imperial Japan.) Behind the park is the city’s Botanical Gardens, and east of the park is a Children’s Railroad, a 3.8-kilometer narrow gauge line operated by selected Minsk teenagers under adult supervision. It runs along a dogbone-loop track that serves three stations: Zaslonovo, Pionerskaya, and Sasnovy Bor.

Between the next station, Maskouskaya, and Uschod (or East) stations is one of the most recently constructed attractions of Minsk, the National Library. An all-glass 72-meter tall structure designed in the shape of a “rhombicuboctahedron” (some Generation Xers jokingly simplify this to “the shape of a Dungeons and Dragons 12-sided die”), it can accommodate 2,000 visitors and features a 500-seat conference center. Designed by Mihail Vinogradov and Viktor Kramarenko, the building, which houses an 8.6 million volume collection, opened in 2006. Outside the building stands a statue of book printer Skaryna, whose name once adorned the nearby Prospect Nezalezhnastsi.

Of course, not everything of interest in Minsk is on a Metro line. Indeed, the recent 2014 International Hockey Federation (IHF) Championship was hosted at sports facilities that were far from any station. These state-of-the-art stadiums will likely be used by professional teams in the future.

Also off the metro are many of the embassies that provide diplomatic representation and consular services in Belarus. The Embassy of the United States is situated up the road from Oswald’s old place, near the corner of Kamunistychnaya and Staravilyenskaya. Its neighbors include the Russian and Ukrainian embassies (both on the actual crossroad), and Minsk’s Central Synagogue. The nearest landmark is the National Academic Opera and Ballet Theater, a wedding cake-like structure situated in the parklands above a varied collection of surviving old buildings placed on the banks of the Svislach, near the Niamiha Bridge and the Island of Tears (the latter a monument dedicated to the Belarusian men who died in the Soviet war in Afghanistan).

Other home embassies for English speakers in Minsk include that of the United Kingdom on Karl Marx Street (behind the Yanka Kupala National Theater on Alexander Square, across the street from Kastrychniskaya Ploshcha), that of Israel on Partyzanski Prospect out beyond the Minsk Ring Highway (MKAD), that of India in the Savyetsky District at Vulitsa Sobinava 63 (near the crossroad with Piershaya Pasialkovaya), and that of both Malta and South Africa near Peremohi Ploscha at Vulitsa Zacharava 28 and 19, respectively.

Further off the beaten track are such popular sports destinations as the winter ski slopes north of the National Airport at Raubichy, Lahojsk, and Silichy (the three of which form the “Switzerland of Belarus”), and the summer recreational destination of the Minskoye More, or Minsk Sea, a reservoir on the Svislach River north of the city. The latter features free beaches, as well as pedal boat and catamaran rentals, and is easily accessible by elektrichka (suburban trains) and buses from the central bus station.

For most tourists, Minsk is a three-day destination. However, that is not to say that you’ll see everything there is to see in just three days, but you’ll get a good sense of the city in that period. The attractions you’ll miss will be repetitive and superfluous in a single trip, but having not seen them the first time might provide a good excuse to return again to this quiet capital. Additionally, Minsk serves as a great jump off point for further adventures elsewhere in Belarus.