The images that I have in my mind’s eye are always, no matter how often, proved wrong by reality. Belarus has been in the news a lot in recent times, and I was expecting an unforgiving, joyless, and harsh place. This was far from correct.
In the taxi heading back to the airport, a tear rolls down my face. We pass a 2-mile-long line of army traffic, that’s heading somewhere under a full moon. I reflect on my time in this fascinating place and for the new love I have, for a girl from Minsk.
I started talking with my girlfriend on a pen pal site almost 2 years ago, and she is from Belarus and it’s finally time to visit where she lives.
The first place we visit, on a cool, crisp morning is The National Art Museum of Republic of Belarus. We get there by subway which like most things in Belarus has an edginess to it. My partner tells me, “There was a bomb in 2011 that killed many at this station”. Now there are guards that regularly x-ray bags. The station is ornate and bustling with contrasting warm air compared to the freezing atmosphere outside.
We make it to the gallery and there are three floors that are filled with fine art. I get a feeling of connection to a higher being, the focus of which can come with seeing such aged beauty within this art. We wander in hushed bliss through the ages as my mind tries to keep up with processing all that’s here to see.
The next day we prepare to travel south-west to a small town called Kletsk, for this trip isn’t all about galleries and museums. I’m going to meet the potential in-laws, a feat that has many challenges, including the fact they don’t speak anyEnglish. The nerves run up my spine like the icicles that hang from the windows outside. As an English man getting onto this bus feels like I am entering the great unknown, vast and beautiful. The people look hard working, honest and serious. The hats catch my eye, they are glorious in their different materials; the young and old people’s fashion mix like in any other country, telling a sort of fabric story of societies change.
Armed with flowers I head into the unknown, into the past, into a warmth that is different to what I’m used to and unexpected. Immediately food, lots of food, is placed out and I enter a surreal conversation translated entirely by my partner, in which I’m made to feel very welcome straight away. The food is all hand cooked and fresh. We eat golubtsyand shashlik and salads. I feel like I’m home and far away from the disturbances that seem to plague my daily life in the UK. I look out of the window and snow is falling and settling on the ground and the trees have become white.
We walk to the forest after lunch where there I see a sombre reminder of the tragic past of the Holocaust, in the form of a memorial plaque. The walk through the woods is a meditation on the preciousness of peace and a hope for the future that can be found in Belarus’s stunning natural beauty. Here in Belarus there are some of the oldest national parks in Europe.At the end of the walk we come upon a house set alone, like a lot of the houses here, where an elderly women lives refusing to move to a new place, refusing to forget and refusing to be modernised. Happy to be in solitude.
Before heading back to Minsk, we are going to visit two of the regions’ castles; Mir and Nesvizh. Nesvizh castle is particularly spectacular, surrounded by a frozen lake this 16thand 17th century building sports both European and Russian architecture.
Whilst I’m here I’m reading Anna Karenina; the words of this masterpiece flow out onto these frozen lakes, castles and woods in a glorious way allowing me to picture the people of old play out their lives. As we catch the bus back to Minsk I watch the patch work houses tick by out of the window, and then a tank oddly on a lawn, and muse how much its changed since Tolstoy’s time.
Some of these changes include dictators, war, and secret services of which as I walk down the Independent Avenue my partner points out all around me, especially as I try to take photos, unknowingly, of the KGB headquarters. The statue of Lenin stands tall outside of one of the current presidents building as a firm reminder of the past.
There are, however, cultural uprisings to be seen on the fringes. My partner takes me to Oktyabrskaya street that is celebrating their individualities as a collective via street art, cafes, and shops. Cafés as we know in the west have only been popular here within the last seven years.
On my penultimate day we get the chance to climb the observation tower of The National Library of Belarus. There’s a break in the snow that’s been falling and it’s a clear day, so we take the elevator to the top to take in the views. There is an art gallery and café at the top of this diamond shaped library. At night hundreds of individual lights form light shows on the structures shell.
Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at Minsk Opera House seems a fitting way to say goodbye to Belarus and to my new love, at least for now. I live in the hope that, like Eugene, we don’t find ourselves lost and in regret for our actions now that could divide and separate us. For personal reasons yes, but also so other Westerner’s get a chance to visit this amazing place. The army trucks, however, that I pass on the way to the airport tell a different story, but we can always live in hope.
List of other things to see and do in Belarus.