Exploring the differences between Belarus and Russia
It’s December and there is an urgent business trip to Minsk in the offing.
I actually passed through the Belarusian capital once on a train trip from Moscow to Berlin in 1988. At that time it was still part of the USSR, so this is my first visit since independence in 1991.
It will be a quick trip. I will fly out direct from Gatwick on Belarusia’s own airline: Belavia (a comfortable 3 hour schlep on an Embraer), spend two nights at a hotel near Minsk’s main railway station, have a couple of meetings with customers and then fly back to London City on Poland’s LOT (two more Embraers and the chance of excellent Kielbasa sausage and Ksiazece beer during the stopover at Warsaw airport).
Business will take up the main part of the trip but there will be a bit of downtime too. I will meet my Russian colleague who will be flying in from Moscow so there will be no communication issues at all.
Most guide books suggest that Minsk will be a pleasant surprise: it was almost totally rebuilt after the Second World War, features a lot of “Stalinist” architecture but nowadays is supposed to be quite progressive and vibrant.
I arrive at 20:00 on a Monday evening. It is warmer than expected: about 5 degrees. There is no snow on the ground.
Leonid, my friendly and knowledgeable taxi driver, explains quite a lot about his country and his city to me on the 40 minute trip from the airport to hotel. He tells me Minsk is a good place to live; the economy is doing reasonably well and there is a lot of Chinese investment coming in. In fact he points out a whole Chinese industrial park near the airport.
It is dark when I arrive, but the city, home to 2 million of the total Belarusian population of 10 million, is brightly lit and from the window of the taxi looks really very colourful and welcoming. It is obviously smaller and seems a lot quieter but it doesn’t seem too different from arriving in Moscow.
I am curious to know what some of the differences between Belarus and Russia might be and also what things might be considered unique to Belarus. With the help of my Russian colleague and the people we meet, I try to compose a list of 13 things during the stay.
Here it is.
1) Crossing the Road
With a bit of spare time the next morning, we make a quick walking trip around the city centre. As we leave the hotel we are already looking for differences.
We haven’t even crossed the road when my colleague spots something. He tells me that the white lines on the traffic-light-assisted crossing are completely different to those at home. “We don’t have dotted markings like this at all in Russia”, he explains.
I am quite impressed that we have found something, however trivial, in less than a minute. Then I am told that the arrangement of the letters and numbers on the car licence plates is different too.
Later we learn that driving licences in Belarus are issued for 20 years as opposed to 10 years in Russia. I suggest this is possibly because the locals don’t age on their photographs as much as the Russians.
2) Tattoos in McDonald’s
We come to Nezalezhnasti (Independence) Square. It is one of the biggest squares in Europe and it is surrounded by buildings constructed in the Stalinist style. The Belarus Parliament building (former Supreme Soviet) is one of them and there is still a big statue of Lenin in front of it.
By contrast, the square is also home to the Catholic Church of St Simon and St Helena. It actually only dates from 1905 but it looks older. We go inside. There are plenty of worshipers even at 9am on a weekday. Proximity to Poland and a history of constantly shifting borders means that Catholicism is more widespread here than in Russia. It is still much the minority religion though.
Now we walk along Nezalezhnasti (Independence) Street. It is a wide boulevard not unlike those also found in the Russian capital. It is lined mostly with large buildings constructed in the 1950s. We pass the Minsk Hotel and the old KGB headquarters.
We pause for a coffee at a McDonald’s. It happens to be the first branch of the US chain ever opened in the country. We are told that when it opened in the early 90s there were two-hour queues.
Now there is plenty of American fast food all the way around Minsk. Later we pass a branch of KFC housed in a building covered in an old communist-style mural. It is all very interesting, but it doesn’t seem too different from anything you would find in Moscow. I express my slight disappointment to my Russian colleague.
He thinks and then smiles as he tells me about the guy who just served us coffee – “He had tattoos on his hands. That would never be allowed in a Russian McDonald’s”
3) Rabbits and Rubles
We are outside GUM, the famous department store, just as it is opening at 10am. The building dates from 1951 and inside its Stalinist / Art Deco style is surprisingly pleasing.
It is also quite a nostalgic experience wandering around: all the merchandise is behind the counters and everything needs to be paid for at the cashier before it can be collected. My Russian colleague remarks how cheap everything is. He thinks everything is about half price compared to back home.
