November 2006: As part of a larger trip that included Iran, Moscow and Rajasthan, India, I spent three days in Belarus enroute from Iran to India. I knew before visiting Belarus that it was an authoritarian state that harkened back to the days of the Soviet Union, and I wanted to see with my own eyes what it was like. But what I ended up discovering is that the people there had a mindset that was no different than in any western country and they yearned for democracy and were just trying to survive under the dictatorship of Lukashenko. For the people of Belarus, this was something they sadly are used to. Most were alive when Belarus was part of the communist Soviet Union and independence only gave way to the autocratic rule of Lukashenko. It is hard to say how many people support his rule since an honest poll would never be allowed but some estimates range from 3 to 30 percent. I flew to the capitol of Belarus, Minsk to meet the Belarussian people and see for myself what it was like. This is the story of my time there.

 

About Belarus

Northeastern Europe landlocked forested nation with a small population of Belarussian speaking people, a similar language to Russian.  It was part of the Soviet Union but broke away in 1991 becoming a separate nation. Even though Belarus became independent many Soviet era symbols and buildings remain throughout the country and even the country’s secret service is still called the KGB. Alezander Lukashenko has ruled the country since 1994 and has declared himself the last dictator in Europe. Lukashenko with his eccentric, bellicose speeches, eccentric and erratic nature, is a throwback to the rulers of the Soviet Union. He is a strong man ruler who governs with fear and harsh controls, and political opposition is routinely locked up, tortured or worse. In 2021. in order to apprehend two opposition figures he created a fake bomb plot on a Ryan Airplane transiting from Greece to Latvia over Belarus airspace to land in Minsk. Lukashenko has always been a thorn in the side of western Europe and the USA and economic sanctions are nothing new to Belarus. Lukashenko, an ally of Putin, has managed to stay in power all of these years because of the support of Russia despite all of the attempts of the Belarusian people to overthrow him and restore democracy to the country.

 

Location of Minsk

Russian Transit Visa Issues

My booked flight to Minsk via Moscow from Iran almost never happened giving my all kinds of potential visa issues with Iran. My flight itinerary for my trip had three layovers in Moscow. The first one was a transit between LAX and Iran. Since it was an international transfer and I would not leave the airport, no Russian visa was required. My 2nd transit was between Iran and Belarus. Again, it was brief, international and I wasn’t leaving the airport, so I determined a Russian visa was not required. I even found official info on the airports page to suggest I was right. My 3rd layover was long, and I wanted to visit Moscow, so I applied for a Russian transit visa and received one from the Russian Embassy.

With only a  week to spare before my departure to Iran, I discovered that I would indeed need a Russian transit visa even if I stay in the airport to transit to Belarus in Moscow because for whatever reason, this transit is considered to be domestic in the eyes of Russian immigration and not only would I not be allowed to fly to Belarus but I wouldn’t be able to depart iran on my flight to Moscow without the transit visa. I was frantic and there was no time to get the Russian transit visa, a visa that wasn’t the easiest and fastest to get. Instead, my only options were to try and bribe an airport official in Moscow to get one during my first transit or to get one in iran at a Russian consulate there.

On my first transit in Moscow, I went to an airport immigration office and met a commanding officer there and discussed my situation. His response was, “sure no problem, when you enter Moscow just ask for me and for a few hundred dollars entrance can be provided”. He insisted that I would need to pay him in advance. Nothing felt right about the situation, so I thanked him and agreed to circle back with no intention of actually doing so.

In the end my trip was saved when I went to A Russian consulate in Esfahan, Iran and obtained one in only a few hours. Thankfully the Russian diplomats working there were not very busy and instead very curious about my visit and of the oddity of an American tourist in Iran and were more than happy to help me and even invite me in for tea before issuing my visa. The Russian consulate was frozen in a Soviet Union time warp, with soviet symbols and busts of Lenin.

Wrong Plane to Siberia

I was already tired after flying all night from iran to Moscow. Then in Moscow, the airport was in a state of chaos. My layover was short, I had to navigate in between different terminals and signs were in currilic and I could not find anyone english speaking to assist me. I finally found a gate where I was told by a gate agent for Aeroflot that my flight to Minsk would be departing. The gate was more of a mix of different flight and it was crowded was Russians wearing thick jackets since it was winter. When my flight was called to board, an agent looked at my ticket and admitted me on to a airport bus that would take me and the other passengers to our plane. I boarded the plane and again a flight attendant looked at my ticket and nodded and I took my seat. As I sat in ym seat I started to look around me and observe that most people looked more Asiatic than belarussian, which I knew to be blond, blue eyed and fair skinned. I showed my ticket to another passenger who looked at it and they immediately started saying niet, niet, Omsk, Omsk meaning no no in Russian and that the flight was actually going to Omsk a city in Siberia and not Minsk. Next I asked the flight attendant to look at it again and they too repeated niet , niet and removed me from the plane leaving me on the tarmac alone by myself for twenty minutes as the flight departed. Eventually, a mini bus arrived and icked me up and took me to another flight, this time the correct one going to Minsk. On my way to belarus, I almost ended up in Siberia in winter instead. Bt to be honest with you, I would have been happy either way.  

