I don’t suppose anyone likes to consider themselves average, but I am NOT the average tourist.
Sure, I love to travel and enjoy the romance of finding myself walking around in cities of the world that I have only read about in the past, but as the cliché’ goes, “you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy”.
That’s why wherever I go, no matter how many museums or parks or fantastic restaurants I frequent, what I always really want to find out about is how people live out in the country.
Maybe that’s because while London, Moscow, and New York are all distinctly different, they probably have more in common with one another than any one of them has with the rural areas beyond their hustle and bustle and smog, and while the rural areas of the United States, Russia, and England share many features they are all very distinctly different one from the other.
Traveling into the country-side of Western Europe from the United States is a simple matter or renting a car and locating a good map, but to explore into the back-country behind what westerners used to call the Iron Curtain requires preparation and research.
During my first trip to Belarus in the late ‘90’s, I set up living arrangements via the internet in what appeared to be a small town about 350 kilometers southeast of Minsk. On most of my maps, the place was called “Homel”.
That misspelling was only the first of the many contradictions I would learn to accept, even expect, when investigating the literal other side of the world.
I learned that there is some confusion between the letters “G” and “H” when translating the Cyrillic alphabet to the Roman one. That’s why expatriated Russians living in America often say, “gamburger” and “alcogolic” and why the correct name of the city I chose was actually “Gomel”.
Notice that I said “city”. I picked Gomel because from my typical-American viewpoint, that is, looking at it on a map, it looked like one of the smaller places I could find where I could make connections for a translator and an apartment online, and compared to Minsk or Moscow, Gomel is indeed much smaller, but since the vast majority of Eastern Europeans live in apartments and since places that don’t have any, or very many large apartment buildings don’t even show up on most maps, I was later to learn that the “quiet little village” I was expecting was a city of 500,000, or about half again as large as St. Louis!
I’m not saying that I was disappointed exactly. Gomel turned out to be the place where I met my wife, Olga, and since I’ve now been there several times, I tend to think of it as my Belarusian “hometown”, but a little country village, it ain’t.
Speaking of meeting my wife there, single men will discover that Gomel is one of the most magnificent places in the world for boosting one’s spirits as there are five universities and (I am not exaggerating) the sidewalks are literally clogged with beautiful young women. Not only that, but western men, even Americans, are considered polite and chivalrous, even (can you believe it?) refined, not to mention hard-working and sober, compared to their former-Soviet counterparts.
That first trip I was able to procure a decent – though certainly not fancy – one-bedroom apartment which came with the services of the stunningly beautiful Oxsana, who appeared at my front door promptly every morning at 8:00, fixed my breakfast, gathered up my laundry and swept the whole apartment with a short broom about two feet long that required her to perform the whole job bent over almost double in a very fetching fashion.
When she was done she took my laundry to… well some place or other, and had everything washed. She also did my grocery shopping if I wanted, as well as performing a hit-and-miss job as a part-time translator with my neighbors in the building. All this, the apartment, laundry service, Oxsana and my utilities cost me a little less than $100 a day, which was considered a high price there. (I did pay for my own groceries and often tipped Oxsana. for her trouble, although tipping in Eastern Europe seems to mark you as a sucker more than anything else.)
Later, on subsequent trips and after I met Olga, I learned that she was not so keen on my having domestic help, so she took over most of the kitchen duties and taught me how to shop for food in the bazaar.
While my earlier experiences were certainly enjoyable and entertaining, I found that having an intimate to show me around was by far the best way to learn about a foreign country.
However, although we traveled by train a fair amount and a little less by hired private car (in Belarus anyone with an automobile and who’s a little short of cash can become a taxi driver on a whim. If you want a ride somewhere and wish to avoid the very efficient trolley-bus system, you simply stand by the curb with your arm outstretched palm down, and someone will stop and negotiate a fare with you.) Olga and I were married and she was well on her way to becoming a U.S. citizen before I would return to Belarus and she would show me what life was like outside the city.
That was my primary goal when we were there last. Olga wanted to visit with friends and relatives and I wanted to see what the country-side was like other than what I’d guessed when flying over it. For that trip, we flew into Moscow and spent a week in an apartment there before taking a sleeper train to Gomel.
This is where my diary of notes begins and I change to present tense:
By now we’re getting fairly comfortable in Gomel, or at least familiar. There are a lot of things I enjoy about being here, but the bed in this apartment is just as bad in the same ways as the one I used to have over on Kirova Street: lumpy and short with a dividing crack in the middle where they’ve put two teeny-tiny mattresses together to make one inadequately small one.
