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Dark Days in Belarus

Surviving the Soviet Hangover in the former USSR's last dictatorship

ISSUE:  Fall 2011


The illuminated monument to the dead of World War II in Victory Square, Minsk, Belarus.
The illuminated monument to the dead of World War II in Victory Square, Minsk, Belarus.

Of the many odd things that strike the first-time visitor to Minsk, at least two stand out. The first is the near-spotlessness of its streets, a feature that is accentuated by the vast expanses of concrete, both horizontal and vertical, and only partly explained by the squads of uborshchitsy in orange vests who sweep the pavement throughout the day. The second is the absence of signage bearing the image of Alexander Lukashenko, the man often called Europe’s last dictator. From Havana to Pyongyang, authoritarian leaders of his ilk are liberal in using vain propaganda to gild their cults of personality and remind any would-be troublemakers that state control is total. And yet, in the Belarusian capital, a poster or billboard of the dour president with the trademark black moustache is very hard to find.

The reason is the same one that accounts for the absence of trash—as well as the order of motorists on roads, where honking is seldom heard; the dearth of jaywalkers and queue-jumpers; the groups of men, young and old, who idle at cafes along city sidewalks and rural highways well before noon, swilling beer from 40-ounce plastic bottles; the way, half-drunk, they lean forward and talk in soft voices; the lack of crime that lets one take a midnight stroll without a second thought; a lonely bureaucrat’s reluctance to accept a bribe despite a standard of living that grows leaner by the day; his decision to vote, election after election, for a president he does not like.

It is fear. Seventeen years after taking power, Lukashenko need not plaster the walls of his country; he inhabits people’s minds.

On December 20, thousands of opposition supporters nonetheless assembled in Minsk’s Independence Square—a no-man’s-land of steel and glass, surveillance cameras and biting cold, but these were not enough to keep them from protesting another sham election. Official results from the previous day’s ballot held that Lukashenko had won 80 percent of a vote that local and independent observers said failed to meet basic democratic standards. At polling stations where vote counts were not overseen, returns were unanimously in favor of the president, who, by claiming a landslide victory, could avoid an irksome second round en route to a fourth straight term.

Pedestrians pass a billboard honoring Soviet-era war veterans in downtown Minsk.
Pedestrians pass a billboard honoring Soviet-era war veterans in downtown Minsk. The image of Alexander Lukashenko, often called Europe’s last dictator, is notably absent from such signage.

Waving the medieval red and white Belarusian flag over full-throated chants— “Long live Belarus!” and “The people, united, will never be defeated!”—the crowds demanded that he resign. When the glass doors of the Government House building were broken, in what appeared to be a provocation, authorities made their move. State militia, wielding metallic shields and clubs, swept in with abandon, at times pummeling women face down in the snow. They were backed up by gangs of black-clad thugs who waylaid anyone in their path before hauling them away into unmarked buses. Save for the statue of Lenin that lords over it, spot-lit, the square was emptied. In all, more than six hundred people were arrested, among them seven of the nine candidates allowed to run.

Two of the main challengers, Vladimir Neklayev and Andrei Sannikov, were singled out. Neklayev, an aging poet and head of the Speak the Truth movement, was knocked unconscious by masked men on a backstreet then abducted in a blanket from the hospital where he was being treated. The runner-up with 2.4 percent of the official tally, Sannikov, a former diplomat, was also badly beaten and spirited to prison where he remains today. With their leaders bruised and behind bars, opposition activists were at a loss. “There was no room to breathe, let alone show how fed up we are with this regime,” said Vitya, a twenty-year-old university student who spent almost two weeks in jail for taking part in the unrest. “We weren’t sure what to do next.”

Hands holding Russian currency, newly printed prior to the elections to support Lukashenko's proposed "salary hike".
In the run-up to the December elections, Lukashenko kept his promise to give public-sector workers a salary hike by simply printing more money—causing runaway inflation. Currency plunged in value by 60 percent.

In hard times, the Chernobyl disaster of April 26, 1986, has always served as a rallying point for the Belarusian opposition. Though better associated with neighboring Ukraine, it was Belarus that bore the brunt of the world’s greatest nuclear accident. When reactor No. 4 melted down, winds carrying the radioactive fallout began moving from northwest to east. To protect Moscow and other heavily populated cities at risk, Soviet authorities sacrificed an appendage, seeding the lethal cloud drift with explosives that scattered its poison across large swathes of southeastern Belarus. Residents near Gomel, the regional capital, reported spotting aircraft circling overhead ejecting colored material behind them—silver iodide, Russian pilots later revealed—to facilitate rain clouds that would “wash out” the radioactive particles. Over 70 percent of the resulting fallout landed on Belarus, casting a pall over an entire generation below.

