30 June 2008

Change we can't believe in

Another one from the “my (short) life in Belarus” series…

Anybody who has known me for more than a couple weeks knows that I don’t like change. There’s nothing wrong with a little order, stability, and tradition. And so, whether it’s a question of doing away with the allegedly tacky tinsel on the Christmas tree (S, just you wait, it’s coming back next year!) to the latest hair color of my chameleon-esque friends, I tend to see beauty and comfort in the status quo.

But that’s not the kind of change I’m going to rail against today. No, the kind of change that has been causing me the most problems lately is the kind that the cashier gives back at the store. Two different trends intersect in Bealrus to make even the simplest of purchases traumatic enough to send me whimpering in the corner like a lost, wet puppy.

First is what appears to be the universal post-Soviet desire by cashiers for exact change. It’s a request – no, demand – that I’ve encountered now in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. What is more, failure to produce the requested change (“look for a ten,” she barks) seems to be considered a personal insult by the woman perched in front of the register, as evidenced by the dirty look she gives you as she begrudgingly doles out her precious small bills.. In the event that she cannot produce correct change due to a lack of smaller bills (a condition brought upon by previous customers who were similarly inconsiderate enough to shop at the store in question), you have three choices: 1) forego the change and eat the difference; 2) wait for a later customer to produce change; 3) forget about that bottle of kvas entirely.

In Russia, the demand for change rarely causes problems for me – I usually have some tens in my wallet, along with a pouch full of one and two-ruble coins. Always something to fit the bill (bad puns are becoming a bad habit, aren’t they?).

But it is in Belarus where the situation becomes untenable, thanks to the addition of a second factor: Belarus’ ridiculous currency, the Belarusian ruble. To give you an idea of the silliness, the current exchange rate is 2,147 Belarusian rubles to the dollar. As such, goods are priced in the thousands – 4,000 for some cheese, 16,000 for some sausage, and so on. Now, higher-order math has never been my strong suit, and doing rapid conversions of totals in the tens and even hundreds of thousands on the fly is a bit taxing.

These two factors – pan-Slavic correct change dogma and absurd currency denominations – collide in Belarus to deliberately torture me for the few seconds I’m standing at a cash register. You see, Belarus has bills in all sorts of denominations, from the hundreds of thousands all the way down to the meager ten-ruble note, whose value is approximately $0.005. And so instead of demanding four rubles (as in Russia), I am faced with orders to find 3,740 rubles to make even change.

The “law of large numbers” states that large numbers are harder to understand than small numbers in foreign languages (at least I think that’s what it states). So unless one is really paying close attention and isn’t thrown off by the Belarusian accent, it is easy to misunderstand what is expected. Wrath ensues.

And even if I do understand what number the woman demands of me, I am horrified when I open my thick wallet, bursting forth with monopoly-like “play money” in infinite denominations. The bills are all out of order, having been hurriedly shoved in there the last time I panicked at a cash register. So when she asks for 1,790 rubles, I’m hopeless and helpless – I could never piece that sum together under such pressure. Rather than risking the wrath of the 8 people in line waiting behind me as I dig through my wallet, I take the wrath of cashier woman, telling her that all I have are large bills.

I slink out of the store, traumatized by the experience, and for what? Some sausage and a bottle of water. I pledge to myself that tomorrow morning I will change my routine, sorting the bills in my wallet by denomination so as to be better prepared next time. But like I said at the outset, I’ve never been fond of change…

24 June 2008

Belarus' Bountiful Table

Frequent readers of this blog (all three of them) know that food was a favorite topic for consideration last year in Moscow (previous discussions of Russian cuisine can be found here, here, and here.)

Since most outsiders are not familiar with the diverse culinary delights that make up traditional Belarusian cuisine, I thought that I would offer readers a brief photographic introduction to these delicacies. I was hoping to present a fully spectacular multimedia event, but sadly I could find neither appropriate music, video, nor fireworks to complement the culinary wonders of Belarus.

