Category: General
Posted by: coledavis
When I came to Poland, I entered via the city of Poznan, quite a charming place.
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I had a great meal in an old-fashioned Jewish restaurant, Cymes, on Ulica Wozna (ulica is Polish for 'Street' as with the Russian ulitsa), well worth a visit if you happen to be town. However, the old-fashioned feel of Poznan is a little misleading; the streets were rebuilt after the second world war. Michael Palin's documentary journey across Poland suggests that this is not uncommon.

Leaving Poland again, on my journey to Kiev in Ukraine, I had to get a bus to Wroclaw (pronounced something like Rosschlav) and then stayed overnight prior to catching the through train to Kiev in the early morning. One of the delights of travelling through Poland is, as in England, not having to show your passport every time you want to buy a ticket or board a train. This is in stark contrast to ID-heavy CIS countries. Another pleasure, if you don't mind sharing rooms, is staying in a Polish hostel. I particularly enjoyed my time in Wroclaw's Babel Hostel. Staff and customers handed each other slices of take-away pizza, helped each other get online and a generally cheery time was had by all who wanted it. Ok, only corn flakes for breakfast, but for a very cheap place to rest, there was a good shower, towel provided, maps and guides of the area and any amount of advice.

Wroclaw city centre in the evening is a grand place.
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This is Wroclaw square.
Like most Polish cities, Wroclaw delights in its modernity, with restaurants offering cuisine from around the world (even little Wielun offers a rather good Asian restaurant, with Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai dishes). Wroclaw also has a theatre with English comedy in Polish translation. It also has some magnificent buildings, generally flocked around at night by cheerful people of all ages. Here is wroclawcityhall.jpg a picture of Wroclaw City Hall.

In the morning I managed to miss the through train to Kiev. To my relief, I was told that a local train would eventually catch up with my reserved train (no, I don't know how Polish trains work, other than that they aren't like anybody else's). I turned out that I wouldn't have to pay any more, with only the hassle of explaining to conductors and getting off at the right stop. I had, however, to wait for a couple of hours at Wroclaw railway station.

This was for me a worthwhile experience, as I met the community of of the poor. Perhaps a dozen middle-aged and elderly people roamed around the station, keeping warm. Some sat quietly next to their bag, as if waiting for a train. I only realised after several minutes that the prim old lady next to me had a tear in the shoulder of her coat. I gave her 20 zloty (between 4 and 5 pounds).

My heart sank when she called a somewhat younger but still middle-aged woman and passed her my note. Surely not a geriatric begging cartel? Given that my money hand not in any way been elicited, this was a truly unworthy thought. So it proved. Five minutes later, her friend returned with a filled pastry for her, and then a cup of tea with her change.

In turn, the fitter lady was greeted by a man of a similar age. These were nice people, their tea being taken in a ticket hall. As in many east European countries, the transition from communism to capitalism has left elderly people in trouble.

My last sighting of this shivering community was another member going for a lie-down in a cove near the rubbish bins.
Category: General
Posted by: coledavis
One thing I notice when I teach is there is a small model of Christ's crucifixion above the lintel of the doorway of each classroom. While this is clearly the symbol of deeply religious Poland, all is not as it seems. My students are of the impression that religion is fairly superficial here and that things are changing.

The Roman Catholic church is becoming deeply unpopular with a significant proportion of the population of Poland. As well as the paedophile scandals which have dogged the church here as well as in far away countries such as Ireland and the USA, the sight of priests driving around in luxury cars has attracted considerable comment. This brings to mind the pre-reformation criticisms of the church in writings such as Geoffrey Chaucer's [i]Canterbury Tales[/i] in 14th century England. Before one starts to consider today's Church of England as in some way fundamentally different, the balefulness of Puritan England and America in the past needs to be borne in mind, as do the realities of present-day authoritarianism in the African Anglican church and the money-grabbing and ultra-right wing tendencies in USA Christianity. How can we be at all sure that a C of E without its current problem, a dwindling congregation, would maintain its current liberalism?

