9 Jun 2014

Belarus: 20 years under dictatorship and a revolution behind the rest of Europe

Tucked away behind the vast, charmless apartment blocks and broad thoroughfares so beloved of Soviet town planners, the Minsk History Museum boasts Belarus’s best exhibition of the summer. Back in the BSSR (the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, as it was then known) is a showcase of Soviet memorabilia and propaganda that takes visitors back a generation to a time when this was one of 15 Soviet Socialist Republics.

belarus street2

Or is it? Some would argue you don’t have to enter the exhibition to be Back in the BSSR. Streets in the capital are still named after Marx and Engels. A statue of Lenin dominates a city centre square. There’s even a bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the original Soviet secret policeman and the first statue toppled in Moscow when the Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991. A metro ride costs 20p. People smoke indoors. Almost no one has tattoos. This feels like a place that is at least one revolution behind the rest of us, maybe more.

And then there is the leader. This summer, Europe’s longest-serving ruler - the only post-Soviet president that Belarus has known - marks 20 years in office. Since Alexander Lukashenko came to power in 1994, parliament has been emasculated, political opponents driven into exile or disappeared, and the media have been silenced. This is a country where the KGB is still called the KGB. It is the last European country to use the death penalty – a bullet to the back of the prisoner’s head. Last month, Lukashenko announced he intended to bring back “serfdom” to “teach the peasants to work more efficiently”.

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