Life of Others
Belarus through the eyes of foreigners
The Belarusian life of Mexican, Belgian, German and Peruvian youth in interviews and photos. Young foreigners, who have lived in Minsk on a long-term basis, share their observations about Belarus and Belarusians.
As a child, I wanted to be an astronaut, like Yuri Gagarin. That’s why I’ve always wanted to study Russian. After university, I worked as an engineer at a factory and taught French. Then I saved up some money and moved to Europe. I decided to follow my dream; otherwise it would be too late.
I went to Prague, then to Daugavpils (Latvia). But there were no young Russian-speakers in those places. One girl on the Internet told me: “Go to Belarus! It’s clean there, people are kind, and everybody speaks Russian.” So I decided to go, even though I knew only three facts about the country: Lukashenkо is the president, Minsk is the capital, and, at some point, Belarus was part of the USSR.
At first, I thought that I’d learn both official languages - Russian and Belarusian - simultaneously. But then I realized that you can only hear Belarusian over the speakers in the metro, on buses and in the railway station.
«Nostalgia is a truly Belarusian feeling. A lot of people in your country idealize the past, and it doesn’t matter what kind of the past it was»
Here you have a certain order and cleanliness. Sometimes it seems that all this beauty isn’t for living but just for show. In Mexico, you can have a picnic and play football in any green place. Here, once I went to Gorky Park just to lie on the grass, but everybody looked at me in disapproval.
I fell in love with pickles, sweet cottage cheese, pickled cabbage and brown bread. I’ve also started to like vodka (‘harelka’ in Belarusian). And your tradition of canning for the winter is really amazing! We don’t have anything like that, as we have fresh fruits and vegetables all year round.
This ’informal business’ of selling vegetables and Chinese clothes in underground crossings reminds me a lot of Mexico. ‘Kamarovka’ (a market in downtown Minsk), where they sell all these spices, smells like my country. Moreover, the Tajiks and Turks work like Mexicans. They try to make you like them by giving you a bit more so you buy more. As for Belarusians, they work at the market like at a factory. If you ask for 20 grams they will give you 20 grams. It seems that they don’t care how much they sell or whether you come back again.
What I like about Belarusians is their honesty. If a girl in a shop hates her job, it will be shown clearly on her face. If I come to her, she won’t smile at me, but will ask right away: “What do you want?” I’m not a big fan of this universal American cheerfulness, which has become a world standard. It’s not sincere.
Here there are lots of incredibly beautiful girls. I’ve only seen so many in Cuba. It is also remarkable that despite the cold weather, girls are very hot in your country… in every sense.
I don’t think Belarusians have enough will to live better and enough determination to change things. Yes, it’s difficult. It’s obvious that it takes lots of effort and energy. But if you don’t want to do it yourselves, nobody will ever help you.
In order to get a Belarusian work visa, I had to gather more papers than my desk could hold. Quite often they say that the main problems of Mexico are bureaucracy and conformism. But I guess this is true about Belarus too.
In Belarus, it is possible to gain a really good understanding of the language for just a little money. Local people like foreigners and nobody treats you badly because of the color of your skin. But it‘s difficult to earn decent money here, especially if you’re an engineer and physicist. So I’ll be going soon to the Euro 2012 Football Championship as a volunteer. I’ll see what opportunities there are in Kyiv. Maybe I’ll come back here. Right now, I don’t know.
Seven years ago, at a music festival, I met a cellist from Belarus, who was a teacher. I already knew that there was quite a strong classical music school in Belarus, producing many good pianists and violinists. That’s why, after graduating from school, I decided to come here. For the first two years, I was studying at a Lyceum specializing in music. Now I’m in my last year at the Academy of Music.
I didn’t speak Russian and none of my friends knew anything about the country. When I searched for “Belarus” in Google, the first things I read about were Lukashenko, communism, crackdowns on demonstrations, and dictatorship. When I got here, everything turned out to be not so frightening; there are wide avenues, beautiful architecture, and kind and sincere people. I would say that everything looked quite cheerful during the first year.
When you start speaking decent Russian, people change their attitude towards you. They can insult you in a store or start sharing their problems with you. During the first year, everybody treats you as a foreigner and it’s difficult to understand anything about the country and people. It’s no wonder that many visitors don’t notice anything bad about life here at first glance.
«I was at the Square on the 19th of December 2010. I escaped from the special police forces»
Belarusian contemporary classical music is pretty much just a few modern composers. The rest are still from Soviet times and therefore quite old-fashioned. Once I went to a concert of the National Orchestra led by Finbeg, but I wasn’t able to listen until the end. Either there were really weird variations, or the conductor was bad. It was difficult to understand. As for Belarusian popular music, I used to like N.R.M. and Vajcushkevich (rock and folk musicians supporting the opposition). I still like all kinds of protest music.
The cleanliness in the streets irritates me. I like when there are graffiti and stencils on the walls. This is art, and it’s more pleasant to live with than walls like in a sterile hospital. It’s strange to hear when people praise cleanliness and order as the most important things in Minsk. What kind of tourists do they want to attract by promoting this?
I became a vegetarian at the age of 12. If you don’t eat meat in Belarus, everybody tries to invite you over and give you some kind of meat.
Most all of my time here, I’ve lived in a dormitory, where I had great roommates. But there were also people who’d come into my room without knocking; they’d just sit on my bed and take food from the fridge. In general, respect for privacy is something that Belarusian should learn more about.
