Professional JournalistsBeginner JournalistsFinalists 2013

Argemino Barro

Argemino Barro is a Spanish journalist and videomaker fascinated by the former Soviet Union. Graduate in Journalism from Universidad Complutense de Madrid, his work for broadcast media (Radio Intereconomía, Business TV) and online magazines (cafebabel.com, La Cité, Frontera D) brought him to several spots in Asia, Latin America and Central and Eastern Europe. In 2012, after learning Russian in Madrid and at the Pushkin Institute in Moscow, he decided to focus on explaining Belarus for himself and for the Spanish-speaking audience.

He writes a blog for El Huffington Post in which he analyzes the political unrest in Ukraine, power struggle in Russia, human rights in Central Asia and several topics regarding Belarus, from election fraud to updates on economy and security services.

He has lived in Madrid, Brussels, London, Moscow and Paris. Currently he resides in New York City, where he researches the EU and US’ promotion of human rights in Belarus as visiting scholar at the Harriman Institute, Columbia University.  

Belarus is Peace

Belarus is Peace

“Vasili! How many centimetres?” asks an agent, my camera in hand. He shows it to a colleague to find out if I can get it through or not. He has been diligently registering me for two minutes: my socks, the flat pockets on my chest, my belt, my trouser folds. He asks me to take off my jacket and roll up the sleeves of my shirt. He puts the tickets aside on the table, looks through my passport, takes off the top of my Bic pen and examines it as if he were looking for cocaine. Vasili nods. I can now join the mass of flags and signs that fill Independence Avenue, the main street of Minsk, on May 9th: the anniversary of the Soviet victory over Fascism almost seventy years ago.

It is a crystal-clear morning on which dads buy ice-creams and couples, hand in hand, cross the bridges over the river Svisloch. At first sight, Belarus is like a Potemkin village: a succession of clean avenues, rosy cheeks and buildings that look like cakes. It is no common reminiscence of Communism, but a country of transportation punctuality and urban security, coachsurfing and visible market doses. That is why even the bravest writers give in, one by one, to the temptation of starting off their chronicles hailing Minsk’s streets and modern cars: “Minsk looks like a child’s picture-book version of the old Soviet Union. But this is a Soviet Union that has, unlike the original, learned how to clean its windows and worked out how to make fridges that don’t shudder all day (…) The shops are full of food, clothes and furniture, and better still, you can actually buy them1” “Neat, elegant, so clean that you want to go barefoot.”2 “Had the Soviet Union looked like this, it might have lasted longer3

Nevertheless, the utterly nice citizens, who so proudly stroll drinking kvas and taking family pictures, have their feet deep in the mud of a bureaucracy that is protective and ruthless at a time. Instead of a single party, the skeleton of Belarus is a power chain that extends from the presidential office down to the pettiest positions of industry, filling public institutions and companies, and hanging, like a sword, over the few private companies that exist. The authority of the president, Aliaksandr Lukashenka, has two legs: one is the economy itself, controlled by the State at a level of 70% in order to guarantee a Soviet-craft social minimum; the other one, an absolute police apparatus, capable of materializing wherever a leaf may shiver. This social structure works in part thanks to cheap energy and Russian subventions. Gears turn with the forced of the dictator’s slyness. At the top, Lukashenka avoids the creation of power groups moving high-position workers or getting rid of them through the justice system under the flag of a fight against corruption. At the base, most contracts depend on yearly renewals as a threat to the disobedient.4 Thus, each Belarusian, to a greater or a lesser extent, plays a role in the theatre of Socialism. Teachers have to attend official parades with a certain number of pupils. Doctors make their patients sign to support the president. Factory directors ask their employees to participate in anticipated voting. College students organize public event in exchange for credits5.Subbotniki (“voluntary work” Saturdays) are still usual, as are numerous methods of punishment through forced labour. If one of the links refuses to collaborate, it is immediately replaced, arrested or thrown into plain unemployment.

This carefully perfected system, almost hand-made, meticulously crafted to prevent painful waves of opposition, is called the Vertical. The Vertical, like an arrow, breaks through the whole social pyramid and reaches its own past, made out of occupation, genocide and war, and inherently nostalgic of the Communist régime. It’s the popular trauma theory: Belarus suffered so much for so long that it is terrified of randomness and prefers to keep on living the slumber of predictability and vigilance that reigned from 1945 to 1989. This feeling would have been capitalized on by Lukashenka, for whom both the market and parliamentarianism are a cover for chaos and opportunism. It’s like a national case of post-traumatic stress, in which the patient refuses to go out to fresh air again for fear of suffering the same horrors again, allowing a firm, protective hand to keep him in captivity.