I should first point out that in fact Belarusian food is heavily influenced by the cuisines of its neighbors – Russia, Ukraine, Poland, and Lithuania. Not a huge surprise when you consider that Belarus has been Eastern Europe’s “Flying J” truck stop for much of the last 500 years – whenever you’re invading someone, you’re usually stopping in Belarus along the way to grab a bite to eat, fill up the tank, and maybe do some shopping at the cheesy gift shop. And so, it comes as no surprise that much of what you find in Belarus’ national fridge is similar to what cousin Wojciech and uncle Vladimir keep in their respective pantries, having brought them as “gifts” when they were just “passing through.”

And so, we open Belarus’s fridge and discover the following delights:

First off, holodnik, a delicious cold beet soup:

Of course, Belarusians are also fond of borshch, the delicious hot beet soup from Ukraine:

Moving on to the salad course, we have “peasant’s salad in the Belarusian style,” a mayonnaise-based favorite (in fact, all favorite things in this part of the world are mayonnaise-based, including socks*):

Sometimes this salad also comes with smetana (sour cream):

Moving on, we have the ever popular meaty gravy known as matsanka:

As well as tasty zrazy, which are (according to Wikipedia) “chopped pieces of beef twisted into a sausage shape and filled with vegetables, mushrooms, eggs, etc.”:

By now you may have guessed that this is all a painfully long setup for a tasteless potato joke (I’ll leave you to decide whether it’s the potato or the joke that’s tasteless, though). But stereotypes aside (during the Soviet era the kind-hearted Belarusian people were referred to as “bulbashi” – potato eaters – by their big brothers in the communal apartment that was the Soviet Union) they really do love their kartoshki. So much so that Belarus leads the world in per-capita potato consumption, ringing in at a whopping 376 pounds (171 kg) per person per year.

Think about that – eating over a pound of potatoes every day. And that’s just the national average – there are people that eat even MORE than that!

I had been in Minsk for less than 24 hours when I discovered how it is possible to consume so many potatoes in a year. The answer lies in the unassuming little potato pancakes known as draniki. Isn’t that a cute name? Almost makes you want to go up and hug them before scarfing down a dozen. When covered in smetana (sour cream) and maybe some sautéed mushrooms and onions, I assure you that there are few things so delicious in the entire Slavic realm.

I found myself constantly craving draniki, bouncing from meal to meal, café to café looking for a fix. When I told my Belarusian friends about my newfound love, they all declared with unwavering conviction that their babushka makes the best draniki in all of Belarus. Understanding the rules of transitivity, I can draw one of two conclusions: 1) that all of Belarus has descended from the same babushka; or 2) that regardless of who the babushka is, babushkas in general make pretty darn good draniki.

Fortunately, I was invited over for draniki by a real-live babushka while visiting the city of Brest. There I learned the magical recipe – finely grated potatoes, an egg or two, a little bit of flour (not too much), and some salt. Oh, and you have to drain some of the liquid when you grate the potatoes. Then it’s into the frying pan (along with at least a half inch of oil) until they’re crunchy, golden, and delicious!

When we sit down to the table, a bowl of smetana is placed in front of me. I gingerly take a dainty dollop and plop it down onto my little greasy paradise. I am immediately chastised by babushka: “No, not like that, you do it like THIS!” whereby she folds up a single pancake, plunges it into the bowl, and manages to scoop up a good quarter cup of smetana before tossing it all down the hatch. Babushka’s corresponding dedushka sits there and just smiles at me with his wonderfully endearing sparkling gold smile, a bit of renegade smetana dribbling down his chin.

Upon returning to Minsk I decide that I must make draniki for myself. After all, by this point I am on my way to being yanked out of the country, so I’ll need to take draniki skills with me if I am to survive outside of Belarus. I go to Mink’s massive Kamarovka market and wander through the aisles of fresh(ish) produce piled high. It turns out that potatoes warrant their own section of the market, so I set out in search of the superlative spud.

I soon find a woman whose countenance resembled that of the bounty she was selling – russeted, pock-marked, a little dirty, but firm. Oh, and she had nice looking ‘taters too. I ask the woman for half a kilogram of potatoes, not really sure how much either a potato or a kilogram weighs (don’t forget that I, like all Americans, am ignorant of metric equivalents).

