Crossing the Street

“Stop!” I said, instinctively putting an arm across my father, stopping him from stepping out. “Look!”

We’d been walking in a large crowd, the sort you’d expect in the busiest shopping street in a city of two million souls. There were the families with children, the young couples holding hands, the elderly babushkas with scarves wrapped around their heads; all were happily going about their daily business.

But as we came to a crossroads I noticed something different, strange even. “There’s no-one crossing!”

And there wasn’t. There wasn’t a car to be seen, and yet not a single pedestrian dared step out until the small red neon man that flashed opposite changed to green. All eyes were focused on it, obediently obeying its order to halt until it – and only it – deemed it safe to cross.

“That was strange” said dad, once we had safely navigated our way across the road with everyone else. Had we been back in the UK it would have been inconceivable that so many people would have waited to cross an empty street.

Welcome to Minsk, capital of Belarus. We were spending three nights here as part of a quick tour round Eastern Europe, and once we’d got our bearings it was a fascinating city to explore. Sure, there were the little idiosyncrasies that make this place like no other – the statue of Lenin and the omnipresent hammer and sickles stand out in particular – but then there were familiar sights too, with shops straight from a British high street. It’s not for nothing that cliché Minsk has been described as “Communism with a cappuccino”.

But when it came to crossing the road, things were distinctly different. Our earlier experience was repeated every time we came to a junction, and it wasn’t long before it became expected, normal even. We waited patiently and obediently, just like everyone else. After a while it just didn’t seem odd.

Then it happened. We were waiting to cross as we had so many times before, when a single solitary man rushed hurriedly across the road and into the mass of people on the other side. The crowds seemed shocked, and a faint murmur bristled in the air. “Did you see that?” my father asked in a disapproving tone. I nodded, also feeling like I’d witnessed a reckless act.

Further down the street we spoke of we had just seen. We’d realised that such a flash of individuality, of breaking the rules, would have been taken for granted back home. Only here in the former USSR did we passively accept our place as part of a crowd and wished only to do the same as everyone else. It hadn’t taken long to make the transition.

And that perhaps sums up today’s Minsk more than the Stalinist architecture and the Soviet iconography ever could. It was happiness in conformity, and an individual daring to cross a road. It’s just now you can have a cappuccino at the same time.

K Ruffles

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