Impressions from Belarus
September, 2008 by Mitch Anderson
CommentI decided to arrive in Minsk, capital of Belarus, by train from the neighboring republic of Lithuania. The ticket for the 400km journey was an incredible 5 dollars equivalent, and the transaction at the counter was easy, providing that you could speak basic Russian. The train was of an unusual design; all sitting spaces could turn into beds and it was very clean and well maintained.
Comment The border-crossing in Belarus was uneventful; the border police were prompt and polite. One of them was concerned with my registration. Belarus law still requires all foreigners to be registered with the police station of where they reside, like in old Soviet days. A younger one assured him that the hotel where I’d stay would report me. The older one took notes of where I would stay, just in case… Otherwise they were quite progressive. They didn’t make me unpack and they used Fujitsu laptops and scanners for the passport registration.
Belarus is an interesting case study. Often called “the last Soviet Republic”, this republic of 10 million people is run by the controversial strongman Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko. A former Communist party official and a kolkhoz director, Mr Lukashenko has pretty much dismantled the democratic process since he came to power. There is still some opposition allowed, but his government controls all the media outlets and he has adjusted the constitution in such a way that he can run and win for the rest of his life. When Condoleezza Rice called Belarus an “Outpost of Tyranny”, he responded by kicking out the US Ambassador in Minsk. As a response to his measures, Lukashenko and his party officials have been banned from travel to the EU or the US. I was intrigued to discover this society. From what I read, this was not another North Korea or Cuba, but a mixed system of state-run socialism with some economic and speech freedom. To Lukashenko’s credit, Belarus has not suffered the severe economic crises of the mid-nineties that affected most of the Eastern European countries (especially Russia). His philosophy was not to privatize the industry, and not allow western imports of products that Belarus could produce on its own. He argued that large corporations will flood the market with cheap imports that will ruin the local economy and then raise prices once the competition is gone.
Comment Back in the train, a shy young man asks for permission to sit across from me. I am more than glad to feel the local culture, so I invite him to sit. Next, I find out that I’m the first westerner he ever met in person. His curiosity is huge, but the conversation is limited by my poor 300 word Russian language. While he understood basic English, he spoke none. When I ask him of their president, he answers that he somewhat approves, and he doesn’t think there is a better one available at the moment. Then he becomes eager to change the subject.
Comment The Minsk Suburbs gave me the first taste of the city: old soviet-era “look-alike” apartment buildings, they seem better maintained then what I’ve seen in other Eastern European countries.
CommentThe Minsk rail station is new and modern, seems prosperous, and it is also devoid of any western style advertising. In fact the only familiar thing to be seen are the words “UPS” on a brown background. Lots of small shops sell snacks and souvenirs; this is very different from what I've seen in Havana, for example. The ATM machine worked from the first try, and I head for a taxi. For an affordable (but pre-negotiated) $5, I make it to “Hotel Belarus”. This Soviet-era monster is still state-owned, and one of the highest buildings in Minsk. For about $75 a night, I get a very basic room, but quiet and with a great view. The room could serve also as a museum. With the exception of a small Chinese-made TV set, everything was unchanged since the 70's or 80's.
Comment The check-in process was expedient: the staff spoke good English, but useless words of welcome were exchanged. “Welcome, please, or thank you” simply are not used by the staff anywhere, and if you think that in the Soviet era it was a privilege to travel, this might be understandable.
Comment The hotel still had a “Floor Woman” – a KGB invention, this person was responsible to record the in and out time of each guest and report it to the local police. Well, my arrival was recorded, but the rest of the time I found her sleeping or watching TV.
The second day I explored Belarus on foot. The entire city has been re-build in the fifties, with the exception of a few buildings that have been spared miraculously by the WW2 bombardments. The city is incredibly clean and orderly.
