Sunday, September 9, 2012


Several years ago, I was watching some rerun of some sitcom where a couple who had just met was saying good-bye on a sidewalk. She was very sentimental and was trying to drag it out, while his reaction to the entire ordeal was very systematic and mundane as he loaded his luggage into a cab. At the end, he finally said frankly, “Look, my apologies, I’ve really got to go. I have to go to Minsk for this conference. I’ll be back in a week. I’ll call you.” And then he left her standing there dumbfounded.

Until recently, I had always associated Minsk as a place where people go for serious-sounding conferences for short periods of time. And little outside of that was anything I was familiar with. But now I’m filled with so much absolutely-useful knowledge, my head is bursting with it. (Or it could just be seasonal allergies.)

Minsk is the capital of landlocked Belarus, located in Eastern Europe and formerly part of Russia. It’s surrounded by Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine.  While it’s not on any major body of water, ancient glaciers moving through the area scored out over ten-thousand lakes. It’s like the Minnesota of Eastern Europe.

Belarus has been controlled, or rather under the control, of several different countries throughout history. Most notably it was part of communist Russia for over seven decades. While it gained independence in 1991, it still remains tight with Russia. Their president Aleksandr Lukashenko has increasingly restricted free speech, religious freedoms, and peaceful assembly in the country. It’s only a Republic in name only these days.

There are two official languages: Russian and Belarusian. Russian is spoken and used by a larger percentage of the population, but there are a sizable number of Belarusian speakers. The Belarusian language has also been known by several names, mainly White Ruthenian, White Russian, Byelorussian or Belorussian. It actually belongs to the East Slavic language group, similar to Ukrainian and Russian, which are for the most part understandable to each other.

Despite its censored and controlled social issues, the country from a public health and growth point of view is up there towards the top. There are twice as many doctors available (as far as physician density goes) than in the US and almost four times as much in hospital bed density than in the US. They have less maternal deaths than the US as well. Both urban and rural areas in Belarus have 100% access to clean water sources (as compared to only 94% of rural areas in the US unfortunately).

Belarus boasts a 1% unemployment rate, however there are a large number of underemployed. Most of the jobs available are in services, as opposed to agriculture or industry. They do produce a lot of grains, potatoes, beets, vegetables, flax as well as beef and milk. You can see evidence of a lot of these items in their own cuisine. They are also huge pork consumers, but surprising has a lot of vegetarian dishes as well (many of these recipes came from leaner times in Belarusian history). Belarus is also a large manufacturer of earthmovers, motorcycles, metal-cutting machines, TVs, refrigerators, radios, and textiles among other things.

I think it’ll be interesting to go through the culture of Belarus, especially its cuisine. The current administration has made attempts at creating a new Belarusian culture, a modern one, an amended one. But what he doesn't realize is that its culture is what it is, and that includes the good with the bad, the beautiful parts with the ugly parts. Without its history, whether people agreed with it or not, it’s what’s made it what it is today. You can’t just pick and choose who you are. It’s a rich history, an interesting history, a complicated history, a self-sacrificing history. And let’s get started.

Next up: Holidays and Celebrations

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