English is the second language, there is a growing middle class and investors the world over have turned their eyes towards this rumbustious nation. Belarus, a landlocked country only formed after the Russian invasion of Poland in 1939, has taken a different path and remains true to its Soviet roots. No English is spoken, only Russian. There are few private businesses, few shops and even fewer restaurants. It’s a difference that descends when you cross the border.
And yet, for all its lack of worldliness, this Eastern European country has much to commend. Covered in dense forest, the roads here are good. Surprisingly good. First world nation this is not, but you would forgive yourself for being fooled. Enter the centre of the country’s second and once most important city, Grodno (Hrodna), and the place is spotless. The wealth of historic buildings are either partly restored or spotlessly maintained. And those which aren’t, mainly in the city’s old Jewish Quarter, are coming under public scrutiny. The cobbled streets, some over 200 years old, are constantly renovated, and the city’s half wooden, half brick oldest church — apparently the oldest in Eastern Europe — maintains the same outward design features that were installed when it was built in the 12th century. Grodno, unlike its heavily bombed big brother Minsk, was for centuries the most important city in the region. Preservation it seems is top of the agenda.
Appearance, Appearance, Appearance
If you search hard you will come across a splattering of restaurants and bars, and even the occasional nightclub. But the average Belarusian can only afford to eat out once a month — a typical two-course, Italian-style meal of pasta or pizza with Slavic-style add-ons like pork, pickles and egg and imported beer costs around BYR50,000 (VND182,500) for two. Although the average GDP per capita is VND121,800,000, for most it’s a step too far.
Instead the locals focus their spending and savings on their family first and then their apartment and car. As a result, while the Lenin statues remain, the Ladas, Yugos and Skodas have mostly disappeared and the traditional horse and cart is now the preserve of the countryside. In their place are mainly five to ten-year-old Western European cars and a surprisingly well-dressed, even better starched populous. The women are tall, often over six foot and blonde. The men are rugged but smart. Outward appearance, or at least the show of it, seems high on the agenda here, too.
If you do make it to this most unusual yet endearing nation, ignore the niceties of appearance and head to the country’s biggest towns and then the countryside beyond. There is medieval and Baroque architecture mixed with greying apartment blocks at almost every turn, and while the capital Minsk is an obvious destination, also make time for Grodno, Brest and Vitsyebsk. But just make sure you prepare your visa in advance. You’ll need to get sponsored by a travel agency (try belarustravel.by) and pay for your hotel rooms before you arrive. And then you have to hope that the Belarusian Embassy grants you a visa. It may all seem a bit daunting, but providing that your papers are in order, there shouldn’t be an issue. And if it doesn’t work out, refunds are available. Just don’t expect to find a smaller version of modern day Russia. Belarus may have a similar language and use Cyrillic script, and the two countries remain close, but beyond this, it is anything but.