Just the other day, I looked through my passport and found that my Belarusian visa expired. It was a 1-year multi-entry visa received from a police station inside the country, the kind that Americans rarely get. Next to it was my 1-year temporary residency permit that registers me for living in Astraviets, a town where the Belarusian government decided to base a nuclear plant early in my stay there with my wife’s family. I was probably the only American to have such a registration. That too expired, leaving the rapidly changing town without any foreign-born Americans for police to monitor closely.
Certainly I don’t regret moving my family out of Belarus for various reasons, not the least of which was a growing realization that there would never be opportunity for me to earn for my family a decent living in an increasingly anti-American area of the world. But I couldn’t help but reflect sadly on the country now shifting into the rear-view mirror of my ride through life. It would be a long time before I could foresee my return.
I remembered coming to Belarus the first time, back in late 2008. I think my perceptions from before even stepping foot in its borders colored my experience in the country. For most Americans, this small nation between westernized Poland and easternized Russia is a Soviet cultural holdover, where Lenin still watches over the town square with a gesture suggesting an unseen glorious future, not far from where old dilapidated brick buildings house small factories and schools, and where Khrushchev-era apartments stand side-by-side like ships in an armada grounded hundreds of kilometers inland. It wasn’t surprising to me that “Glory to the Communist Party” and “60th Anniversary of the October Revolution” stand in colored brick on buildings as commonly-found reminders of a period when the seat of power was in Moscow and not Minsk. Just like the weekly trip to the banya with leaf-covered birch branches and bottles of beer or vodka seemed to dominate the social schedule, well, all this was what I expected.
But it would be unfair to say that this was all I found. In reality, Belarus is slowly moving beyond its Soviet past. Even though the state-run businesses that held monopolies in Soviet times, and continued to do so under President Alexander Lukashenko, still strongly resist the trend, private firms continue to make headway into the retail market as worldwide prestige firms open shopfronts for Belarusian buyers. Most people in the countryside can’t afford their goods, and those who can generally will travel to nearby countries and get cheaper deals on the same goods, but this growing body of new stores, both foreign imports and domestic entrepreneurs, still serves as a mark of economic progress.
Human rights progress, on the other hand, continues to be slow, and in all honesty, I don’t expect that it will go much further than where it is today. Even if an alternative to Lukashenko were to somehow come to power, many opposition candidates out there today would not change the form of government once they took office. The prisons would be filled, but with a different set of opposition party members. Further, with neighboring Russia becoming more aggressive, it’s not unreasonable to expect that any moments of weakness in the government, such as during a change of leadership, would likely result in a Russian takeover. As such, there isn’t likely to be much support for a change of government internationally, at least for the time being.
So, the police state, as American observers like to call it, will likely continue in Belarus. However, I confess that I found the KGB’s approach to monitoring foreigners and opposition in many ways more honest than that of the West. Edward Snowden seemed to justify this point of view when he revealed the extensive monitoring program planned for the general US public. Meanwhile, the American government continues to pretend to be the world’s bastion of democracy as its police continue to suppress whole sectors of the population, and embarrass those of us who want the US to be again the leader of the free world. To make matters worse, when you look at it, legal redemption is about as possible under Belarusian law as it is in my own American homeland. It’s just that Belarus has never pretended, at least with any degree of seriousness, to be the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Still, there is a lot of character built into the values of the actual Belarusian people. I saw only hospitality in the eyes of its citizens. Honesty is ingrained to the point that it isn’t unreasonable to expect to find something that you lost in the place where you left it. It doesn’t happen all the time, but people in general feel an obligation to find the owner of a lost item before deciding that “finders are keepers” after all. Crime levels are generally lower in Belarus than that seen in most of its neighbors, and for a number of post-Soviet Belarusians, the work ethic is quite strong. People do expect to be caught by a social safety net if things go wrong, but if they are given some level of hope, Belarusians will work hard to do great things. The IT sector is a great example of this.
Further, Belarusian talent in the arts is decidedly undersung. I had the honor of meeting a great admirer of this aspect of the country, a Korean philanthropist who tried to develop a community of young artists in Minsk over the space of maybe a year. The level of local talent he managed to dig up completely dispelled my preconception that the creative arts could never fully develop under a police state. In Belarus, they’ve always been there, just hidden in the homes of people who never let go of their grandparents’ love of musical instruments and singing styles unique to either the rural or modern urban “Litvin” culture. The arts have been hidden in the national artwork, embroideries, and dance within which families find sources of pride. No amounts of socialist realism or Communist indoctrination could kill them. All it takes for the arts of Belarus to blossom out in the open are the right champions.
Still, one of the reasons I’ve taken my family from Belarus to another country is that for all of its actual advances and potential, Belarusian human progress continues to develop too slowly. By instilling fear into the public through its police state, Lukashenko has ensured that Belarusian talent will do little to step beyond safe boundaries. Conservative social politics, a tool currently in heavy use by the Russian government whose use is slowly spreading among the Orthodox community leaders in its neighbor, runs counter to the spirit of tolerance that Belarusians have embraced in the past, and quite definitely closes doors to human and intellectual development.
Looking at more immediate practical considerations, past government actions and apparent cronyism does little to encourage small businesses or similar forms of social prosperity, and creativity can hardly hope to travel from the kitchen tables and salons of its apartments and cottages into the showrooms and store windows of its stores and shops. As a result, I’d predict that advances seen in the country will be mostly derivative in nature, only following trends that have been proven to work well elsewhere. Homespun Belarusian innovation, unless it manages to take root elsewhere and become popular there, won’t likely be given the chance to flourish among its own people.
So, as I look at my own children, now growing up beyond the borders of their birthland, I am well aware of their worth, their strengths, and what they can achieve. Indeed, I’m proud to brag that my daughter, before leaving her hometown, was awarded second place in a mathematics competition among all the pre-school children in the entire Astraviets District. In a fertile cultural soil that values her contribution, I’m fully confident that she will go as far as the moon or beyond, should she continue into adulthood her childhood desire to be an astronaut. In my mind, she’s like her mother, her cousins, her godparents, and indeed just about every Belarusian I’ve had the chance to meet – strong in potential, intellectually appreciable, and worth getting to know.
Maybe someday I’ll again apply for another 1-year multi-entry Belarusian visa and temporary residency permit, and return to Belarus with my wife and kids, if happier and more productive times return to the so-called “blue-eyed country” of woodland lakes and hospitality. I’d certainly like to do that.