Returning to Poland, it should also be noted that there is a radio station of a distinctly religious bent which calls for the extermination of Jews, the execution of people who do not attend church, etc. The more liberal Poles note with some alarm that the Church does nothing to condemn these incitements.

More than once, I have seen a Star of David daubed on a wall. As these are not usually acts of homage, I am inclined to believe that antisemitism still has its adherents in these parts. This is particularly strange given that Wielun has not had a Jewish community since the Holocaust.

Moving away from religion but still in the area of intercommunal loathing, I note that many Poles express a disliking of Russians, primarily based on history. As we know from various wars and atrocities, this is not the most promising of attitudes..
Category: General
Posted by: coledavis
Previously, I referred to four cities. This was of course poetic licence, as Wielum is in fact a small town of about 24,000 citizens. And Poland was never part of the USSR, although it was part of the Warsaw Pact.

Generally, I find the people friendly, only getting the bum's rush by a shop assistant at LIDL's and a waiter at the poshest restaurant in town.

Returning to the war, it should be noted that for a long time, the place known as the first victim of German bombardment was Westerplatte. Wielun was found to have been hit 5 minutes beforehand. The town was close to the German border in those days. The discovery that it was the first to be bombarded has been seized upon with great gusto and the town now has many monuments as well as the several sites where the foundations of its older buildings have been preserved.

Beneath, one can see a monument to the air raids.
air_raids_Wielun.jpg

This is just around the corner from the college hall of residence where I live. The college stands on the site of a clearly marked hospital which the Nazis destroyed.

As elsewhere in Poland and other countries, worse was to come. Wielun's Jews were held in a ghetto between 1940 and 1942, before all were done in. Below is one of the monuments to the Jews of Wielun. It is referred to here as Hitler's pogrom.
Wielun_Pogrom_hitler.JPG

From what I can gather, Germans and Russians are not well liked in these parts, although the Russians are considered worse. This may relate to their being more recent oppressors, but may also relate to their failure to come to grips with their part in events; the massacre of eminent members of Polish society in Katyn forest has only recently been admitted to as a Soviet rather than a Nazi crime.

One amusing thing is the sign in English accompanying a monument commemorating the Luftwaffe's visit. It refers to Wielun being bombed on the first of September 2010. Very persistent, these Germans!
Category: General
Posted by: coledavis
It has been over half a year since I left Minsk, a city I quite miss. Now, from February until late June 2011, I'm teaching English in a small town in Poland called Wielun. Wielun has historical interest: I cite Wikipedia:
"On September 1, 1939, the city was bombed by the German Luftwaffe in the first action of World War II (apart from the Jabłonków Incident on August 25/26). German bombers destroyed most of the town centre, including a clearly marked hospital and the historic Gothic church, and killed nearly 1,300 civilians. Three-quarters of the town was destroyed. The casualty rate was more than twice as high as Guernica. No Polish military units were present in the town at that time."

Clearly, the Nazis started as they meaned to go on, which brings me to a reflection on my recent wanderings.

Minsk, the capital of Belarus was, as you know, utterly destroyed by the Germans and rebuilt as a Soviet 'hero city', with its gigantic buildings, wide roads and rather picturesque statuary.

During my penultimate weekend in Belarus, I went with some of my students on a trip to Kiev, the capital of the ancient Rus state and now of independent Ukraine. Ukraine is a divided country, with Ukrainian speakers in the west leaning towards closer relations with the European Union and Russian speakers in the east. Kiev was significantly damaged in the Second World War. An enthralling if often gruesome book about these times is Anatoly Kuznetsov's Babi Yar, named after a ravine on the outskirts of the city. Essentially, a group of NKVD officers who had stayed in Kiev after the Nazis had occupied the city committed acts of sabotage, incurring the vengeance of the occupiers, mainly upon Kiev's Jewish inhabitants. This vengeance included shootings, live burials and burning alive. One of these events was the single biggest massacre to take place during the invasion of the Soviet Union.

Unlike Minsk, Kiev was restored to its former beauty. Apart from the picturesque city centre, Kiev is notable for its hills, its beautiful Orthodox churches and a massive monastery.
220px_Chmielnicki.JPG A typical church.

