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.”


Comrade Kartoshka said...

*wipes a tear*

LP said...

Ah, you mean lay on your bunk. I can only assume it was mauve in color.

Rubashov said...

AH! Damn you, LP! Touche. I almost decided not to post the comment and fix it without saying anything. But I'm compromising - comment posted, correction made!

Steve Vincent said...

I love Minsk too, and I think you've done an extraordinary job of capturing it. I'll mention it on my blog, which is largely about this extraordinary place. (For my most recent trip, see http://sjvincent.blogspot.com/2008/09/here-we-are-in-minsk.html.)