Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Day 27. The City of the Red Star

Gazing out the tinted glass of their tenth storey apartment window, over what appeared as an infinite cemetery of humongous housing blocks, my focus pulled into alertness.
This was it.
Minsk, Belarus: The Iron Curtain’s Final Frontier.

As these impressions washed over me, I stood oblivious to the Russian hooting of my ‘aunty’ beckoning me back for borsch.
Though I soon roused, and scooped up a hearty three courses of curious cuisine (what is ‘buckwheat’ anyhow?).
As I ate, my cousin bundled our belongings together ready to hit the station for the city.
Soon, down in the metro, I stood unmoving, in awe. The image which smashed normality like, well, a hammer, was a beachball-sized slogan of Bolshevik bad times, pillaring over the main platform.
Televisions mounted on either side of it blared synchronous broadcasts: grainy footage of rollerskating couples, laughing children, layered within a montage of men labouring. It was accompanied by the beeping soundtrack of an eighties Atari cartridge. The actor builders were sweating and smiling, apparently from the satisfaction of work ethic.
Get the message? Socialism is Great!
And don’t breathe otherwise.

As a westerner whose childhood was as unrelated to the USSR as iPods to the elderly, it was a stun-gun to the senses. Was anyone believing this guff?
Bewildered, I scanned the starring actors of this wild new movie manifesting around me.
Military musclemen sporting red stars were the first noticeable breed.
But upon closer look: they were just kids! My cousin caught my astonishment.
“Men must go to the military once they finish university, for one year. University starts around age seventeen here, so they have to go in pretty early,” she informed me in her manner of preciseness.
Military culture continues to serve as a major portion of Minsk existence, at least visually. As the bus leads you in to the centre, billboards of anonymous generals, decked out like Christmas trees in baubles and badges of a thousand unknown triumphs, dot the main roads as reminders.

As we waited, darting my eyes further across the platform, an aesthetic anomaly, bar, a happier one, diverted the attention span.
The fairer sex, certainly were. They sauntered around as if, in their border locked and propaganda pasted island, they had absolutely no idea of their own absolute and copious finery.
As if out of Dior’s production line, they flowed in rivers, one by one by the next, and I thought of converting to communism.
“So this is why Lukashenko keeps the doors closed, the sly fox,” I surmised, hit by a bullet of clarity. It made perfect sense!
All these hammers and sickles were constantly going at it hammer and tongs.
Who would want to let the rest of the world in?
We boarded the bus, as I wallowed in my whiplash.

As I began to soak in the magnitude, just the utter difference from life I had always known, looking around I realised how actually everything was really tidy, elegant and grand.
We were approaching the inner sanctum now, the Minsk main centre.
As we rode, my cousin began to dish out in energy some skerricks of everyday life lived under the thumb of a ‘dictator,’ here named President Alexander Lukashenko.

She studied at a university, was free to learn languages, make friends, take trips.
Alexander Lukashenko was not all bad, she told me. While he has spoilt a lot of things, and selfishly bars his own little enclave from being able to join the remainder of modern Europe, he does do his bit for Belarusian present.
“The new communications faculty by the main train station is just one of many new projects,” she enlightened me, pointing towards a glimmering glass shark’s fin of modern architecture.
And the streets were admittedly spotless- later in the evening we even saw a cleanup truck individually torch-lighting, from the passenger seat, every single bin as it mowed along.
Who would have imagined Alexander was an anal retentive? But there it was.
But the weak points of the politics, in her perspective, shining sidewalks aside, soon surfaced.
“Lukashenko does not give his people a say,” she told me, shaking her head in grim acceptance.
Each week, protests take place in different locations around the city, trying to create noise about democracy and fair rights, though demonstrators often face the threat of being imprisoned for it.
“He builds huge new stadiums, and our main railway station is said to be one of the best in Europe. But when it comes to repairing hospitals? I went with a friend of mine to one in an outskirts district, and it looked like out of a horror movie. Walls peeling, insects, the whole thing,” she revealed in her broad Russian accent.

Though the middle of Minsk, where people were watching, did not immediately appear like it was without money.
Strange, considering the massive debt the country was currently weighed underneath.
“The government tells us the economy is good, much money is being earned. But then, why do things cost four times as much as six months ago? They are lying to us,” she shook her head in scepticism.
Belarus encountered an all-encompassing currency crash in May, when their money was devalued by over 50 percent. A kilogram of apples today costs around 12 thousand Belarusian rubles, when before it cost just three or four.
So where had all the money gone?
Standing beneath the skyline, it began to come clear.
“Woah…” was the deepest offering I could muster.
Monoliths weaved out into the distance, huge, freshly painted power-block buildings stretching into the horizon.
As if someone had taken a polaroid of baroque Vienna, enlarged it by ten-fold and slapped it to the brim with hammers and sickles, here would stand the blueprint of inner Minsk.
It was clean, beautiful and not just slightly BIZARRE.
The checklist for travel hopes was now getting close to complete.

It was a soviet memorabilia museum, but alive and buzzing. And not at all downtrodden or cast, (perhaps because the sun was pouring down, unable to be controlled by the vigilant visa restrictions).

