‘CIA! CIA!’ the man wobbling towards me on his bike shouted as I tried to take his photograph. It was a shock. My embarrassed companions moved me on. We were standing in the main road through a small village deep in southern Belarus in the early 1990s where foreigners were a rare sight indeed, probably ‘spies’. My companions were a 12-year-old girl, Tanya, who my wife and I had hosted the previous year for a month’s recuperation in the UK, and her mother.
This was the first of many visits to this little-known country, independent of the Soviet Union since 1991, and much fought over across the centuries by invading armies from east and west. When the Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened in 1986, Belarus was suddenly no longer just a name on a map. Heavily contaminated by the fallout, its children were some of the worst affected with a high incidence of radiation-induced cancers.
Tanya’s visit and first stay with us, arranged by a charity in Wells, drew us into a close connection with the country and its people. Over the years, the charity has invited over 400 children to stay with local families. Charities like ours sprang up all over the UK and Europe, inviting children for recuperative holidays with families, offering a warm welcome, healthy food, medical treatment and all sorts of entertainments. They enabled hundreds of thousands of Belarusian children to spend time abroad, forging links with families and communities, experiencing a different way of life and seeing different possibilities for themselves and ultimately, perhaps, for their own country. It was driven by a spontaneous humanitarian impulse and had nothing to do with international power politics.
Belarus is a country of contrasts: the north and west more catholic and developed, the south more orthodox and conservative; nostalgic for the stability of Soviet power but fascinated by the west. A peasant society, it has urbanised fast – three quarters of its 9.5m plus population now live in towns and cities. Many of the rural families whose children came to stay in Wells seemed very passive and reluctant to discuss politics. It was as if it was something remote and unconnected with how they lived their lives. They were also some of the warmest, kindest and most welcoming people I have ever met.
Alexander Lukashenko, the so-called ‘last dictator in Europe’, currently struggling to hold on to power, was elected President in 1994. Then, slowly, after that first flush of independence in 1991, things began to close down again. Even the radical, free thinking people I knew were less keen to talk about the régime. Denis, a professor of English in Minsk, told me that a country gets the government it deserves and was contemptuous of the mass of the people who had voted Lukashenko into office. But beyond that, silence.
Natasha, a teacher in Svetlogorsk, who cooperated with us on sustainable livelihood projects, told me she was frequently called in for interviews by the local KGB after our visits ‘to find out what the foreigners were doing’. We supported another friend Dmitry in developing beekeeping and orchard growing in a small town called Narovlya, near the Ukrainian border. He told a similar story about the KGB.
Belarusian TV, always on in the background when visiting people’s homes, broadcast news with a political slant. This came home to me really strongly when I visited the country in 1998 during the war in Kosovo. Wherever I went, I was buttonholed by good friends, as well as people I had just met, asking me why NATO was bombing ‘our brother Slavs’. Their view was coloured by the selective presentation of the conflict on state TV. How could I expect people to have a sense of the conflict as a whole and of the Serbian war crimes?
By the early noughties, my wife and I had moved on from hosting children to supporting community initiatives in Belarus, such as growing vegetables in polytunnels, encouraging microfinance schemes and orchard growing. Local officials, initially keen to support our projects, gradually cooled off. As happened in Russia, for example, where Oxfam ran some very successful microfinance projects, foreign aid became seen as a way for funding to be channelled to political opponents and was officially discouraged. It became increasingly difficult for us to operate. From meetings at the local council offices in Narovlya, we were reduced to having our last meeting out in the forest, where our official contact could plausibly claim to her superiors that she had bumped into us by accident. Our project funding was modest and community focused: they wanted us to set up a meat processing plant.
Amid the gathering gloom there were bright spots. Wherever we went in Belarus, we came across families whose children had been abroad, the memories and the friendships made still cherished. Often the children were spurred on to learn their host families’ languages, work harder at school, do better for themselves.
We enjoyed some success in our own modest projects; our friend Dmitry, for example, was keen to make the transition from school maintenance man to self-employed smallholder. We encouraged and financed his venture for several years until he was able to become more self-sufficient
Then we met Alexey – a remarkable man from the north of Belarus, introduced to us by the British Embassy in Minsk. He was bright and very positive. Until Lukashenko came to power, he had been a member of the Belarusian parliament, but he quickly saw the way that things were going under the new president and gave up politics completely to return to his native village.
Alexey’s view was that the country could only be transformed from the grassroots up, not through national politics, so he devoted himself to setting up projects in his native village to encourage self-reliance and resilience in the local population. These included a bakery that employed local people; green energy projects; creating a business-incubator to provide seed-corn funding to local small business start-ups; and founding a credit union. All very forward thinking.
Alexey invited President Lukashenko for a visit and after that things got more difficult with unannounced tax and other inspections, withdrawal of support from local officials and harassment for receiving funding from German project investors. The good news is, he’s still going strong because he refuses to be put off by these clumsy interventions.
We’re still in touch now and again with Tanya, the girl who first came to stay with us nearly 30 years ago. She lives and works in St Petersburg these days. I thought of her again recently, when reading about Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (they’re about the same age) who stood against Lukashenko in the presidential elections two weeks ago. She is claiming she won, alleging that the ‘official’ outcome showing an 80 per cent vote in favour of Lukashenko was rigged. Forced to flee for her life, she is now in exile in Lithuania, from where she is leading the peaceful and widely-supported struggle in Belarus to overthrow the existing regime.
Of course, the fact that a once passive people has found its voice is down to many factors, not least the power of social media to connect, facilitate the exchange of ideas and mobilise people. I would like to think, however, that all those personal connections hundreds of thousands of Belarusian children made with families in other European countries also had an impact on changing the national mentality and, in some measure, their country’s future. I do not think it’s a coincidence that , as a child,Tikhanovskaya was invited to Ireland on recuperative visits and subsequently became an English teacher. If I’m right then it would be a really positive, if totally unexpected, legacy of Chernobyl.