Busy bars and banyas in Belarus – where Covid is largely ignored

Daniel Hardaker
·4-min read
belarus
belarus

The axial, neoclassical, facades, colonnades and avenues of central Minsk – somewhat like Berlin's Karl-Marx-Allee on an even bigger scale – are so covered in government propaganda that it sometimes has the feel of a diluted Pyongyang.

'Tax is health', 'For Belarus!', 'Belarus – it's ours' and 'I love Belarus' placards hang alongside colour-saturated images of airbrushed families at the park or the circus, and national flags swing from Soviet-era three-pronged fastenings. This is the nomenclature of Alexander Lukashenko's regime, but there is little sign of it shifting its message to resemble the Covid agitprop currently taking up the available flat surfaces of most Western cities. 

Belarus has so far taken a measured approach to Covid-19, balancing the threat against other dangers and the collateral damage of measures to which conclusive proof of their effect in fighting the virus has still yet to be seen. 

It has been a rare point of mutual understanding, if not often explicitly stated, between the authorities and much of the opposition, who are still engaged in ongoing protests and weekly stand-offs over the disputed results of August's presidential election. 

This political turmoil is a different kind of crisis. Here in Minsk, there are shades of Weimar Germany in how their chief uncertainty, in comparison with ours, leads to a turn towards life, not away from it. 

minsk - Daniel Hardaker
minsk - Daniel Hardaker

Nightclubs, bars, restaurants, cafes are all full. Museums, galleries, churches and theatres are open, with no distancing requirements, Perspex barriers or relentless anti-bacterial spraying. There is no suggestion, either, of any interruption to the banja steam baths, a social ritual attended as a group, naked, temperatures exceeding 90 degrees Celsius and punctuated by beer breaks and rolls in the snow – or a blast with a hosepipe in the summer. 

Some venues associated with the opposition have recently been closed down by the Government, notably Hooligan bar in the area around Oktyabrskaya Street, a successful cultural, tech and nightlife district that has developed over the last few years in one industrial corner of the city. 

Unlike similar urban spaces in the West, which mostly arose out of disused space, the bars, restaurants, clubs and art spaces here sit alongside fully operational state-owned plants complete with Lenin busts and workers' stores and canteens; a not unusual Belarusian idiosyncrasy – tractors are often seen navigating traffic in the capital owing to the huge production levels at the nearby MTZ works. 

A 'funeral' for Hooligan, a party held at a nearby nightclub, was attended by hundreds the weekend after closure. There is little sign, yet, of Covid being used as a pretence for controlling the opposition. 

The century-old contest over the national flag aside, with the opposition claiming the red-white-red tri-band of the short lived Belarusian Democratic Republic, and the regime using the modified communist one, Belarusians are notably un-iconoclastic. 

They are a little baffled by the amusement of visitors to juxtapositions like that of the monumental socialist realist mural perched atop a KFC near Nemiga Metro Station. There is no great desire, either, to tear down the statues of the likes of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the KGB and architect of the red terror. 

minsk - Daniel Hardaker
minsk - Daniel Hardaker

Outside of the capital, it is difficult to find much Western branding at all. The villages, with their colourful traditional izba wooden houses, have not changed much since the Russian Empire. And the towns and smaller cities are often, visually at least, the most unaltered survivors of the former Soviet Union: glass kiosks, crumbling balconies, neon shop signs, sugary graphics and kosmonaut themed children's playgrounds. 

Western visitors are relatively rare in Belarus, although the numbers were increasing pre-Covid after the introduction in 2018 of a visa-free system (still in place) for citizens of 74 countries when arriving and leaving via Minsk airport. 

This absence of mass tourism, plus the difficulty for Belarusians in obtaining visas, and the cost of travel in a country with an average monthly wage of €500 (£4,455) in its capital, means that there is a genuine warm curiosity towards visitors, and an enthusiasm to share their own country and culture to those that make the trip. That appears to go for most sections of society, from provincial villagers to tech and cultural workers in the capital. 

Mask wearing has increased over the past few months, although not drastically. This is in the spirit of, as they see it, doing what they can without compromising normality, or risking an increase in death from other causes. 

Although arguably complacent about the fear-reinforcing effect of mass mask wearing, this attitude is still a welcome respite from Italian joggers choking on their carabinieri enforced, sweat dampened face coverings; or the now pan-global phenomenon of lone drivers limiting their oxygen intake while operating a vehicle. Masked children, thankfully, are not yet seen at all.