How Belarus Defied My Expectations

Nemiga Street, Minsk, Belarus

As I mentioned in my post about arriving in Minsk, I was kind of dreading Belarus. It’s not that I wasn’t looking forward to exploring and learning more about a country completely unfamiliar to me. On the contrary, I was excited and intrigued to visit a place that most Westerners don’t even have on their radar.

But I worried.

A lot.

I worried about the language barrier, which was silly because I made it through Russia for three months just fine.

I worried about getting around, which was even sillier because the Metro in Minsk is about one-tenth the size of Moscow’s and my new friend Yuliya (who I met at my hostel in Vilnius) met me at the bus station when I arrived and then served as my personal tour guide throughout my first week.

I worried because a guy from Kiev who I met in Warsaw told me not to use my mobile phone near the central square in Minsk if any protests took place because the government would trace it and arrest me (this didn’t really seriously worry me but perhaps added about 10% to my overall nervousness – besides, my phone didn’t even have a working SIM card so how would they find me?).

And I imagined Belarus would be sort of like Russia, but worse – poorer, less modern, less stable, less free.

I could not have been more wrong.

Minsk city view, Belarus

The language thing was a bit of an issue, but not for the reasons I thought.

I did not realize how different the Russian and Belarusian languages can be. And while Belarusian is the official language of Belarus, most people actually speak Russian. This leads to an odd mish-mash of languages throughout the country. Official signs tended to be in Belarusian, while advertisements were largely in Russian. The maps Yuliya gave me for each city I visited in Belarus were in Russian or showed the English translation of the Russian name, while the street signs were in Belarusian. Sometimes they were similar enough that I could figure it out, but sometimes they were vastly different.
Grodno street sign, Belarus

Getting around was easy – and cheap.

The main transportation hub in Minsk particularly impressed me. There, I pulled up to a newly renovated bus station, complete with numbered platforms and digital signs indicating upcoming departure times. Next door, a multi-level train station was clean, bright and warm, looking and feeling much nicer than anything I saw in Moscow or St. Petersburg.  If it wasn’t for the squat toilets in the train station, I could have been in Western Europe.  The Metro in Minsk was cheap (about 10 cents) and simple (just two lines) and provided access to all of the major sights in the city.

Heading to Grodno by bus was painless, with schedules clearly posted for the buses or mini-vans leaving from the central bus station at least once an hour.  I really didn’t even need the schedule, though, as a driver saw me staring at a van labeled for Grodno, asked if I was going there, and then walked me to the cashier’s office to buy my ticket. A three and a half hour express mini-van cost me less than $10. Likewise, buses from Grodno to Brest seemed to run often and the six hour ride cost about $8.

Minsk subway mural, Belarus

Belarus is a poor country, but it didn’t feel poor.

Inflation has been rampant and, according to Yuliya, the average salary is about $150-$300 per month (shortly after I left I saw that the government announced it may rise to $500 by the end of the year). The exchange rate between the US dollar and the Belarusian ruble has gone from about 3,000 rubles to the dollar a couple years ago to 8,450 when I arrived in early January.

But it didn’t feel poor. It’s hard to explain, but I think in some places, you can just feel the poverty surrounding you. I experienced that throughout my trip to Egypt a few years ago and I saw some of it as I rode the train through Siberia in November: dilapidated houses, crumbling pavement, yards piled with trash and shabbily dressed babushkas selling who-knows-what on the side of the road. I expected more of the same in Belarus, but aside from small glimpses in Brest, I didn’t find it – not in the heart of the capital, not in the smaller town of Grodno and not while passing through the countryside.

Interestingly enough, as we drove out of Minsk, the area just outside of the city center looked not that different from affluent suburban sprawl in the United States. Large brick houses, similar to something you might find on the North Shore of Chicago, dotted the landscape. It was shocking to see in a country so poor, but Yuliya explained how much people cheat the system so that the rich keep getting richer and the poor get poorer. That did not surprise me at all.

Lenin statue, Minsk, Belarus

 And as for freedom…

I generally felt more comfortable walking the streets of Minsk than I did in Moscow.  The police presence was minimal and Yuliya confirmed that the police do not stop people randomly to check their “documents” as they often do in Moscow. Likewise, the border patrol both entering and leaving the country were friendly and smiling, something that was certainly not the case at the Russian border. At the same time, when I purchased a wi-fi card at my Minsk hotel, I noticed they tracked the cards and the guests buying them, which gave me the distinct impression that my internet use may be monitored.

I asked Yuliya about freedom in Belarus and she struggled to answer. She admitted she is free in a lot of ways to do what she wants – she can come and go as she pleases, travel abroad and even study at a university abroad. But she also pointed out the lack of freedom, particularly as it pertains to the press and expressing negative views about the government. She doesn’t see democracy ever really taking hold in Belarus and she longs to leave the country for what she believes will be a better life elsewhere in Europe (interesting side note: Yuliya’s husband Andrei told me they don’t consider Belarus to be part of Europe – they simply see themselves as former USSR).

As Yuliya and I spoke quietly in English walking through a museum, she said it was good we were talking in English because if anyone understood what we were discussing, they might take her away in handcuffs. She smiled as she said it, but I assumed she was at least partly serious.

