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?
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.