Minsk. “How is Belarus different from Australia?” they asked me at the weekly couchsurfing meet up. There were 40 or so people at the event. 5 were foreigners. I feel like a celebrity. They want me to tell them about the rest of the world. What is it like out there? They want to know about my work history. My salary. Our retirement age. My opinion on the refugee crisis. “How is Belarus different from Australia?” Can I think of one way in which they are the same?
We are waiting for the trolley bus home tonight . It was raining, but somehow I didn’t really notice it. Rain seems to fit this city so well. It’s only a pain that the drops stick to my glasses and pick up all the lights. Two buses pull up at the same time. A man runs with a large bag from the second bus towards the first bus. He’s trying to change buses. The first bus is just in front of us. It has closed the doors and starts to move forward, so I wave to the driver to not drive off. It’s a natural response. The man reaches the bus. Doors open. “Thank you.” The bus leaves, the man with the large bag inside. “Sorry,” says Jurek. “This place is starting to affect me. I was just watching the man running.” I suggest that we both write, tonight. I realise I am an outsider here and he feels much too close to home.
“Здравствуйте [Hello]!” I say cheerily to the cashier in the supermarket. “Huh?” She suddenly looks up at me. “Ergh… Здравствуйте .” I repeat sheepishly. “Mm.” She turns away.
We went to the theatre tonight. It was a performance by Belarus Free Theatre, a group that performs secretly in the city. We had to call a phone number to find the meeting point to be taken to the venue. The 3 founders of the group live in exile in London as political refugees. They’ll be arrested if they return to Belarus. The play is a story of a woman’s life. Her husband is kidnapped and killed. The play is dedicated to people lost in ‘enforce disappearances’. They say these are happening around the world: Thailand, India, Iran. We speak with a member of the group after the show, to check if it’s safe for us to write about them on our blog. “Please do.” she replies. She explains they’ve had over 40 different performance spaces in the city. When the police find out where they are, they threaten to take the landlords land and house from them. “It’s an easy choice for the landlord.” smiles the girl. A few years ago the police came to one of the shows and arrested all the actors and audience. “Our international supporters found out about it and it got a lot of attention, so we were released. Now, we realise the more people who know about us, the safer we are.”
It’s actually my second time seeing Belarus Free Theatre. I saw them perform Minsk 2011: A reply to Kathy Acker in Melbourne as part of the Melbourne Festival in 2013. I went with my dad and sister, Beth. Beth had just come back from travelling in eastern Europe, and had a thing for post-soviet countries. Many backpackers do. I heard they call it ‘Red Fever’. People have been asking me what’s so interesting about Soviet history to us. I think it’s because we don’t learn about it at school. Usually, we start to find out about it in museums when we start travelling and we’re shocked that it’s all so recent. Almost our own lifetimes. And it’s hard to believe such things could happen to white people living in Europe. Maybe, when we learn Soviet history, it’s at a time when we’re starting to question our own systems, see the faults of capitalism. And the idea of another place actually running on another system becomes extremely interesting. Though, of course, it all went so very wrong. But then everyone loves a disaster. “What did your sister think of the show?” asked Jurek. I think she thought it was interesting, but we didn’t really talk about it. I think it was a bit hard for us to relate to. We’d never even thought about the events of the show happening in our lives. “What did you think of the show?” asked Jurek. The show was raw and quite brutal. There had been a lot of nudity. I think I was really shocked by it. Shocked that things like this could happen to white people living in Europe.
Sasha, our host, told us he was shocked in 2011. He was shocked that people able to beat women with batons in the public square were living in the same country as him.
Belarus is famed as being Europe’s last dictatorship. This is not true. There was an election 2 days before we entered the country. President Lukashenko won 83% of the votes. Lukashenko has been the president since 1994. Putin has been the president of the Russian Federation since 2000.
Belarus is a flat country. No mountains and no sea. Sasha told me about how it felt going to the sea in his late adolescence, around the time he started hitch-hiking. “The perfect place to go was to the Crimea. Sea and mountains together in one place. Coming all the way from Belarus, coming over the hill and getting that first glimpse of the sea felt amazing. I’m sad that seeing the sea doesn’t make me feel like that anymore.”
My housemate showed me We the tiny house people a few years ago. The idea of people consciously down-sizing their homes, to live with less possessions was really inspiring. I showed the documentary to Jurek, wanting to share this exciting movement with him. I didn’t understand why he wasn’t excited by the idea of people living in smaller spaces.
Since China, we’ve been staying in the same blocks of apartments. China, Mongolia, Across Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus. And I’m promised more in Poland. The stairwells somehow always have the same smell. The smell of the cage of my sisters pet rat. The heavy, double layer door is usually the same. Helps keep the echo of the stairwell out. For a while, it seemed our host always lived on the top floor (5) and there wasn’t an elevator. Here, there’s more floors and an elevator. Inside things vary. Some older, some newer, some renovated, some people have really bad taste. There are a few different sizes, but 1 or 2 rooms is common. 1 room means a kitchen, with a square table, covered with a cloth, and 3 chairs around it, a bathroom, toilet sometimes same room, sometimes different, the bath can often double as the hand basin, and another room. This room is the bedroom by night, lounge room by day. Guess the communists didn’t envision people having much time for ‘lounging’. Jurek told me he didn’t have a bed most of his life. Instead people have cleverly designed sofas that easily transform into beds at night, even with draws to store the blankets and sheets in during the day. It’s hard for me to get my head around the fact that nearly everyone I meet here has grown up living in these apartments, often with brothers and sisters, parents, and grandma too. I grew up on a 1 acre block in the country. Where did these kids play? There’s always a playground visible from out the window, I guess. Feels like a prison exercise yard. The block I’m staying in now was built in 2006. I would have guess 1976. They’re still using the same plans to build them here.
But it must be said, they are in someway majestic.
I now have two dear female friends who live in Minsk. Katya is Ukrainian. Alesia is Belarusian. They both have scars on their throats where their thyroid has been removed. They both suffered thyroid cancer when they were teenagers. “The link’s not proven, but there is an increased percentage of this disease in our countries.” they tell me. While the Chernobyl nuclear plant was located in the Ukraine, the wind blows such that a larger section of Belarus is now off-limits due to dangerously high levels of radiation. I ask if a lot of food grown in Belarus is still irradiated. “Yeah, probably,” they reply. “But it’s the same as China, where they’re exporting to around the world.”
“What have been the biggest things to happen in Australia since the Second World War?” Sasha asks me. I have to think hard. Women liberation movement? Aboriginals recognition as citizens of Australia? Vietnam war? Cyclone Tracey? Sure, things have happened. Stuff has changed. But I can’t help but think that the changes that have happened in the lives of the parents of Jurek, Sasha, Katya and Alesia’s peers are more than a country like Australia might see in a century… But then again, for the parents living in Belarus, perhaps the changes have not been so big.
Be sure to check out our follow-up piece on Minsk, written from the perspective of Jurek, hailing from neighbouring Poland, for whom the complexities, mindsets and ubiquitous blocks, that scar these countries, are far more familiar. And yes, we promise more COLOUR in the next article! So read on here.