November 21st, 2013
“Why are you travelling to Belarus?” the border guard asked in Russian-accented Polish. “What is your purpose?”
We were crossing from Poland into Europe’s final dictatorship: Belarus. Seven years after the pro-democracy Denim Revolution failed, we ventured into this Soviet-style nation where freedom of speech, press and assembly are compromised.
I explained in Polish that we were tourists. Passports were seized. Bathrooms were locked. Neither would be available for three hours. Welcome to Lukashenko country.
My husband, daughter and I secured a sleeper on the Moscow-bound train. Departing Warsaw at 9 p.m., we settled as best we could in our sardine-can of a compartment. The journey would take ten hours.
Hallway chatter was decidedly Slavic; passengers spoke Russian or Polish. Most Belarusians, we would learn, speak Russian, not Belarusian.
As midnight approached, the train screeched and slowed, coming to rest inside a maintenance garage. A crew of cigarette-smoking Belarusian men, decked out in work boots and reflective gear, had been awaiting our arrival. Digging into their toolboxes, they extracted tools and began to bang, clang and, at times, kick the underside of our train.
To the uninitiated, this might seem peculiar. Russian gauge is broader than standard gauge. Pavel Melnikov, an engineer working in Imperialist Russia hired American railway engineer George Washington Whistler in 1842 to help design the Moscow to St. Petersburg line. Russian gauge crisscrosses territories of the former U.S.S.R. It’s believed the broader gauge was chosen to thwart invaders.
Tobacco smoke seeped into our cell-like compartment. A dissonant symphony—metal hitting metal—played out in the clangs and bangs of men working beneath our window. I strained my ears, translating tiny bits and pieces of Russian.
Passports were returned and bathrooms were (mercifully) unlocked at 3 a.m. as our train resumed its journey. We arrived in Minsk at 7 a.m. on a busy Thursday morning. Commuters pressed past us—disheveled and bleary-eyed from our journey—on their way to work and school. We searched for signs, hoping for a hint of English or a smattering of French. We were greeted, instead, by Russian, only Russian. We floated, linguistically rudderless, in an incomprehensible sea of Cyrillic.
We ignored instincts to “find the tourist office.” This former Soviet Republic’s capital city doesn’t have one.
Our sole English-speaking link in Belarus was Dmitry, the person with whom we arranged to rent a flat over the Internet. He assured us he’d answer all of our questions, upon check-in at noon. We’d have many.
We exchanged currency for Belarusian rubles and purchased a map—by pointing. Weary and disoriented, we were saved by our daughter’s internal GPS, which directed us to the News Café at 34 Karl Marx Street. This Anglo-friendly venue offered steaming coffee, eggs, pancakes and oatmeal ordered with ease from a bilingual menu.
Satiated, but feeling clammy and tired, we walked to Lenin Square to wait out our check-in time. We passed KGB headquarters and a bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of this much-feared security agency that once spanned the entire Soviet Union. Paramilitary troops stood guard outside KGB headquarters, their uniforms accessorized with black boots, black berets and black billy clubs suspended from their hips. Surveillance cameras pointed downward like pairs of eyes scanning for revolutionaries.
We came upon a larger-than-life statue of Lenin, a la Socialist Realism. Naïve Americans that we are, we made the mistake of sitting on steps a little too close to Comrade Lenin; within seconds, a paramilitary guard directed us to move on.
Belarus was once part of Poland and a small, Polish, Roman Catholic minority lives there today. When this area was absorbed into the Soviet Union, most Roman Catholic churches were closed and turned into museums, concert halls, gymnasiums and even workshops. Atheism was official Soviet doctrine. That said, the Communist Party “tolerated” Russian Orthodox churches; these remain largely intact as they were before the Russian Revolution.
I arrived with a personal goal of trying to connect with a member of the Polish minority to learn a little bit about what it was like to live as a Pole in Belarus. Lenin Square, also known as Independence Square, provided a clue in my quest.
The Church of Saints Simon and Helena, occupied a corner of the square, a mere hop, skip and jump from Lenin. A plaque written in Polish indicated the church was built by Poles in 1910. The Soviets turned it into a movie theater. The church was reclaimed after the break-up of the Soviet Union and is now the center of Catholic life in Minsk.
As we visited re-opened churches in Minsk and, later, Brest, I noticed how the former Roman Catholic ones were being painstakingly restored. Funds are raised to renew stained glass windows and remove layers of Soviet plaster to reveal religious murals below. Many of these churches have been gifted with religious art and articles such as tabernacles and baptismal fonts from Poland and other countries. One church’s organ was funded by a congregation in Bavaria, where many of Germany’s Catholics reside.
Visiting St. Mary’s Church in Brest, we were closely followed by the caretaker as we explored the sanctuary. My husband felt a little uncomfortable so he exited the church. I stopped in the vestibule and noted that Mass was offered in Belarusian and Polish. The caretaker was close behind.
“Do you speak Polish?” I asked.
“Yes, I am Polish,” he said with a smile. His Polish was perfect; his accent was decidedly Russian which sounded funny in my ears. I explained that I was visiting from the U.S., but that my parents were Polish émigrés.
What followed was a friendly chat and a personal tour of this church which the Soviets turned into a sports club before it was reclaimed. No dramatic messages were conveyed. It was simply an opportunity to learn and understand a little more about how my kinsmen fare in a less-than-completely-free society. I dropped some rubles in the donation box and, emerging from the church, caught sight of yet another Lenin statue.