A Chip off the Old Bloc
Minsk, the austere capital of Belarus and a former Soviet satellite, harbors Beatles cover bands, bookish bohemians feasting on salo and vodka, and the curious legacy of Lee Harvey Oswald.
John Lennon was late. He’ll arrive in about an hour, George Harrison told me, snapping his cell phone shut. So, along with Ringo, sitting with a bongo drum between his legs, and Paul McCartney, plucking away at his bass, the band would start without him.
I had met “George Harrison,” whose real name is Ivan, the day before when a Minsk-based friend of a friend, whose name is also Ivan, drove me out to the countryside for a bucolic Belarusian afternoon of barbecuing and beer drinking. In the company of a half-dozen shaggy-haired hipsters in their 20s, as large pieces of pork cooked on the grill, Ivan and I had nursed oversize bottles of Alivaria, the local brew, and watched water-skiers cruise by on the wide Ptich River. That’s when George Harrison had a lightbulb moment: Since I wouldn’t be in town to see the band’s next gig, they should stage a private concert for me.
And so there I was, a day later, sitting in the drab living room of a small apartment on the outskirts of Minsk, the capital of Belarus, a landlocked country wedged between Poland and Russia, watching a Beatles tribute band called the Apples. The L-shaped couch was crammed with the band’s friends. On the coffee table, half-liter bottles of vodka framed plates of zakuski, or vodka snacks—sausage, tomato slices, cheese, black bread, and more sausage. The landscape outside the large picture window was spiked with tall gray, uniform panelky, or “commie condos,” as they’re sometimes irreverently called. When the band busted into “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” the irony of the moment was so thick I had to sit back and close my eyes, lest I spontaneously combust.
After all, I pretty much was back in the U.S.S.R.
At least it really felt like it at times during my stay in Minsk. Much of the impression is due to the architecture: This city of nearly 2 million people was rebuilt from the rubble of World War II as a shining example of Stalinist city planning. In addition, it is still sculpted with grandiose neo-classic buildings, wide city-center avenues suitable for victory parades, and expansive pedestrian walkways.
Minsk is also one of the few places in Europe where the statues of Soviet heroes have not been buried. Columns topped with red Soviet stars, faded over time, still sit at the center of city plazas and squares; you can still stand on the seemingly anachronistic intersection of Marx and Engels; and pro-government slogans, in the form of large block letters stretched across rooftops, still force-feed ideology to the populace. The country even has a mustachioed strongman president, Alexander Lukashenko, who runs the place. (More on him later.)
And if that wasn’t enough to send me straight to the Belarusian consulate to apply for a long-term visa, there was this bizarre nugget of historical minutiae: For two and a half years in the early 1960s, Lee Harvey Oswald—one of the most mysterious Americans of the 20th century and the alleged assassin of John F. Kennedy—called Minsk home.
How is Oswald remembered here, I wondered, and what trace of his Cold War–era residence did he leave behind? Also, how did it come to pass that while many of Belarus’s Soviet comrades have consciously broken with their past, Minsk stalled at the starting block, the capital of a country lost in time and space, still partying like it’s 1959? Except for Russians who come here to lose their rubles in the city’s many casinos, and the odd male Italian who explores the clubs to hit on the exceptionally beautiful Belarusian women, tourists of the world aren’t exactly uniting here. There are no backpackers with dog-eared copies of Lonely Planet Belarus tucked under their arms, no fanny pack–clad vacationers wandering Minsk’s broad streets.
That tourism gap is part of Belarus’s appeal. We live in a world that’s growing smaller, more totally connected, but also—from Perth to Prague, Bangalore to Boston—more homogenous. In coming to Belarus, I yearned to find a place that had managed to eschew 21st-century globalization. I wanted to say I saw Minsk before it became “the next Prague.”
The day after the Apples concert, I found myself at yet another party. This time it was full of writers instead of musicians. Another friend of a friend, Siarhiej (pronounced SER-gey) Kalenda, a well-known Belarusian novelist, told me to meet him at Ў, a combination bookstore, gallery, and publishing house hidden in the courtyard of an apartment complex near the center of town.
Once in a while, a full-scale after-hours bash breaks out at Ў, and this was apparently one of those nights. As black-clad twentysomethings flowed into the gallery, Kalenda, 25, gave me color commentary: She’s a poet. He’s a writer. He’s a painter. She’s a graphic artist. A tall brunette delivered vodka shots to waiting hands; then came baskets of creamy, salty (and utterly delicious) salo—a pig-fat delicacy, the only delicacy worth smuggling out of the country.
But Kalenda didn’t bring me here solely to eat pork products and meet a bunch of artists. After all, as he explained to me, these people weren’t just poets and painters; they were individuals taking part in a simple act that would make Lukashenko’s mustache hairs bristle.
