Standing in the airport as I was about to depart for Belarus, I admired the luggage sizer for low-budget Wizz Airlines.
Wow. If their slogan isn't "Take a Wizz!" then somebody fucked up. Look at how fun these guys are, their i is even upside-down. They just don't give a fuck! Phenomenal.
I had little time to ponder this greatness however as I was being whisked across the runway to my private jet. And by private jet I mean a cheap and shitty public plane that was nevertheless the size of a private jet. Belavia still sounds kind of luxurious though, no?
Ah, Belarus. Belarus is the girl that got dumped by the Soviet Union and never got over it. You get the distinct impression that while the other republics were joyously celebrating their independence after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Belarus was in the bathroom, sobbing on her mom’s shoulder. They really didn't want to leave.
Belarus is the only dictatorship in Europe. When the German Foreign Minister referred to the president of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko as “Europe’s last dictator,” Lukashenko cut straight to the point in his reply:
“Better to be a dictator than gay.”
Well okay then!
Belarus was also kind enough to grant me my wish of experiencing what the Soviet Union must have been like back in the 80s (or perhaps the 60s) because it did not seem to have changed at all since that time. This was fascinating.
Well, hardly changed at all. My singular favorite thing in Minsk was the wildly incongruous mash-up of Soviet ideals and garish late-stage capitalism that I came to call the Revolutionary KFC.
This is the Solidarity Monument, built from 1962-1967, which originally towered over the House of Fashion. Times they went and changed on Belarus, however, so when this space became available for rent, KFC moved in to express their solidarity with Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and the rest of the Yum! Brands family.
Voila: Revolutionary KFC!
FYI, locals will look at you strangely for gawking at and photographing the Revolutionary KFC, as if they don’t find this thing unusual at all or perhaps due to some mental block they can’t even see it, like it’s The Emperor’s New KFC.
Getting into Belarus at all is complicated and bizarre, which is completely fitting and appropriate. Seeing as how I’ve been to “The North Korea of Central Asia” (Turkmensitan) as well as “The North Korea of North Korea” (North Korea), it was also fitting and appropriate that I now found myself in the North Korea of Europe. Belarus recently relaxed their entry requirements to make it possible for many foreigners to visit the country without applying for a visa first, including citizens of the United States. Great! That was very nice of them. The one catch was that this new leniency did not apply if you were flying to Belarus from Russia, regardless of your nationality. What? In that case you’d need a full-on Belarusian visa.
Wait, what? That doesn’t make any sense at all. “It’s because it counts as an internal flight.” Oh okay… wait whaaaat? Wouldn’t that make it less restricted? And also it’s not an internal flight at all because you’re not part of the USSR anymo-Oh shit I’m sorry stop crying okay?
I discovered this incongruity shortly before I left the US for Russia, and this was a problem since I had planned to fly from St Petersburg to Minsk. Uh oh. It was far too late to secure a Belarusian visa before I left. I remedied this bizarre disaster at the last minute by flying from St Petersburg to Latvia early that morning, exploring Riga, and then carrying on from there to Minsk. Easy peasy. And that’s how, after flying to Kiev that night, I found myself having visited four countries in one day. A new personal record!
Belarus also requires you to have travel medical insurance before they’ll let you into the country, which you must prove legally by saying “I have travel medical insurance” without bursting out laughing. This requirement was a bizarre first for me, but at least I knew about it in advance. As I filled out the migration card to enter the country, I scratched my head that it said “Russian Federation” across the top. You are so weird, Belarus.
The bus from the airport into Minsk takes a solid hour, which makes Minsk kind of a terrible Sean blitz layover city, but you work with what you’ve got. During the long drive I marveled at the fact that the Belarusian countryside looks exactly like Wisconsin.
Plus the occasional not particularly Wisconsiny church, for spice.
