Before going to Belarus, here’s what I knew about the country: it bordered Russia and its visa was a pain in the arse to get. I couldn’t even have told you the capital city of the country (Minsk), or that it was one of the few former Soviet Bloc countries that still revered Stalin. Luckily, I was to give myself a thorough education over two days of murals, tanks and pillboxes.
The Stalin Line
Whilst Grandfather Lenin is still revered throughout a good deal of former Iron Curtain countries, it’s a different story when it comes to Uncle Joe. In Russia he’s been more or less completely excised, and many other Eastern Bloc countries have followed their example.
Not so in Belarus. They even have a genuine adult theme park named after Papa Joe: the eponymous ‘Stalin Line’.
The Stalin Line is a five-year-old boy’s wildest dreams come true: tanks, guns, choppers, pillboxes, and more icy churned-up earth than you can get embedded in your trainer grips. Prior to being allowed to play with these toys, we were given a brief tour of the remaining trenches and pillboxes of the area by a man with a fantastic moustache and a dapper Soviet hat. Said man explained that the Stalin line was basically a Soviet Maginot line designed to hold back ze Germans during WWII. Within the bunkers were several WWII-era belt-fed machine guns, which were largely used for the noble art of killing Nazis.
Following this was an opportunity to play with some firearms from World War II. Pacifists rejoice; the guns were firing blanks. Whilst sensible from a health-and-safety standpoint, this did result in a rather unsatisfying lack of kick from the weapons, and a rather unconvincing shooting gallery where the soldier in charge would press a button to indicate you’d ‘hit’ a target. One member of our group got so bored of his toothless machine gun that he gave up halfway through.
Next up, however, was the genuine highlight of the trip: getting strapped to the top of an actual T-34 tank and being driven around muddy roads. Biting wind and mud spatters notwithstanding, this was genuinely cool.
Khatyn Massacre Memorial
Up next was something much more sobering than the borderline theme park that was Stalin Line: Khatyn Massacre Memorial, a series of monuments dedicated to a massacre perpetrated by the Nazis.
Khatyn was a village some 50km from Minsk with a population of 156. In retaliation for a partisan attack in 1943 (not perpetrated by anyone from Khatyn), Ukrainian Nazi collaborators entered the village, herded everyone into a shed, and set it afire. Anyone escaping the shed was gunned down.
Needless to say, Khatyn is something of a depressing place.
Walking around the memorial is an exercise in eeriness. Upon entering the complex the visitor is greeted by the statue of one Yuzif Kaminsky, the only adult survivor of the massacre, holding the body of his murdered son. Nearby is the Cemetery of Villages; an array of 185 tombstones memorialising not people, but villages whose populations were massacred by the Nazis during the war.
Last, but by no means least, is an installation of three birch trees and an eternally burning flame. The flame takes the place of what ought to be a fourth tree; the reason for this is to commemorate the staggering fact that one in every four Belarusians died during the war. 25% of the whole population.
No jokes here. Our guide was visibly upset at coming here and couldn’t walk the whole way through. A bell rings every thirty seconds to represent the rate at which Belarusians were killed. It is a sombre, upsetting look at just part of the evil the Nazis were responsible for.
The murals of Minsk and the National Library
I had absolutely no idea what to expect of Minsk, being as I’d never heard of it before being confirmed for the Eurasian Adventure tour. What I certainly wasn’t expecting, however, were the bright splashes of colour dotted around this supposedly dour post-Soviet capital.
Minsk boasts some truly amazing murals, apparently created by an eclectic mix of local and Brazilian artists (why Brazilians? Absolutely no idea). Our guide challenged us to look at each mural and guess whether the artists were local or Brazilian. I absolutely nailed one of these by immediately guessing that the artist was Brazilian. I suppose the word ‘Brasil’ tucked away in one corner helped.
During our walking tour we were also shown the National Library of Belarus, an apparently contentious building that looked like it was designed by the Galactic Empire. We got to go up to the top to enjoy the stunning view. This was somewhat hampered by the fog-induced visibility of three or so feet; after a quick attempt at thwarting the anti-suicide barriers (in the name of science), we went back down.
The apartment of Lee Harvey Oswald
During our time in Minsk we had the opportunity to visit the one-time apartment of 1960s one-hit wonder Lee Harvey Oswald. Before Oswald had his shot and blew it, he lived in Minsk for a couple of years as a factory worker/probable KGB asset. He even had a local girlfriend who later bore his child; irresponsible loafer Oswald did not take her back with him when he returned to America, where he never did anything newsworthy ever again.
Oswald’s apartment was interesting precisely because it was Oswald’s apartment; beyond this, there was nothing of particular note, as it had been remodelled since the mischievous rascal left. There was an opportunity to recreate a photo of Oswald and his girlfriend on the balcony, and a few anecdotes about the traitorous Yank’s time in the USSR, but those expecting any sort of Oswald memorabilia will be more put out than JFK’s forehead. OK, so that one was in pretty poor taste.
The restaurants of Belarus
Whilst in Belarus I thought nothing special of the service; it was only much later, after traversing huge swathes of Eastern Europe, that I realised it was fucking spectacular. Servers actively listened, occasionally smiled, and even had a notepad. The food wasn’t too shabby either, though I’d advise those with a less than iron constitution to avoid the raw beef mixed with raw quail egg (I discovered, to my chagrin, that I had a less than iron constitution doing precisely this).
The Great Patriotic War Museum
World War II is generally known as the ‘Great Patriotic War’ in the former USSR; a title well earned when you consider just how many citizens of the Soviet Union died fighting the Nazis. Nowhere was this dubious accolade more prominent than in Belarus where, as noted, one in four Belarusians – or two million people – died during the war. This was the most devastating proportional loss of population that any country suffered.
The Great Patriotic War Museum details the horrors suffered by the Belarusians during this period. Partisans and clandestine resistance movements actively fought back during the Nazi occupation, and paid dearly for their efforts. Citizens were routinely tortured and summarily executed. Bodies were left hanging in the streets as a warning to others.
The museum also recounts the lives of the men and women who fought back, whether in active combat or as underground resistance fighters. Though thoroughly depressing to see how many were listed as ‘killed in action’, the museum stands as a monument to the remarkable bravery of these men and women.
I may have gone into Belarus knowing next to nothing, but visiting this unique and fascinating country certainly changed. Often called ‘the most Soviet country in Europe’, the shadow of Nazi occupation and death camps looms large over this small but defiant nation. But perhaps the shadow of Stalinism looms larger. One thing that particularly stuck out for me was this anecdote by our guide:
“In school, children were told to close their eyes and pray to God. And when they opened their eyes? Nothing. Then they were told to close their eyes and pray to Uncle Stalin. And this time, when they opened their eyes, there was candy.”