Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Mike Schwirtz

Mike Schwirtz's Pinsk passport photo

I probably should have done this blog about Mike Schwirts a couple of weeks ago.
I know I told Mike that was going to write this up earlier. But a combination of both the popularity (or unpopularity- in any case I had a ton of hits) of the previous blog and because there was some worry on the part of our Rabbi and the administration of Yad Yisroel Jewish Travel concerning the politics of the situation. They have been thinking that this story would reflect badly on us in some way. I personally don’t think that we did anything wrong and I know that we absolutely had no political intentions involved here. To me it was all just a matter of what happened, happened and really, it was all kind of funny in a way.

I mean, I think it was all pretty funny. This is not to say that I am making any claims to be a great comic writer, but the situation itself was more than crazy and I think Mike Schwirtz would be the first one to agree with this.

Mike Schwirtz.

To start with, I got a letter from Mike when he was starting a blog called “Indolent Youth”. Mike went to school in St. Petersburg for two years and wrote his thesis paper on youth politics in the former Soviet Union. And so this was his interest and after school he moved back to Washington DC and took an internship with Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty. His intentions were to make for himself the beginnings of a career in journalism.

He contacted me because of my blog and we back and forthed a few times about where we all stand on the situation and things like this and even if we differed on some points, we seemed to get along pretty well.

Now, as you can see, I have an association with both the Yad Yisroel Jewish Travel Agency and the Roza Vetrov tourist bureau in Pinsk. When Mike told me that he was thinking about coming to Belarus to have a look at the elections, I offered to help him out with his visa, air tickets and hotel registrations. He said this was cool so I went to the Rabbi and said that I had a friend from the states who wanted to come out for a week and that we should get him a visa. The rabbi asked if he was coming to learn about his Jewish heritage and I said no, he was just this guy who wanted to come and have a look at the elections. Is he an agitator? No, he’s just a guy looking to start out as a journalist and I thought we might get him to come down here and maybe write something about us as well. He is paying for this out of his own pocket, he has no intentions of making problems, and he just wants to see and be a part of things and maybe get himself a story. Is he even Jewish? Um, maybe. I don’t know. Probably.

The Rabbi said no, absolutely not. We do not want any part of this guy, we don’t need any problems, and we are not involved in politics and are here for a completely different purpose. We don’t need to take any risks. If you really feel you need to help him, give the job to someone else.

So this is what I did. I went over to Roza Vetrov and asked Efim Dournopieka if we could hook up Mike Schwirtz with a return air ticket from New York, a hotel reservation in Minsk and a voucher for a visa. To this Dournopieka replied, just as he does in the ad, “No problem, we’ll take care of it.” And so this was how we got started with Mike Schwirtz.

Now, to call this deal a comedy of errors would be a great understatement. The sheer number of times we had to backtrack and rethink things was staggering. Nothing ever simply went normal in any way. Forgive me if I mess up a few details, but here is basically how this whole thing went.

The first thing that happened, and this was before we even got him his ticket, was the Belarusian Embassy in Washington DC decided that the no longer would accept faxes of vouchers and that they needed original copies sent to them. Up until that time sending visa paperwork to the American Embassy was a 10 minute deal. Maybe this was a practical start for the elections, who knows, but in any case Mike called us back saying he could not get his visa because there was no voucher there waiting for him. So we made some calls and found out the problem and called Mike to see if he wanted to pay for the Fed Ex, which I was assuming shouldn’t be more than 10 or 15 bucks. He said OK, as long as it is not too expensive. Great. Unfortunately that Fed Ex turned out to be $32, but thinking that service was the way to go, and that I had promised to keep the costs to a minimum, I decided to send it and pay for some of it out of our profits, which were at the time, about $60.

So the paperwork was resent and about a week later Mike called and said all was cool and that he had his visa. So we went ahead and got him his air ticket and arranged his hotel and all seemed kosher. That is until about two weeks later when he wrote and asked if he could have two weeks instead of one for his trip. He now wanted more time to go down to Ukraine for their elections. So I said Ok, got on the net and found him another ticket. This ticket though cost two hundred bucks more so he said forget it. A week later though he wrote and said a friend now wanted to come along and that the two hundred was a good deal. I said OK, went on the net, found him two tickets, wrote back to both he and his friend for confirmation, but was then told that the friend wanted to back out, which meant that Mike wanted to back out too. I said OK. About a week later though, Mike wrote and said that he had thought about it and if the ticket was still available for only two hundred more, he wanted it. I said Ok, and went on the net, but in that moment, there was only a ticket for about $350 more. I called Minsk, I called Poland; no way other than this. I wrote Mike and apologized and advised him to try a travel agent or to call the airlines. Amazingly enough, he wrote and told me he had found a ticket for almost the same price. How was this possible? Well, the mistake was on our side: The ticketing bureau we were using kept making a ticket which included a jump to Minsk instead of flying in to Warsaw and taking a train to Minsk. Yikes.

