Why is Belarus so small

Martin Brand

In the winter of 2007 I traveled through Belarus on a grant from the Heinz Schwarzkopf Foundation. The result is a little report about people's lives, their everyday difficulties, their hopes, wishes and fears. The entire text is also available as a PDF or ebook (epub).

Belarus - a trip

Terespol

Itinerary

Belarus - the last dictatorship in Europe! All reports about the small country between Poland and Russia begin with us. Anyone who has something to say about Belarus must write it. It doesn't work without it. Here Europe, haven of peace, freedom and of course human rights - there Belarus, dictatorship and lack of freedom.

I am in the extreme east of this Europe, in Terespol, Poland, the last outpost of the European Union. Shortly behind the small town, the Western Bug flows. In the middle of its riverbed, what we call “Europe” ends and what we commonly call the “east” begins (depending on your point of view, it starts much earlier behind the Elbe or behind the Oder).

The blue-painted Elektritschka is waiting at the station to take me to the other bank of the bow in the city of Brest. Some older women and men get in. They have a lot of luggage with them and heave their large blue and white or red and white checked plastic bags onto the train. There is plenty of space for luggage in the car, which only has a few spartan wooden benches built into it. The people on the train all seem to know each other well. You also regularly drive the route between the Belarusian Brest and the Polish Terespol in order to carry out your small border trade. There are no tourists or other travelers on the train besides me. Most of them cross the border with the big international trains that run from Warsaw or Berlin to Minsk or Moscow, and whose chassis has to be changed to the Russian gauge in Brest. After the Polish border officials and customs officers have gone through the train, the older women begin to hide the goods they brought from Poland in the wagon. They skillfully attach women's stockings and all sorts of other textiles all over the body with adhesive tape. In fact, the fat women hardly notice how much contraband they carry under their clothes. After all the women have well hidden their goods, they discuss the new visa regulations. Nobody knows anything for sure. Just rumors. Someone says that a visa to Poland should cost sixty euros from July, because Poland is joining the Schengen area. So far, the visas for Belarusians have been very cheap and many of the daily cross-border commuters have several passports and visas in order to be able to cross the border several times a day. A woman from the train asked the customs officers, but they could not or would not give her any precise information. “We'll see what's coming,” she says, without any of the small traders actually wanting to imagine what would happen if the visa costs sixty euros. It would be the end of their border traffic, the loss of their daily work.

After a good half an hour's drive, we get off in Brest and everything gathers in a large hall, where the Belarusian customs are now doing their work. So that the customs officers are not too strict, some of the women push small gifts in plastic bags to the customs officers. Unfortunately, I can't see what the woman in front of me has passed the customs officer so inconspicuously across the table, and I don't dare to ask. It seems to be a well-rehearsed game, nobody says a word, no facial expression changes, no change in mood can be noticed. As a tourist, both the border guards and the customs officers let me pass unmolested. They only point out to me the obligation to register with the police within three days.

Now I am in Belarus - a country that many consider to be only part of Russia. Belarus is a small country with ten million inhabitants, located between the gigantic Russian empire in the east and the self-proclaimed world power Europe in the west. What is driving me here? What do i want here? I've been here a couple of times. Still, I hardly know the country. Lately a lot has been said and written about the small country here. But it's always a completely different Belarus than the one I got to know. I want to get away from these discussion events and their speakers, away from these intelligent analyzes of the country, and towards the people and what really moves them. What expectations, hopes and fears do you have towards your western neighbors? Do you associate Europe with freedom, prosperity and the hope for a better future, or is it dominated by fear of an all too radical free market economy, of job losses and the fear of not being able to keep up? For the Belarusians, on the other hand, is Russia the big Slavic brother with whom many of them not only share language, culture and history? Or is the country perceived as a dominant, almost overpowering enemy from the East, who is and has always taken away the right to independence and European development from its small neighbor? Or is there a division of the country into a pro-Russian East and a pro-European West, as is often said of Ukraine? What do the Belarusians think of the attempts by EU-Europe and Russia to gain power and influence over their small country, called integration competition? Does that even interest you? Where do the people of Belarus see their future? Of course, you don't know a country if you just travel to it without living in it, says Tucholsky. But maybe you can at least understand it a little better that way.

Brest

Brest. In its almost 1000-year history, the city was sometimes Russian, sometimes Lithuanian, sometimes Polish, belonged to the Polish-Lithuanian Union, the Tsarist Empire, to the Rzeczpospolita, was part of the Soviet Union since 1939 and was occupied by the Germans for four years during the Second World War. For a good 15 years, Brest has been in the first independent Belarus. The city once became known under its name Brest-Litovsk, when the peace treaty between the Soviet Union and the Central Powers was signed here in March 1918. However, there is not much to see of the city's eventful history. I am walking through the city center with its Soviet gray two-story houses. I can choose between two worlds: poetry or Soviet communism. If I walk the streets from east to west, I meet Adam Mickiewicz, Alexander Pushkin, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Nikolaj Gogol. They all gave their names to name the streets. Only further south, Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police Cheka, sneaks among the great poets. But in order to get from one poet to the next, I inevitably have to use the roads in north-south direction. And so I first meet Lenin in person, who stands on a high pedestal and defies the freezing cold. In front of him his street, then his square, parallel to it the streets of Karl Marx, the Komsomol, the partisans, the cosmonauts, the Soviet border guards, those of any ZK member, those of a hero of the Soviet Union and finally the Soviet street. Who comes up with something like that? Did the esthete and party soldiers quarrel in the city administration and found a compromise in the end? In any case, Soviet Street is the city's pedestrian zone, its promenade, so to speak. However, it is not much more beautiful and inviting than the rest of Brest either. The restoration of the inner city has only just started here. There are hardly any bars and cafes and even fewer inviting ones. Nevertheless, with expert help I find a (probably the only) cozy student bar.

