Minsk: A City That Shines With Old Soviet Charm
Published: January 25, 2013 (Issue # 1743)
Lena Smirnova / MT
A panoramic view close to the historic section of the city, not far from the banks of the Svisloch river, reveals the contrast of mostly new buildings with a few surviving older structures.
MINSK — If not for the occasional foreign-language billboard or a foreign car passing by, this city could easily be mistaken for the set of an old Soviet movie.
The extras smile and politely give you directions. Some even take you where you need to go for free or will provide you with change for your fare on public transportation, where you can ride with equally polite commuters.
The central thoroughfares of the Belarusian capital carry familiar Soviet names. The Palace of the Republic is located at the intersection of Engels and International streets while the presidential palace sits on Karl Marx Street.
Minsk’s aesthetics can easily leave visiting Russians nostalgic for their childhood. In 2008, it was even chosen as the location for the film “Stilyagi,” about hip Moscow youths of the 1950s.
But aside from these well-preserved Soviet throwbacks, the government is quickly pushing ahead to make Minsk into a modern and investor-friendly city. Several key steps have already been taken to make this happen, notably the creation of the National Agency of Investment and Privatization, which was set up to help with the arduous process of selling off Belarus’ state assets.
And perhaps with the assumption that investors will be making money and need places to spend it, the government legalized gambling in 2005, so the city now boasts more than 30 casinos, the biggest of them developed by foreign investors.
Belarus has also moved forward in cooperating with the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency, a part of the World Bank, which insures investors against political and other noncommercial risks.
Active investors agree that the Belarussian business climate still has many shortcomings, not least of which is the authoritarian regime of President Alexander Lukashenko. But they say the overall investment potential of the country is good.
Local lawyer Sergei Mashonsky advises foreign companies to get involved but points out that some of the key problems that investors could face in Belarus today are insufficient protection of private business property rights, complexities in the tax system and excessive interference by state organs in company activities.
Some of the leftover Soviet traits now benefit manufacturers in the country.
“Belarus has managed to preserve the standardization system that was created in the USSR. The success of Belarusian products that we are seeing owes much to that system,” said Dmitry Bury, general director of Polimaster, a Belarusian company that sells radiation-detection equipment worldwide.
Stereotypes about the country may be hard to overcome. Fortunately for Minsk residents, they know all too well how to deal with adversity.
Minsk has burned down 18 times in its history, and the extensive bombing campaigns of World War II eliminated the city’s architectural gems.
Nazis seized the city on the sixth day of the war. More than 40,000 people were killed during the three-year occupation, and when the smoke cleared, the surviving residents were left in a sea of rubble. More than 80 percent of houses were destroyed, as were most factories and theaters. Minsk received the title of a hero city for its partisan resistance, but it had to be completely rebuilt.
Despite the challenges that city residents have faced throughout history, they remain eternally upbeat and optimistic. It should not be a surprise then that one of the sayings that can be heard in Minsk is “what will burn will not rot, so let it burn!”
Those coming to Minsk with the impression that it is a hotbed of authoritarianism, a gambling playground or a backward ex-Soviet metropolis may be disappointed. The city’s calm atmosphere and friendly residents help to offset its less marketable elements. And this special charm touches not only those nostalgic for Soviet traditions but also younger generations that never got to experience them.
What to see if you have two hours
If you begin your tour of the city from the railway station, take the metro from the railroad square to Ploshchad Nezavisimosti, where Minsk’s central avenue begins. Here you can go into the Roman Catholic Church of Saints Simon and Helen (Ulitsa Sovietskaya), commonly referred to as the Red Church. The building was used as a theater and movie museum during the Soviet period but was returned to the Catholic Church in 1990.
Duck into the underground shopping mall, similar to Moscow’s Okhotny Ryad, which is on the side of Ploshchad Nezavisimosti. This is one of the best places to buy Belarusian trinkets. Typical souvenirs include chocolates from the Belarus-based Kommunarka and Spartak factories as well as Milavitsa lingerie.
Your shopping complete, walk further along Prospekt Nezavisimosti and turn at Ulitsa Yanki Kupaly, which will take you into the oldest part of the city, Trinity Hill. The area on the banks of the Svisloch River is full of colorful old-style houses, some of which managed to survive the severe bombing campaigns of World War II.
This is a favorite walking place for Minchany, as the locals are called, including Dmitry Klevzhits, director of Belarus’ National Agency of Investment and Privatization.
“I really like the old Minsk: Verkhny Gorod, Trinity Hill,” he said. “Unfortunately, our city was practically fully destroyed and was rebuilt anew after the war. There aren’t that many places where one can breathe in history, so you value them all the more.”
