Letters From Minsk: The Last Dictator

Picture of a picture: Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko, waving, to the left of Russian President Vladimir Putin (in the center). Next to Putin on the right is Leonid Kuchma, then president of Ukraine.

This is the last in a series about train and bicycle rides from Switzerland to Belarus, in those carefree days before pandemic lockdowns.

One day in Minsk, I headed out after a leisurely breakfast—the Hotel Garni had a full buffet and very few guests—and rode to the Museum of Modern Belarusian Statehood in Minsk, which otherwise might well be called the Aleksandr Lukashenko Private Gallery, as this branch of the of national museum is located in a presidential executive office building and the exhibits are the gifts that the president has received from foreign leaders.

I thought to be admitted that I needed to reserve a time in advance, but when that proved impossible, at least online, I showed up in the lobby, toting my bike helmet and saddle bag, which several Belarusian soldiers, on guard duty, scanned and checked into a nearby cloakroom.

Apparently the only rule at the museum was to be sure each visitor was assigned to a guide, and I was given an appointment later that morning, right after a school group of ten year olds headed upstairs.

The Lukashenko Selfie Museum

As if waiting to see Lukashenko himself, I sat on a bench in the lobby until a guide descended and escorted me upstairs. She spoke English and, in each of four large exhibits in the museum, gave me an overview and left me on my own for a few minutes to inspect either important Belarus sports jerseys (hockey and soccer are popular) or some model of a thriving agricultural village.

State gifts presented to President Lukashenko filled an entire wall. And they included a “Certificate of Recognition” to Lukashenko from Minnesota governor and one-time presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty “in honor of his faithful support of the Minnesota Wild,” the NHL hockey team.

There were a number of pictures of state occasions, as when the Belarus president has received the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who in the photographs has the look of a corporate chairman visiting a regional subsidiary.

When I came to the Belarus, I assumed it was the last member of the Warsaw Pact and firmly in the Kremlin orbit, and as I biked around Minsk, Brest, and Pinsk, I saw a society that, on the surface, resembles a Russian colony. (Possible tourist slogan: “Visit Belarus—in case you missed Poland in 1979.”)

But as I read more about the country’s politics, I began to appreciate that Belarus is a hybrid country, one that superficially is a Stalinist model village—little changed since the Soviet era—but which on other levels marches to its own drums.

It might—if given the option—fuse a strongly Russian cultural affinity onto the economic and political models of the European Union. No wonder there are so many people in the street every Sunday.

The Belarus President for Life (and Death)

At first impression Lukashenko is a tyrant-for-life out of central casting. He imprisons the political opposition, rigs elections, appoints lackeys to key posts, tolerates corruption (at least among his cronies), and presides over an economy of state-run enterprises (that he controls).

Lukashenko is the only president Belarus has known since independence in 1994, and even if there are elections for parliament and at other levels of government, the reality is that the show tunes in Belarus come from a one-man band. On paper anyway, he owes his position in power to Russian, in this case Putin’s, forbearance.

So why has he tolerated weekly street demonstrations that would remove him from office? Why has he not cracked down even harder on the opposition and either exiled or imprisoned more of its leaders?

For all that Lukashenko sings one tune, a melody that would keep himself in power in perpetuity, there’s a less visible aspect to Lukashenko’s mail-order dictatorship that tolerates some dissent (provided he is the one doing the dissenting).

Russia on My Mind

Take relations with Russia. It appears that Belarus is singing all the hymns in Putin’s amen corner, but on other, more subtle levels, Belarus has bucked Russian leadership in numerous recent conflicts.

It mouthed platitudes rather than support Russia’s annexation of Crimea. In the conflict with Ukraine, Belarus has been more supportive of Ukraine’s anti-Russian stance than with Russia’s intervention in the eastern part of that country.

On economic issues, Belarus has grown tired of Russia’s one-way trade policies, in which Belarus is nickel-and-dimed on a variety of oil and gas imports while, conversely, Belarus’s goods are blocked from Russian markets.