Brest church, Belarus

It’s hard to judge a country in 11 days

I hesitate to make sweeping generalizations about any place after visiting for less than two weeks. While I stopped in three of the main cities in Belarus – Minsk, Grodno and Brest – my time was limited and there was plenty of the country that I did not see.

But while Brest defied my expectations in a negative way, the rest of the country really impressed me and blew my expectations out of the water.

Have you ever visited a country that completely exceeded your expectations?

17 thoughts on “How Belarus Defied My Expectations”

  1. Hallo Kate! Your impressions collected in Belarus don’t defy our expectations neither 😉 but please be so kind and use the correct term “Belarusians” for us poor people – as well as “Belarusian” for our native language. Thank you!

    1. Thank you for clarifying it should be Belarusian – I went back and forth as I was writing the article but my spellcheck told me Belarussian, so I went with that. Will fix it ASAP.

  2. Hi, Katie! Thank you for your posts about Belarus. I’ve never been there although I want to. And my Belarussian friends say good things about it.

    I’d like to comment you words about freedom of mass media. It’s quite sadly, but I suppose there’s no countries where that freedom exist. Of course, editorials of any media would always say they have their editorial policy and freely choose what to publish and what not. But why do they always publish some certain things and other certain things they cut off?

    Let me show you how American press (that pretends to be free and objective) do that. And that is directly relevant to the topic of Belarus. Maybe, that can clarify something about the country and it’s relation with West.
    In February 2011 Belarussian President A.Lukashenko gave an interview for “Washington post” newspaper.
    Here is text of it (in Russian):
    Here is English translation of the same text:
    The same link leads to the video of the interview (video is in Russian).
    You can see, they fit each other in general.

    And now let’s see what “Washington Post” had printed:
    If you have enough perseverance to read all the texts and compare them, you’ll see that in “WP” they cut off all the most interesting things. This newspaper is too “free” for printing anything about Assange, Guantanamo, about breaking international agreements by US government, about democracy in America itself, and others topics.

    And the same thing is hapenning everywhere as I can see.

    1. Thanks for sharing these. I did read through your links and I think the key point to make is that the Washington Post is not a government-run newspaper and the government does not tell it what to print. Sure, the editorial staff may decide what news to focus on, but that is their decision, often based on what they think the readers want to hear about. That is what freedom of media is all about.

      As an example, in the recent presidential election, newspapers all over the country ran editorials supporting one candidate or another – many were critical of President Obama, but they are absolutely free to criticize him without fear of any repercussions. They do not risk going to jail for criticizing the president or for supporting the “opposition”, but in many countries without the same freedoms, they would be thrown to jail or otherwise punished for offering opposing views.

  3. Great story…Interesting her mention that she doesn’t feel European. I’d imagine there are several former Soviet states that feel the same way. Which makes sense given the lack of freedoms which are still present…

  4. Looks like a nice place but I can see why you would have low expectations based off of what you were told and read. On my recent trip now in Europe, there have been a few destinations that surprised me. I guess I was shocked Prague was so touristy even in the winter. Regardless, I think you are right. You can’t really judge a place unless you truly spend some time.

    1. I visited Prague over New Year’s a few years ago and found it horribly touristy – even in the winter, everything was ridiculously crowded. It was disappointing.

  5. Happy to read this. Did you notice many or any other tourists? It looks so beautiful in the snow, would be interesting to see what it’s like during summer.

    1. I was certainly the only Western tourist anywhere I went. I happened to be there during the Russian New Year holiday (when much of Russia has the first week of January off work) so Minsk in particular was full of Russian tourists. Yuliya, the woman who showed me around in Minsk, commented on it frequently (and seemed slightly annoyed!).

  6. Interesting post, I had no idea there were still such restrictions on freedom and that they had to worry about what they say about topics like the government.

    1. I think it’s similar to some of the other former Soviet countries, that people can get in trouble for being too critical of the government. And Belarus especially I think has ranked very low in terms of freedom of the press.

  7. The buildings in the first and last photos in this post look so pretty! I don’t know much about Belarus at all, but I’ve enjoyed learning more about it from you! Glad to hear you enjoyed it.

    1. Thanks Amanda! Glad you’ve enjoyed my posts. 🙂

      I especially liked how the first church was sitting right in the midst of a busy street and next to a tall apartment building. And I actually took the picture standing on the steps to a big shopping mall.

  8. I love that you are covering these countries because I have such little knowledge of all of them. I would have never considered Belarus but it looks really nice.

    1. Thanks Ayngelina!

      Even though I studied a lot about this area in college, I am finding I am really learning a ton too.

  9. Hi Katie, really interesting post! I’m not sure how strong your Russian is, but I was wondering how much of a difference you think knowing the language made to your experience? I found traveling around Russia extremely difficult because I didn’t speak Russian (and no one seemed to speak English) and so I imagine I’d find Belarus to be the same.

    1. Hi Reena, my Russian is good enough to get me around in most situations – buying tickets, asking for directions etc. English is very limited in Belarus, even more so than in Russia, so I think that helped. At the very least, being able to read the Cyrillic alphabet I think is a must. That being said, the hotel clerks at 2 of my 3 hotels spoke some basic English and there was occasionally English signage in Minsk (although not in Grodno or Brest that I noticed). People were also incredibly friendly and willing to help – more so than I found in Moscow.

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