Belarus’ war experience is tangible even in this sunlit alcove of the city. On the north side of Trinity Hill is the artificially created Island of Tears, a touching tribute to the Belarusians who died in the Soviet conflict in Afghanistan. Construction began in 1988, before the end of the war, and the monument has since been inscribed with the names of every fallen Belarusian soldier.
What to do if you have two days
Two days in Minsk gives you the luxury of comparing the Soviet and the modern city. After walking around the historic sites on your first day, head for the National Library of Belarus (116 Prospekt Nezavisimosti; +8 17-266-37-02; nlb.by). Construction on the new library building was completed in 2006, and it now resembles a 23-story diamond. The building is a good place for taking pictures during the day or at night, when it is illuminated with colorful lights.
A day trip to the Khatyn Memorial (Logoisk area; +375 17-745-5787; khatyn.by) is a somber but powerful reminder of the horrors that took place in Belarus during World War II. The memorial occupies the site of a village that was destroyed by the Nazis in 1943. This village was burned to the ground, and 149 people died in the subsequent massacre. The memorial is made up of sculptures and obelisks to mark where houses used to be. During the day, you can hear the heart-wrenching peals of the Khatyn bells.
What to do with the family
Take your children into the past with you at one of Minsk’s old parks. The Gorky Children’s Park (2 Ulitsa Frunze; +375 17-294-51-31; parki.by) officially opened in 1805 to the sounds of a military orchestra and tuxedo-clad men singing ceremonial cantatas. The park has since updated its image and now is a hub for kiddie entertainment. Rides, ice cream and cotton candy are all at your disposal at low prices. Prices for the rides start from 2,500 Belarusian rubles, equivalent to $0.30.
Park Cheluskintsev (84 Prospekt Nezavisimosti; +375 17-292-55-18; parki.by) also has multiple rides plus a 28-meter-high Ferris wheel. The Ferris wheel is one of the most expensive rides in the park, with tickets selling for a whopping 7,000 Belarusian rubles ($0.80).
Not far from the parks is the Belarusian State Circus (32 Prospekt Nezavisimosti; +375 17-327-78-42; circus.by), which hosts regular shows by local and visiting artists, including acrobats, jugglers and daredevils who are not afraid of sticking their head into a lion’s mouth.
The one thing Minsk residents can’t complain about is a lack of nightlife. In fact, complaints about an overabundance of opportunities for nocturnal carousing are more likely. Minsk has turned into an Eastern European version of Las Vegas thanks to a presidential order that regulates gambling in the country.
Lena Smirnova / MT
The Belarussian State Circus has a plethora of animal acts, as well as jugglers and acrobats.
Russians make up more than half the visitors in the more than 30 casinos in the city. One local described the ritual of gambling-hungry Muscovites running into the arms of their limo drivers, who await their arrival at the Minsk airport on Fridays. After freshening up at the hotel, the Russians are promptly driven to the Shangri-La or Mirazh casinos. The ceremony repeats itself in reverse when the visitors are returned to their Moscow-bound planes on Sundays, this time slightly more subdued after a weekend of thrills and spending.
Where to eat
As its name suggests, the cozy and popular restaurant Bistro de Luxe (10 Ulitsa Gorodskoy Val; +375 44-789-1111; bistro-de-luxe.relax.by) is perfect for anyone in a hurry. The dishes, picked from international cuisine, are brought promptly, and the staff speaks English. A Caesar salad, roast beef, slice of cheesecake and coffee cost $35. This may not be the place to go, though, if you are irritated by cigarette smoke since there is no nonsmoking section at the restaurant.
For traditional Belarusian cuisine, head to Kamyanitsa (18 Pervomayskaya Ulitsa; +375 17-294-51-24; kamyanitsa.by). Here you can get large portions of traditional foods such as draniki, soups, syrniki and liqueurs in a medieval atmosphere. A chicken fillet salad, borshcht with buckwheat, pork fillet meat pot and strawberry-filled patties will cost you $17.
The Grand Cafe (2 Ulitsa Lenina; +375 44-703-1111; grand-cafe.relax.by) is a good place for special occasions. The prices are good compared with those of Moscow, but they are high for Minsk residents so you are unlikely to see locals there. A dinner for two of foie gras, salmon fillet, pasta with salmon and red caviar, steak, champagne and cocktails will cost you up to $100.
Where to stay
The five-star Hotel Europe (28 Internatsionalnaya Ulitsa; +375 17-229-83-39; hoteleurope.by) is the posh approach to staying in Minsk. Located in the historical center of the city, the hotel opened in 2007 and has all modern amenities, including a restaurant and fitness complex, to guarantee a comfortable stay. A single business suite costs $640 per night.
If you have a packed schedule and don’t plan to spend every evening in the city center, Victoria Hotel and Business Center (59 Prospekt Pobeditelei; +375 17-239-77-44; hotel-victoria.by) could be a good fit. The hotel is not centrally located, so getting to the city would require a short ride in a taxi or on public transportation. This European-style hotel makes up for its remote location with a highly praised breakfast menu and modern rooms. A luxury suite with breakfast costs $303.
For something cozier, try Garni Hotel (11 Internatsionalnaya Ulitsa; +375 17-229-76-00; miniotel-belarus.com). The newly opened hotel is in the very heart of the city, just minutes from the Palace of the Republic. It has a good breakfast selection and choice of restaurants nearby. A suite will cost you $300 per night.
Though you may be tempted to bring up politics when speaking to locals, it is best to avoid this subject entirely in casual conversations. In Minsk, you are just as likely to meet a supporter of the current regime as an opponent. Others may simply be put on their guard by the topic.
Stick to more flattering subjects instead. Belarusians are pleased to hear visitors praise their food products. Belarusian meat and dairy products are particularly well-known for their high quality, and the locals’ love of potatoes has become the punch line for many Russian jokes. If you still have doubts about how much Belarusians love their homegrown food, consider that there is a statue of a potato on one of Minsk’s streets.
Ironically, while people from across the Soviet Union went to Moscow to buy hard-to-get food products in the past, now trains leaving Minsk are packed with Muscovites, their bags stuffed with Belarusian comestibles, some of which are devoured before passengers reach their destination.
One of the things most commonly said about Minsk is that it is very clean. This is not surprising since municipal cleaning trucks wash the streets mere minutes after a rain shower and groups of people get together on the weekends for Soviet-style clean-up days. Take care not to litter in the city to avoid annoyed glances or disciplining remarks.
How to get there
The train is the most popular and easiest way to get to Minsk. Between one and three trains leave St. Petersburg’s Vitebsky Station en route to the city each day. The train ride takes 13 to 14 hours, and single second class tickets start at around 3350 rubles ($110), while 3rd class tickets start at around 1500 rubles ($50).
The Belarusian national carrier Belavia operates daily flights between St. Petersburg and Minsk, with single tickets costing around 3,000 rubles ($100). Surprisingly, flights take 2.5 hours to cover the 700km between the two cities.
Road travel from Russia to Belarus got easier in 2011 with the creation of a customs union between the two countries. There is no longer customs or passport control on the border, so you will not be stopped if you are traveling in a passenger vehicle.
The route itself is very simple. You exit St. Petersburg via Pulkovskoye Shosse, and follow signs for Pskov on the M20 and continuing south from Pskov into Belarus, passing through Polotsk on your way to Minsk. The distance is 700 kilometers, and the trip takes an estimated 12-13 hours. Be sure to get local car insurance when you are in Belarus since the Russian one won’t be valid. Foreigners can be fined $200 if they don’t have the proper insurance.
Main industries: Chemicals, light industry, machine building, construction materials, electronics, furniture, information technology
Chairman of the Minsk City Council: Nikolai Ladutko
Founded in 1067
Interesting fact: Minsk was the jazz capital of the Soviet Union from 1939 to 1946. Prominent Polish and Soviet jazz musician Eddie Rosner made the city his home for those years, but when jazz was condemned in the Soviet Union in 1946, Rosner was sent to the gulag for 10 years.
Sister cities: Nottingham, Britain; Sendai, Japan; Bangalore, India; Lyon, France; Belo Horizonte, Brazil; Changchun, China; Lodz, Poland; Bonn, Germany; Eindhoven, Netherlands; Kiev, Ukraine; Dushanbe, Tajikistan; Kishinev, Moldova; Havana, Cuba; Tehran, Iran; Abu-Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; Ankara, Turkey; Tiraspol, Moldova; Detroit, U.S.; Novosibirsk, Russia
Helpful contacts: Dmitry Klevzhits, director of the National Agency of Investment and Privatization (+375 17-200-81-75; investinbelarus.by), Nikolai Ladutko, chairman of the Minsk City Council (+375 17-218-0001; minsk.gov.by); Vladimir Karyagin, chairman of the Minsk Capital Union of Entrepreneurs and Employers (+375 17-298-24-38; obschestvennoe-obedinenie-minskij-stolichnyj-soyuz.deal.by)
Lena Smirnova / MT
Statues of weeping mothers encircle the monument to soldiers who fell in the Afghan war.
Few enterprises can boast employees as politically mobilized as those at the Minsk Train Car Repair Plant (5 Ulitsa Zheleznodorozhnaya; +375 17-225-1838; mvrz.by). The workers at the plant, which recently celebrated its 140-year anniversary, participated in the October Revolution and took part in Minsk’s partisan efforts during World War II. Now their main task is to restore and build train cars, including those used in Russia. “We give them a second life for at least another 20 years,” the plant’s slogan says proudly.
One of Belarus’ key success stories is the company Polimaster (51 Ulitsa Skoriny; +375 17-268-6819;polimaster.ru), which designs and produces devices for monitoring radiation levels. Started as a 15-person team in the early 1990s, Polimaster has since grown to a staff of over 180 people and makes more than 17,000 devices each year. Its products are supplied to 75 countries.
In addition to the macho appeal of train cars and dosimeters, the Belarusian capital appeals to the sensual. For women, the city is primarily associated with the popular lingerie brand Milavitsa (28 Ulitsa Novovilenskaya; +375 17-288-0770; milavitsa.com). Founded in 1908 by a couple of Minsk-based Frenchmen who were then selling women’s hair combs, the company has become an international sensation in the underwear market. It operates using the franchise model and has stores in Poland, Belgium, Italy, Russia and the United Arab Emirates, among others.
Director of Belarus’ National Agency of Investment and Privatization
Q: What support do Minsk authorities provide to investors, particularly foreign investors?
A: The Minsk City Council recently opened what is called a “one-stop window” for investors. This means that the investor is able to quickly and conveniently complete all the procedures, from filing inquiries to completing an investment agreement. The next step will be to optimize all the other procedures that investors have to go through after signing an agreement, including getting construction permits.
Our national agency has also been created and works according to the “one window” or rather the “one door” principle for investors. Here a foreigner can seek assistance to get his idea off the ground. We will help him to find and implement a project, and not just in Minsk. The Belarusian government now provides maximum preferences and benefits to investors in small towns.
Q: Which segments have the most investment potential?
A: Understandably, investors are most willing to put their money into the food industry, anything that involves superficial processing of our resources. However, we are trying to broaden the possibilities in industries that generate higher added value. It is in these areas that we are formulating the most attractive conditions. All the attention is directed here. We believe, for example, that for us it is important to develop pharmaceuticals and biotechnology. These sectors now have the highest added value and work opportunities for qualified personnel. Our other focus is the development of new materials and alternative energy. The third focus is information and communication technologies.
Q: Which barriers must still be overcome to increase investments?
It is rare, but there is still some bureaucracy and a lack of desire on the part of local authorities to help out investors. The National Agency for Investment and Privatization exists in part to solve this issue by providing assistance to foreign investors interested in doing business in Belarus.
Managing partner at Arzinger Partners, the first international law firm in Belarus
Q: What factors give Belarus such a high score in the World Bank’s Doing Business rating category for protection of investors’ rights?
A: The state has taken additional steps to help foreign investors: ratification of the amendments to the Convention Establishing the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency, execution of treaties on legal assistance to secured foreign investments and application of local currency, as well as the adoption of a strategy aimed at attracting direct foreign investments.
Q: What should foreign investors be aware of before they start working here?
A: First of all, investors should examine carefully the legal framework for future investments, including basic provisions in the customs, tax and currency legislations. As a rule, major companies turn to our office at the stage of preparing the business plan for the investment project or as part of their effort to eliminate excessive costs and additional risks related to investment activity.
Q: How quickly do legal disagreements between the state and businesses get resolved?
A: The Minsk municipal authorities routinely make efforts to settle disputes by means of negotiations so as to avoid court cases.
Chairman of the Minsk Capital Union of Entrepreneurs and Employers
Q: How has the investment climate in Belarus changed since the president created the National Agency of Investment and Privatization in 2010?
A: The agency seeks to promote foreign direct investment, including the privatization of state property. And I must say it is working. The agency participates in the implementation of state policy concerting investment, privatization and monitoring. It supports investment projects when they are being rolled out and the privatization of state assets. It provides a full package of services to investors and actively promotes international networking. All this is having a positive effect on the investment climate of Belarus.
Q: What advice would you give to an investor who plans to work in Minsk?
A: Start to develop connections with Minsk using the “one-stop window” feature that was created by Minsk’s executive committee. Thanks to this, an investor significantly increases productivity at the very initial stages.