After spending a fair amount of time in former U.S.S.R countries and seeing a plethora of Soviet style bloc apartments I still haven’t quite summed up my feelings on the buildings. I have developed an appreciation for them, from an historical point of view. AGB did his master’s on Soviet apartments in Lithuania of all places so I was able to glean a fair amount of information re these eyesores and gain a bit more appreciation for them than I had previously held.

When most people think about Soviet bloc apartments they think of the hideous concrete establishments where people live in sardine-like squalor.

Now, I’m not advocating that we never tear any of them down due to their historical significance. It’s not like they are churches or mosques or synagogues or libraries. I doubt you ever could get rid of all of them anyway as they are so much cheaper to live in for people who make a very insignificant sum. When I heard what the average Belarusian with a decent job makes my jaw dropped. It shouldn’t have surprised me, but it was still a bit of a shock. And I thought the US was guilty of slave labour. There is no way people on that salary can really afford a house on a two person salary.

Anyway, I have seen these blocs in Narva, Estonia where they are most definitely crumbly old buildings left over from mid-20th century Soviet rule. I’ve seen them in Leipaja, Latvia where they aren’t just crumbly old buildings, they actually do appear to be falling apart at the seams. I’ve seen them in Belarus, where there is a mix of crumbly old buildings (like the one I stayed in at Postalayet’s Hostel) and brand new buildings that actually look just like decent, nice apartments on the outside, but inside are the same Sardinian sized black holes of oppression.

Brest, Belarus was one of the places with these apartment blocks going up everywhere. Brand new buildings with double glazed windows, but still containing the small inner proportions I’ve grown accustomed to. The outside of the buildings were tiled or painted and actually looked quite nice. That being said, it’s still Belarus, it’s still a socialist country and it still suffers under Lukashenko’s rule. I actually quite enjoyed Brest though. It was a much more pleasant city than Minsk. Not that Minsk was unpleasant, but there was an air of rebellion in the air and the city was much more similar to Western Europe than Minsk was.

The main pedestrian thoroughfare was a wide, cobbled café lined street and I spent a fair bit of time attempting to order food and drinks there. My first day there I stopped at a café that looked good and asked the waiter if he spoke English (he didn’t) and for a menu. Thankfully ‘menu’ is a cognate in Russian. Anyway, he brought me a menu which I attempted to use my translator on (didn’t work very well) and eventually found something that looked like pork in Cyrillic (no pictures on the menu) pointed and ordered. Turns out it was a pork chop with potato or something. After sitting awhile to digest my meal I decided that dessert sounded like a good idea. I spent a good 10 minutes attempting to translate the dessert menu (don’t even bother) before the same waiter who brought me my menu in Russian brought me an English translation of the menu. Seriously? Really? He couldn’t have done that before?

Anyway, I discovered apple strudel (yum!) on the menu and ordered that. I’ve taken to ordering apple strudel damn near everywhere I go and have discovered that apple strudel is very different everywhere you go. I was brought this pastry/ice cream/apple concoction that looked more like a pastry made into a cup with a bit of cooked and raw apple and ice cream in it. In Romania the strudel are more like regular square pastries filled with various fruits. All of them have been delicious though.

So other than the café lined pedestrian walkway what is there to see in Brest? Not a whole hell of a lot to be honest. The only thing is Brest Fortress and there isn’t a lot of the fortress left. It’s now more of a monument to the sheer awesomeness of the red army I think. It’s a bit difficult to tell as nothing is in English. That being said, I could easily have spent a few hours there if I had a picnic with me. To get into the fortress you walk down a long and wide cobbled walkway (it’s a good couple of minutes from the car park to the entrance) leading to a gateway with a giant soviet star cut out from the wall. To top it off, there is “inspiring” marching soviet type music to get you in the patriotic mood.

It’s actually quite beautiful and park like within the walls for the most part, but they still have their random military monuments. The first one you come to is a set of 3 tanks where you can pay $3 or something to that appeal to get dressed up in red army uniforms and have your picture taken in front of the tank. Based on the advertising poster for this kitschy tourist activity they have uniforms for everyone, including babies. Personally, I find this type of blind, indoctrinating patriotism to be a bit concerning, but it’s what they grow up with.

Continuing on into the park you walk over a lovely little bridge that leads to the statue of the ‘thirsty soldier’. It’s a statue of a soldier crawling desperately to find some water. It was also a very popular statue to have your picture taken in front of based on the amount of time it took me to get a photo without a million people in front of it. You can also find a rather large set of cannons to have a play on. Of course, no monument park in Belarus would be complete without the obligatory obelisk and eternally burning victory flame. This was the largest obelisk I have ever seen… seriously. I haven’t seen the Washington Monument in Washington D.C., but if it was anywhere near as tall as this one I would say it would be a fairly impressive site. Along the bottom of the obelisk were rows of commemorative carvings to unknown soldiers where people frequently lay wreaths in tribute to them. Judging by the number of shops I saw selling these wreaths I imagine it’s a fairly popular pastime.

The last major monument which I found fairly disturbing was a giant concrete/rock structure carving thing of the head of a soldier called “Valour”. It was the creepiest soldier monument I have ever seen and I think it tells you something about the type of government that builds these types of monuments. Some of the people who lead/rule countries in this world is of great concern to me and I have to wonder how these people make it into power in the first place.

I personally think the pride and joy of the Brest fortress should be the Orthodox Nikalaivsky Church in the middle of it just behind the scary looking giant soldier head monument. This quaint looking (on the outside) little church is the oldest Orthodox church in Brest and has survived, despite its use for various soviet activities throughout the years. I didn’t know if I could go in so I didn’t go in to check it out, but I imagine the inside would have been excessively gilded and gaudy on the inside.

I would definitely recommend a trip to Brest if you go to Belarus (especially if you speak Russian). It has much less of a military presence than Minsk, it’s definitely more western and there’s that hint of rebellion in the air. It’s fascinating to compare it to Minsk and to compare the way they live under a socialist regime compared to the way they want to live in a freer society. You can see the effects of creeping capitalism everywhere and it’s a great place to just sit and people watch if you feel like relaxing for a few days.

See Belarus photos here.

What I’m reading now: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

What I’m listening to now: Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix audiobook by J.K. Rowling