Seeking The Drift of A Continent
Two familiar faces saw me off as I boarded the sleeper train at the Byelorusski station in Moscow, westward-bound for Minsk.Skip to next paragraph
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Staring down the tracks of Platform 2, black granite busts of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin served as a reminder of where I was.
I had flown to the Russian capital to return overland to my home in France to explore what lies in between. The journey, I hoped, would provide some clues as to what is "European" about Europe.
Moscow, I discovered, is not Europe. Paris most emphatically is.
So what changes, and where, as you travel the 1,621 miles from East to West, across three time zones, five national frontiers, and six language areas, by bus, train, and car?
As an Englishman who used to live in Russia before moving to Paris six months ago, the question intrigued me.
But it was of more than just personal interest.
NATO - the archetypal Western alliance - will soon redefine "Western" when it welcomes Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic into the club. And the European Union will expand eastward as well in the early years of the next millennium.
Neither of these moves makes many Russians happy. They feel threatened by the way "the West" is moving closer to their borders. But the mad time warp and identity crisis that Russia is going through - that sets the country clearly apart from Europe - is obvious in Byelorusski Station itself.
Seven years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the station hall is still decorated with the gold-painted symbols of Soviet power - wheat sheaves, hammers and sickles, banners urging "Workers of the World, Unite."
But these anachronistic decorations are half-hidden behind glass-fronted kiosks selling cheap imported sunglasses and half-liter bottles of fake perfume with labels like "Type Chanel No. 5."
As I waited for my train, four young recruits with their white summer uniforms and shaved heads staggered past this false Westernness superimposed onto a nostalgic past. They held each other up in a quintessentially Russian scene that long pre-dates Chanel No. 5 and the Communist symbols: a scene of collective drunkenness.
The same Soviet symbolism was even more apparent in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where I arrived early the next morning.
In Minsk, Marx and Lenin are everywhere as well. From the station where my train deposited me, I took a taxi through broad, empty boulevards lined with the monumental and dehumanized architecture beloved of Joseph Stalin. En route, we passed a crossroads unique in the world - the intersection of Lenin Avenue and Lenin Street.
Nowhere else in the former Soviet Union did city planners combine such political correctness with such lack of imagination to such confusing effect.
A close imitation
At the Hotel Belarus, a 21-story concrete monstrosity, a kindly woman at the reception desk counseled me to take one of the "Euro-remodeled" rooms, rather than a standard one. I took her advice.
The $10 more that I paid for the room gave me a new carpet, a new television - a Taiwanese model instead of a Belarussian one - and a newly tiled and fitted bathroom. But some habits die hard.
In the old days, seasoned travelers to the Soviet Union always carried their own bath plug. Soviet hotel sinks and bathtubs were invariably plugless. The new sink in my "Euro-remodeled" room at the Hotel Belarus had a plug. But it didn't fit.
This little anomaly struck me as symptomatic of the country as a whole. Belarus is not the Soviet Union. But with a dictatorial president, an almost entirely state-owned economy, and a tightly muzzled opposition, it is a pretty good imitation.
No more good old days
The years since the Soviet Union collapsed have not been kind to Belarus. Between 1990 and 1996 the economy shrank an average of 8.6 percent, and inflation ran on average a horrendous 714.9 percent for the same period.
Living standards have dropped precipitously, and to most people, especially in the countryside, the bad old days of communism are actually the good old days.