Every year, back in communist times, British university students learning Russian used to get the chance to spend three months in the Soviet Union. If you were sent to Moscow or Leningrad (now St Petersburg), you’d hit the jackpot: wild times and minimal amounts of study were guaranteed. Kiev was held to be pretty good, too. But nobody, nobody at all, wanted to go to Minsk. It was as if a Russian learning English had hoped to go to London and found himself instead in Stoke-on-Trent.
Minsk, capital of what used to be called Soviet Byelorussia, and from 1991 the capital of independent Belarus, has changed quite a bit since then. But not in all respects. When I was there on a short trip last week, I found it hard to take my eyes off the huge Soviet-era sign in the middle of town that declares Minsk a “hero city” for its part in the victory over Nazi Germany. Belarus must be one of the few places on earth where the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution is still officially celebrated – not to mention “Tankmen’s Day”, another public holiday with Soviet military origins.