Kiev_Dnieper_at_Twilight_by_yune_at_photographic.jpg Yes, at night, Kiev really does look this beautiful. The river is the Dneiper.

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And this is how I remember it in the day.. kiev-ukraine-pictures-1_1.jpg

Unfortunately, I had my pocket picked - the first time ever - in a picturesque cobbled street in Kiev while looking at knick-knacks an hour before getting on the coach back to Minsk. (Which reminds me: at the border between Belarus and Ukraine, we had to wait for over 3 hours at immigration - each way!) My money problems meant that instead of flying home direct to London from Minsk, I needed to get a cheap train to Vilnius in Lithuania and flew home from there. Well, thanks to Motiejus, Anjun, Rita and Anjun, Couch-surfers who put me up in their flat for a couple of nights.

Vilnius has a long history. Perhaps most interestingly, it was subject to claims by three states after World War Two: Poland, Lithuania and Belarus. Belarus was a modest modern state, making few historical claims, although for the past century, including its time within the Soviet Union, Vilnius was a centre of Belarusian culture. Poland referred back to the Commonwealth of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, in the Middle Ages the largest state in Europe but one which was partitioned by Russia, Prussia (the eastern German state) and Austria-Hungary in the late eighteenth century. Lithuania made the most effective call to national consciousness by harking back to the Grand Duchy before the days of its union with Poland in the sixteenth century; the Lithuanian state flourished by itself from the 12th to 13th century. Poland as a post WW2 state was generous in its approach to its neighbours and so, with Belarus being modest in its claims, Lithuania successfully claimed Vilnius.

Vilnius as a city has been preserved in its medieval beauty. It would appear, however, that this was because Lithuania did not fight its occupiers, Soviet and later Nazi. Given that many Lithuanians actively assisted the Nazi occupiers in systematically massacring Jews, its referral to genocide as being largely a matter of the Soviet repression of Lithuanians suggests a desire to take a rather blinkered view to its modern history. The preoccupation of many Lithuanians with the tendency of elderly Russian speakers not to learn Lithuanian and denying them passports casts a shadow over a generally pleasant and welcoming city. I would still like to thank people for my enjoyable stay.

Here are some pictures of beautiful Vilnius:

Vilnius_capital_of_lithuania.jpg

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The University of Vilnius, founded in 1571, is a tourist attraction in its own right, largely open to the public. Below is the grand courtyard.

grand_courtyard_vilnius_university.jpg

Which brings me to Wielun, which was rebuilt as a smart modern town, but one with a quiet grace to it.
Here is the town square:
Wielun_old_square_Pl._Legionow.JPG
For the citizens of Wielun, the war did not reach the citizens by radio..
bombing1.jpg bombing2.jpg
Category: General
Posted by: coledavis
I should be back in England soon. I thought that I would go through questions I asked in discussion seminars to see what I can glean about Belarus. As and where I remember, I may add other things.

One thing that Belarusians generally pride themselves on - sometimes with a feeling of ambiguity - is their tolerance. They generally are tolerant, although sometimes making the sensible point that they have only small numbers of ethnic minority people here. There is a vociferous minority, however. One of my students thinks that racial intolerance is a good thing, for the preservation of indigenous cultures in his opinion. Shortly after meeting a couple of neonazis on the metro, I met some adherents of 'White Power' on the steps above Nyemega metro stations. This I think demonstrates the links between racist groups in the west and eastern Europe. I gave them a piece of my mind before going off with a local journalist who considered them mad.

Most people here are considerably more relaxed about homosexuality than elsewhere. (In Russia, it is considered by many to be a lifestyle choice, adopted in places such as Moscow and St Petersburg.) They see it as natural and have friends who are not heterosexual.

