This year the Belarusian government issued a decree on ‘the prevention of social dependency.’ Belarusians immediately christened it ‘the parasite law’, after the legislation current in the Soviet Union from 1961 until 1991. ‘Parasites’ included housewives, artists, opposition politicians, freelance journalists and so on – anyone who didn’t have an official work contract or who didn’t work at all.
I am a parasite
Almost all my friends in Belarus are officially parasites. And indeed I am one myself – I have been freelance for ten years now. In 2004 I left my job on the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper. It was just after the Beslan school hostage crisis and Putin’s abolition of elections for regional governors. Journalism also seemed to have been abolished, and replaced by propaganda and porn.
I remember a special edition of ‘Komsomolka’, as it was usually known: Putin’s naked torso on the front page and a ‘best actress’s breast’ contest on the back. After that I decided to abandon my career on the paper and became a ‘foreign agent’, working freelance for Western media outlets. One day the FSB chief in Kirov denounced me on local TV as the head of a CIA conspiracy in the city. I didn’t sleep that night, expecting a knock on my door at any moment. But they didn’t arrest me: evidently even the FSB likes its little jokes.
Almost all my friends in Belarus are officially parasites. And indeed I am one myself.
I have paid my taxes and felt like a normal law-abiding citizen, and it is only recently that I discovered that I am in fact a ‘social parasite’ who needs to be brought under control.
Shurik’s new idea
I discovered this fact in a dissident friend’s cramped kitchen. I won’t name him – the Belarusian KGB doesn’t joke around. This friend has been a dissident since Soviet times, fighting all ‘anti-popular’ systems ever since. Not that the governments have varied much: former state farm director Alyaksandr Lukashenka has ruled Belarus for the last 20 years. ‘You know what Shurik [a disparaging diminutive form of Lukashenka’s first name] has dreamt up now?’ asked my friend, cutting spring onions for a salad. ‘Anyone without an official job will have to pay a special tax, or be arrested’.
I found the details on Google. Anyone working less than 183 days a year would have to pay 3,600,000 Belarusian roubles (£160). Anyone not paying would be fined between 360,000 and 720,000 roubles (£16-32) or arrested and sentenced to community service – sweeping streets, cleaning public toilets or doing agricultural labour, as the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky had to do in his time.
Brodsky was convicted of ‘parasitism’ by a Soviet court in 1964 and exiled to the northern Archangelsk Region where he was set to work as a forestry labourer. His task was to dig rocks out of the ground after trees had been felled, for which he was paid 12 roubles a month (average monthly earnings at the time were around 100 roubles). Eight years later the poet was forced to emigrate to the West and settled in the USA. He was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1987. Other famous dissident cultural and academic figures were also exiled as ‘parasites’, and more were accused but escaped punishment by moving to the West.
‘I’m thinking about taking Russian citizenship’, said my friend wistfully.
‘When did you last have an official job?’ I asked him.
‘Five years ago I taught in a school. But when they found out that I was an opponent of Lukashenka they showed me the door pretty quickly.’
‘But how did they know that? You weren’t having political discussions in school, were you?’
‘Of course not! I was teaching the children Belarusian folksongs, and immediately fell under suspicion. They started following me around, and in the end accused me of going off alone with older female pupils. Now I can’t even get a job as a janitor! I can’t work, and now I can’t not work either!’
‘I can’t work, and now I can’t not work either!’
My friend’s eyes filled with tears as he cut the onions, and perhaps not just because of the onions.
Those that don’t work, don’t eat
The TV news was all about the ‘working Saturday’ that had just taken place. The president and his son Kolya had worked on the site for a new children’s health centre, pouring cement and achieving twice the usual daily norm. Other politicians had also not been idle: Prime Minister Andrei Kabyakou planted pine trees in an abandoned gravel pit; others erected a battery farm in a village and planted trees in Minsk’s Hugo Chavez Park.
‘On this day of voluntary work, we mustn’t forget the parasites!’ said the President, posing for the TV cameras in workmen’s overalls. ‘The parasitism decree has been controversial, but any working man or woman will surely support it! How does it feel, working from morning to night to feed your family, to see people driving around in their Lexus or BMW and not paying a penny of tax!’
The press laughed uncomfortably, but no one dared say a word. Only lunatics, martyrs and alcoholics will risk contradicting ‘Big Daddy’.
‘But surely nobody lives better than us?’ a tractor factory worker asked me in genuine amazement when we met at a bus stop. She was dressed like a typical shopper at local department stores: a long grey-brown coat, shapeless black shoes and a flower-patterned dress, and she carried a bag containing milk, sunflower oil and potatoes.
