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September 2, 2002

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We must admit coming to Belarus with apprehension. Our darkest fears imagined major hassles at the border crossing and then worse on the inside: a police state, a corrupt bureaucracy, a chance that the government could jail us on a whim. This morning we arrived in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, and we haven't sensed any hostility and the police haven't glanced our way. People don't show much expression, but they act graciously towards strangers that approach them for help. Several people have gone out of their way to direct us on the right path. Store owners and waiters smile at our lack of local knowledge and language skills. Little English is spoken - it's much more difficult for English speaking travelers here than other parts of Eastern Europe. Belarus itself remains a Socialist Republic. Privatisation has ceased, most of the state runs on subsidies, employment is almost non-existent - people have jobs but the pay is terrible, the average monthly wage is $33 and the minimum wage is $4 per month. The most prominent business we see in Minsk is McDonalds. Most of the streets are empty of consumer businesses. Beer is the most obvious commodity - it's sold on every corner in a bewildering array of variety. We see a few drunks weaving around. The rest of the people walk like robots, with purpose and without smiles, barely looking to one side or the other. Uniform streets, automated people, Minsk has personality precisely because it hasn't personality. Imagine Siberia as exciting, in that world Minsk would still be dull.
Monopoly money or Belarusian rubles? Since communism collapsed, inflation had hit 50% per month in 1999, enough that the government couldn't keep printing money fast enough. This whole spread of money is worth a little more than one US dollar. Belarus is the only country we've visited that doesn't have coins in circulation.
In the heart of downtown, this street is Minsk's main drag, as exciting as it gets. That's the KGB building with its fancy cupola.
Belarus still worships Lenin and the hammer and sickle are proudly displayed on government buildings. It's possible Belarus will reunite with Russia in the future.
Minsk has more police per capita than any other city. You should be safe from muggers, just don't jaywalk. These officers are either threatening this man by pointing out the KGB building down the street, or they're offering directions.