The woman at the hostel said that when she welcomes guests from abroad they comment on three things about Minsk, the capital of Belarus: 'One, how clean everywhere is in the city. Two, how they are ruble millionaires every time they go to the cash machine. And three, how beautiful the girls are'.
I’d been there just a few hours but all three were indisputable and over the next three days I spent in the city I was able to add a few observations of my own. The reaction I got from friends when telling them I was going on holiday to Belarus was a bewildered: 'Why are you going there?', which mirrored the puzzled reactions when meeting locals in Minsk. 'Why exactly have you come here?’
My motivations were a mixture of curiosity, adventure and exploration. I had spent a year in Poland in 2010, learning about life under communism, and had visited Ukraine in 2011 when it was in its European-facing hiatus before the outbreak of civil war. But Belarus felt apart from each of them and when I flew home the re-entering of European Union space was palpable.
If not European, is Belarus – independent since 1991 – obviously Soviet and an adjunct of Russia? It is evident that the country is more Moscow-facing than Brussels-facing. But could it just be more Belarusian?
Stuck at the border crossing for three hours as we entered from Poland, we had ample opportunity to talk with fellow sufferers on the bus. One said: 'Talk with the people in the streets, they will be shocked...but happy!’ And so it proved. Whether it was a personal response to living in a place notorious for its authoritarian rule (Belarus is known unaffectionately as the 'last dictatorship in Europe’) – as if to embrace Europe on a personal level was a form of protest – or whether my internal cynic couldn't accept human kindness unencumbered, it was a lasting impression.
My shock in being welcomed so warmly was matched by the experience of touring the city. The parks would be the envy of any in Europe; the roads were unblemished, the pavements spotless; the main landmarks looked recently refurbished. And in a city of nearly two million people, I saw not one homeless or destitute person.
Amidst the positive surprises, there was a lingering feeling of a stilted atmosphere, that the randomness of human life could not possibly be contained in this way; everything seemed too controlled. There were no blaring conversations, the people kept a strictly respectful expression on their faces, and everyone seemed to know what was going on...except me. I kept checking behind my back half-expecting to see crazy life beginning again.
That lack of a familiar atmosphere controlled me in turn, I have never waited for so long, impatiently, at a red man without daring to cross. I have never bought a train ticket so eagerly for a one-stop journey, and never followed the instructions of a police guard (in stereotypical Ushanka hat) so obediently when told to step back from the Lenin monument we had obviously strayed dangerously close to. I asked the woman at the hostel why a country not known for its high GDP had no visible traces of poverty in its major city. She looked at me with knowing eyes and answered: 'We have a good police’, which seemed to answer everything – for her at least. I told her that poverty is visible and a way of life for millions in my neo-liberal state. She answered dryly: 'That is the system you have chosen, this is the system we have chosen’.
Poverty as a 'choice’ was an unusual concept. It was as if I was strolling through a model of what successful socialism looked like. I needed to know more: 'Is it much poorer outside the cities? Is that where poor people are relocated?’ I felt her angst at her inability to provide her foreign guest a full answer: 'The truth is nobody knows what happens to these people. I imagine they are given shelter until capable of looking after themselves. I don’t know if they are sent to the rural areas, but from those places I’ve been they aren’t poor either’.
I had to make use of her openness: 'Do you know Lukashenko [current president] is one of the few people from Belarus that people from our countries know?’ Her eyes were laughing: 'Of course, he’s been in charge for 20 years, you should know him! But what can I say about this man, I go to the church every day to thank God for this gift!’ Now she was really laughing, wryly and cynically, disguising her obvious disdain. Doing my best Louis Theroux impression, I naively prodded further: 'Do you think there could be enough of an opposition to replace him?’ After a pregnant pause, as if judging where my genuine curiosity ended and wilful dimness began, she responded: 'There is opposition, particularly among the young, but such opposition can result in even worse troubles. We see what’s happening in Ukraine and no one wants that here'.
Minsk does not cater for its tourists. Everything has been designed by Belarusians for Belarusians. I felt that sense of being in a different system with no common cultural middle ground to fall back on. But in no way did this seem like a barrier: the differences were exciting to discover and share. From Minsk’s organisation of public space to the helpfulness of its people and the apparent high levels of safety, there was much to admire – and envy.