As our plane from Amsterdam descended through a bank of heavy cloud into Minsk airport, we were greeted by the sight of forest and snow. Then the runway appeared and a small terminal, where Russian planes were parked.
It was a richly symbolic introduction. Belarus is in many ways a part of Russia.
When we flew in – the spring of 2018 – Belarus was trying to open up to foreign tourists. But there were some obstacles: all the signs and information screens were in Cyrillic and few people spoke English. Then there was the bureaucracy and that, as we soon discovered, was a story in itself.
The official situation was this: one could enter the country and stay for 5 nights without requiring a visa. If one wanted to stay for longer, a visa was required -28 days was the maximum time one could stay in the country – and it had to obtained in one’s country of origin.
We wanted to stay longer.
But what we didn’t realise until after we arrived in Belarus was that obtaining that visa in one’s country of origin – a tedious and long winded process – was just the start of a long journey into a bureaucratic maze reminiscent of Kafka’s novel ‘The Trial’…….
The requirements for obtaining a month visa for Belarus varied from the obtuse (e.g.name of mother and father and grandparents along with their birth dates and nationality) to the ridiculous: e.g. to give the name and address of a person in Belarus who was prepared to sponsor one’s visit – just how many people would know anyone in a Marxist hermit state?
Another demand was for a letter from our health insurance company confirming that we would be fully covered during our stay in Belarus; it had to be in English, not Dutch. Fortunately, our Dutch health insurance company agreed to send us a covering letter in English. They confirmed that we would be covered during our time in Belarus.
It was a daunting prospect filling in the forms. When they were completed, we turned to a small company which specialised in visa applications. They checked our forms to ensure that everything was filled in as required and crucially, they had someone in Belarus who could act as our sponsor. They also checked the letter from our health insurance company. The whole exercise, including the cost of the visas, set us back 300 Euros.
After a couple of weeks, our passports came back from The Hague with the official 28 day visa stamped in our passports.
We were elated.
Belarus here we come!
Belarus was the only regime still in existence which still openly claimed to be communist, although walking around the capital Minsk on our first day, I had to wonder about that. Everywhere I looked, I saw luxury cars, American take away outlets, upmarket restaurants, mega shopping malls and just about everyone talking into a smart phone. Minsk was a modern city and there seemed to be precious little communism remaining.
I had to remind myself that the country was ruled by an authoritarian despot named Lukashenko who had been in power for almost 30 years and was good friends with Russia’s resident despot, Vladimir Putin. In Belarus there was no such thing as an independent media, free elections, or public dissent.
However these sides of Belarus remained hypothetical during my first day or two of walking around the city. Not only was it modern, it was also scrupulously clean, had lots of parks and walking trails and bike tracks and its historic centre had been tastefully preserved. There were no blatant signs of poverty, no homeless people camping in the parks. It was difficult to balance up the reality of Minsk with the oppressive nature of the communist government.
Then again, why should dictatorship go hand in hand with poverty? With inequality? With a lack of infrastructure? Wasn’t this a sign of the bias I’d unconsciously assimilated from the western media?
It was on our third day in Minsk that we were suddenly confronted by one of the truly enduring aspects of communist rule: the bureaucracy.
We had booked an apartment near the centre of Minsk for 3 days. But we liked the apartment and we liked Minsk, so Anya phoned the owner of the apartment – and big, garrulous man named Nikolae – and booked another 3 nights.
Then the ball started rolling.
Fine by him, he said, but did we realise that if we planned to stay in Belarus for longer than 5 nights we had to report to the immigrant police?
Anya explained that we had a visa for 28 days.
That didn’t matter, Nikolae said: we had still had to register and he had to accompany us because no one at the immigration police spoke any other languages other than Belorussian and Russian.
Anya began peppering him with questions, to which he said:
‘Look, I better come around tomorrow and explain the situation to you. This is a crazy country you’ve come to…’
We agreed on a time and Nikolae duly appeared.
The three of us sat in the lounge of the apartment. Outside was a view of a square surrounded by other apartments, four stories high. It was a fine day. Patches of snow covered the ground inside the square and the trees were bare, but the sun shone brightly and flooded through the windows of our apartment.