Sleep is sort of a challenge for me here anyway, except during the times when I want to be awake. I let one of my prescriptions run out just before we left home, so I’m not breathing too clearly and thus snoring quite a bit I suspect, although O. says she hasn’t been aware of it. That’s not the real problem, though, nor is the bed. The problem is that, even though I’ve avoided the numerous vodka challenges I’ve had in previous trips, alcohol is a large part of the culture here, and we frequently wind up in situations where everyone is drinking at a much earlier hour than I’ve grown to consider prudent, so I often find myself napping in the middle afternoon because of two or three glasses of wine at lunch.
Nearly all the Russian men I’ve met (and I use the term to include Belarusians and Ukrainians) are exceedingly fond of alcohol and to put it bluntly, a man is judged by his ability to drink. Although I’m much more of a wine-sipper at home, I can, when necessary put away a fairly respectable amount of vodka and still give a good impersonation of sobriety. I do this by remaining seated as much as possible and keeping my mouth shut, which is easy since no-one understands any of my Russian anyway. Oddly, this seems to work very well, because the majority of the Russian men I have met seem to view getting roaring drunk with about the same mystique that under-age American boys do, so anyone NOT falling all over themselves is apparently viewed as practically sober.
I’ve never really been outside of a city here except when riding a sleeper train through the country, and you don’t get a very good view from the sleeping compartments. I’ve noticed, though, even when just flying over, that things are much different here than anywhere else I’ve been.
As you know, when you fly over the American countryside, especially the Midwest, you can see that the land has been divided up into section, township, and range so that you see lots of blocks based on forty-acre squares, or as you go further west, forty-acre circles where the land is irrigated by pivot sprinklers.
What I’ve seen from the sky of Western Europe is similar to this, but the land is more a conglomeration of thin strips which I assume were laid out centuries ago to maximize row cropping by different landowners.
Here and in Russia, on the other hand, there is no discernable pattern to the land ownership because the land all belongs to the state.
While money will get you almost anything you want these days, you don’t see any single homes out on large acreages (and by “large” I mean more than an acre or so). From the air, you either see cities, tiny villages or, if you’re flying low enough, dachas, amid all different sizes and shapes of fields and forests owned by the government.
It’s the villages and dachas that I’ve been most interested in, because from what little I’ve seen from the highway or railroad, they appear as if lost in a time before I was born. There is electricity to the villages, but you see about as many horse-drawn vehicles as motorized ones and things look more like some of the old near-ghost-towns in Missouri, (The old town of Burnham in Howell County is in my mind at the moment.) I’ve really been curious to know what things were like down along those dirt “streets”.
I recall on my first trip here, I was spending some time with Elena, a young woman from Kazakstan that my translator had introduced me to. (It seems to me as if 80 or 90% of all Russian women share about five surnames, Elena, Tanya, Olga, Ekaterina, or Oxsana. Of these, probably a third are Elena, which is pronounced with a very pretty roll to the tongue: El-yen-ah.)
Elena spoke a little English, and we could have enough conversation to think we understood each other, which was far from the truth, and the numerous misunderstandings that resulted doomed any likelihood of a relationship ever developing. (Either that or we were just plainly incompatible. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.)
Anyway, that was when I learned that you don’t tell an Eastern European girl that you have a place in the country back home. Because even though Gone with the Wind is a very popular book here, when you tell a woman about your country place, she doesn’t think of Tara, but of what they call “the villages”, which isn’t a terribly attractive image for most of them.
Anyway, Elena was telling me that she spent a day every week on her mother’s dacha.
Not wanting to be confused with some clueless, soul-less city dweller, I started talking about how much I enjoyed living in the country; the clean air, the sunshine, blah, blah, blah… She looked at me as if I might have just stepped off a UFO and hissed, “I HATE the dacha”. To her it the dacha meant no more than sweating a lot pulling weeds and digging potatoes.
Probably most city-dwelling Russians and Belarusians, which is to say virtually all of them, have a dacha outside of town. You may recall that when the Soviet Union started to break apart, it was all over the western news that Communist hardliners had arrested Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa at their dacha. I think this may be the first time that many Americans had ever heard the word. That may have been misleading. If you’re part of the ruling class, a dacha is more what we’d call a summer cottage, or mansion for that matter.
