new year in the last dictatorship left in europe

journey profile

Where: Minsk. Belarus, Eastern Europe.
When: December 2017 into January 2018
What: Stalinist architecture, Minsk Metro, Soviet symbolism, National Library of Belarus, Minsk City Gates, October Square, Island of Tears, Cold War-era bomb shelters, Lenin busts, Cosmic Brutalist architecture, Mound of Glory, Church of St Simon and Helena, National Exhibition Centre, Lee Harvey Oswald's former apartment.
How: International flight, taxi, walking, tour guide, Minsk Metro.
Counter: Country No.77
Illnesses or mishaps: Layering up to keep Minsk's sub-zero temperatures out; developing Soviet-era paranoia about my hotel room being bugged; unknowingly photographing the KGB's headquarters.


Singapore was the first country on my three country journey around South East Asia, followed by Brunei and Malaysia on Borneo. 



Minsk's impressive City Gates echo many of the architectural features of the Stalin Palace. 


Sovet-era apartment buildings in Minsk with CCCP mosaic embellishments. 


The National Library of Minsk - a grand architectural gesture in the shape of a rhombicuboctahedron seen by some locals as national vanity project.


Minsk's cosmic style of architecture so characteristic of former Soviet countries. This is the October Cinema complete with red Cyrillic lettering.


The student halls of the Polytechnic University: a stunning example of Minsk's cosmic architecture. This building features in the fantastic 'Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed' book. I never thought I'd ever see it in person. Check out the fog in the distance top left.


Architects working across the USSR drew inspiration from the Union's success in sending the first man into space. Buildings became an outward expression of this technological prowess, giving birth to a vast array of creative cosmic concrete designs. Here are two examples from a shopping area at the edge of the city. 


The yellow concrete cubes in this children's playground are large vents for underground air raid shelters dating back to the Cold War. This one has been decorated with a characteristically Belarusian design to cheer it up. Right, a bust of Lenin still stands outside an old USSR factory along BrazillianStreet which is about to be wound down and the area redeveloped. 


Going back in time: the hammer and sickle dominates a platform of the atmospheric Minsk Metro.


Some of the Minsk Metro's 29 stations feature dramatic, creative designs. It is worth travelling the length of both lines and peeking out of the carriage doors at each stop: not only is a ride on the metro exceptionally inexpensive (around 10p) but it is also a good way of escaping the cold outside. 


An striking bronze of Lenin stands with assured reverence at the Plosca Lienina station of the Minsk Metro.


Communist symbols and emblems can be seen all over Minsk (from left): the top of tower block; a wooden post; railings in a park and, far right, on the door of the official KGB headquarters - innocently photographed by yours truly. Oops!


Supermarket shopping Belarusian style: an ornately decorated hall comprised of many little shops. Inspiring portraits depicting traditional rural life adorn the walls. Right, the mournful Island of Tears monument.


Minsk's neoclassical Post Office building complete with hammer and sickle . The neoclassical style dominates large parts of downtown Minsk.


The Trade Unions Palace of Culture building mixes the neoclassical style with statues from Socialist Realism.


The graceful National Academic Grand Opera and Ballet Theatre of the Republic of Belarus, to give it its full title.


Another example of Minsk's bizarre cosmic architecture: the National Exhibition Centre known locally as 'Daisy' because it looks like it has petals.


The round Belarusian State Circus building. There is a circus performance here each evening. The Soviets had a bit of a thing for circuses.


A tour group passes by the beautiful eastern Orthodox Church of St Simon and Helena. Right, the eerie wooden Holy Trinity Church. 


The incredible Mound of Glory monument, particularly evocative on a freezing, foggy afternoon. 


Giant 3D letters celebrate the arrival of winter outside the Minsk Sports Palace. I'm wearing all the clothes I own to stay warm.




Photographs are great but sometimes you need a little sound and movement. I film anything which I feel captures a sense of place. My videos are raw and unedited with no cropping, no editing, no colouring and the only soundtrack you'll hear are the authentic sounds of the places themselves. 

Children dance with Santa on New Year's Eve 2017/18 in October Square.

If it's tall, put lights on it. The Belarusian TV transmitter sparkles .


travel tips & links

  • Changes to Belarusian visa entry requirements can change overnight. It's important to keep an eye on any changes after you've booked your flights. Whilst swift changes benefited me, it does, however, suggest that negative changes can happen just as swiftly. 
  • Belarus is a dictatorship. It is therefore advisable that you are careful about what you say and where you say it. It would be worthwhile saving your political rants, online or off, about freedom and democracy for when you get back home. Rumours abound that hotel rooms used by foreigners are routinely bugged.
  • Gay and Lesbian travellers should tread carefully, too. Belarus is intensely homophobic and to this end it would be advisable to leave the rainbow flag at home during your Minsk city break. Minsk is not the place for gay people to go for a romantic weekend away.
  • It’s obvious but being able to speak a few basic Russian words is the only way you'll up your chances of receiving a smile in Belarus. Knowing 'good morning', 'good evening' and 'thank you very much' goes a very very long way in Belarus and will help to beak the ice with sometimes suspicious locals.
  • It is vital you take evidence of comprehensive medical insurance with you and that documents show the level of cover and the name of the traveller. Whilst Belarus wants to increase its number of tourists it does not want to pay for you if you fall ill. If your paperwork does not satisfy the airport clerks checking your docs and passport then you'll be sent to a corner of the airport to buy insurance from a state-owned company - and you can be guaranteed that the queue will be a long one.
  • You will be given a small tear-off slip from your landing card. You need this in order to leave Belarus. Guard it with your life (I sellotaped it to the back of my passport).
  • If visiting in the Belarusian winter keep in mind that sightseeing time is limited due to a late sunrise and early sunset: when I was there it was around 10:00 - 16:00. Outside of these times photography was problematic.
  • Minsk has very few city guides written about it. However, the ever-faithful In Your Pocket series has one: you can download it from here. Also, there is a rather useful tourist map available from Minsk Airport 2 when you arrive. Be sure to look out for your copy.
  • In a place like Minsk you might expect to be forbidden from taking photographs of certain buildings for security or generally distrusting foreigners. However, perhaps surprisingly, I was not told to stop photographing at any point during my visit - and I photographed most things.
  • The Belarus government recently changed its currency, knocking off several zeros. The old Belarusian currency's code of BYR has been changed to the new BYN. If you're using a currency converter app like XE, it will give you both options. Don't be confused, select BYN.


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