Don’t Go to Belarus – There’s Nothing Fun or Funny About Minsk

In planning our itinerary for Opening Our Eyes, I needed to ticket a flight from Warsaw to Moscow. There was nothing direct – most European airlines went back to their hubs and thus took more time, going out of the way. I thought about the train, but I saw warnings about going through Riga and having to pay for high transit visas so I avoided it. I opted to fly Belavia Air, the national airlines of Belarus. Every flight went through Minsk (its hub), but at least that was going in the same direction. But little did I know what was awaiting us in Minsk.

We had a scheduled layover of 2 ½ hours in Minsk, which quickly dwindled to less than a half an hour because the flight was 2 hours late taking off from Warsaw. The problem was with baggage – they couldn’t match the baggage tags with the passenger roster so everyone needed to get off the plane – identify their bag on the tarmac and then reboard.

When we got to Minsk we were in a hurry, but we needed to pass through passport control. I thought since we were in transit, it would be like most transit flights and we’d whisk right through. But when the official asked us for our Belarus visa – we knew we had a problem. We quickly went upstairs to the visa window and were encountered by a stern blonde woman who looked like she was straight out of a 1960’s Cold War novel, who asked for our passports. When she saw the US passports she told us it would be $300 – I was shocked. And then when she informed us that was for each one of us – my shock turned to outrage.

I wasn’t traveling with that much cash so I needed to go to an ATM. Of course the ATM would not accept my card so we were ushered to a small currency exchange kiosk. It was closed and wasn’t going to reopen for another 40 minutes. And that’s when I started to panic a bit, knowing that our flight to Moscow would leave with our bags – but without us. Not something you want to have happen as we were due to arrive in Moscow after midnight. After waiting over 45 minutes she opened the kiosk and people started pushing their way to the window. I finally got my “usury” money and paid the “bandit” immigration authorities after an hour and a half of stress and agony.

The only saving grace was that the airline officials held the flight for us. My daughter was wondering why they didn’t have direct flights from Warsaw to Moscow since it would have taken less than 2 hours. I know why now – the routing is designed to hold anyone with a US passport hostage until they pay these exorbitant fees. No pleading or explaining that we were only in their country for 15 minutes would do any good. I have never seen such callous and rude people in all my years of traveling and I will never return to Belarus.

But I do hope someday that I will come upon a Belarusian visiting the United States. I will go out of my way to treat them with the kindness that we never received in their country and perhaps that will filter through. I can only hope.

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15 Replies to “Don’t Go to Belarus – There’s Nothing Fun or Funny About Minsk”

  1. Hey Gail,

    Interesting article and it comes at an interesting time. Son Steve wants to go around Europe next summer after graduation and hopes to include Moscow. I’m cautious after my cousins wife, Melissa, told me she was really comforted that they were escorted on their side trip from a Baltic cruise. She found it scary.

    Your travels are fascinating!



  2. I am really sorry about what happened and do appologize being a Belarusians myself. However, public sector (customs) employees are not representative of the whole country, especially an authoritarian one. Ordinary citizens in the streets are generally helpful and kind, well at least from my perspective…

  3. I have traveled to Belarus 5 times in the last 5 years delivering aid with Canadian Aid for Chernobyl and it is true that their bureaucracy is 60 years out of date and communist to boot! However, the people of Belarus are wonderful kind people who would give you the shirt off of their back. It is unfortunate that this is the only connection you have had with Belarus. Perhaps instead of promising never to go back you should return to find the real Belarus … which of course is the people, not the government!

    1. Eric – you’re so right. A country’s politics and/or the policies of its government are not always representative of its people. I often feel the same way when people judge all US citizens by our government’s actions.
      But when I saw the sign listing the tarifs for visas with the US singled out as being far and away more expensive than any other country – I felt they were making a clear statement. I would have gladly have given my $600 to the people of Belarus who may have truly needed that money.

  4. Thanks for your post! One of many that appeared in recent month and helped Belavia to push through a change in visa legislation. Now a flight ticket is enough for 24h transit via Minsk to Russia, belarusian transit visa is not required anymore.

    But still, I have to admit that the opposite pole of visa complexity, i.e. getting visa to US, is _much_ more complex: several days and more than 300$ is needed.

  5. bad luck :((

    however, everything is getting better in this world: just on the last week the Belavia airlines managed to lobby through the Belarus government a visa-free 24 h transit for their passengers.

  6. Yes, this sounds right about Belarus, but this nightmare happens to Belarusians disproportionately more often when they travel to virtually all Western countries – with transit visas (especially for the UK) and with regular visas where Belarusians are being constantly humiliated because of their citizenship already at the level of the consulate. Plus, Belarusians pay a lot more for visas given their income (for a US student visa (far cheaper than many other US visas) – 1/3rd of average monthly income) and their visas expire a lot sooner than those given to other travelers (for instance, Russians who by no means have better immigration history).

  7. VC, totally agree and even in the States for residents the service leaves much to be desired. When my flight got canceled, I had to stay at the airport for the whole night with a one-year old after 3hours wait in the line where a “stern blonde woman who looked like she was straight out of a 1960’s Cold War novel” offerred me a flight from Washington to Atlanta at 4PM next day with a stop in Charlotte so I was home at 10PM. I would drive there quicker.

  8. Love all the replies, but not the article – sorry! Being obviously Belarussian, I am probably not all the time proud of my country (like in this case and I really feel for what you had to go through during your journey), but I am proud to be Belarussian and feel sad that you needed to humiliate someone (well, the whole nation in fact) to make yourself feel better (did you write this on the plane to Moscow?). Although the comparison ‘a stern blonde woman who looked like she was straight out of a 1960’s Cold War novel’ is brilliant and it even made me laugh it is so true (this the only bit of an article I really enjoyed), I think you can only judge this woman and the rest of us after you tried yourself to live in Soviet Union for 20 odd years, knowing that you will never go to States as you will never be able to afford a God knows how many $$$ visa and probably don’t even have a laptop or a broadband to answer you.
    I am really pleased though that other people who wrote the comments did make an effort through the customs and know for themselves how it is fun and funny in Belarus … it is a shame you will never find out …

    1. Svetlana,

      You are correct in what you say. I should not judge a country or a people by one personal experience. I certainly would not want people to judge my country by one isolated experience. Hindsight brings reflection.

  9. Even though im from nigeria and currently residing in nigeria – based on what i have heard from my pals in belarus, belarus is a country full of good people… People who knows the true value of life, people who treats foreigners like a family member.. The government is the only problem which i beleive will change soon by the grace of God..

  10. Gail, you are a remarkable person in that You can react as most of us do to a horrible experience and can show the international humor and travel on. I personally know people from Minsk, Belarus and in fact Moscow, Russia and know the people to be Good and fun loving. I plan to travel next spring and I know how they feel about the U.S. air port officials and trust me they do not hold there experience against me. I live in the U.S and if you ever want to meet people from Belarus that now call the U.S Home, It is possible.

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