To the common man here, the dacha is a plot of land that the government gives him on which he can raise his own food. I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say that they “give” the land because even though the government can take it back any time they want, and citizens have to pay a tax on it, that’s not really so different from land ownership in the US, which is subject to eminent domain and taxation. In fact, I learned that, since the Belarusian government is much less experienced and efficient than our good-old IRS when it comes to juicing the populace for cash, a citizen can go years, decades, maybe a lifetime, without ever paying the taxes, and they’ll probably never catch on.
Based on that, the dacha is about as close to free land as you’ll find anywhere in the world.
7:20 in the morning certainly isn’t early for us back home where our drinking is pretty much limited at most to two glasses of red wine in the early evening, but it is kinda early here where we’re meeting lots of O.’s old friends and relatives every night. Despite this, we managed to get down to the bus stop outside the apartment in time to catch the last possible bus. It was the last possible one because we were running short of time, not because there wouldn’t be any more busses. There’s a bus coming along about every thirty seconds and even if you take the wrong one you’ll wind up where you’re going pretty soon, if not on time.
When we got to the voxzaal, or train station, O.’s cousin Tatiana or Tanya and her husband, Anatoly, or Tolya, were waiting for us. Tolya had a look on his face as if he was thinking we were always late to everything and after he and I shook hands – which males who know each other do here virtually every time they meet under any circumstances – the first thing he said was something to the effect that it certainly was a pain-in-the-ass that I hadn’t learned to speak Russian yet.
This I got from O.’s translation, of course, so I don’t know if by “yet” he meant since she and I have been married, or since last week when we had dinner at their house, but he didn’t seem to be completely serious, or at least not completely disgusted, so I dismissed it.
Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians, like Tolya, do not waste time with lots of formality or etiquette. In fact, most of the shopkeepers and clerks are downright surly. If you’ve ever criticized American merchants for their plastic smiles and insincere “have-a-nice-day” drivel, you need to spend a while here. Relations among family and friends are a different story, but in a business context, these people make New Yorkers seem warm and outgoing.
I’d asked Olga if she could arrange a country trip for us, and since Tanya and Tolya spend about every Saturday at their dacha, they were quite happy to have us come along, promising a “shashlick” which translates to either “barbecue” or “shish-kabob”, or perhaps both, or something else.
Tanya and Tolya live in an apartment like virtually everyone else, and like most people, don’t own a car. It’s interesting, I think, to note that they don’t have any particular desire for one either. You see plenty of cars on the streets here, but for the average guy, they appear to be about as much of a nuisance as a convenience.
For example, most car owners have to take the bus every morning to get to the place where they have a little tin-box garage rented, they drive their car from there and then bring it back at the end of the day, then take the bus back home. Belarus is about as committed to public transport as America is to private cars. Tolya said a car to drive to the dacha would be worthless because it would cost less to just buy vegetables in the bazaar, so why go to the dacha at all? I thought about myself just before I came here, driving the big diesel truck into town several times for minor items because the Mazda was in the shop. It didn’t make me feel either rich or smart. Homesteaders would really get off on Belarusian transportation.
As the train rolls out beyond the inner city of Gomel, you come to what, for lack of a better term, you might want to call the suburbs. This is where you find some concentration of single-family homes. While these are noticeably smaller and more modest than suburban homes in America many, nearly all of them in some neighborhoods, are built out of brick which I’m given to understand is competitively priced to lumber here. Also, each one has its own lawn that I’d guess averages a quarter to a half an acre, very much like an American subdivision.
Back home, there’s been much talk of the growing oil crisis in America and what would happen if our oil-based economy were to break down.
Here you can see one of the more optimistic possibilities because more than 95% of these suburban homes had their backyards planted virtually fence-to-fence with vegetables, fruit trees, and flowers. I’m sure people like Tolya would think it was pure madness to see what Americans pay for a plot of land only to raise grass which they then spend every other weekend mowing down. Even in the main city park here, they let the grass get to eight or nine inches tall before they mow it.
I don’t know exactly how far we took the train out of the city, but the ride took about an hour. Compared to the trolley-bus, the train is clean and comfortable with no frills and no advertising – also no graffiti. A one-way ticket costs about 60 cents and we might have gone as much as fifty miles, although I’m guessing it was about thirty since we made maybe a half-dozen stops. This compares favorably with what it costs to put your toddler on a toy train at an amusement park in the states, although there are fewer fringe benefits, as one is not permitted to ring the bell.
You see a different crowd of people on the trains here than you do in the cities. Fewer women dressed to make your heart stop beating, and more less-shapely and older figures dressed as you’d expect peasants to dress. When we came to our stop, I noticed several of them were carrying things like small bundles of lumber or live plants.
