Slow Train out of Minsk

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‘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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Revelations of Belarus

Belarus? Is that a real country? Or so I was asked on more than one occasion after a recent visit.

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Some countries are simply off the radar, slipping in between the cracks of larger neighbours. Belarus is one of those places, a land-locked country that you might transit on an overland journey between Russia and Poland. Traditionally part of Russia’s sphere of influence, it was until not so long ago the western border of the USSR. But I was intrigued, for I had heard rumours and whispers that the place was worth some time. So we boarded a slow train from Moscow to Minsk, one of those old, solid affairs that had been constructed during the soviet era. For comfort and decent, sturdy workmanship, it left any train of Western Europe for dead. It gave every sign that it would have many years of service yet.

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As we rocked along at a steady pace, I wondered: would Belarus be in the dishevelled state of so many places in Eastern Europe after 1989? Would there be crumbling facades, falling bricks and abandoned factories? Would there be carts hauled by horses, since fuel cost so much? Would there be rampant unemployment, with people roughing it and begging for morsels? And what about shepherds with flocks of sheep and goats in the re-agriculturalisation that happened in Eastern Europe, as a rough and brutal capitalism was imposed upon them as punishment? In short, would we witness yet more ruinous results of almost 25 years of ‘shock therapy’, wrought with vicious glee by a Western Europe keen to punish the east for daring to entertain communism?

I was to be completely surprised by Belarus at almost every turn.

The first was the border, or rather the lack of one between Russia and Belarus. Given the elaborate and expensive process of obtaining a Belarusian visa – with lengthy contracts, couriers to London (only a few places have embassies), required pre-booking of travel and hotels – I anticipated nothing less than x-rays and internal cavity searches upon arriving at the border. But no, we simply trundled on, with no change in the rolling landscape. I was later to learn that Belarus, under the leadership of the formidable Lukashenko, and Russia had agreed to open borders between the two countries.

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The second surprise was Minsk. In the post-communist era of Eastern Europe, I had become used to run-down towns, where there is a real risk that a brick will fall on your head at any moment. Broken footpaths, peeling paint, cracked and sad rendering on buildings, worn cars – these and more have become so common over the last two decades. To be sure, an occasional shiny new structure rises from the semi-ruins, or perhaps an older structure has been restored, but only through the ill-gotten funds of some oligarch, who had grasped the collectively-owned assets during the business-gang warfare of the 1990s. Not Minsk. Here was a city that had been largely rebuilt after the Second World War, during which it was often at the battle front or military headquarters. Eighty per cent of the city had been destroyed, so much of it was rebuilt when Belarus was a member of the Soviet Union. Above all, the town struck us as very well-maintained indeed. Elegantly simple apartment blocks were tidy and painted, roads newly-paved, public transport efficient and frequent, shops full of goods and people, footpaths swept and smooth. People may not be rich, but they are well-fed, well-dressed, and helpful to an almost embarrassing excess for foreigners who could barely put a sentence together in the language (thanks especially to the two university students, who dropped everything to help us buy train tickets at the last minute). The feel of the place was clean, open, and safe. How could this be? We wondered.

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Third, we were virtually the only foreign travellers in town. To be sure, Hotel Sputnik did a lively trade, with people coming and going. But they were mostly Belarusians, in town for this purpose and that. We encountered one or two Chinese men downstairs at the Hotel Sputnik – they were festooned with cameras and backpacks, and the myriad pockets of their khaki vests were stuffed with every imaginable item, as well as a few beyond one’s imagination. But their time for sight-seeing was soon to pass, for the next day they were met by a couple of official looking people and they went off to do what business was awaiting them. As for us, we had no such official duties, so we explored the city.

And that led to our fourth surprise: the extensive Stalinist architecture. Admittedly, we had heard rumours about these Stalin Baroque structures in Belarus, but we were not prepared for how they determine the nature and feel of the place. Down Nezavisimosti (Independence) Avenue we walked, a wide boulevard along which nearly all that counts may be found. The human sights may have been intriguing enough, with myriad pointy leather shoes, leather jackets, impossibly high heels, tight jeans, and – on some more mature people – the most impressive double-chins. But we were more taken with the architectural sights.

