Russia and Belarus: Snapshots of the Post-Soviet States

Russia and Belarus: Snapshots of the Post-Soviet States

journeyed through Russia to discover its history, literature
and people. Friends and family were confused as to why I’d chosen
to live a year in such a cold (in both senses) and purportedly
antagonistic country. I wasn’t going to let them deter me – and it
was better than I had imagined. Western media portrays
as a bully but, politics aside, there are many delights
to be found across this wild landscape.

While I was met with a stern greeting from time to time, what
really came through was a strong sense of loyalty and passion for
life – even in the face of hardship. As a way to break the ice, I
would speak English loudly in the street. Before long, several
friendly faces would appear around me, desperate to practise their
English and tell me about their country. Most Russians don’t
understand that the British greeting: “How are you?” means “Hello.”
When Russians ask this question they expect an honest response and,
in turn, they will give you full report of their personal

I discovered a bittersweet world of colours, dancing, fantasies
and music. Traditional caucus dancing is joined by salsa in the
street. Feminism is on the rise with women becoming more
opinionated and ambitious than ever before. The mix of grand
communist buildings standing next to pastel-coloured architecture
and cosmopolitan boutiques makes for an interesting juxtaposition
that highlights the changing faces of a “closed” Russia. Summers
are spent in large parks full of people skating or playing
ping-pong, while winters are about ice-skating and exchanging
darkly humorous tales while knocking back vodka in a Russian public
bath known as the “banya”. There you lie stark naked in a heated
room, surrounded by other women, taking turns to hit each other
with hazel-leaf branches – it’s supposed to be good for blood

Before travelling to Belarus, I was warned that, as the last
“dictatorship” remaining in
, I would experience hostility towards westerners and a
cold, hard, post-Soviet attitude. But as I had already spent so
much time in Russia, I was anaesthetised to this repetitive
narrative – and ignored it. I called up an old Belarusian friend to
see if he’d have me to stay. I was greeted with a surprised: “You
want to visit MY country?” followed by a cheerful and excited:
“Wow, please come!”

Previously, a visit to Belarus had been too expensive but a
newly introduced free five-day visa to encourage more tourism
presented the perfect opportunity to go. So, there I was in
Belarus, a land known for little more than a) being the greenest
country in Europe – 50% is covered by forests and lakes and b) the
last remaining European country to have the death penalty.

While I was received warmly by all the locals I met, what struck
me was how few people there were about. Even at midday on a
Saturday in the centre of the capital, Minsk, only a couple of
people were to be seen for miles around. Instead, I hung out with
the various imposing Lenin statues that were dotted about the town.
It felt as if there were a curfew, or that there was some party
happening elsewhere, to which I wasn’t invited.

Apparently this is the norm in Belarus – with under nine million
people living there it feels like barely a thousand. There is a
darkness still looming over Minsk, which was 80% obliterated during
the Second World War, in a country that lost over a quarter of its
population. In addition, the residue of paranoia was palpable. It
was clear that Belarus had a dark history that could be temporarily
forgotten when exploring picturesque streets or chatting to
charming locals.

To escape the weird sensation of being one of the only tourists
in the whole of Minsk, I decided to drive into the heart of the
countryside accompanied by my friend, who kept me entertained en
route by sharing his love for terrible Russian pop music and
Nineties Euro trash. It was so green, the water pumped from deep
underground wells so pure, the birds so full of song, that it felt
like I had stepped into Sleeping Beauty’s forest. We passed
hundreds of churches, and my companion explained that while most
people were religious there were occasionally those who had their
suspicions of the Church. Much to my amusement, he then opened his
wallet to show me his well-kept picture of a holy saint folded
neatly next to a condom: “Got to be safe,” he giggled. And I
realised that, in Belarus, I did feel very safe.


Discover More
Kamchatka, Russia