A Saturday in Belarus

The following blog was written in May, 2018. It came to mind when I saw recent events unfolding in Belarus. The mass upheaval in the wake of yet another rigged election –  echoes of the George Floyd demonstrations – has given me great hope and yet also, considerable angst – at the measures Lukashenko and his criminal friend Putin might resort to in order to crush the eruption of popular dissent. 

 

“To reach the city of Salihorst (population 100, 000) we travelled from one corner of Belarus to the other – from the east near the Russian border to the south, near the Polish border.

We left early on a Friday morning. It was a long and uncomfortable trip in an old mini-bus.

We travelled through thinly populated rural country and stopped regularly to pick people up or let them off. Sometimes the bus stopped at villages and small towns, and sometimes in the middle of nowhere.

Most of the passengers were elderly people of peasant stock, heavy-set, dour, with a rough and hearty way of speaking. They were dressed in old fashioned clothes like you might have seen during the 1950´s in a western nation. Their diet was heavy in pork, potatoes and vodka. 

Watching them boarding and alighting from that rickety mini-bus, it occurred to me that it was the parents of these people who had fought the Nazis. Everywhere in the rural areas, you saw them: war memorials, freshly garlanded with wreaths.

In 1942, when Hitler made the fatal decision to invade Russia, the major thrust went through Belarus. Taking the cities was simple, but the Nazis were surprised at how relentlessly the peasants – the poorest people and badly armed – had fought them. Ready to die to the last man, woman and child.

Villages were blown up. Crops burnt. People shot.

But still the peasants fought.

What those people endured is utterly beyond our understanding.  

 

After a long journey, we finally got into Salihorst at 6pm. It was raining and there was a strong wind. We were in a strange city in bad weather and it was getting dark. There weren’t many tourists in Belarus and none in Salihorst; when we finally found a hotel and entered the main foyer and eased off our rucksacks, the other guests stared at us – striking in a culture where people do not stare or even look at other people unless they are being addressed directly. .

There were 3 women behind the front desk.

One of the women came forward and claimed that she spoke English.

She didn’t. She didn´t speak German or French either.

We began using sign language to show that we wanted to stay the night until another woman, who was seated behind a computer, got up and came over and to our surprise, began speaking in fluent English. She was the youngest person there. She was in her 20´s. She had blond hair, cut short. Unlike the other women, she was wearing jeans and a shirt, not a dress.

She told us that there was only one room available. It was expensive: 50 Euros. That was a lot of money by Belorussian standards.

We hardly had a choice in the matter.

She accompanied us to our room. We got in the lift and began chatting.

Our room wasn’t a room at all, it was an apartment. There was an entry hall, a fully equipped kitchen, a dining room, a large bedroom with a private bathroom, and in a lounge with sofas and lamps, a large flat screen TV. A place for an upper level officer or party member.  

We put our rucksacks down and talked a while. We hadn´t communicated with anyone in over a week (besides each other of course). It was a pleasant surprise to have a conversation with a local. Her name was Polina. She was studying at university: IT. Belarus was turning out highly competent IT people. Big firms were investing in the country because of the low wages. I asked about the IT graduates in Belarus.

Wouldn’t they be tempted to move to Western Europe where wages were so much higher?

Why? She asked. ‘If you get a job with a foreign company in Belarus, you don’t earn as much as in Western Europe, but you earn enough to live like a king in Belarus. Buy your own apartment, a nice car. Belarus is a cheap country to live in. Your friends and family are here….’

Shortly before she went back downstairs, she suggested that we leave our passports and papers with her and pick them up later.  

Sounded like a good idea. There were an awful lot of forms to be filled in.

 

We showered, went out and found a supermarket – being a Friday evening, it was very busy – and came back and made a meal. Afterwards we sat on the sofa and turned on the TV, just to see what the people looked at in this country. In the other apartments and hotels we had stayed in, we had never bothered to turn on the TV (what was the point, it was in a foreign language?). But we were too tired to read our e-books.  

We surfed from one station to the next. On a couple of stations, there was a Belorussian version of the same kind of fare westerners watched – game shows and sit coms. On another, there was a live show beamed from Russia featuring two rotund, elderly men dressed in black suits who cracked jokes and sang, to the huge enjoyment of the audience. On another, a serious looking male walked around what looked like a refinery, explaining the finer details of its technical specifications and operation. Riveting stuff. It reminded me of the kind of fare we had seen on the TV in China during the early 1990’s; ‘Factory 375’ and ‘Oil Rig 3’ and so on.

On two stations were ‘current events’. This meant: the latest events featuring the nation’s resident dictator, Alexander Lukashenko.

He had been in office for the last 25 years. His regime was similar to that of his fellow dictator in neighbouring Russia, Vladimir Putin; it was a modern day Ming dynasty. At every election Lukashenko was voted back in by at least 90% of the vote. It was striking how these petty tyrants rigged their elections to reassure themselves that they were absolutely adored by the masses.

In the meantime, day and night, the state controlled media glorified the Great Leader.

Watching this nonsense, I felt a wave of revulsion well up inside me.

As bad as western leaders might sometimes seem, a dictatorship was a totally different scenario. It was something unimaginable for people used to an open society based upon freedom of speech and thought, an independent media and legal system, and representative government.

