Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Belarusian Dreams and Reality

I wrote the following letters today, one was to a friend who is considering trying to do something in Belarus business-wise and the other was to the New York Times. Both turned out to be sort of a cultural rant and as none of the other themes I have wanted to develop were ready, I thought I would blog these. I think when you read them you will understand why.

Let me say a word about Pizza. They have this in Minsk already though there is never anything like the size, quality and abundance of ingredients as there are in the states. However, this having been said, though people here do know and like pizza, any Belarusian inherently knows what the bottom line is in terms of the ingredients of what he is eating. As a for instance, a normal Belarusian guy on a Saturday night, blind drunk and in need of something to put inside of himself so that when he throws up there will be something there, will still have the presence of mind to think: Dough, tomato sauce, cheese, meat before staggering away with his crappy little triangle. You see what I mean? I really do not think that in a do-it-yourself culture they have the same sorts of ego driven, time restrictive food thought that you do in the states. I mean, the dough can be made from flower and yeast in about 30 minutes and you can put anything you want on the damned thing when its ready anyway, so why would this pre-made thing even be considered? And this is especially true once you count the pennies as far as what things cost. And they must count the pennies, this is their life; they must.

But now a real pizza place with a decent pie, well, now you are talking. I lived in Canada for a while and one of the joys of life was being able to grab a slice for a Canadian dollar whenever the hell you wanted one. You mean all I need was 85 cents and there is pizza? $3 for two slices and two cokes? A miracle!! And so it was on Pender Street. So this idea would rock anywhere where people are out looking for a good time. Only the health inspections, paper work and bribes would make life difficult for the startup. And yes, we do have services to help people get going, but the services cost money too…

I completely agree with you about talking money around people who have none. And, to me, this is one of the prime facets of what used to be known as “THE PROBLEM”. I think things have changed a bit in the last couple of years and some people have found their way into something resembling a human income, so things have sort of loosened up, but it is still fairly pervasive. However, what you say about lying to orphans also works for talking about making promises to Belarusians in general. Talk about your sore spots. I mean “Show me the money” is not only the catch-phrase here; it is the religion, the game, the mantra and the graduation speech from elementary school. And should you talk as if you are even thinking of doing something for somebody (altruism equals lies in Belarusian), you are going to be raising a lot of prickly neck hairs on anyone who might be sitting nearby.

From Get Married "Once you begin to correspond with (the women of Novosibirsk), you will soon understand. These gorgeous woman, who outnumber the men by 7 to 1, are as true and honest as you could ever hope for. Like their city, they have yet to be spoiled by Western influence. They still appreciate the simple pleasures of life; nature, culture, reading, and, of course, the love of a good man. Novosibirsk with a population of over 2,000,000, is located approximately 5 hours east of Moscow by air and has not experienced the rapid growth of Western culture."
Of course, you can always get a local girl to listen to money talk. This here, getting a girl to listen to money talk has not been a problem in a long time. And believe me; no one begrudges a girl out trying to make a buck here. I mean after all, there is the house payment, the phone, the hot water in the winter; and food. And then there is her kid(s) to support and possibly her mom and dad or maybe it is just that her depression over her repulsive, endless and nightmare-like existence that needs to be fed a little alcohol every 20 hours or so in order to be kept in place. Who knows? But anyway, yea, you can talk money talk with local girls and they will listen without problems.

But I am glad you like my farming ideas. I just spent a few hours today cleaning up our strawberry patch while waiting for that tractor to show. He did show up by the way but the land was just a little too wet still. Tractor couldn’t get a good purchase. So we will try again some time in the next two weeks. But those strawberries. You in your life would never think of buying 20 lbs of strawberries at a shot. But we got that 11 times last year from our little 15x15 patch. 110 kilos last year was our yield. Ever had strawberries and popcorn? Wow! So picture what it is like to sit at a table with a giant bowl, a restaurant bowl of fresh strawberries- no, these are not the right words- try TODAY’S STRAWBERRIES, and just gobbling them down like nothing mixed with handfuls of salty popcorn. Is it worth the work? Don’t even think about it. Anyway, this is the sort of thing that you get. We have a row of plum trees and in September you can pretty much graze your lunch straight from the field. September rocks.

But then again farming here in Belarus is not romance. This is normal. That Hoagie on the night shift (and the $15 an hour) is the romance here. To be able to contemplate global travel, to think beyond the cost of the dough, the cheese and the sauce for a moment, or to even be able to not be angry at having to pay money you don’t have for something so stupid as a slice of pizza; this is Belarusian romance.

Nah, the trees and the land and the rather nice smell of manure is the reality here. Everybody here and I mean everybody including the great Alexander Gregoravich knows the backache from potatoes, from hoeing and pulling weeds under a hot summer sun.