Just outside the center is the city's landmark - the Brest Fortress. Here, where today a monumental memorial towers into the sky, sixty-six years ago the Red Army defended the city's fortresses against the fascists in a heroic battle for a month - at least that's what the history books say. Young Brest historians are now telling a different, unofficial version of the events. Accordingly, the German troops would not have tried to take the fortress by force. When the Germans encountered the first resistance, they simply surrounded the fortress, closed it off from the outside world and held their target practice there. Once chiseled into huge, oversized cinder blocks, the heroic status of the glorious Soviet army is now being cautiously and very tentatively scratched in Belarus. Hopefully, like the Estonians, they won't be putting up SS monuments soon to demonstrate their dislike of anything Soviet / Russian. But you still walk to the fortress via the Chaussee von Marscherow, Hero of the Soviet Union, and leave it via the street in honor of the heroes who once defended the fortress.

Vital will accommodate me in Brest for a few days. We don't know each other yet, but we recognize each other immediately in the waiting room of the train station. He is tall, sturdy, around 30 years old and, with his long, black hair and sunglasses, looks more like an Italian than my idea of ​​a typical Belarusian. His wife Natascha is waiting for us in her apartment not far from the city center. Her big belly reveals that her small family is expecting children soon. Both have studied English and Belarusian philology and should teach in school after completing their training. But the work as a teacher is not very prestigious and badly paid on top of that. Nonetheless, Natascha initially worked as a teacher; after two years, however, she switched to a furniture factory, where she is responsible for communicating with foreign customers with her knowledge of English. Vital, on the other hand, went freelance as a web designer and works from home primarily for American customers, because his work is unbeatably cheap for them.

Vital's biggest dream is to emigrate to Canada soon. It's more than a dream, it's his resolve. His child should grow up there. Canada is a realistic destination because immigration regulations are not very strict there. New Zealand or Ireland would be fine with him too. It is important that it is an English-speaking country so that you don't have to start from scratch with the foreign language. "Belarus will keep going downhill," says Vital. He couldn't live here as he would like, through his work he couldn't offer his family what they need and what he would like to give them. Maybe the two of them have a little more than the average wage of 250 euros a month at their disposal - with prices in the supermarket that are quite similar to ours, I can understand his worries. “But I wouldn't emigrate to Germany or Sweden!” The state interferes far too much in people's lives there. “I need freedom - and that is hindered by the state there with all its regulations.” Natascha, on the other hand, feels at home in Brest. If it were up to her, they would not emigrate anywhere. She was born in Brest, grew up there. She feels comfortable there, has never been very far away. Actually, there is nothing wrong with her in life. But she knows that Vital doesn't stay in Belarus.

Do emigration and patriotism contradict each other? Vital copes with these apparent opposites. He is a passionate patriot of his country, despite his plans to emigrate. I ask him where Belarus belongs, Russia or Europe. He proudly replies: “To no one! We are like Switzerland. ”The small Alpine republic corresponds to his ideal of a state and is a role model for a Belarus as he wishes it to be: small, clear, free, multilingual and, above all, politically independent of its neighbors. The desire not to belong to a great power is no accident. “Empires,” says Vital, “have always strived in their history to become stronger and more powerful and tried to dominate their little neighbors. We Belarusians have felt this enough in the past. ”He means Russia in particular. Although Russian is his colloquial language, he has never felt and will never feel Russian. There is no hatred of anything Russian in his words, but rather pride in being different from that huge empire in language and culture. The Belarusian language and culture have been suppressed for centuries. Therefore, says Vital, a nationalist opposition is necessary in Belarus. "It creates the Belarusians' awareness that they are not just part of Russia, but that they have their own culture, speak their own language." Well, if you can do that well.

Beloveshskaya Pushcha

The minibus from Brest to the Beloveshskaya Pushcha nature reserve takes a good hour. It is the largest coniferous and deciduous forest area in Europe, which is divided by the Belarusian-Polish border. That border creates problems for tourists even before they drive to the small town of Kamjanjuki on the edge of the biosphere reserve. Foreigners and foreigners need a police permit to buy a ticket to the border area. Since I have not yet registered with the local authorities, it makes no sense for me to ask the police for such permission. In order to still be able to travel unhindered to the Beloweschskaya Pushcha, Vital has to buy the ticket for me. Are they afraid that I or someone else will flee Belarus? Or are they even concerned about the security of the EU's external border?

The swamp forests of the Beloveshskaya Pushcha stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Bug until the 13th century. Aurochs and wild horses, bears, wolves and wild boars, reindeer and bison once lived in this thicket. Many of the animals have disappeared from the Pushscha today or have to show themselves to visitors in old, rusted cages and enclosures. Bison were once the kings of this forest area. To this day they are the symbol of Belarus. But the lust for hunting of the princes, kings, tsars and party secretaries or their favorites wiped out these strong, heavy, huge wild cattle. Fifty-two bisons were still in zoos around the world at the end of the First World War. Five of them were brought to the Beloweschskaja Puschtscha from Germany, Poland and Sweden in order to reintroduce the animals. In the meantime, around three hundred bison live in the Belarusian part of the Pushcha, partly in the enclosure, partly in the wild. For a long time I wished to see this animal in person. When the bison with its two meters shoulder height and a ton of weight stands in front of me, I'm glad to have a fine-meshed fence between us.

In 1957, the almost extinct but unrestricted king of Beloveshskaya Pushcha faced powerful competition: Nikita Khrushchev had a government residence built in the small, secluded village of Wiskuli in the center of Beloveshskaya Pushcha. From here he and the party secretaries who followed him hunted through the nature reserve, just like the tsars once did. Where Khrushchev had his domicile built, two streams used to spring from it. Both flowed in different directions. In Wiskuli the merchants had to pull their boats over a small path from one stream to the next in order to be able to continue their journey. And the inhabitants of the village always asked the merchants “Wi s kul‘? ”-“ Where are you from? ”This is how the small town got its name. It is not certain whether the presidents of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine still knew where they were from after a night of sleep when they met in December 1991 in Wiskuli. What is certain, however, is that Messrs. Yeltsin, Shushkevich and Kravchuk dissolved the Soviet Union here in the deep Belarusian forest. The highest party secretaries in the Pushcha fared no differently than the bison - they were almost exterminated. However, tourists cannot visit this place in world history - because today the Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is hunting there.