CommentThere are almost no beggars, peddlers and the ordinary tourist problems. Here and there one can see an impoverished retiree, but even they are too proud to beg. You just see it in their eyes. After giving this old lady the equivalent of a US Dollar she was so thankful that she started to follow me. I wanted to speed thinking that she will ask for more. She insisted that I should stop so I did. She pulled out an pencil and a piece of paper and insisted that I should write my name for her so she should mention me in her prayers. I felt awful for trying to brush her off. We stroke basic conversation and she tells me that pensions are really low, and that she just wanted to eat well.
CommentIn Belarus, most things work. Busses are on time, elevators and escalators are never broken or out of order, and street crime seems to be virtually nonexistent. The large boulevards feature well-stocked stores and not one of them has bars at the windows, not even during the night. (That is not the case in Rome or Paris.) The architecture can rival any West European city, with large boulevards and well designed buildings. It is almost incredible that it has all been designed during communism. In my native Romania, or Bulgaria, all you can see is the ugly, look–alike apartment buildings, but this is not the case in Minsk. It was refreshing not to see any Western ads. I wonder if anybody has heard that Coca Cola exists around here… At the same time, Belarus does not have the feel of an oppressive, controlled society, the way you would feel in Havana or Pyongyang. The Belarus citizens are free to travel and immigrate. As a matter of fact, the country prides itself in a positive rate of immigration: more people moved to Belarus from Russia and other former republics that have moved out of Belarus to US or Canada. My contact person (who preferred to remain anonymous) tells me: “Sure, we are exporting young, energetic, educated engineers and professionals that don’t want to live under a dictatorship, and we import a bunch of old Russians that are yearning for the old Soviet system, where you don’t have to work a lot and the state takes care of you.” Point taken. It reminds me of West and East Germany in the fifties. For about 10 years, the Russians haven’t built the infamous Berlin Wall believing that more Germans will be attracted by the “workers paradise” than the ones that want to live as free people. It didn’t work; soon, they discovered that the most capable of citizens were leaving the country in droves without any management cadres.
Comment That is not exactly the case here. Some Belarussians drive Rolls Royce's and other very expensive cars. I inquire as to what the key of economic success is in this country. I am told that there are private enterprises of considerable size, mainly doing commerce. Having and running such a thing is totally based on government connections, so don’t believe this is a true free market economy.
To his credit, Lukashenko has not plastered his face on every tall building like Castro or Kim Jong-Il are doing. The man is not accused of corruption either, and I am inclined to believe that there are no Swiss bank accounts in his name. He really seems to believe in a reformed socialism system and applies it wholeheartedly. An American volunteer has worked in a Belarus Orphanage and he tells me that is pretty well run, in terms of basic needs. Faced with a demographic decline due the low birthrates, like the rest of Europe, Belarus is not allowing for international adoptions. I am thinking that any system is better than no system or anarchy. If one has doubts, just look at Iraq now, or the dark years of the early 90's that plagued the old Soviet Block with poverty and even the brink of anarchy in some places.
CommentThe next day, I wanted to take an organized tour. The hotel staff knew nothing of such a thing and brushed me off quickly. So I thought the best thing to do is to head for the railway station. Once I got there, I asked a policeman for an travel agency and, to his credit, he walked me there very politely. (Of course I used Russian.) The only travel agency did have organized tours, but they were all led in Russian. However, the staff did speak English. Next, I asked how to buy a ticket for the train next day. She proudly told me that there is a foreign travel counter and pointed it to me..
Once I got there I tried English again, but everyone shrugged. Back to Russian, I asked what languages they spoke at the International travel counter. The answer was that someone could help me in Ukrainian if I wanted. I bought the ticket for the next day and the transaction went smooth and easy. Again, this is a great country with good services, but one MUST speak Russian, or have a guide.
The day was still young, so I decided to go for the WWII Museum of Minsk. I read quite a bit about Belarus during WWII. It seems that no other soviet republic has suffered more casualties in proportion to the population than this country of 10 million. Hitler’s “Race Engineers” decided soon after the occupation of Belarus that only 25% percent of the country is fit to live under the Reich. “Russians must die so we can live,” announced a Nazi poster. The horrors of WWII continue to amaze me; it doesn’t matter how many times I find out about them.
