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A School Trip to Minsk in 2009

On Sunday I participated in the Freedom Way, a peaceful protest where people in Lithuania linked hands from Vilnius to the border of Belarus in support of freedom and democracy in Belarus. I remembered that eleven years ago in 2009 my children and I traveled to Minsk, Belarus with a Lithuanian folk music group. I would like to republish here an essay from that trip that describes how even then, the Belarusian people desired their freedom. This essay is taken from my book, THE SNAKE IN THE VODKA BOTTLE (2012).

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Perhaps it was a bit of a miracle that Lithuania had not ended up like Belarus, a puppet to Putin's Moscow. Belarus was one of the one of the last totalitarian states in Europe, and it was right next door to Lithuania. As one country was developing as a fledgling democracy, the other was slumbering under dictatorship. In the spring of 2009, my children and I were invited to visit the Belarusian capital of Minsk. Our youth folk music group was invited to participate in a Belarusian conference on regional folk music. There would be groups from all over Belarus, parts of Russia, and the Baltic States. The folk music conference was hosted by the State University of Belarus Ethnomusicology Department. Groups of elderly Belarusians who sang, played, and danced in the old tradition would be brought in from the provinces to perform.

We departed on the early morning train to Minsk. We almost caused a political scandal when our train stopped at the border between Lithuania and Belarus. One of the younger boys had developed a bout of diarrhea. The train's bathrooms were already locked, so Irena, our group's leader, asked the border guard where she could bring the boy to use the toilet. He pointed to an outhouse far across the fields. The exited the train. In the mean time, another guard came on duty, replacing the first one. I handed over our group's visas and passports.

"Why are two missing?" the border guard demanded.

I pointed out the window at Irena and the boy. They were running like defectors across the open fields. I struggled to explain in Russian, using the words Irena had taught me. We were lucky the border guards didn't decide to pursue them or open fire on the two "defectors." I suppose the Belarusians know that nobody in their right mind would escape from the European Union to Belarus.

Once we arrived in Minsk, our hosts greeted us at the train station and led us to the high-rise concrete dorm where we would be staying--ten girls on mattresses on the floor in one room and five boys in the other. All the girls had to share one sink in a bathroom about a dozen flights downstairs. There were no showers. No one complained. They patiently took turns washing their long hair in the sink before performances.

Walking to the dorms, I felt as though I'd landed back in Lithuania when I first came there in 1988. The surroundings were strangely Soviet--the cheap block-style concrete architecture, the hammers and sickles, the red propaganda banners. The people seemed Soviet as well, taciturn, wary, exhausted.

The girls and I noted the local fashion sense. At eight in the morning female Belarusian students struggled to negotiate planks laid over the mud in stilettos and slinky evening gowns on their way to early morning classes. I guess you never knew who you would meet on the way to class at eight in the morning?

The Belarusian folk music students who hosted us were very nice and down to earth. One girl explained to us that many of them spoke Belarusian, not Russian, and that their way of life was inspired by their grandparents' way of life in the villages. On one of our walks around town, two young folk musicians confided in us, telling us about how as folk musicians they were preserving and propagating Belarusian folk music, and not Russian music. Therefore, they were forced to pay higher tuition fees and received smaller stipends. They had a harder time receiving dorm housing and often had to commute long distances as a result from their home provinces.

"I am just a fiddler," Slava, a good-looking young man with a thick long ponytail and expressive blue eyes, told us. "But because I fiddle to Belarusian melodies, to Lukashenko I am political."

Slava was assigned one evening to take us around Minsk. With a mischievous glint in his eyes, he addressed me and Irena and the kids: "Would you like to go to the shopping mall? Or would you like to go to a secret anti-government folk dance on the outskirts of Minsk?"

Of course, we chose the latter.

The previous day, Slava had led us around the obligatory sights--red banners several stories high praising the brave feats of the heroes of May 9, 1945, and Minsk's statue of Lenin, where we had our group photograph taken. Standing beside the looming bronze Soviet realist statue, Slava whispered to me, "On ne nada..." (we don't need him) pointing with his chin at Lenin.

Walking around Minsk, our kids began to notice that people were staring at them. Finally, Ieva, a lovely sixteen-year-old girl with thick brown hair and brown eyes, asked me: "Why do people stare everywhere we go?"

"Because you are free," I said. "Just look at you, laughing, goofing around, talking loud, giving each other piggy back rides. Now look at local people. Watch how they conduct themselves."

"They are very stiff," Ieva said, adding, "and careful about how they talk to us."

"That's what I mean."

Twenty-five years previous, in 1983, when I came to Soviet-occupied Lithuania with a high school group from West Germany, we'd been the carefree Western teenagers who were drawing stares while the Lithuanians had been the ones who were stiff and careful around us. Now the borders with the West had shifted further East and our Lithuanian students were the Westerners who were subjected to curious and condemning stares.

That evening, after we'd agreed to go to the secret dance with Slava, we took the metro to the end of the line, changing trains at the Lenin Stop, where a huge bronze head of Lenin on a platter stood as the station's centerpiece. We exited in the neighborhood near Minsk's monolithic modern library, which looked like a huge black marble rubric's cube tilted on its side. We headed for a path in the forest.

"This gathering is illegal," Slava told us as he led us through winding dirt paths to a field hidden within a thicket of trees. "These dances are considered a protest against Lukashenko's pro-Russian government," Slava explained.

There, on the outskirts of Minsk, hundreds of young Belarusian men and women were kicking up dust, dancing to bagpipes and violins. Our kids jumped right into the dance. They did not quite grasp that the event was political. We held dances like this in Vilnius every week, but those dances were just to have fun and socialize. This dance meant something different. A group of older Belarusians, who still remembered their failed singing revolution and our successful one, huddled around us once they realized we were from Vilnius. They asked us about life after independence and begged us to sing "sutartines," polyphonic chants, We did, and they walked in a circle around us, holding hands.

"This is what it had been like during the Singing Revolution," I whispered to Irena, "remember?"

Irena nodded in agreement and said, "Yes, we had that same energy mingled with secrecy. I'll never live through anything like that again."

Was Belarus on the verge of revolution? It was hard to tell after just a few days in Minsk. I did know that there were some political groups that had not given up on Belarus and who were supporting democracy processes within the country. In the Baltics, the push for independence had started with the folk music movement. In the United States the hippie movement originally started with groups of folk musicians in the late fifties who'd meet in Greenwich Village and sing American folk songs. Maybe it would be the folk music movement that would trigger revolution in Minsk?

On the train going home, my nine-year-old daughter said to me, "Mama, I really liked Minsk."

"What did you like about it?" I asked.

"I like that the cars wait for you to cross the street and everybody acts nice."

Wisdom from the mouths of babes... If nothing else, a totalitarian regime held human misbehavior in check. Or did it? There was a certain safety to that type of law and order. Perhaps that is why so many of the older generation pine with nostalgia for the communist past?

As the train came to a grinding halt at the border, and as border guards entered and began inspecting every inch of the train for contraband, I thought to myself, no, I have no nostalgia for totalitarianism.

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