Orsha

After a fourteen-hour journey in the ice-cold night train, I reach the east of Belarus ‘, Orsha. On the 8th day of September in the year after the birth of Christ in 1514, the 80,000-strong troop of the Russian-Muscovite Grand Duke Vasily III met on the Dnieper near the town of Orsha. on the armed forces of the Polish-Lithuanian army, which were only half the size. Here the Grand Duchy of Moscow attacks the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in order to gain supremacy over the lands of the ancient Kievan Rus, which are part of Lithuania at the time. It is a cruel battle; probably the largest in Europe in the 16th century. The Austrian ambassador to the Russian court Siegmund Freiherr von Herberstein writes in his notes “Moscovia der Hauptstat in Reissen” (Vienna 1557): “Between Orsa and Dobrowna (...) he rindt ain Pach called Cropiwna / the high stettn / the same is vil slain and drowned / that the so vil was located in the pach / that the water river was blocked. ”The Lithuanians won the battle of Orsha through cunning and skill. Their commander Ostrogski triumphantly marched into Vilnius that same year.The Lithuanian victory did not produce long-term success alone. The war between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Grand Duchy of Moscow ended in 1522. Lithuania had to give up up to a third of its East Slavic territories. Some daredevils in Belarus today interpret the Battle of Orsha as saving Belarusian territory from further conquests by the hostile Muscovite army.

Neither this nor any other historical event in this place is mentioned in my travel guide. Even the town of Orsha with its 125,000 inhabitants is missing. Why? The city on the Russian border is the most important railway junction in the country, even more important than Minsk.

Anna is 24 years old. She lives with her mother Tatjana in a spacious three-room apartment on the outskirts of the city. She has not seen her father in years, who lives somewhere on the other side of the country. Growing up as a child without a father seems to be a common phenomenon in the country. Anna used to live with her mother and grandparents in a small wooden house in the middle of the city. When it was demolished in Soviet times to make room for a school, they were assigned their apartment in the prefabricated building. The grandparents now live in the next staircase. Anna studied economics in Minsk. Now she has to complete her free course of study in the export department of the linen combine in Orsha. In Belarus, the education system stipulates that everyone who was allowed to study at state expense will be allocated to state companies and schools after graduation and work there in return for the free study. After two years, the graduates are free to look for a job wherever they want. How good it is for us in Germany! Here the course is (still) really free of charge and without any additional compulsory work. Only unpaid internships accompany or follow you. But who would want to compare that! After her two years, Anna would like to leave the linen combine. Because there, she says, she is dissatisfied and has no chance of advancement. Everything in this small town only works through relationships. And she doesn't have that.

We walk through the city and I begin to understand why Orsha was kept secret in the travel guide. During the Second World War, the city was almost completely destroyed. There is hardly a house from pre-war times. Instead, the city today consists of a few representative Stalin buildings in the center and many rectangular concrete boxes that are used for living. They are gray, unplastered. White snow covers everything all around. But instead of green meadows, brightly colored flowers or wonderfully blue babbling rivers, I suspect that they are just dust, barren concrete surfaces and brown rivulets. But that's just a guess. Anna says that there is no university in Orsha. That's why there is nothing going on here in the evening. There is nowhere to go. And the only cinema in town is cold and uncomfortable in winter. So you often prefer to stay at home. In the market in the middle of the city you can buy everything you need for life. Meat, bread, sunflower seeds, cheese, apples, oranges and bananas, CDs and DVDs, washing powder, vodka and beer, sweets. There is no supermarket here, only small, mostly state-run shops with unfriendly saleswomen. We are also looking in vain for a cozy café. In the only café in town, which is also open on Sunday afternoons, young people drink the vodka they have brought with them and pour themselves beer from their two-liter plastic bottles. You won't be disturbed either, as the waitress doesn't want to come to the guests' tables. There is a blackboard not far from the market. On it hang some photos that show the "heroes of the city". All deserving officials or officers. And all of them unimaginably ugly. The women even more unsightly than the men. Why are so many pretty girls walking the streets all over the country, but only the most grumpy are chosen as heroines? Probably no one will put up a hero plaque for the officials responsible for this year's winter festival. Every year on the last weekend in February, the end of winter is celebrated and spring is welcomed. When we arrive in front of the House of Culture, a stage has been set up there, but there is no program. There are only a few people there. Nobody knows why the festival is not taking place. It can't be because of the temperature, after all, it's now much warmer than in the past few days. Since the local television only broadcasts local news from Monday to Friday, the people in the city are up to date with the knowledge of the day before yesterday. For some reason the Winterfest must have been canceled after the last news broadcast. But nobody noticed.

Anna's mother Tatjana is waiting for us at home. She made strong black tea. The woman in her mid-forties is slim, but energetic and determined. She is a seamstress by trade, but currently without a job. At the kitchen table she verbally explains her view of Belarusian politics to me. “I'm not a friend of his, on the contrary.” He - that is Alexander Lukashenko, President of Belarus. She doesn't pronounce his name, just a grin crosses her face when she speaks of him. Of course she didn't vote for him. But "he" could at least talk interestingly. Not like this professor, Milinkievich, from the so-called opposition. He has no charisma and gives boring lectures. Of course, many things are going badly in the country under Lukashenko. And of course the elections were faked. But where is the alternative to Him? “If someone were there like Sakharov once did” - the Soviet dissident who was exiled in 1980 for protesting the war in Afghanistan - “yes, that would be an alternative. But Milinkievich and the other so-called opposition activists - you don't hear anything from them. They only play the role of the opposition for money from the West. ”Tatjana does not accept my objection that one hears nothing from the opposition because they have no access to the media. "Sakharov couldn't appear on television either."

Before I leave for Vitebsk, I have a little more time to look at the linen combine where Anna works. Since Anna is busy, a young woman from the marketing department shows me the combine. There is work for 6,000 people - in three shifts. Oksana goes with me to factory number 3 in the plant, which is over 70 years old. In the huge hall that we enter, there are large machines in several rows. Standing by them are some women in smocks and headgear, who watch the machines, refill the flax, and carry the spun linen to the next machine. It's warm, humid and loud. Three halls and several work steps later, the flax has become huge, wide strips of fabric that are either processed in the combine into blankets, towels, bed linen or clothing or sold to customers all over the world. It is as if time had stood still in the factory halls at the height of industrial society.