Only in 1989 did the Belarusian public gain a true sense of the disaster’s scale. Pravda newspaper, the mouthpiece of the party, revealed that more than 40 percent of the country, or 32,000 square miles, had been contaminated. By then, some 257,000 hectares of land had been taken out of agricultural production and one-fifth of forests rendered off limits. Tens of thousands were relocated. But thousands more were stranded in the worst affected zone, due to poverty and state inertia, never to leave. With time, the consequences came into sharper focus as more and more people developed lifethreatening ailments caused by radiation.

If there was a silver lining to the Chernobyl cover-up, political scientists say it was a catalyst of glasnost, the policy of openness introduced by then-Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev. After famously waiting three weeks to issue comments on the accident, mounting pressure from the West moved authorities to grant unprecedented media access to the site. Unfettered, journalists gradually moved on to probe other reaches of the broken system, exposing the flaws of the country’s economy and the underbelly of its history as the failure of the Red Army’s decade-long campaign in Afghanistan came full circle. Popular anxieties now had some room for expression.

Indeed, the nationalist movement that emerged on the Belarusian political scene owes much of its genesis to Chernobyl-inspired parties like the Popular Front, which staged regular protests in the latter half of the 1980s against Moscow’s pathological secrecy. In tandem with green party counterparts in Ukraine, the campaign gained traction, and, finally, a rare success: authorities declared a five-year moratorium in 1990 on new nuclear reactors, bringing the entire program to a halt on the eve of the Soviet Union’s collapse. It was, arguably, the high watermark of Belarusian activism.

And, ever since, opposition leaders have used the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster to tap anti-government sentiment and denounce fresh miscarriages of democracy. As recently as 2006, when post-election protests saw Lukashenko order brutal crackdowns that included a wave of arrests, rival party leaders seized on the anniversary to mobilize about ten thousand demonstrators in Minsk.

This year was different. For the first time since the country gained independence in 1991, no one stepped forward to lead the Chernobyl rally. Amid fears of a repeat of the December crackdowns, Minsk’s Independence Square stood quiet and empty. The silence was especially noticeable because it was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the disaster—and only a month earlier another major nuclear accident had occurred in Fukushima, Japan, after a massive earthquake cracked the containment pit under a reactor at the Daiichi nuclear plant. If the timing of the Fukushima accident weren’t irony enough, four days later, as the rest of the world questioned the safety of nuclear power, Belarus signed a $9 billion dollar deal with a Russian consortium to construct its first nuclear power plant, just thirty miles from Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius. The site sits in an active tectonic trench.

On my first evening in Minsk I was walking to dinner when waves of applause rose from multiple directions, like sports fans celebrating a win on the way home. But this was no ordinary clapping. For the third consecutive week, scores had gathered in the city center and fanned out into the streets to protest a gathering economic crisis, the country’s worst to date. Ahead of me, people converged on a street corner beneath a battleship gray basrelief commemorating workers’ solidarity. In their twenties and thirties, the protestors ranged from clean-cut professionals to dreadlocked punks. With nervous smiles many looked around to confirm their peers had not left as wired agents of the KGB—as the secret police is still known here—filmed them with video cameras. A few protestors shot right back with camera-phones. For the better part of an hour the clapping rose and fell, gaining momentum when taxi drivers honked in support.

In the run-up to the December elections, Lukashenko had kept his promise to give publicsector workers a salary hike by simply printing more money. Already reeling from a squeeze on the Russian energy subsidies it has depended on, the state-controlled economy was pummeled by his recklessness: runaway inflation slashed the value of pensions and salaries, dried up imports, and led to a shortage of basic goods on store shelves as worried consumers stockpiled. Stuck with a currency that had plunged in value by 60 percent since January, people lined up for days at foreign exchange kiosks to buy scarcely available dollars and euros.

In early June, hundreds of motorists choked the center of the capital to demand lower fuel prices. In a rare concession, Lukashenko cut prices the next day, only to be confronted by more protests against rules limiting the frequency of cross-border travel—measures aimed at curbing the brisk black market trade in gas, cigarettes, and home appliances. In the western city of Grodno, drivers blocked the border for several hours until they were forcibly dispersed by police tear gas. Near Brest, protesters who demanded an end to fuel quotas were subdued by local authorities. The message was clear: such disruptions would not be tolerated.

But, buoyed by developments in Egypt and Tunisia, a 24-year-old activist named Viachaslau Dziyanau had a new idea for the protest group he founded in 2009 on a popular Russianlanguage social networking site, vkontaktye. Non-violent flash mobs would meet at the same time and place each week and clap hands. At the very least, the stunt would show defiance of draconian restrictions against public gatherings, but maybe, just maybe, they would provoke an overreaction to expose the president’s paranoia and arouse the typically passive working classes. With coordinators living inside Belarus and abroad, the movement evolved into the so-called Revolution Through Social Networks and amassed more than 215,000 followers online, despite government efforts to shut them down.

