In line with our editorial mobilisation for democracy in Belarus, we are giving the floor to one of our members, who had the opportunity to briefly experience and see the misery of the Belarussian people.
I have been to Belarus last summer (August 2005) and thought that my impression of the country might be of interest to you. Actually, I am very pleased about the possibility to express myself on Belarus since this country is completely unrecognized in France and nobody talks about it.
A stopover in Minsk: a ghost town without charm
I was coming back from Russia together with a group (90 % Australians) heading to Warsaw, with a mid-way halt in Minsk for 2 days. We were worn out by ten hours on the road and the dull border crossing at the Russian-Belarusian frontier, when we arrived in on Saturday afternoon.
Although I have been completely unaware of the political situation of this country, I remember that I felt a weird impression when entering Minsk. The city was quasi deserted almost no passers-by on the streets. Just an immediate contrast to the big Russian cities we were coming from.
With its massive buildings, long and big streets, rustic urban and solid contructions from the fifties, Minsk is typically Soviet. Some propaganda banners for the national agriculture of the country every now and then, the slogans translated by an Australian friend originally from Serbia. A city without charm, gray, where it isn’t a pleasur to live in on the first glance, an even stronger impresson from behind the windows of the car, well knowing your leaving the next day.
State propaganda and the obligatory passages to the dead monuments
A Belarussian guide gave us a presentation and a guided tour. After ten minutes, I have been becoming aware that his speech was a product of political propaganda, directly dictated by the “Government” in order to be held for the rare tourists stoping over between Russia and Poland.
One example amongst many others: “this is the house of medias, hold by the government and the programmes have an excellent quality”, “this is the national circus, hold by the government and the performances are the best”, “this is the Ministry of Economics and Finances which has shown a lot of instability before, now everything is forseeable and stable thanks to the Government”.
The car stopped at all the dead monuments which are numerously widespread in the city. Obviously, they are higly respected by the population, thus it is a custom for newly weds to have their wedding picture in front of one of these monuments. In my opinion, the dead monument is a symbol for the suffering of the country. In every generation, the country is “drained” of men who leave and die at war, mothers are prepared for this. Belarus has been a living pond for all the wars waged by the former Soviet Union.
And in today’s time, it seems to me that Belarussians still go to war and die in Chechnya. Whole generations of men have been destroyed in this way, an aspect that has created a huge deficit of men within the pattern of the population and evoked a feeling of fatalism.
Fatalism, sadness and resignation
Despite of the flat enthusiastic highlights in her speech, our guide, a thirty-year old woman, was sad. She has been looking at all of us and asked where we are from.
When we answered Australia, New-Zealand and France (me!), she was dreaming while listening to us. Surely, she envyed us and would have probably given a lot to be in our shoes.
I felt really privileged. Out of caution, I didn’t dare to ask her question about the current political regime in her country (although I had half a million of things to ask her).
Partying in Minsk, something for foreigners
My most troubling experience took place while we were driving in the tube to go somewhere “to have fun” in a café in a centre or in a club on a Saturday night. I was here with the group of Australiens who had already drunken a little; they all were buoyant, they shouted and laughed as it is their delicate habit.
The contrast to the Belarussians was just so catching. All around us people had empty eyes, I have never seen humans as crestfallen as these. They observed the Australiens with stern looks; I could hear them thinking “here come the fortunate ones”…
I felt extremely uncomfortable whilst the Australiens did not recognize anything (as it is once again their habit…) despite the rigidity of looks of which they have been subjected to.
In the club we had to pass a control of the state police (present even in the clubs) where the taking of photos was forbidden. But beside this, the club was quite similar to our less sophisticated ones. The following day we left for Warsaw.
This was my very short and very personal esperience of Belarus: a sad and miserable country that seeks freedom and democracy against all odds.
Article translated from the French by Jessika Hazrat, firstname.lastname@example.org