Vitebsk

I don't have much time to let the impressions take effect in the combine, because the trip to Vitebsk doesn't take long. The city is less than eighty kilometers away. Vital's apartment must be there, somewhere in the expanse of the blocks. Ira, with whom I stay in Vitebsk, leads me around the same apartment boxes until we reach our destination. From the outside, the house looks like any other. The metal door can be opened via an electronic code and a dark staircase leads up to the apartment in question. When we enter I am surprised. She is different; very different than expected. Nothing can be seen of the layout of the local flat-paneled quarters. The kitchen and living room are combined into one large, cozy room. Only a bar separates it from the hallway. On the wall, which is painted entirely in red, hangs a picture of Che Guevara; next to it, a poster calls for protest against atomic energy. Belarusian newspapers and flyers lie on the table against the wall. In a second, smaller room, which probably serves as a study, there is a computer, a copier and there are all kinds of papers and flyers on the floor. In the apartment, Ira tells me, young people from Vitebsk meet who want to talk informally, sometimes about the situation in the country, sometimes about everyday problems, who listen to music together, exchange ideas with like-minded people or just relax want. The atmosphere in Vital's apartment is somewhat reminiscent of a small, left-wing youth club that could have been anywhere in Germany. There is a hint of different thinking, contradiction, rebellion in the air. Vital, a sympathetic young, energetic man who immediately attracts attention with his charisma and dark, curled hair, explains to me that this is by no means the refuge of an oppositional movement. “Opposition, he says,“ means in your country that a party is in power and has a specific program; other parties have an alternative program and compete for power. But we don't have an alternative political concept and don't want to fight for power and influence. ”Nonetheless, Vital, whom they all call papa, says they would be pushed into the opposition role just because they talked about the problems in the country, their own idea Maintain Belarusian culture, which differs from the state propagated, and speak Belarusian in everyday life. In fact, this is my first time hearing Belarusian. Contrary to expectations, it is young people who not only state Belarusian as their mother tongue, but also use it in everyday life. But for my sake they switch to Russian. Belarusian is quite similar to Russian and Polish, but I can hardly understand it.

The flyers and posters that are everywhere in the apartment announce the appearance of the Mauzer group. Vital, Ira and their friends invited the still young hard rock band, along with groups from Vitebsk, to the Bomond Club. They sing in Belarusian about the freedom of Belarus ‘, sing against neo-Nazis (“ Hitler kaputt! ”), Sing about the stench in the country. While the young audience dances exuberantly, two grim policemen watch from the back of the hall what is happening. At some point they have enough of the young people, the beer and the noise and leave the club.

Back in Vital's apartment, exhausted, we watch a few films by a group called navinki. One of the films is called Good bye Batska! and is a cartoon based on the film Good bye Lenin. It's a brilliant film that tells about Belarus after the revolution - a fictional revolution. Following the Ukrainian model, the opposition party candidate surprisingly wins the elections with 83 percent of the vote and becomes the new president of Belarus. Democracy and the market economy are moving into the country, the Minsk tractor plant is traded on the stock exchange, and its laid-off workers are engaged in street battles with the police. Neon signs, wrestling, sex and drugs are the new achievements; Holsten, Carlsberg Beer and Finlandia Vodka replace Kryniza and Minskaja Kristall. State propaganda television is also changing at lightning speed. Instead of never ending tributes to the stability in the country and hours of appearances by Alexander Lukashenko, scantily clad women now encourage viewers to call. But Michalowitsch, the loyal party soldier, is not allowed to know anything about any of this. After a binge of drinking he lies in bed and needs strict rest. The truth about the revolution would kill him. So his son fooled him - his mother has since run off to the glorious West - Lukashenko is still president, Belarus is developing steadily and integration with Russia is progressing. It was only when a huge red and white flag was rolled out on the neighboring house that Michalowitsch's picture began to crack. But the brilliant declaration that it was the flag of victory in the Battle of Tannenberg, which the Russians and Belarusians won together, satisfied Mikhalovich for the time being. Back then, in 1410, the two of them together had crushed the NATO invaders. At some point, however, Michalowitsch also learns of the new truth. He endures it - if only in a frenzy. A terrific film that spares no one, neither Lukashenko and his smug system nor the savior of the opposition and their supposed friends from the West.

I met Ira, who left me her room with her parents for the days in Vitebsk, almost two years ago at a summer school in Poland. In the meantime she has finished her studies and now works as a teacher for Belarusian language and literature. The Belarusian language and culture are her great passion: soon she will go to a literature festival in Vilnius and recite her poems there. At present, however, they are plagued by other needs. At school she has to make sure that none of her students go to Minsk on March 25 to demonstrate against the Lukashenko regime. This is what the director of her school prescribes for her, referring to an order from the Ministry of Education. Admittedly, the instructions from her director put Ira in a tricky position, after all she wants to stand on October Square in Minsk on the traditional day of protest of the Belarusian opposition. Her situation is not so tricky because her non-conforming behavior threatens to be summoned and harassed in front of the director or even to lose her job or to be transferred to some village school. Much more - says Ira - scares her that her parents might also suffer from her commitment. The father could be fired from his company, the freelance mother could no longer be given any tasks. The president has his hand over almost all businesses here in the country, says Ira. Nevertheless, she is supported by her parents as best they can. Her mother says she may not be as radical as the young people, but she is still interested in politics. She wants to join the Greens soon. "Those are the only ones I can really identify with."

