I am reading the last pages of Anthony Burgess’ classic A Clockwork Orange on a flight from Istanbul to Minsk. Many terms of the artificial language “Nadsat” it uses, which is based on Russian, will prove to be quite useful in Belarus.
Next to me on the plane are Richmond and Nixon from Nigeria. The plane is full of black Africans. What they are looking for in chilly Minsk, of all places, only the devil knows. Nixon and Richmond assure me that they are tourists, but the latter keeps digging out a tattered piece of paper on which is handwritten, “You work for XXX Company.” He squints as he looks at the paper. He seems to want to memorize it.
Judging by the state of the note, the two have traveled the long way from Lagos to this city on the Bosporus along a dusty country road rather than aboard an airplane. Nevertheless, they are well-dressed and smell of expensive cologne. They don’t look like refugees; more like soldiers of fortune. The whole thing stinks to high heaven.
Richmond asks me for my number, which I readily give him. “Who knows if I’ll miss out on a good story otherwise?”, I think to myself. I type my first name into his phone. Other contacts of his that I see are stored under headings like “White Woman” and “Big Jim.” The flight nearly passes without turbulence.
At the airport, the 40 or so black Africans from my plane stand together as if they were all dressed up with nowhere to go. Then I hear a border guard call out, “Tourist visa?” They all raise their hands. The guard tells them to follow him. They will all enter European soil as “tourists” a little later.
The European Union has accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of inviting migrants from Iraq and Africa into the country as “tourists” and then sending them on to Lithuania. There, 3,000 new migrants were registered in July of this year alone, compared to only 81 in the entire previous year. By acting as a human trafficker, Lukashenko is responding to the EU’s sanctions. Belarus has thus become a new gateway for migrants to the EU.
Apparently, few migrants intend to settle in Lithuania or Poland. Rather, they are drawn to the land of poets and thinkers — the legacy of Mama Merkel. According to statistics from the German federal police, almost 4,000 migrants have entered Germany via Belarus and Poland since August. In the first week of October alone, there were 1,183.
The regime makes no secret of the fact that Belarus is now increasingly allowing people from Africa and the Middle East to enter the country. “Many countries live off tourism, why shouldn’t Belarus develop its tourism?” Alexander Volfovich, the State Secretary of the Belarusian Security Council, explained. But it is not only fake tourists but also fake students who are currently being increasingly registered by the federal police at the German-Polish border. Many Syrians and Iraqis are said to have been issued Belarusian student visas, for example.
After talking for a while with an extremely nice border official, I go to the counter for diplomats, which he kindly assigned to me. The lady with the big epaulettes intently studies my passport, but to her question about whether I have a return flight, a simple “yes” suffices. She takes a scrutinizing look at my face, then she stamps my passport and wishes me a nice stay. I have return tickets, but they are now worthless because the flights have been canceled. I also don’t have to show the obligatory travel health insurance. Double luck.
The first accommodation in which I make myself comfortable is the Tower Hostel. It is located near Gorky Park, so I have the Scorpions’ anthem in my ears for days, although the Gorky Park they sang about is the one on the banks of the Moskva in the Russian capital. Nearly half of my eight-bed room is occupied by West Africans. Some snooze in their bunks all day. “Strange tourists,” I think. Whenever I ask a black person where they are from, the answer is either Nigeria or the Ivory Coast. I saw both countries ten years ago as a cadet on a container ship. To my knowledge, there are no wars happening there. I make a short video of one of these “tourists”:
When I shuffle to the bathroom on the first morning, I discover an information board on the wall that tells me that Lee Harvey Oswald, John F. Kennedy’s alleged assassin, lived in that house. This American and former Marine, who was enthusiastic about Marxism, had traveled to the Soviet Union in October 1959 and declared his intention to become a Soviet citizen. After being monitored around the clock for a year in Russia and put through his paces, he was assigned a job and an apartment in Minsk. However, Oswald, who had moved with his family more than twenty times during his childhood and youth, soon grew bored in the Belarusian capital. After meeting the student Marina Prusakova in March 1961 and marrying her barely six weeks later, he returned to the United States with her and their daughter June, who had been born in May 1962. A year and a half later he was dead, shot to death by Jack Ruby after being arrested for JFK’s assassination.
After three days and nights, I have had enough of the African adventure and look for an apartment with its own kitchen and bathroom. In Minsk, which reminds me a lot of Kiev, I take long walks, photograph the monumental Soviet-era buildings, and visit the National Art Museum and numerous cafés — but I spend most of my time in my humble abode and read Hans Albert’s treatise on Critical Reason.
Katya, with whom I am taking a road trip to Hrodna on the Memel, has lived for a year in Vienna’s 10th district and laments the fact that Vienna, as well as all the other cities she has visited in the Federal Republic of Germany, are overrun with Turks. Heidelberg was the only exception. When she arrived in Vienna, she could only say, “Hands up, Hitler kaputt,” but she quickly spoke better German than many an Oriental who had been living in Vienna for twenty years.
On our way back, there is a small dispute on the highway because she is upset about alleged sexism in the German language, specifically in relation to the generic masculine. Moreover, she thinks it is absurd to say das Mädchen (“the girl,” which is of the neutral gender in German as opposed to feminine).
I paid for the rental car, the gas, and the lunch. I also pay for dinner in Lida after our discussion, and I still don’t hear a “thank you” from her lips. I lose my temper inside. Back in the car, I tell her that in Germany, people usually say “thank you” when they are invited to dinner. She replies that in Belarus it goes without saying that the man pays. “All right,” I say — but then she shouldn’t act like a feminist and whine about sexism in the language. Rather, she has to choose. The lady is now piqued, and during the last 170 kilometers from Lida to Minsk we hardly exchange a word with each other. When I drop her off in front of her apartment, she slams twenty euros on the passenger seat and says she hopes I enjoyed the day at least a little. She has obviously decided in favor of feminism.
During my stay in Belarus, I only meet critics of the regime. There seem to be no or very few supporters of the President among the younger generation. Many tell me they were arrested during the protests and spent a night in police custody. When an anthem of the opposition is played in a rock pub, everyone sings along fervently. I look into very surprised faces, however, when I tell them that in the Federal Republic of Germany, too, the work of government critics is partly obstructed, that I personally know people who have disappeared behind bars for political Facebook posts, that publications are banned, and that the use of certain symbols is punishable.
I finally travel back to that supposedly free Germany via Georgia and, once again, Turkey. Even before I arrive at Minsk’s airport on the morning of my trip home, I know who I will definitely not meet there: Richmond and Nixon.
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