Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Remembering five years ago…

I am going to start a new program today as we are getting closer to the May 15th fifth anniversary of Poland's little corruption episode. I have several e-mails from the period just before everything first happened and I thought I would share them if for nothing but their value as curiosity. The first one I am going to post is an essay I wrote for a newspaper in Brest from April 9th, 2002. I actually wrote this in conjunction with the Viasna Human Rights Organization and my good friend Uladsimir. The piece is basically my impressions of seeing Belarus for the first time in five years and what it felt for me to come back and see what had become of the place. Over the next several days I will print some of these letters in addition to the latest SORIES, - such as the latest updates of my bike getting stolen.

Victory Square, Minsk
What can an outsider to say about such crazy times such as these, that the people of Belarus now live in? There is here today in Belarus great economic hardship. There is a difficult or impossible new system directed in part by people who do not live here. There is today, because of a new and unfriendly system, a slow changing and questioning of the very nature of what is Belarusian life, its heritage, its language and its culture. Today in Belarus, because of the nature of the new system and its reliance on individualism over community, there is a spreading sense of hopelessness mixed with new and unfamiliar feelings of loneliness. And all of this, this chaos of frequent changes and new idea’s, is happening in a place where the basic desire, the premise of the culture and maybe even the very nature of Belarussian people, is to try only to retain some sense of normalcy and calm in their daily lives. Such crazy times are these, indeed.

I first came to Belarus five years ago. At that time, in 1997, what I saw was what seemed to be a perfect little community which operated with calm and purposeful honesty. Frankly, my eyes could not believe what it was they were seeing. The place was immaculate without any graffiti on the walls, without bums or homeless people in the streets. Five years ago, in Brest, on a warm Mayday celebration, I watched as the men and women slowly, gracefully and with a practiced calm paraded, hand gently touching hand, around the park and in the streets. What I saw was a perfect moment in a perfect place, on a perfect day practiced by perfect people. What I saw was a moment in a world that in my life did not exist. This must have been the epoch of all that was learned and practiced in the art of living well together. It must have been like the final examination after eighty years of study. It was just another chance for Belarus to show all that they had learned from the fathers. Belarus in 1997 was a beautiful thing to see.I think Lenin and Tolstoy both would have been proud.

Five years ago, I met a girl here. And the only way for me to describe her would be to say that she was a “perfect girl”. And this is not just my western opinion of what is beauty or grace in a woman, but the realization that the idea that there can even be a perfect person, that practical ideals could be met, was presented to me. Frankly I didn’t have a clue what to do about it because, in fact she was perfect and I was not. How can I describe her? She was beautiful. She was respectful. She remembered everything and everybody. She was at one with her world, was awake, alive and seemed in her every action to want only to make the world around her a more beautiful place. Of course I went crazy for her; we simply don’t make people like this in the west. We are too selfish for such a person ever to exist. We are too selfish and there are just too many bad people who tell our children too may bad things. This girl was who she was because she was raised not only by her immediate family, but by an entire world that cared and had agreed on what living well meant. And because she felt that she belonged to this caring world, that she was an important part of it, she simply did what all "perfect" girls were supposed to do and the results were there for anyone to see.

To my eyes, everything I saw five years ago, and especially this girl, was impossible.

I think what I was seeing was the remnants of the old system, or at least its philosophy still at work. The Belarusian’s of 1997 were market economists to be sure, but they seemed to practice their capitalism together. They were working communally at being independent. And this not only seemed to work, but because there was such confidence in the approach and because their efforts were not so hindered by government control, this new life was probably seen as a dream come true. What an opportunity: Simply to be left alone to do as they knew inherently was the right thing to do. It must have seemed to be the answer to all their prayers. This was not only a new freedom; this was adulthood at long last. And this “responsible” freedom is what I think I was looking at.

Perhaps it could be said that five years ago Belarus was at the height of what might be seen in retrospect as its final moments of its blissful innocence. The new system was just underway and having enough money was a terrible problem. But although times were really quite hard, everybody was helping and working together, as they always had, trying to make things better. And if people worked without pay, as was too often normal, then so be it because the good of all was always more important then the good of the one. Sacrifices were made and life went on in spite of the hardships and the lack of money. Because they were still together, there was hope, and in hope there was life.

This was what I saw when I was here five years ago.

But this is absolutly not what I see now, five years later. Now, in a place where no one was supposed to be forgotten, I see too many forgotten people. In a place which had I supposedly seen moments close to perfection, I see graffiti on the walls, broken glass and garbage in the streets, all signs of discontent and disrespect. In a place where personality was of the highest importance, I see that people now no longer listen to, but only laugh at each other. And as a result, there are now drunks lying too often in the streets and young people with nothing to do but to try to be like them. In a place where once I heard talk of pride of place and history, I now hear that the Belarusian language is no longer important, its legitimization no longer necessary, and that it is impractical because Russian is the official language. Where once there was a pride of place, now I hear that people want only to leave, to try and find the better places, places with more money-no matter the price. And where once my heart was filled with the warmth that can only be felt when one is truly with special friends, or intimate loved ones, I now feel only the coldness of rejection, a feeling all too familiar to me from my life in the west.

And what of my “perfect girl”? She left. She tells me is doing well. She tells me that she is happy that she is no longer “square”. She tells me that she is “cool” now, and that this is better. I am happy for her, really. But if this is a better world, I don’t see it. I also don’t see where or how this new “cool” helps anything or anybody nor how it makes life better, or gives people love or hope. I don’t see an attempt at perfection anymore and I no longer see people walking in that calm perfect way anymore, gently touching hands and enjoying a perfect moment in a perfect place. In fact, I don’t even see them trying anymore.

And this is the hardest irony of all because to my eyes, and with all that I saw five years ago and all of the people I met they, Belarus, had actually done it: They had actually made a perfect place. And despite all of the problems and complaints, what I saw was a truth we in the west could never even dream of contemplating: A perfect place was possible. It was possible to make things right, to make things beautiful, and to live together well. I know it was possible because I saw it. And it was beautiful. I’m sure it was painfully difficult, and that underneath the calm exterior was the agony of perpetual self sacrifice, but nevertheless, it was still indeed possible. But, this is not so anymore.

I guess modern Belarusians don’t care much about the old ideas anymore. Life here isn’t about building a perfect place or how to be perfect in it anymore. Modern Belarusians want other things. It’s all about money now, and really, I can understand this you know, being a westerner. Cheaper and easier, less difficult and more ego gratifying; that’s the way we like it in the west. And alone, always alone...

I don’t know what modern Belarusians really want or what they expect. Perhaps it is only something that they have seen on television. Who knows? But whatever it is and whatever it is that this new “cool” is supposed to be, the bottom line is they don’t seem to want it together anymore. And this is what is really different. Perhaps all that has happened is that Belarus has at last become normal. But if this is really the truth, to me it is a very sad thought.

My family came from Belarus a long, long time ago and because of what I saw and felt, I have since taken great pride in what I thought was my heritage. But what I see now in Belarus today ain’t nothing but a crying shame. Obviously Belarus has sold out but I say whatever they got for it, whatever the price that was paid for that thing that is no more, it simply wasn’t enough. Not even damned close. The word is no longer “perfect”, the new words are, and they are said with a shrug of the shoulders: What can I do? Like I say, it is a shame.

So, I ask myself this same question: What can I do? And my answer: I guess I am just going to have to try a little harder to see if I can’t help make things better, for everybody. I mean, that is what you’re supposed to do, isn’t it?

Adam Goodman