Peter Heywood visited Minsk before joining the ‘Ukraine & Moldova: Europe’s Wild Frontier’ tour in July 2019.
“Part of Napoleon’s army came this way when he invaded the Russian Empire,” said Dzmitry. “The roads were terrible in those days.” He paused for dramatic effect. “And they weren’t any better on the way back!”
We were driving through heavy rain from Minsk north-east along the Moscow highway. Dzmitry, a historian, had already pointed out the location of Lee Harvey Oswald’s Minsk apartment where the future assassin of US President John F. Kennedy had lived having defected to the Soviet Union. Now we passed the huge Mound of Glory complex commemorating the liberation of Belarus by Soviet forces during the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45. There had been over a million casualties here when German army divisions retreating from Hitler’s disastrous invasion of the USSR were encircled and destroyed. The road to Moscow had a long history of advancing and retreating armies.
At Zhodzina, we visited another site of great importance to the USSR and the post-Soviet states succeeding it. After the war period, huge manufacturing sites were built in Belarus to support the re-building and expansion of the USSR’s roads, infrastructure and economy. One of these sites was the BelAZ automobile plant at Zhodzina which is still one of the world’s largest manufacturers of giant haulage and earthmoving vehicles.
Riding in the cab of a BelAZ mining dump truck is an experience which can best be described as taking a two-storey house for a drive whilst sitting at an upstairs window. The test site I was driven around was, effectively, an obstacle course constructed from mud. I was grateful that my driver did not appear to be a learner and that, if he was, he hadn’t bothered to fit ‘L’ plates to the truck. We powered through the mud swaying from side to side as we negotiated the ascents, descents and ridges.
On the drive back to central Minsk, I developed my own theory about why invading armies had experienced such a hard time passing through Belarus. Certainly the roads had been terrible, the weather poor, the food in short supply and the opposing forces relentless. But their real problem, I suggested to Dzmitry, was that they just didn’t have the trucks.