Our stop apparently serviced a village located about a mile across the open plain which you could see from the depot, a small concrete building and long platform, otherwise it was out in the middle of no-where.
The area alongside the tracks was lined with trees, but the walk to our final destination was all open field on nearly level terrain; similar to the very gentle roll of the land you find in Iowa. Most of Belarus, or at least the parts I’ve been through, is basically marshy country that is, I think, probably more similar in vegetation and climate to Minnesota.
The low-lying areas have scattered deep, straight ditches dug in them about eight feet deep and twelve feet wide. I thought that they might be for irrigation and I was told that while there were times when they might be used that way, the main purpose was just the opposite, drainage. Along the way, we saw a man fishing in one of them, so I guess they’ve been there for a while and don’t ever dry up.
The walk back to the dacha was just shy of two miles and it made me think of all the old stories from the Canterbury Tales to Simple Simon, about people trekking through the countryside and the oddities that they encounter. If you go walking in the country around my house in the Ozarks, you just walk through the woods, or if you’re on the county road, past houses with cars parked in front and usually no people to be seen, but here in the space of two miles we came upon several curious people and things.
The first thing we passed after the fisherman was a small herd of Holstein cows standing out in the middle of a part of the field where the hay had very recently been baled into big round bales, identical to the hay-baling technology back home. These cattle were free to wander where they wanted, subject only to the control of a very old woman sitting in the grass watching them. Olga explained to me that the cattle belonged to the residents of the village, and it was apparently this old woman’s turn to spend the day watching them. The path or trail ran right through the middle of the herd, and as we came through sometimes within a yard or two of certain cows, they didn’t even bother to turn away. Even for dairy cows, they seemed unusually tame.
We crossed a concrete bridge over one of the drainage ditches and Tanya mentioned having a phobia about water, which prompted Olga to say that everyone has their own special fears mentioning hers of caterpillars, then she told them that I was so afraid of heights that I couldn’t look down when crossing the foot-bridge at the Gomel park (about a 100-foot drop, or maybe it’s only half that). Tolya thought this was unspeakably funny, and laughed out loud both louder and longer than I thought was absolutely necessary.
The trail we were following was only cow-path wide, but it soon joined a wider one where four-wheeled vehicles had worn a pair of tracks through the clover. This road bypassed the village and went through a section where the government had harvested a particular sort of yellow pea that I was unfamiliar with before O. introduced them to me, she prepares them mashed as a low-carb substitute for potatoes.
Shortly after we crested a shallow hill, we saw a four-wheel box-trailer sitting out in the field. This, I was told, was full of bee-hives owned by the People’s Republic of Belarus. I gather that they simply pull this trailer to different locations following the bloom of the different crops. I don’t know if we do anything like this in America or not. I believe the standard practice is to load individual beehives onto trucks and take them where they belong. Whether this trailer had individual hives inside or not, I can’t say, but I suppose so. It had a few dozen openings with landing boards where bees were coming and going.
About a hundred feet beyond the trailer, there was a small white pup-tent partly covered with brush. Outside on the ground were various items that you might use in camping as well as a little garbage and two sticks holding up a line of string on which mushrooms were hanging to dry. Olga told me that this was where the guard for the beehive trailer stayed.
“All the time, you mean?”
“Yes, all the time.”
“You mean that’s all he does all day long, all year long?”
“Yes. Well… maybe not in the winter.”
I’d thought the old lady tending the cow had a boring job, but this just seemed incredible to me.
As we came closer, there was indeed a pretty awful-looking individual sitting in the opening of the tent looking like he’d worn the same clothes for approximately the last six months. He was sort of the human version of the cows, because we all walked within about three feet of his grimy legs and nobody said a word.
This struck me as kinda odd, because I’d expected a pause in the walk and a minute or so of tedious small talk or at the very least a passing “Dobry dien!”, so I walked up close to O. and asked her under my breath why nobody spoke.
“Nobody knows him.”
As I mentioned earlier Eastern European social customs are not so cheerily pseudo-polite as in the west, or as in the states, at least.
We continued on to the one side of the field where the cleared land became a dense pine forest that appeared to have been planted there, all the trees being the same height and in fairly uniform rows, and we followed the trail which skirted this forest down to an area where we saw several shacks and crude fences that marked this group of dachas.
All the dachas appeared to be about a half-acre of ground, roughly square.
