Belarus Votes

The campaign toward elections next weekend in Belarus is giving Aleksandr Lukashenko more fits than usual as he “competes” for a sixth term as president. After authorities jailed one of the main opposition candidates, vlogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski, for “committing actions to incite social hatred and the assault of law enforcement officers,” his 37 year old wife Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was allowed to register as an opposition candidate.

RFERL has a report. If you’re looking for coverage as the election approaches this week, watch RFERL, and a leading Belarussian opposition website, from the group Charter 97, for more on the story. See also the Riga-based site Meduza. The screen grab above comes from Meduza’s coverage of a Tsikhanouskaya campaign rally, which Meduza estimates drew some 63,000 people.

Personally, the Belarussian capital of Minsk gave me the creeps.

The Fire at Chernobyl Is a Real Danger Right Now


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.

Oswald in Minsk

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.


Don’t Go to Belarus

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.


Quick Travel Links

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:



Thought About Belarus This Week?



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 for more recent photos.

Scene of the Crime


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:

Headlines copy

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



Weight of the State – Wednesday HDR


This one's from our recent trip to Belarus. It's a monument to the revolution, or the Onward March of the Worker, or something, looming above an ordinary storefront, not far from the Old Town Square in Minsk.

The thing's so overdone it invited some post-production caricature. So I left the color in the people but desaturated everything else, blurred the sky to make it seem to encroach on the rest of the scene, and darkened and added contrast to the monument itself. It was created from a single RAW photo re-exposed at +2 & -2, the three images recombined in Photomatix, and then finished in Photoshop CS5 with Nik Software's Dfine 2.0. Click it to make it bigger.

There's no Belarus Gallery up yet on, but we're working on it and we'll have a dozen or two photos up soon. It is, however, along with 278 others, in the HDR Gallery.

Riding to Minsk

Just for sheer novelty, waking up one morning and going to Belarus is hard to beat. Here's how it went a couple of weeks ago:


14 August, 2010

I’m excited today. We’re heading into the capital of Europe’s lone holdout authoritarian state, Minsk, Belarus, still all decked out in mint-condition Communist architecture. This ought to be fun.

So: We decided to do this the local way. Yesterday at a terrace bar down across from the big Vilnius Cathedral they convinced us that the train we meant to take would spend an eternity at the border, and that the entire trip would be far faster by bus. We'll take the bus.


Logo My back’s up against the wall of the bus station in Vilnius, surveying where the buses arrive and depart. Our tickets say we’re leaving from slip #34 at 12:50 for a roughly four hour ride on Tolimojo Keleivinio Transporto Kompanija UAB, seats 29 and 30 from Vilnius to Minskas. It’s a Lithuanian company. Somehow its acronym is TOKS, with a sporty slash down the middle of the logo.

A mustardy yellow bus creeps toward slip 34 and I’m sure it’s ours, broken and limping as it is. But it crawls on past 34 to 37. Its sign reads destination: Sakiai.

People smoke. All the buses look air-conditioned and that’s good because it’s hotter than in memory this summer in the Baltics, today’s high 92 (33.33C).


Pigeons. People talking on cell phones. Guys wearing T-shirts that read “Top Security.” Doesn’t feel much like there’s petty crime here in the blazing sunlight.

We’re in the bus. Six or eight minutes with no air and it’s hot, then the A/C is on and all’s well. Twelve rows of four and a back bench, this bus is full except for a few. No idea what anybody else is saying, no idea what we’ll do at the border. There’s the fun. Driver comes down the aisle with arrival cards – “Number passport, number visa.”

And now we clatter around the cobbled streets of Vilnius. One man aboard is wearing his Roman Catholic clerical garb, one woman is wearing a headscarf, and there are no seat belts in the bus, a Setra, a subsidiary of Daimler AG.

In fifteen minutes, no more, we’re out in the countryside. Lithuania’s only hills seem to be around Vilnius. The landscape’s flat now as far as the eye can see. Suburbs, second houses, farmhouses and falling-in former farmhouses.

We came from Finland, and the forest had looked all stoic and Baltic and northern, kind of greenish-monochrome, all the way across Finland and Estonia and Latvia, but now we’re farther south in Lithuania and new trees and especially weeds creep into the mix.

The hay was already baled in Finland. Combines still worked the fields between Riga and Vilnius. And right now it feels pretty much like our farm in Georgia, USA would on 14 August.


A brisk 33-kilometer hop down to the Belarusian border. We stop at this particular end-of-the-EU outpost at 1:15 for a very serious, very young soldier, who boards the bus and takes all but the EU passports, best I can tell.

We all climb off and there’s shade and people smoke and find the toilet and change money and then the driver fires up the bus (which means air-conditioning) so we all climb back on and the serious young Lithuanian soldier redistributes our papers.

25 minutes into the border process we maneuver around an hours-long car queue, driving in the no man’s land’s oncoming lane. At the front there’s some shouting and some jukin’ back into our lane and we come to the gates of Belarus.

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