by Matt Thompson
Quirky and a bit mysterious, Belarus offers visitors a rich history, friendly people, and a complicated political situation.
The first thing you notice are the sidewalks. They are spotless. No cigarette butts. No candy wrappers. No plastic bags floating in the wind. The same goes for the underground walkways, mopped and swept to perfection, that stretch out below the wide boulevards in perfect symmetry looking like something from a Stanley Kubrick film.
I never really saw anyone sweeping the sidewalks during my three-week stay in Minsk. Every day the city magically appeared the same — clean, orderly, and quiet. This was just one of the many mysteries I encountered in Belarus, an often ignored eastern European country of nine million people that is located between Poland and Russia. None of my well-traveled friends and colleagues had ever been there, or certainly not in the last 25 years since the fall of the Soviet Union.
I had always wanted to travel to Belarus, so when the U.S. State Department offered me a temporary assignment to serve as the acting Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Minsk this summer, I jumped at the opportunity. Unsure of what to expect from this unknown place, I found a beautiful, modern, and friendly country. However, that sentence should include an asterisk. Belarus is not a free country and political oppression has been the norm there for years. The state-controlled, Soviet-style economy is the least reformed in Europe and Belarusians are struggling to make ends meet under crippling inflation and stagnating wages.
The three-week visit gave me a brief, behind-the-curtains look at a country that few get a chance to see.
I flew to Belarus on a small Belavia Airlines flight from Riga, […]