An abandoned village lost in the farthest lands of Belarus. Two young dreamers in a wooden cabin: Kiril’s and Pasha’s life is carved on the quotidian backside of their country’s censorhip and propaganda, within the last European dictatorship. Reportage.
There are only two ways of reaching Red October: going through six kilometers of a forest as thick as a lion’s mane, or swimming across a marshy lake (after chaining together three hours of travelling by train, bus and walking through depopulated areas). Kiril is waiting for me at the shore of the lake, along with an old raft on which I place my belongings to start swimming among reeds and mosquito swarms.
In spite of its messianic and bombastic name, Red October is a little abandoned village in the South of Belarus, near the radioactive areas that silently make vegetation and people go bad. This dark, greenish and luxuriant village, built after the war, is made out of nine wooden houses lined up before the lake. Kiril bought four of them for between 100 and 500 dollars each, in the strictest legal conditions.
STARTING FROM SCRATCH
Another three people live in Red October: his friend Pasha, who just recently moved, a retired man who spends spring there and an ecologist who lives with his girlfriend (who nobody has seen). Kiril plays the guitar, sings and creates small sculptures. Pasha has experience in concert organisation. Their goal is to turn Red October into a space where art can flow freely; they want to attract restless people and start from scratch, to invent a cultural oasis in the virginity of the fields.
The Project originated in Kiril’s trip through America. This 33-year-old Belarusian, serious and dreamy, blond but beefy and tanned as a Californian, hitch-hiked with no money from Canada to the Patagonia. He tries not to brag about it, but he looks proud: he keeps his experience as a treasure. It’s his personal novel, his periple of a Slavonic Guevara. Deed concluded, it would seem that he withdrew to the forest in order to digest his trip and extract from it, as in vodka distilation, ideas and projects that are still in the process of fermentation.
In the meanwhile, he and Pasha live like people did in the Middle Ages; they gather tea, fish, bake cakes with local berries, drink out of a well. There is nothing between them and nature, except for their own bare hands. And their stamina. Exposed to the cold, to loneliness, to insects. The only artificial element present is an electric generator to which they connect a light and a laptop. They only step into civilisation once or twice a month to buy yeast, coffee and utensiles, and do their gestions online. On Sunday nights, they plan out their cultural dream and their war against the forest. They decide who to contact and how to promote themselves, what to clean or repair, where to look for food, how to cook it. Communism à deux is much easier.
Red October sums up a part of Belarus. While here there are no limits other than the trees and the lake, the city flows along the narrow path of bureaucracy. The Belarusian State controls 70% of the economy, used to reward loyalty and punish criticism across the whole social pyramid. Public contracts are held to renovation every two years: if the employee disappoints the company (the director of which has been named by the presidential surroundings), his contract will simply not be renovated. And there are a myriad ways of disappointing the company. It will suffice by not attending a parade, or a concert by the last band that has been favoured by the Government; it will suffice with going on strike or not taking part in the anticipated elections celebrated in factories. It will suffice with being photographed in a protest. Citizens lived surrounded by rings of bureaucratic fat that keep them from moving; any step they take is forbidden by a law, a form, a policeman. Even though there are small air conducts like the Internet (censored in instututional buildings), minoritary media (usual victims of police registrations) or opposition parties (with no public or parliamentary presence), all the reins end in the President’s fist.
Then there’s Red October. Countryside and city, liberty and yoke, two linked realities. In his beautiful study Datcha blues: Existences ordinaires et dictature en Biélorussie, French sociologist Ronan Hervouet describes the dacha (cottage) as a compensation of Belarusian urban life, dominated by heavy jobs, exiguous living places and propaganda.
TWO THEORIES ABOUT THE DACHA
Ronan Hervouet observes a dilemma between two complementary theories: a positive one, in which the dacha would represent a comfortable, personal space where you can see your beloved orchard flower in the spring, keeping your humanity and speaking, with no neighbours, laws, microphones hidden in furniture, a mental health fountain as opposed to the city nightmare. The critical position affirms that the dacha is good for the régime, as the frustration accumulated in daily life, stained of injustice and oppression, instead of generating protests or overthrowing the doors of the Presidential Palace, is deluded in the peace of the countryside. This perspective describes a citizen as a crystal-clear example of Soviet double thinking: a soulless bureaucrat in public, a candid free thinker in private.
