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The Air Baltic Fokker 50 landed like a World War II bomber and taxied past the usual assortment of old Soviet-era airliners that had been left in a huge field. MИHCK written in large Cyrillic lettering above the terminal confirmed I had indeed landed in Minsk. As I stepped onto Belarusian soil, or rather tarmac, and entered the passenger terminal, I wondered what the country the Americans had described as Europe’s last dictatorship would be like.
To be honest, I’d not heard many good things about Belarus, and the things I had heard were mainly to do with its president, Alexander Lukashenko, a man renowned for his poor human rights record and his fondness for rigging elections. This man had once famously stated that if any of his citizens joined in with protests against him, his regime would ‘wring their necks, as one might a duck.’
The border official deemed my visa okay, and I was soon in a taxi through the countryside. The Belarusian landscape was filled with forests so vast that it reportedly harboured wolf, bear, elk, boar and even the heaviest land mammal to roam Europe, the mighty bison.
It was a miracle that any bison had survived. During World War I, with food scarce, the people of Belarus hunted the creatures to near extinction. By 1919, no bison were left in the wild. Some remained in zoos, and in the 1920s, someone wondered whether they could be bred and let loose. But with only four bulls and three cows of the original European stock remaining, this was going to be a tall order.
Amazingly though, one of the bulls got lucky, and then got lucky again. And again after that. In the end, this single bull became responsible for over ninety percent of the current stock of European bison.
The Hotel Minsk was located along Nezalezhnastsi Avenue, the main thoroughfare of the city. My room overlooked some grand buildings festooned with hammers and sickles, which made me smile. I’d read that Minsk was like stepping into Moscow from the 1980s, and now I could see why.
After I’d changed some dollars into Belarusian roubles, I wandered towards Independence Square, taking in the ambience of downtown Minsk. Despite the hammers and sickles, the city was not in the grip of communist fever. Instead it looked affluent and normal. Modern cars and buses plied the busy avenue, and with the sun shining, the people of Minsk looked happy and carefree. Large billboards advertised casinos and electrical goods, and plush shops lined the street. And according to my city map, a McDonald's and a TGI Friday were just down the road. Hardly 1980s Soviet Union.
Independence Square was also known as Lenin Square. This was due to the giant statue of Lenin in front of the government building, one of the few buildings in Minsk to survive the bombing of World War II. Unlike other Lenin statues I’d come across in my quest, this one didn’t feature the classic - arm thrust forward - pose, Instead, Lenin was leaning against a rail, looking pensively to his right.
Almost all towns, villages and cities in Belarus have statues of Lenin. In 2009, one of them killed a man. The 21-year old had been with some friends, in the town of Buda-Koshelevsky, when he had drunkenly stumbled across the seven-metre tall statue. Thinking it would be great to climb it, the hapless man managed to scale the legs but then, as he tried to swing onto Lenin’s outstretched arm, he'd caused the statue to topple. It crushed him to death.
The large yellow KGB Headquarters was along Nezalezhnastsi Avenue. It had four great columns at its entrance, and a high wooden door to keep people out. Unlike every other former Soviet Republic, Belarus still used the KGB as its secret police, and for all I knew, its agents were watching me at that very moment.
I stationed myself across the road from the yellow building and pretended to look at a restaurant menu. When I was sure all surveillance cameras had swept past me, I spun around, took a couple of photos and returned to the menu. With my camera safely in my pocket, I moved on. The Red Stork flies at midnight.
In December 2011, three young Ukrainian women had stripped off and bared their chests in front of the KGB Building. They had been protesting against the tyranny of Alexander Lukashenko, and judging by the photo I saw, two of the women must have caused quite a stir, because they looked like supermodels, despite the false moustaches. The third lady was a different matter, large and stout, possessing humongous drooping breasts, but all three quickly attracted the attention of the KGB.
Agents arrested them. According to the women afterwards, men from the KGB blindfolded and herded them aboard a bus. Then they drove the women to a remote forest and poured oil over them, threatening to set them alight if they caused any fuss. At knifepoint, the KGB made all three remove their clothes and then cut off their hair. Finally they were set free.
The girls had no choice but to flee through the forest until they came across a village. What the villagers thought of a set of nude young women intruding upon their homestead, the article did not say, but the women soon returned to Kiev to tell their story. The Belarusian KGB denied any of this happening, of course.
The Pit was a memorial to Belarusian Jews shot by the Nazis. Its location was in the heart of the former Minsk ghetto. Around 100,000 Jews lived in horrific conditions in the ghetto. Virtually all of them would die at some point, but one particularly nasty day was the 2 March 1942. That day, Nazis shot five thousand Jews and brought the bodies (some still alive) to the pit I was staring at.
I wandered down a set of steps leading into the pit, passing a sombre bronze sculpture called The Last Way. It featured a line of thin individuals huddled together. It was one of the most depressing monuments I’d seen on my travels.