I looked around. The young faces in the crowd looked like normal pig-fat-eating, vodka-shooting Belarusians to me.
“Do you understand anything they’re saying?” Kalenda asked.
“No,” I said, and reminded him that I don’t speak Russian.
“That’s it,” he said, pushing his empty plastic cup into my chest. “They’re not speaking Russian. They’re speaking Belarusian.”
Kalenda continued: “This bookstore? You won’t find anything in Russian here. Just Belarusian. The publishing house?” He pointed to a small office where a group of people huddled around a computer screen watching YouTube videos. “They publish books mostly in Belarusian.” Even the name, Ў, was a cold slap in the Russky face. It’s the only letter in the Belarusian alphabet that is not also a letter in Russian.
“So what’s the big deal?” I asked. Kalenda gave me a brief history lesson.
Belarus’s autonomy grew out of the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. For the first few years, the country was, like the rest of post-communist Europe, on a path toward free-market capitalism and democracy. But then in 1994 Alexander Lukashenko, a once obscure collective-farm manager and hockey fanatic, was elected president. He has since refused to leave office. It’s true that he won reelection in 2002, 2006, and 2010 by very wide margins. But it’s also true that international election-monitoring organizations ruled those elections flawed. Cementing his totalitarian reputation, Lukashenko tried reattaching the country to Russia, which my new friends told me was part of a post-Yeltsin power grab. The theory was that if Belarus officially became a province of Russia, then Lukashenko would be in a position to become leader of Belarus and Russia. It didn’t work, but the president still has pro-Russian leanings, thanks in part to the country’s dependence on cheap Russian natural gas.
In one of his first acts as president, Lukashenko made Russian one of the official languages of the country. Belarusian is still an official language, but since the beginning of the Soviet Union in 1917 (when Belarus was a founding constituent republic), the majority of the country has spoken Russian. No one is sure exactly why Lukashenko favors Russian over Belarusian, both of which are Slavic languages. Some say he can’t speak Belarusian.
I nodded, alternating sips of vodka and bites of pig fat as I listened to my friend against the din of conversation in the bookstore party around us.
Just then a few people who’d been congregating across the room joined us. Andrei Khadanovich, a tall 37-year-old poet, the director of the Belarus PEN Center, and an advocate for the Belarusian language, and Julia Tsimafeeva, a translator, had been listening to Kalenda’s history lesson and wanted to give me their two rubles’ worth.
“We speak Belarusian first as an aesthetic choice,” Khadanovich said when I asked him why he chose it as his main language. He became entranced by Belarusian in college and now speaks it with his wife and young daughter, something, he says, that is becoming increasingly popular. But he admits that Lukashenko’s assault on the language has made speaking it a political statement. “It’s us against the government. And because artists and writers and such are choosing to speak Belarusian, it has become the language of the intelligentsia.”
Tsimafeeva, who works for a translation agency that specializes in the Belarusian language, said she and others are translating English-language authors such as Charles Bukowski, Ken Kesey, and Jack Kerouac into Belarusian. “By translating cool writers into Belarusian, we’re hoping younger people will be more motivated to want to speak it,” she said.
“The problem,” Kalenda said, “is that Belarusians don’t have any identity. Because we’ve been in the shadow of Russia for so long, and before that a part of Poland, our only identity is ‘not’—not being Russian or not being Polish.”
Václav Havel, the playwright, Communist-era dissident and eventual president of the Czech Republic, came up in conversation at least half a dozen times during my evening at Ў. So did obscure historical Czech figures like the 19th-century scholar Josef Jungmann, who is credited with reviving the Czech language and identity. Which was fitting, because I felt as though I were back in Prague in the early 1980s, mingling with members of Charter 77, the Czech dissident group founded by Havel and others.
I also felt a tad paranoid. I sensed that the KGB, which, not surprisingly, still exists in Belarus, might break down the door at any second and arrest us all. I had spent the last few days wandering around Minsk with a slight sensation of fear tingling in my stomach. If it wasn’t the neoclassic KGB headquarters or the ominous, boxy, and heavily patrolled presidential palace (which is strictly verboten to photograph) or the ubiquitous police presence (Belarus has one of the highest ratios of cops per capita in the world), it could have been the general Stalinist design of the city. The sprawling buildings that line the streets in the city center appear so omnipotent, so rigid and heavy—many are a block long—that they dwarf the average pedestrian, implicitly suggesting the state can, and will, crush you if necessary.
But in the carefree setting of Ў, my fears were put to rest when someone refilled my cup with more vodka. “Budzma,” we said: “cheers” in Belarusian. We consumed even more pig fat. Our conversation gave me hope and made me want the rest of the world to cheer for a freer Belarus.
“If only the rest of the world knew Belarus existed,” Tsimafeeva said, inspiring snickers.