Lukashenko dismissed the movement. “The typical member is sixteen or seventeen years old, a cigarette dangling from his lips, and a girl under his left arm,” he said of them at a June press conference. “It’s sad that today we have such youth.” The president’s lazy caricature seemed to belie a genuine concern over the flash-mob phenomenon. These protesters, after all, were born right around the time of the Chernobyl disaster, with only a vague memory of the Soviet era’s sterile comforts. Unlike their parents, Belarus’s restless youth are not saddled with nostalgia for days past. Stability amounts to drudgery, the death of inner life. Change is exciting. And this generation is finding its voice online, where dynamic ideas can be shared beyond the reach of the state. And it has less to lose.

Andrei, a lanky 22-year-old first-time protestor, told me that he was on his way to see friends when he heard the clapping. He hadn’t planned to attend the rally; he just joined in for lack of anything better to do. His friend Vitaly, a muscular accountant, grinned that he was taking part for a second week and hoped to “annoy the president.” This time, it worked. Only minutes after the clapping began, riot police rolled up in vans. The protesters scattered helter skelter. About a dozen young men were caught and dragged away to jeers and whistles, a fraction of the 450 people arrested around the country. Some were fined and jailed for up to fifteen days for “hooliganism.”

Andrei, Vitaly, and I retreated to a bar along the Svislach River. Over a round of cold beers, both of them expressed a desire to leave Belarus for good. Russia was the destination of choice; America the one of dreams. A huge fan of electronic music, Andrei wanted most of all to go nightclubbing in New York and Miami and meet loads of American women. Vitaly had a girlfriend but said he was ready to go anyway. If only they could secure a visa. (Their raw enthusiasm reminded me of a computer programmer I met on the train from Warsaw who had just won the US visa lottery and planned to join some friends in Silicon Valley. “For how long?” I asked. “Forever!”)

Having a good time was clearly a high priority, but they were not the apolitical punks Lukashenko portrayed. Vitaly was worried about the hit in purchasing power his modest salary had taken from the crisis, and he planned to keep taking part in the protests. The widening economic disparities were unacceptable, he said. Pointing to a half-built high-rise complex in the distance, he claimed the units were selling for $1.5 million a piece and reserved exclusively for the president’s cronies and mistresses. An exaggeration, to be sure, but the implication was true: while preaching the blue-collar values of family and work, Lukashenko had fathered an extra-marital child and is, according to Forbes magazine’s 2010 list, Belarus’s richest man by a mile. At the mention of his nickname, “batka” (daddy), the pair repeated it and chuckled before raising glasses in a toast popular among the anti-Lukashenko crowd: “Shos,” they said, which translates loosely as, “Let him croak.”

Karl Marx Street happens to be the swankest in the capital. Lined with expensive bars and boutiques that overreach in their attempts at continental chic, it runs parallel to Nezavisimosti Avenue, a popular shopping thoroughfare where one can eat at McDonald’s or TGIFriday’s within view of the Belarusian KGB headquarters. It was doubly strange, then, that Alexander Feduta, a well-known journalist and strategist for the opposition Neklayev campaign, should ask me to meet him at a café there. He had spent 109 days in prison following the December election crackdown, almost half the time locked away in solitary confinement inside the pale yellow monolith that dominates a whole city block just around the corner. Out of sight but not out of mind.

Alexander Feduta takes a phone call and warily scans the patrons of a street-side cafe in Minsk.
Alexander Feduta, a well-known journalist and strategist for the opposition Vladimir Neklayev campaign, takes a phone call and warily scans the patrons of a street-side cafe in Minsk.

Feduta positioned himself at a corner seat that allowed him to survey the sidewalk terrace. His wire-framed glasses and boyish features brought to mind Bill Gates, saddled with an extra hundred-fifty pounds. His home and cell phones were tapped, he said, and he had reason to believe he was trailed on most of his outings around town; to our meeting he could not be certain. Feduta’s voice lowered slightly as two middle-aged men sat at the table next to ours. When a waiter showed up to take our order, he stopped talking altogether until he walked away.

At 5 a.m. on the morning of December 20, hours after his boss, Neklayev, was attacked and kidnapped, KGB agents showed up at Feduta’s apartment and arrested him on charges of “organizing mass unrest.” He expected a long stay inside; the maximum penalty for his “offense” was fifteen years. But his sentence was lowered, and he was moved to a better cell, then a better one. Figuring that he was on the verge of being released, he was instead sent down to solitary. A single volume rested on his bed. It outlined the KGB’s Stalin-era torture methods. On day 44 in solitary, Feduta started raving that he was part of a conspiracy to oust Lukashenko. It was a false confession, sudden and uncontrollable, that went on for hours. The guards told him it was unnecessary to say such things, that he was talking nonsense, but now there was no question that Feduta had gotten the message. Eleven days later, he was released.