‘We Belarusians like our spuds!’ she chuckled. ‘If you have spuds, what more do you need? I don’t buy anything dear – it’s all bad for you!’
What do you think about the parasite law?’ I asked her.
‘It’s absolutely right!’ was her response. ‘Those that don’t work don’t eat! ‘Daddy’ was right – I always vote for him! Not everybody agrees, but I say that he has robbed us blind, but a new one would rob us as well, so why change?’
‘He has robbed us blind, but a new one would rob us as well, so why change?’
We travelled on the bus together, without paying – it’s considered bad form to buy tickets. Suddenly a loud voice from the other end of the bus caught my attention. It came from a middle-aged woman in an old grey coat and a hat trimmed with artificial flowers.
It wasn’t clear whether she was talking to herself or the whole bus: ‘Citizens of Belarus! Collective farm workers are starving; dairy workers can’t milk their cattle! They work without holidays or days off! Our country is dying! And Lukashenka lives like a king! We need to take to the streets and make our voices heard!’
The Belarusians, including the tractor factory worker, started moving to the other end of the bus. Most of them got out at the next stop, and those who didn’t suddenly became very interested in the view from the bus windows. When the citizen who called her compatriots to action got out, she was accompanied by long meaningful looks from her fellow travellers.
‘This is a real dictatorship!’ the National Art Gallery employee whispered to me. It turned out she was, like me, from the Urals, so we got chatting. ‘I’ve been here two years now’, she told me, ‘and I feel like a foreigner. I haven’t made any friends. Belarusians are afraid to be around me, they think I’ll let something slip and they’ll get into trouble. HE has them scared to death.’
She glances at the portrait of Lukashenka in military uniform on the wall. ‘A careless remark can lose you not just your job but your freedom. People disappear in broad daylight. One blink and they’re gone.’ The woman crossed herself nervously and wished me a speedy return to the Urals.
Life in the freezer
‘The human rights situation in Belarus has actually improved,’ says Ales Lagvinets, a leader of the opposition ‘Freedom Movement’. ‘People are no longer disappearing; there are fewer arrests. Belarus has only five political prisoners: ex-presidential candidate Mikola Statkevich and four anarchists.’
‘Has the Russian threat reconciled Lukashenka and the opposition?’ I asked Lagvinets.
‘To some extent, it has. Power struggles and human rights have to take a back seat when your national independence is under threat. It’s true we’ve been living in a kind of freezer, on ice since Soviet times. You can, however, defrost a freezer, but what if Putin arrives with tanks and little green men?’
‘And what if that does happen?’
‘You might be surprised to hear it, but half the population will welcome him with open arms,’ says Lagvinets. ‘Most people here, especially the older generation, were brought up with a Soviet and Russian mindset. Let me put it this way: there are not enough Belarusians in Belarus! For generations, centuries, all our national identity was squeezed out of us. Belarusians became embarrassed about themselves, their language and their culture. They tried to become Russians, and became nobodies. I, a Belarusian, can’t go to a pharmacy and buy a medicine with instructions in my own language!’
‘Half the population would welcome Putin with open arms.’
The opposition leader, until now calm and collected, was becoming louder and more agitated. He imperceptibly switched from Russian to Belarusian and started waving his arms about. Sensing that I was about to be called personally to account for centuries of oppression, I hastily changed the subject. ‘Are you,’ I wondered, ‘a parasite?’
‘Of course, I’m a scrounger!’ he laughed. ‘I’m officially unemployed, and live off translation and editing work. I have declared all my income and intend to pay the tax! Otherwise I’ll be jailed for 15 days, and have to pay for that!’
‘You have to pay for your time in jail?’
‘Didn’t you know? It’s another one of our government‘s bright ideas. You pay for your upkeep – food and drink, questioning, the odd beating. It doesn’t cost much, about 100000 roubles (£4.50) a day. You also have to pay for protest marches and so on. For example, we recently paid 13,661,000 roubles (£600) for our annual ‘Chernobyl Trail’, to cover the ‘services’ of the police, the fire brigade and ambulance crews. Come and join us, by the way. But bring your Russian passport – then if you get arrested your consul might bail you out.’
I didn’t know if he was joking or not, but brought all my ID documents – two passports and two press cards.
The Chernobyl Trail
The ‘Chernobyl Trail’ reminded me of Russian protest rallies in the Perestroika era, a time long past that has left sadness behind, but which is only just beginning here in Belarus. Belarusians were hoping for change and were prepared to suffer for their beliefs. People of all shades of opinion were gathered in a square on Independence Prospekt – nationalists with the red and white flags of the short-lived People’s Republic of 1918; anarchists with ‘Socialism with a Human Face’ placards; Chernobyl firefighters with a banner reading, ‘Chernobyl is our pain.’