Moving away from matters of tolerance, one of my seminars related to giving, particularly to charities. Charities are far and few in the east. One thing that came out of this seminar was that many people in Belarus have the notion that all westerners are well-off and that all Belorusians are poor. The fact that Minsk is swarming with lunatics driving BMWs at an alarming rate and the obvious unlikelihood of a plutocrat nation out there in the UK does not seem to dent this logic. This comes out in Belarusian attitudes to foreigners, amongst employers and many others. We are there to be skinned financially, as customers or employees, with scant consideration of our circumstances (e.g. an English teacher is not rich and, as foreigners are only offered accommodation at a higher rate - because we're all rich - then in fact we have less to spend than most locals, who often live with their families or in cheaper accommodation). Even when you mention the recession, it is seen through their eyes. "We're having a recession, too." Well, no, they're not. They may be a lower income country, but their government protects them from many of the vicissitudes of the market. They are often a touch sorry for themselves, much as I like them and their sense of humour. (These are half-way between Poles and Russians, in temperament and language, Belorusian being the alternative language to Russian, spoken in the country but also in intellectual debate, I believe.)

The environment: a smaller country than Russia, many Belarusians do try to recycle and there are bins provided for plastics. Jokingly, they are happy at the idea of rising sea levels, as it may give them their own beaches.

In terms of gender, many locals are quite old-fashioned. The woman is expected to be fashionable and beautiful. The man is expected to pick up the tab on all or most occasions. It is very common in offices to see the female subordinate doing all the work while the male boss does very little and swans off to do important things (in the restaurant, perhaps).

Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. In terms of their own and Russian literature, Belarusians are incredibly well-read compared to Russians or Brits. Some of them read widely in other literatures, including British literature. However, as with the Russians, many are only conversant with the England of Conan Doyle (that prolific Scottish writer) and Agatha Christie. So we are spoken of as foggy Albion and are generally well-mannered people who drink tea at set times in the afternoon. They are certainly unaware of urban violence, of anti-intellectualism and of economic problems in Britain. Although fashion, popular culture and politics in general terms do not pass them by. Belarusian people are far more western-looking than Russia, which has historically had an ambivalent attitude to the west (Peter the Great creating St Petersburg as his window on the west, with slavophiles such as Dostoyevsky considered Russian culture and the orthodox religion to be superior to their counterparts in the west).



Category: General
Posted by: coledavis
I am painfully aware that it is two months since I last posted a blog. Things have been busy. My landlord and landlady didn't manage to pay the bills, so my internet was cut off. This and their general lack of consideration led to my moving flat. I'm now a tube stop further from the centre of town, but with a living room as well as a bedroom and decent furniture. There's not much in the area, but it's quiet except for the trolleybus depot, with buses trolling in at one in the morning and out again at half past five; I'm getting used to it. Also, still seeing what can be done with www.careersteer.ru which is the Russian version of my career choice web site www.careersteer.org
Also, as my current employers are becoming increasingly unreliable (e.g. booking me for four days work and then cancelling the evening beforehand), I'm looking for another employer.

Anyway, a few miscelleneous comments to be getting on with.

Although I have been critical of Minsk's monumental architecture, I would like to say something nice about their statuary. Generally in metal, many of the city's statues are life-size and rather pleasant. Examples include the three-figure folk music group not far from Nyemiga metro and the man with a mustache standing next to his bicycle near the cinema at Akadem Nayuk.
Here are a couple of others.
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More sinister, however, is the statuary on the side of the staircase leading down to the genocide monument on Melnakaite. 54526993.20050908Melnikaitestrmonument11.jpg
54526998.20050908Melnikaitestrmonument06.jpg54526999.20050908Melnikaitestrmonument07.jpg54527000.20050908Melnikaitestrmonument08.jpg
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These are naked adults and children walking down steps in the nearby ghetto to be shot.

Which reminds me: a couple of days ago I saw a couple of young gentlemen with crewcuts on the metro. One wearing a singlet, had a swastika tattoo on his muscular right shoulder. When he put on his leather jacket, I thought that he would just wait to get off at the next stop. However, he and his friend moved towards the centre of the carriage, where a young Asian man was sitting quietly amongst a group of Belarusian girls. The two men stood over him, staring at him; he looked up at them. I moved along the overhead rail and faced them: "Nyet", I said. They moved away towards to exit, waiting to get off at the next stop, muttering something in English about what football team I supported. I'm assuming it was a case of the game 'scissors, hammer, stone': ah, Brits, they beat Nazis, we'd better surrender now. My students, rather surprised at my recklessness, tell me that it was Hitler's birthday, so no doubt they were thinking of celebrating in the way of some Moscow and St Petersburg thugs, by beating somebody in public.

