Finding out about Belarus
We didn’t know much about Minsk or Belarus, except that it used to be part of the Soviet Union, and declared independence on 25 August 1991. We know a bit more now.
Another walking tour and some research of our own, we have learnt a bit more of this landlocked country and thought we would share a few facts:
* Belarus has no sea; it sits between Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia and Ukraine. However, it does have more than 20,000 rivers and 11,000 lakes.
* About 40% of the country is covered by forests (we saw a lot on our journey into the city from the airport), and it has one of the last primaeval forests that once stretched across the European Plain, which is home to approx. 800 European Bison, which are the heaviest land animal in Europe.
* Belarusians consider their country to be the heart or centre of Europe (our walking tour guide mentioned this many times!)
*The population of the country is nearly 10m, and Minsk’s population is about 2m. Interestingly there are two metros in Minsk, and a third is in the pipeline, Perhaps they get a metro per million people.
* The unemployment rate here is currently at 0.3%. We didn’t see any homeless people at all. A far cry from the number seen in Britain these days. The retirement age for women is 56! (61 for men).
* Minsk’s population before WWII was made up of nearly 52% of Jews. Sadly about 66% of the total number of Belarusian Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
* On our walking tour, we walked across a small footbridge to the Island of Tears, an artificial island on the River Svislach. It is a memorial set up in 1988 to commemorate the soldiers lost in the wars since WWII, including the Afghan war where more than 770 Belarusian soldiers died. Surrounding the chapel are statues of morning mothers, widows and sisters; a very poignant place.
* Two of Israel’s presidents were born here. Other famous people connected with Belarus are Olga Korbut, nicknamed ‘the Sparrow from Minsk’, who won 4 gold medals in gymnastics for the BSSR, Ralph Lauren, whose parents came from Belarus, as did Harrison Ford’s maternal Jewish grandparents. Our guide also mentioned that both Scarlett Johansson and Amy Winehouse also had ancestors from Belarus.
* There are over 300 dishes made from potatoes. Our guide recommended an excellent restaurant for lunch, and we enjoyed some delicious potato pancakes and chatted with a lovely couple, Christine and Stuart from Bangor, Wales.
* Belarus is known as the Silicon Valley of Eastern Europe. The technology companies that become residents of the Belarus High Technologies Park (HTP) are free from all taxes with individual income tax for the employees fixed at 9 %, valid until 2020. Some success stories are Viber, which is the third most popular messenger app after Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp, Wargaming, who created World of Tanks and Maps.me (which we use a lot).
* Public transport here is cheap and always punctual. We can vouch for that, every bus and train we caught was bang on time.
*The longest street in Minsk and Belarus is Independence Avenue. It is 15 km long and has had 14 different names!
*Minsk has the largest library in the world, an interesting shaped rhombicuboctahedron; sadly, we didn’t go and see this, nor the Warsaw library. Both are worth seeing.
*Minsk has a thriving street art scene, and some of the biggest are found on Oktyabrskaya Street, which we strolled through in the afternoon. This area used to be an industrial estate, but since it has been revamped with spray paint, it is now a trendy area with many bars and cafes. On the plane over I read that street art festival are held in partnership with Brazil since 2014 called Vulica Brazil. One such creation is a massive and beautiful mural which is more than 3,000 sq m painted by Brazilian artist Ramon Martins.
*And shockingly, Belarus still has the death penalty, which is done by firing squad, the only country in Europe.