An American in Minsk

, by Justin Rawles

An American in Minsk

During my first month in Minsk, I ran into another American living there one evening in the Café Bierioska on Victory Square. He commented that being in Minsk was like going back in time. Though I hadn’t really thought about it before then, Minsk does retain many qualities of its Soviet Era history, including the obelisk that dominated the space before us. Atop it stands the Soviet Star and the Cyrillic letters БССР, attesting to the fact the country was once the ‘Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic’ and along its base are relief sculptures depicting motifs of war.

But, in a bow to the Belarusian people, the monument is also adorned with carvings of Belarusian traditional embroidery motifs. Trails of light encircle the obelisk from the never-ending carousel of cars that continues around it without their drivers seeming to pay it much notice. That and the gentle dusting of freshly fallen snow impart an ethereal quality to the monument so that it resembles one of those pictures in National Geographic that an American of my generation might have seen growing up. The city had been leveled and rebuilt completely after World War II and, at that time was the pinnacle of modern Soviet comfort.

During the cold war it was to us, one of those places on the other side of the Iron Curtain that we thought we were never likely to see. But, there I was some 25-30 years later, having a conversation with another American whom I had not met before with this picturesque monument in the background, harkening to an epoch long since past in our history. Oddly, though I have traveled and lived in many other locales both in the U.S. and abroad, Minsk did not present the atmosphere of an exotic, or even particularly foreign place. In fact, it felt, strangely – like home.

Though I grew up in North Carolina, I lived for two years in Rochester NY, a city that somehow seemed more alien to me than this place. Unlike New York City or Paris, where tempers are short, this city of two million didn’t have the same senseless urgency of day-to-day life. Most everyone I came in contact with was helpful and only on a few occasions did I run into the kind of impatience I’ve encountered in other larger metropolitan areas.

Minsk itself is the envy of all who like to walk; the sidewalks are comprised of tightly laid pavers in a sand base – no mortar – and practically as wide as the streets themselves. Along Independence Avenue, red brick shapes intersperse themselves in a sea of gray, though sometimes this scheme is reversed, and in some sections of town, the pavers themselves are laid like woven patterns. Along other streets, green or yellow bricks replace the ever-present gray and red.

People do walk in Minsk, and they walk a lot, or take the tram, the metro, or the electric bus… but I preferred to go on foot. Even in winter the walkways stay relatively free of ice and snow, thanks to constant clearing by the city personnel. A paved cycling path runs through the center of Minsk, alongside the Svislach River; it sees a lot of use by in-line skaters and cyclists, especially in warmer months. One can rent skates, a bicycle, or even a boat during the Spring and Summer. Rowing was one of my favorite activities, as it apparently is for many others as well, and at times it was difficult to navigate the river because of all recreational traffic on it.

One of my reasons for choosing to live in Minsk was to increase proficiency in Russian and Belarusian, since I had studied both languages for several years before. My instructors at the Minsk State Linguistic University quickly became like family there. Ludmilla, my Russian teacher was originally from Siberia but had lived in Minsk for 40 years, assimilating the local language during that time well enough to understand me perfectly well during my frequent reversions into Belarusian during our lessons. She would chide me for my switch, sometimes lamenting that I had ‘fallen out of love with Russian,’ despite the fact I assured her, sometimes unconvincingly, that this was not the case.

It’s easy to find native Russian speakers where I live in the U.S. Belarusian, however, is a different matter: As I came to find out amongst my Belarusian acquaintances, Belarusian is a more eclectic language and not every Belarusian can speak it.

It’s easy to find native Russian speakers where I live in the U.S. Belarusian, however, is a different matter: As I came to find out amongst my Belarusian acquaintances, Belarusian is a more eclectic language and not every Belarusian can speak it. During the reign of the Russian Empire, the language was repressed; during the Soviet Era, it was largely ignored. Many abandoned it for the more ‘modern’ and favorably perceived Russian but a stalwart few strove to hold on to it, preserve it both as a literary and an everyday form of communication. In recent years, it has enjoyed a strong, though limited resurgence; therefore, I had made it my mission in Belarus to speak only Belarusian whenever I could. In this, I was fortunate that my friends in Minsk, through whom I had originally become acquainted with the language, were part of this community in which Belarusian was the primary spoken language.

They introduced me to the bastions of Belarusian speech and culture – through them I had the opportunity to study Belarusian diction with Zinaida Bandarenka, the television personality who had been a household figure in Soviet Russia; art with Alieksey Marachkin, one of the best known Belarusian artists, who conducts all lessons in Belarusian. Any lapse into Russian on my part was quickly corrected. My friends took me to performances at the Yanka Kupala Theater where the plays are in Belarusian. Once a week at the Zhar Ptushka, I had the opportunity to participate in Belarusian folk dances, speak Belarusian, hear traditional instruments and see people dressed in national costume.

When I first came to Minsk, I didn’t know how people would react to my speaking Belarusian, but while only a few complained that it was some old dead, or made-up language, most didn’t bat an eye at the use of such an ‘archaic’ means of discourse. The staff at locales I often frequented, such as the Bierioska Cafe and at the Bagira Fitness Centre came to know me as that American who insisted on speaking Belarusian – and they encouraged it. We often engaged in long philosophical conversations. In banks, hotels, stores, restaurants and other public places, I would boldly say whatever it was I was trying to convey in Belarusian. They heard me in Belarusian, usually answered me in Russian, but never switched to English when I showed them my passport – nor did they insist on my switching to Russian. Sometimes people on the street even spoke to me in Belarusian.

Minsk was a surprise to me; not so much for the unexpected, but for how much it lived up to expectations. The city itself is transitioning though an intergenerational time-warp; the former epitome of a Soviet center is now the capital of an emerging nation forging its own identity, standing on the bridge between the new Europe of the European Union and the remnants of the old Eastern Bloc still heavily influenced by Russia.

Minsk was a surprise to me; not so much for the unexpected, but for how much it lived up to expectations. The city itself is transitioning though an intergenerational time-warp; the former epitome of a Soviet center is now the capital of an emerging nation forging its own identity, standing on the bridge between the new Europe of the European Union and the remnants of the old Eastern Bloc still heavily influenced by Russia. As in so many places, both ancient and recent cultural-historical events have shaped the character of this city like tidal forces on a rocky shore. Now the Belarusian capital faces even more intricate questions than before with a multitude of new global factors weighing in the balance. It is moving forward in many directions at once, but regardless of the ever-increasing complexity of our times and the changes Minsk will invariably undergo to meet these challenges, there will perhaps, always remain some inextricable element of ‘Belarusianness’.

Pictured: front view of the U.S. Embassy in Minsk (from http://minsk.usembassy.gov/about_the_embassy.html)

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