Minsk Parallel reality

‘The Zone’: your guide to Minsk as seen by Sieviaryn Kviatkouski

Recently, a bar had to close in Minsk. It wasn't just any bar. It was one of the oldest bars in Minsk that had remained unchanged for the previous 23 years, since the break-up of the Soviet Union when the Communist ideology banning private entrepreneurship was defeated.

 

The bar was so famous it became the subject of several research papers at the Belarusian university in exile - European Humanities University in Lithuania. "It's a real pub!" numerous guests both from the East and West would exclaim upon entering.  The exclamation was of both joy and surprise, as Minsk could not boast many bars with traditions and regular clientele. The pub was like a parallel reality.

 

As the owner of the pub (a 74-year old lady nicknamed "granny" and "Iron Lady") told me, she had to shut her business down because the Minsk city authorities didn't like her pub’s 'aesthetic interior'.

 

The 'parallel reality' places disappear in Minsk, yet some are still there. Such places were vastly described in the popular science fiction novel Roadside Picnic by Soviet writers Boris and Arkady Strugatsky as well as in the movie version of the book: Stalker film by Andrey Tarkovsky. They received a special title, "The Zone", and are now featured in the 'STALKER' shooter survival horror game where players have to go against odds in an alternative reality after the second Chernobyl nuclear explosion.

 

So, what exactly is "The Zone"? The term describes a certain territory where strange changes took place, yet no one can tell what exactly changed. This is a dangerous territory, yet no one can define or predict the nature of the danger lying ahead. Only an experienced guide, or The Stalker, can lead you through this place alive since he can sense and react to "The Zone" the way no one else could. He notices small changes, anomalies, things that are different from the overall background - things from the parallel reality.

 

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Take this text as The Stalker's guide to Minsk. But beware: when you finally arrive to Belarus' capital, some of the places described here will already have disappeared. The Zone is not a stable environment.

 

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Once upon a time… or, more precisely, in 1990, Belarus passed the point of no return in its relations with Soviet ideology. At that time, Minsk could boast many spots for informal public gatherings. Just like in many other places of the world, you only had to pay for the rent and could feel free to organize virtually anything there.

The most unexpected place where I enjoyed rock music was the arena of Belarus State Circus. As the Circus badly needed money, it eagerly let out its premises. So, the band took the place of the circus orchestra, while the audience filled all the vacant space available, including the seats and the arena.

Another surprising place was the Opera Theatre: a rock concert was staged there to commemorate the anniversary of Belarusian People's Republic.

 

In early 90s, partying was in full swing everywhere - in cafes, newly founded clubs or city parks.  That may sound a commonplace somewhere else, but for a country that had just woken up from the decades of Communism that was truly a revolution. In the Soviet times, a divorce or even cheating by one of the spouses had to be discussed at a meeting of fellow workers or a housing community, with the guilty reprimanded by the Party officials. The leisure time was regulated even more carefully!

 

The culture revolution didn't last long in Belarus. When President Aliaksandar Lukashenka got elected for the first time in 1994, he started a gradual reversal of the country back to the Soviet times. Currently, the country of 9.7 million has only a handful of private music clubs and galleries and just a couple of discussion clubs. These are the relicts of uncensored independent culture that have survived here against all odds.

 

"The most interesting events in Minsk are usually happening in the kitchens", a well-known Belarusian philosopher told me once. To get inside Minsk’s alternative cultural environment, you need to know the right places - or just stumble upon them. That’s exactly what happened to Nicolas, a young Swiss guy who got lost in the city and walked into the office of a design group inside Y Gallery. As a result, he bought a huge bag of souvenirs and spent the next three days hanging out with his new Belarusian friends.

 

If you're lucky to find the doors to Minsk’s cultural space, you will be able to experience the joy of creating an alternative, or parallel, cultural reality – something impossible in an open and free society. This reality is constructed despite all the regulations and official decrees.

 

Officially, Minsk is a two-million city. However, many more call it home. "I don't buy that!" a foreign friend says and points me to the empty streets in the city center. Indeed, there are not so many people or cars in the streets of Minsk on any warm and sunny weekend. Most Minskers spend their leisure time outdoors: some visit their parents or grandparents in the countryside, others go to their dachas (small residential houses outside the city). There are also those who bought traditional village houses. Normally, there are little or no foreign tourists in Minsk to fill the abandoned streets.

 

Should you come to Minsk during some official outdoor celebrations, you will not find a table in a café. One of the reasons: there are not so many cafes in the city. With arguably 80 percent of restaurants owned by the state, Belarusian authorities are not keen to allow more small cafés. So, if you're used to make appointments with friends at a café in your home city, you should consider revising your habit. In Minsk, it is different.  

 

A young Minsker will meet his or her friends near a grocery store or a supermarket, buy whatever they need and head to Svislač River that cuts the city from North-West to South-East. The northern side of the river is more 'civilized' as it features a small lake and parks. So, if you're a fan of landscape design, you should head north.

 

However, the real "Stalker's" Minsk is waiting for you in the south. Walking along Svislač River bank, you will first see abandoned factories followed by privately owned houses – once part of the villages and suburbs swallowed by the city long ago. Spending time in that part of the capital will make you realize that alternative Minsk, as represented by Y Gallery or CECH, is not the only layer of the parallel reality.
The curving streets of the private houses district look exactly the same as they did 20, 50 or 80 years ago - except maybe for modern-looking cars parked nearby.

 

The remains of old, pre-Soviet or even pre-Russian Empire buildings (Russia got the Belarusian lands in the late 18th century during the partition of Poland) create another 'parallel reality' in Minsk. Minskers cherish this handful of buildings, mostly churches, while foreign tourists often opt for Stalinist architecture - a rarity in the world. The mix of ugliness and attractiveness make Minsk bas-reliefs something worth checking if you've never seen Soviet architecture before. However, this USSR heritage is yet another bitter reminder for Belarusians that the Soviet past is still there, with the Soviet symbols and, in a way, Soviet ideology still running the country. To get away from that, Belarusians take refuge in the non-stable 'Zone' of the parallel reality.

 

There are several underground, or “parallel reality”, art spaces in Minsk. Among them are (), / (), (), and the headquarters of the . No one can guarantee that those spaces will keep their address for long. Belarusian authorities often treat culture as 'politics' and may quickly interfere in the destiny of a newly opened cultural spot. The Zone, after all, is not a stable environment.

 

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