The journey began in Warsaw's train station. There was no need to check the number of the platform from which the train for Minsk was to leave. The looks on the faces of waiting passengers gave away the show. They had those eyes, wild and self-confident at the same time. Every second person wore a fur hat; every third one seemed to glimmer with a grin of gold teeth. And perhaps the biggest giveaway was that every single passenger seemed to have been provided with huge white, red and blue stripped luggage.
At the platform, besides the regular passengers, there were suspicious individuals hanging around, with their hands deeply drowned inside the pockets of their leather jackets. Their sharp and penetrating eyes glanced over every newcomer.
"They are Mafiosi," stated a man, standing next to me, "from Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and Chechnya. They are looking for potential victims. Now, you stay calm; there is no need to panic. They usually specialize in their own countrymen, who they are sure will not make too much of a fuss. They are all black-market workers and no one gives a shit if they complain, particularly the police."
I bought a ticket for the Belarusian carriage, as it is cheaper than the fare for the Polish ones and, undoubtedly, will offer much more to remember. I had heard numerous hair-raising stories about alleged brutal attacks by the Chechens, who grab people and, if they feel like it, they do not hesitate to stab somebody... Thankfully, my trip passed uneventfully on this, lacking any toilet paper but decorated with plenty of artificial flowers, Belarusian carriage. The only disadvantage was an unbearable high temperature; everyone was sweating and beautifully red-faced as Marfusha.
At midnight of 21 December we reached the Polish-Belarusian border, where I filled in the declaration that I am not smuggling any drugs, weapons or plutonium (apparently they have excess of it!). Afterwards, I was asked (sorry, "order" is a more appropriate word, as Poland's neighbors from behind the eastern border never ask, say please or thanks—they have no time for such a rubbish; but they do use as many words as necessary) to take off my glasses in order to make sure the person on the picture in my passport is really me. Thankfully, the customs officer did not demand to cut my hair a bit.
As we crossed the border, the differences were immediately noticeable and, believe me, it was not just a matter of traveling from one country to another, it was more like traveling through time. Although we had to change the time on our watches one hour forward, we were actually transferred around 20 years backwards. The train tracks in this former Soviet country are wider than in the rest of the world, so we had to stop for over an hour in order to change the wheels.
It's the details that count
When we got off the train in Minsk, a nipping frost welcomed us and a vivid music emanated from a loudspeaker. The intrusive music at the background of the socio-realistic buildings reminded me of the times of deep Socialism in the Czech Republic. As I looked out amongst the crowd, I had the impression that people had a common mother. All, without any exception, were wearing dark fur coats. It could make for a very monotonous picture but it did not, thanks to the heavy and fantastic artwork painted on the faces of women. They are extremely fond of colorful make-up and their favorite color is violet. Belarussian women use it for lips, eyelids, fingernails and, sometimes, even cheeks. Due to the low temperature, which did not rise higher than -20 degrees Celsius, I could have passed for one of them—the frost painted my face naturally.
The capital city of Belarus, Minsk, has a population of over two million. I got the impression that nearly all of them are perpetually outdoors, as the buses, trams, streets were overcrowded all of the time.
The buses were jam-packed; sometimes even the door was not closed. Anyway, even if it was, it did not make any difference as the hinges were so lose. Inside the car the passengers suffered from unbearable cold and the windows were artfully decorated by frost from both sides. Packed passengers stuck to one another and seemed to continuously sneeze and cough, which constituted the only activity that occupied them while traveling. They did not have to hold on to anything during the ride, as they comprised one complete unmoving mass.
Riding the bus with a prophet
What took me most by surprise was the fact that people did not chat or talk. They kept quiet. However, there was one person who interrupted the silence in pretty regular intervals—the conductor. When I saw her for the very first time, I recalled the words of the cat Behemoth from Mikhail Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, "Conductor is the worst job on the world. You must have a terrible character to work as one."
The conductor is usually a middle-aged woman with a very determined face, she holds a thick packet of banknotes and shouts loudly, "Tickets! Buy your tickets! You, man standing next to the doors, have you got yours? Tickets!" She shoulders her way from the driver to the very back of the car and backward few times. She had to have some special technique to do it, as I cannot imagine how she maneuvered like this in such crowds. The conductor was seemingly the only mobile element in the car; the rest were happy to manage to breathe.
There's an exception to every rule, however, and I had the chance to witness one such remarkable situation. One of the silently suffering comfortably seated passengers (a woman, around 60-years-old, with a beautiful collection of gold teeth in her mouth) stood up and unexpectedly announced, "Good people! Let us thank God for all that He provides us with! Let us be grateful for the roof over our heads, for food, the pleasant weather! We have got everything what we need for leaving! What else do we need? Tell me, where is there a nicer place to live on Earth? Let us celebrate the marvelous birthday of Jesus Christ; let us love each other from the bottom of our hearts! Thank you wholeheartedly for your attention, good people!" And then, she sat down and traveled without any further words up to her bus stop where she got off.
