[I know I’ve been dreadful about posting about Belarus, and unfortunately even this isn’t going to be a conclusive report of our travels there. It’s more a collection of Belarus-related thoughts that have seized me, as a sort of atmospheric prelude to the detailed stuff that I might, one day, get around to posting.]
The whole point of travelling overland is to witness the joy of seeing landscapes, both geographical and cultural, blend into one another gradually, of crossing a political border and having a brief, anarchic moment of delight at the thought that a nation is a fiction! We’ve integrated this feeling so deeply into European immigration policy that you can genuinely not notice when travelling from one EU nation to another; if you’re not looking at the right side of the road, you’ve missed that little blue sign that tells you that you should probably start speaking another language now.
So it’s quite a shock, travelling overland, when you cross between two countries with radically different histories and notice the abrupt and total reality shift. In Belarus, the political system is physically evident, not in a propagandistic way – although that’s also there – but environmentally and geologically. As soon as you’re across the Lithuanian border – before you even reach the Belarussian border post – the countryside screams ‘LUKASHENKISTAN’. There are enormous areas of virgin forest, like the ones which used to cover all of North-east Europe. Nothing is tended to or cut back. I don’t think I saw more than 10 houses during the first hour of our trip towards Minsk (although I’m fairly sure we passed a collective farm).
Actually, the border isn’t when things change. As soon as we got on the train in Vilnius Lithuania disappeared. Everything was in Russian. There’s something peculiar about speaking to Russians (and, by extension, Belarussians) in Russian. If you’re talking to Georgians, Armenians, or any other non-Russian ethnicity whose members are generally familiar with Russian, they give you this somewhat amused “Yeah, it’s a silly language, isn’t it?” expression. Then you make a mistake, your interlocutor giggles, and you spend the rest of the conversation bonding over your mutually dreadful grasp of the language.
Not so the Russians. Unlike Hungarians, Lithuanians, Georgians, or speakers of other lesser-known languages (heck, most people in the West probably aren’t aware that Georgian even exists!), Russians, as speakers of one of the world’s major languages, expect you to be able to converse with them in Russian. If you can’t, you’re simply not worth their time. This is particularly true in Belarus, where the government is perpetually suspicious towards foreigners – not to the degree of Hoxha’s Albania, but enough to motivate them to mandate that you have a seven-page letter of introduction before you can apply for a visa – and the population’s only recent experience of visitors to their country is the Nazi invasion in 1941.
Russian, generally, is not a language in which people will goad you into expressing yourself – you are either perfect or incompetent. It’s not a language to learn if you want native speakers to say “Oh my goodness, you speak [language] better than I do!” The Arabs are greatly prone to this – although if they’re talking about Standard Arabic that’s usually true.
This is, of course, deeply unfair. I suspect that the Russians are simply taciturn and reserved in public, much like the British. Any visitor with a command of English to match my Russian would probably find only a slightly better reception than I did.
To make Minsk, take any Eastern European city, obliterate almost all of it (several dozen times), let the Soviets rebuild it, then forget to take away the memorabilia afterwards. Lukashenko’s propaganda consists of emphasising that the government is a continuation of Soviet politics (Belarus had a State Soviet for three years after the collapse of the USSR), with little tweaks to make it better. No other nation has so whole-heartedly embraced the widespread nostalgia that exists in ex-Soviet states – which is perhaps understandable given that most of them existed in a condition of imperial domination. The crux of Belarussian identity, as served by Lukashenko, is the Nazi invasion during the Second World War, when the entire country was occupied and obliterated by Germany and roughly one third of the population died. Emphasising that horrific section of history was very effective during Soviet times at making people look at all that had been sacrificed for the sake of the state, thereby guilting them into supporting it. And the strategy continues.
For years – ever since 1994, in fact – Lukashenka has managed an incredible balancing act whereby he alternately cosies up to Russia or Europe in order to panic the other into giving him money. During the late 90s, the pro-Russia periods coincided with wild plans to absorb Belarus into the Federation entirely. During the pro-EU early 2000s, when Putin stormed in and tried to discipline him, Lukashenka released political prisoners and made endless promises about free elections. None of it, of course, happened.
But now Belarus is in a bad way. Since the 2010 elections – and all that resulted from them in protests and crackdowns – the West appears to have ditched the idea of trying to lull Lukashenka away from Russia. This in turn has sent him running into Putin’s arms. Last year the ruble suffered two collapses when the country completely ran out of foreign currency reserves; it’s now worth 13,000 to the pound. This is great for us because it’s cheap and it gives us a ‘fun fact’ to relate when we get back, but for the Belarussians it’s dire. You only had to see the look the woman at the exchange counter gave me when I offered her Euros to understand how financially desperate Belarus is. Luka has nowhere else to go. All his previous strategic dithering to persuade the Russians to give him money and favourable deals has come to an end. Let’s hope he gets kicked out before unification becomes the only sensible option.