What is the difference between Belarusians and Russians? It seems that the more similar cultures are to outsiders, the harder their relatives try to convince those outsiders of the oh-so-huge differences between their nations. Ira passionately explains to me that Belarusians are not Russians. They even have a certain aversion to Russia. Not against Russians as such, but against the country, the empire. “The Russians suppressed Belarusian culture for centuries. The mass graves of Kurapaty in particular are deeply anchored in the consciousness of the Belarusians. ”There, not far from Minsk, between 1937 and 1941 around 250,000 people were shot by the Soviet secret police NKVD and buried in the forest. It was not until the late 1980s that archaeologists and historians dug for the victims in the Kurapaty forest. Many thousands of people came at that time and set up crosses. It was the beginning of the Belarusian Popular Front, which fought for Belarus ‘independence. And what does that tell me about the Russians? I can understand that people are proud - as Tatiana told me in Orsha - not to wage wars as a small country like Belarus and not to burn their young men in bloody skirmishes, as Russia has been doing in Chechnya for over a decade. But are Belarusians better than Russians because they once let the NKVD rage and subjugate the Belarusian people (the order may have come from Moscow, but wasn't the Generalissimo himself a Georgian himself?)? Ira and I don't get much closer in our discussion. I bite my tongue, refrain from provoking any further, do not say that Dzerzhinsky, who once created the NKVD's murderous troops, comes from near Minsk. She would certainly have replied that Dzerzhinsky was a Pole. A little later I read in Ryszard Kapuściński's Forays through the Soviet Empire by the Belarusian peasant boy Stepan Garanin. He is head of the Kolyma death camps, thousands of kilometers away at the Pacific end of the Soviet Union. At the same time, perhaps exactly at the same moment, when the NKVD henchmen slaughtered the people in the forest near Kurapaty, this Garanin shot a dozen or even several dozen people a day, laughing and singing happily. Should the survivors of the camps - probably half of them not survived - blame Belarus for their suffering? One would almost like to amuse oneself about the convulsive attempts to classify all the atrocities of mankind against their peers in the card index box of the nations and to wave the right card if necessary. But only almost.

Now, not all people in Belarus treat their neighbors in the east with such reservations as Ira. Julia, who I also met at the summer school in Poland, feels much closer to Russia. In any case closer than to Europe, for which it is so extremely difficult to get a visa; especially as a young, unbound woman. "Russia and Ukraine are the only neighboring countries we can still travel to without a visa," says Julia and a little envies my freedom to travel. Julia is studying Russian literature in her fourth year of study. Later she wants to work as a teacher in the school. Their world is that of Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Lermontov and Tolstoy.That is probably one of the reasons why she does not attach great importance to distinguishing herself from Russians. In addition, she almost always speaks Russian, although - like most people in Belarus - she also speaks Belarusian. If you believe surveys, a good half of all Belarusians use Russian in their everyday dealings. On the other hand, not even every tenth person speaks Belarusian. The others use that language this time or throw both dice mixed up.

Julia is not interested in politics. She learns what is happening in the country from television. And that is terrible and sends the news of praise for the president and the stability in the country. She doesn't read newspapers and she doesn't use the internet either. Not yet, but her father wants to buy a computer soon. I don't know whether it is because of the one-sided information that Julia cannot find anything bad about the leadership in the country. She points out that it is quiet in the country and that progress can be felt, even if it progresses slowly.

Mogilev

The Elektritschka creeps slowly through the white forests, past snow-covered fields. In the meantime, the first rays of sunshine penetrate the receding cloud cover. Our train stops at almost every point that suggests that people live here. After a good five hours on a hard wooden bench, we reach Mogilew. Kristina is waiting for me at the train station. Just yesterday evening I called her to ask about a place to stay for the weekend. To my great pleasure she accepted immediately. Your daughter, who is studying in Krakow, wrote to me that I should just give her parents a call. Fascinating how naturally and uncomplicatedly I am taken in by strangers over and over again.

Kristina, her husband Sergej and their son Wladik live in a new district not far from the city center. Outwardly, it hardly differs from the dormitory cities on the outskirts, as there are probably in every larger city in Belarus. Tall houses stand side by side, unplastered, very narrow, seemingly haphazard, like trees in a natural forest. Everything is gray. The muddy, dirty snow melts and so does the rest of the cloudy appearance. Perhaps I should have come in the summer, as I will always be on the way? Only a few small wooden houses with reasonably fenced front gardens stand in the middle of the concrete giants and break the image of the same gray city. When I step into the apartment from the dark staircase, I am completely surprised. The apartment is bright, modernly furnished, not clogged up to the last corner with any kind of stuff. It seems open, inviting. A large flat-screen TV hangs on the wall in the living room. In Russian, the apartment can be described with one word: evroremont. Evroremont - that means, the apartment has been remodeled according to “European standards”. Whatever these standards are supposed to be, they are visibly different from the Soviet uniform style

Kristina owns her own little fashion store in the city center. Although she has employed a saleswoman, she is still very busy. Her husband Sergej is the dean of the Institute of Food Technology at Mogilev University. It seems as if they lived free from existential fear, not in immeasurable abundance, but nevertheless without concern for their and their children's future. Perhaps it is because we are not talking about power politics, Lukashenko and the opposition, Russia and Europe. Instead, we are discussing the education system, debating the demographic development in Belarus, which is very similar to the German one.

Of course Sergei would show me the city, he says. However, he thinks I will get bored with him. That's why he called one of his students that morning to show me around Mogilev. Sergej says he has chosen a pretty, nice, open-minded girl for me. Her name is Wika and she is already waiting for us in front of the huge Lenin monument. After Sergei introduced us, he charmingly leaves us alone. He actually chose a wonderful city guide for me. In her third year, Wika is studying food technology at the University of Mogilew and also works as a “student assistant”, if you will, by writing seminar papers for her fellow students. We walk through the city and she shows me all kinds of houses, sculptures that are scattered around the city, explains a lot of the history of Mogilev to me, so vividly, almost as if she were a professional city guide. Leninskaya Street is one of the main streets in the city. Right and left are neat, older houses, two or three stories high. Many are newly renovated. A short while ago there were still cars driving along it. Since urban renewal began here, the street has been paved and reserved for pedestrians. It is no longer just used to get home from work as quickly as possible or vice versa; it invites you to linger, to take a walk. Halfway up the street is a square with twelve chairs. They symbolize the circle of the zodiac signs. In the middle sits a figure exploring the sky with a large telescope. It is said that it is lucky to sit quietly on the chair of your zodiac sign for three minutes. Maybe this place looks a little cheesy. Compared to the parallel street of the First May, in which there are a dozen gray tablets that pay homage to some long-forgotten heroes of the Soviet Union, this astrological circle does not seem so bitterly serious.

Wika and I sat down in a cozy café, of which there are actually quite a few here. Why are the Belarusian girls so pretty, much prettier than the Russian women? - I ask myself. A Belarusian once told me that it was because once the Russian women were all raped by the Mongolian horde that terrified Europe hundreds of years ago. Russian blood was mixed with Asian-Mongolian blood. The blood of the Belarusians, on the other hand, was purely of Asian influence. And that's why the girls here shone with grace and beauty - in contrast to the Russian girls. I believed the story straight away and secretly pitied its narrator, whose ancestors must have suffered terribly from the Mongols.

