I didn’t know much about Belarus. I didn’t even know where it was when I received my placement. After the phone call, I had to look it up on a map.
“Nobody knows where Belarus is.” Sasha poured a shot of balsam into his plastic cup. He was heavy-handed with the bottle. We were on a train from Minsk, rolling south through the contaminated zone.
“Especially when I visit America,” he continued. “They have no idea. I tell them I’m from Belarus, and they say ‘Ah yes, Belgium!’ ‘No,’ I say, ‘BEL-A-ROOS.’ ‘Oh right, part of Russia,’ they say…as if they recognize it.”
“I have this joke,” Sasha tilted the red cup back and forth while he spoke. “I always tell it to foreigners. Want to hear?”
“Of course,” I answered.
“Okay. Do you know where Russia is?” he asked.
“Well, of course,” I smiled.
“K. Do you know where China is?”
“Well Russia is between China and Belarus. Ha!”
He dumped the shot into his laughing mouth.
I was teaching English in Minsk. My students were 17-year-old business majors.
“Why business? Why did you choose this specialization? What do you want to do?” I would ask. They stared at me.
“Who wants to be an entrepreneur? You know — open your own business — a cake shop, a hotel, a bookstore. Something like that?” More quiet shrugs.
“One: I’ve never been abroad. Two: I have a cat named Koshka. And three: I’ve only ever had McDonald’s once in my whole life,” Sveta announced.
It was my first year as a teacher. My students were too chatty, and they rarely did their homework. One even tried to bribe me for a passing grade. Fancy chocolates.
But despite their cheeky comments, I loved them. I wanted to learn about their lives. We often played a game called “2 Truths and a Lie.” The speaker’s aim is to pick things that are true but also fantastic sounding, to stump the listeners. The rest of the class then has to guess which statement is false.
“McDonald’s! You’ve had it more times,” Eugene shouted.
“Nope,” Sveta replied. “It’s true.”
“Koshka — cat. You don’t have a cat,” Marina said.
“Yes. That’s the one,” Sveta said.
“Wait,” I interrupted, “haven’t you been to Russia, Sveta?”
“Yeah, Moscow. So?” she asked.
“Well, that’s abroad. You’ve been abroad.”
“Oh,” she said, “I don’t think that counts.”
The Western diplomat stationed in Belarus had silver hair and handsome white teeth. He had been dating a Ukrainian woman for several years. She hated Minsk.
“Can’t stand it. An awful city,” the girlfriend said quietly to me in the corner during an official reception. “Sure it’s clean, but nothing’s available in the stores, or if it is, it’s bad quality. Tomato sauce is the worst. They put these Western labels on it, but that’s a lie — it’s not Western tomato sauce. We even have better sauce back in Ukraine.
“No, I don’t like it here, but I tell all my family to come visit. They say, ‘Why should we, if you hate it so much?’ You know, I just want them to see what life was like for our parents and babooshki,” she held her plate of hors d’oeuvres steady. “But, of course, they won’t. Nobody wants to come to Belarus.”
From the bakery section of Minsk’s central grocery store, I bought some sesame cookies and took them home to my apartment. I put on water for tea and opened the plastic bag. I bit into a stale cookie. It was full of worms.
Anya’s hair was several feet long and quite thin. So was the rest of her. When she wore her hair in a tight bun, everyone asked if she was a ballerina. “Not anymore,” she would smile, “I quit.” Anya taught herself English. She studied hospitality and tourism at a local university. She wanted to run a hotel someday.
Anya was a serious girl, and so our conversations often turned serious. Over tea, she told me about last spring’s bombing at Oktyabrskaya, the city’s central metro station.
“I think something like 13 or 14 people died. I knew one of the boys. He went to my school.”
“My gosh, Anya.”
“Yeah,” she sighed.
“Who do they think did it? Or…who do you think?” I asked.
She paused. “I don’t know, really. I read some Russian blogs that said it was, well, internal, for sure…maybe even government.”
“What?” I couldn’t fathom it.
“Yeah. The websites said to distract from the crisis. Everyone’s worrying about roubles, and they want to remind us that there are more important things to worry about. But really, I don’t know.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“Speaking of, did you hear what happened last week?” Anya asked. “That girl at Pushkinskaya station? She jumped in front of the train. Only 16 years old.”