This would be its medical history:

Up to 1991 (with the only exception of 1918-19), Belarus was never a country, but a province. Within Kyivan Rus, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Kingdom of Poland, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union. Its name changes along with the times and the invaders; its borders dance to the tune of the nearby empires, that crash their steel in Belarusian lands (from 1507 to 1939, there where 16 wars between Russia and Poland: over three per century). It’s like a good-natured little man trying to take apart two massive boxers, all black and blue and drenched in blood, unable to feed any sign of identity, with shaking legs and weak arms, and his back bent towards a sleepy landscape of marshes and wooded plains.

The 20th century only brought about more disgrace.

The borders dance again after the First World War, and Bolshevism’s childhood allows Belarus a narrow margin for self-discovery. But the poets and writers, that open newspapers in their native tongue and flirt with an independent future, are crushed by the changes in Moscow. Stalinism unfolds an increasing repression: it forbids, arrests, deports and ends up at the very top. Between 1937 and 1941, the NKVD opens and fills up, in the forests of Kurapaty, north of Minsk, over 500 ditches with the capacity to fit between 50 and 250 corpses each. The police reap the victims in villages and towns and guide them to the forest. They are taken to the edges of the ditches where, held by two agents, they are shot at the base of their skulls. The corpses are put in rows and covered with sand. In spite of the scrupulous secrecy of the authorities, a part of the population baptizes the path of Kurapaty (name of the white flower abundant in the area) as the “road of death.” Absolute figures are supposedly between 100,000 and 250,000 corpses,6 most of them intellectuals and religious, popular nationalists, Poles or simply outstanding workers. The Belarusian intelligentsia, their only possibility to build, in the medium term, a national spirit, is completely annihilated.

In 1941, the uniforms change.

Adolf Hitler plans to turn Eastern Europe into an enormous German farm; he wants to wipe out Jews and reduce the Slavonic population to the appropriate minimum for them to work like slaves in future lands and farms. Extermination plans are laid out: the quota for Belarus is 75%. In the summer of 1941, the republic bears the surprise attack of the Wehrmacht against the Soviet Union (surprise for Stalin; his spies and high officers had warned him several times about an imminent attack).

The Nazis find Belarus in a different situation from that of Hungary or Poland.

Even though a third of Minsk’s inhabitants are Jewish, it is hard to identify them. Their religion is not written in their passport, their surnames have been russified. Few live in structured communities, they don’t show off their traditions and they lack visible leaders. The Soviet rolling pin has levelled them. And this creates a serious problem for the invaders. The German army lacks sufficient personnel to manage the already occupied Europe, and wherever it goes, it uses local collaborators, from workers to doctors, bureaucrats and policemen. Even among the Jews. Each ghetto has a judenrat, or a council formed by the most prominent Jews, who take care of mediation between their community and the Nazi, possibly believing that it will soften things. The Nazis go to the judenrat to survey the Jewish community, to collect terrible taxes and, finally, to organize the transfers to concentration camps. It is a way of saving on personnel and time, besides of completing the humiliation of the victims, making them collaborate in their own extermination.

It is difficult to name a judenrat in Minsk. The Jewish population is too numerous and diaphanous, and the ghetto ends up being a badly-watched wire fence. On the other hand, most of the German army is moving towards the oil reserves in the Caucasus, drowning Leningrad and lusting after Moscow. It doesn’t have enough soldiers to control Belarus. And then there are the millions of war prisoners taken on the way. The Germans have been educated in hate towards the Slavonic population; according to the propaganda, Slavs are subhumans destined to die working for the German power. Hitler wants to found a United States of Europe dominated by the Aryan man, with their plantations and slave markets. Once laid out, the Nazi army is ordered to apply the utmost cruelty against the Soviet peoples. This can be seen in their prisoner camps. Most are built upon bare plains and consist of a fence. The prisoners are so numerous that they must stand huddled together. Their winter clothes have been taken for them, they lack shelter and sanitary facilities, they hardly eat. Mortality rates on some camps approach 60%. Illness and death multiply; cannibalism breaks out.

