Friday, September 08, 2006

The New Soviet Man, A day in Minsk and The apple business

I got to thinking about what that student cop said about Belarus and how her people were more interested in group victories than in personal freedoms. Years ago, after I had first been in Belarus, I did a bit of studying about her and learned how Belarus was at one time the role model for the Soviet Union for something known as the "New Soviet Man". They were thought of as the best communists, the most sincerely connected to the party and its decisions, the hardest working, the most patient etc…

I found a great article which, though also filled with cynicism about the idea (and the author starts to get a bit emotional and long winded towards the end) does a wonderful job of explaining what the "New Soviet Man" was supposed to be. It is called

1917-1987: Unsuccessful and Tragic Attempt to Create a “New Man” and can be found HERE

Again, you'll have to remember when it was written and the economic problems where were being faced at that time.

I'll admit to taking pride in Belarus' being seen as the best and it did make sense to my mind after what I had seen there in 1997. People were absolutely for each other and their social; graces were boundless. To me, one way of describing it was that people here really knew what the phrase 'being on your best behavior' was, and in a lot of way, their idea of what constituted best behavior was also my own. And literally, it was everywhere. A drunk was more socially grounded than most business leaders I had met in the states. Girls and boys, grandmas and grandpas all people at every age seemed to both give and receive respect. But then of course there was 1998 and the second economic crash. It took two economic catastrophes to shake people loose from their attachments to each other and I have been writing now that Pinsk specifically really doesn't do this anymore.

But they were doing it on knowledge day. For sure, with the thought that the president would be with them, and dressed in their best clothes for the first day of school, they were on their best behavior that 'best Behavior" meant acting like the old days. This is what was understood to mean correct behavior.

And in this time I started thinking that this is what Lukashenka has been asking for from Belarus. He is asking them to again be a role model, to be the New Soviet Man again and is telling everyone that there might just be a return to the old days as a reward for this. Or, if it will not exactly be a return to the old Soviet Union, religion seems to be advocated now, there is some level of private business, the state does not take on the overbearing role of perpetual teacher (well, they do it less) and of course there probably will not be any welfare state where everyone receives the same.

But we can see that there is some meat in this statement stemming from the political gravity drawing former soviet states back towards a Russian center i.e., Belarus' Union State with Russia, Ukraine's current political leanings, the CIS financial regulations. Obviously the former USSR is backing away from western ideas of independence in favor of the comfort of doing business with their own kind.

One of the basic tenants of communism was consensus building and agreement as to collective goals. And though the USA and the EU have been screaming at the top of their lungs about how the elections in Belarus were not free and fair, an 83% collective agreement and days like 'knowledge day' seem to say just the opposite. What the west does not understand and refused to let anybody hear is that on this side of the curtain, individuals do not only think for themselves and their own personal desires, but for that of the community as a whole.

There was about a year ago a very popular rock anthem by Oleg Gazmanov which had as the popular refrain:

Ya razhdyom sovyetsksa soyuza, delem ya, SSSR… (I was born in the Soviet Union, we made me in the USSR)

And the song goes on to speak about all of the things people can be proud of as being of this group.

If you might for moment stop thinking about Lukashenka as a dictator and start listening to what he is saying in his speeches to Belarus, you might understand that this is the ideal to which he is himself following. And this is not hard to see; where was he born? In what circumstances did he grow up? Of course this is his mind set. To Belarus, Lukashenka is the New Soviet Man, he is the role model and at least 83% of the people here think that he got it right.

A day in Minsk

But of course there are plusses and minuses. I got to go to Minsk for a day this week and found both on display. As for the plusses, if you want to side with the US and say that Lukashenka is an evil man and start in asking where the money went, you can see this answer at a glance when get off the train in Minsk. I was never in Berlin when they had their building boom but it was said that there was so much work there that the horizon was populated by cranes. Folks, this is Minsk these days. I don't know that there was a single street I walked, and I did a lot of walking, that didn't have a scaffold up, or new pavers being laid on the sidewalks. Workmen we using new Makita's rather than old hand tools as had always been the case only a few short years ago.

There is no other explanation as to where all of this comes from. Minsk is being rebuilt, or perhaps restored is a better word, and the money for this is coming from the community chest. Lukashenka is working.

