Yet the visit to Belarus had begun with good humour. Black humour admittedly: "Welcome to Belarus where the local time is 1983".
We were here to meet friends and celebrate the wedding of an attractive young couple, and whatever my misgivings about the reputation or the Belarusian state and its eccentric leader, Alexander Lukashenka, they were assuaged by the knowledge that I would be there for only four days and that I would be among friends.
Speeding through the slab-like airport terminal building, the arrival process was remarkably painless- it was only later, on departure, that the dingy hideousness of the Airport was revealed, but initial impressions were good. We met our friends easily and were soon speeding on smooth, clean highways toward the city centre. As for the initial impressions of the city itself, these too were a positive surprise. Although Soviet era apartment blocks are not particularly attractive anywhere, here in Minsk they were clean and painted and surrounded by neatly trimmed grass. Soon we were amongst the Socialist realist buildings of the city centre, and these too were a major surprise. Yes they were blocky and bombastic, but, especially considering the tragic circumstances of their construction- Minsk was all but destroyed in the second world war- they were no more "totalitarian" that the boulevards of Paris constructed by Housman for Napoleon III. In fact they reminded me both of Paris and of Budapest, another city of wide vistas and which I also rather like.
So, we went on an evening walk to explore, and the bright, well-lit streets allowed us to decipher the Cyrillic alphabet and work out what we were looking at, "The Belarusian State Circus", "The National Bank of Belarus", the "Committee for State Security", Ha! Of course here it is still called the "KGB". It seemed simply odd, funny even. That, we said smiling, was why the city felt so safe. And if buildings were still decorated with the Soviet hammer and sickle, well that was simply another eccentricity. Of course there was very little advertising and, we said marveling, no graffiti. Yet there were also very few restaurants, and these were all full, but we kept looking to find a place to eat. Minsk is a city of 1.8 million people, the largest city between Moscow and Stockholm and the largest for at least three hundred miles in every direction, yet there were so few restaurants... Eventually we found a cellar. I deciphered "My English Grandmother" and a faintly Miss Marple Logo. Inside all was lace doilies and chintz- an odd parody of what someone might think was English- if you had never been there. We had Beef and Yorkshire pudding presumably served as a kind of homage to the fictional English Granny, but it was a homage based on something heard about but never seen. All the menu was in Russian. We noticed that even the young people did not speak much English- or any other foreign language.
The next morning we walked further. Underneath Lenin square- "decorated" with a 30 foot statue of the old Tatar gangster- there was a shopping mall. At least it looked like a shopping mall, but where were the bland international brands? Nothing but cheap tat mostly from the cheapest oriental producers- quality was very low but prices, when translating back from the thousands of Belarusian Roubles it takes to buy anything at all, were high. It was a Potemkin shopping mall, full of slippery marble but nothing that anyone would really want to buy... if they had a choice. Above ground the square was a vast concrete bowl surrounded by huge and hideous government buildings and one red brick Catholic church- St Simeon and St Helen- which had spent most of the Soviet period under threat of demolition and being used as a cinema.
The wedding the next day was a registry affair. The couple, both in their mid twenties, were beautiful and well matched. Though there was much talk from the friendly and handsome registrar lady I could decipher little save repeated reference to the laws of the Republic of Belarus. Yet there was plenty of room for the traditions of Slavic culture- candles and woven cloth much in evidence as symbols of the beginning of married life. Then the fully traditional party- bread and salt to welcome the couple, much speech and song to celebrate. A happy party.
Of course there were the odd asides. Stupid and absurd things were done in the country "because the president said so". Rings with forbidden -non Soviet- national symbols. The knowledge that many of the friends of the couple could not join the party, "because they can not return home safely". The awareness that the best brains were leaving the country if they could- including many of the young folk in the room. I thought to myself that I was not expecting Belarus to be a Jeffersonian democracy or a beacon of prosperity- the country was clearly nothing like either of those things. But what was it? There were little touches of capitalism- the odd- rather small- adverts, and a large number of western-made cars on the road. Yet after a few hours walking I felt dizzy and sick. Something is polluting the air with particulates- but nobody seems to know with what and official figures are hard to validate. But surely, I thought, Lukashenka can not be truly serious about promoting Communism as an article of faith? It must be- I surmised- simply that perhaps he is a deeply conservative leader of a pretty conservative country- after all the party, if not its symbols, is indeed dead and gone.