I wasn’t expecting to find myself suddenly in the American midwest, all things considered. We cruised nonchalantly by the Mound of Glory, Belarus’s monument to their liberation from the Nazis during WWII. Sadly, the bus driver refused to stop and wait for me to sprint across the freeway to get a better photo of this, but you work with what you’ve got.
Minsk. Minsk is not a pretty town. Sorry, Minskers. The concrete Soviet brutalist architecture is all encompassing and all quite drab, spruced up with the occasional Pyongyangian flourish like the truly bizarre National Library of Belarus.
There were a few other minor oddities.
And some nice old wooden churches, like Holy Spirit Cathedral:
But most of the rest of it was fairly depressing. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy Minsk, or that I didn’t enjoy a taste of what Soviet life was really like in the past. It was the fascinating kind of depressing.
My favorite non-KFC thing in Minsk was the frozen-in-time quality of the Minsk metro, where deep beneath the earth it was still somehow 1962.
The metro cars were clearly original from the Soviet era, a fact made obvious not only by their visual design but by the fact that they were deafeningly loud when in motion, howling like a beast from deep within the Earth, and they stopped with all the measured grace of an eight-year-old slamming a shopping cart into a supermarket parking lot’s tangled den of other shopping carts. This is all probably unfortunate if you live there and have to ride these contraptions every day, but for me I found the janky authenticity of it all quite intoxicating.
And then my retro metro reverie was suddenly shattered when I accidentally elbowed a cute girl on the top of her head like I was Tony Jaa finishing off an elephant poacher. I had been gripping the ceiling of the crowded subway car to keep from tipping over into my fellow White Russians every time the car herky jerkily stopped or started. This is all fine and good until you need to lower your arms down to exit the car or scratch your nuts and BONK! Oh my God, I’m so sorry!
She... doesn’t speak any English at all. I was also the only tourist in Minsk, so everyone was reacting to me like my face had split open, revealing the alien lizard beneath, a reaction which only intensified any time I blurted out something in English. Shit, how do you apologize in a crammed subway car without the benefit of human language?
I shrugged. Sorry? Wait no, that looks terrible! That looked like I was blowing her off. I made an exaggerated sad face, causing her own face to switch from its previous expression of “I think I’m being mugged by an alien” to “I think I’ve been mugged by an insane mime.” Oh well.
About 30 minutes later I did exactly the same thing again, elbowing some dude right on his scalp like he had insulted my elbow fighting skills. Gaaaaaaaah sorry dude! Again, no English. Sad frowny shrug, Belarus!
In spite of my attacks on the general population and probable alien invader status, I seemed to be generally well-liked by the Belarusians I did manage to non-violently interact with, appearing as a strange curiosity they did not understand at all but had not decided they hated yet.
Every time I entered a metro station in Minsk I was pulled off to one side and had my backpack run through an X-ray machine by a fancily-dressed soldier. The soldiers who did this were extremely nice, which came across clearly in spite of them not speaking any English at all. I fell into the routine of this very naturally and casually, as if I was handing off my car keys to a valet.
I would later marvel while traipsing through the equally unloved metro system in Kiev that really only Moscow got the USSR’s beautiful metro station rubles. Sorry Minsk, we’ll make it up to you with a ton of squat concrete buildings, don’t you worry your homely little head about that.
For a city of just under 2 million people, Minsk takes forever to get around in. And every time I emerged out of the metro it was raining sideways, so between that and the unexpected 2-hour round trip from the airport, I had to scale back the ambition of my layover plan considerably. After checking out the Revolutionary KFC and the metro system, I decided that not passing out from hunger should be next on my list, and made my way to Monkey Foooooooooooooooood.
Yes, it is a pain to type that name into Google Maps. But it was a charming and tasty little place, and more importantly, it was located in a reclaimed industrial space that was absolutely riotous with street art. I spent the rest of my Minsk time wandering around in awe of how the younger generation had taken this grim landscape and remade it beautifully in their own spirit.
