Since we left Turkish borders, it’s been a slow steady journey into the heart of the former Communist block, where Russia’s bear grip has loosened but is not yet forgotten. For example, asking Romanians if they spoke Russian as our respective Romanian and English were severely lacking, only elicited indignant anger in a land where customer service already ranges from non-existent to insulting.
Much of this Soviet fallout is also lodged deeply in the fabric of Belarusian day-to-day proceedings. Russian language made such a stronghold here that in the first twelve years of my life spent in the capital Minsk I knew and heard Russian almost exclusively. The school curriculum included Belarusian language and that granted me a vague understanding of its relation to the dominant “russki”— which is still the vast majority of spoken and written words. A notable exception is state-issued communication such as street signs and city transit info, now using the official Belarusian tongue.
Other holdovers from Soviet times abound. There is the afore-mentioned customer “service” from grocery store cashiers, bank tellers and post office clerks who are absurdly rude, acting as if you are the one committing a terrible social faux pas by asking them for assistance purely as outlined in their job description. There is the outrageously thriving bureaucracy through which my sister and I lost 3 hours going through the motions of registering our brief stay with the local militia, paying several charges and filling out various forms which endeavour to track every single move a foreigner makes within the country’s borders. The government still reserves the right to assign a university or college graduate to their new post anywhere they will best serve the nation (spousal ties seem to be the only protection from this fate) and young men are required to serve in the army, though I’ve heard tales of some evading the system by moving frequently, with a flurry of conscription mailings pursuing them at their fugitive addresses. Even commonplace grocery items are diligently monitored and sport a pretty hologram sticker, which certifies them approved for sale in the Republic.
This cozy involvement of the state in its people’s lives has a definite echo of a middling parent, if not quite to the height of Orwell’s “Big Brother”. Although it’s a democracy in name only, that can be said of nearly every country claiming that political structure today, and there is a certain freedom of speech and press that allows criticisms where people see them. I enjoyed an actor in a TV newscast relate the following joke: “The president answers the telephone, listens for a moment and replies: ‘That’s a good one… good… I said good… that one’s bad… okay, good… bad… Okay.’ He hangs up and sighs: ‘They can’t even sort potatoes without me.’”
In the seven years since I last saw Belarus, it has taken a decided step towards the bright future of modernity. The government has adopted initiatives in building restoration, squeaky-clean streets and public spaces, and a burly determination to be seen as a force to be reckoned with on the European and world stages of politics. For the common folk the evolution means more access to fashion, cyber technology, foreign holidays and consumer goods, not least of which are edibles: food stores are now plentiful and filled aplenty and besides McDonald’s the average Minsk dweller can also find a restaurant for Chinese fare or pretty plates of sushi.
Of course, my main reason for visiting is always to see my relatives, who let me glimpse the strong thoughtful character of Belarusian people. Two traits that always stay with me are their ready, honest humour and their amazing array of practical skills, developed in answer to lives of uncertain providence and slim budgets. Besides full-time work and raising children they all found time to sew clothes and blankets, grow vegetables and make preserves, build summer homes (with fabulous wooden steam rooms) and engage in a few creative pursuits besides. Our visits are punctuated with gatherings, feasting, gifts and most valuably their readiness to show us their lives, their traditions and their country.
Belarus is a land of serene beauty, despite its grim history of battles, occupation, oppression, war crimes and screaming bomb raids. Amazingly, both the terrain and its inhabitants have carried on living and breathing. Polesyje is a swampy area in the south of the country that recycles so much air it is known as “the lungs of Europe”. Belavezhskaya Puscha on the western border shared with Poland is Europe’s largest surviving primeval mixed forest. This small country boasts 20,000 streams and 10,000 lakes and the river Pripet is Europe’s largest migratory circuit of waterfowl.
Perhaps my favourite notable about Belarus is that the brilliantly original painter Marc Chagall was born in its northern town of Vitebsk. Like me, Chagall moved abroad, but I wonder if I might share his whimsical imagination as an inheritance from the land where we first glimpsed this world.
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