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May 20, 2008
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Video Diary: Belarus - May 08

Pt 1: Minsk

Storm over the Belarusian Parliament, Minsk, Belaus.
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Returning to Minsk after a gap of 27 years, I had little idea what to expect. The limited information available in the West painted the Belarusian capital as a place where KGB spooks still lurked on every corner and you could eat what you liked - so long as it was potatoes.

Not surprisingly, the truth was a little more complicated. Yes, it's easy to see why the US State Department rates Belarus as one of its "outposts of tyranny" (along with the likes of North Korea and Myanmar). But to treat it as a slice of 1970s Soviet Union in cold storage is to miss the point. Time hasn't stood still, it's merely progressed down a different path: one where the fall of the Berlin Wall never happened and Gorbachev's perestroika didn't reap the whirlwind of runaway reform. Instead, Belarus is today what the USSR might have become with a fair economic wind and no upsets to the spirit-draining social compact of the detente-era. Shops are full, but goods are threadbare and sofas only come in brown. Almost everyone has a job, but salaries are mickey-mouse and 'job satisfaction' is a word never heard. You can walk the meanest streets at midnight, but dare not say what you think to your closest friend.

So far, so Soviet. But Minsk's students would laugh at the hickness of the average British club and their parents order their tall, skinny lattes with polished aplomb. Communist consumers, Belarusians are ready and willing with their full quota of style. As for the communist economy - well, it waddles along as best it can.

Video diary entries:

1. Stalinist Architecture: Minsk was razed by the Nazis in WWII. Awarded 'Hero City' status in the aftermath, Stalin deemed it should be rebuilt as a showcase for his magniloquant vision of a new Socialist world order.

2. Minsk - Victory Day Commemorations.

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