Despite history of torment, Belarusians still show grit

David Ljunggren, Citizen Special

The airport terminal was in ruins, crushed by the wrecking crews. You could see that clearly from our plane as we taxied past. "Why are they dismantling the terminal?" I asked the man next to me. He guffawed. "They're not. They're building it," he said.

It was one of those telling moments that summed up Minsk, the sad quiet capital of a sad beaten-up country where nothing ever comes easily and progress is a rare beast. Right now the place is in a most unusual position, namely the front pages of Western newspapers probing whether people-power has a chance in Belarus. Back in my day, the place wasn't called Belarus and the idea of public dissent was unthinkable.

I first set eyes on Minsk's wide boulevards and seas of apartment blocks as a student in 1984, when I spent three months there to improve my Russian. That was rather revealing. Rather than go to Russia itself to brush up on the language, our group of students was dispatched to the Soviet republic of Byelorussia, jammed between Poland and the Russian bear. "Byelorussians are more Russian than the Russians" went the saying, and that seemed true to us. Moscow's hands were everywhere.

Fiction lay heavily in the air. The Soviet leadership paid lip service to the idea that there was such a historical entity as Byelorussia, with its own culture and language. Yet everybody in the major urban centers spoke Russian. One of my acquaintances worked for the city's evening newspaper, which was published in Byelorussian -- a language some of the publication's employees couldn't speak. Every night they distributed about 10,000 copies and the next day, all but a few hundred would be returned, unsold.

The place has been crossed, double-crossed and treble-crossed by history to such an extent that just surviving is a victory. Nothing remotely resembling Byelorussia ever existed as a country. At various times the region was shared out or fought over by the Duchy of Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Germany and others, who discovered the flat land perfectly suited for military action. When Hitler's armies attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, Byelorussia was doomed. During a brutal three-year occupation the Nazis killed between a quarter and a third of the population, destroyed 98 per cent of Minsk and razed thousands of villages.

Moscow successfully argued that the destruction Byelorussia and Ukraine had suffered meant they deserved separate seats at the United Nations, where they served as dutiful satellites. But even the carnage could be twisted to serve the Soviet cause. Of all the obliterated villages able to serve as a war memorial, the choice fell to one called Khatyn. This did not strike me as a coincidence. When Soviet troops invaded Poland in 1939 they captured thousands of officers, a corps that Kremlin dictator Stalin saw as a threat. So he had them all shot near the Russian town of Katyn and denied responsibility when the bodies were found. Questions to our hosts about that massacre were shrugged off with the words "We do not know what you are talking about. There is only Khatyn."

Awkward queries and allegedly suspicious behaviour were always most unwelcome, and the heavy-handed forces of law and order could be relied upon to overreact. One day we were caught in a downpour and ran to the local subway station to take cover. As we stood there, a dozen wet foreigners crowded around a soggy map, a policeman came up to us and barked: "You must break up this illegal meeting at once!" Minsk was pretty much the last Soviet city in which you'd ever expect to see serious unrest.

About 15 months after we left, a reactor at Chernobyl exploded. Although the nuclear power station was in neighbouring Ukraine, Byelorussia ran out of luck yet again -- a northerly wind meant it bore the brunt of the fallout, which poisoned a third of the territory. Those airport workers did eventually finish the new terminal, which I visited occasionally to watch my friends leave the country. Everyone I got to know in Minsk departed a long time ago, convinced the place was cursed.

In December 1991 Byelorussia emerged from the decades-old Soviet cocoon and turned into the independent nation of Belarus, with its own flag and renewed interest in the language. But any hopes of true freedom vanished with the election of President Alexander Lukashenko, an ardent lover of all things Russian. He clamped down on speakers of the language -- who tended to support opposition movements -- and pressed for a union of equals with Russia.

Thus the latest chapter of misfortune ended and Belarus seemed to be heading into yet another historical backwater. That is, until something remarkable happened. Tens of thousands of people suddenly lost their fear of fate and the state, not to mention Russia, and started protesting against their own government. For once, everyone is interested in the quiet republic. And Minsk suddenly looks less sad.

David Ljunggren's column appears every other week.