There is absolutely no reason to go to Borisov. It is the Guildford of Belarus: about an hour from the capital, has a nice cathedral, but it has nothing else to recommend it. It is plainly not a tourist destination; even the normally unflappable lady at the train station looked a little perplexed when we asked for tickets there. It appears in precisely zero guide books. This is exactly why we wanted to go – to get a glimpse of real Belarus.
It all sounds like the most dreadful clichéd pretension. But this is not ‘off-the-beaten-path’ mania. In a place like Belarus, where things are tightly controlled, the gap between life in Minsk or Brest and life in a more distant, unimportant part of the country is far bigger. In somewhere like Western Europe, you go “off the beaten path” in order to escape other visitors. In Belarus you do it to escape the official version of events. After all, if you’re in Minsk and someone tells you that Belarus is prosperous, you’ve really very little rhetorical ammunition (other than the absurd exchange rate) to argue back with – you’re in a large city with efficient public transport, no visible homeless people, immaculate streets, well-kept parks, MacDonalds, TGI Friday’s, Planet Sushi, Coca-Cola, numerous cafés and restaurants with English menus, and an evident if slightly disturbing pride in its history. It seems like a luxurious existence. To get another angle you need to catch the official machine off its guard and go somewhere unexpected where the control is clearer. In order to escape the government, you must run into its arms.
The journey to Borisov (Belarussian: Barysaw), which took an hour in a sparkling new local train with voice announcements and expensive screens showing you how long it was until the next destination, cost 7800 rubles (60p). When we arrived, we bought our return tickets for later that afternoon and left. Our plan was to walk several miles through the town to the cathedral, which would enable use to get a good view of it, then catch the bus back. The first thing we saw, in the middle of the square in front of the station, was a Communist crest commemorating Borisov’s role in the ‘Great Patriotic War’ (left). Clearly these memorials are as numerous as they are in the UK. We set off up Revolution prospekt, past several dilapidated buildings labelled “Motherland”, the Children’s Park, complete with Soviet crest, and numerous pharmacies and corner shops. Then things got stranger.
There are three rules in Belarus which can be applied to shops or institutions in order to measure the level of state ownership of the economy (about 85%). The first is to see how many institutions or companies beginning with Bel- you can count in ten minutes. It’s amusing to reflect that 10 years ago most things which are now called Bel-something were called Luk-something, in honour of the President himself. Among the state-owned companies are the telephone company, Beltelekom; the drinks company, Belnapit, which manufactures Bela-Kola; and the state alcohol company Belalko.
The second rule is abbreviations. I’ve already mentioned the Soviet-style abbreviation of the Minsk Tractor Factory, MinTrakZav. As Borisov is in Minsk oblast, most local government institutions begin with MinAbl (Belarussian for Minsk oblast). The busses are run by the Minsk Oblast Automatic Transport Company, MinAblAutaTrans, the newspaper stands are all branches of MinAblSayuzDruk, and even the Borisov Bread Factory is graced with the (Russian) legend “BorisovKhlebProm”.
The third type of shop you find in cities like Borisov where a tourist would never be expected to turn up is named after its function: “Bread” (left); “Milk”; “Fruit”. Many are simply called Продукты, Products, which is clear if not actually helpful. This isn’t just for shops, either. On Revolution prospekt there was a restaurant and cafe. This was abundantly clear because the building (which could have been a 1960s office block in England) said on it РЭСТОРАН and КАФЭ (left). No name, no frills, not even any colour other than grey. The only thing I found in Borisov with a name was the Victory Cinema (left) next to the cathedral in the old city, which I strongly suspect only showed cabaret and pornography.
In any case, all three of these sorts of establishment were much in evidence during our walk around Borisov and by the time we had reached the main square, it was clear that somewhere back on Revolution prospek there had been a wormhole and we were actually in the Soviet Union, sometime around the late Brezhnev era. The main square was fairly unremarkable, propaganda-wise: two scrolled posters about the wonder of the Belarussian nation and just one standard-issue statue of Lenin.
Further down the road, we came across the Sports Centre (left), and a bit more mind-bending of the slogans-on-roofs variety, this time “Physiculture and sports for every family”. Apparently physiculture is a real thing in the ex-Soviet states, which perhaps explains the existence of the ‘Belarussian Socialist Sporting Party’. Next came the Borisov Bread Factory, painted in white and on a hill overlooking the main highway. On the hill were the words “Bread for everyone”, stuck like a malevolent Hollywood sign over the passing traffic. Beyond the highway, the road sloped downwards into the forest, where we came across a very odd and thoroughly new church (left) made of concrete bricks with a roof whose sheen wouldn’t have been out of place on a holographic Pokémon card. We inspected it and wandered through the woods to the river.
After we crossed the river (left) on an absurdly high bridge, giving us excellent views of the city, the marshlands stretching out to the north-west, and the aggregate factory (below left). We crossed into the older, more residential part of town and the propaganda slowed considerably. The beautiful, blue-domed cathedral (Wikipedia photo) which had theoretically been our single touristy reason for visiting Borisov was closed for renovations (my photo), leaving a slightly bitter feeling as we got on the bus back to the train station.
The impression I came away with was of a highly insidious style of control which had rejected massive posters of Lukashenko as rather too blatant, instead opting for a subtler approach. The lack of a political philosophy behind Lukashenko is, I think, another main factor. Apart from the notion of Belarussian independence and self-reliance and vague nostalgia for some aspects of the Soviet lifestyle, there isn’t an ideology perpetuating Lukashenko’s rule. He didn’t come to power as the leader of a political group as the Ba’thists and Communists did, nor does he have the intellectual capacity to create his own direction, like Gaddafi’s Third Way. If there are no proper political parties (all but 7 of the 110 MPs are independent, as is Lukashenko) and the state owns nearly everything, the government is unlikely to overload on propaganda. It simply doesn’t need to; people will keep themselves in line. Hopefully Lukashenko will manage to keep the economy together long enough to be overthrown without running to Putin, because if Belarus is subsumed by Russia the country will be going down a very dark road indeed.
(all photos are taken by me, Duncan Wane; copyright 2012)