Yet standing on the corner of Marx and Lenin streets I realized that this weird parody of the USSR- Brezhnev on Ice- is deadly serious. The incredible, unforgiving bureaucracy which- I learned- insisted that if a container was not on an import list, it could not be brought in- necessitating days of work at the border packing and unpacking. The requirement for official paperwork for the slightest interaction with the state, where even a five minute delay at the registrar, for example, would have cancelled the wedding. This is a Vogon level of bureaucracy. And then there was the KGB.
I encountered two of them them in a smoky bar- yes Belarus remains immune to smoking bans as it is to any other foreign influence except Russian. There they were, two middle aged, paunchy, shaven headed types- unmistakable as they sat next to the rock band which was entertaining the boisterous crowd of dancers by playing western and Russian rock songs of twenty and thirty years ago. The two were blankly indifferent to the enjoyment of the crowd, simply smoking and making sure the band did not play anything remotely off message. They were bored, drinking coffee and smoking and blank as they blankly occupied the best seats- close enough to reach out blankly and turn off the amplifier if needed. A pointless job, you might think, yet one the regime clearly deems to be worth paying for.
Another pointless job is that they dub all foreign TV channels, so it becomes difficult to learn English or any other foreign language- in any event they only allow one non-Russian foreign news channel to be broadcast: Euronews, and that- as I say- is dubbed. It was when we found that Google is blocked in Belarus that it became clear that information is still severely rationed in this twisted theme park of post Communism. So are languages. Russian is favoured for everything. Belarusian, officially a co-equal language with Russian, and the one, confusingly enough, that all of the metro and street names are written in- although maps are written in Russian- is not necessarily now even understood by every one on the street, although it is so similar to Russian. Lukashenka seems to promote Russian over Belarusian whenever he can.
Of course the Belarusian economy is a mess. The army of arbitrary and pointless officials have created a Kafka-esque nightmare of regulation. The currency is imminently expected to devalue again and foreign currency is hard to come by. Next to some partly restored area of the old town- the Trinity suburb- a vast ziggurat of vulgar and expensive apartments has taken five years to put its blight over the last surviving historical area of Minsk. It was a poor mans idea of what wealth might look like, just as Lukashenka's decrees are simply a vulgar barbarian's idea of what culture or freedom might look like. There is order but it is a dead and sterile order. I kept finding in my head the image of a field ploughed under with weed-killer- orderly, but dead. I yearned for graffiti, if only to show that there was some spirit- I yearned for adverts if only to show that there was some aspiration.
Finally walking into the church of St Simeon and Helen, there was a Catholic service being conducted in Belarusian. Lukashenka prefers Orthodoxy and Russian, but still this community, around for a thousand years and more still survives. We paused and stood next to the doorway and listened to the mass.
"Oh Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us
Oh Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace"
Then it really hit me. I understood, emotionally, what I had been seeing. "Oh Saviour of the World", I prayed, "Will you not save Belarus?". I wanted to weep and howl and gnash my teeth at the pointless futility, the utter despair of this stupid, wicked government.
All the thwarted hopes, the simple, godawfulness of the regime, it was all too much. The contrast between the sweetly charming people, their uncomplaining, shy friendliness and the thuggish brutality of the government: the militia with their absurd, huge Soviet era hats, the indifferent slug necks of the KGB stooges, and all the other symbolism of the monstrous evil of the Stalinist past. It seemed to me that Lukashenka is not merely the dictator of the Belarusians, he is their captor.
So on a street corner in Minsk, I could not decide if I was looking at Himmler Strasse or Lenin Prospekt, or Goebbels road or Karl Marx street, and it did not seem to matter very much, even though the National Socialists had only inflicted perhaps half the deaths that the Soviet Socialists managed.
Round the corner from the church is the prison. The conditions are said to be terrible. Few come out. Some never.
Belarus is not a comedy. It is the blackest tragedy.