As many Soviet prisoners of war died on a single given day in autumn 1941 as did British and American war prisoners over the course of the entire war7

Some soldiers manage to escape towards the intricate vegetation. The Belarusian geography, made out of marshes and plain, and precious forests, has served since time immemorial as natural shelter, ever since the first Slavonic tribes hid from the riding hordes that, from time to time, came out of the steppes. In 1941, the invasion comes from the West, and a constellation of soldiers and farmers organize a guerrilla unit in the depths of the forest. In the meanwhile, in the ghetto, Jewish policemen patrol the areas where there is no risk of escape, allowing a constant dropping of people who run away or join the armed fight guided by children. Part of the money gathered by the judenrat ends up in partisan hands. Thus, guerrilla and ghetto weave a resistance that is difficult to perceive. Partisans disrupt communications, wreck trains, they hit and run. Urban resistance manages information, distributes food, organizes hiding places and routes of escape.

The invaders, powerless, take the civil population hostage

The Nazis place entire villages into barns that are later set on fire. They bury children alive, shoot villages, kill people of hunger and gas in their special installations. They capture entire families to make one of their members contact the partisans,8 who respond to treason with brutal retaliation. In 1944, the guerrilla (in its different leaders; some independent, some linked to Moscow) has 370, 000 members and controls almost two thirds of Belarusian territory. It is the biggest irregular army in history.

Pushed by the partisans and the Red Army, the Germans leave a desolated landscape behind them: more than three thousand villages set on fire, ravished infrastructures, mountains of corpses. Nine out of ten Jews have been murdered. Belarus has lost half of its population by exile and death just the same; statistically, it is the country that suffered the most during the Second World War.

* * *
It’s a crystal-clear morning in Minsk. Right after getting through the control point, a young man in a tie records the dropping of visitors on video and takes notes with Spartan-like zeal. Every four or five metres, on each side of the avenue, there are agents from the presidential service talking through walkie-talkies, looking at their watches and tilting their chins to see over the multitude; others walk among the people, their hands behind their backs, as if they were reviewing the troops. There are hundreds, thousands of them; they are the emotional, muscular part of a state that proudly shows off. In between the official colours (green, red and white) on the flags, signs and balloons, in between the military orchestras, the television cameras and the flower bouquets, we can distinguish here and there chests covered with golden medals, plate hats, bushy eyebrows. They are the few veterans left from the Great Patriotic War, all inclined by the weight of their ninety years of age and escorted by children and grandchildren, waiting for the parade which is to finish on Victory Square.

In Minsk, everything is that way: Victory, October, People, Peace, Immortal. A reality as messianic and bombastic as its enormous statues of ample chest and emphatic gestures: the image of the Communist whose impeccable morals have formed his features opposed to the sly Capitalist from the propaganda: short-legged, potbellied and flabby, looking lordly through his monocle. Here, in spite of the McDonald’s restaurants and private chains that decorate the impeccable streets, in spite of Facebook and punctual trains, a mortal earnestness still dominates over public life, in which each gesture oozes extreme dignity: the speeches, the media, the names of the streets, schools and factories, and, of course, the architecture, cold and colossal, as a fallen empire’s should.

The march begins at half past eleven, headed by the president, Aliaksandr Lukashenka, and his alleged third son, Nikolai, aged ten (whom he has been taking absolutely everywhere since they both appeared together in 2009 with no explanations; it is supposed that Nikolai was born by the dictator’s former personal physician, now living apart from him). Several meters behind them there goes the presidential retinue with military men and apparatchiki commanded by the two elder sons (whose mother has not appeared in public since the nineties): Viktor, the second person in power inside the regime, and Dmitri, both well-rounded by life in the palace. Between the nomenklatura and the multitude, there are two rows of six military jeeps driving along with the slow march, with USSR and Belarusian flags, and another two rows of policemen in uniform. This year, as the last one, and due to the threat of bankrupt, the State has opted for simplicity: unlike Russia, it does not get out its rows of tanks or its entire divisions of soldiers, and it also saves the endless ritual of greetings to high-position military men.

Once the parade has begun, I stick to a row of veterans. The lady next to me is inclined forward, concentrated in her effort, unstoppably downhill with her cane and two roses in her fist. At our left, behind the dashed line of agents and young, saluting soldiers, hundreds of children and teenagers show signs, throw flowers and shout:

“Thank you for the victory!”

“Thank you!”

Groups of girls, aged seven or eight, wearing the traditional white dress and flower crowns put up their arms and turn their wrists as they chant: “Thank you for the victory!” From time to time, a girl walks away from the group and gives a flower to a veteran, who smiles and waves his hand trying to keep his balance.

