Belarus Incognita

I  Long before the protests that shook Belarus in the summer and fall of 2020, I was sitting in a restaurant of a Minsk hotel. It was a late afternoon after a day of intense meetings, and I had nothing more planned for the evening. Suddenly a singer came on stage and started a rather touching rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” I noticed that I was the only person in the room. She was singing just for me! (The poor thing probably had it in her contract that if only a single customer appears, she must begin her act.) I was suddenly overcome by a strange emotion that almost made me tear up. I felt momentarily dislocated both in space and time. Where was I and, more impor tantly, when was I? Vertiginously I felt that I had been here before. Was this Belarus in the second decade of the twenty-first century, or was it Poland in the 1970s? Or Poland in an alternative timeline, in which communism survived and transformed itself into a brutal non-ideological dictatorship with a paper-thin façade of democracy? I felt, again, the bipolar mood swings of my youth: irony, swagger, excitement (“All this is too ridiculous to last!”) and bouts of depression (“Nothing will change here during our lifetimes!”) It was strange and familiar, disturbing and deeply moving.  I had gone to Belarus with low hopes. I envisioned grayness, monotony, repression, and stasis. A Soviet Jurassic Park, with a handful of brave dissidents fighting the noble battle against the totalitarian monster. This is the image that has dominated press reports, and also quite a bit of the Western scholarship about the country. Alexander Lukashenko, it is commonly said, is the last  Soviet ruler, and Belarus is “the last dictatorship in Europe.” In attempting to understand

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