Most of them were planted fence-to-fence with vegetables, fruits, and flowers. “Dom” is the Russian word for house and that’s what Tolya and Tanya called the building, although it was really just a moderately well-built shack of maybe ten by sixteen, so I could see why Tolya wouldn’t be overly worried about the fact that he hadn’t paid the taxes for five or ten years.
Still, I’ve seen would-be homesteading city-folks try to go through an Ozark winter in little more.
It had a main room whose ceiling barely cleared the top of my head, with a table beside a glass-less window and blanket-covered benches on either side, with a sort of tool-porch/foyer on the back, or north, side. Additionally, there was a grape arbor on one side of the building that made a nice place to sit out of the sun for lunch.
Tolya and Tanya showed us around the place where they had almost anything you might expect to see growing including quite a few late-planted tomatoes and sweet peppers that I thought would probably be frosted before they were ripe. I suggested this to Tanya and she shrugged off the work they represented saying that they might get frosted, but then again, they might not. Even though the garden was no show-place, very weedy, you could see that it represented quite a bit of work; probably every Saturday of each week since early spring.
One of the the things that caught my eye was a crude greenhouse constructed of plastic sheeting over a wooden frame. It was in terrible shape, now at the end of the season, but still had some of the best looking plants and vegetables on the place inside.
There was also a small pond that their son-in-law had dug by hand. This gave me the opportunity to see that the soil here was sort of a light gray, and didn’t look like much, but it was just a bit sandy, and so soft that I could dig it up with my bare hands. I understood why O. had been so discouraged over the black bottomland back home – what I considered to be our very best – because while ours had what to me seemed to be only a few rocks, here there wasn’t a rock within miles, and the soft soil went all the way down to the water table.
While I was wandering around gawking at everything, Tanya had been peeling potatoes. There were a few bricks stacked up to for a fireplace and she built a fire and started a pot of water boiling for the potatoes.
Even though the whole place looked quite modest, I kept reminding myself that everything there, with the exception of most of the lumber that made up the dom, had either been found in the forest nearby (fence posts and firewood) or carried from Gomel on the train including bricks, greenhouse materials, tools and quite a bit of rebar (Tolya works in construction) which was used for everything from tomato stakes to a welded, heavy-duty doormat in front of the dom.
As soon as the potatoes were boiled, Tanya took the metal stove-top off of the fireplace and stirred the coals. Then she produced a small plastic tub which was full of pork cut into fist-sized chunks and marinated in some liquid. These were put on long steel spears that Tolya had brought from home along with onions and tomatoes to form shish-kabobs or what the Russians call “shashlick”.
I suppose by now that you expect me to say that the finished product served in the open air under the grape arbor on a perfect Belarusian day was far better than I’d ever imagined it would be.
I really hate to sound so clichéd, but it was, everything really was just wonderful, and I was having a glorious time already when Tolya produced a bottle off-colored liquid which I correctly assumed was some of his home-made vodka, and another of “malina vino” or raspberry wine, and we had that with the meal.
Tolya is always trying to get me drunk, which is sort of funny since I probably outweigh him by thirty or forty pounds, tend to stick to wine and, as I mentioned am quite adept at faking sobriety. He, on the other hand brought the vodka for himself and usually gets roaring drunk in a remarkably short time. This time was a little different though. After the meal, I took the glass of wine that he kept refilling for me and moved over to lean against the dom wall, there to enjoy my full stomach and the warm sun.
Olga brought over a blanket and lay down on it and I joined her there.
I guess I fell asleep for a few minutes because when I woke up, O. told me that Tolya had thought my snoring was even funnier than my phobia of heights, and he was now industriously engaged in picking tomatoes while I was looking like the town drunk.
Well, before we’d come out here, Tanya had said that they didn’t have much work left in the dacha and basically we would be coming here for the shashlick. Typically, I had believed her, especially when they’d started lunch and drinks without having done any work at all.
In fact, now, post-vino I’d been dreading just the walk back to the train. I kicked myself for not realizing that they’d never want to leave ripe food on the vines.
Well, where I come from, alcohol and ambition do not frequent the same locales, so what came next required quite a tussle for my work-ethic. Tanya said we were guests, and to sit back and relax, but I said that I wasn’t – sigh – brought up like that, and so demanded to be of some service, the wine be damned.
She set me to helping her pick dried peas which I did, and helped her shell them afterward.
When the work was done, Tolya called one of the dacha owners a few fences down and ask him to take our photograph, so we posed for a while as I tried not to yawn when the shutter was being opened.
Eventually, it was time to catch the train back to town, so we loaded up perhaps as much as two bushels of tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers and squash and struck out back up the trail from whence we’d come.
