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.

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.

On a suburban train near Minsk, I sat opposite a bespectacled grandmother as a young man passed by selling the summer train timetable for 5 cents.

"It's not worth buying that," she grumbled to her neighbor. "They keep changing it. Remember when they used to publish timetables that were good for three years?" Belarussians never had much, but almost all of them had more than they do today.

And most important, they were comfortable with the stability and security that authoritarian Soviet leaders gave them. So they are comfortable with President Alexander Lukashenko, who has kept the style he developed as a collective-farm boss.

That makes the Belarussians the despair of their neighbors. Their apparently pigheaded reluctance to be modern, democratic, capitalist, and European flies in the face of Western expectations after the collapse of communism.

But it is hard to plan your future if you don't have much of a past. Belarus was never a country before 1991 - it was always part of somebody else's backwater - and the nation sorely lacks a sense of identity.

And other people's armies were marching across it as often as not - pillaging, laying waste, and flattening everything in their paths.

Napoleon barged through on his way to Moscow in 1812, and stumbled back again, pursued by the Russians (see story, left). Hitler's armies ravaged the region in World War II, which cost Belarus one-sixth of its population.

Quintessential Belarus

When I asked a taxi driver what it meant to be Belarussian - what defined his country for him - his answer was simple: "Our country has suffered a lot, in war and in peace."

Against this background, the effort of building up private businesses, choosing political leaders, and becoming an independent state seems too great.

Instead, most Belarussians are happy with Mr. Lukashenko's desire to reunite with Russia and slip back into Moscow's orbit.

Thus, a country that could boast of being at the heart of Europe - if you look at a map and scan it from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural Mountains - is turning its back on Europe.

What that means in day-to-day life is only too apparent in the shops in Minsk.

Municipal Milk Products Factory No. 2 turns out jars of mayonnaise, and other state-owned local manufacturers produce such staples as bread, milk, smoked fish, macaroni, and preserved plums.

A distorted economy

But the food stores that aren't empty are mainly stocked with imported edibles, and the collective farms don't appear to be able to supply much in the way of fruit and vegetables.

One street vendor in a residential district of Minsk was selling apples, pears, bananas, lemons, tomatoes, oranges, kiwis, cabbages, and cucumbers. Only the cabbages and cucumbers came from Belarus, he told me.

Just how badly the Belarussian economy is distorted became clear to me one lunchtime. At the railway station I bought a ticket from Minsk to Brest Litovsk, 220 miles away on the Polish border. I then went across the street to McDonald's for a Big Mac, medium fries, and medium Coke.

The train ticket, heavily subsidized by the government, cost me a good deal less than the lunch.

(For the record, the ticket cost $2.13, the lunch $2.98. In the United States, the equivalent ticket would have set me back about $65, lunch $4.14.)

Understanding Russia

When dealing with baffled foreigners traveling in this part of the world, Russians like to quote a 19th-century saying.

"You cannot understand Russia with your mind," it goes. "In Russia you can only believe."

I recalled another saying when I was on that suburban train with the nostalgic granny. "Russians have no problem throwing themselves with a hand grenade in front of an oncoming tank, but they have difficulty keeping the lavatory clean."

As the blocked toilet at the end of the coach overflowed, I was in no doubt.

This was not Europe.

* The next article in this series appears on Thursday. Staff writer Peter Ford sets out in search of authentic Belarussian food, and looks at how changing cuisine across Europe reflects changing attitudes.

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