As I have said, however, most the Belarusians I've met have been tolerant people, who view this quality as one of their country's strong points and one of their few differences from (some) Russians. There are many more progressive trends in this country. Again unlike their giant neighbour, many people do consider the environment. Cycling is apparently becoming an in-thing in Minsk (although many people have cars, causing a fair amount of congestion). Also, a taxi driver I know uses propane to power his vehicle. Apparently it is considerably cheaper than petrol or diesel, emittng fewer toxins. Presumably the government is encouraging its usage.
Category: General
Posted by: coledavis
I find the Minchunya to be generally rather more liberal in their attitudes than Russians. Last night, however, I had a smartly dressed rather cosmopolitan middle-aged man in one of last night's English conversation classes, who banged on (and on) about the menace of immigrants and their rude behaviour (and poor assimilation) on British culture. I did question him about whether or not he was really making observations of certain youngsters whose families were in fact English but of ethnic origin, but no he was specific that this was about immigrants and there were a lot of them. I cited the Poles as our majority immigration faction, but he said he was talking about non-EU people and when questioned further, about non-white people (as Russians etc didn't count in his estimation). He made rivers of blood type noises about the likely effects of immigration in the coming years.

In short, there are some strange mental currents swirling around, heading from west to east and often back again. A bit like Professor Dawkins' memes, I suppose. I find it very disturbing. Whereas contemporary debates and disagreements about race, religion, etc have often been based upon historical interpretations, statistics or differing views of assimilation, we currently seem to be beset by viral perceptions with little logical basis. In Siberia, I also had people telling me about English comments about no longer living in a white country. I hope I'm wrong, but I rather think that Hitlerite pseudoarguments can arise from this sort of thing. Oh dear, I think I'm getting pessimistic.

On the optimistic side, last week I visited Minsk's Museum of the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945 - I know this is divisive from a western point of view, but then 1939-1945 is misleading from an Ethiopian or Chinese [or Spanish?] perspective). Most of this was devoted to the Soviet war effort and more specifically the Belarusian contribution. Belarus lost about 30% of its people and had 70% of its towns and villages destroyed (Minsk itself has few prewar buildings), partly because of its genuinely impressive contribution to the war effort (including Jews who escaped from the Minsk ghetto to fight as partisans) and partly because the country was dedicated to the Mein Kampf idea of an agrarian expansion of Germany with all the 'clearance' that that implied.

The western contribution merely consists of a diagram of the Normandy invasion tucked away in the victory story part of the museum and a picture of 'Anglo-American' troops coming off the landing boats onto the beach.

Some of the museum is spectacular. A German tank emerges through one of the walls.

There is a small room in the museum which treats of atrocities to civilians. There are a limited number of exhibits, most of them photographs, but they are chosen with devastating effect. Some of it pertains to Belarusians' sufferings. A young blonde woman, presumably part of the resistance, is shown in before and after mode, being hanged in public. An elderly couple are seen opposite each other, hanging from what is presumably their own living room. A German soldier laughs heartily as another victim hangs from a tree. Other photographs show Jews behind stockades awaiting their fate. One photo shows bodies lying together on a wooden floor, so emaciated that they look like plastic homunculi.

I get to my point: School children are regular visitors to the museum. I saw several such visitations during my few hours there. The room of terror, including and especially the section that treats of Jewish suffering, is given particular attention by teachers, and young people here learn a considerable amount about this aspect of the war.