Strange Visa on Arrival Experience

My flight although ticketed under Aeroflot was actually a Belavia plane, the national airlines of Belarus. It was an old Soviet looking plane with a tired and 1970sish interior. The overhead cabinets wouldn’t stay closed and the flight attendants just left them hanging open during the flight. When we landed, it immediately felt like I was back in the Soviet era. The immigration hall was dark and intimidating. The boarder officials wore military style uniforms and wide brimmed pizza style hats. I went to the visa on arrival line. For Americans I needed a local sponsor and I paid for a visa support letter from my Belarussian sponsor, and they brought all of the documents to the airport ahead of my arrival. I also needed to book a hotel in advance and obtain a pre-arrival authority, which I did via my visa support company. Now all I needed to do was pay the visa fee and get stamped into the country.

I was the only one on the flight needing a visa on arrival and the immigration official informed me that I would need to follow him to pay. I expected corruption and I knew that this would likely lead t  potential shakedown for money. But I had no choice. I was a visitor in Belarus, and I was at the mercy of immigration and had to be on my best behavior to avoid any issues. The immigration official took me out of the airport and across the street into a dimly lit building to a dusty old office and sat me down and he and another official said this is where I would need to pay them. I was very careful not to show my money and provide the exact note that I owed for the visa, which I had pre-separated and ready to give to them. But when they looked at it they said it was too old and they could not accept it. This meant that I would have to dig into my reserved and do it while they watched me. It was an intimidating environment, there was no one else in the room or maybe even in the building and these guys gave off bad vibes. I handed them another bill, and this too did not meet their approval. I handed them another and again, niet. I was down to my last bill and what was probably the most frayed and worst looking of the lot and this time they accepted it. It was clear to me that they were not going to provide change and they stamped my passport with an entrance stamp. Looking back on the experience I am sure they took me to the small room so they could pocket the visa on arrival for themselves outside of the view of other airport officials that would want their cut.

First Impressions of Minsk

My driver, from the Belarus agency that sponsored my visa was patiently waiting for me in the airport parking lot. He drove me the30 or so minutes to my hotel, the Soviet era hotel called the Orbita. During the drive the driver pointed out interesting features of Minsk such as where the apartment was where Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated JFK, lived for a while. lee Harvey Oswald is believed to by some to have been a trained agent of the Soviet Union. He also pointed out communist monuments and a mass burial sites where thousands of Jewish people were killed in World War II by the nazis. Since so much of Minsk was destroyed in World War II, most of the buildings were built during the Soviet times with Stalinistic Communist architecture. Highrise dystopian communist bloc apartments were commonplace and the small kiosk grocers and eateries located in front of them for the benefit of residents. There were no western corporate brands or business that I saw, and Belarus definitely had a different feel than western Europe.

Typical Soviet era apartment complex

Soviet Era Hotel-Orbita

Antima I am in Eastern Europe, I love to stay in a Soviet era hotel. Despite it being older, less amenities, I prefer them because they are usually historical, weird and just make for a more cultural experience. The orbita was no exception. It was monstrous and depressing from the outside and the interior was no different. My room was very spartan, but the most important thing was that the front desk attendants were all young pretty girls who spoke great English and they were friendly. I would rely on them for help throughout my stay in Belarus since most people didn’t speak a lick of English.

Orbita Hotel

I dropped my bags off and went straight into downtown Minsk to explore. Not far from my hotel by foot was the underground metro. I somehow stumbled into downtown through a lot of trial and error and assistance from generous bystanders. I admired the Soviet murals pained along the inside of the metro. I found myself in downtown and I hoped to find a good restaurant to eat dinner.

Soviet murals in the Metro

I passed by the KGB Building. I found it interesting that an ex-Soviet Union country would maintain the KGB label for its national police force. I guess it makes sense in Belarus, a place where the govt still rules its populace through fear as was done during the soviet days. Everything I read and everyone I spoke to admonished me on taking photos of this building (KGB headquarters) on the left side of the street in the photo because of undercover security officers that may take me into custody for questioning. When nobody was looking or seemed to be looking, I snapped a quick one and got out of there.

