Photo Essay | Belarus: a country of contrast
by Christi Anne Hofland
The Republic of Belarus is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe bordering Russia and the European Union. Since 1994, President Aleksander Lukashenko has ruled the country with an iron fist, earning the moniker “the last dictator in Europe.” I had the opportunity to experience Belarus firsthand while taking private Russian language lessons with professors of the Minsk Linguistic University in the spring of 2012. My friends in Ukraine and Belarus informed me that Belarus today is what the entire Soviet Union was once. Yet when I first arrived, I was struck by how clean and well maintained the buildings and streets of the city were. It was a sharp contrast from my experience in Ukraine, where deteriorating streets and buildings and undependable utilities were a crumbled reminder of the infrastructure that once existed.
In Belarus, I also discovered what it means to live under Lukashenko’s rule. People rarely smile in public. Before someone expresses their opinion about anything political, they look over their shoulder and lower their voice. Before I could connect to the Internet, I had to register my computer — the government tracked all emails I sent and websites I visited. Many of my peers had been in prison, and those who hadn’t were calmly prepared for it to happen. In Belarus, you can be arrested simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time — gathering five or more people in public, or meeting to watch a controversial film, may serve as grounds for arrest. Therefore, to more discretely express opposition to the current regime, Belarusians often participate in Belarusian folk culture traditions or choose to speak Belarusian instead of Russian. In my fitness dance class, for example, once participants realized that everyone in the class opposed the current regime, opposition flyers advertising underground lectures and cultural festivals were eagerly passed around in the locker room. Despite the repressive setting, I discovered a richness of the everyday in Belarus, which revealed a sharp contrast between public and private life.
Заводской Район | The Factory District
http://depts.washington.edu/jsishelp/ellison/sites/default/files/Belarus_5.jpgThe factory district of Minsk is stark and industrial, even in this residential area.
Minsk Cultural Center
http://depts.washington.edu/jsishelp/ellison/sites/default/files/Belarus_7.jpgThe pediment of this cultural center in Minsk city center celebrates the glory of the proletariat. With its wide boulevards and open spaces, nothing about Minsk is compact. To survive the winter in Belarus, I embraced wearing fur!
Decorated with Guards
http://depts.washington.edu/jsishelp/ellison/sites/default/files/Belarus_8a.jpgThe main civic center, the Palace of the Republic, is heavily guarded. Public discourse and public life is carefully controlled.
http://depts.washington.edu/jsishelp/ellison/sites/default/files/Belarus_2a.jpgIndependence Square in Minsk memorializes Belarusian independence from the Soviet Union. Ironically, a statue of Lenin stands in front of the government buildings in this square. Though the state does not encourage religious expression, these government buildings share the square with one of the only buildings to survive World War II in Minsk — the Catholic Church of St. Simon and St. Helena.
Spring in the City
http://depts.washington.edu/jsishelp/ellison/sites/default/files/Belarus_3.jpgWhen the snow finally melts in Minsk, spring reveals a winter’s worth of cigarette butts at every bus stop, reminding commuters how they kept themselves warm in the bitter winter months.
The Truck as the Hero of the City
http://depts.washington.edu/jsishelp/ellison/sites/default/files/Belarus_4.jpgImitating the famous St. Petersburg horseman statue, Belarus continues the Soviet celebration of industrialization. As the focal point of this town square a few hours outside of Minsk, the plaque on the statue reads, “Our Truck Factory: The pride and joy of our city.”
http://depts.washington.edu/jsishelp/ellison/sites/default/files/Belarus_18a.jpgWinters in Minsk are gray and depressing, but happy whimsical statues throughout the city provide a contrast against the stark Soviet architecture.
http://depts.washington.edu/jsishelp/ellison/sites/default/files/Belarus_13.jpgEntertainment is an important part of public life. Nationally sanctioned cultural events, such as the Belarusian State Circus, offer light entertainment.
http://depts.washington.edu/jsishelp/ellison/sites/default/files/Belarus_1a.jpgThe State Puppet Theatre is another example of cultural life in Minsk. Stylized caricatures give Belarusian puppets a flair of their own.
http://depts.washington.edu/jsishelp/ellison/sites/default/files/Belarus_11.jpgThe main city bazaar in Minsk is always bustling with activity. Small vendors offer their goods in the open air so warm clothes are needed when buying groceries.
http://depts.washington.edu/jsishelp/ellison/sites/default/files/Belarus_6.jpgIn Minsk, the kitchen truly is the heart of home life.
http://depts.washington.edu/jsishelp/ellison/sites/default/files/Belarus_16.jpgPlaces for public gatherings are hard to find in Belarus. In fact, public gatherings can be grounds for arrest, so friends often meet in each other’s homes.
http://depts.washington.edu/jsishelp/ellison/sites/default/files/Belarus_14a.jpgThis traditional Belarusian folk festival was celebrated in the woods outside of Minsk to call forth the spring. The festival took place outside of the city to avoid drawing attention from the authorities, who discourage traditional Belarusian folk culture celebrations and public gatherings.
Master Dance Teacher
http://depts.washington.edu/jsishelp/ellison/sites/default/files/Belarus_15a.jpgThis exuberant woman made sure all spring festival participants learned the traditional Belarusian folk dances.
Picnic in the Park
http://depts.washington.edu/jsishelp/ellison/sites/default/files/Belarus_19a.jpgMore than 40 percent of Belarusian land is covered in forest. When the weather warms each year, locals eagerly escape to the nearest woodland to enjoy good company amidst the fairytale scenery.
Friendship in Action
http://depts.washington.edu/jsishelp/ellison/sites/default/files/Belarus_20a.jpgSoviet block apartments may be notoriously compact, but Belarusians don’t seem to mind when they get together! Here a group of 12 are attempting a traditional folk dance in this one room apartment.
Christi Anne Hofland is a 2015 REECAS and Evans School master's student.