In general, I notice rather a different attitude in Belarus to the nationalism I found in most Russian young people (who I still think of with affection by the way). In Belarus, patriotism is there. They try to foster their dying language and look at Belarusian history as such, but their patriotism is infused with an understanding of history and a keen interest on political developments in the west. Most also seem liberal in their views on race. I've seen people from Africa and Asia on the streets. My discussion with a Nigerian medical student (it is cheaper to study here than in Russia) confirmed my view of this. He generally considered the people to be rather reasonable in their attitudes and had had very little concerns over his time here. Room for optimism here.

On to the second visit. This was a manager coming to observe one of my cover classes. Having had some excellent classes, this was of course a bit of a mess. Only three people came - it is Military/Men's Day (this is synonymous because of Belarus, like Russian, has national service) - and one of them was in a difficult mood, chewing gum, answering questions monosyllabically and generally being a lout. My organisation was rather challenged by all this and I gather from subsequent discussion that I need to adjust my teaching methods more generally.

Whereas Russians like grammatically based lessons, where I graft discussions around this core, Belarusians are used to having more group-oriented discussion sessions, with grammar as the add-on. From my observations, and from the comments of one of my Russian colleagues, this has both advantages and disadvantages. The students are far more fluent in their conversations in English than their Russian contemporaries, but also tend to make egregrious grammatical errors with abandon.

Tired from this rather difficult evening session, I headed for home, looking forward to settling down to tea, a read and bed. This gradually changed with what turned out to be the third visit. A portly gentleman with a swarthy complexion was struggling to get into the house. I asked him to wait and used my key fob to get in. "My brother lives here", he said. "Oh good" I say. My heart sank when he pressed the lift button for my floor and then he insisted on my visiting his brother. I find myself at table with four Armenians, three men and their 'big sister', a woman with her hair dyed bright red. I was chu-chued into having a bowl of what turned out to be fish-head soup, my least favourite. Then down went three glasses of vodka mixed with red berry tea.
(Russian) "What do you think of that?"
(English) "Rotgut."
(Russian) "It was made by Svetlana."
(English) "She ought to be ashamed of herself."
And eventually to sleep before my landlord turned up early the next morning to help with my visa extension.

When I say help, this was a recovery job. Fortunately, the OVIR, the internal administration department were in a mood to extend my visa. Less fortunate was granting it for a month less than my contract with the landlord of my flat. It turned out that my landlady had intended the end of July but had drawn up a contract for the 31/06. As I didn't want to assume that this might mean an end of contract that would never come - there being no June 31st in any year, we had to reapply. Fortunately, I found that the OVIR had also put 31/06 on my visa. Therein lay my salvation. As has been previously noted, the OVIR care not for the applicant's personal inconvenience. They would almost certainly have told us to go away in the normal run of things. In this case, however, the embarrassment of having themselves endorsed a daft visa extension means that they have undertaken to sort mine out properly. Hurrah for bureaucracy! Postscript: I've just had a phone call to tell me that my visa extension has now been successfully completed.
Category: General
Posted by: coledavis
I'm hurriedly typing as I've only got a few minutes left of my hour at the keyboard. My own internet at home is off and I'm waiting for new service to be installed on Friday morning. So here I am at the Soyuz Online Cafe, at midnight in Minsk city centre. First I went looking for an internet near where I lived, which was closed. A group of young men meeting in the street around a beer (it is snowing, by the way) were very friendly and helpful: go to the central metro station ('October') and find the tank. At October, I saw various people in the subway, but hesitated to ask. Some were affectionate drunks and the others were young deaf people signing away at each other (I have enough trouble communicating with English deaf people). The first couple I met coming into the metro, people in their twenties, pointed across a park. Then, behind a tank, is the Soyuz. As well as the banks of computers, there is a bar, interesting western rock music redone with 'church voices' and tables with young people necking beer and laughing. If it wasn't for needing to go to bed sometime, I'd hang around. It's a nice city to hang around in.
Category: General
Posted by: coledavis
Minsk has an unimpressive looking but perfectly functional metro, with just two lines. There is usually about a four minute wait for trains in the daytime and maybe eight minutes in the evening. It is one of the signs of the locals' courtesy that the average Minskonian (actually, Minchunin singular, Minchunya plural, emphasis on second syllable in both cases) glances back when pushing through the glass doors to the outlying subway, so as not to let them slam into the face of the next person. Similarly, unlike many Russians, these are people who will stamp the snow off their shoes before entering public as well as private buildings. And they almost invariably help strangers who don't know where they are.