There was a time when I participated in all demonstrations. It was interesting to observe how people struggle for their freedom. How can it not be interesting for a musician
I was at the Square on the 19th of December 2010. I escaped from the special police forces. They were calling me afterwards, came to the Academy of Music and to my dormitory, but I somehow managed to avoid them. Finally, they started threatening me for not living in the dormitory, to which I was assigned. Then I contacted the Human Rights Center “Viasna” (“Spring”), which provided me with legal assistance. I still had to pay a fine.
Sometimes it seems that there are not ten million Belarusians but, at maximum, two. Most don’t know their poets, musicians and artists, and some can’t even speak their native language and don’t know much about their own history. Sometimes it seems like the only things they really care about are eating, sleeping and watching TV.
I fell in love with Belarus. But often I think that I like something that doesn’t really exist. I’m really impressed by Belarusian villages, their traditional textiles and pagan traditions, and the quiet streets of Minsk. You can burst into tears over them. I like my Belarusian friends. But everything I like seems to be slowly disappearing and the majority of my friends would like to escape from here.
Sometimes it feels like time has stopped in Belarus and you can’t do anything about it. It is very bad if young people, those who want to change something, have such a feeling. Together with my Belarusian wife, we’ll go study in the summer in the US or Switzerland. I don’t want to live in today’s Belarus.
First impressions of Belarus? It’s really cold here. I came in the spring but, as it turned out, here spring as marked on the calendar has nothing to do with the sun and warmth. Coming from Germany, I couldn’t imagine that I would ever complain about winter. But in Belarus, winter lasts a really long time.
I miss German beer. Regarding Belarusian food, I like meat dumplings (‘pelmeni’) most of all. We had a strange machine in the kitchen; for a long time we didn’t know that it was for making pelmeni. Now we’ve learned how to use it. All your food is quite fatty. I would say that in Germany we had this kind of food during my grandmother’s time. I guess it’s because of the climate.
When you come here for the first time, it seems that everything works like in Soviet times. Everything is made just to impress, and not for comfortable living or expressing someone’s personality.
What surprises me most about Belarusians is that nothing surprises them. When something is happening, something new, or some problems suddenly appear, they say: “Stuff happens! Life goes on!” If, for example, costs would triple in Germany, half of the country would strike.
«Everything is made just to impress, and not for comfortable living or expressing someone’s personality»
I’m also surprised by girls who wear very short skirts when it’s minus 20 degrees Celsius outside. The way your women take care of themselves also astonishes me. It’s nice that you want to impress everyone with your beauty every day, but I would prefer to sleep longer rather than to spend two hours on makeup and getting dressed up.
My work consists of monitoring different media. I spend all my time reading different online and print publications. I like Belgazeta the best. It has funny political cartoons, its own style, and irony in its texts.
Two times a week I visit a very authentic public sauna on Maskouskaja Street. This is a place where I can hear a lot of interesting things about Belarus. I was told once that when the Finnish Parliament can’t make a decision, they all go to the sauna. I think people have the same approach in Belarus.
What can I advise Germans who are going to Belarus? You need to be ready to improvise, try to go as far as possible outside of Minsk and talk to people a lot. Belarusians are very friendly and open if you approach them the right way.
It makes me happy that Belarusians have discovered bicycles. I’m glad that more people are starting to think about the environment and protecting nature. But still, it isn’t so easy here. For example, they put some recycling containers near our house, but they did it in such a way that you can’t actually use two of them. Why?
I live in order to refute false stereotypes about Germans. For example, I’m often late. Any generalizations are quite dangerous, as you can build such a huge wall of stereotypes in your head that you won’t see a person behind it.
My parents sent me here. After half a year, I wanted to run away from Belarus, but they made me stay. They said I had to grow up.
I’d already finished cooking courses in Lima. Here, I studied international relations at BSU (Belarusian State University). I worked in a lot of places at the same time. It is only now, during the economic crisis, that people have opened their eyes and started doing something for themselves. Earlier, my friends asked me with surprise: “Why do you need two jobs?” Now the situation is changing; everybody wants to eat.
In Belarus, the cost of public transport has increased several times and nothing happened! In Peru, crowds of people would take to the streets and in two days everything would be resolved. Our government is afraid of the people. And this is how it should be. In Belarus, everything is the other way around. And this is wrong. We pay their salaries. Government should work for us.
«Here the policemen think that we should all walk on our tiptoes around them»
People in Belarus are afraid of the police. Once I went out for a drink with my friends. We were just walking along the street. Then we saw some policemen. And my friends said to me: “Carlos, be quiet, don’t’ yell.” But who the heck are they? They should just protect me. Here the policemen think that we should all walk on our tiptoes around them.
In Belarus, there are a lot of women with some strange attraction to foreigners: “Mmmm… a Peruvian!” At first I really enjoyed it, as the girls are pretty here. But beauty isn’t everything. What is really important is that two people can talk for hours, that the girl is smart, interesting and, forgive my rudeness, doesn’t show off.
I worked as a lawyer at an office, which was right in front of the tractor factory. Often, after work, I walked back with factory staff. They went directly to a store, bought vodka, and drank it right away. The same thing, every day! People don’t drink so much in Peru.
When I’d just arrived, I thought that Belarusians are very rude and uneducated. But then I realized that it wasn’t their fault. They get low salaries, and that’s why they are angry and irritated all the time. They should be paid normally, then nobody would steal and everyone would treat each other in a decent way. But I have already become used to a lot of things here.
Here they treat the common people like animals: “Come here, do it, give it, and don’t interrupt.” Officials just use everybody. How can one work normally with a monthly salary of one million Belarusian rubles (approximately 100 Euro)?
If I could turn the clock back seven years, I would definitely stay in Peru.
Photos by Nastya Sergienya & palasatka