‘Li govorite po-angliskii?’ I asked the solid woman with bleached hair behind the counter at the brand new railway station in Minsk, Belarus.
She peered at me over her reading glasses and uttered a stream of Belorussian. Tentatively, I showed her the travel vouchers I had obtained from a ‘reputable’ travel company back home. They were for the only train – the overnight 087Б service – from Minsk to Riga, vouchers that we were assured could be exchanged for tickets after we had arrived in Belarus. After barely glancing at the vouchers, she handed them back to me.
Milling about aimlessly, we approached one person after another, each of them shaking their heads and pointing vaguely to the other side of the station. When all seemed lost, a couple of young girls came to our assistance. They took us straight to the senior ticket administrator.
Eventually, one of the girls said, ‘No, you can’t exchange the vouchers for tickets here. Only in Russia can you do that’.
I quietly cursed the European rail ‘experts’ who had sold me the vouchers. ‘We’ll buy new tickets’, I said.
‘Luxe?’ She asked.
I nodded vigorously. ‘Yes, luxe is perfect’.
At the luxe window, seconds seemed like hours. I wondered whether you could buy tickets so late, minutes before the train was due to depart. I began forming plans for a rush to the airport, to make sure we left Belarus before our visas expired. At the last moment it was our turn. Tickets purchased (much more cheaply than those cursed vouchers), a rush to the platform, a sigh of relief as we stepped on the train.
And a glorious train it was. Four old wagons pulled by a diesel from USSR times. Our quarters for the night were plushly carpeted, padded with velvet, and festooned with lace. Clean towels sat atop thick pillows. The beds we could make ourselves – at least after we had caught our breath and calmed down a little.
As the train chugged out of the station, the svelte attendant knocked. ‘Do you speak any Russian?’ she said.
I held my thumb and index finger millimetres apart. ‘A tiny bit’ I said.
‘Wait’, she said.
She returned with a thin, tall man with a broad, fangy smile.
‘Do you have your tickets?’ He translated. We nodded and passed them to the smiling conductor. ‘Would you like to watch television?’ He translated again. ‘How about tea, coffee, coke?’ We shook our heads each time.
At last some peace. Time to unwind, settle into our beds and be rocked off to sleep …
A few moments later he returned, on his own. Revealing his impressive if somewhat scary dental arrangement, he said, ‘Would you like to buy some Russian souvenirs?’ He held out a box with aloe towels and a notepad. Nothing distinctly Russian could be seen anywhere upon them, except perhaps the writing. We shook our heads again; we were becoming tough prospects. “If you need anything,’ he continued, ‘I am in the next car. But make up your mind soon, since I am getting off at the next station – Maladzyechna’. We had indeed made up our minds quickly. We would not be seeking him out in the next car.
At last we could sleep, although I needed to unwind a little. So I let my thoughts run over the last few days in Belarus. When we left Minsk, the train had only four carriages, two with ‘luxe’ accommodation and two with standard. Within a couple of hours we had joined a dozen more at Maladzyechna, from where our longer village in motion veered in a north-easterly direction to the Russian border. Unfamiliar stations and towns rolled by in a country relatively few visit – Viliejka, Ventrina, Polatsk, Verkhnyadzvinsk, and then into Latvia after a sharp turn left. At each station, no matter how small, the station master would stand to attention by the station door and see the train through safely.
I decided on some light reading – Chairman Mao’s Selected Writings. That set me drifting back over the last couple of days, thinking over a visit to a country that was part of the former USSR, a country that few think about all that much. Belarus has remained socialist by refusing the ‘shock therapy’ visited in retributive glee by Western forces on other countries in Eastern Europe. Indeed, Belarus is now part of the Customs Union with Russia. With open borders and significant financial assistance from its big partner to the east, Belarus has made it clear that it wishes none of the tainted deals to be had with the EU as it attempts further imperial expansion. Of course, Putin is no communist and his plans for expanding Russian influence have more to do with nationalism than any socialist project. But that has not affected the distinctly soviet feel of Belarus.
To be sure, it is that version of authoritarian communism that was needed in the USSR as it struggled to find the right path to communism, a path that no-one had travelled before. That authority was modelled perhaps on the proto-socialist Russian religious groups with their charismatic leaders – Old Believers or Dukhobors or others. It may also have been force of circumstances that generated such authoritarian communism, surrounded by perpetual threats from bourgeois states keen to see the end of communism as a viable alternative. Indeed, Belarus remains surrounded by more than enough forces who wish to crush it, so Lukashenko has continues to invoke the powerful soviet heritage and its leadership model.
For this reason, red stars still abound on government buildings, such as the stations we pass. Often, one encounters hammer-and-sickle relief sculptures on their facades, or perhaps the Belarusian version with sheaves of wheat enveloping the images. Belarus’s own coat of arms features the outline of the country itself, bright rays of the sun and abundant sheaves of wheat. They meet at the top at a red star. The countryside is indeed covered in fields of grain, for the soil is rich and dark. Part of the fabled bread basket of the USSR (along with the Ukraine), Belarus still provides grain to the Russian Federation just across the open border.
Much of the land through we passed is undulating farmland, with the only hills appearing after we cross the border into Latvia. But were we part of a mass exodus from Belarus? One would think so, at least if one reads Western press accounts of the country. A ‘dictator’s regime’, a ‘police state’, economic ‘collapse’ – these and other terms pepper such accounts. For some strange reason, few people are keen to leave the country. Could it be that the reports of the Western media are a little tainted, a payback for Belarus’s rejection of the brutal models imposed on other Eastern European countries? Like the locals, I too was not keen to leave the place.
By next morning, we steamed into Riga, capital of Latvia. What a contrast! Firmly ensconced in the EU, the old city core was one of those Disneyfied affairs and thoroughly alienating. Faux carriages, cobbles, trendy sellers of ‘local’ crafts – these and more were for the tourists who are supposed to flock to the place. Not that they have helped the economy all that much. The ship to Stockholm could leave soon enough. To Latvia I have no desire to return, but to Belarus – absolutely.