Europe | Belarus
October 2, 2008
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Minsk - Weekend Report

Pyongyang without the airmiles.

Tragic nation (Khatyn Memorial)
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Boris through the looking glass

In the depths of the Cold War, Stalin set up a network of secret ‘closed’ cities across the USSR – places sensitive through defence or research, places were outsiders were to be kept at bay. These cities weren’t marked on any map and even their true names were confidential; they were only referred to by a number and the borrowed name of another town – sometimes hundreds of kilometres away. Such settlements, cities like Tomsk-7 or Murmansk-140, could have hundreds of thousands of people, all encircled by perimeters of barbed wire or walls of concrete. This wasn’t the gulag – the residents hadn’t been accused of any crimes – but they still needed special permits to get in or out.

For all its tractor plants and heavy-gun factories, Minsk - capital of Belarus - was never closed, even in the darkest days when the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction held sway. Still, when I learnt the city’s airport went by the name “Minsk-2” it seemed hardly the most auspicious of portents. My forebodings were well-placed. Within, oh, 30 seconds of touchdown I began to realise that Belarus was a country still living out the Cold War fantasies of Le Carré and Forsythe. Taxiing towards our stand, the normal BA, Lufthansa, KLM etc. tailfins were notable by their absence – in their place were ranks of gull-winged Ilyushin military freighters alongside two gleaming presidential jets. Of civilian aircraft there was no sign, nor were there any obvious ground staff, just an impassive stillness that seeped from the thick pine forest all around. In silence we came to a halt beside the Soviet-era terminal. Its ugly jackboot piers paid architectural homage to the footwear of my first live Belarusian: a KGB guard who strode onto our plane while the hatch was still opening. In Thailand they welcome you with orchids, in Belarus it’s a hard stare from the secret police.

Hardship and prosperity

Alone among the countries of the former USSR, Belarus has never disbanded the KGB or even, as in Russia, bothered to give it a new name. But then there’s a lot about the former Soviet Union that Belarus has never seen the need to change. And this is the key: the USSR was a time of glory for most Belarusians and haven of prosperity. Until it came along, Belarus had been a marginal province shuffled between Poland, Lithuania and Russia as national fortunes waxed and waned. Unfortunately, by the time WWII broke out Minsk had nevertheless grown just enough in importance for the Germans to flatten it; across the country one in three Belarusians died. After the war was over, however, Stalin decided Minsk would make the perfect canvas on which to build a home for his New Soviet Man. Declaring it a ‘Hero City’, he set to with his central planners to replace its destroyed economy with a new model based on heavy industry, to rebuild its shattered streets on a scale fit for socialism’s übermen. The next three or four decades were golden. Minsk became the workshop of the western USSR and its citizens enjoyed one of the highest standards of living in the land.

Still, even with Stalin’s personal backing, Soviet coffers weren’t bottomless, and my first contact with Minsk’s outskirts threw up the same massed ranks of identikit apartment blocks that disfigure suburbs across the former Eastern-bloc. A lone architectural highlight (or raised eyebrow) was the Tardis-cube National Library. It’s blinking aluminium angularity looks a classic bit of Sputnik-age geekery, but it is in fact of more recent vintage. Alongside ‘voluntary’ donations from Belarus’s schoolchildren, it was apparently funded by Saddam Hussein as a ‘thank-you’ for Belarus’s staunch disregard of UN sanctions when it came to the covert selling of military spare parts.

Stalin's children

As my taxi swept on into central Minsk, the fruits of Stalin’s labourers began to reveal themselves properly. The highway grew wide enough for a tank brigade, its flanks sprouted facades of monumental neoclassicism. At intervals we navigated across vast squares where muscled statues of Soviet heroes stood marooned amid acres of tidy bedding plants. Lampposts sprouted strings of fairy lights; slogans in huge Cyrillic lettering strode across the rooftops, ten-storey banners pictured scenes of socialist-realist bliss. No doubt about it, I was deep in the bosom of an old-school people’s paradise. Yet the new-world-order joke is that the government is currently chasing World Heritage listing for the purity and coherence of its Stalinist cityscape.