Nikolae however brought a darkness with him which soon made us forget about the beautiful weather.
It took some time, but in his broken English he finally made us understand: irrespective of the fact that we had a visa, we still had to register with the immigration police.
Nikolae then asked us whether we had proof of our medical insurance. This was crucial for registering. When we showed him the letter from our health insurer – in English – he grimaced:
‘No good, this must be translated into Belorussian.’
‘What? But this has been approved by the Belorussian embassy in The Netherlands – ‘
‘I know, I know,…I told you, this is a crazy country! I can’t do anything about it but …’
It was preposterous!
We had gone to the trouble of arranging for a covering letter from our Dutch insurance company to be translated into English, as the embassy had demanded, and then after arriving in Minsk, were then told that the letter had to be translated back into Belorussian!
The bitter reality was this: the long-winded process of obtaining a 28 day visa from the embassy in The Hague was no more than the first step in a longer journey.
Nikolai knew the ropes.
He possessed a natural skill which was essential to surviving in this system: he knew how to scam.
To get around the requirement of translating the health insurance letter into Belorussian it was easier he told us to take out a policy with the Belarus state insurance agency. This would cost 50 Euros (a lot of money in Belarus), but it would be quicker and cheaper than getting our original letter translated.
After the emotions of anger, incredulity and sheer disbelief washed over us, we realised that we were helpless.
If we wanted to travel in Belarus we had to play this game.
And what a game it was!
Early the following afternoon, he picked us up in his beaten up Audi and took us to the Belorussian State Health Insurance Office. It was at the outskirts of Minsk. The office was a small, modern single level building surrounded by old, run down, dingy apartment blocks.
So this was where the poor lived. We were a long way from the modern heart of Minsk.
Inside, a long conversation ensued between Nikolae and a woman behind a counter. She passed over two forms and we retreated to a nearby waiting room, where Nikolae took out a pen and copied the details from our passports on to the forms in Cyrillic. It took quite a while.
Then he took the forms, our passports and a 50 Euro note back to the counter. This was followed by a long wait.
Whilst sitting there, it hit me:I suddenly thought of Franz Kafka’s epic novel ‘The Trial’.
The classic opening line of that novel rang in my ears:
‘Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., he knew he had done nothing wrong but one morning, he was arrested. ’
Joseph K. is picked up one morning in his lodgings by the police and brought to the hallways of an immense bureaucracy to be cross-examined by a magistrate. But he has no idea of what crime he has committed and no one tells him. He is shunted from one department to the other, endlessly – and then allowed to resume his life on the condition that when summoned, he must appear before a court and defend himself – against unknown charges. Joseph K.’s entire life is spent in this limbo land at the behest of an amorphous bureaucracy, omnipotent and requiring no pretext to charge and detain. He is puppet on strings, his life forfeit to a judicial/bureaucratic labyrinth.
Kafka was writing in the 1920’s in Prague. How strangely prophetic that novel proved to be. No one could have imagined then that one day, ‘The Trial’ would become the reality of communism and that communism would come to dominate all of Eastern Europe, including Prague. As well as half the globe including Russia, China and Vietnam.
Communism: the empire of bureaucracy.
Finally we were called back to the counter. After signing a lot of forms, all of them in Cyrillic, and having each one of them stamped, we got three small receipts, confirming that we were insured for the following 25 days.
As we left to get back into the car, Nikolae said: ‘You can’t use that insurance policy. If you get sick or have an accident, then use your Dutch policy. They will never admit foreigners into a Belorussian hospital with a policy taken out with the State Insurance.’
It was utter madness of course, but by this time we were reconciled to going along with the scam.
Next stop: the Immigration Police.
Where more madness was awaiting us.
From the Belarus State Insurance office, we drove to the Immigration police.
The waiting room at the Immigration Police was a small, rectangular space surrounded by closed doors. There was a passage at either end of the room. There were no windows. Light was provided by a fluorescent tube. It was not crowded.
Nikolai knocked on a door, went inside and returned with two long white forms, on to which he copied the details from our passports in Cyrillic with a biro. It took quite a while.
Watching him filling in those forms, I asked myself why he was going to all this trouble to help two western tourists get through this bureaucratic maze. Surely it was easier to rent his apartment to a local or a Russian?