It was no accident that Feduta languished on bogus charges long after most of his opposition colleagues were let go: he and Lukashenko were friends before they were enemies. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Belarus, like most of the former bloc countries, was in disarray. Along with the Russian Federation and Ukraine, it had formed the Commonwealth of Independent States and was prey to the organized crime networks that were cannibalizing its neighbors. Factories and military hardware were looted. Feckless officials stood by or got their hands dirty. As unemployment and inflation surged, so did the anxieties of working-class Belarusians accustomed to state welfare.

Enter Lukashenko. The only member of the new parliament who had voted against the agreement that dissolved the Soviet Union, he minted his reputation as a crusader against crooked ex-party elites in 1993 when he accused seventy top officials of stealing state funds, forcing the prime minister to step down after a vote of no confidence. When Lukashenko decided to run for president the next year on a promise to restore order, Feduta—looking for the right man to purge the old guard, clean up the country, and usher in free-market reforms—hitched onto his campaign. “We wanted to choose an opposition candidate who had staying power in Belarusian politics,” he told me, unapologetically. “That was Alexander Lukashenko.”

Born in 1954 to a single mother in a poor eastern village, Lukashenko rose from the Komsomol youth wing to manage a collective farm. There, and in the Communist Party’s propaganda department, he honed his talent for oratory. But his real gift was reading the public’s mood. By leveraging his humble background, Lukashenko convinced people he was one of their own. In Belarus’s first and only free-and-fair ballot, in 1994, he swept the field. “It wasn’t about who was the most clever or ambitious; everybody had to be equal,” Feduta explained. “It took some time for people to realize this was not equality at all, that just like in Soviet times some people are more equal than others.”

Weeks into office, Lukashenko ordered Feduta to shut down a host of independent media outlets. Feduta was shocked and quit after only five months, the start of a rupture that deepened when he entered journalism. In his columns he became an increasingly strident critic of the president—and Lukashenko gave him plenty of fodder.

In November 1996, Lukashenko won a constitutional referendum that effectively legalized his dictatorship. He disbanded the parliament that had tried to impeach him and packed it with handpicked replacements. He strengthened his control over the judiciary, appointing and removing high-court judges at will. Instituting what he branded “market socialism,” the country became a de facto island within Europe as the state set prices and exchange rate controls and employed 80 percent of the population.

Economic growth was a myth, of course, sustained by cheap oil and gas from Russia, imported at below market prices and then refined before being sold to Europe. Profits from the trade were used, first and foremost, to amass an immense security apparatus.

Mounting human rights violations yielded on-again, off-again sanctions from the EU and condemnation from US officials, troubled by Belarus’s arms dealings with Iran and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. In comments that echoed President Bush’s infamous “Axis of Evil” speech, former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice said in 2005 that Belarus was an “outpost of tyranny” where the US needed to help usher in more freedom. Lukashenko, for his part, blamed foreign governments for conspiring against him but never rejected the gist of their claims. “An authoritarian style of rule is characteristic of me, and I have always admitted it,” he was once quoted as saying. “You need to control the country, and the main thing is not to ruin people’s lives.”

Unless, apparently, they happen to be former allies understood to have betrayed you.

Maria, a 29-year-old writer, told me that the bar-gallery complex is one of a handful of places where brash, open-minded intellectuals can let off steam. Not too loudly, though: undercover KGB are known to stop by and eavesdrop.

Three months removed from his purgatory, Feduta was a shell of the laughing Buddha a friend had earlier likened him to. “I’m not a healthy man,” he sighed. His obesity and malaise were obvious signs of a thyroid problem; his insistence that solitary confinement had not broken his will unconvincing. The truth was, his writing output had slowed to a trickle and he was considering taking a job in Moscow to campaign for a parliamentary candidate belonging to United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s party. The thought of being connected to an ex-KGB man was not a savory one, he said, but what else could he do with a family to support? No one in Belarus wanted to hire a guy like him.

Before we parted, I asked Feduta about the flash-mob protests I had witnessed the day before. Did they have any traction, or were they an overhyped fad? He was dismissive at first: the protesters were untested; it was too soon to say given the regime’s relatively mild response to their antics so far. “When the factory workers come out,” he said, “then revolution will really be on.” Still, he continued, there is one concealed effect of the growing number of countrymen who are seeing the inside of prison walls like he did. They have relatives. “As [Lukashenko] shows more fear and suppresses people like this, the stronger the opposition becomes,” he said. Paralysis, in other words, is thawed out by hatred. “Now my wife hates Lukashenko personally.”