Comment Well, the Nazi idiocy had backfired plenty during the 4 years of occupation. Belarus prides itself in the best-organized partisan movement in occupied USSR, claiming to have inflicted 400,000 casualties on the Wermacht. Sadly enough, for any act of sabotage against the German Army, dozens of civilians had been shot on the spot. A lady at the museum tells me that there were entire villages that have simply been erased off the map. At times, the partisans would also shoot villagers that refused to join them or to supply them with food…
CommentI somewhat feel that this country is still affected by the horrors of WWII. I am thinking that it was a lot easier for the population to embrace Communism and devote their lives to re-building the country after experiencing the Nazi occupation. By comparison, that was not the case in other Eastern European countries where the war had not been so brutal, and in countries that experienced some sort of democracy during the 30's. The Belarus Museum of WWII is not for the faint hearted. The atrocities of the Nazi occupation are shown without any sugar-coating or reserve. For the students of history, it is a must, but it did make me feel like I felt after visiting the Mathaussen Concentration camp museum.
Comment About 20 miles outside of town, there is “Stalin Defense Line” outdoors museum and Exibition. I negotiate a taxi for about 100USD and head there through the rain. The taxi driver was quite communicative and we discuss the country. He seems to be a Luckachenco supporter, and he seems to have little use for EU membership, or a NATO inclusion. He argues “what does EU have that we can not make on our own?” Next he points to the newly re-made MAZ Bus. MAZ is a state-owned factory that still makes trucks and other heavy machinery, and, according to him, the company does well. I remember the huge state enterprises, rusty and abandoned all over Eastern Europe during the 90's. I see his point, but I also tell him about how the new reformed economies of Poland, Czech Republic, or Romania generate income 2-3 times larger than the state-owned Belarus economy. He comes back with “have a look at our prices,” and offers to stop at a food store. I was thirsty, so I agree to look around. Indeed, the locally produced foods were very cheap by EU standards. Then he tells me that the energy imports are subsidized from Russia and he thinks they are doing well. "They are doing OK", I agree, "but this is also a very stagnant society." He shrugs, wondering what I mean. I feel silly to throw such a concept that I could not substantiate in my limited Russian.
Comment The Stalin Defense Line museum spans a few acres, and has some interactive exhibits, too. Don’t think about computers that question you on WWII history. Instead, for only a couple of dollars, any adult can shoot a variety of machine guns and rifles used by the Russian Army. It looked like fun. I wander among hundreds of pieces of Russian military hardware; a lot of fun for the military aficionado. The rain worsens and I head back to the Taxi.
Next day in the train I reflect on Belarus. I still can't define how I feel about it. Looking at the misery of India and Africa, this is a first rate country. However if you look at Western Europe, this is a land lost in time… I wonder if this nation really knows of any better system. While China, for example, still has a living generation that remembers how things were before Communism and totalitarianism, Marxism-Leninism has run Belarus since 1917. It's no wonder most people have this “paternal view of the state,” and as long the state provides, things will not change…
Comment At times, I rejoice that my native Romania has been run by an idiotic regime that starved and froze the population for the last ten years of its existence. At least when the Romanians broke free, there was no way for them to look back with nostalgia to the Communist days. If we had a functioning Communist government that really provided the basic needs for everyone, maybe we would have been stuck in time now, like Belarus. This is the danger of the halfway solutions: It’s just too hard to escape them.
2008 © Mitch Anderson.
Mitch Anderson is the producer of the film "The World Without US" . This feature-length documentary debates the implications and consequences of US military involvement in the world today. Future scenarios in the absence of the US intervention are well debated and substantiated by experts and ordinary citizens whose lives have been affected by the American presence in different regions. World renowned author Niall Ferguson PHD brings his insights along side James Lilley (Former US Ambassador to China) and many others. For more information and trailers please see http://www.theworldwithoutus.com