If you want to be a millionaire, go to Belarus – even a jacket or a pair of shoes costs a million here. A kilo of sausage will set you back 100,000 roubles (£6); a loaf of white bread, seven. Visitors from other countries are flabbergasted by the number of zeros on price tags: If you see someone staring into a shop window holding a thick wad of notes, you’ll know it’s a foreigner. Most foreigners in Belarus are Russians: an oil worker shortening his life on a Siberian drilling rig or a Moscow middle manager, can begin to feel like an oligarch here. Their voices take on a lordly tone; their personalities acquire weird and wonderful traits. I saw a Moscow couple in the Vklam bar in Minsk give their waiter a rather unusual order: instead of asking for tea to drink, they asked him to sprinkle it on their table. The obliging waiter obediently tore some bags apart and covered the polished table with a thin layer of tea. I hope they gave him a tip…
It’s not, in fact, that simple for a European to come to Belarus, although leaving it is somewhat easier
I’ve only heard English being spoken in Minsk once. Two British people were strolling through the Botanical Garden, marvelling at the exotic plants. It’s not, in fact, that simple for a European to come to Belarus, although leaving it is somewhat easier. Journalists can be thrown out for lack of accreditation, politicians for taking part in protest meetings, and for meeting opposition figures. I wouldn’t advise filming on Prospekt Nezalezhnosti (Independence Prospect), and asking passers-by provocative questions about freedom of speech and assembly. You’ll only provoke panic amongst them, and could well spend your evening at KGB headquarters – yes, Belarus’s security service has retained its old Soviet name; and its employees, it would seem, their old ways of working as well. Belarusians whisper in their kitchens about ‘the third degree’ being used during interrogations, and in almost every intelligentsia family in Minsk you’ll find people who have suffered at the hands of the Lukashenka regime.
'Down with Daddy!'
‘What will happen to me if I stand on Prospekt Nezalezhnosti with a placard reading ‘Down with “Daddy”!’ (the President’s nickname), I ask two Minsk oppositionists. By profession they are both English teachers, but lost their jobs several years ago, and survive on casual earnings. They look at this foreign journalist with a mixture of fear and admiration, anxiously glancing at my tape recorder and asking me not to give their names.
‘Well, you won’t stand there for long!’ kindly explains one of them, a plump figure in round glasses, ‘they’ll arrest you after a couple of minutes.’
‘They’ll tear up the placard, and you’ll be lucky to avoid a thumping with a truncheon,’ adds his companion, a gentleman with a luxuriant moustache, wearing a traditional Belarusian embroidered shirt. ‘They don’t stand on ceremony with oppositionists! You’ll be at a police station or the KGB before you know it. If you’re a foreigner, they’ll expel you to Poland or Russia, but heaven help you if you’re Belarusian…’ President Lukashenka, popularly known as 'Daddy,' during a meeting with Putin in Minsk, July 2014. (c) RIA Novosti/Sergei Guneev
At present, three Belarusians are recognised by Amnesty International as prisoners of conscience. They are former presidential candidate Mikola Statkevich, sentenced to six years for ‘the organisation of mass rioting;’ Eduard Lobov, leader of the democratic youth organisation ‘Molodoi Front’ (Youth Front), in prison for four years for ‘malicious hooliganism;’ and writer Ales Bialiatski, head of the Viasna Human Rights Centre, sentenced to four and a half years for alleged tax evasion. Bialiatski was unexpectedly released two months ago, after serving 1050 days of his sentence, but Statkevich and Lobov are still in labour camps. Probably, only the KGB knows how many more people are being held there for nonexistent crimes.
Only the KGB knows how many more people are being held there for nonexistent crimes.
‘They can plant drugs on you, provoke a fight or accuse you of sexual harassment,’ explains the oppositionist in the embroidered shirt. ‘One of my female students accused me of locking myself in lecture rooms with underage girls. I was given the choice of ‘voluntarily’ resigning or a criminal charge, so I had to resign. Although I had never distributed leaflets, or asked people to come to demos – but colleagues just knew that I was anti-Lukashenka. I also made a habit of speaking in Belarusian rather than Russian, which also marks you out as an oppositionist. I got a job teaching at a school, but what do you know? A colleague who taught Ideological Studies, and was a member of the pro-Lukashenka ‘Belaya Rus’ (White Russia) organisation, denounced me for child sexual harassment. So I’m out of work again.’