The country has its own currency: the Belarusian Ruble. It seems that it is modelled a bit on the Euro. The latest banknotes are almost similar in size, design, and even colour to those of the common currency. It is only about half the value of the Euro though, and, confusingly, there are about thirty Russian Rubles to each Belarusian one.
The current set of banknotes depicts Belarusian landmarks but my colleague tells me that the previous set had animals on them. He tells me that Russians used to nickname their neighbour’s currency “the rabbit” because of the design on the One Ruble note.
We spot a little kiosk further along Nezalezhnasti. I am told they don’t have many of these kiosks in Moscow any more, but I am actually more interested on the alphabet displayed on the side.
We take a closer look. These are Belarusian letters. The country has its own language; it is slightly different from Russian and it has a few unique letters including the “y” type letter pronounced as a “v”.
I am told that the language contains many words also used in Russian but some words, including quite commonly used ones, are different. I am given an example a little later when we are in a building and we discover the word for floor (as in 2nd floor) is totally different.
After the country gained independence from the USSR in 1991, the language was quite popular for a while but by 1995 Russian was introduced as a second state language and is much more predominant. Apparently only 10% of citizens use Belarusian in their daily lives.
5) Island of Tears
We visit the Trinity Hill district of the city. It is a small but picturesque area of old buildings located on a bend in the Svislach River. We stop and read signboards which tell the story and have photographs of how the old city looked before it was destroyed in the war.
We wander around a bit and find a museum dedicated to irons (as in ironing board). It is not the only quirky museum we find in the city: later on we discover a museum about cats too.
Nearby on the riverbank we find a small footbridge over to what the locals call “the Isle of Tears”. On this little island is a memorial to the Soviet soldiers from Belarus who died in the war with Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989.
There is a chapel at the centre and sculptured figures of mothers and sisters grieving. My Russian colleague is a little surprised at this. At home, he tells me, that particular war is not really mentioned much.
6) Flags and Fabrics
We come to the centre of the old city. There are more old and recreated old-style buildings around Svabody Square and the whole place is filled with little restaurants, pubs and a few Christmas-themed stalls.
There are a fair few Belarusian flags flying around too. I find the flag quite interesting: it consists of three elements; a large red band, a thinner green band and a decorative pattern at the side.
Apparently there is no real meaning for the two colours but the decorative part is known as Rucnik. It is a ritual cloth and it is used for religious events such as weddings and funerals.
Belarus is actually famous for its fabrics and on our way around the city we come across quite a few shops selling various kinds.
7) Museum of the Great Patriotic War
The Belarusian Museum of the Great Patriotic War is Minsk’s most popular attraction and probably deservedly so. It tells the story of the country’s experience during the Second World War.
It actually claims to be the world’s first WW2 museum. It was opened in Moscow in 1942 to tell the story of partisans back in occupied Belarus and then moved to a building in Minsk after liberation in 1944. The museum has also been moved twice since; once in the 1960s and then again in 2014 to its present location.
The current building is pretty lavish on the outside and inside the collection of exhibits is really well put together. There are real tanks and aircraft as well as models, dioramas, photographs and paintings. They all combine to tell the story of suffering, heroism and triumph. There are explanations in English throughout.
Belarus was captured by the Nazis early on in their invasion of the Soviet Union and, although the story of the wider war is recounted, much of the museum concentrates on the experience of the Belarusians during occupation.
The Nazis removed the Soviet system in Belarus and set about governing it as an occupied country. There are stories of local resistance, the terrible fate of the Jews and the growth of the partisan movements.
The story continues with the Red Army liberating Minsk on 3rd July 1944, the German surrender the following year and then ends with the efforts to rebuild the city afterwards.
At the centre there is a huge atrium with the names of “Heroes of the Soviet Union” inscribed on its walls. The numbers of dead are staggering: of the 60,000,000 killed in the global conflict 20,000,000 were Soviet and 2,370,000 of them were Belarusians: a 3rd of the then population.
It is all quite moving. Outside we climb up to the victory statue which looks out over the city and we stand there for a few moments discussing what we have just seen inside.
8) Shallow Metro
We jump on the metro for a ride back to Nezalezhnasti Square. The Minsk Metro opened in 1984 and stretches to 30 stations on two lines. A third line is now being built.