While I am accompanying Wika home, we agree to go to the theater together for the next evening. When I talk to her on the phone that morning, however, she tells me in a hoarse voice that she has become ill and cannot come with me. So I'm bored alone and a little disappointed in the theater. The next day I leave without seeing Wika again. Before that, however, I will visit the city's ethnographic museum. That wouldn't be worth mentioning in itself, but there is an inconspicuous board hanging up on the second floor that piques my interest. It says that at the end of the 19th century in the Mogilev region, almost half of all residents reported Yiddish as their mother tongue. By contrast, only a quarter spoke Belarusian, and only a sixth spoke Russian. I can't help thinking of my conversation with Ira about the Belarusian nation and its relationship with Russia. The fact that predominantly Jews lived here (at least in the Mogilev region) two hundred years ago seems to be largely forgotten when trying to form a nation by Belarus.

Gomel

Gomel is located deep in the south-east of the country. It's barely fifty kilometers to the Russian and Ukrainian borders. It is the second largest city in Belarus, with a good half a million people living here. On the map of the Gomel region there are some places in the south and east in brackets. They are extinct, dead, they no longer exist - because they are in the exclusion zone. Only a good 120 kilometers south of Gomel, Unit IV of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded twenty years ago. There are restricted zones to the northeast and south of Gomel; the city was relatively lucky, it was only slightly contaminated. But the misfortune was a long time ago. Old grandmothers sell apples, pickled tomatoes, jam and mushrooms at the market. Everything that grows in the garden is awakened, consumed or sold. I ask if it is safe to eat the things. "Naturally! After all, we know where to plant and collect. ”Contaminated food seems to be a stranger's concern. And not so long ago President Lukashenko announced that he wanted to build a new nuclear power plant in order to overcome the country's energy dependence on Russia. He speaks of “radiation phobias” and “post-Chernobyl syndrome” - in a country that has suffered like no other from the consequences of the Chernobyl reactor accident. After all, almost a third of the people in the country support him in his plans.

Andrej is waiting for me at the train station. I only called him two days ago, but he spontaneously agreed to accommodate me for a few days. Andrej is in his late twenties. His black, disheveled hair, his three-day beard and his old leather jacket suggest something of his idiosyncrasy. He smells like alcohol. We first go to his local pub in the city center, as Andrej doesn't feel like going home yet. He orders a martini, lights a cigarette and begins to talk. That he was an engineer and worked for a German company in Gomel that made polyester. That the pay was bad, $ 300 a month. That the German managers here believed they were the greatest, had no idea, but pocketed more than ten times the salary. Actually, says Andrej, he is an anarchist. As such, he once went to a youth seminar in Germany, organized by young social democrats. But left politics is not far off in Belarus. He smokes one after the other, always ordering new glasses of martini. His father died two months ago. He was not even sixty years old. Now he lives alone with his mother in a rented apartment on the outskirts of the city. To make matters worse, the two don't get along well. That's why he'd rather stay in the pub; wants to go home late so as not to meet his mother. Last year Andrei was still working in the militia. He was responsible for the security technology, but then they threw him out. Andrej doesn't tell me the story in full, supposedly he should work for the secret service. Of course he refused, he says, with hearty words. Because of that, they would have fired him.

At some point we'll leave and take the minibus to Andrei's apartment. It's not easy to memorize the way from the bus stop through the many blocks to Andrej's apartment. His mother is still at home. She is a small, petite woman. She should have been at work by now. To supplement her small pension, she works at night as a porter in a student dormitory. Andrei doesn't seem to have told her about my visit. They immediately start arguing. In the living room I get the sofa to sleep on. After his mother, Andrej also leaves the apartment. He wants to have a drink with his friend Pascha. What a change of mood. I fall from one world to another completely. Twenty-four hours ago I was sleeping with a seemingly carefree, well-cared for family in Mogilev, whose lives are well-ordered and yet steadily progressing. Now I spend the night in a house where the father died recently, the mother drowns her grief in nightly work and the son gets drunk on alcohol.

The next morning I visit the city and go to the first museum I come across. It is the still young museum for war technology. In the garden of a villa there are old and new tanks, airplanes and helicopters from the Afghanistan campaign, a locomotive and an officer's wagon from the Red Army, rusty combat equipment from the Second World War. Fortunately, the exhibition in the house is closed. What kind of pennies have to sit in the local Ministry of Culture who can't think of a better topic for a museum than to pile up disused military junk in a garden.

The man from the cash register comes to me in the garden to show me the exhibits. He tells me the story of some planes and tanks. They are a relic from the past, from the time of the Soviet Union, which he still seems to mourn a little. “It wasn't all better in the Soviet era, but it was a big, strong country then,” he says. “I don’t give anything to the independence of Belarus, because you can just see how independent we really are. Russia simply increases gas and oil prices or even stops deliveries altogether and Belarusian independence is over. ”He does not want the huge Soviet Union back. Rather, he envisions a strong East Slav state consisting of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. “These countries belong together.” He is not alone in this country with this opinion. Most of the people here are proud of their Belarus, but basically many Ukrainians, Russians and Belarusians consider different groups of the same people.

I spend the rest of the day with Andrej and Pascha. Both work together, both are free today. And they want to celebrate this day off. I meet her in the same pub where I sat with Andrej last night. We don't stay long, instead Andrej and Pascha buy a large 2-liter plastic bottle of beer and we go for a walk in the park. after a while we sit on a bench. In front of us is the frozen Sosh River, with tiny black dots shimmering on its white ice. It is the ice anglers who sit mute and sullen for hours in front of a hole drilled in the ice and wait for a bite. In truth, however, they probably flee from their wives who are sitting at home and enjoy the peace and quiet and sometimes a sip from the bottle. Behind us the Rumyantsew Patskewitsch Palace and the magnificent Peter and Paul Church. We watch the squirrels swing breakneck from one branch to the other and talk about all kinds of senseless things. Both are already well drunk. It gets cold. After a while we set off, Andrej and Pascha sit down again in a pub. I prefer to have a look at the city a little more. In the late afternoon we meet again on a bench in the park. Again senseless conversations, again it's getting cold. Finally we go to a small, cheap bar. With its old-fashioned inventory, it looks more like a canteen from the Soviet era. Fittingly, in the back room, a bit older ladies and gentlemen are blaring old Soviet hits and drinking vodka from white plastic cups. Andrej and Pascha now also order vodka in white plastic cups and complain about their work, which will start again tomorrow. After a long push, they take me home to Andrej and then celebrate the last hours of their day off somewhere in the neighborhood.