Military bands set the pace with Soviet songs.

A lady marches with her great-granddaughter on one side; on the other, her children, almost elders, who bend over from time to time to check that everything is alright. The lady, determined to reach the obelisk, nods, slightly trembling. For the people from her generation, who suffered hunger and humiliation, who fought in the marshes, who suffered bombings and tip-offs and killed, and saved lives, walking the short kilometre from October Square to Victory Square is like running a marathon. Many cannot do it anymore, and wait at the finish line, held by someone or in wheelchairs. What will happen when there is no-one left? They are living assets of national history and propaganda, useful to spread a very simple idea: that the baton of the dictator is the only guarantee against the horror of another war like that one. A similar subliminal message, of course, to that of Francoism and other dictatorships, that is strengthened from every direction. The invincible official media (there is no private national televisión in Belarus; out of the 166 radio stations, 143 are owned by the State9, as is 80%-85% of the written press) provide with a monolithic vision of the past and the present, focused, as the rest of bureaucracy, in perpetuating the regime. Thus, everything that happens in Belarus is good and positive and calm, because it’s a wonderful land of full employment and patient, generous people who saved the world from the Nazis. In the outside world, by contrast, governments are always about to collapse because of corruption, crime or savage strikes, and, to top it all, they are conspiring against Belarus. Education follows the same line (to the point of limiting or forbidding alternative interpretations, like the abuse committed by the guerrilla, the cases of collaborationism and denouncing Stalinist terror), cultivating a sacred respect for the bellicose period, foundational myth, motor and spiritual corpus of the modern Republic of Belarus.

The official and majoritarian version10 is that everything began with the Revolution in 1917, a period of war and efforts that, nevertheless, ended up flowering and turning into a stable, advanced society. Before October, everything was darkness and ignorance, and the decisive victory against Fascism in the Great Patriotic War, the tale of which still vibrates in table talk and family gatherings, finished confirming Belarus as a great socialist nation. This theory of military sacrifice gains sense in the following decades, over the long period of peace and relative prosperity that followed the victory.

* * *
In 1945, the country wakes up completely devastated in form and content. Stalin struck down the nationalist intelligentsia, Hitler, the Jewish community, and a new wave of massive expulsions ended with those suspected of keeping “anti-soviet feelings.” Minsk does not exist anymore; there are hardly any buildings still standing. Bureaucracy looks at Belarus as an untouched territory which, besides, does not share a border with the enemy anymore. A new portion of Europe, from Poland up to half of Germany, including Czechoslovakia, Hungary and the very Balkans, has fallen under the Communist rule. Guerrilla leaders hung up their boots to rebuild their country with the river of resources that springs from Moscow. Cities and villages are redesigned with names of battles and heroes; farms and roads flourish. With time, heavy industry starts to arrive, and around it are created cities equipped with hospitals and schools, theatres, laboratories, cafeterías, factories and residential blocks, never before seen in an agricultural country. Despite taking up only 1% of USSR territory, Belarus ends up producing 20% of the Union’s motorbikes, 14% of the tractors and 23% of synthetic clothes.11 If Ukraine is the “bread-basket of the empire,” Belarus becomes its “assembly chain.” In 1971, it recovers the 9.1 million inhabitants it had before the war; it is now the republic with the best living standards after the Russian Federation.

But economic growth has a price: identity.

The Belarusian language disappears from public aspects of politics; a good part of the new nomenklaturacomes from Russia, where they are cooking the official history of a common past based on the revolution and the fight against Fascism. Brezhnev’s Kremlin recognizes its neighbour’s wartime effort. The Great Patriotic War Museum, the Hill of Glory, the Khatyn Memorial, the Brest Fortress are born. Hundreds of obelisks, eternal flames and concrete soldiers occupy every last inch of urban space. Belarus is named “partisan republic,” and Minsk, one of the eleven “hero cities” of the Soviet Union. They even play with the idea that Belarus is the only dissidence-free republic.12