People here still shake their head at me for doing this. You could be making money in America, why are you wasting your time? My Rabbi is the worst at this; you mean you do this yourself? Are you crazy? His exact words.

But how could I not? Forget need, forget that the economy dictates dacha farming’s necessity; how could I not clean my strawberries, not worry over them or not deal with the agony of walking around bent over for an hour or two just to finally be able to take a bucket home? This is soul stuff, man. This is satisfying my DNA’s screeching at me to do something real. This is my Jack Londonesque call of the wild. This is Jack Crab’s line from the movie “Little Big Man” – I am not just playing Indian, I am living it!

Nah, grandma and grandpa were from here. Forget the ghetto isolation of the Jews and the pogroms and hate sermons at Easter from the local Orthodox Church; all that was also part of the charm of life during the era when granny had the good fortune to beat it to the land where the streets were paved with gold. I am talking about the land. The land, the land, the land. I have farmed this land (if you are thinking generation-wise) probably for a thousand years or more. How can I not feel at home?

Did you know that they used to sing songs in the USSR about how they were free to work the land? Yes they did. And believe me; they knew what they were talking about.

Though this picture was taken 60 years ago, it is right on the ball for an appropriate image.
No my friend, the wood we put in the stove was a little wet so it smoked a bit and we had to open the windows. It was raining outside and when the wind shifted, the table got sprinkled with water. The sky was grey and the ground too wet to plow. We did manage to get our cabbage seeds into the ground under plastic and we did manage to clean out the strawberry patch though. It took time, but we did it and when we were done, we knew that simply put, it looked about 10 times better than before we came. That’s the secret by the way: You just have to have the will to make it look better for your having been there. It’s not easy, but it works.

We heard the clip-clop of the horse well before we could see it. An old grey Kol-hoz nag dragging a one ton cart-load of manure and hay. One of the men stopped and pulled a milk can off of where it was hanging from a nail on a birch tree. The container was full from collecting the springtime juice that the tree was bleeding and took a look drink. His partner had lost several teeth along the way and in the gap up front only one gold-capped tooth remained. The two of them guided the horse onto our field and then shoveled the shit onto a pile near the beginning of where out potatoes will be planted. They could not lay it out onto the field because the tractor had not yet done its job. That’s G-d’s fault. Or the weather’s; nothing anyone can do about it. So they will have to come back again in a couple of weeks and pick up the fertilizer, put it back on the wagon and then spread it out on the field. Hopefully. Collective Ownership (KalHos) paid them a bonus in shit this year. They only got money when they sold it.

The dollar value of the work is so low that it may just be incalculable. It is so small that you simply can’t see it no matter how hard you look. But I think you can feel it. And that’s why I am here.

So you were in the army during desert storm huh. Wow.

And by the way, beer and fish for diner is a gift from G-d in my book.

The New york Times

How many times must people read the same things concerning the country of Belarus? Your article “Europe imposes travel restrictions on Belarus” was as thoughtlessly one-sided as any I have ever read on the subject. To begin with, I really don’t understand why foreign press cannot fathom that the west has been rejected in general and on principal by Belarus (and now also by Ukraine). The reasons for this are both moral and financial, but in any case it is the truth. But yet, almost every time one reads the press regarding Belarus, all one reads are lame insults and misinformation painting a picture of a country too terrified to live. I have been a resident of Belarus for four years now and have found that in general life here is really no different in terms of dealing with an overbearing regime than it was when I lived in the states. Except of course that Belarusian workers only have about $100 a month on which to live.

Mr. Lukashenka was not wearing a uniform during his speech after his inauguration. He donned it after when he went to both address and view a military parade in his honor. As president, he is also, as is George Bush, the commander of his country’s military. I am not sure that the cultural difference of the clothing was worthy of distortion.

Chiding a country for not voting the way you would have liked them too is simple propaganda.

And perpetually screaming of police violence in Belarus during the same time period as what has happened in France specifically, but otherwise basically everywhere in the world could be classified as baiting. And in this regard, I absolutely side with Belarus’ opinion that this is simply not civilized.

I really wish the Times would take the time to have a look at the bigger picture when it comes to Eastern European politics. After 15 years of unconscionable poverty following an agreement to listen to the west, the former USSR is now riding a wave of popular rejection-ism. This rejection has come because the west to them turned out to be nothing but empty rhetoric when it came to bettering the economic situation of the territory. The Russians expected aid and got only “Pull yourself up by the bootstraps”. Mr. Lukashenka won the election on a simple platform: "What Belarus has it made itself; there was no help from the west. Why should Belarus indebt itself to the west when certainly we have seen that they have had nothing real to offer us in the last decade and a half?"

It is amazing to me that the west can’t understand that what it is seeing is not only real, but is a monster of it's own making.

Adam Goodman,