By Keli Dailey
FRONTLINE/World correspondent Keli Dailey during a stopover in Prague, coming back from Belarus, April, 2004. (photo: Malgorzata Wozniacka)
September 28, 2004
"They think they're so amazing," Katerina bristles as the two strutting skinheads disappear down the metro tunnel. She tugs at the red scarf tied underneath her chin, clutches her newspapers closer to her chest and leans against the yellow tiled wall that looks like it was brought up from the depths of a murky swimming pool.
Then the old woman makes an announcement.
"Belarus is full of [expletive], and they're so proud!"
The babushka, named Katerina after the German-born empress of Russia, is 79 years old. She has a girlish overbite and bright, dime-like eyes. And the pensioner is given to grumbling. About her 11th-story apartment and the dog who chews through her telephone cord. About the teachers who expect bribes to give good marks to her 13-year-old granddaughter. About life in general in the former Soviet republic of Belarus, 15 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
To hear Katerina tell it (in Russian, translated by a local
journalist I'm working with, Alex Kudrytski), her country saw
its last, best day back when Brezhnev held the reigns in the
Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics. (back when he
was the guy lashing out at Afghanistan's Mujahidin).
Katerina, a "news babushka,"
keeps an eye out for the metro police while illegally selling
independent newspapers in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
"Our service is dangerous and hard," she says. (photo: Keli
She had a healthy pension then (more than today's 120,000 rubles -- US$60 -- a month) and wasn't slogging through the underground tunnels of Belarus's capital city, Minsk, selling opposition newspapers to earn a few extra rubles.
Now the babushka lives with some 10 million other people under President Alexander Lukashenko, who's popular in the villages (where living poorly under a modern authoritarian isn't much different than living poorly under a Communist one) but vilified in the independent and international press as a tyrant.
In 1994, Lukashenko became Belarus's first democratically elected president. Then he dissolved parliament, kept the KGB (yeah, they're still around) and other Soviet-era oldies like collective farms, allegedly made a few opponents disappear, and got knighted "Europe's last dictator" by the human rights groups and others who keep watch over this part of the map.
Katerina calls him the "duke of his own swamp."
Who Counts the Votes?
The "swamp" in question, is flat, marshy, and landlocked between Russia, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and the Ukraine. The country's best-known natural feature is the Kurapaty forest on the outskirts of Minsk. Kurapaty is where mass graves of the victims of Stalin's purges were uncovered.
Belarus is smaller than the state of Kansas and usually grabs
a global headline only in tandem with a neighbor. As in "E.U.
Expansion Puts Poland on Sunny Side of Street; Belarus Not Included."
And more notoriously: "Belarus Gets Most Fallout From Ukraine's
Nuclear Reactor, Chernobyl." And the terrible contemporary spin-off:
"The Children of Chernobyl: 18 Years Later and Belarus Still
A building in the town of Kojdanova, sixty miles outside of Minsk. (photo: Keli Dailey)
The exception was the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, when tiny Belarus won two gold, six silver and seven bronze medals. Yuliya Nesterenko stunned the track and field world by winning the women's 100-meter dash. Suddenly the red and green flag of Belarus was on international television. (Red! For the blood spilt by the defenders of Belarus! Green! For the nation's forests! And no more hammer and sickle!)
But Belarus remains dependent on Russia, the planet's largest country. Some consider Belarus little more than a Russian military outpost. There is even a move to reunite Belarus with Russia, though the negotiations have stalled, thanks in part to President Lukashenko's demands for an equal partnership with Putin.
It's only 421 miles from Minsk to Moscow, and Belarus has rarely balked at Russian authority. Whereas other satellites tried to crawl out from under the Communist yoke after the Soviet Union was established in 1922 -- Czechoslovakia had its Prague Spring in 1968, Poland's Solidarity Movement started during the summer of 1980, and the east side of Germany used chisels and hammers for a historic act of defiance in 1989 -- Belarus sat comparatively quietly and stoically, in the grip of its giant neighbor.
Now Belarus must bear the distinction of enduring 10 years -- since the collapse of the Iron Curtain -- under the thumb of one of the last authoritarians standing in this part of the world. And there's plenty of buzz surrounding the upcoming 2006 presidential elections. Lukashenko wants to extend his presidency beyond the constitutionally allowed two terms. He's asking his countrymen to vote on changing the constitution this October. But there are concerns worldwide about the fairness of such a vote. The European Union is talking about imposing sanctions, and U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher says there are "grave doubts whether the results will freely and fairly reflect the views of the Belarusian people."
Which brings to mind the old Stalin adage: "It's not who votes that counts. It's who counts the votes."
I wanted to go to Belarus because of a travel book I found in a forgotten section of the public library in Berkeley, California. It said if you wanted to know what it was like to live under Communist rule, see Belarus.
So, here I am in Minsk, strolling down Masherov Avenue, but
it's slow going. The road is wide (wide enough for tanks), the
sidewalk even wider (there's a tank on display right outside
the president's residence). But even with all this space, I
still get the odd elbow and push on this busy street. I feel
crowded among the city's 1.8 million residents. And it does
not soothe me to hear that in 1999, when it started to rain
lightly on an outdoor concert and 2,000 people ran for cover
to the nearby Nemiga metro station, 54 people were trampled
A sweeper works in the Minsk metro.
Many elderly Belarusians supplement their pensions with
work in or around the metro. (photo: Keli Dailey)
It seems that all of Minsk's sidewalks lead to the 19-station metro. Alex Kudrytski, my colleague and translator, says that its Soviet designers billed the gray, concrete structure as a public fallout shelter when it was unveiled in 1984 during the jittery Cold War days. These days, some 420,000 people venture underground daily to commute to and from work, to buy a paper or perhaps the first forget-me-nots of the spring, or maybe, if you're a skinhead, to just hang out, looking for a fight.