On the way back, we took another fork in the road which took us through the village this time, for my benefit. Tolya was pulling a small wheeled basket O. had given him and he chose to stay on the main path because it was better, smoother road.
The road going AROUND the village is better than the one going through it? I thought to myself that this was a little strange, and sure enough it turned out to be true.
Frankly, the village was unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my lifetime, although I suspect it would have been pretty similar to rural American villages prior to the widespread use of the automobile.
There was a main street about 75 feet wide, but the tracks were either deep ruts covered with grass, or detours around the deep ruts, which were also covered with grass. There was absolutely no sign that a car had been down this lane in weeks, maybe months, nor even evidence that any of the horse-drawn wagons parked about had. In fact, the only sign of any sort of traffic at all was a foot-path, As chickens scratched in the middle of the road and a small boy peered out of one of the sheds lining the “street” as we made our way along. Olga and Tanya stopped at a hand-dug well just to one side of the road and proceeded to lower the bucket on its rope. I thought this was maybe a little pushy and asked her if the owner of the well wouldn’t want to have something to say about who used it.
I guess I forgot where I was.
O. patiently explained to “her alien” (she’s been calling me that since the government-mandated insurance office called up and asked her to bring her alien down for registration) that the well belonged to everyone and pointed out three more wells up the road.
I suppose, as I said earlier, that the villages must be a little like those in America in the 1800’s, before the automobile, but there was something almost eerie about the weedy, unused appearance of the only access road. The houses were obviously occupied because you could see long, well-tended rows of potatoes and other vegetables on each plot, which I’d guess were about two acres or a hectare each, as well as hay stacks, compost piles and all manner of flowers, fruit trees and small livestock. There was also the very occasional scrap of plastic or paper on the ground, but precious little of anything that hadn’t grown there.
As we made our way through the village, we approached a group of people. It appeared to me that we were going to have another silent passing as with the bee-guard, so we, or I, continued the conversation that had been going on up to now. As we passed, I heard one of the men say something and Olga responded to him.
When we were out of earshot, I asked her what he’d said.
He’d heard me speaking English and asked her, “Where do these people come from?”
To answer, she’d reinvented a game she developed back home in Missouri.
After getting a little weary of being asked “where’d you come from” when store clerks or such folk hear her Russian accent she says, “Willow Springs”.
So to answer his question, she said – in Russian, of course – “from the dachas”.
She said he seemed a little dumb-founded and asked, “Rusky, da?” (Russian, yes?) but by then we were past and she just smiled.
I wish I’d been able to visit one of the homes in the village, perhaps that will happen on our next trip.
I’m still very curious about what life is like there, and when you start to ask questions, you begin to see more differences between East and West than are apparent just visiting the cities of Eastern Europe.
First, I wondered why there are so few people living in rural settings. I assumed that it was because the government owned all the land and wished to control the population in other directions, but the answer is more complicated than that, and to gain a full appreciation, it helps to know a little Russian history and geography.
The former Soviet Union was a truly enormous place spanning ten time zones from Poland east to the Pacific Ocean. It encompasses one sixth the world’s land-mass and yet the population is less than 200 million people, so land is far from being a rarity.
So, on the face of it, this would seem to be an ideal place for homesteaders using any definition of the word. If you are a citizen of Belarus, and you want some land to farm, you can make application for it and have some expectation of getting it, if the powers that be find no reason to deny you. You will be given a plot where you may build a home and buildings, make a garden and tend a farm. All you need to do is pay modest taxes on the land. During the Soviet era, the government wanted to promote everyone moving from the rural areas into the cities to work, but now they actually encourage migration back to the country. The problem arises because while the national government may want people on the land for the opportunity to tax them, the local governments are fraught with red tape and corruption, and local bureaucrats have absolutely no incentive to be helpful.
To the contrary, most citizens learn that their every project can be buried in a blizzard of restrictions and qualifications that can only be bypassed by bribery.
To make matters worse, physical security is virtually non-existent in the rural areas, so people are loath to develop any sort of improvements that would catch the eye of thieves or vandals.
And so my tale draws to an end. Two days later, Tanya and Tolya were seeing us off as we boarded the train to Minsk where we’d take a Belavia jet to Warsaw for a couple of days in the relative luxury of a western hotel before catching our plane back home.
I hugged Tanya, shook Tolya’s hand and asked Olga to tell him that I hoped by the time we returned he’ll have learned to speak at least a little English, then I jumped on the train and disappeared before he could lodge his protest.