The system still uses the older cars built in the Soviet era that used to be (and sometimes still can be) found on the Moscow and other former USSR systems. The stations are, like their Russian counterparts, quite lavishly decorated. Nezalezhnasti Square itself still has signs indicating its former name: Lenin Square and has elaborate hammer and sickle designs along the platform. We both agree they look a little incongruous alongside the modern digital displays.
Unlike Moscow, entrance to the system is by plastic token rather than smart card. The other main difference is that the system in Minsk is quite shallow: there are no deep-level stations here like those found in other ex-Soviet cities.
9) Making it in Minsk
It seems they make a lot of things in Minsk.
On the way to see our customer we pass the Minsk Motorcycle works. Also known as M1NSK by motorcycle enthusiasts the world over, the factory has been producing since 1951. There is also a bus plant, MAZ, and it supplies vehicles to cities throughout the former Soviet bloc and Eastern Europe.
Perhaps even more famous is the Minsk tractor works which was founded in 1946 and is still one of the largest manufacturers of agricultural machinery worldwide.
One of the most infamous employees of a Minsk factory was Lee Harvey Oswald who worked in the Horizon Radio factory in the city in the early 1960s after defecting to the USSR and before returning to the USA. The flat where he lived with his Russian bride is on most of the tourist maps of the city.
10) Potato Pancakes
Our customers take us to a lovely restaurant on the outskirts of the city and introduce us to Belarusian food. They warn us that a lot of the local stuff is based on potatoes.
First on the list is Draniki (potato pancakes made with grated potato and onions and served with sour cream) and then there is Kolduni (potato dumplings stuffed with meat) and finally Deruny (stuffed potato pancakes with chicken).
It is a lot of carbohydrate but it is all absolutely delicious.
We drink Kvas (the non-alchohlic drink made from bread that I have seen before in Russia), cranberry juice and then finish off with two forms of Nastoyka: the local spirit. One of them is flavoured with horseradish (Hrenouvha) and the other with cherries.
11) Photographing Cinemas
Belarus is famous for being the only country in Europe to retain the death penalty. It also has a reputation as a dictatorship, under five-times elected Alexander Lukashenko, and enjoys a poor reputation for things like press freedom.
We get into a bit of discussion about politics and capital punishment. We discuss the chances of Lukashenko winning again in 2020 and we all wonder whether many in the wider world would be aware, for example, that Japan retains the death penalty but Russia doesn’t.
My Russian colleague lightens the mood a little by telling everyone that his countrymen like to relate stories about the strange laws that apparently exist in Belarus. He tells our hosts about one of their own laws that levies a tax on people who don’t work and another that prohibits the taking of photographs of cinemas.
By their reaction I am not sure if he is so well informed. Afterwards, I decide to risk taking a picture of the local picture house.
12) Candy and Fat
When we are told that Belarus is famous for sweets and chocolate, apparently it specialises in the nostalgic stuff that people remember from childhood, it seems we have found the perfect souvenir.
On the way to the airport we stop off at the factory of one of the most famous makers: Kommunarka. In its little shop we find loose chocolates, large boxes and gift sets. The most famous of all their products is the Alyonka brand.
The distinctive picture on the wrapper of Alyonka in her red scarf is found in shops all over the city.
My Russian Colleague is not just taking sweets home though, he has also had requests from friends for Belarusian sala.
Sala is unrendered lard and we pop into a local supermarket for some of it. We actually get the chance to taste some too. It is served with fried dark bread. We dip the bread in the fat and I find it is surprisingly delicious.
When we are paying for the sala we get talking to a guy in the queue. He is really friendly and wants to know where I am from and insists on shaking my hand.
It would be impossible to say that I find the Belarusians friendlier than the Russians (I have met too many friendly Russians in my time), but what I do find is that the Belarusians seem a little more laid back and they also seem to enjoy the slower pace of life that their country offers.
As far as I can tell from brief conversations and observations, the people of both countries seem to respect each other and get on well. Belarus seems to enjoy deeper ties with Russia (including a customs union and common travel area) than any other country too.
As I am checking in for my flight I realise I have left my hat in the taxi. My colleague consoles me with a Russian saying: “if you leave something in a country, you will come back again”.
I wouldn’t mind a return trip to Belarus, especially as (unlike Russia) you no longer need a visa to travel there!