Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Don't worry Vikka, all will be ok...

Interstingly, the gap between the rich and the poor is not as great as we thought it would be
I remember the first time I came to Belarus. I thought it was probably the most beautiful place in the world I have ever seen.

I have written these words many, many times. These two sentences had been almost like a mantra for me. I spent a lot of time developing the thought of why this was so and why the Belarus I first visited 1997 so charmed me. And before I go on, I should say that Belarus has an amazing way of charming first time visitors, I am not the only one who has experienced this. But in my own ruminations, I have decided that certainly this was a unique economic moment in the history of independent Belarus; just after the fall of the USSR and before the second economic collapse. This moment in the middle of a depression was nevertheless still a time of optimism and hope. People here still felt at the time that they could put things together and re-establish something great if they just stayed together and, most importantly, stayed calm. And because of this, because people still took responsibility for their world and cared, the streets were clean, there was no graffiti and the social structures remained intact. These things and specifically the lack of evidence of social unrest was what did it for me. Vsyo budit choroshow, was the idea here: Don't worry, all would be ok.

But of course things didn't turn out ok and in the fight for survival after that second big hit, bits and pieces of the philosophy gave way such as agreeing to be calm and remembering not to dismiss those who were not such great economic producers. Anger made people drop the idea of showing everyone respect. This last note was a staple of "The Life" back in the day perhaps, but it could not be a part of this "new" economic way, at least this was amongst those early decisions. And to be clear, I am speaking here not only of children and retirees, but also people who drink to much, have social or emotional problems or, ehem, those who like to enjoy themselves a bit more than they like to be serious and responsible. And so the men left the women and the women left the men and everybody started dropping each other like hot potatoes and life here basically went to shit for a long time.

This was a hard lesson to learn.

You like that last sentence? The west did. During this period the most popular rhetoric floating around the globe was to refer to the people of the former Soviet Union as children or adolescents, developing peoples; a line of thought that implied that whereas before, they had been in a foolish and short-sighted place, now they were only beginning to go down the road to "real" understanding. The west of course was who penned these words.

The west you see had become with the fall of the wall the supreme model of civilization and the east's distance from western "understanding" , the "true way", made the people of the former USSR as children and their problems could be dismissed as simple growing pains. The truth was on the horizon for them, but darn the luck, simply not yet in hand.

The idea though, that they might have to lose each other was probably the hardest lesson to learn, but they tried. Out of necessity they tried to learn this, or so they thought, but in any case they tried to learn it.

My question though has always been this: Where were the rules of this new philosophy ever made clear to the participants and, more importantly, where were the guarantees that following these rules absolutely meant success and safety? And for sure you must understand that I was not the only person asking these questions; this was the conversational subject all over the former USSR. The answer of course, as we enlightened westerners all know is that: "there are no guarantees in life". I am not going to bother going through a litany of other up-by-your-bootstraps slogans right now because I would probably throw up if I did.

But that THIS HUGE IRONY was really the truth about the answer to the question of the life, the earth and everything for the Leninists turned out to be the biggest post soviet joke of them all. The rational behind the ending of the whole USSR was because people here wanted what they perceived as a greater, western-style security. And when the revelation did hit them, you can imagine what they said: Wow! We've been had!

The USSR had agreed to work together for the common good with the goal of creating social security for all for 75 years. They had only stopped because they thought perhaps they had done something wrong. But after they had agreed to stop what they learned was that in the western model, man is an island unto himself and his mission of life lay in material acquisition. Life is war and each man must fight his battle alone; there are winners and losers and real winners use the bodies of the fallen for planks in order to keep the mud off their cuffs as they forge on to... well, wherever we are all marching to; the grave I suppose or at least Social Security and our pensioner's condo in FLA.

But the soviets saw this in a different way. They had always believed that real security was only possible BECAUSE the will of man is such that, if he would only agree to work together well with his fellow man, anything could be accomplished. So they argued the question collectively about why individual needed to be so important. I mean, any idiot could see that if you have one guy getting into a scuffle against say, 12 guys, this one guy had no chance. I mean they could see that a fast guy would make more money than a slow guy, but because there are slow guys, why can't people help each other so that all could eat?

(The west by the way counters this argument, at least according to Hollywood, by saying that if you add on that the one guy has a couple of machine guns, grenades, a few packs of C4, two belts of ammo, a color coordinated bandana and camo-pants ensemble and a helicopter at his disposal, this one guy could always win the day. And you know, Arnold Schwarzenegger is the governator of California. I'd of course argue that all of those weapons needed to be made by a factory full of simple workers, not to mention the other simple working folks who sewed the clothes, mined the original metals, the factory that created the stock that became the bullets etc- not to mention how many clients this Rambo would have to have serviced to become rich enough to buy all of these war toys...)

But all this philosophy aside, those two big economic hits were mighty strong motivation for change and people here did give it the old college try. They did agree to hate and kill each other for money and to throw each other away. The problem was that in their hearts, they really didn't like it. It didn't fit their tastes. Better, they said, to go back to being calm and looking out for each other. And that is what has been happening lately for everybody out here. Well, at least 83% of them.