I was also struck by the flowers. There were radiant flowers planted everywhere that all seemed as happy and vibrant as can be, which I was moved by. I stood for a long while and tuned into these flowers as they glowed in the gray, overcast light. Belarus is a place that suffered the absolute worst that WWII and the Chernobyl disaster had to offer. Unimaginable suffering happened here, and yet they still go to all this effort to make the everyday beautiful.
Also, in 2015 Belarus was ranked as the drunkest country in the world. So hrmm.
All of Belarus was a fascinating contradiction in this way. Here I was, wandering around freely, taking photos of trippy, acid-tinged street art, while not far away Minsk’s KGB headquarters is still active, and that’s where you end up if you criticize how anything is being run in Belarus or ask what happened to the last people who criticized how things were being done in Belarus. The streets are orderly because anyone who isn’t orderly just disappears.
Lukashenko is cut from very much the same cloth as Kim Jong-un and Turkmenistan’s Berdimuhamedow. He generally keeps a slightly lower profile, sort of, I mean when he’s not publicly praising Hitler for keeping Germany orderly or explaining unasked that he can forgive lesbians but not gay men. But nearly all of the tales of Lukashenko could just as easily be about either of those other two men. Criticizing him in Belarus is illegal. He plays on his own presidential hockey team packed with professional ringers, which all other teams of course lose to on purpose because they like not living in a KGB holding cell. Belarusian television is banned from filming Lukashenko from behind, which would expose his comb-over. He even owns a 767 that used to belong to Berdimuhamedow’s predecessor in Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov.
Pictures of military parades in Minsk can be bizarrely difficult to distinguish from shots of the military parades in Pyongyang, the tip-off only coming when you notice that some of the buildings in Pyongyang actually involve some color.
I couldn’t help but think about how these countries with the most terrible, traumatic histories always end up with these bizarre dictators, like the next abusive boyfriend in a long line. It’s no mistake that Belarus seems frozen in the Soviet era, this is Lukashenko’s openly stated design.
Belarus is carrying such a torch for the USSR that it was front page news in 2014 when Lukashenko delivered a speech in Belarusian for the first time in 20 years, rather than speaking in Russian. This was interpreted as a massive fuck-you to Russia, calling them to the carpet for their annexation of Crimea. Boom! So you know, congrats to Belarus on literally the smallest fuck-you ever uttered on planet Earth. But hey, I’m sure Russia was sufficiently chastened by this death blow.
Getting out of Belarus was every bit the bureaucratic clusterfudge one would expect it to be. The Minsk airport was not equipped to accept the mobile boarding pass on my phone, and I was brusquely informed I would need to print it out on good old fashioned paper. Fine. I went to the airline kiosk, which notified me that I was already checked in online, so of course it could not print a boarding pass for me, that would be like traveling backwards in time which is frankly insane and we’re a little surprised you’d even ask this, good sir. I tried again with the same wordy result. Hrm. Fine. I got in line for the Belavia counter to have them print me out a boarding pass for the flight I was already checked in to. Reaching the front of the long line, the woman scanned my passport and then looked at me like I was some kind of dumb alien mime.
“Sir. Zis is ze line for Gomel. You need line for KEEV!”
Huh? What the fuck’s a Gomel?
She pointed at the board behind her, which listed an upcoming flight to Gomel, Belarus. Wait.
Wait. You’re telling me you have a different counter and a different line for every single Belavia flight? That’s impossi... I looked down the lane at the approximately 30 Belavia counters. That’s… insane. Well I guess you can do whatever the hell you want when you’re basically the only airline flying out of this airport. But still.
She sniffed at my obvious travel inexperience. I thought of mentioning to her that no other airport in the world does anything like this but it’s not like she’s ever going to leave Belarus, so she would never believe my tales of imaginary fantasy lands where one line services all of an airline’s flights. I thanked her and slunk into the KEEV line.
Boarding pass in hand, I made it through security and past the exit immigration lady who insisted that Kiev is not a place (“KEEV!”) and I was dumped into a strange bar/gate full of crying children to recompress in preparation for my fourth country of the day.