Belarus watch

by Rob Horning

13 January 2011


Growing up during the Cold War before the advent of the internet, I wasn’t exposed to much pro-Soviet journalism; instead I was forced to hope the Russians loved their children too. Today’s youth need not suffer any anxiety nor must their minds be imprisoned in pro-democratic hegemony. For instance, here’s a New Statesman article by Neil Clark (via MR)about the glories of Belarus’s command economy under Europe’s last dictator, Alexander Lukashenko—“the side of Belarus you won’t read much about,” Clark tells us. If you fantasize about a more equal society unsullied by vulgar consumerism and inane ephemera from our postmodern age of frivolity, all these false needs being stoked and exploited, then perhaps you should consider moving to Minsk:

While other former Soviet republics rushed to embrace capitalism following the fall of the Berlin Wall, privatising their state-owned enterprises and removing subsidies to industry and agriculture, Belarus kept the old collectivist flame alive. My guidebook describes it as a country “so unspoilt by the trappings of western materialism that it’s very easy to feel a sense of having slipped into another time and dimension”.... Unlike Ukraine and Russia, Belarus’s economy is not dominated by billionaire oligarchs. There is no underclass: according to UN figures, Belarus has one of the lowest levels of social inequality in the world.

In Belarus, as Clark explains, the state-owned tractor firm still sponsors the workers’ “theater collective” at the culture center near the factory. Thus it is proved: socialism allows the human to thrive in all aspects of his species being, to develop all sides of his potential.

It’s perhaps easy to glamorize life in such a regime from the outside, when one need not suffer the deprivation or the indignities or the depersonalization but can instead celebrate the way people living there can seem to collectively symbolize a lost purity of being. We can pretend they chose their impoverished and necessarily spartan everyday life as a lifestyle and applaud them for it, as though they were on the frontier of a voluntary simplicity movement, living out what Juliet Schor, in a feat of semantic jujitsu, has called the plenitude in her recent book. (The gist: We have everything we need already, so let’s stop worrying about growth and income and start focusing on conservation, which will enrich us spiritually.) But that’s all projection of our reservations about how we live in the West. In effect, Belarus tempts us to structure our ideas about what might be a better, fairer society as nostalgia for a “backward” past. This reconfigures socialist politics as atavistic daydreams.

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