BELARUS, LAID BARE
National Geographic Traveller India|July - August 2021
Grand monuments in Minsk and Brest, the soft beauty of Grodno, and the kindness of strangers mark a writer’s journey to the “ideal gateway to the Soviet world”
PALOMA DUTTA

The Gates of Minsk are the symbols of how the city was reconstructed after being razed to the ground during World War II, to be the gateway to the Soviet world, an ideal city.

Our personal gateway to the Soviet world was our journey around Russia during the 2018 FIFA World Cup. We thought the handful of Russian words we’d picked up would stand us in good stead in Belarus, formerly a part of the USSR, where Russian is still a national language along with Belarusian (there is also some mutual intelligibility between the two). If nothing else, my vegan partner could roll out “bez myasa/moloka [without meat/milk]” and “kartoshka piroshki [potato pancakes] ” with flair.

RISEN FROM RUIN

Lashing rains greeted us when we alighted at the airport, and rolling fields and farmlands lined the streets leading to the city centre. By the time we entered the underground metro system, stark in its Soviet-era decor, the sun shone brightly. But what really warmed our hearts was how that very first evening in Belarus, strangers who didn’t speak English wouldn’t rest till they’d roused an entire office block to find someone to help us find the location of our accommodation, curiously named Mouse House.

Vadim, who let us in, was amused to have two guests from India. Within minutes we were discussing Mithun Chakraborty, and the Bollywood time warp continued as we found Sholay, dubbed in Belarusian, playing that night on TV. But the conversation turned dark when Vadim observed that there were more people in Delhi than in all of Belarus, which has less than 10 million residents. He told us what we already knew and many on the way would reiterate: Belarus lost a quarter of its population to the German resistance in World War II and hasn’t quite made up for that dramatic decline, though urban migration is more a reason for the current population trends. In the coming days, we’d see that the scars and heroism from the Nazi occupation (1941-1944) were not only well preserved in the impressive buildings of the must-visit city centre—especially in the Great Patriotic War Museum—but also in the consciousness of the present generation. The largest Nazi extermination camp in all of the Soviet Union, Maly Trostenets, lay barely 10 kilometres outside Minsk.

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