Minsk—the letters at the airport screamed out my arrival for my second Helix adventure. I had just come from a family cruise in the Baltics, where I had a few harrowing moments like being interrogated by the Russian secret police in St. Petersburg on behalf of my friend from Moscow who had broken the law the day before as he was trying to meet us at the cruise ship. And now I had to put on a new hat, faculty-in-residence for a program called Helix, a one year Yiddish cultural intensive that concludes with two weeks of in situ learning in historic Lithuania (this year to Belarus and Lithuania). This year’s adventure was particularly exciting, because my husband was one of the participants, so it wouldn’t mean being separated from him for two plus weeks.
As we drove into town, I noticed many changes from four years ago when I was last in Belarus. More signs with English writing, more international chain stores, more restaurants, more night life. The location of our hotel, while not in the city center, was in a newly redeveloped part of Minsk with art galleries, performance spaces, and bars and restaurants of all kinds, including a vegan fast food restaurant. That night we met up with one other participant who had arrived earlier in the day to find food and we walked…100 feet…to find several open restaurants. I didn’t expect anything like this, especially given Belarus’s reputation as the last dictatorship in Europe…well it was “the last” in 2015. By 2019, as Alexander Lukashenko had liberalized his policies which were meant to foster tourism (no visa needed if you’re only in the country for 10 days; mural projects throughout the city; loosening the restrictions on public gatherings), Europe has slid toward neo-fascism as EU countries Hungary and Poland now have authoritarian governments themselves. As a participant’s Minsk-based friend told him, Belarus is now the future of Europe, seemingly without any sense of irony.