His cell phone rang; I took a look around. Two tables over to my right, an attractive blonde with surgically-enhanced lips in a baby blue satin coat now sat alone smoking a cigarette. She made eye contact, took a long drag, and turned away to exhale. Strange that such a woman should be alone. I caught her eyes again. The off chance that she was taking an interest in our conversation was farfetched, a function of having watched too many spy movies. But in Belarus these were the weird games the mind starts to play.

The Moloko Bar sits halfway down a shaded alley a short walk from Victory Square, a monument to the country’s war dead where the newly married go for photographs. You know you’re on the right road when you see the avant-garde mural, a mash-up of Renaissance- era paintings and graffiti, that runs along the pavement, ending at a matte white building with the letter ” ” painted by the door, the name of the attached art gallery. The letter is unique to the Belarusian alphabet, amounting to a kind of middle finger to Lukashenko’s latter-day Soviet regime responsible for what activists have dubbed a “cultural Chernobyl.” Such venues are around every corner in European cities like Berlin and Barcelona, but in Minsk they are very much an exception. Maria, a 29-year-old writer, breathlessly told me over a milkshake that the bar-gallery complex is one of a handful of places where brash, open-minded intellectuals can let off steam. Not too loudly, though: undercover KGB are known to stop by and eavesdrop.

But if Lukashenko’s regime is Big Brother to the Belarusian people, it is little brother to Russia, whose history has supplanted the country’s own. Propaganda-laden billboards and store bookshelves suggest World War II has just ended, the Nazi hordes ousted thanks to heroics of the Red Army. Though still considered an official language, the native tongue is essentially banned in schools and public places; violators have been punished with fines, beatings, or prison time. This, in turn, has made Belarusian a de-facto opposition code. “Belarusian is the language of the radical and the intellectual,” Maria explained. “If you are cultured, you want to at least understand it.” (She pointed out that many of the protesters who get arrested tend to distinguish themselves by shouting slogans in Belarusian.)

A patron at the gallery ducks to conceal her face.
A patron at the gallery, a favored gathering place for young artists and anti-government organizers in Minsk, ducks to conceal her face.

Thus, Belarusian culture has not died, just lived underground. “Almost illegal,” she declared, standing over a table of volumes at the bookshop next door to the milk bar. Gritty street photography, prose and erotic poetry: all in Belarusian. Ihar Lohvinau, the publisher of Maria’s first book, a meditation on the intellectual drain that afflicts the country, kept an office at the back of the complex. A workaholic, he is said to be in perpetual debt—and under surveillance— because of his commitment to upstart Belarusian authors. Print runs are typically no more than a few hundred copies, passed from hand-to-hand. The marginalization faced by writers extends also to artists and musicians who are in any way critical of the government. A growing number, like Lyapis Trubetskoy, a rock band with a humorous music video that employs surrealistic pop-art to compare Lukashenko to other world dictators, are on an unofficial blacklist that bans them from mention on state media. The list is not restricted to local acts. Kevin Spacey, Jude Law, and Kevin Kline are there, along with the Pet Shop Boys and Tom Stoppard, who is an outspoken supporter of Belarus’s opposition, albeit from a safe distance.

A familiar undercurrent could be felt on the opening night of a recent exhibition at the gallery. Although good music and wine were flowing, the young and beautiful in attendance spoke in hushed tones, casting furtive glances over their shoulders. The culture minister was there. Wearing a steel-gray suit and a hard expression, he nodded as the curator made her case for the works of Andrei Busel, a hip up-and-coming street artist. In a police state like this, his metier—tagging fifteenth-century religious icons onto abandoned urban structures—might qualify as cutting-edge. But a Belarusian Banksy he is not.

I asked him if there was any political symbolism to his creations. “I guess that’s not something I think about a lot when I work,” he said. “You can decide for yourself.” His coyness could be forgiven. He was talking to a complete stranger. And although the minister had left, several KGB agents were still combing through the crowd. You really didn’t need to see an earpiece to identify them.

Patrons drinking wine outside the opening of a show by a hip up-and-coming street artist at the gallery.
Patrons drinking wine outside the opening of a show by a hip up-and-coming street artist at the gallery.

In Minsk, there was no graffiti or anything spontaneous to relieve the dystopian gloom. The Old Town, rebuilt after it was destroyed by the Nazis in World War II, was a sterile mock-up devoid of locals or visitor-friendly attractions. The “Palace of Sports” was closed. The churches and cathedrals were as lifeless as any in Europe. City parks offered some refuge from the bland neo-classical avenues crawling with military men in outsized hats, though not much. Trees were spaced evenly apart, affording authorities a clean line of sight of the forlorn men in army fatigues who fished the riverbanks alone with their bottles, or the teenage couples eating ice cream, rigid as the wooden benches they sat on. No one dared stretch out on the fresh-cut cubes of grass. Patrolmen would show up out of nowhere to kick them off.