KGB Headquarters

Aside From an extremely packed Mac Donalds, I was unsuccessful in finding a place to eat and I ended up taking the metro back to the Orbita and walking around the Soviet bloc apartment neighborhoods exploring in the blistery cold. It was November and it was snowing and freezing, and few people braved the streets. I ended up finding a small pizza restaurant that was open in a small eatery of one of the neighborhoods. Then I returned to the Orbita for the night to wind down not realizing that my read adventure of the day was just about to begin at my hotel.

Crazy Night at the Orbita Hotel

While sitting in my drab little room, I decided I would wander the lengths of my hotel to see what else the huge hotel had to offer. As I always did when passing I chatted with the pretty Belarussian front desk girls who were always giggly and kind and spoke great English. Then I went to the bar in a small dark room. I was seated at a table a few feet away from a raucous group of heavy-set mafia looking middle aged Belarussian men, who were pounding vodka shots. When I ordered a beer from the bartended, they turned to me instantly and invited me over to do shots with them. As was often the case, we couldn’t communicate but they knew an occasional English word and through any means possible we would somehow manage. The men ordered meat and vodka and we pounded shot after shot of vodka until the room started to spin. The men wouldn’t allow me to pay for anything and reached into their jackets pulling out wads of cash including USD to pay in an  unnecessary gesture that seemed only to have the intent of showing off their money.  They urged me to follow them as they went up to the top floor of the hotel to the casino. I felt out of place in the casino. I was wearing my REI backpacker clothes and hiking boots and everyone inside had golden necklaces, dress shoes, and some kind of dress suit on. The door security likely would have denied me entry if I wasn’t with the group of men who seemed to be recognized as regular high rollers. We sat down at a table to play a card game I was not familiar with and we ordered more shots of vodka. I watched one of the games unfold and one of the men seemed to lose and became visibly angry. Then he decides that I might be bring him good luck and he decides to buy hundreds of dollars’ worth of chips and place them in front of me to let me gamble on the next hand of cards in a game that was unknown to me. It seemed like blackjack, but it wasn’t and since there was no one that spoke English that could teach me the game all I could do was blindly gamble this man’s money away. And this is exactly what I did. I was worried as to how they would react to my obvious lack of good luck but seconds later after all of his money was gone, he and the other Belarussian mafioso looking men broke out into a great big belly laugh. I apologized and the man decided to double down on me and slapped another few hundred dollars of chips in front of me and asked me to try again. This bizarre scene repeated itself a few times each and every time ending the same way with me losing this guy’s money, but it didn’t seem to matter. For these guys they didn’t seem to care about the money. It was the amusement of having the clueless foreigner beside them losing their money that mattered most. At some point I couldn’t handle any more vodka and I had to get away, so I just slipped away. The men were too drunk to really notice. I started to walk down a flight of stairs when I came across a glowing seductive red light along with thumping Russian techno music. Curiosity got the best of me, and I had entered. I walked in thinking I would have a quick look but once I entered a group of stunning Belarussian women alone dancing in the club all turned their attention to me and swooned towards me.  It seemed like some a hidden floor of the Hotel California, where demonesses would capture the souls of men. This was definitely some kind of brothel and the women all with angelic blond hair and piercing blue eyes one by one tried to seduce me into purchasing their services. Weirdly enough they all spoke perfect English probably from years of working in western Europe like so many beautiful Eastern European women do to find work in the sex industry. I remained strong and lacking any money anyways I slipped out of the club and stumbled back to my room still spinning from all of the vodka I had consumed. I had a long day tip planned for the next day leaving early in the morning to Brest and to see the bison of  Belavezhskaya Pushcha National Park, but I would end up sadly cancelling from vomiting all night and just being utterly destroyed. All I could think of doing was sleeping in and shaking off my horrendous hangover. 

Exploring the Countryside

Sometime around noon I awoke feeling guilty for sleeping away my time in Belarus and I asked the front desk girls to book me a taxi to visit the Minsk countryside to observe village life. We would end up driving through some small wooden villages and visiting the Dudutki open air cultural museum, where I would get to try more vodka with my driver.   My driver tasked only with driving became my unofficial guide and would enter the museum with me and try and translate as best as he could for me. 

Countryside of Minsk

Typical countryside scene outside of Minsk

Typical countryside scene outside of Minsk

Village house  outside of Minsk

My driver at the Dudutki open air cultral museum

Me in an old fashioned buggy at the Dudutki open air cultral museum

I would end up spending one more lowkey night in Minsk and the next morning departing to Moscow to spend all day exploring the city before flying to Rajasthan, India for an entirely different kind of experience and climate.

 

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