Back in the USSR
I still remember the first time I passed through the fence that once separated our world from the other one, a somnolent spring afternoon on the border between what were then West Germany and Czechoslovakia. Until that day, I never knew how mixed my feelings could be.
I hated what I expected to hate and feared what I expected to fear. There they all were: rolls of barbed wire; border guards crawling over and under the train; the sudden change from clean and modern to old and grimy; smoggy air and wet cobbles; red banners; wobbly, rationed goods in shop windows, the flaccid pork and exhausted vegetables; the wary, closed white faces and stainless steel false teeth; the surveillance and fear of being overheard.
But I liked, or at least appreciated and respected, some of what I saw. Above all were the small but blindingly bright flashes of courage, endurance, and humor amid the oppression. There was something heroic about many of these people, which could not often be said of the upholstered, banal lives we led in the other world.
There was also the way in which poverty and backwardness had not exactly preserved old things, but at least had so far failed to destroy some traces of the past that had been eradicated in my wealthy, ever-modernizing section of the planet. There was an overwhelming sense of place, a knowledge that nowhere else was remotely like this, which was even then increasingly rare in Western Europe. Was all our progress an unmitigated good? Had it destroyed things of value?
And there was a little guilty doubt about our jaunty rhetoric of freedom, justice, and vigilance—a sense of a smelly bargain done in a corner, which had paid for our liberty with their serfdom. I might have crossed a fearsome, jagged, and heavily guarded frontier, in theory the starting line if war ever began between the titanic armies of NATO and the Warsaw Pact. But Western governments recognized that frontier, sent ambassadors to Prague, and accepted the existence of this sadder part of Europe as normal, necessary, and permanent.
I was baffled ever afterward that so few in the West used their freedom to explore the far side. The people over there longed unbearably to experience our lives, but mostly had no hope of doing so. Wasn’t it a duty to experience their lives? Crossing this border changed me, completely and forever.
Now, thanks to the unexpected collapse of the Evil Empire, I am one of a small and highly privileged band of people who saw the Communist world. I am not sure I would believe that it had ever existed, if I had not seen it.
I have often half-seriously thought that the Western powers should have clubbed together to maintain the old East Germany as a theme park so that future generations could see what real socialism was truly like, right down to the soup, the beer, and the plumbing. Many East Germans, as is now clear, would have been surprisingly happy to live in such a place—another undoubted problem that we in the rich world have never bothered to try to understand. We are afraid of examining it because we know too well that our new united planet isn’t as good as it could have been.
Clever movies such as “Good Bye Lenin” and “The Lives of Others” make the former East Germany out to have been better than it really was. But then, that is the way it seems to many former East Germans disappointed and disturbed by the triumphant West.
But perhaps the opportunity to revisit this paradoxical alternative world is not entirely lost. East Germany has now almost entirely disappeared under an avalanche of money. Its last, lingering spirit can be detected only with difficulty in a few small corners of Berlin on a late winter’s afternoon. You may sniff it in the eerie Treptow Park where the Soviet War Memorial still stands, pointedly ignored by those it was meant to overawe. And you can see and hear it in what remains of the colossal wreck of the planned settlement of Halle Neustadt, where much of the city has been deserted and demolished, but a few dogged old Communists still live in their expensively refurbished housing blocks, clinging to the values of Marxist-Leninism until they die.
Travel a few hundred miles further east, though, passing through the latest version of Poland, and you come to the curious, accidental country of Belarus, which might have been invented for educational purposes. Such a place never existed before and probably will not for much longer. It is independent of Russia only as an unintended side effect of the break-up of the USSR at the end of the Gorbachev era. They broke it off and forgot to stick it back on again. Its independence from Moscow lacks conviction. There is in reality no proper border with Russia, whose citizens can slip in and out at will.
But there is certainly still a border with “The West,” a phrase that still means something here. And what a border it is. After nearly a thousand miles of passport-free travel, from the English Channel to Warsaw, the voyager is abruptly required to produce his documents, visa and all, properly stamped, just as in the old days. Trains cannot even cross without having their wheels removed, for long ago the Russian empire adopted a wider gauge to prevent a rail-borne invasion.
Here at Brest on the river Bug—travelers who wish to rest overnight may stay in the Hotel Bug—stands the final frontier of the European Union, an abrupt and total stop to that strange, postmodern empire of deliberately forgotten history, bureaucracy, and subsidy. The EU may dream of one day incorporating Ukraine and even Turkey. But Belarus? I don’t think so. The place is too troublesome and unpredictable. An inhabitant of Brest—provided he was on nobody’s death list and was generally lucky—might have lived in five different countries in one century without so much as moving house.
