Travel is naturally comparative. Is this place more expensive than that one? Hotter or colder? More modern or historic? More or less Russian?
The latter is a comparison I’d never considered prior to visiting Belarus. The country is described as “Europe’s last dictatorship,” and it felt more Russian to us than Russia did. Belarusians seem to regret having separated from the Soviet Union in 1991. In fact, they seem disappointed that it’s no longer 1991 in general.
During our time in Minsk, it seemed as if we’d flashed back to the days of Fresh Prince and Full House, except without the laugh track. The mall was by far the most happening spot in the city, and it was somewhat reminiscent of suburban America in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Even the fashion seemed frozen in time with tracksuits, acid washed jeans, and Reeboks.
Our first meal in Minsk was served by teenagers in country-style costumes at a restaurant called Vasilki (“cornflowers” in Russian). The traditional, potato-heavy Belarusian cuisine was offered in a setting designed to replicate Grandma’s house, with ruffled curtains, cushioned benches, and lamps with woven basket shades.
I briefly contemplated the dumplings with cottage cheese (there were also dumplings with chicken or mushrooms or blueberries or, of course, potatoes) but went with a steak instead. It did not taste like Grandma made it.
The whole mall experience was a bit surreal, just like our hotel. We may have been the only guests there. We were a bit afraid to ask.
While other countries have ripped down their Soviet-era monuments, Belarus appears to have erected new ones as love letters to the society they miss. And lest you think we were imagining things, remember that Belarus signed a treaty with Russia in 2000 to reestablish ties as the Union State.
If we’d had time, I would’ve liked to get outside the bleakness of the city to visit the Belarusian Folk Museum of Architecture and Rural Life. In addition to a vodka-making lesson, there are traditional bakers and potters and woodworkers demonstrating their crafts in an authentic way.
Not like shopping mall Grandma.