Solitary state

Trying to script a future free of crippling forces

In Victory Square in Minsk, stark symbols of Belarusian striving; postwar Stalinist-style architecture braces behind colorfully attractive fashion of modern times.
In Victory Square in Minsk, stark symbols of Belarusian striving; postwar Stalinist-style architecture braces behind colorfully attractive fashion of modern times. (Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / November 18, 2007

MINSK - The theater seems simply to be this: a spare, white room; garbage-bag-covered windows; a single, bare bulb; wooden planks for seats. Thirty-six people sit shoulder to shoulder. Wait. Will the police come through the door?

An actor on the black floor fidgets with a small object - what?

Two months earlier, another performance in this same house by this same troupe, Free Theatre, ended before it began when police arrested actors and audience alike. To get to tonight's show, individuals stood near a bus depot in the October dark, then followed a man with a backpack up one street, down another, behind the house, and in.

The lean-faced actor stoops at center stage, and there is complete and uncertain silence. Then: CRACK!

With the onstage explosion an actress strides in, arms waving, voice bellowing silly scales. She belts national anthem lyrics from Soviet days in a style that is bold and mocking: "WE BELARUSIANS!" She urges her imaginary students: SING!

In this land-locked edge at the geographic center of Europe, expression still battles repression behind borders that defy time.

Neighbors north and west - Latvia, Lithuania, Poland - have joined the European Union, bringing its boundary closer. Even Russia, just east, has collapsed toward capitalism and risen mightily, if not so democratically, again.

Yet Belarus braces beneath the dictatorial rule of President Alexander Lukashenko, who tries to control industry, information, and ideas.

In the makeshift theater, the singer gives way to an actor tapping a raucous melody on a tinny toy piano, and an actress with steel blue eyes holds up a child's worn nightie: memories of kindergarten. This show, titled "Childhood Legends," goes on without police interference, and actors tell personal tales: a father's lament for a suicidal son, a daughter's struggle with a father behind bars.

Such open dialogue and self-examination have not been possible for Belarus, a country of 10 million people that is not even two decades old. Yet on the inside, even with Lukashenko's campaign for conformity, opinions are everywhere.

Standing in a field

When it is sunny, dachas are dreamlike places for boys and girls. Fishing in lakes and rivers for perch and pike. Idling for hours alongside fields thick with wheat. Bike rides.

Seasons change, and the countryside is soaked and somber. Slippery steps lead to the outhouse. Chill wind bends tired tangles of berry bushes. Brown horizons settle beneath mist.

Pavel Lyschonok, a gentle-faced man with a solid step, follows a trail from a farmhouse in Vladychina, a village four hours north of Minsk, through an empty field. At the edge stands a bunker built by Stalin's army 70 years ago. Then, this land was part of the Polack fortification zone on the Soviet Union's border with Poland. Nazi tanks attacked in July 1941.

As Lyschonok climbs on top of the bunker, its iron rods are still bent like broken limbs. Bits of the 3-foot-thick concrete wall crumble at the tug of bare fingers.

A thousand years ago, the nearby city of Polack held regional power within Kievan Rus, a Slavic state covering territory now in Belarus, northern Ukraine, and western Russia. When the larger state broke up, Polack's rulers kept local control.

History plays tricks, though, and a second city, Navapolack, built when Belarus was part of the Soviet Union, still processes oil shipped from Russia. Much of it continues on to Western Europe. What stays, sold by Russia at discounted prices, has helped keep Belarus close to its long-dominating neighbor.

Lyschonok, 49, and retired after 20 years soldiering for the Soviet Union and then Belarus, prefers to talk about his own survival.

The Lukashenko government controls most major enterprises and agriculture under a system of market socialism. When it began to promote rural tourism development by individual land owners, Lyschonok found his chance.

With the help of a steel table saw in a basement cluttered with calipers, horseshoes, and a scythe, he built a cozy cottage for weekenders from Polack on his 2-acre plot. Attached is a sauna he can heat to 240 degrees.

Lyschonok, though, begins each day with an invigorating plunge into a deep tub of water sunk into his patio. In winter, he jumps through a hole cut in the ice. That, he says, is no trick at all:

"There is no stress about it. All you have to do is change your thinking."

Main Street Minsk

The revolutionaries are everywhere, even if hard to see when night falls in the capital, and all is shimmer and shine.

Women in tight, spiked boots rock from offices toward home. Stooped couples wait for minibuses to lurch to the curb. Tattooed teens type in an upscale Internet cafe, just across the square from the national theater, where actors and actresses sit for makeup, just down the street from Izyum, where the moneyed elite begin to dance toward dawn.

Yet they are there, the revolutionaries, even on a Tuesday evening, stoic in stone. Vladimir Lenin, an architect of the Bolshevik Revolution nearly a century ago, stands on a pedestal above a wide square that has an underground luxury shopping mall beneath it. A few blocks down Independence Avenue, a bust captures the face of Felix Dzerzhinsky, a Bolshevik who founded the notorious Cheka secret police and embraced the idea of terrorizing citizens inside the newborn Soviet Union. Dzerzhinsky watches from a shadowed park, just across the street from the KGB, the Belarusian secret service that still goes by its Soviet name.

Lukashenko needs nostalgia to counter new thoughts. He guards old practices, too: imprisoning business and political opponents, keeping independent journalists out of print and off the air, blacklisting artists who perform in support of his opponents, kicking students out of school who don't cheer state ideology.

Just after World War I, a newly formed Belarusian republic fell under Soviet control. Then more than 2 million Belarusians died when World War II fighting flattened Minsk, Brest, and many other cities, and hundreds of villages. Belarus gained independence only with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Lukashenko, a former collective farm director, was elected three years later and has fixed elections and the constitution since. He is called by many, seriously and not, Batka, or Father. His stern, square image - thick mustache, broad shoulders often in a business suit, far less in a hockey or soccer uniform - anchors state news reports.