Even the lions and tigers at the state circus I attended one evening were in a funk. Although they outnumbered the swaggering ringmaster seven-to-one, to my disappointment they could not be bothered to lunge at him as the whip cracked their backs. Perhaps they had taken actual sedatives. The boredom was made worse by the angst of reporting in a police state on a tourist visa. Is the hotel room bugged? Haven’t I seen that man before? Okay to contact opposition sources by cell phone, or stick to random phone booths? What happens if I get arrested? Deportation, or worse?

The signal that it was time to leave the city came during an interview with a jobless economist who had a taste for lager. It began sober enough, with his insistence that he was a true independent, apolitical. By selling-off state key assets to Russia or a making a deal with the International Monetary Fund, he said the regime could defuse the current crisis for the near-term. But by the fourth mug, his thesis on Belarus’s current accounts deficit problem had lapsed into loutish declarations about the coming revolution that echoed around the restaurant. Opposite me, a lunching apparatchik with a flag on his lapel clenched his jaw. If he wasn’t listening already, I thought, he is now.

A wandering cow blocks the road to Mozyr.
A wandering cow blocks the road to Mozyr.

I drove south to pay a visit to Valery Dranchuk, an ecologist that a dissident in Warsaw put me in touch with. The grim apartment blocs and factories that blight the capital’s outskirts eventually flattened into sprawling farmlands plied by giant combines. As in Soviet times, the majority of agricultural land is state-owned; collective farms still employ about 10 percent of the population and produce staples like wheat and barley. And while road signs of children in folk costume smiling amid golden fields did their best to evoke an idyllic land, jobs and output are declining as legions of rural poor decamp for cities.

Farther ahead the legendary forest crept all the way up to the edge of the highway, a vortex of birch and pine that started to have a darkly hypnotic effect with the passing miles. The refuge of wolves and wild boars, it was into these deep woods that Jewish partisans fled from Nazi German occupiers in the early 1940s to avoid extermination, then regrouped to launch bold counter-attacks. They were a small minority who lived to see the end of the war. Within three years, an estimated 800,000 Belarusian Jews were killed in a conflict that claimed a third of the total population, leaving a permanent black spot on the national psyche. As a whole, no country suffered more than Belarus.

Missing the turn to Dranchuk’s place, I doubled back to a dirt road and kept an eye out for an oak tree as instructed. He had told me over the phone that he lives in the capital but was spending more time at his family’s estate take care of his mother, stricken with Alzheimer’s. “The fresh air here will do you some good,” he had signed off. A serene man with a shock of white hair and spectacles of a mad professor, Dranchuk guided me past an overgrown apple orchard and wild flowers to the whisper of the wind in the canopy above. A ramshackle cabin with an outhouse sat at the back. The property had been in the family since the seventeenth century, he said, a slice of the bucolic spared from Soviet totalitarianism. These days it offers him a quick escape from the continuum.

This reality first hit him at of a 1996 conference held in Kiev to mark the tenth anniversary of Chernobyl. Dranchuk remembers watching TV with scientists from around the world, in awe, as the first-term president gave an interview from the contaminated zone. In no uncertain terms, Lukashenko said the area was safe, that his fellow Belarusians needed to reclaim the land for farming; it was their birthright. After cultivating the image of a strong custodian of Chernobyl and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Lukashenko was exploiting the public’s trust to push a dangerous policy born of ego. “He introduced a whole new way of thinking about Chernobyl,” said Dranchuk. “That’s when I understood that ecology in Belarus was doomed.”

Outside of Minsk the landscape flattens into sprawling farmlands.
Outside of Minsk the landscape flattens into sprawling farmlands. As in Soviet times, the majority of agricultural land is state-owned.

A casual search on the Internet yields plenty of non-governmental organizations that deal with the environmental and health-related problems caused by the accident. Dozens of them include some riff on the name “Children of Chernobyl.” Scratch the surface, Dranchuk said, and most of them are GONGOs (governmentally organized non-governmental organizations) created by the regime to project a vigilant image to the West. The tactic is terribly cynical, given how revisionism has kept many families from leaving toxic areas and convinced others to return. Maladies that would have been treatable, he noted, have been exacerbated by the poisoned food and water that people continue to consume. Less explored are the psychological effects that have fueled widespread alcoholism and depression. Today, Belarus has one of the highest suicide rates in the world.

