5 minute guide to Minsk: Stalinist chic and relaxing parks in the Belarusian capital

5 minute guide to Minsk: Stalinist chic and relaxing parks in the Belarusian capital
Image: Isabel Sommerfeld under a CC licence

7 February 2019

An important but little-known fact from the history of the city: Few foreigners are aware of the role that Belarus played in resisting the Nazi advance eastwards during the Second World War. The dense forests around Minsk were home to one of the most hardy partisan movements in the world; this was also the site of the greatest armed Jewish resistance during the Holocaust (the 2008 film Defiance, starring Daniel Craig, is a surprisingly decent introduction to the Jewish partisan fight if you’re looking for some homework). Minsk’s incredibly rich Jewish culture was sadly decimated during the war — some 66 per cent of the country’s Jews were killed — and there are hardly any architectural clues now to this lost heritage. You can arrange a walking tour of the city’s Jewish history, or for a reminder of the country’s wartime exploits, head to the National Art Museum (20 Lenin Street), which houses one of the most extraordinary collections of Soviet art in the former USSR, including many formally daring depictions of partisan heroism.

The best green/natural space is: You might not think of abundant public greenery when you think of Minsk, but you’ll be surprised. The city was almost completely rebuilt following the Second World War to a Stalinist masterplan that made it the greatest exhibition of Socialist Realism enlightenment in the world. One crucial aspect of this redesign was the “Green Diametre” — a number of often sprawling parks installed along the banks of the Svisloch River that cuts through Minsk from north to south. Of these perhaps the most picturesque is Jakub Kolas Park, with its landscaped paths and sculptures; further north is Staraskinskaya Slabada Square, with its “Island of Tears” peninsula commemorating, among other things, the sons of Belarus killed in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The National Library of Belarus. Image: Dennis Jarvis under a CC licence

The best building in the city is probably: The National Library of Belarus is probably the most famous architectural rhombicuboctahedron in the world. Built in 2006 to a design by Mikhail Vinogradov and Viktor Kramarenko, the remarkable structure has eight triangular and 18 square faces, and towers 74 metres tall. Located a little out of town at 116 Praspyekt Nyezalyezhnastsi (Independence Avenue), it’s undoubtedly the modern architectural landmark of the city — especially when the sun goes down, and its many sides are transformed into a bizarre array of LED light shows seemingly without purpose. If you can get inside (not easy without a pass), you can take a lift to the top and enjoy great views over the city centre.

Where to drink with the locals: If you want to get a sense of Minsk with a drink in your hand, there are two places you need to go. First, to the Universam Tsentralny (Central Supermarket) at the heart of Praspyekt Nyezalyezhnastsi, an iconically old-fashioned establishment decorated with lurid Socialist Realist landscapes. On the ground floor you can buy a plastic cup of questionable cognac and stand at the window bar watching life go by on the thoroughfare outside — pure Soviet bliss. Then, in the evening, head just a little further up the road to the imposing House of Officers, otherwise known as the House of the Red Army, a hulking Stalinist edifice flanked by mounted tanks. Incongruously, the basement of the building is let out to bars and cafes, so you can make merry in the bowels of the beast, combining militarism and alcohol in true Belarusian fashion.

The storerooms of the Zair Azgur Memorial Museum. Image: Samuel Goff

The must-have Instagram snap is: The Zair Azgur Memorial Musuem (8 Vulica Azgura), dedicated to Soviet Belarus’s most celebrated sculptor, might not seem like a particularly attractive draw to those not enamoured of communist romanticism. But if you can convince the attendants to let you into the storerooms out back, you’ll be rewarded with the greatest collection of tacky Soviet busts you can imagine — perfect for some ironic, red-baiting selfie action. There are stacks and stacks of Lenins in all manner of poses, plus Stalin, Dzerzhinsky, Marx and Engels, as well as other historical luminaries including Hegel, Robespierre, and Spartacus.

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