My post-fellowship travels have begun! And what better way to celebrate my newfound freedom than to go vacationing in a KGB dictatorship?
I spent the first days of June in Belarus, a country that, until a week before, had been a mystery to me. I knew it mainly for its dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, whom Condoleezza Rice had once placed on her own personal Axis of Evil. That was all I knew; that, and that its capital, Minsk, was supposedly an unnerving Soviet theme park in which KGB officers prowl amid an endless procession of Stalinist facades. But something about that image didn’t sit right with me. It made Belarus sound like a country steeped in fear and devoid of life… and if I’ve learned one thing over the past year, it’s that life, small-scale, determined, happily banal, perseveres in the most unlikely of places. So I bought a train ticket north and left Ukraine to go fill in a blank spot on my map.
Like Ukraine, Belarus has spent most of its existence as a borderland between empires. And as such, Belarus, like Ukraine, has been crushed by history. Belarus was directly in the path of the Nazi steamroller during World War II, and its cities were largely razed to the ground. Eighty percent of the buildings in Minsk were reduced to rubble. One-third of the entire population of Belarus, and four-fifths of its Jewish community, was killed during this one war. To visualize this, imagine a third of your friends dead. Imagine a third of your extended family, dead. Which ones will they be?
I’ll give you a moment to try to grasp that.
Nor is it all sunshine and roses now. When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, Belarus was the richest of the newly independent Soviet republics. Twenty years later, it’s one of the poorest. The economy has gone into freefall multiple times since independence, and the Belarusian ruble is close to worthless, with an exchange rate of 8,300 rubles to the dollar. Thankfully (?), the inflationary episodes have been so frequent that prices haven’t kept up; at many restaurants, you can get a not unclassy meal for around 30,000 rubles, or roughly $3.50. It’s kind of nice… until you consider the elderly people who toiled all their lives to amass a 30,000-ruble nest egg, only to watch their life savings turn into barely enough money to buy groceries for the week.
And over it all hangs the specter of Alexander Lukashenko, a Soviet-inspired dictator cut from cruel cloth. Lukashenko is the sort of president who orders an opposition politician to be beaten to the edge of a coma, and then, when he wakes up, dispatches the KGB to brazenly abduct him from his hospital bed, ripping out IVs, wife screaming, and to spirit him away to an unknown prison. The police do prowl in Belarus, both secret and otherwise. In Minsk, I watched a cop round on a babushka, a 70-year-old woman selling herbs (without a permit, I think) out of a tattered canvas bag, and whack her bag with a nightstick, scattering scallions across the tiled floor. “Clean it up and get out!” he barked.
It seems impossible – to us, at least – that anyone could remain unaffected by this, could find a way to live a normal life without concerning themselves with politics or the police. Is it possible for a Belarusian to be truly happy? I think many Americans, immersed in our rhetoric of democracy and freedom, find that hard to accept. It’s easier for us to imagine citizens of a dictatorship as wretched, paranoid people, speaking in whispers, faces drawn, always afraid, forever monitored by secret police officers waiting for an excuse to take them away.
I’ve spent most of my past year living in dictatorships, though, and in the process I discovered something I once found it impossible to believe: Life goes on. Ordinary people have an amazing ability to ignore the most repressive of political conditions and to survive, even thrive, in the process. The streets of Minsk are alive with pedestrians, and the nightclubs bustle, and everything is new and shiny, and women sell fruit at the market and buy groceries for their families and hold hands with their boyfriends as they stroll down the street. So what – they say – if our president is arresting protesters and beating dissidents in jail? Who wants to be a dissident? Why can’t those people just work with the hands they’re dealt, like the rest of us? Just stay away from politics, stay home whenever the young people have a protest scheduled, and nothing can stop us from living a normal life.
But how can you just ignore this? sputters the American part of my brain. How can you live with such brazen abuses of power? How can you call that living, when every day you have to gamble that your out-of-control government won’t turn its eye on you? (I imagine this part of my brain as a tiny candlelit room in which Thomas Jefferson and James Madison sit at a table, peering sternly over their spectacles at me and making occasional abusive remarks about George III.)
Natural questions, all. But I think it speaks volumes about American privilege, the fact that many of us can conceive of no more grave responsibility than to stand up against our political oppressors. Many of the people I’ve met in the developing world would, I feel, be skeptical. What about buying food to feed your family? What about giving your children an education? What about finding a stable line of work to ensure your children will lead a better life? In a country where politics is a volatile and dangerous game, what is more important: to fulfill your responsibility to support your family, or to go dabbling in political pursuits that could get you killed?
And there’s another thing, too – one that did even more to break my poor American brain when I discovered it was true. Many people genuinely like and appreciate their dictators. I had multiple Tajiks tell me, unprompted and in the privacy of their homes, how grateful they were to their oafish despot Emomali Rahmon for ending the horrific 1990s civil war and reuniting the Tajik people. As far as they are concerned, Rahmon brought security and stability to Tajikistan; far from standing in the way of their normal lives, he was the one who made normal life possible again.
And in wealthy, oil-soaked Azerbaijan, where the GDP is skyrocketing, Baku is a city ascendant, and dictator Ilham Aliyev has propelled the country onto the international stage… who’s complaining? I met some of the discontents who have been left behind, but almost every other Azeri I talked to seemed thrilled by the Aliyev-driven renaissance. We are accustomed to thinking of dictators as rulers who have no interest in their people, whose only concern is to accumulate power and retain it forever; we can’t wrap our minds around those like Aliyev, who, even as they jail dissidents and monitor Facebook profiles and disperse protesters in increasingly violent and nasty ways, are working to make the majority of their citizens’ lives better. As far as many Azeris are concerned, Aliyev is the man who has repaired their gas lines and repaved their roads and rebuilt their cities and resettled the country’s IDPs in houses he gave away for free. And in so doing, he has bought their wholehearted support.
We could argue – and we would be entirely correct – that sentiments like these stem from dictators’ tight control over what gets reported in the media, and that their citizens wouldn’t be nearly so supportive if given full information about the awful things their rulers do. But would we be missing the point?
I am playing devil’s advocate, and for that I apologize. It’s certainly not my intent to defend these dictators – nor to claim that dictatorships don’t have significant negative impacts on their citizens – nor to suggest that most people there are leading fully self-actualized lives. And I’m aware that, these being dictatorships, the perspectives I got from my in-country hosts might not reflect what they actually feel (though in most cases the non-political conversational context, coupled with their emotion and unprompted spontaneity, has led me to trust their words).
Really, I’m just doing what I do: trying to dig into people’s heads, people with values and lives far different from my own, to understand what makes them tick.