He laughs into his moustache and suggests I try draniki, Belarus’s national dish. As I tuck into grated potato pancakes, his friend takes up the conversation: ‘I once took part in a flashmob. We lined a street where Lukashenka’s cortege was passing and clapped loudly – a very Belarusian expression of protest that is unknown anywhere else in the world. But our protest didn’t last long; before we knew it plain clothes cops were on top of us, and shoving us into police vans. Anyone who resisted got hit on the head with a truncheon. We expected to be taken to the nearest police station, but the van took us right across town and onto the ring road. One girl asked the driver: ‘Where are you taking us?’ The cop looked round and said, “We’ll rape the girls and then kill them, and the lads we’ll just kill! And then we’ll bury them in the forest.” It may have been a joke but it didn’t half scare us. We were, after all, driving along a dark road, in who knows what direction, and we could see the forest glimmering through the van windows. Suddenly the cops got a phone call. I could hear the words, “Recall! The operation’s off!” The bus turned round and we went back to Minsk. They took us to a police station – I never thought I’d be so glad to see the inside of a police cell… but in Belarus people do disappear like this.’
Among the Belarusian ‘disappeared’ have been Deputy Prime Minister Viktar Hanchar ex-Minister of the Interior Yury Zakharanka; businessman Anatoly Krasovsky, and TV cameraman Dmitry Zavadsky, all kidnapped by unknown assailants; and they have never been seen since, alive or dead. They were all involved to some extent in opposition to Lukashenka. Veranika Charkasova, a reporter on the independent Solidarnost (Solidarity) newspaper, was murdered in her own home, stabbed twenty times. Before her death she had been investigating the activities of Belarus’s security services, and had written a series of articles under the title, ‘The KGB is still watching you.’ Another journalist, Vasily Grodnikov, was also murdered at home, killed by a blow with a blunt object. He too was investigating Belarus’s law enforcement agencies.
Minsk is a city shrouded in an atmosphere of fear, smothering it like a thick blanket. Opposition figures are often presented with the choice: prison or Poland. In Poland, émigrés usually receive a grant and political asylum, and can start a new life. Of course, it’s better than prison porridge or being out of work, and collecting bottles to make a few roubles on the deposit. According to opinion polls, 60% of young people would like to leave Belarus permanently.
Opposition figures are often presented with the choice: prison or Poland.
Poland is, in fact, the dream of every young Belarusian; a democratic European country with a developed economy and an independent political system; and a nation speaking its own language – in other words, an object of envy and admiration. Officially, Belarus has two recognised languages, Russian and Belarusian, but if you start up a conversation in Belarusian on the street you might well find a policeman stopping you to check your papers. You might also be refused a job or a university place. Anything actually specific to the country – language, literature, music, culture in any form – is suppressed and belittled, not by Russian ‘occupiers,’ but by the Belarusian ruling elites, who evidently see themselves as more Russian than the Russians. ‘It’s not the Russian language, it’s my language’, as the president loves to say. ‘If anyone wants to take it away and wave it like a flag, it won’t work. We won’t give our language to anyone!’ Lukashenka’s speeches are generally noted for their abundance of aphorisms of this kind, and his best ‘thoughts’ are on the subjects of democracy and agriculture:
‘I regularly give the whole of parliament a good screw, so I know who’s an asshole and who isn’t’
‘I regularly give the whole of parliament a good screw, so I know who’s an asshole and who isn’t’
‘When I heard about the state of the economy, my few remaining hairs stood on end’
‘Anyone who drinks, better not vote for me, they’re not going to be my friends.’
The average monthly salary in Belarus is 6m roubles (£360). The worst off are the rural population and the creative classes. A collective farm worker will earn 2m-3m a month, but it may not be paid regularly. Government inspectors recently noticed that at one farm, workers had been paid for six months in dead calves. In desperation, villagers steal anything they can get their hands on, from newborn calves to spare parts for ‘Belarus’ tractors. In one case, a farm foreman stole 18 tonnes of chicken droppings.
