Steady, predictable Minsk takes new role in stride

December 17, 1991|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MINSK — A map in Tuesday's editions of The Sun transposed Latvia and Lithuania.

MINSK -- Slow, dependable Minsk, patiently working away, had at last reached 1980 on its five-year plan when it was told last week that it had become a world capital.

And it would not be just any capital. Here is where the once-fearsome Soviet Union would be refashioned into a friendly, cooperative Commonwealth of Independent States, led by Russia, Ukraine and Byelarus.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The mere suggestion of such an overwhelming transformation might panic another provincial city, but not Minsk. Panic requires sudden emotion, and nothing happens suddenly here.

So what if the hotel rooms leave a lot to be desired. Why be alarmed if you have to stand endlessly and hopelessly in the cold, gray fog awaiting the rare taxi?

Speaking of taxis, the cab fare from the airport to Minsk is 40 rubles. It's 150 rubles to get back to the airport, suggesting people will pay anything to get out of Minsk.

Entertainment? At night, the Stoneflower Restaurant has a floor show with a row of energetic chorus girls who change into various arrays of ruffles and feathers with amazing speed and feverishly kick and dance for two hours.

Restaurants? There's not a single private one; only a handful operated by the state.

Telephones? Just a few foreigners trying to call their governments would quickly overload the telephone system, assuming they wouldn't mind going to the post office and standing in line to reserve a call abroad, which might be placed in an hour or in a day.

This doesn't bother Minsk. What other cities might call plodding, Minsk calls steady and dependable. Here, ordinary citizens and politicians alike celebrate their city for its predictability, for its stability. When they boast about their hometown, they choose adjectives like "quiet" and "tranquil."

The mayor, Alexander M. Gerasimenko, cheerfully points out that an international airport is already under construction, and even though it isn't finished, Minsk begins international flights tomorrow. Aeroflot, the Soviet airline, will fly from Minsk to Shannon Airport in Ireland for transfer to New York and other cities.

Mr. Gerasimenko seems undismayed by the fact that the airport has been under construction for the last 10 years. It stands across from the old airport like a concrete skeleton, clearly no more than half-finished.

The mayor's assistant, Valentin Shlyk, proudly points out that Minsk is a ghost town on the weekends. "Everyone goes to the country to visit their relatives," he says.

But foreign delegations should not be deterred. There is, after all, a far more bountiful supply of food in Minsk than in that other capital of Moscow. There are some lines, but far fewer than elsewhere. That's because the other republics of the former Soviet Union won't buy food from Minsk, fearing radiation contamination from the Chernobyl nuclear accident that occurred nearby.

There are 16 hotels with 5,000 rooms here. Everyone says the Byelarus is the best. "Maybe the rooms aren't the best," says an administrator named Luba, "but I think it's the best hotel."

The cost and availability of a room depends on who you are. Most foreigners have to pay in dollars -- usually about $60 for a room. A Soviet citizen pays 10 rubles -- about 10 cents last week.

Foreigners still have to ask the official Soviet Intourist agency for reservations, and like as not Intourist will send a message canceling the reservation instead of making it. That happened to one American last week, who was told that there was not a single room left in the entire 21-story hotel.

"Of course we would like to have you come and pay and get a room," a mournful clerk says, "but we'd also like to go to the store and be able to buy meat and milk." Half an hour later, after sustained threats and imprecations, the American got a room. A Russian who arrived at the same time got one, too -- after he paid the manager a bribe of 100 rubles for the room that cost 10 rubles.

The Byelarus is not bad for a Soviet hotel. The rooms actually have bathtubs with showers, though of course no shower curtain. And who can really complain about any hotel that offers pancakes with fried fat on its restaurant menu?

If the Byelarus is full, try the nearby Yubileynaya, which has 249 rooms and 400 employees. That's the hotel with a fax machine.

Fax machines are clearly a rare and valuable commodity here. The mayor has one right on his desk, for everyone to see. The city government has two others.

While other republics have eagerly been toppling Lenin monuments, those in Minsk remain, though one bust in front of a party building has been splashed with paint. Last Monday, Lenin and Gorky streets were renamed, but no one seems to have noticed it yet.

There's little of the nationalism that plagues other republics. Although 70 percent of the population is Byelarussian, the language of Minsk is mostly Russian and there seems no animosity to the 20 percent Russian minority.

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