“What can you do with half a kilo of potatoes?” she asks me (mind you, this is one day’s serving of potatoes in this country). I momentarily contemplate explaining how I’m here on a research fellowship but that my wife is back at home in the States so I’m single, plus I’m being withdrawn from Belarus for political reasons so I won’t be here long and won’t have time to eat my 171 kilos of potatoes this year so I only need a few….

Instead, I just shrug my shoulders and she weighs the tempting tubers on her scale before rolling them into a sack.

At home I discover why God created food processors on the eighth day: finely grating potatoes by hand (even just half a kilo’s worth) is a laborious endeavor. I’m sure that if your average Belarusian man were forced to grate a few potatoes himself he’d be a lot more appreciative of his wife/mother/babushka/food processor. As I reach the end of the potatoes, I notice that I have managed to grate my knuckles, the feeling of which doesn’t improve with potato water and salt mixed in.

Wounded though I am, I soldier on, ending with a plate piled high with the delicious treats. But not high enough – within a day or two I have burned through all the leftovers which, despite turning a grayish blue in the fridge, still taste like heaven. Potato-faced woman was right: I should have bought more potatoes.

Luckily, my dear friend Comrade Kartoshka (no, not her real name) comes to my rescue and feeds my addiction with an invitation for me to try her homemade draniki. While Comrade K is an amerikanka, she has married into a Belarusian family which is enough by way of potato credentials for me. I am on the metro to her apartment before she even finishes delivering the invitation.

What is most memorable about that day is not the draniki (though they were to die for - crispy, golden, and perfection on a plate). Rather, it is the three guys moving what appears to be furniture down the stairs as I step through the entryway to Comrade K’s building. Once my eyes adjust to the dim light I discover that instead of carrying a desk past me, they are carrying an open coffin with a dead woman in it. I cross myself even though I’m neither Catholic nor Orthodox – just seems like the right thing to do. As I look up the stairs I see K’s face poking out into the hallway wearing what I can only assume is the same look of shock that graces my own. The cortege clumsily passes – after all, she was a hefty Slavic woman (God rest her soul) and I dart into the apartment, looking forward to a bit more lively company (sorry, couldn’t resist a bad pun).

K and I are both a bit shaken by the experience, but K’s middle-aged sister in law matter-of-factly tells us that it’s a sign of very good luck. I don’t catch all of the explanation through her Belarusian accent, but I can only assume that it translates to something like, “better her than you.” Indeed.

All I can say is that I hope for her sake – and for my own someday – that they have draniki in heaven. With plenty of smetana, too…


*this is not actually true, Russian socks are not made out of mayonnaise.

18 June 2008

Impressions of Minsk

Started in Minsk, continued in Moscow, and finished in Kiev...

My first three weeks in Minsk – my last three weeks in Minsk, my only three weeks in Minsk – have been one of those surreal time-warps where time simultaneously stands still, the seconds grinding painfully along, and yet in the blink of an eye the days fly by with the speed and determination of an unreformed post-Soviet woman elbowing her way onto the bus in order to get a seat. Three weeks ago I lay on my bunk in the train compartment, the gentle rocking of the train’s movement not quite soothing but not quite aggravating either. I thought with a little excitement and a lot of apprehension about the five months ahead of me in Belarus. I’ll confess, I knew I would be fine but I was dreading it all the same. This is, after all, Belarus.

An hour ago I bought my train ticket back to Moscow, and I’m heartbroken. I would give nearly anything not to leave Minsk. But alas, the price of staying is a heavy one, a price that I cannot afford. To stay in Belarus would be to give up my research fellowship, as the money trail eventually leads back to the U.S. government. Since that government has decided it’s undesirable for me to remain in Belarus, it’s a choice between my heart and my pocketbook. Of course, it wasn’t really a choice, as only one outcome was really possible…

I fell in love with Minsk almost immediately. I will be the first to admit that I have a soft spot in my heart for Stalinist Imperial architecture – some consider it grotesque, I find it austere but elegant. Minsk, or at least the extended city center, is nothing but Stalinist architecture. Grand, well-trimmed buildings in pleasing shades of pastel line the wide streets and well-polished stanchions of granite keep pedestrians from straying off the immaculately clean sidewalks. In some areas leafy green trees spread above playful fountains line the sidewalks, shading Minsk’s residents as they stroll along the boulevards.