One woman was collecting money and signatures to support political prisoners; signatories, however, had to give not just their names but also their ID details. I wouldn’t have signed for the world; the security services could have been round the next day.
Протестующие на акции «Чернобыльский шлях» в Минске.
‘Aren’t you afraid?’ I asked a gentleman in a hat, with a red and white flag round his shoulders like a cape.
‘They should be afraid of us, madam’, he replied. I asked him why he had come to the march.
‘I helped put out the Chernobyl fire. It’s a miracle I’m still alive… many of my comrades are not… I’ve come to remember them’.
‘Is it true’, I asked, ‘that they have abolished the special benefits you people were getting?’
‘Lukashenka says they haven’t the money – but he has money for our ice hockey team! Russia pays its Chernobyl firefighters, but we don’t. And we in Belarus have suffered more than anyone! Huge swathes of our territory are still in the exclusion zone. But people secretly pick mushrooms and berries there and sell them in Minsk. There are farms, fields, pastures right next to the zone, and where do they sell their milk and potatoes? Here in Minsk! And now they’re about to build the first nuclear power station in Belarus, at Astravets, a joint project with the Russians!’
‘Lukashenka says he can’t pay benefits to Chernobyl firefighters – but there’s money for our ice hockey team!’
The demonstrators formed a column and moved off through the centre of Minsk, unfurling their flags and banners, all with slogans in Belarusian: ‘Chernobyl is an open wound‘; ‘Astravets will be another Chernobyl’; ‘No to the Russian Nuclear Threat’. From time to time someone would shout, ‘Long live Belarus!’ and the crowd would echo it.
‘We’re allowed to hold three demos a year, and this is one of them’, explained Vital Rymasheuski, another opposition leader and ex-presidential candidate. ‘Usually these demos are left alone, especially now that Daddy is trying not to antagonise the West.’
‘Three demos? And what if there’s a fourth?’ I asked.
‘It’s broken up immediately, even if it’s only a one-person picket. They don’t mess about; you get a beating. Once they bashed me on the head with a club as I was making a speech – the blood was pouring out from underneath my bandage. The photographers loved it, of course!’
Rymasheuski laughed: Belarusians seem to regard demo wounds with the same wry resignation as the British their bad weather. Unlike Russian oppositionists, they don’t run to doctors to have their injuries recorded and then to the courts to lodge a complaint.
‘You can complain’, says Rymasheuski, ‘but it’s not much use, unless you want to refer it to Western NGOs so they can include this human rights infringement in their annual report…’
One demonstrator came with a thick rope round his neck instead of a flag. ‘What does it symbolise?’ I asked.
‘The long suffering of us Belarusians. Life drags us down like a noose, and we just go on enduring.’
‘Will it ever end?’ I ask.
‘Never, probably! All we care about is our potatoes and our booze!’
The bottle queue
According to WHO figures, Belarusians are the heaviest drinkers in the world, consuming an average 17.5 litres pure alcohol equivalent a year (27.5 litres for men, 9 litres for women). I met some in a queue to return bottles for recycling (and reclaim the deposit). I had one beer bottle.
Пенсионеры в очереди за сдачей стекла.
‘How much for a beer bottle?’ I asked a man in an ancient moth-eaten coat whose wrinkled face retained a few vestiges of intellectual life. ‘Nothing at the moment, my love’, he said in an angry tone. ‘They said they had no money and went off to get some! We’ve been waiting for hours!’ The queue grumbled in unison, clanking their bottles. ‘There’s never any money for ordinary people! It’s all been spent on the ice hockey team!’
‘How do you live then?’ I asked. ‘Do you have work?’ ‘I collect bottles, my dear lady. That’s my work. I wash the labels off the good ones and get 500 roubles (two pence) apiece, and I get 350 roubles for the other, cracked ones. I can live on it: people drink a lot now, so there’s plenty to collect.’
‘Won’t they arrest you as a parasite?’
‘They can’t arrest everybody!’ declared the former intellectual, nodding towards the long queue snaking round the small recycling point. ‘There aren’t enough jails in Belarus.’
‘They can’t arrest everybody - there aren’t enough jails!’
Suddenly a shout went up: ‘Money, money!’ The queue came to life; people crowded into the narrow passageway, dragging enormous bags behind them. There was a sound of broken glass.
I quietly stood my bottle on the ground. Someone would pick it up.
All photos courtesy of the author.