Bobruysk

The city of Bobruysk lies halfway between Gomel and the capital Minsk. Her name means beaver town in German. Except for an old fortress, which today serves as barracks for the Belarusian army and cannot be visited by visitors, there is not much to see for tourists. Bobrujsk achieved international fame when the parents of the Klingon Worf were beamed from the earth station Bobrujsk to the Enterprise in the series Spaceship Enterprise - The Next Century.

So what is driving me to Bobruisk? “Off to Bobrujsk, you animal!” - it is said in Russian youth slang when you want to certify someone's complete intellectual inability. It is a new variant of the innumerable Russian swear words that describe the other person's stupidity. The expression arose not so long ago in the vast expanse of the Russian Internet, where users set up a “virtual ghetto No. 101 Bobrujsk for people with a low IQ”, from which there would be no way out, for anyone and never. There are now many sites with the name Bobruysk that make fun of all sorts of things. Bobrujsk stands for a provincial town, for wasteland. It's the Russian form of the Kazakh village from the movie Borat.

But why did Bobruisk of all things get this image? Nobody can really explain it to me. Sure, the name sounds a bit strange in Russian. But are beavers that stupid? The masters of the virtual ghetto refer to the Russian writer and dramaturge Vladimir Sorokin, who was the first to use Bobrujsk as a swear word. Since the city is on my way, I'm going there for a day.

Opposite the train station, a large, colorful beaver is emblazoned on a gray wall and welcomes visitors to Bobrujsk. It is a 20-minute walk to the city center. Until then, Bobrujsk will be very much like other cities that I have seen in the country. But there the big surprise: there is no trace of the dreary province. Bobruisk makes a decent impression, the streets are clean, the sidewalks freshly paved; the houses are stylishly renovated. In the evening the central, recently completely redesigned Leninplatz shines in yellow, green and violet light. Garlands of light hang all around in the trees. The evening lights may seem a bit kitschy and appearances like the Potemkin villages are probably deceptive.Still, I would have imagined a provincial drink so widely celebrated differently.

Perhaps Bobruysk looked very different just a few months ago. The Dashynki festival only took place here in autumn last year. Once a harvest festival, Dashynki has become popular again as a city festival under President Lukashenko. It takes place annually in another small town in Belarus. And on this occasion, this city is being whipped up. It is being cleaned, painted, renovated and built so that the city shines for the festivities. Nevertheless, Bobrujsk has retained its image on the Russian network as the city of the supposedly mentally retarded.

Minsk

Actually, I didn't plan to go to Minsk, I wanted to see the other Belarus, away from the big capital. Besides, I know the city; have visited her often. The only thing I haven't seen yet is the huge new National Library, the building of which glitters in bright colors at night. It is said that it was built with funds from Saddam Hussein. But then it turned out that Wika, a good friend, was in town right now. Since we haven't seen each other for a long time, I go to Minsk without hesitation. It's a very nice weekend, but I won't give any testimony about it here.

Mir-Neswish-Novogrudok.

Mir, Neswish and Novogrudok are three small towns a good hour's drive west of Minsk. During my trip, people recommended me very often to visit these handsome, idyllic places. When I arrive in myself, there is not much of the idyll to be felt. Cloudy, gray clouds rain the already cold day. Here in Mir there is an almost five hundred year old fortified castle, which with its thick walls and five towers stands lost in the landscape. It has been a World Heritage Site since 2000 and is being restored with funds from UNESCO. We have such castles in abundance. In Belarus, however, it is the only completely preserved fortified castle and therefore must be visited by tourists.

There is not much more to be seen in Me than the fortified castle. So after just under two hours I take the bus to nearby Neswish. There is a castle there too. The glossy pictures of my travel guide show a royal, autumnal castle park with several larger and smaller ponds and a handsome, well-kept castle. However, I don't see any of this in Nezwish. “You know that there was a fire in the castle recently?” Asks the cashier at the entrance to the park, just as if I should turn around again. I wade over the muddy, rain-soaked park paths past the memorial for those who fell in the war and some ice anglers to the castle. It bears little resemblance to my pictures. It stands dilapidated on a hill, the facade half crumbled, the roof only poorly repaired. It is hard to imagine that a fire would have caused all of this. Disappointed, I go to the hotel, where an order from the President worsens my mood even further. In any case, the lady at the reception referred to an ukase from President Lukashenko to explain to me why different prices apply in state hotels for Belarusians, Russians and foreigners from the West. Since I have no other choice - as she hurls at me in an unfriendly tone - I take one of the smelly rooms for four times the normal price and spend the rest of the day in front of the TV. The same arrangement seems to exist for museums. But I don't have to show my ID there and, with a little bit of luck and taciturnity, I won't immediately be noticed as a foreigner.

The next morning I drive a rickety bus north to Nowogrudok for a good two hours. Wika's father gave me the phone number of his friend who lives there and has agreed to show me the town. Volodya, a small, thin man, greets me at the bus station. First I park my backpack in the hotel, then we walk through the city, which is drowning in thick fog. You can hardly look from one side of the street to the other. "Novogrudok is the highest city in Belarus," says Volodya. With a mischievous smile, he adds: “It rises three hundred meters above sea level.” There are also two major sights in Nowogrudok: One towers high above the city on a hill. It is the remains of the old castle that shimmer eerily in the fog and are now the city's landmarks. Only the ruins of two towers are reminiscent of the fortress, which was burned down by Swedish conquerors three hundred years ago. The second attraction is not far from the former fortification: the parents' house of the Polish national poet Adam Mickiewicz. He is considered to be the founder of Polish Romanticism and is about as respected in Poland as Goethe is in Germany. Volodja shows me some churches, Orthodox and Catholic, there is also a small mosque. From religion we will soon come to politics. "People complain a lot about Lukashenko," says Volodya. “But if you have to decide at the ballot box, then you put your brains together and know how to weigh between the advantages and disadvantages of President Lukashenko. And despite all the justified criticism - the advantages outweigh the odds. ”I counter the criticism of the West against Lukashenko. Volodya shakes his head with a smile and says: "If he were to privatize all the companies - as the Russians did - then Lukashenko would suddenly be the greatest democrat in the West too."

