Home Europe Travel What it’s really like inside Europe’s ‘last dictatorship’

What it’s really like inside Europe’s ‘last dictatorship’


“It’s just like going back to the Soviet Union.”

“It’s basically a province of Russia.”

“You will be thrown in jail for anything.”

This is what people told me before I visited Belarus in 2018. The country, which sits between Poland, Russia, Ukraine and the Baltics, and is often dubbed Europe’s “last dictatorship”, is currently in the spotlight for the wrong reasons. When I visited, however, during a six-month journey along the border between Russia and the rest of Europe, I – like most people – knew relatively little beyond these stereotypes. 

A friend encouraged me to shave off my beard before walking into Belarus along the Augustów Canal from Poland. He was once detained when entering Russia, he told me, because the police said his beard made him look Chechen. As it turned out, the Belarusian border guard only wanted to offer me tea.

My first stop was the city of Grodno, where I checked into Hotel Yubileiny, an old Soviet monolith on the outskirts of the city. There was no light in the corridor outside my room, the plug was missing from the bath, and I was even tempted to check the place for listening devices. The Cold War setting was evocative, but I swapped it for a modern backpacker hostel in the city centre instead.

The next morning, I was struggling to buy a ticket at the bus station, when a man in the queue behind me offered to translate. When he told the lady at the counter where I was going, a look of alarm crossed her face, and she spoke urgently before pointing behind me. The man handed over some cash and told me to follow him outside, where he pushed me onto a bus and stuffed a ticket into my hand.

“This bus leaves for Brest right now,” he said.

I dug into my wallet to reimburse him, but he closed his hand over mine.

“A man in England did the same for me, once,” he said with a laugh, “I never thought I’d be able to return the favour, but I guess this is fate!”

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