At the time of the fall of the Soviet Union I travelled across Belarus by train, but we didn’t stop, didn’t get out. On my only other trip, to Minsk in 2010, I found a typically grandiose Soviet-style capital that felt deserted.
Finally, I’ve gotten a little insight into why.
Articles with titles like Ukraine Fire Near Chernobyl Disaster Site Brought Under Control create an incorrect impression. They probably mean to reassure by suggesting that the sarcophagus that contains the ruined reactor four is not under threat.
But as I’ve been tweeting this afternoon, it’s not that simple. The forests around the Chernobyl nuclear facility have been irradiated since the event itself in April of 1986, and the forests are still toxic. A study has shown that radioactive cesium 137, for example, with a half life of 30 years, “isn’t disappearing from the environment as quickly as predicted.”
Ukrainian authorities established the exclusion zone in the first place to keep people away from dangerous materials like cesium 137, strontium 90 and others. Visitors to the exclusion zone are made to sign an agreement not to wander into the woods and disturb the ground. We were instructed not even to rest a camera bag on the ground while changing batteries.
Fire needn’t reach the reactor proper to cause the dispersal of cancer causing material. It can be lifted from the forest floor into the air in clouds of smoke from the fire. People in Kyiv, Minsk and rural areas of Ukraine and Belarus must be careful not to breathe smoke from this fire.
Peer Savodnik writes in The Interloper that, in his quest to defect to the Soviet Union, Lee Harvey Oswald claimed to have secrets about the American U-2 spy plane, but that after a time Moscow officials decided Oswald wasn’t as valuable as he claimed and sent him off to Minsk. David Stern summarizes Oswald’s life there in Minsk’s fond memories of Lee Harvey Oswald on the BBC website. He writes:
“The KGB however wasn’t impressed and initially rejected his application, but on the day his tourist visa expired Oswald slashed one of his wrists. Fearing an international incident if he tried again, the Soviet authorities let him stay.
They sent him to Minsk, a distant provincial capital, which might as well have been Siberia. He was assigned a job at a radio and TV factory, and allocated a one-room apartment in the city centre.”
From a 2010 visit to Belarus, here is the apartment building in which Oswald lived. The lady who took me there said he lived on the right side of the building as we look at it, on the third floor.
Besides the monuments, the Communist Square, the Independence Square, the Freedom Square and so on, and Lee Harvey Oswald's former residence, the most obvious thing to see in Minsk (on a visit in August 2011) was the preparations for the 2014 ice hockey world championships.
There was a new stadium. A whole vast athlete's complex was sprouting on the edge of town.
Today the headlines read Former Leader Supports Moving Hockey Championships From Belarus. Sure, the former leader, Stanislav Shushkevich, has an agenda, having been barred from leaving the country last week.
But I can't say I blame him. Citizens of Belarus are veteran victims of fraudulent elections. It's kind of a thuggish, gangsta land, and you wouldn't mind seeing the leadership embarrassed.
Here's a photo of a tabletop in a common room in the nicest hotel in the capital, far as I know, the Crowne Plaza. Click it to be able to read it. Pretty much tells you all you need to know.
Feel bad for the good people of Belarus. It's run by thugs.
More Belarus photos here.
Chernobyl, My Primeval, Teeming, Irradiated Eden: Story of a visit to the exclusion zone, in Outside magazine.
The Pizkuny Wall: Story in Der Spiegel about life along the Lithuania/Belarus border, and their own mini-Berlin Wall.
Where is Resolute Bay, site of a 20 August 737 crash in northern Canada? Way up there, it turns out. Several maps. The air carrier was First Air. Here's its route map, from its web site:
I don't know, it's just a drug store or something ordinary like that under that ghastly monument to the progress of the worker, or whatever it is. But it shows what the poor people of Belarus have to live with. Same with the massive, dehumanizing architecture in Minsk. Minsk was leveled in World War Two and rebuilt at the heyday of Stalinist architecture, and too bad for Minsk.
It's a bit of a narrow interest, this video clip, but it shouldn't be, really. It's a cliché, but Belarus really is a dictatorship, right there in Europe, and this video shows there really were thousands out to protest the sham elections held there on 19 December. As the person who produced this video writes,
"The lack of media attention and general public knowledge about Belarus truly saddens me. It’s heartbreaking because this is an issue that affects millions of peoples lives daily. I hope that by watching this video you’re going to be inspired to do more, and help pass the word along to a friend, family member, teacher, or co-worker about the injustices that occur everyday in the middle of 21st century Europe."
The person who produced this video is a Canadian teenager named Kamilla Kovaleva, who made this as a drama project for school. Spend a few minutes with it, if you can:
See the Belarus Gallery at EarthPhotos.com for more recent photos.
Independence Square in Minsk, Belarus, where “hundreds had been arrested and hundreds more severely beaten” in elections Sunday.
Following the Belarussian elections, here’s a depressing collection of headlines from Belarus Digest:
As Anne Applebaum wrote yesterday,
“By midnight, tens of thousands of people had been chased out of the main square in central Minsk, hundreds had been arrested and hundreds more severely beaten. Young people limped away from demonstrations with broken arms, bloody heads. Seven out of nine Belarusan presidential candidates were in jail.”
“Police arrested journalists, too, breaking into offices and shutting down their operations. Later, they also arrested artists and actors at home.”
And there’s this grim view of the world by the organization Charter 97:
Applebaum argues that “it was a stunning display of the regime’s weakness.” So does a Guardian editorial, which invites the regime to collapse.
I don’t know. Back in August, we were in Minsk for a wholly inadequate time to get the lay of the political land, but what I took away was a sense of widespread and deeply held cynicism, and a rueful joke – that Lukashenko will be President until his (six year old) son Nikolai is old enough to take over.
There are photos from around Minsk in the Belarus Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.