To be honest, it was not the amusing incident itself that struck me, but the perfect lack of any reaction. People did not bother to catch a glimpse of the woman whatsoever. Well, maybe such sudden outbursts happen pretty often in Belarusian overcrowded buses? Maybe someone should persuade the Tibetan monks to move from the monasteries and caves to Belarus in order to reach a quicker enlightenment?
Rough-and-tumble recycling program
When you are back on the street, you notice that people do not mind the cold at all. Moreover, they drink beer while walking, as they would like to maintain a balance between the temperature inside and outside their bodies. Generally, as many people who I spoke with confirmed, alcoholism is a serious problem in Belarus.
Almost everyone drinks; no matter what their age, sex, education level, or religion. The occurrence of such heavy drinking is considered a result of a resignation. People do not look into the future with optimism; they want to forget the present. Because the prices in the bars are astronomical in relation to the average salary, people hang around on the streets with bottles, they drink in the underground, on the benches in the parks and, of course, on every means of transport.
You can spot drunken people laying on the benches at bus stops; emptied bottles are scattered everywhere you look. Thanks to the fact that you must pay a caution fee for a bottle while buying beer, many people are keen on picking up discarded bottles.
A man about 50-years-old, hardly keeping himself on his leg explains eagerly, "The entire city is divided into regions that are under the rules of the bottle-pickers. Mine embraces the park, the most fertile area. Another very good spot is the one around the metro station."
I looked around attentively and noticed more bottle-pickers, with huge filthy bags, collecting the bottles, sometimes rudely standing close to the drinking people, ready to swipe the bottles out of their hands.
My very spry friend, 29-year-old Dmitrij Vasilijevich, shares with me his memories from his childhood: "I used to go with a bunch of my friends to the parks to look for bottles. When we spotted one, the fastest of us was sent on a mission to capture it. I remember how exhilarating it was when the drunks would run after us, swearing heavily."
I wondered whether he knows why people drink so much and if they are not scared of loosing their jobs and homes.
"No they can not lose them. Remember that we may have an autocratic ruler, but we also have a Socialist system. The citizen is assured a home, job and health insurance. No matter that the flats are cold, and salaries ridiculous... And why drinking is so common? People have lost their hope; they know there is no prospective for a bright future, and that inflation is appalling. It is better to spend your money right now because tomorrow it will have no value at all. And alcohol softens that reality."
Mind the history, please
Minsk's Metro appears to be a mirror of the city's history. There are only two lines, but the stations reflect the politics of the country. You can—as long as the crowds allow—get on or get off at Oktyabrskaya (named after the Great October Revolution), Proletarskaya (Proletarian station), Partyzantskaya (Partisan station), Pyervomayskaya (1st May station).
Nemiga station (named after the river and on its banks Minsk was founded) is not only a subway station but also a monument for a grievous event that took place in June 1998. Then, during the celebration of the annual Day of Beer, hordes of young people gathered around the station. Suddenly, rain started to pour down and swarms of drunken youngsters pushed one another towards the subway. Some people fell down; others trampled them. The crowd got wild and the situation became uncontrollable. In the end, 53 young people were trampled to death. Currently, framed pictures of young smiling faces, fresh flowers and burning candles adorn the Nemiga stop, a testimony to the painful story.
Merry Christmas, Comrade Lenin!
Minsk basked in various fantastic lights and Christmas adornments. I have never seen such an ingeniously spangled city. Each shop, every house and bridge wished us a "Happy New Year" and "Merry Christmas." Innumerable Christmas trees with red five-armed stars at the top decorated the streets named after Marx, Engels, the Communist Party, Lenin and many other various revolutionists. By counting all the statues of Vladimir Ilyich, you got the feeling that Mr Lenin must be a personal hero of Mr Lukašenka.
Although the calendar showed the date of 24 December, people seemed not to care about buying presents. I entered one of the supermarkets—by the way, they do not differ from those in West European countries—and to my surprise it was half-empty. Shop assistants, bored to death, expressed ostentatiously their lack of patience when you dare ask them of something. "Our client, Our Lord," is everything but their philosophy.
I had to climb upwards on the escalator to the second floor.
"Why does the escalator not work?" I curiously ask Maria Andrieyvna, 40, who was out shopping for Christmas.
"The escalators are here in order not to work. Perhaps if there were regular stairs, they would move," she says with a smile showing two gold front teeth. Now that is what I call the perfect sense of absurdity.
"Maria Andreyevna, how is it possible that people are not absorbed by the pre-Christmas haste? It is hard to spot anyone rushing around."
"To begin, in Belarus there is no tradition of giving presents on Christmas Day. We do so on New Years Eve. Then, maybe you know we are lucky to have two New Years: the old New Year and the new one—that is on 1 January.