Kalenda jumped in, saying, “Whenever I travel around Europe and people ask where I’m from, I say Belarus. They say, ‘Where? Belgium?’ And I say, ‘No, Bel-a-rus.’ And they ask, ‘Oh, right. That’s part of Russia, yes?’ ” It’s partly understandable why Belarus gets lost geographically. The only international press the country gets consists of reports about Lukashenko’s power-grabbing ways, from efforts to dissolve parliament to crackdowns on political opponents. In 2005, then–U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice referred to the country as Europe’s last dictatorship. It’s no wonder the only souvenir I could find in Minsk was a red T-shirt emblazoned with the hammer and sickle. The state image hasn’t been a very good advertisement for the tourism industry. But then there’s that one famous person who did find his way to Minsk, about 50 years ago: Lee Harvey Oswald. He called the Belarusian capital home from 1960 to 1962. Did Oswald’s time here shape his later actions? I decided the only way to find out was to get into his apartment. Which appeared to be a long shot. How do you find the apartment of a shadowy historical figure when there are no plaques or signs or public information directing you to it? I had managed to find an address on the Internet before I arrived in Minsk. I mentioned this to Kalenda, but he doubted I had the correct information. “Everything is filtered through the government,” he said. “And no one here really knows Oswald’s address.” Indeed, when I asked at Ў if anyone knew where Oswald had lived, I received nothing but blank stares. In fact, few people even knew that Oswald had lived in Minsk at all.
Unwilling to give up, I charged my friend Ivan, the non-Apple, with the task of helping me locate the apartment. First, though, a little backstory.
In October 1959, Oswald turned up in Moscow wishing to become a citizen of the Soviet Union. The Russians said no, and Oswald attempted suicide in his hotel bathroom. Thinking he’d do it again and succeed, and fearing the United States would assume Oswald had been murdered by the Soviets, the Russians relented. Still, they suspected Oswald might be a Yankee spy, and they sent him off to Minsk, put him to work in an electronics factory called Gorizont (Horizon), and had the KGB track his every move. For a while Oswald settled down, marrying a local girl named Marina and making a few friends. After a couple of years, though, he tired of Soviet life. He applied for an exit visa for himself and Marina and immigrated back to Texas. The rest, of course, is history.
But in Minsk it’s a history that still needed to be unearthed. Ivan took me to the address I’d found on the web. We approached a yellow neoclassic building, set in the center of town where Prospekt Nezavisimosti and tree-lined Komunisticheskaya Street meet the slow, snaking Svisloch River. In the leafy interior courtyard, a gray-haired pensioner sat on a bench.
Ivan asked the man if this was, in fact, Oswald’s old building. The man shrugged. Then he told us that Gorizont used to own the building, so most of the people living there, himself included, are employees or former employees of the company.
“What do you want to know about Oswald?” he asked. Ivan explained that I had come from New York to see Oswald’s apartment (which wasn’t exactly the whole truth), and we were wondering if there was a chance we could get inside.
“It’s on the fourth floor,” the man said, pointing to a door across the courtyard from where we were standing, and then added: “I used to work with Oswald.” He paused, then continued. “We used to go hunting together. And let me tell you, that boy could not fire a gun. We were frightened every time he tried to shoot. There’s no way he could have shot Kennedy.”
The man went on and on, and Ivan eventually stopped translating for me. Finally, we thanked him and wandered over to the door. We weren’t sure which buzzer had been Oswald’s, so I rang all 10 at once. The door swung open and we faced a sinewy septuagenarian standing in the foyer, wearing an annoyed look on his face. Ivan explained what we wanted, and the old man said a few quick words and then slammed the door shut. Apparently he said that the apartment was being renovated and we should go away.
Ivan and I had no other option but to try the door. Much to our surprise, it was unlocked, so we wandered inside and up the stairs. When we got to the fourth floor, there were two apartment doors. Ivan shrugged and knocked on one of them. It was the angry sinewy man again. “I told you: Go away!” he yelled and then slammed the door on us for the second time. I knocked on door number two. We weren’t expecting much, since Mr. Friendly Neighbor had said it was being remodeled. The stairwell was silent. And then, a shuffling on the other side of the door. It opened. There stood a short, elderly man wearing a retro zip-up track jacket.
Ivan and the man began speaking. I couldn’t comprehend what they were saying, but I understood when the man opened his door wider and waved us in.
The two-room apartment was crammed with bookshelves and framed photos (including several of Lukashenko). The man said his name was Edward. He was 75 years old. He told us he was originally from Kazakhstan and that he did not know about the Oswald connection when he bought the apartment 10 years ago. He ushered us onto his balcony and told me to stand at the far end of it. I wasn’t sure what he was doing, but then he handed me a black-and-white photograph of Oswald and his wife. Ivan said, “Look, they’re standing in the same spot you are.”
