The Minsk Oblast is located in the central part of Belarus and is surrounded by the other five oblasts. Minsk is the capital of Belarus as well as the administrative center for the Minsk district.
The city of Minsk, with a population of about 2 million is by far the largest city in the country and is an independent administrative unit. This is also a showplace city. The well maintained streets, the new busses, trolleys, and trams as well as the shopping centers and office buildings exude an air of prosperity. The apartments, … most with a new coat of paint and others under construction, … convey a similar theme’ although the “new look” is often only on the surface. Automobiles, many of them recent foreign imports, pack the central part of the city with commuters going to and from work. The subway, the only one in Belarus, is well maintained and offers an alternative for those who do not have a car. The busses, trams, and trolleys provide the most convenient form of transportation for short distances. Long lines form in the morning and afternoon as people head for work or return home.
Well-stocked shelves of the retail outlets match those of many European cities; however, many people cannot afford to shop at these places. A common saying is, “Under Communism we had money in our pocket and no products on the shelves, today there are products on the shelves but we have no money in our pockets.” Yet there are symbols of prosperity, five McDonald’s restaurants are in Minsk … the only ones in Belarus.
Minsk is the major industrial area of the Republic with a variety of manufacturing plants located throughout the city. The large smokestacks, a legacy of the Soviet times, point to centers of heavy industry. The Belarus Tractor Factory has over 20,000 employees and markets the Belarus Tractor worldwide including the United States.
Among all of the apparent trappings of progress and westernization are some ominous signs. The statues of Lenin remain, as does the prominent display of the hammer and sickle – both symbols of the communist dictatorship of the former Soviet Union.
Only a short distance from the high-rise apartments and the multi lane highways is a different city. The roads are narrow and the homes are old and in need of repair. For some, running water is from the faucet at the street corner. Wages are very low and few of the working class can afford the fine cuts of meat at the market, instead they make due with a high starch diet of potatoes and cereal grains. Small cuts of meat are usually served once or twice a week. Mushrooms, gathered from the forest, are often used to provide flavoring or as a main dish.
Minsk, like the rest of Belarus, is controlled by a Soviet style dictatorship … the same type of rule that existed prior to 1991, the year Belarus declared independence. The people of this oblast, … as in the other five, … live in two worlds; the world that Westerners often see portrayed as a prosperous country … and … the reality of a state controlled economy resulting in low wages, poverty, and limited freedom of speech.
As we progress on the tour of the remaining five oblasts, this dichotomy will continue to be evident.
The next stop is Vitebsk. Join us as we continue to learn about the people of Belarus and the place they call home.
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