Expect to be deeply moved by all that you find at the Belarusian State Museum of the Great Patriotic War © Nickolay Vinokurov, Shutterstock
The massive logistical task of moving the vast collection of exhibits forming the basis of this magnificent museum from its former location in Oktyabrskaya Square to its new home here in Pobyedy Park was completed on the occasion of a hugely symbolic opening ceremony in the presence of none other than heads of state Lukashenko and Putin on 2 July 2014, the eve of Independence Day and the 70th anniversary of the country’s liberation from Nazi occupation. Quite rightly, the President and the country as a whole regard the events of the Great Patriotic War with enormous significance, to the extent that they dominate the national psyche even today. Around 8,000 artefacts out of a collection in excess of 145,000 are displayed in 28 exhibits over ten rooms, each of which is crammed with memorabilia. Documentary films are on a constant loop and from time to time war veterans are present to recount their experiences.
Yanka Kupala Park
There is a museum within the park which stands at the location of the wooden house where Yanka Kapuala once lived © Liashko, Wikimedia Commons
Yanka Kupala, a politically active poet and writer, is a favourite son of the Belarusian nation. He and his contemporary Yakub Kolas are widely regarded as the most significant figures of modern Belarusian literature and language. Designed in 1962 (20 years after his death) and situated just across the avenue from Gorky Park, it is home to the Yanka Kupala monument and museum, along with many other sculptures. Its broad central walkway slopes gently down to the Svislach River, which forms a boundary on two sides and is 120m wide on one of them, with fine views towards the lovely buildings on Kommunisticheskaya Street where Lee Harvey Oswald rented an apartment in 1960. Over 4,000 trees and many more shrubs were planted when this park was laid out, making it an oasis of green in the heart of the city (especially as there are few cafés within its boundaries other than summer ones by the river) and a splendid place for an afternoon’s stroll. Less manufactured and smaller than Gorky Park, it actually feels bigger, with more room to breathe and to appreciate the greenery. With considerably fewer people around, it’s possible to amble for ages and not feel that you’re in a major capital city at all.
Nyezalyezhnastsi (Independence) Square
The sense of space and air at Independence Square is impressive © Bahdanovich Alena, Shutterstock
A number of prewar Stalinist buildings survive and of course there is also yet another imposing statue of Lenin, master of all he surveys. The best panoramic view of the square can be seen through the arch in Leningradskaya Street, when the buildings on the north side, dominated by the House of Government (with Lenin in the foreground) and the red Catholic Church of St Simeon and St Helena, stand open to the eye in all their glory. Government House is a monument to simplistic symmetry, with several buildings of different heights overlooking the central tenstorey structure, the whole being recessed from the square at a distance of 50m, just to add to its imposing and monumental appearance. Built between 1930 and 1934 as a manifestation of civic power and influence, in architectural terms this building was originally intended to be the blueprint for the whole of the city. The eastern side of the square where Nyezalyezhnastsi Avenue begins is flanked by the Neoclassical lines of the magnificent Hotel Minsk, built in 1957, and the impressive Central Post Office, built in 1953. The southern side consists of the Belarusian State University (1962), the Minsk City Executive Council buildings (1964) and the Metro Administration building (1984). This magnificent square has survived military occupation by a cruel oppressor, has been the sight of countless processions to celebrate revolution and freedom, hosted demonstrations in the era of perestroika as the Soviet Union breathed its last and then, finally, was the location from which the birth of the newly independent republic was proclaimed on 19 September 1991.
Island of Tears
Memorial Island of Tears commemorates the victims of the Afghanistan campaign © saiko3p, Shutterstock
Situated on the Svislach River directly opposite Old Town and inaugurated on 3 August 1996, this is a commemorative memorial to the fallen in the USSR’s ill-fated and disastrous Afghanistan campaign (1979–88). The central feature is a chapel upon the walls of which bleak and harrowing images of bereaved widows and mothers are sculpted, all waiting in vain for their loved ones to return. Inside are four altars bearing icons, together with small shrines dedicated to the fallen from each of the country’s administrative oblasts, their names listed on the walls. In the centre, memory bells have been lowered into a sunken recess containing soil from a number of graves, along with a sealed capsule containing soil from the fields of battle in Afghanistan where some of the nation’s sons fell. This is a highly symbolic and ritualistic gesture, often to be found at memorial locations in this country. Nearby is the statue of a doleful angel in mourning, weeping because he could not save the boys’ lives.
Troitskoye (Trinity) Suburb
Troitskoye is the place to go for a good night out © Андрэй Дзмiтрыеў, Wikimedia Commons
Famous for its bars and taverns since the 13th century, this attractive historic area down by the Svislach River (and on the opposite bank to Upper Town) is known as ‘Old Town’. It’s mostly a reconstruction, although there are those in this city who will tell you indignantly that what you see is wholly original. The truth is likely to lie somewhere between the two, so let’s say that the original buildings here have been substantially and sympathetically renovated. Certainly, the works undertaken to the brightly coloured two- and three-storey buildings during the 1980s and subsequently have been tastefully accomplished, enabling the visitor to experience the city as it existed a century or so ago. Then, the dwellings were of stone and the streets were cobbled. This was a non-aristocratic part of the city, housing factory workers, peasants, craftsmen, traders, low-rank civil servants, military personnel and the petty bourgeoisie. Today, their successors are the owners of the offices, shops, cafés, bars and restaurants that occupy the buildings here.
The National Library boasts some impressive views of the city © Kuprevich, Shutterstock
Opened by the President himself on 16 June 2006, this most unusual building makes for a really eye-catching sight in all of its futuristic splendour. The correct term for its geometric shape is (apparently) a rhombicuboctahedron. Whatever the technicalities, it’s quite a sight. Located on Nyezalyezhnastsi Avenue and a little out of town on the main thoroughfare into the city from Minsk National Airport, it dominates the skyline for miles around, particularly when it is illuminated in a dazzling display of colour at night, although the construction of new developments in the vicinity is beginning to encroach upon it. Some 14 million books have now been moved here. The English pages of the library’s website are extremely informative, so undertake some research on this quirky feature in advance then stop off on your travels (it’s a 5-minute walk from the Moskovskaya metro station) for some great photo opportunities (while it’s still standing). There is an indoor observation platform on the 22nd floor and it’s also possible to venture outside although, at 73m above the ground, you will need a head for heights. It’s well worth it, because the views over Minsk by night and by day are unsurpassed.
Feeling inspired to take a trip to Minsk? Check out our guide: