Posts Tagged ‘Belarus’

Belarus doesn’t get many tourists

In Museums, Places on November 13, 2017 at 2:20 pm

“Why have you come here?”

“Tourism.” I smiled a hopefully at the Belarussian border guard.

He inspected our passports at length, only the creaking of his leather boots and the crackle of his cigarette breaking the seemingly endless silence. This uneasy welcome was to be repeated during our stay in Belarus.

It gets perilously cold in Minsk in the winter and the windows of most bars and restaurants in the city are covered over, meaning tourists can’t peek in to see if a venue has any customers, or even if it’s the kind of place one would want to be in anyway. I lost count of the number of times I turned on my heels at the door, realising I’d stumbled into yet another strip club or casino. As soon as we found a place where the waitress wasn’t dressed in underwear we’d use basic Russian and melodramatic pointing to order dumplings and cheap beer.

At the National Art Museum we managed to communicate – via schoolboy French and yet more pointing – that we wanted to enter and, despite the reservations of the cashier, purchase tickets. The only person we found who spoke English in the otherwise empty gallery was the cloakroom attendant. As she took our coats she asked, “Why have you come here?”

“Tourism and museums,” I proffered, and, now emboldened by a few days in the city, “and to see your many beautiful buildings.”

She shrugged. But the buildings are part of why I was there.

Minsk is an architectural time capsule. Looking down the central highway of Nyezhavizhimosty Avenue that links Independence Square and Victory Square you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Soviet Union’s plan for a grand boulevard to rival the Champs-Élysées had been realised. Despite being essentially flattened in the Second World War, Stalin rebuilt the city at speed and in a modern, yet grandiose, style.
The huge concrete blocks don’t quite fit with the classical columns though, the garish colour choices aren’t in keeping with the grand European vista they seek to imitate, and the prominent KGB head office is slightly unnerving. But the endeavour is impressive.

It turns out that even the most hardened fans of lurid concrete and Brutalism can have too much of a good thing. In a moment of weakness we ventured into the Grand Café, somehow untouched by the Belarussian design palette, where we happily found smoked salmon, sirloin steak and Italian espresso for just a few roubles. We also found a bored waitress who spoke fluent English.

“Why have you come here?” she asked, while we gorged ourselves on treats. Sensing she was the first person we’d met who wasn’t an informant we replied honestly, explaining our fascination with Soviet design and architecture and with museums in the post-Soviet world.

“I would love to go to London one day,” she told us, while acknowledging quietly that a trip outside Belarus would be highly unlikely.

“This is a dictatorship,” she concluded while preparing us more martinis. “I still don’t understand why you’ve come here.”


International Museum of the Year 2011

In Awards, Museums on December 28, 2011 at 1:29 pm

While I might like to pretend that this instalment of my annual awards serves to highlight some museums you may want to look out for when on your travels, it is actually invented purely to allow me to show off where I’ve been on holiday in the last 12 months.

There were two runners up…

KGB Museum, Vilnius (Lithuania)
Housed in the former home of the KGB in Lithuania, this building has an ominous presence in the centre of Vilnius. The displays present a balanced (well, as balanced as you can get in a country occupied so many times) view of the nation’s experience of the Second World War and the political aftermath for eastern Europe. And the text is in English, which is great! There are some great objects from the Soviet era.

But perhaps most impressive – and certainly most chilling – are the basement cells where inmates were imprisoned, tortured and executed. If you’ve been to the House of Terror in Budapest, this is the next on the list for you.

Museum of the Great Patriotic War, Minsk (Belarus)
Minsk itself is a new experience for many people in so many ways – a Stalinist ideal of what a city looks like. Minsk has been described by various people as ‘where communist architecture works’ and you get a sense of this walking around the city. And this museum is no exception.

Inside the interpretation is all in Russian or Belorussian, so the interpretive layering of information was almost lost on me. But with some basic knowledge we managed to find our way around pretty well. There are some rather exciting dioramas and some great set pieces. Perhaps my favourite part is the orange stained glass window in – pure socialist-realist iconography at work.
It’s a little confusing, but well worth visiting if you’re in the city.

And when you’re done, get a hot (or boozy) drink at Моя английская бабушка (My English Granny) nearby, opposite the British Embassy.

And the winner is

Neues Museum, Berlin (Germany)
Wow, just wow.

I’ve seen some museum buildings in my time, and I’ve visited plenty of cultural institutions which have had architectural interventions breathe life into them (think British Museum, Manchester’s Royal Exchange, Royal Academy) but the renovations to the Neues Museum really are enormously impressive. I’m a good 6ft2in, but I felt utterly swamped by this building – like a tiny ant crawling up the side of a rock.

I don’t want to ruin the surprise for anyone who’s thinking of visiting, but the structural interventions into this historic building have been done with care and sensitivity. And the way the building has been thought out makes the objects it contains make sense.
I was working on a project about Amarna Egypt at the time I visited in October 2011, so I was pleased to see the objects relating to that period, but surely the star of the show has to be Nefertiti herself, presiding over a whole wing of the museum on one of the upper floors.

We didn’t really have enough time when we visited, so I’d say allow a good couple of hours if you want to take in both the amazing building and the world-class collection of Egyptian, classical antiquities and prehistoric German material.

Next year’s award in this category is likely to be even more exotic as I’ve just booked an incredibly exciting and geeky holiday, which makes our trip to Lithuania and Belarus look like a weekend in the Cotswolds! Come back in December 2012 for an update.

Museums of Lithuania and Belarus

In Museums on March 29, 2011 at 11:33 am

I’m just back from a brilliant trip to eastern Europe, taking in Vilnius and Kaunas in Lithuania and Minsk in Belarus. And of course we took in loads of museums whilst there.

Vilnius is really very charming and well worth a city-break. After the fall of Communism in the early 90s the country invested huge amounts of money in revamping the Vilnius old town, so there are many beautifully polished buildings. Yet, behind the facade of the charming squares and narrow old streets there are still many un-polished areas, which I perhaps find even more charming.

The KGB Museum (known locally as the Museum of Genocide Victims) is well worth a visit, with a sensitive and well-presented story of the operation of the Soviet-run state security system in Lithuania. The cells in the basement are chilling and horrific. The National Museum of Lithuania is housed in a very grand and well-restored building and the presentation is excellent, but the quality of the collection perhaps lets it down somewhat. I still enjoyed it though – especially the room full of maps. I love a map.
In Lithuania’s second city, Kaunas, we visited the Devil Museum. No really. It’s a collection started by artist A. Žmuidzinavičius celebrating the many forms the devil takes – by that they mean THE devil, but also devils and little demons, which are popular in Lithuanian folk culture. Following the collection’s donating to the nation on his death, the museum has continued to collect devils from around the world and now has over 2000. It’s actually incredibly well displayed in a charming 1970s concrete building, next door to his old house, where visitors can nosy around his studio.

And then for the big one – over the border to Belarus. People did tend to ask us ‘why have you come to Belarus?’ I’ve always had an interest in eastern European history, especially the former Soviet states. That’s why I enjoyed working at the Wende Museum a few years ago.

Minsk itself is a strange, confusing, yet wonderful place. Essentially entirely rebuilt in the aftermath of the Second World War, it seeks to combine the grand boulevards of Paris with the grandeur of Budapest and the opulence of Vienna. The neo-classical buildings look, from a distance, like the British Museum or the Louvre, but get up close and you realise that they’re built from breeze blocks and the proportions are, in fact, ever so slightly out. Also, take a walk around the back of some of these grand buildings and it’s clear that they’re only normally a few rooms thick. It’s all show. Then there’s the street art – grand mosaics, sculptures, reliefs and seemingly endless plaques on the wall, all showcasing the finest in Soviet socialist-realist art.

The Museum of History and Culture is small, but has some great objects. While the interpretation might leave something to be desired, the effort and will among the staff is certainly there. The Museum of the Great Patriotic War (also known as the Second World War) is a massive exposition of the story of the Eastern Front over two floors of this huge museum. It’s entirely in Russian, but we still managed to spend an hour in there. If you’ve got a reasonably good idea of the history of the conflict, you should be okay.

The National Art Museum of Belarus has an amazing new extension to the rear, full of light and beautiful pieces of local art (we dwelled in the 20th-century galleries, obviously) and is much better than the Modern Art Museum, which doesn’t even make it into the guidebooks.

And to top it all off, we even went to the new building of the National Library of Belarus which is just mind-blowing (below).

All in all a bizarre, yet fascinating, trip.