Of course, such buildings, streets, and walkways came at a heavy price for Belarus’ capital: approximately 90 percent of the city was destroyed by the end of the Second World War. It seems obvious that geography is Belarus’ great burden, as armies throughout the centuries have spilled her blood as they cross her open fields in pursuit of empire. Though it wasn’t the first, the destruction of WWII was the most devastating tragedy for Minsk - capture by the Germans and re-capture by the Soviets took an enormous toll on the city and the entire republic. Cities, of course, can be rebuilt. But nothing could restore the 25 percent of Belarus’ entire population that perished during the war.

And so Minsk rebuilt. Actually, “built” is more appropriate, as there was nothing left to rebuild: they could only clear the rubble and start from scratch. And it wasn’t Minsk that rebuilt the city, it was Moscow, as evidenced by the monumental buildings and wide boulevards of modern Minsk.

Walking around the city on my first day here, I was taken by how vibrant the city felt. True, it helped that the city was bathed in the warm sunlight of the first clear day in a couple of weeks. But this was clearly not the Minsk I visited back in 2000. That was a dull, muted city where the gray of the sidewalks melted into the grey of the buildings melted into the gray of the skies. Chips and cracks in the facades of buildings flowed into the cracks of the sidewalks as crumbling exteriors served as poignant testament to Belarus’ Soviet heritage and painful post-Soviet transition.

I thought that maybe my recollections from 2000 were somehow colored (gray, that is) by the passage of time and by my own biases projected onto the past: life under dictatorship must be dark and heavy, so their cities must be dark and heavy as well. I went back and looked at my old photographs from those chilly days in November and confirmed that my recollections were accurate – Minsk was a cold, dull city then.

I could but come to one conclusion: in some cases, dictatorship is great for cities. I’ve mentioned how good the city looks to many of my new acquaintances and friends here in Minsk, casually inquiring about what’s been going on during the last eight years that has breathed some color into Minsk. Who has been polishing the stanchions, patched and painted the buildings, and cleaned up the streets and sidewalks?

Of course I know who is responsible – he is responsible. He is responsible for everything here. How could it be otherwise? My friends are unashamed and unafraid to confirm this. He likes to have a clean and orderly city, so this is what they get. They tell me other things about his architectural tastes, recounting the story of the new National Library made of glass in the supposed shape of a diamond which lights up at night. Comrade Kartoshka tells me it looks like a golf ball. I ask my friends where the money comes from to take care of the city and build such things. They tell me about how all the major private companies were “invited” to make “voluntary” “donations” to the construction fund. They also tell me about how a few rubles were “voluntarily” “donated” from the accounts of each Belarusian cell-phone owner in order to “contribute” to the building of this “wonderful” library.

Ah, extraction, long the beloved state building instrument of dictators throughout history! But what to the people get in return? They (sometimes) get beautiful buildings, clean and safe streets, shady green parks, and trains that run on time. During my first few days here I certainly could appreciate the attraction of this bargain. In fact, by external appearances it was easy to overlook the fact that I’m living in a dictatorship. People hang out on park benches having a good time with friends and a few beers. They go shopping in shiny new underground malls, dine in trendy new sushi restaurants, and see the latest American movies. I even managed to catch the new Indiana Jones movie the same day it opened in the U.S. People live their lives, go to work, do their jobs, go home, spend time with their families and friends, and start the cycle again every day.

This is, of course, is why dictatorship can be so deceptive: as long as you look in all the right places, life in some dictatorships is not so bad. Wages and pensions are paid, jobs and apartments are available. Products stock the shelves of stores and people have a good time strolling down the tree-lined boulevards. If one puts on blinders and just looks at what appears on the surface, it is not a bad sight.

But even lifting the curtains a little bit to peek at what lies behind them reveals the all too familiar outlines of autocracy in the dark shadows. I won’t take it upon myself to detail at this time the harsh measures that the Lukashenko regime has taken to suppress opposition. Simply knowing that public display of the pre-1994 Belarusian flag will result in beating and imprisonment should give you an idea of the sort of measures used on those who dare to speak against the regime.