Sitting at the only table in the village, we eat local potatos, whose black skin peels off as if it were a ripe peach. The inside is bright yellow. I think about Chernobyl; I wonder what are Kiril’s and Pasha’s political views. They are so dinamic, they have travelled so much. The conversations cover music, books, cooking techniques, Google Maps, Barcelona, Vikings, telepathy, Mayan tarot. But not politics. After lunch, we begin taking the house next door into pieces to make a nighttime bonfire out of it. It’s so rotten that we can take it apart by simple beating. Pasha is the one who is enjoying it the most, as his Ukrainian, light and sanguine temperament allows him to run around the rusty nails springing from the planks. Every time a thought crosses his mind, he expresses it with a long, jovial burst of laugh; he picks up a snake in his hands and pirouettes around like a mocking demon. The wind bends the trees as if the spirits of the lake had awoken.
USSR “ASSEMBLY CHAIN”
This is yet another key factor to understand Belarus: the catastrophe that nests in the countryside, a stage for rusification and blood, a shelter for broken families. Belarusian history is a succession of holocausts; the last one, in 1941, when Hitler’s men brought about their tanks and burnt down nearly ten thousand villages (sometimes while the villagers where still inside). After four years of battles between the guerrilla and the German invaders, half the population had disappeared equally because of exile and death. This is why, according to historian Andrew Wilson, Belarus was the country that suffered the most from the war. That is why Pasha points to a marsh and says: “I’m sure it’s full of Germans”.
After the catastrophe, there came the remedy. After the expulsion of the invader, Moscow decided to turn Belarus, protected by half of the conquered Europe, into its industrial heart. Factories multiplied, as did colleges, communal tenements, and Party cards. If Ukraine was the “barn of the Empire”, Belarus became its “assembly chain”, the second richest republic in the Union, stable, with no dissidence. Partisans changed their muddy boots with ties and watched for a slumber of peace and full employment that lasted for forty years, untill the fall of the USSR. Then, incertitude came back. Parties of several orientations arose here and there: nationalists, liberals and socialists permanently argued whilst the economy, an orphan of the Soviet market, helplessly sank. Only a stern farmer was able to gallop over nostalgia to take the power. Aliaksandr Lukashenka, an enemy of the democratic nuisance, tore the constitution to pieces, dominated the parliament and repaired the calm social model that was starting to smell rotten among its neighbours. Today, in spite of the recession that almost definitely sank the economy in 2011, Russian subventions keep protecting pensions and watering the infrastructures.
Valery Karbalevitch, Belarusian politologist, autor of Le Satrape de Biélorussie , sums it up crudely: “Out of all the countries of the former Soviet Union, Belarus is the most reacious to reformism. When Gorbachov spoke about the perestroika, the average Belarusian did not understand, because he did not live the crisis. The USSR is perceived as a time of prosperity. Lukashenka simply promised to go back to those conditions. The rest of Europe does not understand, they only talk about human rights. Belarusians are not prepared for reforms or democracy”.
According to this theory, catastrophe and stability in extreme doses have created a passive society. The average Belarusian tolerates the dictatorship as a farmer tolerates the climate: without complaining, as he knows the situation can always get worse. French-Belarusian sociologist Virginie Symaniec (author of a lengthy essay about the Oriental Slavonic identity) relates this cliché to an official campaign; she denounces the efforts of the State to turn citizens into happy slaves: “In the mid-nineties, Lukashenka’s régime started promoting the idea that Belarusians are hard workers by nature, responsable, patient, submissive. This is absolutely false. A propaganda construct”. The slogan that dictature equals peace is planted with all of the State’s might. Belarusian channels compare the tranquil local routine with other peoples’ disgrace, and daily bomb the population with films about the war, national mythology honoured in parades, speeches and signs of old veterans surrounded by children, under the slogan: “Belarus for stability”.
Artificial or not, this idea of submission is reflected even by regional jokes, where the Russian is portrayed as passionate and strong, always facing problems directly; the Ukrainian is funny and sly, bargainer and winner. The Belarusian is the one who suffers, looks down and says: “that’s how things are”. The final result of this is an absolute political disinterest, incomparable to any in the continent: only 20% of Belarusians trust parties as institutions, 13’1% trust the opposition, and 75’9% are not willing to increase their political participation. Besides, 65% of Young people want to emigrate.
Nevertheless, general apathy does not mean there are no rebels. The 2010 elections, answered for on the streets, left a trace of 700 arrests (including those of seven out of the nine presidential candidates) and numerous raids, interrogatories, expells, threats, trials. The entire country was screened by the police apparatus. There were corageous ones that are, still today, fighting from the solitude of their appartments.