The dreaded maschrutka - a private minibus used as a cross between a public service bus and a rehearsal for cross-country rallying - is only seen in the centre of the city if it is due to service the outer suburbs or the outlying villages. In addition to the metro, the city is provided for by quite modern single-decker buses, trolleybuses and some trams. As I live within walking distance of my administrative office, I would probably save money by using cash when I need to, but paying a mere nine pounds for a month's unlimited travel on bus, trolley and metro is irresistable.

I'm lucky to be living just a couple of minutes walk from a metro. My street is Maxima Tanka. Now yes, I thought that Maxim Tank was some iconic war machine that I somehow hadn't heard of on World at War. In fact, Wikipedia tells me that Maxim Tank was the nom de plume of a Belarusian poet and translator.

Which reminds me: the Belarusianising of post-Soviet Minsk does make life difficult for the newcomer. Metro stations have Russian names on some maps and signs and Belarusian ones on more recent signs. The main street has been renamed completely. Originally named after the first Belarusian printer and one of the first publishers in eastern Europe, Francysk Skarina, it is now Independence Street. As is usual, most locals use the old name, making life more difficult.

More difficult for me however is the proliferation of keys required to get into my building, originally designed as a block of flats for the elite but now split up into one room flatlets. First there's the electronic key fob to get into the house. At the fourth floor (third in Britspeak, as they don't use the term ground floor), by lift or stairs, I then need to jiggle one key a lot to get into the residential area away from the staircase and lift. Then to my half of the area, I need another key. Then I need two keys to get into my own flat. Must sit down and have a cup of tea.

As will be noted from the photos, there is a fair amount of snow about. The first image is the river Nyemiga, near the city centre, iced up. The locals are used to about three weeks of cold weather, by the way, but this spell of several months is unusual in this country. belarus_minsk_river_froze.jpgbelarus_minsk_car_froze.jpgbelarus_minsk_balcony_winter.jpg
Category: General
Posted by: coledavis
Most of Minsk was destroyed during the second world war. It is estimated that between 25% and 30% of the population of Belarus perished and that 70% of the towns and villages were completely destroyed. It should be remembered that even as far back as Mein Kampf, Hitler had dreamt of an east largely denuded for the purposes of expanding an idyllic agrarian colony.

As a centre for Soviet partisan fighting behind enemy lines, Minsk received 'hero city' status and was rebuilt on an heroic scale. The monumentalism is not to everybody's taste, however. I think the conversation went something like this:
"Comrade, do you know Buckingham Palace?"
"Of course, comrade. Where do you want it located?"
"Everywhere."
"Er, ok, anything else?"
"Yes, throw in a few parthenons just to show we've arrived."
"Oh, all right."

Just to show that they can do new too, here is the National Library of Belarus, belarus_minsk_new_national_library_1.jpg
at which I am a member, with 'Certificated Specialist' status. Pretty cool for a bloke who just looks at the 'learn Russian' books.

Behind a big church there is a large graceful mini-town built around a square. The gleaming white of all of the buildings is the give-away: the 'old town' is in fact a post-war restoration. The only genuine pre-war part of Minsk centre is a thin sliver of buildings which reminds one most of a small French town.

Within walking distance is my flat, near a nondescript metro centre. This turns out to be on the edge of what was the Minsk ghetto. I recently taught at a school within the ghetto area. All of the area is now an estate of modern blocks of flats.

About 20,000 Jews were murdered in the first few months of the Nazi occupation. More tens of thousands were to be killed subsequently, before the surviving few thousand joined the final solution via the death camp at Sobibor.

Unlike Ukraine and Latvia, Belarus did not collaborate or sympathise with the Nazis. The Minsk ghetto is particularly known for its large scale resistance, with thousands of Jews escaping from the ghetto to join partisan groups, Jewish and non-Jewish, later cooperating with the Red Army.