Yesterday I collected a few “fun facts” about independent Belarus that reflect on why this country makes for a fascinating place to begin an exploration of a multicultural eastern European past…and possible present. Our first few days, we explored Minsk, Volozhin, and Smorgon, each central for Jewish cultural history and Jews’ relationship to a multicultural region.
2) Animals at the circus, at least those who were raised and trained in Smorgon, the circus bear capital of the Russian empire, once had full length mirrors to get ready for a show.
In Smorgon, where the bears for Russian circuses were trained for several hundred years, there is a cemetery with Catholic, Orthodox, and Communist red star graves. There are also Jews buried in the cemetery, but there, Jews’ graves are marked as Communists with ared star and an enamel plaque adorning their graves. The one we saw was for Aron Moiseevich Kogan. When I pointed out to the group that it was fascinating to see such an amazing cultural and religious fusion in a cemetery of all places, one person asked, “How do you know Aron Moiseevich Kogan, the person buried under the red star gravestone, is Jewish?”
The Volozhin yeshiva was going to be knocked down by the Lukashenko government if no one would pay $2000 (sic) to repair its roof. It was indeed repaired, but the building remains a dangerous fire hazard for which one needs to acquire the keys to enter from the chief rabbi of Belarus. Our amazing tour guide, Lucy Semenova, acquired the keys from said rabbi. With bated breath, we watched the magnificent key enter the lock…and nothing. The keys didn’t work, so someone in our group picked the lock.
Other fun facts:
1) Neo-natalist policy, rule 1: To buy an apartment in contemporary Belarus, the mortgage rate is 30%, a shockingly high interest rate. But it is only that high if you have fewer than 3 kids. If your family has three kids, you may get a state mortgage for only 5% interest; that very competitive rate drops to one percent with four kids. And if your family is blessed enough with fecundity to have five children, the government will give you an interest-free loan. One would think that free mortgages would lead to a population boom, but the data is still out.
2) Belarussian national elections are October 11, 2015, and everyone already knows the winner even though there are four other candidates. Signs encouraging people to vote are everywhere.
3) On our last night in Minsk, we met the only cultural activist I have met, who is simultaneously a Belarussisn cultural nationalist and a Yiddish-language activist for Yiddish, who has studied the language at the Vilna Yiddish Institute five times. He produced a Belarussian-Yiddish dictionary and argues that to be a Belarussian nationalist, one has to support the country’s multilingual past, especially the language of its marginal minority, Yiddish.
Final fun fact, a common saying heard these days in Belarus: “It could be worse.” True statement as one looks around the world and also around the region.