31 May 2012

My wonderful Belarussian guides.

In late May of 2012, I began travels around four countries that were all former Soviet Socialist Republics and are all now ruled by "presidents for life." The first stop was Belarus where the visa process for Americans essentially required using a travel company to book things in advance.

For Belarus, I used MIR, an outstanding company with its headquarters in Seattle. MIR tailored everything meticulously, with excellent private guides and drivers, and created a short but thoroughly enjoyable swing around the highlights of Minsk and Brest.

Destinations where "Western" tourists rarely go are often the most fascinating to explore and Belarus was no exception.

Guidebooks often made Minsk (pop. nearly 2 million) sound as if it consisted of endless blocks of ugly Soviet buildings, so I was pleasantly surprised to find an attractive, uncluttered, tree-filled city with wide avenues.
Yes, Minsk! Looking from an island in the river at old churches near Plaza Svabody.

Lenin's still stands in front of the central Belarus government building for, I'm told "historical reasons." Ironically, Lenin looks out over the big three-story subterranean capitalist shopping center underneath Nezalezhnastsi Plaza in the lower photo.

That photo also shows (near Lenin) the Church of Saints Simon and Elana with my Minsk Hotel beyond on the right.

A moving memorial at Khatyn, one of 183 villages totally destroyed by the Nazis. Chimney's remain to mark each destroyed house.

New but old-style Orthodox church at the Dudutki folklife village.

There were some "Soviet-style" apartment buildings. These were photographed from my train going from Minsk to Brest.

A ceremony of army/militia officers being held at the Brest Fortress.

Changing of the guard at the Brest Fortress, where the Germans and the Soviets fought their first major battle of World War II.

Brest (pop. 310,000) is the second-largest city in Belarus. It is a few miles from the Polish border and it has changed hands often over the centuries. (Another excellent MIR guide.)