So revolutionaries live too, muffled if not muted.

At Pechki-Lavochki, a folk restaurant where the youthful crowd is stunningly on display, a sober man takes a seat. His name is Anton, and he has sharp cheeks, dark eyes, and a gaze that absorbs as much as observes. Anton camped in a tent on a central square surrounded by riot police last year to demand democracy during the failed Denim Revolution. He had hope the three times he was arrested. But Anton has lost faith in opposition leaders who have been unable, even with financial support from the United States and the European Union, to overcome Lukashenko.

A promising European March in Minsk on Oct. 14 drew only a few thousand people, for example. But in the weeks before the march, the government jailed opposition organizers.

At 24, Anton is tired. Waitresses shuttle past with potato pancakes that are filling and beer that is cold, but Anton declines a meal. Belarusians, he says, are too comfortable to fight.

Sitting in a village

On the farmhouse wall hangs a certificate with a portrait of Lenin and a quote: "The October Revolution opened a new era in world history."

Beneath it comes praise from the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for Olga Ivanova, honored as "Milk Woman of Collective Farm Vishny" in 1985.

Ivanova's village, Zabary, not more than 10 miles from the Russian border, is nearly gone. Only two houses are occupied, including this by Ivanova, 73.

Her fingers are stiffened from decades of hard work, and her blue eyes take refuge above deeply creased cheeks. But Ivanova still keeps a cow, two pigs, six goats, and chickens. She chops wood, hoes dirt, limps to the well, and steams weekly in the sauna behind the barn.

"A village is a village," she says. "I have lots of cats, but there are still mice."

Beneath the certificate, on a table next to a couch, lie two state newspapers: Banner of Victory, from the nearby town of Liozna, and Viciebsk Worker, from the bigger city next door. A static-screened television blares news and Russian dramas from a state-run station late into the night.

Now, though, the noontime table is full: fried potatoes and fresh tomatoes, flour and potato pancakes, an omelet with eggs from Ivanova's hens. There are mugs of fresh milk from her cow.

When Ivanova was 7, she watched Nazis battle Soviet soldiers and partisan resistance fighters in Zabary. She built small boxes and buried sisters and brothers.

Now she pays $100 or more for a winter's worth of firewood. But the grocery truck passes through Zabary twice a week, and the monthly $150 pensions arrive by the mailman.

"Lukashenko would scratch out eyes for us," Ivanova says. "He's good. We vote for him. All the old people."

And then, about her village and maybe more: "We are the last generation."

Is Lukashenko a hero? He is letting survivors of an exhausted generation grow old amid relics of a familiar life, stark yet sustaining. Elsewhere, the Soviet collapse and subsequent swing to capitalism brought economic shock and suffering. In Belarus, even critics concede the crash has not yet come. Is keeping control - with state farms, for example, even if unprofitable - worth the cost of liberty?

Ivanova's 80-year-old husband, Sergey, says little. He has been nearly deaf for five years, since a bolt of electricity entered the living room and exploded during a summer storm.

"Everything was broken - all the wires," Ivanova says. "But they told us we were lucky."

Side street Minsk

Too comfortable? That has been a key question recently, as Russia has begun to raise the discounted prices it gives Belarus for oil and gas. Lukashenko talks about deals with Iran and Venezuela. Russia plans to charge higher world-market prices for the energy that powers Belarus. Then, perhaps, the economy will collapse, taking Lukashenko with it.

Uncertainty lingers miles from the middle of Minsk, where streets come with cracks and apartment blocks do not have a noble Stalinist flair, but soulless facades.

Near the end of a gray day, shoppers at a covered market speculate about news that the private produce stands will soon be closed.

That does not dampen the enthusiasm of one stout, proud vendor. With black hair bobbed above her blue smock, the woman peddles tomatoes and carrots, onions and cabbage to neighbors she knows, then sings praises for the stability she says Lukashenko brings them.

A young man steps close, and his voice counters firmly.

"We are not going to talk [expletive]," he says. "Cheese. They don't sell any more cheese. Cheese and milk, in the shops. And in the budget, we don't have any reserves, hard currency reserves."

The man, dressed for his desk job at the national art museum, tells the woman he lived two years in Finland. Travel outside the country is not uncommon: There are flights from Minsk to Frankfurt, Paris, Moscow, and Tel Aviv. Trains run to Vilnius, north of Minsk, and Warsaw, west. Internet connections and mobile phones facilitate the exchange.

"What you say is good here is not good," the young man tells the vendor.

Tones tense as they trade stories. He earns $250 a month. She gets a factory pension of $200, and makes $300 more at the market. He is 29, with three daughters. She is 59, with three sons.

She: "One is 37, one 23, one 21. And they all want everything at once. But it doesn't happen that way. You have to work."

He: "I've been working five years, but I have not been able to save any money."


In the hidden house, the Free Theatre show reaches its crescendo. All four actors are onstage, but the star of the scene is a newspaper folded in the shape of a body - torso, two arms, two legs, and a head. It is meant to represent Vika Moroz, a Belarusian orphan. She wanted to remain with her temporary host family in Italy, but was ordered by the Lukashenko government back to the orphanage.

The actors crowd around the newspaper girl, who is seated on a small chair. Each actor grabs a folded limb and gives it life: The girl stands, haltingly, then flies to the back of the room and an imaginary window with sunlight beyond. She strikes at the window but cannot get out. She collapses. Her body breaks apart.

Tom Haines can be reached at

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