Getting to Know Belarus: An American’s Year in Minsk
A country where parachuting teddy bears and clapping in public are illegal? Where one in eight people is employed by the military or the police? Where nobody speaks English at all? Why would anyone want to go there? These were the questions that friends and family asked when I told them I was going to teach English in Belarus as a Fulbright scholar for the 2012-2013 school year.
I had maintained a positive outlook on going to Belarus from the beginning, when I first submitted my application to the Fulbright Commission. My Lithuanian roots combined with my study of Russian language made Belarus a perfect place to experience the crossroads of the Baltic and Slavic nations. Interest in the political situation sharpened my intrigue, as did the opportunity to impart my native knowledge of English as a teacher.
Boarding the plane in August 2012 was easy, but by the time my flight was landing, I had gotten apprehensive. As the plane descended into Minsk-2 International Airport, I wondered if all the rumours were true, if the country was as strange as colleagues and Internet articles had claimed. The answers were revealed over the course of my year in Minsk.
My first impression of Minsk was almost exactly as I imagined it. Partizanskii Prospekt was a wide avenue along which crawled giant, light green, caterpillar-like trolleybuses. A mix of high-rise concrete blocks and faded three-to-six story Stalin-era apartment rows stood on a grey-skied background. On my first day, I visited my university, paid for my accommodation in the sparse dormitory and bought simple groceries at the windowless Belarus department store. I heard English spoken only by Yuliya, a fourth-year university student who had been assigned to guide me around the city.
As I became acquainted with Minsk, I was fascinated by how things operated. The Metro was consistently on time; the streets, impeccably clean; the people, friendly enough and happy to become acquainted with an outsider.
I systematically walked around the city, visiting different parks, monuments and places of interest, trying to figure out what it was about the city that made it so much different from Vilnius, my second home, only three hours away. It could have been anything from the lack of history, to the linguistic identity crisis, to the charming, peeling pink paint on the Pobeda Cinema.
I struggled to answer when new acquaintances asked me, as they always did, “What do you think?”
To some degree, one of the things that initially attracted me to and intrigued me about Belarus was the rumor that the Soviet Union’s influence still echoed across much of the country. When I found my first hammer and sickle on the façade of GUM, the state-run universal department store, I felt conflicted. On one hand, I was witnessing an idiosyncratic lifestyle that had elsewhere faded over the course of the past 22 years. On the other, it was creepy to see the remnants of a bygone era.
The amount of bureaucratic red tape that I had to cut through turned out to be the most actual example of Soviet life. It had been hinted at before my arrival, when I was preparing my travel documents. A brief phone call to the Belarusian Consulate in New York to ask if my documents were received was answered by an irritable woman who could confirm nothing without a mysterious tracking number.
Upon arrival, I visited my district police station approximately five times in the registration and visa-extension process, bringing with me various translated, notarised, and stamped papers from the bank, my university, and the housing authority office, proving my residency and occupation.
Everyday examples of Soviet life were charming at first, but became tiresome. The most evident was the simple experience of grocery shopping. Every few days I went to Centralny supermarket to buy food, and found that the selection and supply varied on an hourly basis. Sometimes I would be able to find my favourite products; other times, not at all. Once, right around Christmas time, a row of jars of peanut butter, my favourite indulgence, lined one shelf of the store. Within twelve hours it was gone, only to reappear three months later.
Linguistically, I was in a unique place. Having studied Russian for three years prior to my arrival, I understood much of what was happening and was able to communicate my needs fairly clearly. Nevertheless, I was surprised to find that many people, when they discovered that I was an American, were eager to practice their English with me, from my students to the door lady at the university dormitory!
living in Belarus was quite comfortable, if I directed my attention away from the dubious political situation and the national identity crisis
It turned out that English was much more widely spoken than I expected. Despite their enthusiasm to speak, many of these people seemed nervous to become too close to me. Forming a solid social group was a challenge that lasted the whole year. Although the culture was fairly closed, I found that I fit in very well with the local population, which could have had something to do with my distinctly Baltic features.
I had been warned that the police officers who regularly patrolled our block would be inclined to check my documents if they suspected that I was a foreigner. Luckily, I never had any trouble with the many police officers I saw over the course of the year, and I found them mostly cordial in the few times when I did encounter them.
Living the Life
As time went on the city gained depth, and the country began to fulfil its promises to me. Working at the university and developing relationships with other organisations around Minsk, I found that living in Belarus was quite comfortable, if I directed my attention away from the dubious political situation and the national identity crisis that manifested itself in each individual.
The charm of the Soviet architecture and Lenin’s statue in the city centre never disappointed, and I developed a sort of affection for the ever-present Belarus tractors and the city’s pride in the newly historic Trinity Suburb and the jewel-like National Library.
I left Belarus at the eleventh hour, boarding a train to Vilnius in the evening on the day my visa expired on 15 June 2013. After nearly ten months of living in the country I felt that I had adapted to the unique lifestyle that such an isolated country offered to an American like myself. At first reflection, I have come to the conclusion that, like a good comrade, as long as you expect nothing from Belarus, Belarus will expect nothing from you in return.
Soon to come is a series of articles on Belarus Digest, in which I will further describe some of these experiences and topics and explore the life of an American in Belarus.
Monika was a Fulbright scholar teaching in Belarus in 2012-2013.