Arriving at the Minsk central bus station on an early July 3rd morning presented to us the city much as we would know it for the week of our residency. The exoticism of the outlaying dew-covered country villages, which lined the roads with wet-green gardens attached to aging Soviet cottage-homes and communes, had disappeared and grew into the wide authoritative tarmacs and apartment complex corrals of La Corbusier’s long dead urban dream.
First, the rotting city showed itself on the outskirts. Nightmare buildings with but a few tired windows enclosed the darkness for the residents who had long abandoned the cemented terror, which must have hung in the hallways like the must of an old-world cemetery. Then, pedestrians appeared outside the windows of the bus. Smoking a 6 am cigarette, waiting for the light to change on the barren boulevards on which they floated, looking trapped in themselves beneath resigned, morning facial muscles.
Suddenly, we were within the clean city where what could be seen could have been cast from one authoritative mold, every detail designed with a geometry set, drafted in a room cut off from our world in a language I do not comprehend. If not for the persistence of weeds cracking through the concrete sidewalks like barbarians spilling over the walls, the virgin observer could find no roots planting them in organic reality.
After stealing a few minutes of needed sleep on a bench overlooking the docking and departing buses I was told, upon waking, that a man had been trolling through the station with a box cutter in hand apparently searching for lone luggage to slice open.
Everything seemed to change immediately as the taxi dropped us off at the apartment building where A. lived, and where we would be spending the next few nights. I saw him approach the car with a big smile on his face and remember his arms opening for a hug as the bill was still being settled with the driver. A. led us into the building, making quick conversation in Central European English as we entered yet another post-Soviet entrance way, which all feel like portals, connected in their creative treatments of the aesthetics of hell.
After dropping off our bags and being treated to a cup of tea by A. and his younger brother, K., we almost immediately began talking politics. Today was the national day of independence for Belarus, and A., giving us a sly eye, described the official celebrating that was planned. “There is a parade downtown at 2, but nobody will go to that.” We could go see Lukashenko full nationalist form, if we wanted, but A. did not seem to be enthused and like a proper Belarusian host had for us a day already planned out. First we would walk around downtown, go to the only independent art gallery and café in the city and walk over to the official celebration, then we would go to a favourite bar of his that he was excited to show us, and finally we would “go to make Revolution.”
A clapping demonstration had been planned over the internet for 7pm and A. seemed mildly confident that today was going to be a significant day for the opposition, and for Belarus. He and K. then opened up some YouTube videos of previous demonstrations, which mostly featured police brutality. K., shaking his head, said he thought we should not “go to make Revolution” tonight because it is too dangerous, especially for foreigners.
While another video loaded at the slow speed of Belarusian internet, which we were assured used to be faster before social networking sites became the well-known bane of tyranny, A. & K. told us about January when Lukashenko won yet another rigged election. A. was out of the country at the time, but K. recalled with enthusiasm in his eyes that in the period after the results the political situation had blown open and demonstrators filled the streets in large numbers. He also stressed that he did not know of a single person who openly voted for Lukashenko.
The video comes on – hoards of flag waving opposition supporters are shown demonstrating in the central square in Minsk, which I later saw stands in the shadow of a large statue of Lenin, then the video devolves into confrontations
Though A., and especially K., could hardly be considered active revolutionaries, A.’s post at his computer, viewing what are deemed subversive websites, listening to Radio Evra – which is a Belarus radio service broadcast out of Poland – and managing his own cultural website all fit into an unquestionable contempt for the Lukashenko’s regime, yet he would only disclose this in private.
K. switches on the TV hanging from the corner of their kitchen. A few hours had passed, the parade had started and there was Lukashenko himself in full military garb, hanging over my head. Though preceded by the usual parade of military might, currently he was watching over a very symmetrical display of ‘traditional’ Belarusian dancing taking place on the asphalt below him. Standing next to him was Kolya, his rather famous son who, we are told, in all seriousness once threatened an aid with death at the hands of his father if he disobeyed him.