ABSENCE OF POLITICAL DEBATE
“There is a lack of political culture in Belarus; there has never been a concurrence of ideas”, says Aliaksandr Milinkevich. “The dictatorial system maintains a not-so-bad standard of living. And it is supported. The ones who oppose, usually a young, educated elite, are a minority”. Milinkevich was the opposition presidential candidate for the unified opposition in 2006; today, he manages an organisation wrapped in photographs of his referents: Wałęsa, Havel, Sarkozy, Merkel. Milinkevich shows the mossy beard of a reflective man. One can imagine him smoking from a pipe, smiling with his eyes as he lets out a mushroom of smoke. He speaks perfect French: “We are an association, not a party. We have tried to get registered several times, but they won’t let us. Our priority is to increase the European feeling among the population. We know it’s difficult, but there is no doubt for us: either members of the European Union, or a Russian protectorate”. Their Movement for Liberty holds illegal courses of European citizenship. As we speak, severan young people sit in the next room, where they will learn how the European Commission works, and discuss the origins of the euro crisis. Concurrence of ideas.
It’s night in Red October. The forest is louder than ever, its whistling vegetation, its crickets, its squadrons of mosquitoes. I bring up the subject of politics, as a shot in the air. Kiril answers: “One of the things I learnt in Latin America is that life in Belarus is not that bad”. He tells me this in front of the bonfire, his face bathed by the sparks. I contradict him. I tell him it’s an illusion, and that, if the Belarusian economy works, it isn’t because of his virtues, but because of Russian subventions. “I used to be a photographer in Minsk”, he says. “I followed the opposition, I covered the protests… Now I’m not interested in politics, I’m interested in people”. I tell him that people and politics are the same thing, that they can’t be taken apart like water and oil. I explain to him that theory that the dictatorship is perpetuated in the countryside. I become a pain. Kiril looks at me with no interest, it looks like he has been hearing the same time and time again. He is satisfied; he says: “I don’t work. In a month, I’ll take a tour around the Belarusian countryside, I’ll take pictures of the farmers, of the people I meet on the way. It will be an anthropological trip”.
It’s been a year since I met them. This winter they were already able to use a radiator, the water flows through new pipes and they have already prepared a house to project films and organise concerts. They performed, they played, the shared their radiator and bonfires. Kiril and Pasha planted themselves in Red October and they have been making their roots grow ever since. Maybe their fathomless energy will reach politics, and maybe not. Why does it matter? For some reason, I remember my last day with them: it’s seven in the morning, the three of us drink tea before we go into the forest. Kiril and Pasha shake their memory reciting Mayakovski:
Ешь ананасы, рябчиков жуй,
День твой последний приходит, буржуй!*
*Eat you pineapples, chew your quails,
You last day is coming, bourgeois!
-  In Belarusian, Chyrvony Kastrychnik.
-  Directorate General for External Policies of the EU: Impact of the targeted sanctions on Belarus, 2012: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/committees/fr/studiesdownload.html?languageDocument=EN&file=73753
-  Datcha blues: Existences ordinaires et dictadure en Biélorussie, by Ronan Hervouet. Ed: Belin, 2009.
-  Bielorrusia: el hombre y los hechos, by V. Borushko. Minsk, 1984.
-  Belarus: The last European dictatorship, by Andrew Wilson. Ed: Yale University Press, 2012.
-  More information in “Belarus’ Magic Oil Economy”, belarusdigest.com: http://belarusdigest.com/story/oil-magic-belarusian-economy-8820
-  Le Satrape de Biélorussie, by Valery Karbalevitch. Ed: François Bouran, collection Les Moutons Noirs, 2012).
-  La construction idélogique salve orientale: Langues, races et nations dans la Russie du XIXe siècle, by Virginie Symaniec .Ed: Petra, 2012.
-  Alexandre Loukachenka et les Biélorussiens au miroir des histoires drôles, article de Amandine Regamey inclu dans Chroniques sur la Biélorrusie contemporaine. Ed: L’Harmattan, 2001.
-  ndependent Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Studies, 29 de marzo de 2013: http://belarusinfocus.info/p/opinion_polls_stable_pessimism_and_growing_presidents_popularity
-  Idem 8: http://belarusdigest.com/story/recent-polls-belarusians-blame-lukashenka-their-problems-video-12836
-  Human Rights Watch. Word Report 2012: Belarus: http://www.hrw.org/world-report-2012/world-report-2012-belarus