Salihorst

 

It was this simple: we went to the city of Salihorst because there was somewhere to stay.  In Belarus you didn’t get to stay where you wanted. You stayed where you could. There was very little accommodation available because there were no tourists – besides a few Russians, that is. It took us a while to understand this. During the first few days, we got our map out, looked up interesting looking places in remote areas – and cross checking them on the internet (e.g., Booking.com), discovered that there was nowhere to stay there.

 

Our bus to Salihorst was a small, local mini-bus. It stopped regularly on the way to pick people up or let them off. Most of the passengers only travelled a short distance. Sometimes the mini-bus pulled over at the edge of a forest and watching people alighting or getting down, I wondered about where they lived and how far they had to walk.

The mini bus stopped at villages. Some of these were small and remote: wooden houses with galvanised iron roofs. No center, no village square. A kind of end-of- the- world feeling, sometimes oddly reminiscent of outback Australia.

 

 

Most of the passengers were 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. 

It was the parents of these people, I reflected, who had defeated the Nazis.

In 1942, when Hitler made the fatal decision to invade Russia, a major thrust went through Belarus. Another went through Poland. The idea was to encircle Stalingrad.

Over a half of the German army and air force was allocated to that brutal invasion. And it was there that the master race met their nemesis.

Watching the locals get into and out of the rickety mini-bus, I recalled reading about how the Nazis had been surprised at how relentlessly the peasants – poorly armed – had fought them; ready to die to the last man, women and child.

Villages were blown up. But still the peasants fought. Despite the rapid advance of the Nazi death machine, there were ominous indications that they had entered a land where sooner or later, they were going to be beaten.

30 million Russians died, 1200 cities and towns were destroyed.

In Belarus, the war between the Red Army and the Nazis was especially brutal.

It was not surprising that all over the country, where ever you went, there were war memorials, freshly garlanded with wreaths.

 

The mini-bus broke down. It was a common problem. Most of the buses and mini-buses in Belarus were old and in poor repair: a strange contrast given that most of the roads were fine, and the cities, quite modern.

After a tedious journey, we finally got into Salihorst at 6.30pm. It was raining and there was a strong wind. We were in a strange city in bad weather and it was getting dark.

We walked around approaching people to ask about a hotel. No one spoke any English – or German or French – so we rested our heads on our hands to indicate that we needed somewhere to stay the night. This simple gesture was surprisingly effective.

We got good directions to one hotel, which upon arriving there we found out was closed for renovations.

There was apparently another hotel.

It was pitch dark before we found the hotel which was open.

There were 3 women behind the front desk in the lobby. There were two other women sitting behind a table near the stairwell whose function we never discovered. There is no unemployment in Belarus because there are no unemployment benefits. If you lose your job, you are given another one. You accept what ever job is given you because otherwise, you have no income. Jobs are created on the basis of demand. The net result in that there a lot of people who don’t do very much.

It’s a fair bet that we were the first western tourists who had ever appeared at the hotel. Other guests stared at us and that’s striking in a culture where people do not stare or even look at other people unless being addressed directly by someone.

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

She didn’t.

She didn´t speak German or French either.

Par for the course.

We began using sign language to show that we wanted to stay the night until another woman, who was seated behind a computer, came over to the desk and to our surprise, began speaking to us in quite reasonable 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 the hotel had only one room left. Which didn’t surprise us given that the other hotel was closed.

The room 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.  

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 had lived in Salinhorst all her life. But her grandparents were Polish. She had papers from the Polish government which allowed her to stay and work in Poland. She had visited Poland, but never been tempted to stay there – or to use it to travel to Western Europe (Poland was in the E.U.) and stay there. 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. 

Polina was obviously intelligent. 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, came back, 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 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, Lukashenko.

Lukashenko – another of the world’s tin pot dictators. He’d been in office for almost 30 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.

Narcisism gone mad.

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.

Lukashenko – what a pathetic jerk.

 

The following morning, the sky was clear. It was sunny. Perfect day for walking around town and taking a look.

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 what for? 

For the right to live under a dictatorship?

To exchange Hitler for Lukashenko?

It was going to take a whole day and another conversation with Polina before I could put these questions, these terrible questions, behind me.

Not that there were any answers. There weren’t.

But from Polina I at least got another perspective.  

 

Salihorst Part 2

 

Salihorst was built in 1958.

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

Walking around Salihorst, one had to be impressed.

It 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. Belarus was ruled by a dictator but unlike other dictatorships elsewhere in the world – Africa, Asia and South America come readily to mind – this dictatorship had provided its people with good housing, health care and infrastructure.

There was no shortage of cities in Western Europe which were nowhere near as good as Salinhorst. Travelling through Belgium in February, I was surprised by the poor infrastructure, the slums and general degradation in many of the cities. And this nation was supposed to be a prosperous western nation. It was home to the EU. Apparently none of Belgium’s politicians (many of them corrupt), still less the EU politicians and bureaucrats, ever ventured out of their little biosphere of opulence to notice the decay. You could repeat this story for much of western Europe, especially the further south you went.

In material terms, measured against so many areas of the planet, the inhabitants of Salihorst were doing fine.

Was that really enough?

To be living well under a dictatorship?

Where was the line between egalitarianism and democracy? Socialism and freedom?

It was an issue which was unique to Europe. It was an issue which had an old history to it, starting in Athens in the 6th century BC. Karl Marx in that sense was a latecomer on the scene.