Alex has brought me to this drafty metro tunnel in Minsk, his
hometown. He is a guileless 24-year-old giant who works at a
state-run television station and, on the side, writes for opposition
newspapers. We are working on a story about the little old ladies,
the babushkas, who sell the scrappy, independent newspapers
that rail against President Lukashenko. These "news babushkas,"
as Alex calls them, are the opposition press's main means of
distribution -- Lukashenko banned the country's top-selling
newspaper, the independent Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta,
and her sister papers from all the (state-owned) newsstands
and (state-owned) printing houses. The national post service
won't deliver the opposition newspapers, even to subscribers.
People here can still go to jail or disappear for what they
write and say. Which is one of the reasons that human rights
groups call this country one of the world's 10 worst places
to be a journalist.
So there we are in the metro tunnel, interviewing Katerina, the news babushka.
It's late afternoon. I'm wearing a wool peacoat that rarely sees
the light of day in California. Alex is talking to Katerina in
Russian, the language most widely spoken language in Belarus.
(Lukashenko has banned Belarusian, the language of protest, from
Nikolas and Timur, teenage skinheads, perform a Nazi salute outside the metro in Minsk. Police and KGB agents have begun patrolling the metro in response to skinhead attacks against foreigners. (photo: Keli Dailey)
I suddenly feel a hot stare from a few feet away and look
up from my reporters notebook to lock eyes with a dead
ringer for a young Willem Dafoe, a pale youth with a dimple
in his chin. He doesnt drop eye contact even when he spits
on the concrete floor, in the direction of my feet. Hes
just sent a wet sputter of contempt my way.
There was a piece in the opposition press a few days earlier that said the police and the KGB were patrolling Minsk in response to recent attacks on foreigners by some of the city's estimated 500 skinheads. A neo-Nazi mob had tried to attack a foreign student dormitory in February, and in a separate incident, 70 or so skinheads severely injured three Chinese students. And I met two Nigerians who play for a Belarusian soccer team who say they've been attacked almost a dozen times in a few months, mainly around the metro.
I'm a small, black woman, but skinheads notwithstanding, I am not inclined to remain silent when spat at. With as much sarcasm as I can muster, I tell the skinhead in Russian, "Spaciba" -- thanks.
He spins on his combat-booted heels and marches up to me, his friend close behind, and says in English: "This is my f---ing country, you monkey!"
Alex intervenes and somehow manages to calmly talk the guy down. In between, he whispers an explanation.
"I'm telling him we're journalists," he says to me. "That we're interested in the skinhead perspective."
Their names are Nikolas and Timur, and they are both 19. They want to keep the race pure. They know their President Lukashenko is an authoritarian, but look at how America behaves! Was 9/11 staged so that America had terrorism as an excuse to take over the world? Would a black person die if he drank vodka?
Nikolas, the one who looks like a young Willem Dafoe, stresses three points: 1. Post-Soviet open borders compromise the nation's pure Slavic blood (although I know that plenty of African and Arab nations sent students here during Communism, and current border checkpoints aren't exactly easy swinging saloon doors) 2. Lukashenko might be oppressive, but at least he doesn't bother other nations 3. America is trying to take over the world.
"I ask to take their photo. Nikolas and Timur agree, but they insist on going above ground to a more secluded area. So they can do the Sieg Hiel, they say, away from the cops. Above ground, under a bare tree, they pose giving the Nazi salute.
Which is painfully ironic, considering what happened here during World War II. The Nazi occupation forces were responsible for the deaths of 2.2 million Belarusians, and sent another 380,000 young Belarusians to Germany for forced labor. It's been said that Belarus lost more people per capita during the war than any other nation.
"What would your friends say if they saw you with a person like me?" I ask Nikolas.
"I will tell them you're an American journalist, and we're getting our story out into the world."
Back in the underground, we resume our conversation with Katerina. She can't stand the skinheads, but she agrees with them about one thing: America is a bully. It's a sentiment I hear often in Belarus -- from the young Muslim man selling scarves made in his native Dagestan, a Russian republic in the Caucasus; from the professor at Belarusian State University; even from the gay rights activists here.
"Why did you go to Iraq?" Katerina asks. "It really didn't do anything to anybody. Iraq is closer to Belarus than the U.S." (Baghdad is 1,648 miles from Minsk as the crow flies.) "But our country didn't go after Iraq's oil. But America did."
Katerina is just getting started.
"If you have Bushes in America, then it's hard to believe in your country's honesty," she says, adding with a look of disgust: "Are you really going to vote for Bush?"
Living under an authoritarian regime with state-controlled media and an underdog independent press means that Belarusians hear more about other nations than they do about themselves, mostly from Russian television broadcasts. Katerina (who doesn't read the papers she sells because, she says, one can look at life in the streets and see what's happening) followed the 2000 U.S. presidential election and its Florida controversy on television, and says she couldn't help but wonder why the American people didn't go after Bush with sticks.
When the old woman considers her own country's presidential election that took place in September 2001, where a woman distributing anti-Lukashenko flyers was hit with a criminal libel suit, and the incumbent said, "This was a brilliant, elegant and persuasive victory" one hour before polling stations had closed, before any official election results had been released, she just shrugs. And says she can't wait until President Lukashenko has stolen enough money so he can go away to America.
Keli Dailey studies photojournalism at
Berkeley School of Journalism. She will graduate in 2005.
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