Europe’s Last Stereotype?
Clichés about Belarus form a large part – perhaps the only part – of foreigners’ views of the country.
It’s not surprising since Belarus rarely appears in the international press, and therefore such stereotypes loom larger than they should do. The common misconceptions about Belarus are uncomfortable for those who live here and downright annoying for those who were born here. It is worrisome that with some much information available on the internet, these beliefs still persist.
At First View
One of the first impressions that greet the visitor to Belarus is that the country is generally well-kept, clean and tidy. In fact, it is so well kept, clean and tidy that one of my Belarusian friends who welcomes many official visitors complains that it is always the first thing that her guests say about the country as if they expected the opposite. I mentioned it myself and she rolled her eyes. ‘There is more to Belarus that that,’ she said, in an exasperated tone.
It would be difficult to disagree with that.
In fact, the cleanliness and orderliness point to an interesting feature of the Belarusian character: the need to get things right, or rather the discomfort when things are not quite right. ‘Half done is not done.’ Newly built roads are finished to the last piece of well-manicured grass verge which is regularly cut when it grows to an untidy length. Potholes appearing in roads are dealt with immediately. To a Swiss, German or possibly even a British reader, this seems like a given, a basic rule of society. However, it makes Belarus an eastern outpost of good order and as a cliché, it is probably quite an accurate one (with great respect to my Belarusian friend). However, why exactly it should be such a surprise to foreign visitors is a mystery – perhaps the stereotype of a crumbling Soviet society has been embossed into their subconscious.
The Communist Legacy
Another cliché that seems to concur with reality to the visitor, is the unavoidable ‘Stalinist’ architecture’ of Central Minsk. The sight of grand socialist Realist buildings and the statue of Lenin somehow support the preconception that Belarus preserves the relics of Communism. Appearances can be deceptive. That the architecture is Stalinist is because Stalinist buildings were in vogue at the end of the war when a largely completely destroyed Minsk had to be rebuilt. Other destroyed cities in the Soviet -influenced world, such as Warsaw and East Berlin, underwent a similar ‘Stalinist architectural’ transformation.
However, while those cities had a head start in their transformation to capitalism with the construction of western high rise buildings and the trappings of a consumer society in the 1990’s, Minsk’s changes began later and the city has not yet quite had quite the same level of consumerist make-over to hide the starkness of socialist planners from a bygone age. There are enclaves of Minsk which are not only post-Communist, but resolutely ‘hip’.
Thus, while many people make the assumption that this architecture is a reflection of a political system or a nation’s mentality, a closer observation belies this assumption. The collective mentality is no longer Communist, although nostalgia for the past certainly exists – especially amongst older people in the rural areas. Younger urban folk hanker after a type of governance that allows them the aspirational lifestyle of a nice job and nice flat, fashionable clothes, an enjoyable leisure and international travel. The first two may be as elusive as anywhere else and minimal western investment means fewer career prospects and a lack of high salaries to buy an apartment. The last three are attainable, at least in cities. Judging by my friends’ Facebook pages, replete with selfies from every imaginable place on earth, the international travel aspiration is definitely being fulfilled.
For many, the most prominent cliché of Belarus is the moniker ‘The last dictatorship in Europe.’ Whenever I mention to people abroad that I live in Belarus, this is usually first thing they say. If the ‘last’ this means the latest one, then I think there are a few more candidates lining up for this accolade. If it means the ’ last ever’ dictator in Europe and from this time on there will be no more, it is naively optimistic, possibly because of the previous point.
The ‘last Dictatorship’ endures because of well-publicized pictures of the President, resplendent in military uniform. Some may feel that he is the epitome of Belarus. By the same token, some people may claim that Donald Trump, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson or Angelika Merkel are also true representations of their countries. I think it is fair to say that most inhabitants of all these countries, Belarus included, would feel uncomfortable with this notion.
Without wishing to either attack or defend Belarus’s President, an even brief visit to Belarus tells you that there is more to any country than just its leader. In fact, life carries on pretty much as it would do in any other European country, either despite the ‘last dictatorship’ or, as some would have it, because of it.
It is true that those who come looking for evidence that their preconceptions of a country are real, will definitely find it. Some visiting bloggers seem to take great delight in underscoring these stereotypes. However, the reality is that the post-Soviet world in evolving in different ways: each former Republic of the USSR is finding its own path.
Between them, there are similarities and there are differences. Each one has its eclectic mix – whether in architecture, shops, service, consumer goods, social, economic, political systems or the character of the people, all of which makes each one unique. That Belarus is no exception, defies the stereotypes that the rest world seems to prefer to believe.