At the bottom of the actual pit (now a grassy lower level), I walked towards a small obelisk covered with Russian and Yiddish engravings. Someone had placed flowers at its base. A small Israeli flag lay next to them.
I stood in silence, contemplating the horror humankind could unleash on one another. Later, inside the Great and Patriotic War Museum, I would see more horror, but for now, I walked silently back up the steps.
Not far from The Pit was a tall concrete spike with a golden star on the top. Next to the spike was a large statue of a woman holding an automatic weapon. Looking deliciously Soviet, I consulted my map but found no mention of it. Undaunted, I headed along a busy road flanked by the River Svislach until I arrived at the monument. It looked like a building site. A platoon of workmen was toiling under the obelisk with a couple of JCBs. A trio of teenagers on skateboards were messing about on some steps leading up it. I decided to take a photo.
“Are you journalist?” said a voice behind me. I turned to see a young man with dark hair smoking a cigarette. How he knew I was an English speaker was strange. Maybe he’d spotted the map in my hand.
I shook my head. “No. I’m a tourist.”
The man considered this and then nodded. “I see. We get not many tourists in Minsk, and fewer still who come to this part of the city. That is why I think you were journalist, maybe covering the construction work happening here. My name is Artem, and I am studying engineering at the Belarusian State University. What is your name?”
“Jason,” I said and we shook hands.
Artem pointed at the obelisk. “You know what this monument is for?”
“No, but I assume it’s from Soviet times?”
“Yes of course. It is Obelisk to Hero City. In 1974, the Soviet regime awarded Minsk the status of Hero City - one of only twelve cities to receive this. If you look at the top of monument, you will see a gold star and wreath - the Order of Lenin. It is recognition of heroic deeds Minsk played in war.”
I was impressed. The young man was probably aged about nineteen, yet his grasp of English, not to mention his knowledge of Belarusian history, was impressive. I could not imagine many nineteen-year-olds in Britain being quite so articulate about a fading piece of architecture in the middle of their city. I asked him about the statue next to the obelisk, the woman firing a machine gun into the air.
“Ah,” laughed Artem. “I see what you mean, but it is not a weapon she is holding, it is a trumpet.”
I peered closer at the thing, but to me it still looked like a machine gun.
“This place will be the new premises of the Great Patriotic War Museum. It is to be opened soon.”
I nodded. That made sense. I thanked Artem and wished him all the best in his studies. From what I’d seen, he would do well.
Lee Harvey Oswald
I walked along Nezalezhnastsi Avenue until I found the street where Lee Harvey Oswald had once lived. Before Oswald became famous for shooting John F Kennedy, he’d defected to the Soviet Union. In 1959, aged just twenty, the Soviets sent him to Minsk, where he got a job working in a factory. He then met a local girl, got married, and had a child with her. Two years later, he grew weary of the Soviet Union, saying his job was drab. A year later, Oswald and his young family were back in America, where he made history.
I stared at Oswald's former apartment. It looked quite nice actually, located along a leafy street with a great view of the river. Oswald had probably walked along the pavement where I was presently standing, perhaps stopping occasionally to gaze into the park opposite. Next door to his apartment was a fashionable ladies' clothes shop. I wondered what Oswald and his wife would have thought of that. All he’d probably been able to spend his money on were turnips and tractor parts.
My guidebook said the Minsk Metro could be confusing for first-time travellers. Despite this, I headed down some steps until I came to the usual array of gates and booths. I wandered up to the nearest booth and simply held up one finger to the babushka behind the counter, indicating I wanted a one-way ticket. The woman nodded and produced a small plastic counter and gibbered at me in Russian. I nodded in turn, passed her some roubles and waited for my change. Transaction complete, I walked towards the barriers and slipped the counter in the slot. Hey presto, the bar allowed me in. Simple, straightforward and cheap as hell.
The little plastic counter had cost me 1500 roubles, which was about 12 pence, and after descending further via some escalators, I found myself on a platform with the locals of Minsk. None paid me any attention, and after deciphering the signs written in Cyrillic, I calmed down and waited. The train quickly arrived, and was packed, but I squeezed aboard, and a few minutes later was rattling through the darkness.
I exited the train at Oktyabrskaya metro station, the place where in April 2011, someone had detonated a bomb. At 6pm that day, during the usual evening rush, 300 people were waiting for trains to arrive. Without warning, a nail bomb exploded, causing a scene of pure carnage. The ornamental features that the Soviets had fitted did not help things either. Due to the force of the blast, they were blown from the walls, sending deadly shards in all directions. Decorations on the ceiling came crashing down too, causing even more injuries. Fifteen people died, and over a hundred were injured.
The next day, Belarus declared a day of mourning, and the authorities arrested two men. A firing squad executed both in March 2012, once again establishing Belarus as the only country in Europe with the death penalty.