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We stood back to take in the government buildings, spreading wide to the left and right. We craned our necks at the university, with its distinctive tower and clock. We marvelled at the baroque Post Office, at the simple lines of the Concert Hall, and at the classicism of the Trade Union building. Baroque too was the military headquarters and museum, slightly off the boulevard and guarded by a mounted A-34/85 tank – standard issue of the Red Army tank corps during the Great Patriotic War. And we were smitten – we must admit – with the glorious Stalin Baroque of the KGB headquarters. KGB? Yes, in Belarus the national police force is still called the KGB. It had all the features one would expect of Stalin Baroque: a tower at the corner, quality stone, columns, relief sculptures, tiled motifs, and careful attention to detail. I could find no high fences, bristling security cameras, or even menacing guards. Instead, the building faces the main street. One simply walks past the front of the KGB as if it is the most normal thing in the world.

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At the furthest point of our hike was the memorial to the Great Patriotic War (Second Wold War), in which Minsk had suffered so much through playing its pivotal role. In the midst of a traffic island is a pillar with a red star atop it. An eternal flame burns at its base, and pedestals commemorate the great battles of the Red Army in its march westward. On the relief sculptures you find the expected soldiers and civilians, eager to tackle the foe. For me, the highlight of these sculptures was the huge flag held aloft, an image of Lenin imprinted upon as his spirit inspired the troops on their victorious path. They were, after all, defeating fascism.

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This image of Lenin was but the initial taste of the fifth surprise: one soviet symbol after another.

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On the war memorial, you might expect red stars and hammer-and-sickles, or perhaps even on the military museum. Yet we spied them on the post office, on the government offices, on the KGB building, and on metro murals. Were these relics from the soviet era, left on buildings due to architectural integrity and for historical reference? In some cases, you might be able to argue so. But the metro is a recent construction, and the mural at its entrance is full of soviet symbols – hammer-and-sickle, red star, Trotsky’s iron train, busy industry, agricultural plenty, even the CCCP in bold red letters.

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More recent still is the perimeter fence around the construction site for the international ice hockey championships, to be held in Minsk in 2014. Here too is a massive hammer-and-sickle, now inside a red star, and here is the CCCP boldly and loudly proclaimed. Right on the main street, no one can miss them. It was nothing less than old-style soviet propaganda.

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So what is going on in Belarus? Western countries like to describe it as an economic and cultural basket-case, with widespread poverty and rampant inflation. Its president, Lukashenko, has been dubbed ‘Europe’s last dictator’. So Western countries, along with the IMF and the World Bank, try to punish Belarus, using whatever economic and political means at their disposal. Why? From the time he became president in 1994, Lukashenko resisted the capitalist ‘shock therapy’ that destroyed the economies of so many Eastern European countries. They were de-industrialised, re-agriculturalised, and criminals seized land and public assets to become the oligarchs of today. Unemployment skyrocketed, millions died as victims, and millions more left to build lives elsewhere. What better way to drive down wages and conditions in the rest of Europe than flood those countries with cheap labour from the east?

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Not so Lukashenko. He has the balls to resist and block every effort to bring Belarus to heel. Already in 1991, he voted against dissolving the Soviet Union, when he was a member of the Belarus government (in his representative role as head of a collective farm). Soon enough, he became president, and has enjoyed significant, if controversial, popularity since. The result is that today nearly all industry and utilities have stayed in state hands. Rightly suspicion of western European motives, he has looked east for support. Russia, of course, has always seen Belarus as part of its western buffer, so support has been strong, although not without criticism. But Lukashenko openly states a desire to build a Union State, a new version of the USSR.

Is it possible that a socialist country has persisted in Eastern Europe? It seems so, replete with that tried and true tradition of authoritarian communism.

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