In ancient Athens, a handful of land owning aristocrats had immense economic power, which went hand in hand with their domination of  the political system. The great majority of Athenians owned no land, were deep in debt and were at the behest of the aristocrats. A great leader appeared on the scene. His name was Solon and he introduced a series of laws curbing the power of the aristocrats (he was an aristocrat himself). Solon curbed the economic power of the aristocrats and gave the masses of ordinary Athenians new rights. However addressing the issue of inequality did not inoculate Athens from the danger of tyranny. Solon’s reforms did not prevent the rise of a dictator named Pisistratus who came after him. There was no inherent contradiction between tyranny and egalitarianism. There was only one way to forestall tyranny and that was on the basis of the system that another great Athenian named  Cleisthenes invented: ‘demo-kratie’, people power – let the common people vote for those who occupied high office. If the rulers lost the support of the people, they had to step aside.

In Belarus, the Solon dilemma loomed large.

The majority of ordinary people lived a better life than billions of other ordinary people, seen in a global context.

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. A point came when I felt as if I was walking around in a tomb.

I tried to work out the reasons for this.

There were shops and supermarkets and boutiques. Private enterprise was everywhere apparent, though it was hardly a free market. No doubt the stifling hand of the bureaucracy played a major role.  

There was no advertising, no neon lights, no signs.

But did I really miss advertising?

No, never.

What was it then?

This well planned city where everything was in its place?

The overwhelming presence of concrete and control?

Were these people happy? Or just resigned to living their lives?

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

But how did I know? I didn’t speak Russian. 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. Sometimes their faces seemed like masks.

Was this the result of dictatorship or the Russian character?

The latter, I suspected.

 

 

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. It 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.

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

‘Oh no. Most people in the cities don’t like 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. The whole system is against you. ´

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

´No, no…the people in the cities are against Lukashenko. They are educated. 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 still win. Not by 90% but he would win. If we rose up against Lukashenko in the cities and there were big demonstrations, he would bring out the army. I have no doubt about that. No one wants this. So we accept the way it is.´

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. For most people, she said, it was hard to own a car; they didn´t earn enough, she explained

 

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.

‘Democracy for the rich and privileged, that’s the democracy of capitalism’ he had once said.

There were many people who still agreed with him.

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.

And birds. Birdsong filled the air as we looked over the dark blue water illuminated by the late afternoon sun. We hadn’t heard many birds in Belarus. This was a country with a low population density (and the population was decreasing), but most of the land was devoted to growing crops or covered in pine forest – and pine forest was never a good environment for birds.

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. But she was expressing herself in a foreign langauge. She probably meant ‘uneducated’ rather than ‘unintelligent’.

Were education standards so low in the rural areas?

We had stayed in a couple of small towns – with unpaved roads and depressing drab apartment blocks and painted wooden houses – but the schools had looked quite respectable.

I suspect that Polina was right when she alluded to a large gap between the city and the country. It was a familiar social division which I had seen in other nations: Turkey, Egypt and Thailand.

The very people who had defeated the Nazis, were fervent communists and 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 was the same story: the resistance was 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.  

Without communism, would the Russians have been able to defeat the Nazis?

Would nationalism have been enough?

Those hardy peasants who had formed the backbone of the Red Army, had seized upon communism to give them the total commitment necessary to defeating Pure Evil.  

And we could only be glad for that.

Think of it. If the Nazis had defeated the Russians and were still in control of Europe.

You couldn’t think of a more horrible nightmare.

 

The children of those peasant communists had remained faithful to the cause, to the memory of the incalculable sufferings of their parents and grand parents. The ghosts of that terrible war would linger forever.

And so the communist system was destined to remain. 

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 silent. There was no one around. The streets were illuminated by street lamps but there was nothing open, no restaurants or bars or take-aways or shops. A brightly lit ghost town. 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 rarely saw people drunk in public. Everything here happened behind closed doors. Social contacts, drinking, laughing, sharing a meal and ridiculing the Great Leader.

Our time in Salihorst was drawing to a close and tomorrow we would be on another bus.

 

The Trial Part 1

The official residence of Lukashenko, the dictator of Belarus

 

It took a lot of time and effort to get official permission to travel around Belarus for a month.

The country was opening up to tourism, leastways in theory. One could enter the country and stay for 5 nights without requiring a visa. If one wanted to stay for longer than 5 nights, a visa was required. A month – 28 days – was the maximum time one could stay in the country.

A month visa had to be applied for in one’s nation of origin, in our case, The Netherlands. There were many forms to be filled in. The requirements 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 our visit. 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 communist regime still in existence, although walking around the capital, Minsk, 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.

But on our third day in Minsk, 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 the Dutch insurance company to be translated into English, as the embassy had demanded, and then on arriving in Minsk, we were then told that the letter had to be translated in to Belorussian.

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 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 apartment blocks. 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. ’

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. 

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.’

Oh, really?

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.

 

The Office of the Belorussian State Insurance Agency

The Trial – Part 2

Statue of Lenin – which can be seen everywhere in Belarus. Lenin was the driving force behind the communist regime in Russia and the rise of Stalin. The legacy he bequeathed was a grim one; dictatorship, terror, mass executions, a bureaucratic state – and a mind-control propaganda regime.  

 

continues from: https://serioustravelblog.com/2018/04/11/the-trial/

 

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 had booked for 6 nights. 40 Euros for a good sized apartment with a kitchen and cooking facilities near the centre of a city in Europe was a very cheap. But it was easy to see why Nikolae was prepared to go to the trouble to help us; what we were paying him for 6 nights was far more than he would get renting out his apartment for a month to a Belorussian or Russian. 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.  

A part of the deal was that we would pay her 50 roubles.

Time passed.

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 prophesized 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.