After negotiating my way out of the metro station, I found myself staring at the gigantic Presidential Palace. Soldiers were guarding the building at every corner, and I wondered whether Alexander Lukashenko was in residence, scheming up new ways to piss off Europe.
I walked around the side of the palace, passing a few policemen until I arrived at a tank on a plinth. After a few moments of staring, I retraced my steps, found a doorway to hide and produced my camera. Fully expecting to hear a whistle, I took a photo of the Presidential Palace (something not allowed) and scurried away. It was time to visit a museum.
Belarusian Great Patriotic War Museum
I was hoping to see lots of Soviet imagery inside the Belarusian Great Patriotic War Museum, and I was not disappointed. The huge building was full of red stars, hammers and sickles, and Soviet-era artwork, but the bulk of the displays were uniforms, weapons, battle scene mock-ups, and photos of Red Army troops fighting in the Second World War.
The only problem was that all the information was in Cyrillic, and I soon gave up trying to decipher it. But then I came to a section that stopped me in my tracks. It was photos of the nasty deeds the Nazis had done when they had conquered Minsk. For this area, I didn’t need to read anything. The photos told everything.
They showed piles of bodies with gunshot wounds, twisted corpses dumped like garbage, people waiting for execution, and one particularly harrowing photo of two small boys weeping. I was glad I couldn’t read anything because looking at them was bad enough.
The next section was worse. On the wall was a series of photos showing executions. Some showed people being hanged; others showed dead and dangling bodies, often with Nazi soldiers smiling for the camera near them.
A voice addressed me in Russian. When the woman realised I couldn’t speak Russian, she switched to fluent English. Her name was Anna, and she was a museum guide.
“The girl in this photo is Maria Bruskina. She is aged just seventeen,” Anna said, pointing at the first photo in a grim set of six. “And the person next to her is Volodia Shcherbatsevich, a sixteen-year-old boy. The man with the beard is Kiril Trus, a veteran from World War 1. All are about to be hanged. The plaque around Maria’s neck reads: We are partisans and have shot at German troops.”
I stared at the image, wondering how they had felt being marched through the city towards the gallows. All three looked afraid, but defiant. I couldn’t imagine how I’d have felt had I been one of them. Hanging, to me, was one of the most barbaric and horrific ways to die. It made me feel sick just thinking about it.
The second photo showed a German officer putting a noose around the young woman’s neck. Behind her, a few German troops were watching, clearly enjoying themselves. Photo number three was horrible to look at; showing Maria actually being hanged. There was a dreadful expression on her young face, and I just hoped she was already dead, because if she wasn’t, then it didn’t bear thinking about. The next photo carried on with the horror, showing sixteen-year-old Volodia getting a noose around his neck. Then it was the turn of Kiril, and with his two friends already limp, his expression was haunting. It was something I didn’t want to look at. The final photo showed three bodies hanging lifelessly.
“The Germans left them three days,” said Anna soberly. “But these hangings were not isolated. They were happening all over Minsk.”
I shook my head, staring at a photo of what looked like an elderly couple hanging together. I left the museum soon after, depressed at what I’d seen, knowing that the terrible images would flicker back to life whenever I thought about the museum.
My short time in Minsk was almost at an end: the final Soviet republic on a seemingly never-ending jaunt around Europe and Asia. I opened the door of TGI Fridays, and found a seat.
It seemed strange to be nearing the end of a trip that had seen me travel to twenty-one different countries (not to mention a breakaway state). During that time, the quest had taken over my life, as well as my bank account, but now it was over. Done and dusted. All countries ticked off the list. Time to get back to normality.
My chicken fajitas arrived, and I took a mouthful. The food was delicious, but I couldn’t help feel a twinge of disappointment. My last meal in a former Soviet Republic should’ve been something more traditional, maybe boiled herring and mashed turnip. But then I thought of all the places I’d been to, the things I’d seen and the people I’d met, and I smiled to myself. How many people could honestly say they had visited every country in the former Soviet Union? How many people could say they had sampled goulash in Hungary, bear sausage in Estonia, horse steak in Kazakhstan, and fermented mare’s milk in Kyrgyzstan? Well I could. And I’d also been chased by hounds in Kiev, chastised by policemen in Ashgabat, and had seen a man kick a tree in Dushanbe. Not bad for an escapade that began with a wintry trip to Latvia. Not bad at all.
Afterwards, as I walked to my hotel, gazing about at the Cyrillic lettering I’d probably never see again, I felt a twinge of sadness. This really was it. I had visited all the former Soviet Republics, and there was no more to do.
If you have enjoyed this tale about Minsk, then maybe you'll also enjoy the book it came from. The Red Quest: travels through the former Soviet Union is available from Amazon as a paperback or e-book.
or visit www.theredquest.com for more information and exclusive photos.