To the negative though, all of this building is being done by the state which means only Lukashenka is building. I believe that having a vested interest in life makes one more responsible and a harder worker. Another of the fundamental beliefs of soviet communism was that each worker was working for an entity he himself was a part of, or in other words, one would be helping one's self by providing for the group which was in the end feeding you. This was the vested interest.

But 18 months or so ago the state cracked down on folks who were making trade by transporting good from Europe to Belarus. Certainly many of these good were black market, which is also a point to consider, but in any case many, many Belarusians saw this as their only chance to make enough money to live. But the crackdown was a hard one and along with penalties for being caught with non-registered goods, registered goods were now saddled with an 18% tax. I wrote about this at the time and how this affected the markets here in Pinsk bit apparently the sweep had far wider implications.

This issue is still being felt by entities where their business requires quality goods. I am not going to sit here and speak poorly about Belarusian made products, I think my Belarusian-made juicer has performed phenomenally for us for three years now, but certainly there are many, many instances where an individual might find a solution to a small part of a problem that a state entity might dismiss because of costs. As for instance, that it took me two weeks to receive a replacement screen for that juicer BECAUSE the only place to get such a thing was from the factory- no individual was there t think service and parts- a too small part apparently of the business of selling juicers.

Another way that this hurt was from the fact that it took quite a bit of ingenuity to be able to find those connections and build up a stock of salable goods. Making one's way through the system required some real thinking, there was a lot of creativity at play here and many people could easily take pride in what they had built up. After the tax came however, the only viable outlet was to sell (ehem…inferior) local products and so there was now more competition for less money and less ingenuity required.

The apple business

And speaking of juicers, we are back in the apple business after a two week layoff. There is still a stain on the carpet where the apple rot went through the bag and we have now a fruit fly problem in the house as well. Those fruit flies seem to like to live in your eyes for some reason and so this sort of adds to the misery. I wrote about this story as well. All that happened was that the centrifuge screen on our juicer went out of round and needed to be replaced but of course there was not a single shop in all of Pinsk who would directly sell you a replacement. And I had to be rather firm with one salesperson to get her to give me the number of the factory- apparently, it is better for the store to sell you a new juicer for $50 than it is for the factory to sell you a new centrifuge screen for $5. But though we called the factor on the 21st of last month, the new part did not arrive until the seventh of this month. I ended up throwing over 100 lbs of apples onto our garden as fertilizer- no one has told me that this was a good idea so for.

But juicing our apples is not only a preference; it is also the only physically sound thing to do with your apples at this time in Belarus. Selling at the market at harvest time this year has been heart breaking and we have been lucky to make back transportation costs. Selling to the state means accepting only 60 rubles, about 3.5 cents a kilo. Belarusian factory apple juice sells for about 5000 rubles in the stores, this for a three litre bank with some sugar added in. It takes about 10 kilos of apples to extract 3 litre of fresh juice so logically; by juicing we are receiving a value equal to 500 rubles a kilo. Ironically, this is the market price these days for first grade apples as well, so you can see where the price comes from. This is 'do it yourself' theory in action.

This same pricing system works for tomatoes as well, which are also selling for only 500 rubles a kilo. About four kilos of tomatoes are needed if you want to make ketchup or tomato sauce. After boiling down the juice, you get about one liter of saved sauce and of course, you can buy a litre of factory sauce for the same $1. Yea, home made is supposedly better, but you see the point.

So yea, doing it for the good of the state is hard work. There are a lot of rules that need to be followed and not much material gain coming back at you. Lukashenka is a pretty hard character to be able to get people in line, but his ideals are not only from him, but from a time in which all Belarusians lived and now think of nostalgically as better times. And though there has been no claim of a return to a welfare state here, nor does the word communism come up any more, the president is demanding that there should be a union with Russia and eventually, a tying together of all of the states that once were a part of the Soviet Union. Now, this is not to be exactly the same as it was; everybody remembers and understands the economic problems that eventually toppled the USSR and so the state no longer doles out equal pay for all, so things are not exactly the same. And Religion now is ok and we see western movies on TV. But basically the collective mind is being re-adjusted back towards local traditional values. Here perhaps they are making what could be called the "new and improved Soviet Man". And perhaps following the lead of her remarkably strong president, Belarus is willing to work endless hours selflessly to reclaim its place as the role model.