Old Soviets never die ...


 Belarusian Waltz, 2-3 a.m. Thursday, WPBT-PBS 2

Like those old Civil Defense shelters sometimes found hidden away in basements of buildings undergoing demolition, the nation of Belarus is a sad but perversely fascinating relic of the Cold War. The rest of the old Soviet bloc has moved to markets or mafias. But Belarus is a little Stalinist snow globe, a self-enclosed tableau of plodding secret policemen and sullen peasants where the Berlin Wall never fell.

Except one of the peasants has gone off-script. Belarusian Waltz, airing in the wee hours Thursday morning as part of PBS' documentary film series P.O.V., follows the adventures of crackpot performance artist Alexander Pushkin as he challenges the rules in a country ''where freedom is slavery and dictatorship is the new democracy,'' as the show's introduction puts it.

Not that Belarusian Waltz is going to be confused with One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich. Belarus is strictly Cold War Lite, with a dictator who smirks instead of scowls, a hero who draws his inspiration not from John Locke or Thomas Jefferson but Adolf Hitler, and a peasantry that sees the presence of a documentary crew as an annoyance rather than a potential source of liberation. ''You can film my ass!'' shrieks one old crone, flipping up her dress as the camera rolls by. (Note to self: Don't eat or drink anything left by the Minsk Welcome Wagon.)

If that doesn't exactly sound like the Belarusians yearn for freedom, you're beginning to understand the problem. As everyone concedes, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko doesn't even have to rig elections (though he does so anyway, just for fun): His popular support is overwhelming. Belarus has spent most of its history being cannibalized by larger neighbors like Lithuania, Poland and -- especially -- Russia, and has little political or social culture of its own.

Even its history is borrowed; Belarusians spend an unholy amount of time attending vodka-fueled festivals celebrating the Soviet victories of World War II. ''The problem is that Belarusians seem to think history began 60 years ago,'' grumbles Pushkin, but actually the problem is that they seem to think that it also ended 60 years ago.

It's an unlikely landscape for a cultural war of liberation, but Pushkin -- a painter of some talent whose instincts for performance art are less certain -- gives it a try with such landmark works as A Wheelbarrow Of Dung For President Lukashenko or his series of paintings of Belarusian ''resistance'' leaders who fought Stalin during World War II. Only problem: All those men were actually Nazi collaborators.

Pushkin's various guerrilla theater antics all share one characteristic: They end with him roughed up by Belarusian police and tossed in jail. The single cruel exception is his conquest of a Russian student named Margarita whom he sweet-talked, impregnated and then dumped 13 years ago. Confronted by the woman, Pushkin insists that it was simply a romance gone wrong, but then admits he would never have treated a Belarusian girl that way. ''You wanted to do a performance with me and so you did,'' Margarita says, her voice quiet but echoing with bitterness. ''Your performance was a success. You destroyed a Russian woman.'' No wonder President Lukashenko, when he encounters the film crew following Pushkin, offers a knowing smile.



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