Now they just stand at the helm of the parade, smiling and laughing over a sparse crowd who seemed rather unenthusiastic about the whole display – likely because anyone who dared to clap in approval, it was broadcasted, would be immediately shoved into a green bus and carted off to prison. K. then complained “our economy is shit, we have big devaluation and Lukashenko spends all our money on a parade for himself” while standing under the TV, pointing at the screen in a state of hateful humour.
Walking through Minsk with A. on Independence Day afternoon was mostly a solemn march. If a fellow pedestrian passed by, which was unusual, there was no sense emanating from their physique that somewhere close-by, in the heart of the city, carnival was under way, casting aside the moments of quotidian worry to fill them with blind national adoration.
Minsk can often feel like a financial district of a North American city – in that any lone pedestrian seems dwarfed by the inhumanity of their surrounding environment, and is compelled to briskly walk towards a bustling, livelier redemption – except here you are surrounded by low-rise architectural wonders, parks plentiful with pre-modern trees and great monuments to a Soviet era yet to be stricken into the past, but no redemption beckons from any direction. This sense of lacking made this walk through ‘town’ seem quite lonely, until finally we reached the official celebration and our loneliness was sealed in time.
A loose arrangement of families slowly but aimfully made their way around a village of ice cream, cold drink and shash
lik stands as a young pubescent boy sang some Belarusian pop song indiscernible to my ears. The crowd stood watching, apart from one another in the remarkably equidistant formation – seemingly indigenous to this city – that appears in front of every busy bus stop and on every metro platform and is only broken in bars and other social spaces where the willful gather and break these invisible bonds.
A. turned to me, saying “well, this is it!” holding up his hands at a very small crowd for the national holiday celebration, which included no one who looked anything like us, and a few conspicuous, lone, large men in black jackets scanning the surfaces of all who looked upon the future of national celebrity. Of course, no one dared to make a sound when the boy finished his final squeal.
The celebration was quickly behind us and we were in the metro, standing with everyone else. All the benches had been removed on orders of Lukashenko
after the bombing at this very metro in March, and now only human saplings sprouted out of the slick marble platform. A. had been explaining his perspective on the bombing as we were walking down the sidewalk. But now, after our bags had been molested by a soldier at the entrance and we stood in the forest of people, we acted as if a great secret had been in the middle of its cathartic disclosure, only to be cut off in mid-sentence by the appearance of a hundred ghosts standing equidistant from one another, all casually listening in, waiting for the rest so they could return and whisper it in the ear of the devil. A. had told me not to speak of ‘The Revolution’ in public, but it was clear that that same rule applied to any conversation with a direction of its own.
Outside of the metro, A. told me he and no one else he knew has any real idea of what happened, and as far as he was concerned speculation is his only available opinion – making the bombing, in his mind, likely an inside job useful for creating fear in an increasingly impoverished and disgruntled population. K. would later tell me that those charged with the bombing could not have carried it out, especially as one would have been 14 when the planning phase of their terror plot allegedly began.
We ended up in a bar ironically (
Walking up into the daylight from the steps of ‘Ploshchad Lenina’ metro station A. turned back and reminded us if anyone stops and questions us, we are buying a ticket to Saint Petersburg. In the square leading to the main train station in Minsk were gathered a nervous, scattered population who could hardly be called a group. One woman leaning on the entrance to the underground stairs was smoking, staring across the square as couplings of large men, each styled in unison with short hair, black jackets, holding a black cell-phone or walky-talky and often wired in with an ear piece, swam back and forth in the open space instructing any of the lonely pedestrians they approached to keep moving. We quickly darted into a shop next to the station to buy time. Everyone inside was looking out the windows in the same direction as the woman, as Russian filled the spaced with hushed tones. We stood in line blindly edging forward, with heads turned towards the distant movement outside.
After fumbling with a wad of quickly depreciating Belorussian rubles and the lighting of a nervous cigarette, we exited the shop towards the movement and A. again told us to be careful and to follow him. Immediately, a plain-clothes KGB began indiscreetly yelling at Z., motioning towards her camera as she tried to snap a few quick pictures. She quickly put it away under her red rain-jacket and briskly walked away, telling me to put mine away as she caught up. I had gone across the square to see what looked like a family, walking together and beginning to clap as if sent the same joyous, and monotonous signal all at once. Clapping has never been of much interest but to a cat caught on a table or the deadening silence of a lack-there-of, but now it was the automatic switch in a circuit to prison, and you could hear it from all around the square.
We took position next to a group of people who looked like journalists and were openly displaying passes and cameras, which in retrospect was a dangerous idea. Pictures later surfaced of KGB discretely pepper-spraying the eyes of journalists, as well as smashing their cameras, arresting them and beating them. Then, a group of these journalists quickly took off across the boulevard and tram lines, cameras in hand, passes waving in the air of anticipation, towards a group of clapping demonstrators that had formed on a sidewalk adjacent to the square – all as police yelled at them from the square which they had abandoned. Now the clapping seemed to be coming from nowhere and everywhere, as people flitted in and out of where the clapping started and stopped in an attempt at anonymity.
As we turned around, looking at all the surrounding movement, A. became nervous and told us we should get out of here, as “it is not safe.” Suddenly, the anxiety sliced open and a man started screaming in Russian, I turned and saw that from the crowd he had been apprehended by a swarm of KGB who grabbed at him, pushed him and tried to drag him in the direction of one of their parked green buses as he resisted, as if his jacket had simply been caught in a thorn bush, and repeatedly screamed (I was later told) “HELP ME!” in desperate, throat burning tones. I also noticed he was more than middle aged, as well as the fear in his eyes as he was taken away.
Pods of dark jacketed thugs continued to lunge together with purpose towards the meaty centers of the demonstrators, pulling out one, than another, person targeted from the mass. As in videos later released, people tried to fight back and help those who were targeted, of course only ending up in the green buses, or ‘catcher vans’ themselves with bloodied faces and bruised limbs.
Finally, A. directed us out of the square, which he said now mostly comprised of KGB instead of protesters, onto the other side of the street by way of one of the subway mall tunnels. On this side it was more cramped, and we walked back and forth across the length of the block, passing closely to rushing bodies A. identified as KGB and also running into many of his friends who were photographing the spectacle, such as Anton whose pictures were broadcast throughout the internet community in Belarus, and eventually landed him in jail. Z. noticed a man she had seen previously at a café connected to the only local gallery of interest. He flashed her a quick peace sign as we moved past, assuaging her suspicions as to which ‘side’ he was on. A. told us again and again to keep moving as surges of people would break and the black jackets ran in. The impossibility of it all ended with us waiting in a bus stop right on the scene, looking back through the glass at the crowd squished up directly on the other side as we and many others pretended, or did, wait for the bus. The bus came, leaving us alone with the guilty. I later saw this bus stop in one of the protest videos on Radio Free Europe/ Radio Freedom, as a young man was beaten in it then thrown into a green bus.
After the surging and receding of the crowd kept up for some time, A. directed us to leave with him and a friend he had met up with – as “there will be no revolution today.” He was quite disappointed that more people did not show up, and as a man who did not display any naïveté throughout our acquaintance, seemed to sincerely believe that today could have led to something significant. Now we sat on a park bench down the street from the demonstration while A. and his friend had a discussion regarding their arrested friends over solemn facial expressions. K. then showed up, meeting us from the main square in town, reporting that nothing had gone too well on his end either. As a green bus lay barely hidden in the distance across the park, every now and then a group of black jackets would appear on a close-by street corner in front of the no-walk signal of a cross-walk and begin clapping, trying to draw out any nearby supporters for a tackling.
That night we went with A. to the dacha of one of his friends. Surrounded by the birch forests of White Russia and nestled on a lake we would paddle around as a group, the dacha would erupt with jubilant beach dancing as the night grew dark, the music grew loud and A. rolled and sucked on cigarette after cigarette as if his soul were pushing out, trying to escape to another world.
