I was sorting through some of my old documents when I ran across my journal from my business trip to Minsk in 1991. This was shortly after the iron curtain was dropped, the Soviet Union was dissolved and Minsk was now the capital city of the independent nation of Byelorussia. I found the notes fascinating and thought perhaps other people might want to see some of the wonders of socialism.
The journey begins
Here was an unlimited business opportunity – hundreds of millions of people who previously had no access to western markets and I was able to meet with a senior government representative to be one of the first to start a business there. It would be easy; just fly over to Minsk, get the proper documents in place and fly home with a new business underway.
A meeting in Cleveland is so easy; hop a plane, rent a car and you’re there. Then come home as soon as you’re done. Now a meeting in Minsk is not so easy. A friend and business associate of mine was originally from Minsk and he proposed the idea that we could contract programming work in Byelorussia through his friend of his who still lived there.
After a number of conversations we decided that it was worth a try to see if we could actually get a business started. Now that the easy part was completed, we started on the harder challenges.
Flying to Minsk was not a simple task of buying the right ticket and getting on the plane. All US citizens who wanted to enter the country had to get a visa from Byelorussia first. That seemed easy enough to someone whose foreign travel had been limited to a few business trips to London and Paris, but, where does a person get a visa from Byelorussia? This was 1991 and the internet was a techie toy that had no world wide web, no Google, no Yahoo Travel, nothing there to help me. We had to organize the trip through a travel agency and it still took nearly six months from the time we started the process until I could get on a plane.
The trip would be long and arduous with transfers in airports I had never seen and where signs might not be in English. The first leg was an easy flight from Minneapolis to New York. I arrived at the airport early in the morning expecting an international flight to the old Soviet Union to be as complicated as the visa process had been. In ten minutes I was at the gate and had more than two hours to kill. Travel was easier then, no TSA agents to ensure a slow and difficult trip through the airport. The next seven hours were the typical tedious air travel experience, waiting in airports and occasionally sitting on a plane. There weren’t even cell phones then to tweet my boredom to the world. If it wasn’t for the excitement and anticipation of this trip I would have been bored to death.
Finally I was on the plane to Frankfurt; the real trip was beginning. We flew through the night and arrived early on Monday morning. The Frankfurt airport was a madhouse. It seemed that every person in Germany was flying on that morning. Eventually I found the gate for the next leg of the trip, LOT airlines ( the Polish airline) flight to Warsaw. At that time there were no direct flights from any western European city to Minsk.
Frankfurt was still familiar and comfortable to a rookie American traveler; Warsaw sounded intimidating and flying on an airplane where the flight attendants spoke Polish was a little worrisome as well. The fears were all unfounded, the flight was easy, the flight attendants spoke English and the flight was smooth and easy.
Now we would move into the real unknown territory. Next stop is Minsk, Byelorussia.
Flying into Minsk from Warsaw the first unusual thing I noticed is that Minsk is completely surrounded by forest. There are no broad suburban developments, no visible farm land not even many roads leading in or out of the city. This is a city of more than 1.5 million people and it seems as isolated as a Siberian salt mine.
The plane landed and began to taxi to the terminal when I noticed the next strange thing. There were no other planes taxiing around, taking off or landing. There was only one plane at one of the jetways. Then we taxied past an area that looked like an airplane scrap yard. Aeroflot (The Russian airline) planes were packed into an area away from the terminal. They were jammed in wing to fuselage in a way that could not be used by passengers. Some of the jet engines had covers on them but most stood there open to the weather. None of them looked ready to fly.
Our plane pulled up to one of the jetways, the door opened and we walked into the terminal. Here was another very strange thing. In this large terminal with dozens of gates and capacity for thousands of passengers there were almost no people, no passengers, no workers and almost no guards. It looked like the Duluth airport at 2 AM except much bigger.
Our little group from the plane went to passport control and waited while the guards thoroughly examined all documents and questioned each of the passengers. When I reached the guard I handed him my passport with the visa inside, my letter of invitiation from the person I was meeting and my declaration of goods I was bringing in with me.
With a thick Russian accent he asked me “You have nothing you bring in?”
“No sir. Just some small gifts for the people I am meeting.”
“What gifts? You said you bring nothing!”
“Just small souvenirs, some candy, a shirt that says Minnesota on it, some wild rice. Less than one hundred dollars total.”
“That is not nothing.” He said gruffly as he carefully wrote the things I mentioned on the form.
“I’m sorry I didn’t realize that it was important.”
His only response was a scowl as he looked again at all of the papers.
“Ok, you go.” He finally said to me.
My travelling companion, Boris, was already through and was standing with a stereotypical Russian man waiting for me. He was a thick, burly man in a heavy overcoat and a Ushanka (the big Russian fur hats) on his head. His red nose made me think of Rudolph; I think he could have lit the way through a fog.
Boris introduced us and he greeted me with pretty good English. “I’m pleased to meet you Mr. Foley. You must be tired after that long trip. I will take you to your hotel. We can have dinner after you have rested.”
This was a welcome relief after the long travel and the less than hospitable greeting at passport control. As we drove through the city to the hotel I saw many things that seemed very strange. First I noticed that the buildings all looked the same. Nearly every building looked like it had been stamped out by some gigantic machine. They were 5 or 6 floor rectangular buildings with rows of windows on each floor that made them look just like an apartment buildings. The only difference was that there would be a few blocks of yellow stone buildings then blocks of grey concrete buildings, then blocks of brownish stucco buildings.
“Are all of these buildings part of a large development?” I asked.
Both Boris and my host laughed.
“Yes” my host said. “the entire city is a development. In the great patriotic war Minsk was almost completely destroyed. There were only three major buildings left standing. After the war somebody from Moscow sent this building plan here and this is what we built. Some of these buildings are manufacturing plants, some are apartments; they are all the same on the outside.
There was no decoration or landscaping anywhere. It was January and the side streets had dirty brown rutted snow covering them. The main streets had the same dingy snow but it was pushed to the sides. Traffic was very light for such a large city. There were almost no trucks and relatively few cars. The few trucks that were there were primarily from Germany. There also were farm tractors pulling wagons on the city streets. I made some comment about the tractors and my host provided the explanation.
“USSR had no trucks like the US. The big German trucks hauled goods back and forth from Europe but all local hauling depended on the tractors that were sent for the farms.”
“But” I noted “I couldn’t see any farms from the airplane. Where are they?”
“There are few farms here and they are not suitable for these big tractors but Moscow sent them so we use them.”
Finally my host proudly announced “There is your hotel.”
More to come – the wonders of the finest hotel in Minsk. The office of a senior government official and other wonders of the old USSR.