They did this because they simply didn’t like the problems associated with western living. In this "other way" of thinking, they came to understand that there was a lot of social disfunctionality which caused much grave unhappiness and that the symptoms of this disease; loneliness, depression, nervous disorders and such, needed an awful lot of money to suppress. The west they found had too many needs. They NEED (need in big letters) their MTV, their microwave popcorn (by the way, did you know that if you open a bag of microwave popcorn, drop it in a covered pot with a touch of oil and turn on the gas, it pops up just fine?) their meds, their psychologists, delivered pizza, ethnic take out places, designer clothes, a porn industry, nipple piercing, breast enlargements and Game Boy- all just to stay calm in the loneliness and boredom. In the old model they said that most problems were social problems and that they disappeared with simply a little training on how to be a bit more social. Be with people and you won't be lonely and rather than being bored, find something interesting to do that doesn't break up the furniture. The west said that we need to learn a job that will make us enough money to isolate ourselves from the world, here they said learn a trade so you have something to give to people so that you can pay the cost of being with them with dignity.

As an aside, there is a really old joke here about the waste and frivolity of western thinking from the early days of space exploration. The west spent a billion dollars or something like this, and several years of tech time developing that Seinfeld pen that could write in zero gravity (or if on earth, upside down), The Russians conversely, decided to use pencils.

But coming back to the original point, all of the economic suffering that came from those economic collapses may have been thought of as lessons about the righteousness of capitalism in the west but here, I think that these lessons eventually began to be thought of as how to live badly in the world. To people who came to miss the feelings of togetherness, type cast as nostalgia by the western media machine, really all that happened is that they began to see the west for what it really was: a bunch of rather nasty, lonely and unhappy people exploiting resources and yet deriving no happiness from it. And that in doing so, though one person might be a "winner" and become rich enough to play games, there was an endless number of people who became losers- and this second group, who really are not so different from you or I, obviously adds a lot of misery into the world.

I think over the last couple of years people here really felt this misery and became sorry they ever allowed this to happen. After a decade and a half of this, I think people really started to ask whether or not they actually did want to lose their attachments to others. I mean really, what if it was this very connection that made life worth living? What if they couldn't see the value grabbing a MacDonald's hamburger on the run if it was juxtaposed against a nice meal which could so easily and normally be made at home by any number of people and enjoyed together? And, this real meal would generate 100 times the pleasure for 1/100th of the cost, none of it disposable and all recycled back into the world as friendship and understanding which would be available later for the hard times.

So now we have this Gazprom deal. Because of Russia's lack of desire to sell gas to Belarus at the same cost it sells it to Russian districts, there apparently will be a third economic disaster to befall Belarus (and caused by Russia). And so the big question here is: Will this farcical Gazprom deal be the end of Belarus?

I say no, it will not. Why not? Because of several reasons, all of which were real lessons learned both during and after the USSR:

1. The problem of paying for the debit will be spread across the board and the people of Belarus will share the burden as they have had to since day one.
2. Life will go on even with these new problems because the extra pain of having to deal with all of it will also be spread across the board and everybody will help shoulder these burdens too
3. They already have a lot of experience on this sort of situation. It won't be pleasant, but it won't be like it hasn't happened before: Living a minimalist life is the culture here already.

We have some westerners here in Pinsk and they bitch about living here. They don't like it. They're bored. They say they are suffering because there is nothing to do. They say that they do not like not being able to go to the movies. I say we have a theatre; tickets are less than a buck. But, they scream, the movie is in Russian! I say: So? They say: It's cold in the theatre! I say: Wear a coat. They say: But there is no popcorn and Coke! I say: Yes there is. Make it at home (or in my case, grow it yourself) and bring it with you. That's what everybody here does. I mean, it is not like it is against the rules bringing some food with you. That would be stupid, wouldn't it?

They scream: I need a gym and a Stairmaster to stay in shape. I say: Go for a run or ride your bike. They say: But it is cold! I say: So? They say: But biking is expensive! I say: My bike has cost me about $40 over the last four years. The difference is that I switched to minimalist Belarusian parts. I say: I have a dollar a month for transportation and health.

They say: It's boring here! I say: No, it isn't. Not at all. Not in any way a person could possibly describe the word. It is the most interesting place I have ever been and for me, it is has been the most fulfilling experience of my life having had the opportunity to have been here. If you are bored here, you really have lost all ability to use your imagination and creativity. The trick you see is not breaking the house for today's fun. If you don't just simply use things and throw them away, you get to use them tomorrow and then again and again. And it is those second and third times around that these things become, as the proverb says, like snowflakes in that no two are ever the same. This is the real lesson to learn and I genuinely believe that people here have come to understand that that this old truth is still pretty workable in the modern world.

And so this brings us back to the Gazprom deal. Yes, this current economic issue is going to be a major hit. But rather than being the knockout blow that so many westerners seem to be screaming for, I say Belarus will handle it. They will simply go on. "You must live" is the local philosophy and always has been and therefore, simply, they will. They will handle it like they have always handled things like this. They will have a good look at it, figure out how it works, learn how to take it apart and put it back together and then they'll learn to live with it.

In my opinion, this particular issue will have a much different effect than the '91 and '97 collapses. For this one, rather than being a call to break the connections once and for all, I think this time the lesson will be to remember that people survive the hardships if and only if they stay together. I think this time the bad news will only bring everybody closer. This time, rather than any panic and anger, I think we will see only the cool and calm doing of what has to be done. I think that the opposite has only brought misery to all and I think everybody here really and truly understands this now.

So I am sorry but there won't be any hysteria and anarchy here in 2007 and it won't be because the last dictator of Europe and his mad dog police will suppress it. It will be the way I say it will because those sorts of things are for people on the other side of the fence. 83% of everyone here agreed to that only nine months ago. Here, all will be calm, all will be normal; just another day in the life. It's only a few dollars. It will not make or break Belarus. Don't worry: All will be ok.

more soon...