For all the civil rights infringements we’ve heard about, though I’m positive they exist, as there is no democracy in some hounds dictatorship, for today, I saw a different side to the city.
The sun glinted off the glasses of the girls strolling past, emersed in chatter with umpteen companions or hugging close to a boyfriends (just don’t mention homosexuality). Families sat about sharing a giggle or a grill-plate, and gangs of apparently sass-loving sailors, wearing berets and singlets, donning sickles and all, commemorating some kind of Air Force holiday, were entertaining themselves with bottles long into the afternoon.
“Is this the everyday fashion in Minsk?” I looked at my cousin, flabbergasted at the sailor’s popeyed styling.

So it was, in short, sunny day anywhere, free world or far away.

We trundled by the cinema, a futuristic movie-set from the 1930s: an idea of what the world could have looked like, if Stalin had won the war.
“Woah,” I repeated my witty commentary.
Another aspect to the city was its adorning paraphernalia.
In the Baltic states of Lithuania and Latvia, the hammer and sickle slogan is banned, and production of it is counted as criminal.
In Poland, the distribution of such symbols can carry a sentence of two years in jail.
In a call for it to be forbidden EU-wide, ministers of these countries composed a letter stating the denial of soviet war crimes, and their underlying connection to this symbol, "should be treated the same way as the denial of the Holocaust. They must be banned by law."
But not in Belarus.
Here, as if paying tribute to the conquering totalitarians of the past, the hammers happily own the awnings of the buildings young and old-
-including above McDonalds.

This trendy capitalistic hotspot of Maccas is a fashionable choice for young Minskians.
“Some people go there every night. It’s always crowded. Don’t ask me why!” my cousin laughed.
Well, if fighting against the system here means chowing upon a cheeseburger, it sounds feasible enough for a fashion to me.

As we strolled onwards, the buildings kept growing bigger, more daunting and dominant. As if we were meant to notice our own insignificance shadowed by some omnipresent power: there lorded the KGB headquarters (dubbed by my cousin, ‘The Residence of Evil’) and the government house. Lukashenko’s residence itself was an icebox version of Buckingham Palace. One lone open window on the top floor wavered slowly on the soft breeze: The President catching some rays? We decided not to dally and find out, as a guard patting his pistol began to eyeball us.
Then, as if the time machine had finally delivered us to the source of the soviet saturation, there he stood.

Superhuman sized, the statue of Lenin brought a look of immense distaste into my cousin’s features. Behind him, the Belarusian parliament balanced her flag of red and green, as storm clouds appeared to circle over it ominously, and singularly, as the rest of the city remained immersed in sunlight.
She scoffed at the scene.
“Nobody likes Lenin,” she spat.
This tourist however, modelled for a photo in shameless excitement.
Though, the situation was tense. We were unsure if political photography was legal, and so were hesitant to take a dozen snaps. Two or three, a glimpse of a guard lingering in the background, four, and we were gone.
Trailing through the digital images later, the fleeting tourist photograph seemed to capture more than just a novelty niche of Europe.
There was something about the greyness which rang out a tone of sorrow, about this buzzing and beautiful city continuing to be trapped behind the bars of bureaucratic and traditional totalitarianism.
Though, all seemed not lost.
T-shirts emblazoning way-out western logos, band names, English taglines were everywhere. It seemed it was a quiet rebellion, or at least, the proof of a population not resigning to living behind the cultural walls this dictator has set up.
“Lukashenko has to die one day,” my cousin shrugged the unwavering truth.

Minsk was a hospitable place, more so than other capitals in the EU which I’ve visited… *cough* Bucharest *cough*…coated, as it was, in flowers and peaceable people.
Untainted by the throngs of western tourists (well, almost) and free of mass migrations from unsavoury sections of Euro society…
Minsk has got it made!
As a grin straddled my gums and these thoughts ran through me like quicksilver, my cousin suddenly gravitated me back down to land.
We were standing outside a Metro station, one with colourful CCCP murals livening its exterior. A cluster of candles dripping wax on black shawls placed over boxes was positioned outside the entrance, nestled between hand-placed crucifixes and icons.
“This is where the bombings happened, in April,” she spoke solemnly, as it had affected her too. “A music teacher from my school was injured. Another boy, from my uni, was badly hurt.”
She was referring to the results of a bomb attack, an explosion of nails and ball bearings, this year, from where fourteen people were killed, and at least two hundred others badly injured.
“It was just so strange, to happen in Minsk. We are such a small country, we can’t harm any others. The only people we could injure are our own,” she said in grief.
Nobody really knows who was behind the bombings. A popular media myth was Lukashenko set it up, to detract attention from political opposition.
Whatever the case, Minsk remains a contradictive city: unburdened from the outside turmoil of what Lukashenko calls “nauseating” democracy, though at times, at war within itself.

Without noticing it, the cloak of night had covered the block surroundings, and we set off back towards her micro-district home.
While trudging the ten kilometres, we wandered into a spectacular marvel of Minsk: electronic strobes emitting from the thousands of bulbs attached to the rhombicuboctahedron (that’s right) shaped national library.
The show danced like manic fireworks, furnishing the back boroughs from its lightning shards.
“Wow,” I mumbled another wisdom. Then wondered: “But how can they afford the electricity?”
My cousin shrugged. This left me with the impression, its best not to ask how or why or what.
In Minsk, the best thing to do was soak in as much as you could, then be on your way: like a sponge at the edge of a mysterious ocean.

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