Based on a years-long examination of children’s cardiograms and autopsies done in area morgues, Yuri Bandashevsky, an anatomic pathologist who directed the Medical Institute in Gomel, proved that cardiovascular-related ailments in the region had surged due to the presence of cesium-137, one of the most radioactive yet least understood elements released by the disaster. His research left no doubt cesium-137 was to blame for the upsurge in thyroid cancer and other congenital diseases—and he was purged for it. On the eve of his arrest, in 1999, he criticized state research efforts and also accused the government of exporting radioactive produce to uncontaminated parts of the country. After five years in prison, Bandashevsky left Belarus. He has stayed vocal abroad, but other scientific experts have been scared into silence.

Dranchuk, for his part, stopped publishing his environmental journal many years ago and spends more time with his grandson Platon. Platon was born in 2006, while Dranchuk’s son was in the middle of a one-year prison stint for the crime of conducting exit polls. Dranchuk’s admittedly less than scientific theory is that the “terrible silence” afflicting the country is a direct symptom of the Chernobyl disaster. “Belarus was weakened as a nation, and susceptible to manipulation,” he said.

Valery Dranchuk, an ecologist, at his family's country estate.
Valery Dranchuk, an ecologist, at his family’s country estate. The property has been in his family since the seventeenth century and remained untouched by Soviet totalitarianism.

The silence in response to the new nuclear plant gave credence to his idea. Construction is underway in the western town of Astravets, one of the least polluted parts of Belarus. Some domestic commentators posit it will reduce the country’s co-dependence; while Russia provides essential energy supplies, it is a fickle ally that has used a carrot-and-stick policy toward Belarus. (In the latest spat, Moscow cut the flow of Russian electricity for several days to force Belarus to pay outstanding debts.) In Dranchuk’s view, though, the defiant project is part of the same chain of events set in motion when Lukashensko went on-air and summoned people back to radiation-affected lands fifteen years ago. He wants to “rehabilitate nuclear energy as a concept,” he said, and in doing so, turn Chernobyl from “tragedy to triumph.”

Back on the highway, the rains would not let up. Darkness fell. I pulled over to rest at an intersection choked with vehicles and soon struck up a conversation with Ivan, a leathery 59-year-old ex-army reservist. He complained that the value of his $115-a-month pension was cut by a third due to inflation, forcing him to sell wild strawberries for pocket money in his spare time. A veteran of tours in Afghanistan and the former Czechoslavakia, and a part-time farm technician, he was the archetype Lukashenko counted on for support. Except Ivan blamed the president for all his woes. “It’s gone from bad to worse,” he said, shaking his head. The president, he added, didn’t give a damn for true patriots like him.

Having waited in line in the drizzle for half an hour at the rear of a wholesaler’s truck, he sold his bucket of fruit for 4,000 roubles, or roughly 80 cents. Ivan made a sly smile and flicked his throat: the sign that it was time to drink vodka.

I never reached the radioactive zone. In a bizarre but somehow appropriate episode, my fellow journalist Dimiter Kenarov and I were arrested in the southern city of Mozyr. Dimiter was to be detained until replacement documents were arranged, and I was ordered out of country. The authorities said it was for reporting without press accreditation, with allusions to industrial espionage that threatened national security. “You must leave the Democrat Republic of Belarus within twenty-four hours,” a female immigration officer told me in mechanical English. It capped a daylong interrogation overseen by KGB goons, one of whom insisted I was CIA.

In the morning, I raced back to Minsk (an hour faster than the provincial authorities said it could be done). With some time to kill before my afternoon train to Vilnius, I met with Rusia Shukiurova, a bona fide child of Chernobyl who has since become a successful recording artist and brazen free-speech activist. In fact, she was the only person who gave me permission to publish his or her full name. “I don’t care anymore; write what you want,” she told me. “We’re sick of being afraid.”

Rusia’s chrome-blue eyes were pure Belarus, but her dark tousled hair and fiery spirit were Caucasian. As a teenager her mother had run away from Azerbaijan and married a rock guitarist soon after arriving in the border town of Terehovka, a stone’s throw from Ukraine. A drunk, he chased prostitutes and abandoned the family when Rusia was five, leaving his wife, daughter, and an infant son, alone and hungry. That first summer, she recalled, they had lived in a tent in a friend’s garden where they had only a loaf of bread and powdered soup for days at a stretch. The nuclear fallout arrived a year later.

Whenever it rained, Rusia’s mother forbade her from leaving the house; when the sky cleared, yellow flakes dusted the ground, eye candy she was instructed never to touch. School was an exercise in cognitive dissonance. Teachers told their students that as long as they were on the Belarusian side of the border, there was no danger from radiation. But if you crossed the line, “uh oh,” she said, adding that they believed this concept themselves. Aspirin was dispensed as iodine; fake check-ups were administered. One day, her step-dad collapsed and died in the middle of a pick-up basketball game. The victim of a routine diabetic attack, doctors said. In her gut, Rusia had her doubts.