My query was resolved a day after we departed Minsk on the bus. The bus broke down and we got talking to a woman who spoke English and lived in Minsk. As she explained to us:
‘The rent on an apartment near the centre of Minsk for a Belorussian or a Russian is 400 roubles a month. In our terms that’s a lot of money.’
400 roubles a month was about 180 Euros. We were paying 40 Euros a night and wanted to stay 6 nights. In western European terms 40 Euros a night for a good sized apartment with a kitchen and cooking facilities near the centre of a major city was a very cheap. But it was easy to see why Nikolae was prepared to go to the trouble to help us. Not that I held that against him. Without him, we would have been truly lost.
After filling in most of the questions on the forms, Nikolae departed, taking the forms with him.
He didn’t tell us where he went, only assured us that he would return.
We sat there and watched other people appear with bundles of paper and wait until a door opened and they were called in. Most of them were Poles and Russians, people wanting to stay in Belarus for an extended time either because they had a Belorussian partner or were involved in a business venture.
Nikolae returned accompanied by a young woman.
She proceeded to fill in the remaining questions on the forms in Cyrillic and then took them, along with our passports, to a door, knocked, was admitted, closed the door and then came back and joined us.
What was this all about?
The young woman spoke fluent English. She was a student studying English at university. Nikolae had driven off to pick her up from her flat. She had testified on the forms that we were staying with her and that she would be our sponsor during our time in Belarus.
(But, but….we already had a so-called sponsor! We had paid a visa bureau in The Netherlands handsomely for arranging it. No, no point in saying anything. Just go along with the madness!)
Nikolai, as the apartment owner, couldn’t act as our sponsor. Therefore he employed different people to act as sponsors. He used English speaking students because then it seemed more likely that they would be able to communicate with the tourist – and have a reason to accommodate them.
It was hard to follow the logic of this system because there wasn’t any.
Then she was called back to the office. She was gone for a good while. I was afraid that something had gone wrong.
Finally, she appeared with our passports. They had been stamped; we had been officially permitted by the immigration police to stay in Belarus for 28 days.
We all got in the Nikolae´s car and he began driving back into the centre of Minsk.
I looked out at the apartment blocks passing by, forming a monotonous blur. My thoughts dwelled on what we had experienced that day.
The architect of communism was Karl Marx, a brilliant German Jew who settled in London and wrote the sharpest analysis of the capitalist system ever written. Marx was more than a brilliant and logical thinker. He spoke 7 languages. Oddly enough, he was also a dreamer. He envisaged the emergence of world without classes, without the super rich and the super poor. A world in which international solidarity would triumph. Where everyone would live on the basis of equality; undertones of John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’.
Never in his worst nightmares did Marx ever contemplate a one party state run by bureaucratic behemoth. His inspiration was drawn from the ancient Athenians, and not the ancient Spartans. Communist fanatics such as Lenin (his statue can be seen in many cities and towns in Belarus), Stalin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot and Castro, misappropriated the ideas of Marx to legitimise dictatorship. Atheistic regimes used Marx as new kind of God.
Franz Kafka, like Marx, was a brilliant, educated Jew. His vision of the future was however very different to that of Marx.
Kafka’s story ‘The Trial’ was published in 1925. It was written in 1915. In an early part of the story, after Joseph K. is arrested on a charge which is never stated and he has no way of ascertaining, he appears before a court and says:
´There is some enormous organisation determining what is said by this court…an organisation that employs policemen who can be bribed, oafish supervisors and judges of whom nothing better can be said that they are not as arrogant as some others. This organisation even maintains a high-level judiciary along with its train of countless servants, scribes, policemen and all the other assistance that it needs, perhaps even executioners and torturers. And what is the purpose of this enormous organisation? Its purpose is to arrest innocent people and wage pointless prosecutions against them which lead to no result. How are we to avoid those in office becoming corrupt when everything is devoid of meaning? ‘
The great tragedy of the 20th century was how wrong Karl Marx proved to be and how prescient Franz Kafka.
A statue of Lenin in Belarus. He was the architect of communism – and a state dictatorship. He called himself a ‘Marxist’ – even though Marx once famously quipped: ‘I am not a Marxist’.