I saw a light. A bright light, yet not a big one. In the darkness, I could see that it most likely came from a flashlight, not even 1 meter from my eyes. I sat up to get a clear view of whom was holding that light and the old man quickly stood up and went to his bed. Dazed and confused I tried to get back to sleep. Have been staying in a lot of hostels so know there are some weird people, but this was new to me. In the morning I went to the reception, the old man was sitting on the couch in the “lounge”. Talked to the receptionist about last night. Apparently so had the old man. She looked over my shoulder at the old man and then looked at me. “Yes,” she said. “He talked to me earlier. He is convinced that you are a spy. But he is harmless”.
Harmless or not I was now considered a spy by a (hopefully) crazy old man. I was in Minsk and my first morning had already given me an interesting start. If the old man would have followed me he might have been even more convinced. The first thing I took a picture of was a government building, and according to the girl in the reception, this was a no-no. Then again she might be joking with me. In fact, my first picture was of a Chinese group standing in front of the said building because they refused to move until every Chinese had taken a picture.
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. – Shakespeare said that.
In Sweden, the name for Belarus has been, until recently, Vitryssland which means White Russia in Swedish. This is a direct translation from the Russian word Belarus. During the latest demonstrations, we did change how we say Belarus as a way to show support and understanding for those who fight for a democratic Belarus. We now call it Belarus, and it might seem trivial but this country has had a long struggle to break free from a regime that is considered to be the last dictatorship in Europe. There seems to be a divide in Belarus between the desire to move towards the west, and become more of a free democracy and a strange love for the old, east, and Soviet union. As can be seen on the flag, and the importance of the flag. The old white-red-white striped flag of Belarus is the one waiving for a free democracy, and it was abolished by Lukashenko in the 90s. He has provided his nation with the old Belarus SSR flag, minus the hammer and sickle of course because otherwise, people could think he might be a dictator from an old relic nation.
“It’s better to be a dictator than gay” Lukashenko said that.
But the removal of the symbols of the Soviet doesn’t remove people’s perception of this man and the country he rules. All around Minsk you can feel the old Empire seeping through, in the buildings, the monument, and even in the people. The flag is prominent everywhere. Even on the lawn in front of a government building, I found the flowers arranged as the flag. There are big, open areas with huge buildings. Minsk also has a huge Soviet-style monument in the so-called Victory park just outside the city center. It is not difficult to see Lukashenko’s ambitions in keeping the regime from old intact in his own country, and the citizens get a constant reminder of this. It feels like you are stepping back in time to some extent, and besides Transniestra this might be the only remaining place where you can almost feel like you are in the Soviet Union.
Cats in hats
In a nation that seems to not be sure if it misses the Soviet Union or wants to be its own independent state, there are a lot of things I never really have expected to find here. One of those things was a cat museum. In Japan, I have been to cat cafes and snake cafes. You basically have a coffee with a cat or snake around you. But a museum? What lurks behind those doors? Does it contain an exhibition on the history of cats in Belarus? The questions and the absurdity were too many for me and I just had to see it. I almost missed it. Walking on the street where I knew it should be I passed a white, ordinary-looking house with not many signs indicating anything. In the window, I saw a poster of a cat and something that was written in Russian. This was it. Walking in it was more absurd than I actually anticipated. It was like stepping into a cat lady’s house and seeing and smelling her 50 cats running around like crazy. You get something to drink and then just hang around with the cats. It doesn’t matter if you speak or read Russian, considering there was no information to gather. The house of the catlady boasted with kids’ drawings, cat toys, and a horror show of a room with artistic paintings of cats looking like humans. I left the little house, knowing nothing new about cats and with the stench of cat litter still stuck in my nose.
Boredom killed JFK
But it was a nice break from a nation that otherwise doesn’t have time for fun. Went down the street, enjoying a beer in the lovely historical square. Saw the famous KFC with a huge Soviet monument on top of it, past the island of tears. The island has a huge monument in memory of Soviet soldiers that died in the Afghan war. I finished my first day starring at an apartment on a small street. To most people walking past this might be a normal building, and it really looked like that. However, in that specific building, Lee Harvey Oswald lived for a short time. Oswald’s time in Minsk could serve as a great anti-propaganda for the Soviets and Minsk. Before shooting JFK (but was he alone?) Lee Harvey got fired from U.S. Marine Corps, and not being petty about it, he moved to Moscow. He hoped to attend Moscow State University, but the Soviet government sent him to Minsk instead. He did have a great apartment, compared to most Russians, but in the end, he was bored. As he wrote himself, “I am starting to reconsider my desire about staying… No nightclubs or bowling alleys”. The man who disliked the USA so much, that he willingly moved to the Soviet Union found Minsk so boring that he moved back to the USA, and eventually killed JFK.
Does Minsk understand the concept of a museum?
The bus ride out took a long time. So unnecessary long that I was thinking if it was worth it. After seeing the little cat museum I was skeptical about this new museum. My hopes weren’t too high but the museum seemed so odd that I just had to go. Close to the marvelous National Library of Belarus was a big green field. Here was the stone museum. What could I expect?
Well, stones. This one was more confusing than the cat one. A huge green park with stones, serving as a museum. Something was written on a sign somewhere indicating that it was indeed a museum but all in Russian and nothing more than that. In hindsight, it really did feel like a waste of time. I understand Lee Harvey Oswalds desire to leave if the city has a stone museum in which there are huge boulders placed out, and that’s it. On my way back to the city I stopped by the majestic Gorkyj park. Now, I must be honest. At first, I thought that this was the park that Scorpions were singing about in their song about Russias independence. It took me a while to realize and remember that all communist countries love to share the same names such as Victory Park and (apparently) Gorkyj park. I did like the park though, but the one in Moscow is much better.
I left Minsk, knowing I will come back one day. Minsk is a beautiful, weird little city that seems to struggle to find its identity, which ironically gives it an identity that I love.