The average monthly salary in Belarus is 6m roubles (£360).
President Lukashenka recently proposed introducing a form of serfdom for farm workers, with regional governors taking on the role of landowners: no one would be allowed to leave their collective farm or home village without their written permission. ‘Daddy’ literally spends his days touring collective and state farms and the larger agriculture-based settlements known as agro-towns, personally inspecting fields and crops, farm buildings and animal production units. It must be said that, whether it is thanks to his tireless efforts or those of the local farm workers, Belarusian potatoes, carrots, milk, and meat are of high quality and the cheapest in Europe.
The country’s industrial output is another matter. Supply is little better than in the Soviet period. You only have to look in any department store to see endless racks of jackets and dresses of gigantic size and weird design, and models of footwear so rigid that you could use a woman’s shoe to drive in a nail. But whereas Soviet garments came in every shade of grey, in Belarus now they prefer bright colours: raspberry red, orange and vivid green. Belarusians travel to Poland or Lithuania to do their clothes shopping. A five million Belarusian rouble banknote. Photo CC.
Belarus has the highest alcohol consumption in the world: the average Belarusian over the age of 15 drinks 17.5 litres of pure alcohol equivalent a year. In grocery shops in the evening you can find rows of grumpy looking men, impatiently waiting their turn at the checkout. Each one lovingly holds a bottle of ‘Bulbash’ vodka; some have two, three, four, and even five. Beer isn’t much drunk here, wine is expensive, and there is little choice. The service isn’t great either: the shop assistants can be rude or even refuse to serve you, claiming they’re on their break. Most Belarusian shops are state-owned and the staff, with fixed salaries, have no incentive to be nice to customers.
Old Soviet habits die hard: most Belarusians try to avoid paying for their tram or trolleybus journey. Many buy a ticket, but only stamp it if they have no choice, when an inspector appears. In fact, the very appearance of an inspector is seen as an infringement of workers’ rights.
A Wi-Fi free zone
Belarus is also notable for the fact that you can find people here who have never heard of the World Wide Web. Belarusian intellectuals read books, not blogs, and can quote you the poetry of Soviet giants such as Akhmatova or Tsvetayeva by heart, and remember what century Heraclites lived in. They rely on their own memory, not the internet. Access to the Web in Belarus is strictly controlled – you need to show your ID papers; there is no WiFi in public places and you can count the number of internet cafes in Minsk on your fingers.
Anyone who has internet access at home is monitored by the KGB; independent opposition sites are blocked, Skype conversations are bugged, and social networks monitored. The only headline maker on TV is Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Almost every news bulletin has footage of ‘Daddy’ stroking a cow, chatting to an embarrassed dairy worker, haranguing a grey-haired professor or admonishing a silent parliament.
Russkaya Vesna. The President’s position is also ambiguous: ‘Daddy’ can start a speech branding his ‘eastern neighbour’ as an aggressor, and end it by calling on Russia to come to the immediate ‘brotherly aid’ of Ukraine.
The good old days
‘Don’t boil water in the kettle, use a pan on the cooker,’ warns my landlady, ‘electricity is expensive, but the gas comes from Russia.’ Europe and Ukraine have to pay $400 per 1,000 cubic metres, but Belarus has it at the bargain price of $175. It is only cheap gas and oil that keeps Belarus’s economy and Lukashenka’s regime afloat. But how long can it last? ‘Daddy’ hopes to be re-elected for a fifth term, but his health is uncertain. Villagers at an easter celebration, Pogost, Gomel Region, 2013. (c) RIA Novosti/Egor Eryomov
If you want to return to the Soviet Union – just go to Belarus.
Many people in today’s Russia are nostalgic about the Soviet Union, a country you can’t go back to – or can you? If you want to return to the Soviet Union – just go to Belarus. Service is terrible, living standards low, internet access restricted, civil society non-existent – but there is an incomparable feeling of safety and serene calm; and lots of excellent vodka and good tasty food to go with it. What more could anyone want?