The Soviet status quo enjoys such support that neither Chernobyl (Belarus was the most affected country, suffering 70% of the contamination13) or perestroika were able to break it. In the referendum in March, 1991, 83% of Belarusians support the continuity of the Soviet Union; in August, their central committee eludes punishing the organizers of the coup who try to bring down Gorbachev and restore orthodoxy.14 Independence tears away their roof like a hurricane. Their industry is market-orphaned; scarcity and unemployment show up. On one side, the old apparatchiki divide the state between themselves; on the other, nationalism is reborn with discontentment and, from a corner of the stage, an agricultural technician with wide shoulders and an irregular curriculum manages to conquer a seat in the Supreme Soviet: Aliaksandr Lukashenka bursts in stridently; he gets his support from meetings and young, opportunist politicians who use him as a ram. In 1993, he presides the anticorruption committee, over which he reigns like a quadriga pilot, lashing away with his whip of brave language. Unlike the nationalist minority and the old foxes, Lukashenka reflects the plain worries, “bread and butter,” of the helpless people. His rivals mock him, as he comes from a rudimentary atmosphere, does not have great contacts and speaks Russian with a peasant accent. Viacheslav Kebich, who is then the prime minister and wants to fill up the recently-created post of president, ignores Lukashenka; he refers to him as his “future Agriculture vice-minister” and concentrates his energies on fighting nationalists.

In July 1994, the cast-away farmer wins, against all odds, the first and last clean elections in the whole of Belarusian history.

Since then, besides perfecting his absolute power, Lukashenka has reversed point by point the national renaissance of the nineties. His administration re-established Russian as the second official language (it is, after all, the mother tongue of nine out of ten Belarusians), a Soviet-like flag and Communist holidays. Television keeps on producing war films Mosfilm style; instead of advertisements, the signs we see on the sides of the road show veterans in uniforms and happy children holding bouquets. Ten years after Independence, 99% of the streets in Minsk still have their original name. Even the death penalty, although to a different extent and only after crimes typified in the penal code, is still carried out by scrupulously stalinist techniques: in secrecy and by a shot to the back of the head.15 Still today, and even though he always wins the elections with over 80% of the votes, independent surveys give Lukashenka a national support of between 31 and 40% (twice as much as the opposition).16

It is the absence of nationalism (in its primary definition of devotion to the interests of a nation) that makes Lukashenka possible (…). Incredibly, Lukashenka is the only strong Belarusian leader in history and the first to find the means to galvanize the masses (…). As nowhere else in the post communist region, Western concepts of modern democracy confronted a void.17

* * *

The parade reaches, at last, the obelisk, cordoned off several times by the swarm of agents. Lukashenka and his alleged son place a floral wreath before the eternal flame that stands in memory of the fallen. They are imitated by fat-tied State workers and by the knot of soldiers that unfold with amazing flexibility, as if they were connected by an invisible, disciplined nervous system. Up in the square, over two blocks of houses, we can read:

“The People’s Deeds are Immortal”

Lukashenko gets up on the tribune and demands a minute of silence. Afterwards, he wearily reads a long list of acknowledgements to the valiant people who saved the world. This year, like the last one, he wears a suit (probably bullet-proof, judging by its width and its heavy looks); until 2010, he had worn a khaki green military uniform (just like his alleged youngest son) with a plate hat trimmed in red and gold, as if the Party had haloed him to put universal chaos in order.

When he ends, hundreds of martial voices finish off the speech:

“Uraaaaaaa! Uraaaaaaa!”.

And the feasts end; the dictator and his agents disappear, the multitude breaks, the traffic comes back, and believers take the chance to make offerings to communist heroes. People gather around the few veterans that still retell their stories with clarity and energy in their voice. When an old man with golden teeth raises his arms upon finishing his, the girls who surround him burst into applause and take turns to photograph themselves with him. In this ambience of nostalgia, two portraits of Lenin and Stalin attract attention. Their porters keep a minute of silence before the eternal flame. Afterwards, one of them, the boss, younger than the rest, lectures a Chinese student about the absolutely underrated qualities of Stalin, the Father of the Peoples, the Mountain Eagle of the Party. “Had it not been for him, you’d be speaking German now!” and he hands out pamphlets with odes to Stalin’s effigy. Several passers-by pick up copies. The stalinist keeps on talking with enthusiasm, his eyebrows arched in arrogance. He’s become confident. A guy with greying hair and a Rousseau-style ponytail goes up to him, takes a sheet with Stalin’s face on it and immediately, with his arm still stretched, crumples it into a ball and lets it fall. He does not say or express anything. The stalinist drools with wrath and clumsily punches him twice, to no effect.

The man with the ponytail walks away, his dignity intact.

Translated (Spanish-English) by Ángela Espinosa Ruiz - a prizewinner in the competition Belarus in Focus 2011