 

The following morning, the sky was clear. It was sunny.

But I woke up with a hangover, even though I hadn’t drunk anything the night before.

The bad weather had departed the world outside but it lingered on inside my mind.

Dark questions, like clouds, hung over me.

 All those millions of people – the mothers and fathers of the people I’d seen yesterday in the mini bus – had fought and died and for what? 

For the right to live under a dictatorship?

To exchange Hitler for Lukashenko?

 

We went for a walk around town.   

It was a new city but then again, so were most the cities in Belarus because they had been destroyed during the war.  

Wandering around, one had to be impressed. This was a clean, modern and well planned city. Many of the new apartments were certainly equal to anything in Western Europe. There were parks and malls. In material terms, measured against so many areas of the planet, the inhabitants of Salihorst were doing fine.

But they had no freedom.

Did they want it?

The further we walked around Salihorst, the more I wondered about that.

The city was so overwhelmingly sterile. There were shops and supermarkets and boutiques.

But there was no advertising, no neon lights, no signs.

Did I really miss advertising?

No!  

What was it then?

That everything was in its place?

The overwhelming presence of concrete and control?

It was hard to imagine people being happy living under a dictatorship.

But how did I know? I didn’t speak the language. I was a westerner seeing things through my eyes.

People here were unemotional, impassive. They didn’t show affection in public. There was an utter lack of anything suggesting spontaneity, joy, humour.

Was this the result of dictatorship or was it the character of the people?

 

Later in the day, when we picked up our passports, we got talking to Polina again.  

Tentatively we broached the subject of Lukashenko. To our surprise, she was forthright in expressing her opinion about him; she was cynical and very negative. She went to some lengths to describe how the great man was busy installing his sons in top positions and arranging for his youngest son to succeed him. The great Lukashenko’s genes were destined to remain at the top of the nation’s hierarchy forever.

Wasn’t it dangerous to publicly criticise him? We asked.

‘Oh no. Most people in the cities hate him. It´s no secret. I don´t know anyone who supports him. It only becomes a problem if you criticise him in public or form a party. Then you are in trouble and the prisons here are terrible. Torture and beatings are normal. The whole system is against you. ´

Was there any prospect for change if so many people were against him?

´…the people in the cities are educated and they use the internet. But the people in the villages, they are unintelligent and they will always vote for Lukashenko. Even if there was a fair election he would probably win. If we rose up against Lukashenko in the cities and there were big demonstrations, he would bring out the army. Or he’d call in the Russians. I have no doubt about that. No one wants this. So we accept it .´

Her ambition was to get a job with a foreign company and ‘live like a king’ as she put it.

Buy an apartment and a good car.

 

Late in the afternoon, Anya and I went for another walk.

We went in the opposite direction than in the morning and made a discovery.  We crossed a busy road and entered a park. At the entrance to the park was the ubiquitous statue of that great architect of communist dictatorship, Lenin.

We followed a walking path through the park. There were seats, well mowed grass and pine trees. Then we crossed another busy road. In Belarus, the cars always stop for pedestrians, sometimes a good distance before one even thinks about crossing a road. It was very civilised.

On the other side of the road was a large forest. Pine trees as far as one could see. There was a walking trail leading into the forest. From this main trail, other trails branched out. There were sign posts and distances. To have a walking trail and a large forest so close to the city centre was impressive.

About 40 minutes in to the forest, we came to a lake. There were few other walkers around. At the lake’s edge, the pine trees were replaced with willows, chestnuts and oaks.

We found a rotting log and sat down on it.

I thought of Polina’s description of the people living in the rural areas as ‘unintelligent’. This seemed rather unsympathetic, to say the least. I suspected though that Polina was right when she alluded to there being a large gap between the city and the country.

The descendants of the people who had defeated the Nazis would vote for Lukashenko. Perhaps there was no mystery about this. To defeat Total Evil, an organised and ruthless killing machine the likes of which had never be seen before in European history, you had to believe in a Cause. You needed to have an ideology. All over Europe, it had been the same story: the resistance has been led by the communists. Only they had had the fire in their soul to be prepared to die for their belief. A belief in a better world, without racism and inequality.  

The children and grandchildren of those peasant communists had remained faithful to the cause, to the memory of incalculable sufferings. The ghosts of that terrible war would linger forever. And so the communist system was destined to remain. And the people in the cities would remain imprisoned not only by Lukashenko – but by History as well.

Would this underlying contradiction ever fade?

Would a day come when even the memories of that monumental war would not be enough to keep Lukashenko in power?

What then? Putin to the rescue? That would be a turn-around: the last invaders of Belarus were the Germans and this time the Russians.

 

We walked back towards the city. The forest was dark and the first stars could be seen between the tops of the pines.

Salihorst was as silent as a tomb.

The streets were illuminated by street lamps but there was nothing open, no restaurants or bars or take-aways or shops.

There were no cars on the roads and not a soul on the wide pavements

A brightly lit ghost town. And it was Saturday night.

 

In Belarus people drank a lot.

Walk into a supermarket or shop anywhere in the country and you saw it: almost half the shelves filled with bottles of vodka and beer.

Yet you never saw people drunk in public.

Everything here happened behind closed doors: social contacts, drinking, laughing, sharing a meal – and ridiculing the Great Leader. “

 

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