Apr 222008

The WSJ’s “Best of the Web Today,” one of my favorite daily reads, poked fun at Belarus by putting this headline in its “Bottom Stories of the Day.”

  • “Centre Dedicated to Study of Eastern European Nation Belarus Opens in Winfield”–headline, Canadian Press, April 20

I usually like to join in whatever fun James Taranto is having, but it so happens that I have gotten interested in learning more about Belarus, especially after watching Kalinovski Square. So I clicked on the Canadian Press article to learn about this new center.

And here is a URL for the Center for Belarusian Studies. There is not much information there yet, but I hope there will soon be more. A few things I’ve been wondering about.

  • Just how is Moscow exerting control over Belarus and Alexander Lukashenko? What is the relationship really like?
  • How did people become so attached to the Belarusian language, which seems to be fairly new as languages go, at least in written form.
  • What means did Russia use to discourage use of the language?
  • What has happened to the people in the videos during the past few months?
Apr 162008

I watched the 2nd YouTube segment of “A lesson of Belarusia” tonight. The way the students were distributing election campaign leaflets reminded me of “Sophie Scholl: Die Letzten Tage.”

But I also had to go back and look at one part of the first segment that had stuck in my mind. “Frankek’s” father is talking to his underground students, pointing out that, “If you write that things are no good in Belorusia, they will put you in prison.” One girl says that as a journalist she would start up a paper called “The Way to the Future.” The first four issues would be pro-state, then she would start changing its character. “In Belarus,” she says, “unjust laws should be evaded.” Their teacher laughes and teases her, saying, “That’s cunning,” but then gets more serious: “You are saying terrible things. Belorusians are taught to hold laws in contempt. We should not protest like that.”

That is an amazing position to take under those circumstances. It suggests that what wants to break out here is not an ordinary, garden-variety revolution that knows only how to tear down. It’s easy for the oppressed to lash out at oppressors and want to be free. But under such conditions, to want to build a national character that has respect for laws, is admirable.

Apr 152008

Michael commented on one of the Kalinovski Square posts, asking if I had seen the 6-part documentary, “A lesson of Belarusian,” that had been posted on YouTube by the same person. I hadn’t, but I just now watched the first part, even though I should really be working on other things.

Already it has helped fill in some gaps in my knowledge about Belorusia, such as the fact that there was a time of greater freedom before Lukashenko came to power. I’ll be watching the rest of it, even though I can’t kill two birds with one stone and learn some Russian while watching it. This documentary seems to be in the Belarusian language. I recognize some words that seem to be very similar in the two languages, and there are probably more that I miss because my Russian vocabulary is quite limited. But a lot of the Belarusian seems very different. (I had the same experience when listening to some Ukranian recently. It was more different from Russian than I had expected.) But it still is worth watching.
And I’d have to use the subtitles whether it was in Russian or Belarusian.

Apr 102008

I’ve been showing my parents some of the things one can find on YouTube and Internet television. Mostly it’s been Bach music clips of various kinds that I had been bookmarking in preparation for their visit– child keyboard prodigies, ancient organs, choral groups, etc. But Dad was also interested in foreign movies. He has macular degeneration such that he can’t read words on the screen unless they are very large, but he can recognize faces and seems to be able to make out a lot of other details. There are a few Russian movies on YouTube, but not much in the way of really good stuff. I have to read the subtitles to him, so it’s somewhat of a cacophony — people speaking Russian while I’m reading English subtitles as well as I can in a much less expressive voice. And then if I get a coughing fit that’s leftover from my recent bout with bronchitis and pneumonia, Myra steps in and reads for me.

I told Dad that one can’t watch the news on RTR Planeta for long without seeing Vladimir Putin, and indeed we did get to see him on the evening’s news. It seemed to be in a story connected to the Russian opposition to the U.S. and NATO. Then we watched some teevee from Hong Kong, and then I stumbled on a German television station that featured naked women dancing. Myra ordered me to close it quickly, though she found it somewhat amusing. After that I was more careful about not just picking stations randomly, but I was gunshy and didn’t find much.

Finally I remembered the documentary, Kalinovski Square. That was a success. It sustained everyone’s interest. We watched the first four parts tonight and will continue tomorrow. Myra and I had watched it together once, and I had watched all of it at least once more for the language-learning. Mom came and got interested, too. It has to be difficult trying to get the full meaning out of my reading of the subtitles, when even the subtitles are probably an inadequate translation of the original Russian. It’s a shame Dad can’t read them, because it’s very humorously done — in a dry, ironic fashion — even though it’s about a very serious subject. Just the same, everyone was fascinated (and appalled at Alexander Lukashenka).

One thing that’s disappointing is to see that some of those segments haven’t been viewed by more than 500 people — and I’m probably at least three of the 500 myself. The documentary is banned in Belarus. One can learn from it not only about Belarus but general principles about how democracy is suppressed.

Mar 072008

Shortly after watching the 9th segment of Kalinovski Square last night, and learning for the first time about Alaksandar Kazulin and how he had received a 5.5 year sentence for his dissenting activities in Belarus, I read in the WSJ that he has been released along with a number of other dissidents. Luke Allnutt, editor in chief of Radio Free Europe, explains how President Lukashenko desperately needs friends now, and how we would do well to engage him. It would be a tricky business, because he’s trying to play Russia vs the west. But this may be an opportunity to do what little we can to promote political and economic freedom in what has been one of the most repressive regimes in Europe.

This would be a good issue to ask our presidential candidates about, and see if they’re able to give more substantive answers than, “I will assemble my experts, and we’ll figure out what’s the best thing to do.” President Bush was criticized for being too unilateral, too inconsiderate of European opinion. Well, here is a chance for his wannabe successors to show how they would be different.

And here is a link to that 9th segment of Kalinovski Square. I had watched most of the others multiple times already and somehow skipped this one. It’s a very important one, and does a nice job of showing how Kazulin used a run for the presidency of his country to raise an important domestic issue. The person running the camera may have had an inside scoop on what he was going to do.

Mar 032008

Elsewhere I said that the Kalinovski Square film, with its wry, detached approach, might be like what William F. Buckley would have done if he had been a filmmaker. But the person from Belarus who posted it on YouTube says the filmmaker (Yuri Chashchevatsky) did it in the manner of Michael Moore. Well, I’ve not seen any of Michael Moore’s work, so I’ll have to take his (or her) word for it. Can it be, though, that there are similarities between Michael Moore and William F. Buckley? It’s hard to imagine such a thing.

Here is the 8th of the 10 segments. It’s interesting to see how Dasha describes her experiences after the crackdown. Even though she was hauled away to prison and her boyfriend was beaten before being taken to prison, along with many other truckloads of protestors, she doesn’t sound like somebody who is beaten. It’s amazing that people who live under that kind of oppression can sound more optimistic about their future than I do about ours.

She is young. I hope her attitude doesn’t change as she grows older.

slight edit, 4-Mar-2008

Mar 032008

I found this while surfing YouTube, looking for Russian video with English subtitles. It does seem to be useful at my stage in learning the language — I understand some words and phrases, but I wouldn’t understand much of what is going on without the subtitles. And it gives some great shots of people and places, including those in villages in Belarus. The narrator gives us a wry look at President Lukaschenko and the political situation in Belarus. It’s entertaining but deadly serious.

I suppose this is the direction in which Putin is taking Russia, and in which we’re following at a long, long distance. Things like McCain-Feingold and extremely high rates of congressional incumbency are only baby steps in that direction, but that IS the direction.