Nor does Lukashenko want to open up his country, despite its relative poverty, to Putin’s brigade of Russian oligarchs, knowing full well that their capital and underworld violence would produce political opposition (to Lukashenko).

Hence Belarus is in an economic and political no-man’s land in which its close relations with Russia keep it from better relations with the European Union, while at the same time the alliance with Putin’s Russia is a bad deal for Belarus’s industry and agricultural. For oil and gas, as with many other products, Lukashenko has to shop at Putin’s company store.

Dissident Belarus

In domestic politics, Lukashenko has for almost twenty years been trying to walk a fine line between nostalgia for the Soviet Union while distancing the country from too much Russian influence.

Despite being a one-man state, now notorious for cracking dissident heads in the streets of Minsk, Belarus does tolerate opposition political parties, and it has many, including Greens, free marketers, pro-Europeans, and Communists.

The one party it does not have is a pro-Russian integration party, even though Lukashenko loves all the fraternal friendship stage sets of the now defunct Soviet Union. (You see a lot of red stars over Minsk.)

In foreign affairs, despite Belarus’s military alliance with Russia and its trade block with Russia and Kazakhstan, Lukashenko would love nothing more than to be the Switzerland of Eastern Europe—or so he sometimes says—and have non-aligned, good relations with all of its immediate neighbors: the Baltic states, Poland, Ukraine, the European Union, and Russia.

When it comes to choosing between the East and West, Lukashenko has a habit of ghosting politically, which perhaps could explain why he hasn’t cracked down even harder on dissidents in the streets calling for his head.

Lukashenko might well be using them as leverage against Russia to get Putin to relax his economic terms in the trade bloc and to jack up his (entangling) foreign aid. Or he might be tolerating (granted, in a violent, repressive way) the dissidents to signal to the West that he’s ready to jump ship from Russian oppression and economic gangsterism. The dissidents could well be in the streets for a reason.

The National Orphan of Central Europe

Although I have been traveling around the former Soviet Union since 1975, it was hard on a short trip to Belarus to make sense of every political straw in the wind.

What I did learn, especially from my bicycle excursions around the industrial neighborhoods in Brest, Pinsk, Minsk, and Borisov, is that Belarus’s economic model is dead on arrival.

Its state-owned enterprises turn out goods that no one in Europe, or Russia for that matter, have much interest in buying, and the country’s income does not match its socialist expenditures, where overnight sleepers cost $7 and where most people live off the state after about age 55.

In many ways parts of Belarus reminded me of former Yugoslavia in the 1970s, which enjoyed prosperity so long as it was the swing vote in the Cold War and so long as Russian ministers and Western bankers were willing to fund Tito’s brave new world of non-alignment.

When the great powers no longer needed to buy its swing votes in the Cold War, Yugoslavia went under, although it had a much more complex ethnic composition that does Belarus today. (In a country of ten million people, Belarusians make up more than 80% of the population; ethnic Russians are less than 10%.)

The Absence of National Memory

Perhaps the bigger problem in Belarus is that it’s a country without a shared sense of nationhood. For much of its history it was either Polish, Lithuanian, or Russian (with a sizable Jewish community), and throughout the twentieth century it had an address in “the Bloodlands,” where war and genocide were the norm.

Look at Pinsk: In the last hundred years, it has been Polish, Russian, German, Soviet, and Belarusian. Just think how easy it would be for the Museum of the Polish Occupation in Pinsk to rename itself the Museum of the Belarusian Occupation.

There’s no single story of what it means to be Belarusian. The country is Catholic in the west, Orthodox in the east, and agnostic in its fraternal spirit (while at the same time revering the churches that dominate most towns and villages). Politically Belarus a country with a soft spot for the Soviet Union but a revulsion for heavy-handed Russian interference. I sensed the country is almost more an idea than a place.

Ask most citizens (here I am referring to the polls) if they want to join with Russia, and they will say no. Ask them if they want to join the European Union, and they will also say no, although they would like freer access to EU jobs, capital, and standards of living (without, of course, giving up their current state subsidies).

On my bike rides (at least when the cops weren’t hassling me for riding in the street), I found myself sympathizing with the plight of Belarus, trying to maintain its independence and dignity while its domestic economy and politics are bankrupt and while on its borders there are countries that would not mind if Belarus ceased to exist. (There’s a line in Fiddler on the Roof: “Some are driven away by edicts… others, by silence.”)

The Ryanair Hijacking

It was only after I was in Minsk that the government of Belarus forced down a Ryanair jet heading to Vilnius and arrested from the diverted flight a Belorusian dissident and his girlfriend.

The episode, which many called a “state-supported hijacking,” focused more attention on the authoritarian rule of Aleksandr Lukashenko and his crackdown against civil protesters in the streets of Minsk.

(There was a good deal of hypocrisy in the West’s outraged reaction to Lukashenko’s hijacking, as, after all, it was a succession of U.S. presidents, notably George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who took out the patent on extraordinary rendition.)

A consequence of the Ryanair piracy is that, for the moment, Belavia (the Belarusian airline) flights are banned from landing at EU airports or overflying its airspace, and the EU has imposed sanctions against some sixty members of the Lukashenko posse.

Ironically, even though the Lukashenko government orchestrated the hijacking and arrest of journalist Roman Protasevich, the winner in the standoff between Belarus and the West has been Russia, which in the period of civil unrest has seen Belarus grow more dependent on Moscow (and its bailout loan packages).

If anything the Ryanair hijacking put up more iron curtains around the borders of Belarus, at time when the citizens in the streets of Minsk are campaigning for more democratic governance and closer ties to the West.

Thinking About Home

At times during my stay in Minsk, I brooded how I might get home; I live in Geneva. I had my Interrail pass but it would only work once I got back to Poland or the EU. I did think about a sleeper from Minsk to Lviv (in the Ukraine) and from there catching a flight back to Geneva, but that notion went nowhere when I discovered that the night train service was suspended (perhaps another symbol that Belarus plays a lot of politics with travel restrictions).

I also thought about a day train to Vilnius, Lithuania, where once again I could use my rail pass, but the train links from Vilnius to Warsaw are spotty (the projected high speed rail connection isn’t yet in service), and a detour to Lithuania, pleasant it might be, would get me home days later than I wanted.

I looked at catching a Russian sleeper that, improbably, connects Minsk to Milan (actually the train goes from Moscow to Nice—The Oligarch Express?), but a ticket on that train would have cost many hundreds of dollars, and besides it was not running on the day that I wanted to leave.

In the end I devised a Rube Goldberg plan to recross the border into the EU at Brest (where I knew the system), and from there with my rail pass to connect to Warsaw, Vienna, Zurich and home.

Crossing the New Iron Curtain

To get to Brest (it’s in Belarus and used to be called Brest-Litovsk), I booked myself on an overnight sleeper (it’s only a six hour journey), so that I would arrive early in the morning and have all morning to cross the Polish border and catch a train in Warsaw.

As it turned out I needed all of my allotted spare time. After the (brief and restless) night train from Minsk dumped me in the cavernous Brest railway palace, I spent an hour in the bowels of the station, trying to figure out how to catch the shuttle service (it takes about five minutes) to Terespol, Poland. When I finally crossed the border, I spent another hour trying to clear immigration into the EU.

The line for the EU border control snaked through a subterranean tunnel in Terespol, and by the time I got my passport stamped, the local train to Warsaw had departed, which meant I had to hire a taxi and drive to Biala Podlaska, the next station up the line, where there was more frequent service to Warsaw.

I thought we might catch the local train running through nearby fields, but my taxi driver drove with the urgency of the poky little puppy.

The reason for the disruption on the main East-West rail line was track work being done along the Berlin – Warsaw – Minsk – Moscow corridor, so that it can handle Pan European freight and more passengers (leaving aside the current sanctions against Belarus and Russia), and better accommodate the rail change that happens between Terespol and Brest, where the EU’s standard gauge (4 ft 8 1⁄2 in) becomes Russia’s broad gauge (5 ft).

Other things being equal, which I know they never are in Eastern Europe, the journey from Minsk to Warsaw should take 3-4 hours, as the distance is 300 miles. In China, the trip could be done in less than two hours on a high-speed train.

I made the journey in 12 hours, as a new Iron Curtain has descended on the narrow rail bridge between Brest, Belarus, and Terespol, Poland, which are on either side of the River Bug, which for the moment is east of the sun and west of the moon.

The Train from Warsaw to Vienna

Because I missed the earlier train, I only had two-and-a-half hours between trains in Warsaw, but decided it was enough time to ride my bicycle to the National Museum and inspect some materials about the “Polish Occupation” in Belarus.

I found a poster of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that shows a Nazi hand shaking hands with a Russian hammer-and-sickle hand across what looks like a dagger wound drawn across central Poland.

Then I caught the afternoon train to Vienna that was both empty and delightfully efficient, arriving in the Austrian capital at 21:49.

My overnight train to Zurich did not leave until 23:26, which left me 97 minutes for a mad dash around Vienna on my bicycle. For a change in central European weather, it was a warm spring night.

When I lived in the city in spring 1975, while going to school at the Institute of European Studies, I prided myself on knowing most of the streets between the Westbahnhof (then the main station) and the First District (inside the Ringstrasse).

All during the train ride from Warsaw to Vienna—like some prisoner-of-war playing chess in his head—I worked on the details of my bike ride around Vienna.

Since the 1970s the Hauptbahnhof has moved to the location of the old Südbahnhof, and I was less sure of myself on those back streets. But all tram lines in Vienna lead to the Ring, and I decided to wing it—for some night air after a long slog from Minsk.

Viennese Embers

Leaving the station at high speed, I decided to ride to the Institute of European Affairs (it’s in the First District, on Johannesgasse), and there leave an inscribed book in the memory of Clarence Giese, who was the dean when I was there and a great man, and his wife Alberta, both of whom had recently died.

Then I would ride up the Kärntner Strasse and cut over to the Hofburg, for a panoramic view of imperial Vienna, before high-tailing it back to the station and my night train to Zurich.

I made a few wrong turns around the city, but not many, as I found myself guided by the rails of memory. I left the book, in remembrance of the Gieses, in a mailbox on Johannesgasse.

On the way to the Hofburg I rode past the apartment building where I lived during that semester: Stallburggasse 4, in the apartment of Baronin Stemberger, whose husband, a cavalry officer, died in the opening days of the Second World War.

My single room (once a maid’s accommodation) was opposite the Spanish Riding School and down the street from the Café Bräunerhof, where I read the newspapers and met friends the Streets in the afternoon. (Some Viennese get their mail and laundry delivered to their café, but I didn’t go to that extreme; I was just happy to get the baseball scores from the International Herald Tribune.)

The Hofburg (it’s a series of royal buildings) was unchanged from the 1970s, and the soft lighting on the façades of the imperial residence reminded me of walks home after classes. (I was studying history, but did take ballroom dancing.)

In 1914, before World War I began, the Austrian Empire, with its capital here, stretched from Italy to the Russian border, embracing any number of religions, languages, and races of people.

It occupied much of what today is Austria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, northern Romania, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Hercegovina, southern Poland, and western Ukraine—not very far from Brest, Pinsk, and Minsk.

Five years later only the rump Austrian state remained. How could something so imposing be so transient? But then, on my night bicycle ride across Vienna, I was reminded of a memoir, Embers, published in 1942 by the Hungarian writer Sándor Márai, in which he writes:

“My homeland,” says the guest, “no longer exists. My homeland was Poland, Vienna, this house, the barracks in the city, Galicia, and Chopin. What’s left? Whatever mysterious substance held it all together no longer works. Everything’s come apart. My homeland was a feeling, and that feeling was mortally wounded. When that happens, the only thing to do is go away.”

On those notes I rode toward home.

This is the last in the series. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.