In any case, other than the expense of all of those phone calls, we were Ok.

So Mike's flight time finally comes around and he is there at JFK and makes his flight. The trip is uneventful and he arrives in Minsk by train the morning of the 18th. And, as you know, he was there for the elections so straight away he is out on the street meeting people and talking about the upcoming vote. On the evening of the 19th, as word of Lukashenka's 83% victory is anounced, he is right there at Freedom Square with the big crowd taking it all in. Mike sent several reports and observations back to RFE/RL about the event.

Now, during this demonstration of course, the tent-city was put up and the week long sit in response to the elections got going as well. Mike is right in the middle of everything and is continually sending reports back to Washington about what is going on. He is not really participating as a demonstrator and he is not an accredited journalist, but nevertheless he is in the midst of things and making himself useful.

However, the protest is definitely not wanted. The police at this time have not broken it up, this will not happen until the 25th, but they have absolutely gone to some lengths to make sure that the protestors are as uncomfortable as possible: They are filmed, food is not allowed to be brought in and they are not even allowed to use the public toilets in the nearby metro stop. There is also a ring of cops around the tent folks at this time and people who try to bring the protestors things are being stopped and sent away.

Well, you know Mike is a nice guy and he didn’t like seeing the protestors feeling uncomfortable so he took it upon himself to try and sneak some things through the police lines like cigarettes and sandwiches and such. So, you know the Belarusian police are not stupid and here is this guy walking around with a backpack going back and forth between the local store and the protestors. So when they see mike going down into the metro to use the bathroom, he is suddenly surrounded by 9 KGB guys. They didn’t arrest him, but they made him open his bags and they examined everything he had. They went through his passport, they made him explain himself several times; what he was doing? Why he was there? Did he have a political agenda? And all the time they were doing this, they were filming what was happening on video camera.

After a few minutes they decide he’s only a tourist, he’s done nothing wrong and they let him go and that’s the end. And this was his big story after he finally made it down to Pinsk.

Now I had invited him to be our guest here and my plan was to show him around and show him the Jewish School and the work they are doing here to rebuild the Jewish community. However, this plan was cut short because of a little mistake Mike had made in taking his Visa. Now we had written him up for 10 days, thinking that this would be enough for either one week or two. However, when Mike applied for his visa, for some reason he only listed the duration of his stay at the hotel in Minsk in the space reserved for how long he would be in the country, so instead of ten days, the embassy had only given him three and by the time he had shown up in Pinsk, it was actually expired. So now, a great part of his stay here would have to be taken up with trying to get him an extension of his visa or at least a transit visa so he could get out of Belarus. Still, it was not the end of the world, simply a bit of paperwork.

So I met Mike at the train and brought him home for breakfast. Mike is a great talker and really knows his liberal politics. He spoke Russian well enough to really impress Tanya, and knew his way around local politics to impress me. We ate a lot, drank a bit of vodka as well as the bottle of champagne he had brought for us; all in all we had a great morning. We then met the head of the school, we met with Rabbi Fhima, and then we went over to talk with Efim Dournopieka. When we got to the Roza Vetrov Office, I introduced Mike with a flourish, building on the drama of his name: Hey everybody, this is Mike Schwirtz! Olga, Dournopieka’s rather sexy secretary wearily looked up from the typewriter and dryly said:

“We know who he is. He was on television this morning. The KGB was speaking to him in Minsk because he was an agitator. We saw his face and his passport.” Silence.

“He was on television?” She nodded. “Well… This kind of hurts.” More silence. I looked at mike. He was as stunned as we all were. “Is Efim in his office?” She nodded without smiling or saying anything. “Right. Well, this is not so bad is it?” Again silence. We made our way into Dournopieka’s office.

“You said he was not an agitator.” This was Efim Dournopieka. He had a window behind him so his face was sort of in shadow, but I could see him clearly enough to recognize two massive veins throbbing away in his neck and on the side of his head.