In this disputed city, just by the Polish frontier, are the ruins of the mighty fortress of Brest Litovsk, built by the tsars, acquired by Pilsudski’s Poland in 1921, taken back by Stalin in his pact with Hitler in 1939, conquered by Hitler in 1941, retaken by Stalin in 1944, the property of an independent Belarus since 1991, and who knows what next?
Brest provided the backdrop to a nightmare joint victory parade by the Red Army and Hitler’s Wehrmacht in the autumn of 1940. Pictures still exist of this queasy event, but there is no sign of any cheering crowd.
Within the smashed walls of its citadel lies the shell of the old White Palace, scene of the “forgotten peace” of Brest Litovsk, the very spot where a petulant Leon Trotsky stormed away from the table as Bolshevik-ruled Russia was humiliated and dismembered by the Kaiser’s ungrateful Germany. An almost identical humiliation, driving Russia back to eerily similar borders, was imposed on Moscow by an equally ungrateful Washington after Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin ended the Cold War.
As for Belarus itself, a flat and defenseless territory on the main invasion route between Paris and Moscow, its fertile soil is watered with blood and full of bones—Russian, Polish, French, German, and, of course, Jewish. No wonder its people are keen on all the tranquility they can get. Currently, they get quite a lot.
This is thanks to the extraordinary Alexander Lukashenko, an inexcusable and increasingly unbalanced tyrant whose enemies often disappear mysteriously, if they are not beaten up by his police or flung into his prisons after travesties of trials. No wonder Belarus has joined Burma, Zimbabwe, and Cuba as a State Department-designated “Outpost of Tyranny,” a classification that has replaced the obsolete “Axis of Evil” since contacts have opened with Pyongyang and Tehran. The main distinction seems to be that you are allowed—but not obliged—to have diplomatic relations with an outpost of tyranny. (Oddly not included in the list is Azerbaijan, a hereditary despotism in many ways similar to Belarus that also has a rough way with opponents but possesses large oil and gas reserves.)
President Lukashenko, once the chief of a collective farm, has recently been seeking help with his image from a variety of British public-relations experts—notably Lord Tim Bell, who once worked for Margaret Thatcher. He has also consulted Patrick Robertson, who once did a little profile-polishing for the late General Pinochet. If these two wizards take on Lukashenko’s account, they may have some difficulties. Back in 1999, two of his principal opponents, Viktor Gonchar and Yuri Zakharenko, vanished from the face of the earth. A journalist, Veronika Cherkasova, who rashly investigated Belarussian arms deals with Iraq, was found dead in her apartment in the capital, Minsk, in October 2004. She had been stabbed at least 40 times. A blade was still stuck in her chest, and bloodstains had been rather pointedly left on her address book. The police tried shamefully to blame members of her family. These are just samples. This is a genuinely frightening place.
Mikhail Marinich, a former colleague of Lukashenko who became an opponent, was absurdly charged with stealing computers from the U.S. embassy in Minsk. Even though the embassy pointed out emphatically that no computers had in fact been stolen, Marinich was crammed into prison. Yuri Bandazhevsky, a scientist who attacked the state’s response to the Chernobyl disaster—much of Belarus was badly contaminated by the explosion—was imprisoned on baseless corruption charges.
Joke elections planned for Sept. 28 have already led to casualties. Several people who dared to stand as independent candidates immediately lost their state-controlled jobs. And a mysterious explosion in the centre of Minsk—the number of dead and injured is unknown—provided the pretext for a general roundup and intimidation of anyone remotely critical.
Belarus still maintains its own KGB, which operates under that name and whose pillared ochre Stalinist headquarters dominates the center of the capital. During my visit, some brave and foolhardy person had scrawled the words “Stop Terror” in blue chalk on the sidewalk in front of the KGB’s neoclassical portico. The clear implication was that the bomb was the work of the state’s own security organs.
Lukashenko himself seems to be entering the stage of megalomania. He has taken to hoisting his four-year-old illegitimate son into the air in front of crowds at hockey games and proclaiming that the innocent, baffled child is his chosen heir. Since he has changed the constitution to make himself in effect president for life, such a North Korean succession is technically possible. Minsk is full of rumors about the doctor who is supposed to be Lukashenko’s mistress. Meanwhile, the president’s neglected wife toils as a milkmaid in rural obscurity.