Later that week a second protest was planned in similar fashion. On the evening on July 6th, the night known as Kupala in pagan tradition, I walked on my own throughout downtown Minsk to once again witness any clapping demonstrations. This time the mood had changed, as had the location. Instead of in front of the train station the demonstration would be separated into nine sections, the downtown location planned for Oktyabrskaya Ploshad (October Square). But, as I walked through this square, where on a surrounding building, scripted in massive Cyrillic text lorded the phrase: “The Glory of the People Will Last For Eternity,” only KGB or other lone voyeurs followed. Sitting in wait, poorly hidden near the base of this inscription were a fleet of ‘catcher vans’ along with bus-loads of dark-jacketed men drinking non-alcoholic drinks and looking over all who passed by. While trying to sit and wait to see what would happen, one large ape of a man came up to me and signaled that I should keep moving, and seemed doubly interested when I did not respond in Russian.
I would read the next day that demonstrations had taken place across the more suburban areas of Minsk and that another 400+ people were arrested, but that downtown the remaining ranks were assumedly too depleted of the most vocal participants for a large scale protest to occur.
As we had only a week in Minsk, which was largely devoted to searching out political graffiti, this would be the last time we would be able to witness the oppressive measures taken by Lukasheko’s regime against a population denied a host of democratic rights. Fortunately, we did not have to view the horror of seeing anyone else arrested in such an inhuman fashion, but unfortunately the movement appeared to be losing steam in the face of this same inhumanity, and had vacated the all important city-center, for that week at least.
By this point we had begun staying with another host in Minsk, a young couple. The woman told us she worked for a magazine, and in response to the obvious question responded that it was devoted solely to culture and avoided any kind of political comment. Flipping through we found the usual interviews with popular celebrities, fashion tips, and instruction on how to brew your own beer. When we first arrived the man was sitting on the living room floor, desperately searching out a flight for his upcoming vacation, (should it be Greece, Spain, or Croatia?) as he told us that his credit limit would be reduced to $1000 by midnight, as a result of the devastating state of the economy.
While we were there alone the currency devalued from $1 = $6000 (in local conversions, not ‘official’ rates) to roughly 1 = $6500, and was still declining rapidly. When we tried to buy a camera off of K. our transaction was complicated by the fact that PayPal is blocked in Belarus, and acquiring foreign currency is technically illegal, though casually possible. Later, in a cultural presentation made by a group from Belarus at a student exchange event we attended in Prague, they joked that Belarus has the highest number of millionaires in the world – everyone.
Having dinner and beer with K. on our last night in Minsk, the rot of this absurdist authoritarianism revealed itself in his words. He is young, intelligent, well-employed and well-educated (in the sciences of course), and dreams of a move westward to Germany, the only other country he has ever been. After a few beers he began discussing his affinity for the Frankfurt School of Social Thought, and particularly the idea that man has to isolate himself from the numbing, flattening-out of character performed in the social sphere – that is, if individual greatness and anything of any worth is to inherit the earth. Ironically, he held up his beer, toasting the drunkards and pay-check zombies who he derided for just wanting to glide through life, without capturing speech or stealing the present, and whom he blamed for the apathetic flavour of politics in Belarus.
Oddly, it seemed that in some ways he was living within the very social paradigm he lauded, as the popular social sphere in Belarus remained starkly empty of anything real – with the weight of the regime pushing the cream of civil society into tightly wound, hatefully subversive and disciplined dimensions. If anything, it is further West where his concerns about the social sphere play more deeply into the system of control, as individuals are complacently drawn out, cut to shape and repackaged from the inside out. The underground parties, the beacons of culture and creativity amid hellish urban and political spaces, the coordinated planning and execution of extremely dangerous demonstrations, the sacrifices of courageous people – life here seems full of individual greatness and glory.
Not ‘history’ or any kind of inevitable march, but it is this greatness, or discipline, and the resentment Lukashenko is continuously fueling among an often trapped, loosely defined class of people, which is something he and any of his contemporaries should fear.
“Not man or men but the struggling, oppressed class itself is the depository of historical knowledge. […] Social Democracy thought fit to assign to the working class the role of the redeemer of future generations, in this way cutting the sinews of its greatest strength. This training made the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by the image of enslaves ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren.”
– Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History
Kolya Troy Beek