Take a Trip to the Soviet Era

For MT
Despite its proximity to Moscow, Belarus remains relatively inaccessible for the casual tourist craving a weekend break. While travelers flock to Kiev and the Baltic states, the visa requirements and murky international reputation of Belarus have damaged its potential as a getaway. Any prejudices you might have, however, will doubtless be dispelled immediately on arrival in Minsk, whose spacious boulevards and numerous, clean parks are anything but oppressive. Getting a visa is also comparatively straightforward -- you can even arrange to have it processed on arrival at the airport. Although Minsk may not offer much in the way of conventional attractions, its monumental grandeur and insular feel provide an intriguing glimpse back into Soviet history.

The long history of the Belarussian capital is filled with tribulations. Numerous invasions and fires left their marks upon the city: It was destroyed by the French in 1812, nearly ruined by the Germans in 1918 and then severely damaged again in 1919 by the Poles. The city's misfortunes culminated in the Soviet reoccupation in 1944, in which the city was razed to the ground. By the end of World War II, less than 50,000 people from an original population of 300,000 remained. Soviet architects were subsequently given carte blanche to create a model socialist city from the ruins. Minsk certainly has the feel of a carefully planned city: At times its neatness almost borders on sterility. The grandiose Stalinist architecture of the center, however, is undeniably impressive, especially at night, when the facades are illuminated. The parks are another highlight: There are acres of clean, pleasant parkland set along the banks of the Svislach River.

The center of Minsk is so clean and ordered that it's easy to forget the extent to which the city suffered during its recent history. A visit to the Museum of the Great Patriotic War will illustrate why the war remains at the forefront of the collective consciousness in Belarus. It contains a standard collection of Nazi memorabilia, but the most compelling exhibits are the photos and documents from German-occupied Minsk, including grisly pictures of public executions. There are also some interesting photos from the Soviet reoccupation and its aftermath, which show the city reduced to unrecognizable ruins.

For a more visceral reminder of the horrors Belarus suffered during the war, take a trip to the Khatyn memorial, about 60 kilometers from Minsk. Not to be confused with Katyn forest in Russia, where Polish officers were murdered during World War II, Khatyn is a monument to the 5,295 Belarussian villages that were burned by the Nazis in their sweep across the country. It is a haunting place. Visitors are greeted by a statue of an emaciated old man carrying the body of a child, with a look of numb despair on his face. Chimney stacks set in concrete foundation slabs dotted around the green fields represent the original houses of the village of Khatyn, each with a plaque naming the people who lived there and their ages when they were killed. Bells ring out every 30 seconds, representing the rate at which Belarussians died during the war years.

Paul Abelsky / For MT
Grandiose, Soviet-style buildings located along clean, wide boulevards are hallmarks of the Belarussian capital city.
To give a sense of the scale of the tragedy, every village which was destroyed is represented in a "graveyard," which stretches for hundreds of meters, forming a stark centerpiece to the memorial complex.

On a lighter note, the Belarussian State Art Museum offers a different perspective on the country's history. The highlight is the collection of socialist realist works from the 1920s and 1930s, which offer a rose-tinted view of traditional agricultural life. The museum also contains a handful of exhibits by such Russian heavyweights as Mikhail Vrubel and Ilya Repin. Another art gallery worth a visit is the Palats Mastatsva, which puts on rotating exhibitions of contemporary art by local and emerging artists.

To get acquainted with rural Belarussian life, take a trip to the open-air museum of Dudutki, 40 kilometers from Minsk. The museum recreates a 19th-century Belarussian village that is also a working farm, complete with a working windmill and horses that you can ride. Traditional handicrafts such as carpentry and weaving are on display in the old-fashioned wooden houses. The museum also serves extremely tasty, home-cooked Belarussian food and homemade vodka.

How to Get There

By air: Aeroflot has daily flights to Minsk for 7,377 rubles for a round trip

By train: Trains leave several times a day from Belorussky Station. The journey takes between eight and 12 hours. Platskart tickets start from 799 rubles on slower trains, rising to 1,679 rubles for faster journeys. Kupe tickets range from 1,345 to 2,796 rubles.

By car: Take the Minskoye Shosse (M1), which crosses Russia's border with Belarus near Smolensk.

What to See

Belarussian State Art Museum
The country's premier collection of Belarussian art, including a large number of socialist realist works from the first half of the 20th century. Open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. daily, closed on Monday and Tuesday.
20 Ulitsa Lenina, +17 227 71 63

Museum of the Great Patriotic War
An interesting but occasionally harrowing collection of photos, records, weaponry and other items of interest from the occupation of Belarus. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, closed on Monday.
25A Prospekt Francyska Skaryny, +17 277 56 11

Palace Mastatsva
A small art gallery featuring temporary collections of modern artworks by contemporary Belarussian artists. Open 10 a.m.-7 p.m. daily, closed on Monday. Entrance is free.
3 Ulitsa Kazlova, +17 213 35 49

Out of Town

Khatyn Memorial
Take the M3 toward Vitebsk, then turn off at the village of Kazyry. Khatyn is 5 kilometers from the turnoff, and is clearly marked. There is no public transportation, but taxis are easy to arrange.

Dudutki Museum
As with Khatyn, organizing a taxi is the only practicable way of getting there. If you're driving, take the P23 highway to the south of Minsk.

Where to Stay

Hotel Planeta
With a pleasant setting near the river, Planeta hits a good balance between price and quality. Its rooms are comfortable and well-renovated. Prices start from $80.
31 Prospekt Mashereva, +17 226 78 55

The web site www.belarusrent.com has a good selection of centrally located apartments, which offer better value for money than most of the city's hotels.

Where to Eat

Stary Mlyn
With a wide selection of authentic Belarussian dishes, a cozy atmosphere and reasonable prices, this is one of the best restaurant choices for those wanting to get acquainted with the local cuisine.
40 Prospekt Francyska Skaryny, +17 284 44 40