Alex turned and looked at me as we sped down the highway. “Welcome to the last dictatorship in Europe!” he shouted, jerking the SUV slightly as he laughed. “Welcome to Belarus!”
Soon, the dense forest flanking Minsk's international airport was gone, replaced by a wide and imposing Soviet-style avenue.
On the right, a row of massive apartment blocks shot into the sky. Despite the gathering storm clouds, the buildings sparkled majestically. Along the facade of each tower ran a 16-story mosaic, each work of art proudly and intricately celebrating another of the Soviet Union’s self-proclaimed triumphs.
Just a few months ago, this drive would have been almost unimaginable for the average American traveler.
But Belarus, it seems, is beginning to change.
Governed by the same strong-armed president since 1994 and guided by a heavy dose of Soviet nostalgia, Belarus has spent the last two decades as one of the most isolated countries in Europe.
That's why it was so surprising when the typically tight-lipped Belorussian government announced in January that U.S. passport holders and 79 other nationalities would be allowed to travel to the country visa-free for the first time ever.
The change, which allows tourists to stay in the country for a maximum of five days and mandates that they enter and exit via the Minsk airport, put an end to a drastically bureaucratic and often cost-prohibitive visa application system that stymied Belarus's tourism industry—and cut the country off from much of the world.
In 2016, Belarus received around 100,000 international travelers—a tiny number by any measure, but particularly minuscule considering much smaller neighbors like Latvia and Lithuania regularly draw more than a million tourists a year.
“I didn't expect it,” local independent tour guide, Andrei Burdenkov, told me as we discussed the visa change, which went into effect in mid-February. “But I'm hopeful it will be good for business.”
Andrei, who makes a living guiding visitors around his country, readily admits that Belarus probably isn't at the top of anyone's travel bucket list.
“Most of the people who come here are looking to visit their last European country—not their first.”
But that's exactly Belarus's strange appeal. As countries like Cuba and Myanmar finally open up, this country of ten million is among the last big “off limits” destinations—and for travelers looking to get a taste of what life was like behind the Iron Curtain, Belarus is just about as close to the former Soviet Union as one can find these days.
The country's perpetual president, Alexander Lukashenko—a man regularly accused of jailing political opponents and oppressing independent journalists—has a serious love affair with the former USSR and he isn't afraid to show it.
“Many of the older people… they prefer those times,” a Belorussian student told me, slyly referring to the 62-year-old Lukashenko. “They look back and have good memories, even if the memories are not actually that good.”
Almost everywhere you go in Belarus, from the capital city to the remote rural villages, the president's preference for “those times” is on display. While next door, Ukraine is busy “decommunizing" itself by destroying Soviet statues and renaming streets and towns, Belarus is firmly holding on to its past—no matter how controversial it may be.
At the edge of Minsk’s Independence Square stands the perfectly symmetrical House of Government building, home to the former Supreme Soviet of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. Today, the building houses the National Assembly of Belarus.
Despite the change, however, a statue of the controversial communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin remains outside the building's entrance, a stern reminder to the independently elected legislators working inside.
It's one of dozens of Lenin statues still standing around the country.
“The Soviet Union is still alive here,” a patron at the upscale Mockingbird bar in downtown Minsk told me after I asked him about the statue. “We still have the KBG! Can you believe that?!”
In addition to zealously protecting their monuments to Lenin, Belarus was the only former USSR republic to retain the title of the Soviet Union's infamous state intelligence agency, which was tasked with rooting out enemies of the Communist Party, along with a host of other shadowy practices.
But while Belarus's KGB certainly isn't throwing its doors open anytime soon, the country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs seem to be leaving theirs slightly ajar.
It's hard to predict just how the country's physical infrastructure and authoritarian political system will cope with the Ministry's announcement to allow a sudden influx of travelers—that is, if any tourists actually take the government up on its five day, visa-free offer.
While the country boasts a number of attractions that might pique a traveler’s eye—a newly constructed World War II museum; a ridiculously odd, “diamond” shaped National Library; a well-regarded (and ridiculously inexpensive) ballet company; and, if you're able to escape Minsk for a day, the Nesvizh Castle, a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site—Belarus' most interesting attractions are not the traditional sights and sounds you will find in other great European capitals.
What's most intriguing about this long-isolated country is what you won't see, what you won't hear.
“We live in the country of Monty Python,” Alex told me as we finally neared my hostel on Trinity Hill—Minsk's marquee historic district.
The drive had taken us past a number of fading, brutalist Soviet buildings juxtaposed next to a bevy modern, half-finished high-rises that seemed to be in a state of perpetual near-completion. Along the streets, a small army of men and women repainted park benches, railings, and manhole covers with an intensity that seemed to indicate a horde of tourists would be arriving any minute.
“Why's that?" I asked Alex, bemused. “Monty Python?”
“Because nothing makes sense here. Nothing. It's so funny.”