The only opposition member of the Belarusian House of Representatives is a woman, and a young woman at that. Anna Kanapatskaya was first elected to the assembly in 2016, taking advantage, in her own words, of the fact that she was the oldest and richest of the candidates on the ballot. Her background is as a lawyer and entrepreneur, and it showed. She spoke to us in the conference room of the Swedish embassy in Minsk with a bluntness and frenetic energy that suggested a knack for deal-making, and a schedule that would make most heads spin. It was a wonder she had found the time to talk to us at all.
But then, there is little deal-making to be done in the Belarusian House of Representatives, which was de-clawed by the constitution of 1994, and whose powers have been chipped away to almost nothing since then. I wondered how Anna managed on her lonely opposition stool, all that determination and drive coming to nothing, day after day, month after month. It seemed that so much of the story of Belarus that we saw in our five days there was of wasted talent, stifled by a regime and a social structure that served no one but itself.
Our original plan had been to meet Anna at her workplace, in the House of Government in Minsk. (The fact that the House of Representatives meets here is a testament to the country’s separation of powers.) She was instead told by the authorities that they would be unable to accommodate us until four o’clock that afternoon, so instead she spoke to us early, in the familiar surroundings of the embassy, with its shelves of Swedish barnböcker and its seemingly endless supply of good coffee. We left to go for lunch and agreed to meet Anna again that afternoon for our grand tour.
The House of Government is a vast, symmetrical, proto-Stalinist building, constructed in 1930. Indeed, it is one of the few buildings in Minsk that predates the Nazi occupation. In accordance with the decree that everything in Belarus should be at once paradoxical and surreal, it is located on Independence Square, and flanked at its front by an enormous statue of Lenin. The revolutionary hero’s iron dome glowed in the spring sunshine, and I imagined that Soviet peasants might have dreamed of climbing the statue and rubbing its bald head to ensure a good harvest.
We stood outside the building sheepishly, under the watchful eye of a police officer, who was close enough to intimidate, but too far to give chase if we actually misbehaved. Eventually Anna bounded towards us, and chivvied the group towards the security cabin of the House of Government. Our bags and coats were scanned and we were ushered through metal detectors. “Just like the riksdag,” someone remarked. Well, maybe.
I was kept behind for extra scrutiny, because it turned out that my name was spelled incorrectly on their file – a result of confusing spelling, my sloppy handwriting, or both. It was reassuring to know that just as my surname is misprinted on the wall of my high school in Ireland, so it was now, on the files of an authoritarian regime. Perhaps I was KGB-proof.
Eventually they let me through, and we stood, even more sheepishly, in the courtyard. We were hurried down a couple of flights of stairs, into the bowels of the building, and asked to hand our coats in at the cloakroom. The cloakroom key looked a bit like a bottle-opener. When I rejoined the group I guffawed that my cloakroom key looked a bit like a bottle-opener. I was the fifth or sixth person to have made that joke, and not the last. Then we went on a tour of the presidential library, which, it must be said, seemed to have fewer books than any library I had ever seen before.
What it had in spades, however, was kitsch. Pure, unsullied, Soviet kitsch. Twenty rouble notes with Lenin’s face on them, books whose covers loudly proclaimed: “we have built socialism!” Further into the innards of the House of Government, we gazed around a small room adorned with trinkets and paintings. A prize given to the government of Belarus by their Kazakh counterparts, and other rather quaint awards, none of which were behind glass. On the far side of the room, there was a wall depicting Belarusian history, with the years between 1941 and 1943 omitted.
We were then brought into a small room, in which there were about two dozen books, laid out on the table as if they were wares at a car-boot sale. We spotted that some of the books had Nazi emblems stamped on their covers. Our guide, speaking to us melodically in the Belarusian language, explained to us what we were seeing, even if none of us could understand her. (Anna was there to translate.) A few books were passed around. A copy of Il Birraccino by Raphael de Cerchiis, published in 1542. A copy of the constitution of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. None of us were wearing gloves, and no effort was made to ensure that we did not damage the books. That upset me a little.
There was also a letter – by a German girl called Hanna, living in Minsk, serving the Nazi occupation. She was writing to her parents, in January 1943. She wrote: “I enjoy it very much here. Yesterday we went to the front cinema completely free of charge. This evening we are going to the theatre. I have made a good friend here. She is the oldest railway maid in Minsk and I am the youngest. We nevertheless get on very well.” Tens of thousands of Minsk Jews were being massacred at the Maly Trostenets camp, a few miles away, at the same time this letter was written.
In the end we never went to the House of Representatives, because the President was planning to hold an event there in a few days and foreigners were thus prohibited. Presumably some other excuse would have been conjured had we been Belarusian citizens. What we saw in an hour at the presidential library, though, was probably more thought-provoking than the plush, sterile benches of the House of Representatives could ever have been. We got to see what history means to a country that seemed at times to be a vast time capsule.
History, after all, is the study of the once-new, and that means it is doomed to an uncomfortable fit here, in a place where nothing ever changes, and what’s new is always unwelcome.