It was not until she left Belarus at age fifteen on a foundation-sponsored tour to Germany, she said, that she “realized for the first time that somebody was fucking me up.” Taking a master’s degree in linguistics, she struggled to find work at home and went on to pursue a second master’s in visual research in Vilnius, where the backwardness of her country’s education system was laid threadbare. In Belarus, she was stuck with ancient Greeks and Soviet ideologues; abroad she was introduced to Zizek and Derrida. But the sojourn was cut short: on a routine hospital check-up, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. “It’s because of radiation, of course,” she said. “Many girls here have these problems.”

Rusia beat the disease at a state-run hospital and has since devoted herself to breathing life back into native folk music, part of a heritage the regime has repressed. Paid performances around Europe allow her to give free concerts back home in provincial towns where the “impotence of national identity” runs deepest. Her good looks and devil-may-care approach have also generated some unlikely admirers. On her wedding night, as family and friends celebrated on a tram car, a man who had been posing as a ticket checker suddenly offered her a fancy box of chocolates. “Congratulations,” the KGB officer said. “I just want you to know that we have a fan-club for you and don’t spread any bad rumors.” He alighted at the next stop.

About once a year, Rusia travels back to her village to see her mother and brothers, the youngest of whom has leukemia. Much as she missed her family, the summer of discontent was hard to walk away from. The week before, Rusia was out strolling with friends a few blocks from the protests when they were harassed by men in Adidas tracksuits who stepped out of an alley to demand their ID cards. A scuffle broke out when she refused and, unlike a pair of her friends, she managed to shake free. Her outrage was palpable, but she sensed a change in the air. While activists are getting more scared, she said, they are also growing more agitated by the state’s excessive brutality. Bold action was the only way to get rid of the Soviet hangover once and for all. “The roots of the system are so deep, I fear that only through revolution, with spilled blood, with something fast and powerful, can things be changed for good,” she said. “This country is made of fear.”

What followed was a Cold War flashback, straight out of Red Square: marching soldiers, ballistic missile trucks, tank columns, fighter jet flyovers.

As I crossed the border that evening, hand clapping rallies commenced at 7 p.m. as they had for five Wednesdays running. The usual round of arrests and beatings ensued, with whiffs of the absurd—a one-armed man was arrested in Grodno and fined the equivalent of $200. When authorities pre-positioned security agents at the normal rally points the following week, organizers changed locations at the last-second to foil them; a week later, they called for protesters to set their cell phone alarms to generate a collective beep as a way around the clapping ban. As the summer wore on, the limits of their creative resolve would be tested as the ridiculous gave way to the surreal: a new draft law was passed that prohibits people from standing together and doing nothing.

At this rate the notion that Internet driven flash-mobs could spark an Arab Spring-style uprising in Belarus seemed remote. There were no signs that Lukashenko’s security state was fraying: its henchmen were omnipresent; trade unions were grumbling across the country, but to themselves; and there were high-level talks of privatizing assets for sale to Russia, which would buy the regime more time. Yet there was no dispute the protesters had overcome the paralysis of their elders and established some momentum. If they could keep going into the fall and the economic noose continued to tighten—a prospect made plausible by rising utility bills and shortages of staples like bread and meat—the distant hope was that a critical mass of working class Belarusians might be roused to join them in the street. To do what, exactly, few could fathom.

On July 3, a Sunday, the protesters interrupted their weekly ritual to crash the regime’s much-anticipated Independence Day festivities, the biggest event of the year. Skies were overcast as Lukashenko, dressed in full military regalia, gave a speech warning his countrymen against harboring dreams of the kind of revolutions that successfully toppled governments in other ex-Soviet states like Ukraine and Georgia. Blaming the current unrest on shadowy forces operating in foreign capitals, he boomed: “They want to put us on our knees and reduce our independence to zero. This will not happen!” Because clapping in public was now forbidden altogether, no one in the audience dared put their hands together.

What followed was a Cold War flashback, straight out of Red Square: marching soldiers, ballistic missile trucks, tank columns, fighter jet flyovers. This being Belarus, it was leavened with homegrown kitsch—the national break-dancing and hockey teams; tractors with hats—all to the drone of patriotic music. Lukashenko saluted from the podium, flanked by his gruff generals. At his side in identical military garb, Kolya, his illegitimate son, did the same. A fixture at public events, he has also attended cabinet meetings and tags along on those rare occasions when his father travels abroad on state business. The dictator has hinted that he is grooming the boy to be his replacement.

He is six years old.

A passenger studies the train schedule at the Brest terminal, western Belarus.
A passenger studies the train schedule at the Brest terminal, western Belarus.

This story was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.


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