In the evening I sit in the café of my hotel. Loud English-language pop music booms from the radio. At the next table there is a group of five young girls, at the table next to them two men, at the table opposite me are two boys and a girl - not 20 years old - and at the table diagonally opposite sit two young girls. It might be a cliché, but there is actually a bottle or carafe of vodka on every table in the café. In addition, juice, cola or beer, depending on your taste. I don't stay seated for long because my bus to Grodno leaves early tomorrow and I want to visit the Mickiewicz Museum.

Grodno

Grodno is the last stop on my trip. For the first time on this trip, the warm spring sun is shining. There is no longer any gray, dark snow to be seen, instead the parks and meadows of the city appear in strong green. I have an appointment with Masha at the train station. Mascha is a happy, lively, pretty girl. She is just finishing her business studies and is looking for a more or less well-paid job somewhere in the private sector. She has no desire for stubborn state-owned companies. Before we look for a hotel and stroll through the city, Mascha suggests leaving my big backpack with her grandparents, who live right next to the train station. However, I should try to avoid starting any political conversation with her grandpa. Namely, he is an incorrigible supporter of Lukashenko and Mascha does not feel like long discussions, because she doesn’t even care about big politics.

I heard a lot about Grodno on the way, but when I get to town I am surprised. Old, not very tall houses stand in the city center, surrounded by small, lively streets that give Grodno a friendly face. It just seems as if the city was the only one in Belarus to have been spared a little from the war. Two castles are enthroned high up on the banks of the Memel. From them you have a wonderful view over the river and the landscape behind the city. The border with Poland runs less than twenty kilometers west of here, and Lithuania begins not much further north. Although you can almost look over it, Masha has never been to Poland. She used to go to Vilnius from time to time, but since you needed a visa to travel, she has preferred to go to Ukraine.

It's time to go home. I am wisely at the station an hour before my train to Poland departs. A long line has already formed in front of customs and border clearance. I am still a bit lost in the station hall when a young, personable-looking man comes up to me. He asks if I could take cigarettes across the border for him. Since I don't have any cigarettes myself, I agree to put a carton in my backpack. In return he promises to reserve a place for me in the front car so that I can pass through Polish customs quickly and get my connecting train to Białystok. I leave my things with him and his friends to spend the last of my money in the shop next to the train station. Then I join the long line in front of the Belarusian passport control. In the duty-free area, almost all passengers buy cigarettes, which they then sell on the other side of the border. I also get my pole plugged in. Then we all wait for it to go on somehow. Suddenly the doors to the platform open. Everyone rushes to the train at an indescribable speed to get a seat in the front wagons. Half-heartedly I push along and consequently end up in one of the rear wagons. In the turmoil I lose sight of my cigarette smuggler, which is not bad, after all, I have his cigarettes and at some point he will be looking for me. On the train, the passengers - almost all of them drive across the border to trade - immediately begin to carefully open their cigarette cartons. They use adhesive tape to connect the cigarette packs into handy, compact packets and then hide them under their clothes. You carefully fold the packaging of the bars and place them under the soles of your shoes. Probably after the Polish customs control they put the pole back together and sell it. Next to me is a man about forty years old with a beret under which he has hidden a pack or two of cigarettes. He takes a screwdriver out of his jacket pocket and begins to unscrew the lining of the train over his head. He then sticks a few cartons of cigarettes into the cavities behind the panel. I can't watch the hustle and bustle for a long time, because my small trader has found me in the meantime and takes me into one of the front cars, where he has reserved a seat for me.

Andrei and his girlfriend are sitting next to me. Both study in Grodno and earn their pocket money by smuggling cigarettes. “This is our scholarship,” says Andrej with a laugh. Although the train is packed with people smuggling a few cigarettes across the border, I doubt whether they will earn anything from it. A trip there and back costs around 3.50 euros. A carton of cigarettes can be bought in Belarus for four euros and sold again in Poland for eight euros. If one assumes that they smuggle another pole in addition to the permitted one and take some other goods back to Grodno on the way back, then they earn about ten euros per trip. To do this, they sit on the train for three to four hours. Andrej and the others in the compartment assure me that it is worth it. You have to know, after all, Andrei's girlfriend is studying economics and he himself is studying law, as he says with a broad grin while he hides the cigarette packets on his body. His friend has meanwhile spread a whole pile of goods under her blouse, jeans and boots. The customs officers would search them, Andrej says while we examine his girlfriend from all sides to see if the boxes are not noticeable. “The Poles will not scan a pretty young girl that thoroughly.” Her fear of being caught is low. "The worst that can happen is that they confiscate the cigarettes," says Andrej.

Some on the train travel the route three to four times a week, some even twice a day. A man shows me his two valid passports with countless stamps on them. At home he has more of it, he says with a laugh. Meanwhile, my small trader tries to get me more packs of cigarettes. As a tourist with a German passport, I wouldn't be searched anyway. He's right. I pass the customs control without any problems. My small trader is already waiting next to the train station, who apparently passed the customs control even faster. Unobtrusively I hand him his cigarettes. Suddenly he speaks Polish to me, even though we were talking in Russian the whole time. As if it were natural to change languages ​​when you cross the border.

Europe has me again! What is still missing is good advice to the Belarusians. All reports about Belarus end like this with us. They have to be long and always outdo each other. But I have no advice. I can only say one thing in the end: thank you. Thanks to all those people who made my journey through a wonderful country possible for me with their help, which was not taken for granted. I thank Vital, Natascha, Anna, Tatjana, Shenja, Ira and their parents, Julia, Nadja, Wika, Sergej, Kristina, Wika, Andrej and his mother, Wika, Polina and their parents, Volodja, Mascha and all the many other people who helped me in Belarus and, last but not least, the Heinz Schwarzkopf Foundation for their support.


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