“He’s not an agitator. He just came to watch.”

“He was on television. His passport was on television.”

“That was the KGB. They used him for propaganda.”

“Yes, they used him for propaganda!”

“They didn’t say Mike Schwirts whose visa came from Roza Vetrov, they just said Mike Schwirts the American agitator. What’s the difference?”


“Right. So does this mean that an extension is out of the question?” I have been known to have some chutzpah now and then. Of course this was going to reflect badly on us. Dournopieka was talking that they were going to throw Mike in jail. Rabbi Fhima was more relaxed about things and told him not to worry too much. However, he also was thinking that the guy who had been standing outside his office window since we had arrived, was probably another KGB guy sent to keep an eye on Mike.

In any case, Dournopieka fumed a bit but agreed to take Mike’s passport over to the local agency and to try for a three days pass. While we were waiting, we made a final pass around Pinsk and stopped in my apartment for a bite to eat. Mike was fairly Machiavellian about things as it occurred to me he is about life in general. What will be, will be.

We went back to Roza Vetrov but found that the pass was refused. There was nothing left to do but to just get on the train and try to get into Ukraine. If he got through, all would be fine, but if he had a problem, well, this was alright too because they would only send him back to Minsk, and if this happened, he would get his chance to be in on the fun on the 25th, when Milinkevich’s “revolution” was do to start.

I went with Mike to the station at about 8:00 and was actually sorry to see him go. I found I liked his company quite a bit and was thinking that things were going to see a bit more boring without him around. But then he did something at the station which I guess showed who Mike really is. A old babushka came to beg some money from him, grabbing his shirtsleeve and saying please, please, please to him. Everybody else just brushed her away but my, with a look of grim earnestness on his face took out his billfold and gave the woman 1000 rubles, about 50 cents. The old woman’s face lit up when she saw how much it was and then pressed her forehead on his sleeve out of gratitude. He seemed surprised when I told him that the gift was about 10 or 20 times more than she would ever get and was probably equal to what she would have expected for the whole night.

Unfortunately the second plan was actually what happened. Mike was stopped at the border and ordered back to Minsk to get the same paperwork we couldn’t get him in Pinsk. And he did indeed get to be there when the police came in. I guess I ought to let Mike finish his story in his own words. This is the letter he sent me a few days later:

Sun, 26 Mar 2006 11:03:19 +0300
From: "Mike Schwirtz" <>
To: "Adam Goodman" <>

“Well Adam, I've made it to Kiev....finally! I couldn't leave Minsk without having one more adventure though. I missed my train to Kiev on Friday night and so was in the city for yesterday's mayhem. It was outrageous. In the morning I went out to October Ploshad, but the militia and the whole center of the city cordoned off. There were thousands of people jammed on to the sidewalks and an equal number of police to subdue them. I was there taking pictures when the crowd I was in broke free of the militia and ran into the street. In came the spetznatz in a flash, as if from nowhere, and surrounded us all. There were maybe a hundred of them if not more. They began pushing the crowd back, screaming, "RAZ, DVA,RAZ, DVA". I was located right at the border between civilians and speznatz and was filming everything. The troops didn't like this; understandable. One grabbed me from behind as I tried to get away and tossed me in their midst. I was surrounded by 20 or 30 of them. They were punching and kicking me in the face stomach and kidneys and trying to rip the camera out of my hands. All I could think of was to hold on to the camera for dear life. Then they let me go. I was completely dazed and a babushka helped me get out of the center. She gave me candy before she left. It was amazing the whole thing.

I think things are going to be rough in Minsk for a while. The whole city is on lock down. This is the first time I've seen government ordered suppression at this level. I am really shocked. I'm sure by now you've seen the pictures from Ploshad Dzerzhinsky. The military troops were beating Babushkas! It was unbelievable. If this continues, I wouldn't be surprised if the protesters begin to resort to violence against the government. A number of people I talked to yesterday were speaking about the possibility in hypotheticals. There is some hope though. There is word that a number of the police and military forces dispatched to put down the protests refused to do so and were arrested. Still, to see the Spetznatz troops with their crazed eyes and drunken smiles as they descended on a group of people was very disturbing. They truly enjoyed what they were doing. I'd never seen such a thing before.

I guess this was a hell of a way to end my Minsk adventure. I am planning to take in easy for a while here in Minsk. I just met this really sketchy Georgian who invited me out to drink this evening. I may take him up on it. Could be fun! Talk to you soon!


More soon…