These are the punishments that await individuals who seek conflict with the state. But what of the ways in which dictatorship affects the ordinary lives of ordinary people in ordinary ways? Unlike politically active oppositionists, most citizens do not seek to provoke the regime, yet they obviously feel its effects in their daily lives. This question lies at the heart of my research, research which was unfortunately cut short.

Nonetheless, in my few weeks in Minsk, I captured a few glimpses into this intriguing question through personal experiences and conversations with friends and acquaintances. Here are a few examples:

-As mentioned above, every Belarusian cell phone user “donated” to the construction of the National Library. One might ask how this is any different than when I pay the IRS taxes under threat of being penalized (or worse). But just as I would consider my privacy violated if the IRS automatically reached into my bank account to extract my taxes, so too is there something sinister about the government reaching into the private phone accounts of its citizens for public funds.

-There is a little lane in central Minsk that is only one car-lane wide. And yet nobody crosses without the “walk” signal… ever. Did I mention that it lies nestled between the KGB building and the bust of Soviet secret police founder Feliks Dzerzhinsky? (tellingly, one of the only remaining monuments to him in the world). True, this may be coincidence – jaywalking is rare all over Minsk due to the police’s penchant for fines. But I can’t be the only person that shudders at the thought of breaking the law between two such symbols of tyranny.

-While we’re on the subject of the KGB (yes, in Belarus it is unapologetically still called the KGB), its mere mention is enough to end conversations. During difficulties in registering my visa in Minsk, a frustrated city official tells my host that the proper (but unintelligible) procedure must be followed “because the KGB checks up on our records.” All arguments from my host cease immediately.

-My friends in education tell me that the president has recently decided to drastically cut school curriculum in the arts and foreign languages because he thinks that it is not particularly important for Belarusians to learn such things. Additionally, they tell me that the overall course of education will be reduced by one year. Because he said so.

And so this is the conclusion that I draw from my observations in Minsk: people in Minsk live their lives. People laugh, they smile, they enjoy beers in the park and along the banks of the river. They buy what they want and buy what they need (not all people can do this, of course, especially outside of Minsk). Importantly, they do not live under the constant fear of state terror – this is not the Stalinist Soviet Union. But there are things bigger than themselves – big things that affect their lives – that they have no control over. How much his decisions affect their daily lives is an important question, as its answer has significant implications for Belarus’ political future.

Sadly, even for those who feel his touch in their daily lives, it is easy enough to look the other way, to gloss over the dark places and be satisfied with what you’ve got since it could be worse…

“After all,” one acquaintance from a small town told me, “at least we can buy sausages these days.”

Let it Be

Getting yanked from Belarus by the U.S. government for no good reason: free

Train ticket to relocate to Kiev: $170.14

Paul McCartney live in Maidan: Free but wet (pouring rain)

Seeing 350,000 Ukrainians rocking out in the streets to "Back in the USSR": PRICELESS!

In the words of Sir Paul that night, "I've been waiting a long time for this one..."

03 June 2008

Victory Day: May 9, 2008 - Moscow

Here's some video I took (with a little editing and music added) of the military parade and fireworks in Moscow on Victory Day 2008. As you may know, this was the first year since the collapse of the Soviet Union that Russia included heavy military technology (tanks, trucks, and missiles) in the parade. Needless to say, it didn't disappoint. Photographs to follow eventually, but in the meantime, I invite you to enjoy footage of ICBMs rolling through the streets of Moscow...

Return of the Darkness

I'm pleased to announce the return of (hopefully) regular content on "Darkness at Noon." I'm back in the region, which means a fresh set of stories, impressions, and commentary on what's going on around me. I would imagine that a decent dose of Slavic absurdity will be thrown into the mix as well.

In fact, I've been in the area for almost a month now. I arrived in Moscow shortly before Victory Day and hope to post some pictures and video of the military parade and celebrations that day. Then it was off to Minsk for an unfortunately short (3-week) stay before the American Powers-That-Be (who control the purse strings of my research fellowship) decided that Belarus was not a safe place for me (it was). Though it wasn't the five months I was hoping for, three weeks is enough for some reflections on Belarus which are forthcoming.

Now I'm relocating to Kiev to continue my research and discover what makes Ukrainians both alike and different from their east Slavic brethren (presumably love of dill is a unifying factor).

So hold on tight, and enjoy the ride...