Belarus prefers communism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Dec 17 08:51:06 MST 2000

NY Times Magazine, Dec. 17, 2000
Back in the U.S.S.R.

Belarus is convinced that it has the answer to post-Soviet turmoil --
Brezhnev-era Communism.


Dr. Lev Demenuk was not always a Communist. He never believed the old
propaganda about the evils of capitalism. Not until he experienced it for

"I cheered when Yeltsin stood on that tank and the Soviet Union fell
apart," the tall, bearded physician tells me while we wait for a bus after
the gala. "And I certainly didn't think I'd ever be celebrating Revolution
Day again."

The rain has stopped, and the streets are slick and empty. Minsk is very
dark at night, with only the occasional streetlight or splash of neon to
pierce the gloom. But the city feels perfectly safe -- one advantage of
life in a police state.

"We also used to have Chechen gangsters, and shootouts and robberies -- all
the things they have in Russia," recalls Demenuk. "It was terrible. People
were frightened to leave their homes."

The bus arrives. It is crammed and steamy and, by the look of it, has been
in service since the days of Brezhnev. Fortunately, Demenuk's building is
only a few stops away. He lives in a Stalinist high-rise, virtually
indistinguishable from the thousands of drafty, precast concrete structures
Soviet architects slapped together after the Nazis razed Minsk to the ground.

We continue our conversation in Demenuk's tidy fifth-floor apartment, over
Armenian cognac and sliced pears. "We had every kind of shortage. There
were work stoppages and equipment failures. Our wages were wiped out by
hyperinflation. You couldn't even buy a roast with your monthly pay."

Demenuk talks about the polyclinic at the Minsk Automobile Factory, where
he works as one of 60 doctors and dentists caring for its 29,000 employees.
"The plant was on the verge of closing. Production had dropped tenfold. At
the clinic, we were reusing hypodermic needles. We had no medications for
the workers. It was like the war."

Things got so bad that Demenuk thought about returning to Russia, where he
was born and reared before attending medical school in Minsk. But Russia
was in even worse shape. He even considered emigrating. "My sister had
moved to Boston. I went to the States, too -- worked under the table doing
manual labor in Detroit for a while," he says.

Demenuk liked America, even with the language barrier. But in the United
States, he couldn't practice medicine. "I didn't want to end up as a taxi
driver with a medical degree."

There was some encouraging news from home, however. In the summer of 1994,
a political unknown stormed onto the scene in Minsk. Aleksandr Lukashenko
was charismatic and rugged, an avid athlete with a manly mustache and broad
shoulders. At 39, Lukashenko was the same age as Demenuk, and many of the
things he said struck a chord with Belarussians who longed for a strong
leader, someone who would restore some sense and pride to their existence.
He pledged to chase away the bandits and corrupt officials who were ruining
the country, which in Soviet times had enjoyed one of the highest standards
of living of all the republics.

Lukashenko swept into office as a savior. "He was our de Gaulle," Demenuk
says dreamily.

Lukashenko quickly set about bridling the free press; its pesky criticism,
he said, impeded his ability to make needed changes quickly. Next he turned
his attention to the country's shadowy league of big bankers, the
"parasites" who had looted the country through dubious privatization schemes.

In renationalizing Belarus's banking sector, Lukashenko claimed he was
simply returning stolen state property to the people. And the people
cheered. Ivan Osintvev, for instance, a pensioner, had little sympathy for
BMW-driving bankers. "I had my life savings in a bank that was privatized,"
recalls the decorated World War II veteran, who as a young Soviet soldier
was shot in the leg just outside Cracow when the Red Army liberated
Auschwitz. "The new owners closed the bank and ran off with my money,"
about $2,000, he says. "The capitalists stole all my money. The president
simply gave it back to me."

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Louis Proyect
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