It was true. Behind them in the photo, and behind me in real life, were the pediment and columns of the ministry of defense. Then Edward took us inside, a cigarette dangling from his lips, and led us to the bathroom. “See this toilet?” he asked with more enthusiasm than I’d ever heard about a commode. He fanned his hand around it like he was trying to sell it to us. “You can see it’s an old toilet because the tank is up high and connected by this pipe.” We nodded. “This,” he said, taking a moment to catch his breath from all the excitement, “was Oswald’s toilet. Oswald sat right here!” And just in case we needed a physical exclamation mark, he pulled down on the chain hanging from the tank and gave it a flush.
Like the pensioner we met outside, Edward was convinced Oswald was no killer. He had a theory—a very long one, in fact—that suggested that Oswald was just a patsy, used by “them” because of his history of living in the U.S.S.R. Then Edward sat down at his computer and began playing a video about Oswald’s role in the history-making incident. When Ivan and I looked bored by it, Edward drew our attention to a photograph on the wall, a picture of an attractive, scantily clad young brunette.
“She’s nice looking,” Ivan said.
“She’s a fashion model. You want her phone number? Here,” he said, scribbling it down on a piece of paper. Ivan looked confused for a second and then thanked him. “How do you know her?” he asked.
Edward glanced at the photo of the girl, lying on her back, her eyes looking seductively at the camera. “She’s my granddaughter.”
Ten minutes later, Ivan and I were sitting in a nearby pub, both giddy from the experience, me because I couldn’t believe I got into Oswald’s apartment, and Ivan because of the phone number in his pocket. The pub was called ID Bar. Fittingly enough for Belarus, the waiters were dressed as police officers, and the space we sat in was a replica of an interrogation room.
Despite the too-close-for-comfort atmosphere, the ID looked as though it could have been in any European capital city. And the place reminded me, yet again, that the world I’d come looking for—that stark, melancholy rot of communism—was only one facet of Minsk’s personality. The city was indeed stunningly Stalinist in its own way, but it was also more sophisticated than the stereotypical images of bread lines and babushkas. Bars blared ’80s heavy metal and hipper, newer artists like M.I.A. One restaurant offered sushi, served by a waiter ironically sporting a bushy Lukashenko-like mustache. At least I think he was being ironic.
Just how Belarusians managed to sustain a normal, functioning society underneath the surface of totalitarianism and to persevere through tough political times was a question I wanted to ask again and again. I did gently ask my new friends if, despite Lukashenko’s seemingly endless tenure at the top of Europe’s last dictatorship, they had any hope for the future. Many of the young educated people I questioned had a most surprising answer: that there was no viable opposition at the moment, so the best person to rule was—wait for it—Lukashenko. Scientific my poll was not; shocking it was.
It reminded me of Václav Havel’s 1978 essay, “The Power of the Power- less,” in which he argues that self-policing among ordinary people is just as important as policing. The ruled become the rulers. Belarusians might not be policing themselves in the way that Czechs did under the Soviet antireform policy of “normalization” in the 1970s, but their acceptance of the Lukashenko regime was, in a way, a similar act of self-preservation.
The next night in Minsk, I had dinner with my writer friend Siarhiej Kalenda. As I dug into a plate of machanka—chunks of tender pork and potatoes, with a thick gravy that diners sop up with pancakes—I told Kalenda it seemed to me that many of his fellow young Belarusians had fallen into a state of apathy. They seemed to take it for granted that there were no decent opposition figures that could challenge Lukashenko. So they accepted him as the leader of the country. Kalenda didn’t disagree.
“We all know what the outcome of future elections will be,” he said, telling me that he regularly protests the results and gets thrown in jail for a week or two for doing so. He did, however, harbor some long-term optimism. “Right now, it’s the old generation ruling a younger and very different generation. As we get older, we’ll start to take over the country and govern it the way we want.”
We held up our pints of crisp Alivaria and toasted to that. We paid the bill and headed toward the door. The waiter was blocking it. “The president is driving by,” he said. “No one is allowed on the street.”
Kalenda and I looked at each other. He didn’t seem surprised. We stood there in silence for a long minute before the waiter cracked open the door enough to peek out onto the street. Then he opened it wider and waved us out. The president’s motorcade had passed, leaving the streets with a calm, empty, just-after-the-storm feeling. There was, for a moment, a sense of normalcy in this abnormal city—perhaps a brief foreshadowing of Minsk’s streets when the children of Kalenda and the Ivans and the Apples will be the ages we are now. A time when “Back in the U.S.S.R.” will seem less ironic and more nostalgic. A
Photographs by Trujillopaumier. This story appeared in the May/June 2011 issue.