“That’s awful,” I said.
“Yes. It is. Probably did it because of a boy, or something stupid,” she held her mug for warmth. “It’s been a bad year for us.”
When I landed in August 2011, one US dollar was worth 5,000 Belarusian roubles. By October, one US dollar could buy 8,500 roubles. With my American bank account, I felt like I was winning big at the slot machines whenever I stood in front of an ATM. I’d walk away with a thick wad of colorful bills, feeling lucky.
According to the World Bank, the 2011 devaluation of the Belarusian rouble was the world’s steepest of the last 20 years. No one else felt lucky.
They say that Belarusian women are the third most beautiful in the world, Ukrainian and Russian being numbers one and two, respectively. I’m not sure who “they” are, or how they measure. Is it some kind of ratio, maybe body mass index to hair length? Do they tally up the blue eyes? Is it that every third girl on the street can pass for a ballerina?
A young Dutch man was taking Russian classes at the local language university. He came to Belarus to be with his longtime girlfriend, a striking Belarusian. He often complained about his classmates.
“They’re all men. Slimy Italians and Turks, mostly.”
“Why are they learning Russian?” I asked.
“It’s not about Russian. It’s about women. A sex tourism sort of thing. Belarusian women have a reputation for being very beautiful, you know. Regular tourists don’t come to Belarus.”
I tried to research Belarus before I left. One article told about a 2009 press conference held by the Minister of Sport and Tourism. “While traveling any person has full right to do what he likes. If he likes sex, it can be sex; if he likes cakes, it can be cakes,” the minister jokingly told the press.
According to a state report, the article noted, approximately half of all tourists that enter Belarus stay for just one day — in transit from West to East, or back again.
I probably googled a hundred different “Belarus” combinations from my home in South Dakota. Most news results profiled the country in the same way, recycling the same words in different combinations: “Disaster.” “Dictator.” “Devaluation.”
On travel websites the information trend was also predictable. It was hard to learn about life in Belarus, but easy to learn about avoiding it. Several forums were dedicated to the cause: “How to Travel by Train Across Europe (Without the Hassle of a Belarusian Visa!).”
“One of my departmental colleagues has very delicate hands,” the teacher whispered to me. “Apparently she was a brilliant classical pianist, but she can’t play anymore. Her bones are so weak. Her fingers break whenever she touches the keys.”
“She grew up in the southeast somewhere, I think.”
“What does that mean?”
“Well, you know, the contaminated region,” she paused. “Can you imagine that? Your bones just crumbling like cookies?”
I shook my head but didn’t know what to say.
“Anyways,” she quickly changed the subject. “What do you think of Minsk? How do you like it here?”
“Um, it’s nice,” I swallowed. “People are nice, and the city is very quiet, clean. It’s the cleanest city I’ve ever seen.”
She nodded. “Foreigners always say that.”
When the accident happened on April 26, 1986, 31 people died immediately. The nuclear power plant was near Pripyat, Ukraine, just 4 miles from the border. On April 26th the wind was blowing north. Seventy percent of the radiation fallout landed in Belarus.
The general public wasn’t informed of the accident until two days later, when the state radio station started playing classical music. Classical music: that’s how, they say, you know bad news is coming.
A rumor has haunted the country since then. It lives in flaking paint chips, in the stillness of apartment block stairwells, in the hushed moments around kitchen tables.
People say Moscow seeded the clouds that week in ‘86. Seeding is when you inject the sky with silver iodide to induce premature rainfall. It’s a very expensive and difficult process. After the accident, a radioactive cloud hung over the border between Belarus and Russia. They say the Kremlin was worried about it blowing their direction. They say it was to protect Moscow.
Most academic books I’ve read discredit the cloud-seeding thesis. They say it’s too fantastic, too complex. I’m sure the academics are right. It’s probably just a rumor, but Belarusians say it rained a lot that week.
I leaned against the train window. It was foggy with condensation.
“Good, old Bell-ahh-roos,” Sasha wiped his chin. “Nobody cares about Belarus.”