Into the Twilight Zone

Cruising in the bubble of a private transport is one thing, but the full force of Minsk’s creepy wrongness didn’t take hold until I set out on foot. Although I never got used to it, over the following days I grew familiar with the city’s quietness, its watchfulness, its wariness. Insidiously, a contagious nervousness stole over me too; I began to feel I was walking on eggs. Everywhere I looked people were preternaturally careful – it’s simply not normal for bus queues to space themselves with each person precisely 50 cm behind the last; every laugh or holler would turn a street-full of heads. Policeman loitered on corners. More, I knew, mingled with every crowd - out of uniform. President Lukashenka is a stickler for order, so tidiness is an obsession. Litter is absent: school kids walk a block for a bin rather than let a sweet wrapper slip to the ground. Jay-walking just doesn’t happen, even taxi-drivers stick scrupulously to their lanes. With time, the heel-print of authority made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck each time I stepped onto the street; its political menace was all the weightier for seeming so ingrained and unabashed. Looming midway along Minsk’s busiest shopping street, the KGB headquarters have a longer frontage than the city’s main department store. People have died there and are still hauled inside from time to time, yet to look at its classical architraves you’d guess it was a university or art gallery, or the Supreme Court perhaps. Passers-by don’t bat an eye.

Europe' last dictator

The US government has labelled Belarus ‘the last dictatorship in Europe’, certainly it’s probably the only place on the continent where a Russian TV crew could get thrown out for being ‘too liberal’ or where foreign ambassadors can wake to find their embassy gates have been welded shut in the night. There is dissent, but it’s muted and disorganised, and probably owes more to youthful rebelliousness than ideology. Naturally, overt displays are summarily jumped upon. I watched a group of larking teenagers climb onto an army memorial: within a minute they had been dragged off by truncheon-wielding militiamen arriving from nowhere at a run.

Mothercare communism

The standard Western portrayal of Belarus has it as a fragment of the old USSR pickled and bottled up tight. To be sure, Belarus is closer to this than anywhere else left today. But walking Minsk’s streets feels more like science fiction than palaeontology. Belarus hasn’t stood still. Instead, a Lukashenkan effort of will has seen it sail smoothly onwards along a trajectory of five-year plans that refuse to countenance that communist central planning might be dead. Perhaps it’s what the USSR might be today if Gorbachev had never happened.

One huge change is in the rise of consumerism; not the showy Western variety, but a home-grown writing-a-shopping-list-with-some-expectation-of-fulfilment kind. I remember visiting Moscow supermarkets in the 1970s where the only thing on offer was canned Bulgarian peach pulp. In Minsk in 2008, shops might be drab, but pretty much anything is available at a price. One of the first things you spot on the road from the airport is a Mothercare superstore; one block on there’s a Porsche dealership. Such temples of consumerism may be wildly beyond the pockets of working Belarusians, but nobody is stopping them going in to have a look around. Directly beneath Lenin Square lies a giant underground shopping mall; its galleries of budget clothes shops and take-away pizza joints wouldn’t look out of place in Middlesbrough - right down to the gangs of bored kids roaming aimlessly around.

If this all sounds grim and glum, you’re right. Minsk doesn’t even make it onto the long-list’s long-list if you’re looking for charming or searching for a good time. But pretty looks and a happy smile aren’t everything. Few places I’ve visited in recent years have made me think so long or hard.

Before setting off from Britain I came across a comment posted on an internet travel blog: ‘Belarus is an insane country, get out as soon as you can before the KGB take you to some dark hole and eat you!’ A little harsh possibly, but I can understand what the writer meant. I spent 10 days in and around Minsk and I won’t deny that I was happy to leave. However, at the same time I was, and remain, intensely pleased that I’d been. Maybe one day Tomsk-7 will be brought back as a living history museum. But, for the present, for anyone seriously interested in 20th century history, Minsk-2 is the portal to something eerily close.

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