Let's make some noise for the people of Minsk

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Published: Mon 17 Aug 2020, 9:17 AM

Last updated: Tue 1 Sep 2020, 4:07 PM

As the sun peered out of the clouds on a warm July afternoon, my walk from the Lenin Square metro station along Independence Avenue, the main street of Minsk, got faster and more frantic.  
The sense of excitement to see Belarus' State Security Committee building was palpably more than the keenness to find a leafy shade in the Dzerzhinsky park across the street. In Minsk, the administrative seat of the Commonwealth of Independent States (formed following the dissolution of the Soviet Union), street signs in Belarussian, like in most Soviet countries, is a malady for outsiders. Yet when you see the mustard yellow building with a stunningly threatening yet temple-like Corinthian façade, you know for sure it is the one you had been walking miles for - arguably the most famous vestige of the Soviet era and the last few remaining outposts of the infamous KGB. Of course, the name gets lost in translation when written in Belarusian but not its essence. 
On the opposite side of the street is the long, narrow park named after terror-monger Felix Dzerzhinsky, the man who founded Cheka, KGB's predecessor and the original Bolshevik intelligence police. And to make it more ominous, his bust guards the entrance as if to serve everyone a cold reminder of how important a figure he still remains - more than nine decades after his death - in the state ideology of Belarus under President Alexander Lukashenko, the man who is alleged to have remodelled the old Soviet KGB into a personal security apparatus for crushing opposition. 
It's his tight grip on power since 1994 that has brought him both attention and criticism from everyone including a certain US Bush administration that in 2005 called him the "last dictator in Europe". And it's his re-election on August 9 that has the whole of Belarus in the tatters right now with more protestors in jail, in detention, and on the streets of Minsk and elsewhere than ever. But all of that news is sadly tucked away somewhere there just like the country itself on the map of Europe's eastern fringes somewhere in between Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Latvia, and Lithuania. 
It's perfectly fine if you have no idea about all the mayhem that's unfolding in Minsk right now. In a week when a giant like Barcelona is drubbed 8-2 on the football pitch and the UAE signs a peace treaty with Israel, the first by an Arab country since 1994 and only the third overall, it's perhaps okay not to notice all what's happening in the pretty Belarussian capital on the banks of rivers Svislac and the Nyamiha. Had it not been for my pitstop in the city a couple of summers ago on my way to watching the World Cup in Russia, I would have turned a blind eye and a deaf ear too.   
A skyline dotted with buildings both old and new and spires of churches both Orthodox and Catholic, an odd Moskvitch parked here and there harking back to the Soviet days, cafes serving some deliciously deep golden-fried draniki, the quintessential Belorussian potato pancakes, and the story of the third-floor apartment of JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald on Communist street. All of this even as the spectre of Lukashenko overshadowed the legend of Lenin for over a quarter of a century. That's what summed up Minsk for me in 2018 with no place really for all the ongoing police brutality until last week. 
And for anyone who has walked around Victory Square or along the banks of the Svislac, looked at the architecture in awe and prayed in churches and made friends with the Belarussians over draniki, recent images of the violent crackdown on protestors across the country this week will be disconcerting. And all you would hope is for this to get over soon as thousands, despite crackdown, continue to gather in the capital to voice their opposition with flowers and balloons amidst a sense of euphoria on the streets. A sense that something's got to give finally. About time, we made some noise for the people of Minsk and Belarus too. -abhishek@khaleejtimes.com 


Abhishek Sengupta

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