It is all very simple. Belarus is a bad country, sinister and dangerous, ruled by a man of doubtful sanity. And yet it is also not that simple. Visitors to Minsk, expecting a malodorous dump, find a startlingly clean, sylvan, and well-ordered city, a sort of idealized version of what the Soviet Union would have been like if it had worked. The buses are new. The main roads are smooth. The windows are washed. State-controlled shops are full of goods. The newspapers trumpet the fact that an average monthly salary can now buy three times as many potatoes as it did 13 years ago. (1,425 pounds, since you asked.) Potatoes are perhaps a more reliable measure than the country’s shaky version of the ruble.
There are bowling alleys—something Lee Harvey Oswald greatly missed during his bizarre sojourn here as a worker in a radio factory in the early 1960s. “The work is drab,” he wrote in his diary in 1959, as he sat in his surprisingly grand Minsk apartment block. “The money I get has nowhere to be spent. No nightclubs or bowling alleys, no places of recreation except the trade union dances. I have had enough.” Soon afterward he re-defected to Texas. Thus the history of the world might have been changed by a few balls and skittles.
By contrast with every other ex-Communist capital, Minsk has not in general surrendered to the cult of Western brands. There are only two branches of McDonald’s. There are no billboards for Western cosmetics or clothes, no Starbucks. The gangsterism and boomtown raffishness of Russia are also absent.
In the ornate restaurant of the Hotel Minsk, stately, unruffled staff ponderously serve ice cream and coffee, sometimes long after customers have forgotten what they ordered. In this refreshing shelter from speed and urgency, a trio of musicians plays popular classical works in a continuing effort to raise the cultural standards of the masses. Workers in the banks will helpfully tell you (as they did in Soviet times) to go elsewhere to get a better exchange rate. Work is constantly ceasing for statutory breaks or audits (as it did in Soviet times). The terrifying gales of market capitalism have yet to come roaring down these placid streets. In the central bookshop, regiments of staff, whose equivalents would be unemployed in the West, stand about waiting for custom. Asked to supply a portrait of the president, they roll and wrap it with reverent care. Every retail outlet has its little corner devoted to a portrait of the president, just as Lenin was once honored in Communist times.
Oddly enough, these portraits provide the most undeniable proof that Belarus is a police state. The president’s coiffure is one of those embarrassing ones in which strands of hair are unconvincingly persuaded across a naked dome. In a land with free media, he would long ago have been mocked into abandoning it. Yet there is no personality cult, rather an air of distance and mystery. There are no biographies of Lukashenko to be found anywhere, not even sycophantic ones, and he has yet to pen any grandiose theoretical volume.
In the picturesque countryside, where storks still nest in chimneys, there are neatly modernized small towns—–the fruits of a serious effort to keep people on the land. It is often said that the curse of vodka is far less potent here than in Russia, where village life is generally lived in a haze of alcohol, with all the side effects you would expect. I made a special effort to find and talk to an ordinary citizen where there was little chance of surveillance or an arranged meeting. The smart young woman I found was embarrassingly keen on her country, comparatively prosperous, orderly and happy, and quite undisturbed by the levels of surveillance and the absence of political choice. I am increasingly convinced that she must have somehow been planted on me, but I simply cannot work out how. What, though, if she was genuine?
The strongest impression here is of having slightly sidestepped normal time. Belarus, thanks to the constitutional accident that granted it independence, managed to avoid the dreadful mafia years of Boris Yeltsin. By re-selling cheap gas and oil from Russia at a generous profit—an arrangement that will soon end—it has paid for an old-fashioned subsidized economy and offers a sort of refuge from the frantic globalism that has swallowed everywhere else from the Atlantic to the Urals. Normal people, living real lives, can support or tolerate extremely nasty regimes.
Do not sneer too much at those who do this. Not everyone can be protected by oceans and friendly neighbors from the ancient, abiding horrors of human strife. Those who are not so safe are keener on security than on liberty. Nor can we in the free world, who have lazily and thoughtlessly been cajoled into giving away so much of our own liberty since Sept. 11, 2001, look down on others who never had much liberty to give—especially in light of the near-suicidal bravery of those who dare to oppose Alexander Lukashenko.
As I recently discussed my years in the Evil Empire with an old friend who had been there at the same time, trying to make some sort of sense of it amid all that has happened since, she concluded that it was and continued to be both very confusing and often rather touching. So it remains.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday.