Belarus preserves aspects of Soviet life
- The following, rather uncomplimentary, travel report, attributed to Dan
Fellner, appeared on page T2 of the Sunday, June 15, 2003 edition of The
Arizona Republic. Funny that Fellner doesn't mention prostitution, rampant
drug abuse, unemployment and terrible poverty. Then again those are mainly
IRON CURTAIN IS HANGING ON IN BELARUS
As our tour van passed endless tracts of dilapidated, look-alike apartment
buildings on the bumpy, pootholed streets of Minsk, my wife, Amy, and I
asked our guide about Alexander Lukashenko, the notorious, iron-rule
president of Belarus.
"Would you use the word 'dictator' to describe him?" we asked. Our guide
nodded, then gave us a warning. "I would be careful about using such a word
on the streets," she said. "The police do not like such words."
Indeed, it wasn't long before we encountered the police, who twice stopped
our van during the course of the tour to see who we were and what we were
up to. Our guide said it's a routine occurrence.
It's then that I recalled the immortal words of Lennon--John, not Vladimir.
Visitors to Belarus truly are "back in the U.S.S.R."
This landlocked country of about ten million people, which became independent
in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, remains largely unchanged. The
economy is mostly state-controlled, and dissent is not tolerated. It's not
uncommon for journalists critical of the government to disappear, and our
guide told us of friends who were arrested for taking part in anti-
For visitors, it's a rare chance to observe life as it once was behind the
Iron Curtain--drab, dreary and downright depressing.
Although relics of communism have been removed from much of Eastern Europe,
Belarus proudly puts them on display. A huge statue of Lenin--Vladimir, not
John--guards the main government building in Minsk. Enormous portraits of
Stalin hang in museums.
Minsk was badly damaged during World War II when the Germans and Russians
waged a fierce battle for the city. The Soviets' victory gave them an
opportunity to redesign Minsk from scratch. The result is an efficient
model of urban planning, with wide boulevards and a mass-transit system to
meet the needs of the city's nearly two million residents.
Efficient, yes, but Minsk won't win any beauty pageants. The only thing that
adds color to the miles of towering gray apartment buildings is the wet
laundry hanging from the balconies.
Belarus isn't a place for those who want sanitized, pampered vacations.
But for travelers who never saw the Soviet Union, it's an opportunity to
witness a dying era.