In October 2006, while he was chairman of the Mid Surrey Link, Philip Taylor visited Belarus along with Victor Mizzi (national chairman of CCLL). Philip recounts his experience with many interesting photographs.
Arriving at Gatwick on a damp Wednesday morning, I met Victor and checked in for the flight to Minsk. There were four of us in the group - Victor, Alan Frame (president of CCLL) and Graeme Ash, aka Billy Wiz - a wonderful magician who is coming over primarily to entertain children in a cancer hospital, a school and to perform at a concert for children supported by the "Children in Trouble" organisation.
Getting through security was straightforward - much easier than in the summer when the queues stretched half way round the airport. After poking round the shops for a while amid hordes of people (even WH Smith had a Disney-style queuing system!) I sat down for a coffee - and was joined shortly after by Alan and Victor. Alan is a fellow trustee and president of CCLL and has worked with the charity for a long time. He was executive editor of the Daily Express at one time, and now runs a PR/Communications company representing well-known individuals (Duchess of York, Cliff Richard, Mohammed Al Fayed, Cilla Black were all mentioned) and companies. Alan has raised a significant amount of money for CCLL through the paper, and through his extensive network.
The plane was a little late arriving from Minsk, so was late out too. There were only about 35 people on board, so I had a row to myself. We were served a meal - the choice being "pork or beef" … I opted for the latter, which turned out to be a very tough "burger" with rice, Brussels sprouts, sliced cucumber, bread roll and a nice dessert. Wine and soft drinks were also served. Coffee was a cup of hot water and a sachet of instant coffee - I was to find that a decent cup of coffee is hard to find in Belarus!
Despite the late departure, we arrived spot on time, taxiing past a graveyard for old transport planes - at least 15 Russian planes parked near the runway and slowly decaying. Immigration was straightforward, and we were told we didn't need the "compulsory" medical insurance. Our bags were out very quickly, and after a chat with Dima, a customs officer who also works as a group leader in CCLL, we went out and met Alexey. There were few trolleys (about 15), but the total distance from the luggage belt to the roadside was only about 20m. All bags are X-rayed by the customs staff, and we got through without any problem.
Alexey runs the CCLL office in Minsk along with Oksana and Marina, and was to be our guide and driver throughout our visit. We came to know the bright yellow CCLL minibus very well over the 5 days!
The 42km into Minsk was quick - the road was very straight and traffic light. First impressions were of sparsely populated areas, with dilapidated buildings. This changed as we entered Minsk, with blocks of flats and some shops. As we came into the middle of the city it began to look like any other affluent city with some new buildings, more shops, bright lights and wide roads. The city is kept very clean, and traffic is orderly. Alan was amazed at how different it was from his last visit in 1997 when there were few cars and run-down buildings. We passed some huge government buildings and made our way to the Belarus hotel - a 22-storey tower block near a lake which was built in the Soviet era and renovated in 2001. Our rooms were on the 13th floor - I had a twin room looking out over the lake. The room was comfortable if a little Spartan, and perfectly adequate.
Going for a quick wander around the hotel I changed some money - $20 = 42,000 roubles - and bought some water in the hotel shop which seemed to sell only water, juice, and vodka - at least 30 different varieties.
Alan, Victor and I met Alexey and drove into town for a formal dinner with the British ambassador to Belarus and the incoming Belarusian ambassador to the UK, stopping at the station for some roses for the Belarusian ambassador's wife. The flower stall was huge, and the roses beautiful. Interestingly, you only give an odd number of roses - a bunch of 12 roses would be taken to a funeral. We had a few minutes in hand at the restaurant so had a quick look at the Catholic cathedral - a large, red building - with a mass underway in Latin. The building looked new, and had been converted from a warehouse in the last few years. There seemed to be some filming going on outside, with huge lights on mobile cranes illuminating the building.
Inside the restaurant - a cellar - we waited in the foyer for our guests. Oksana and Marina from the office arrived first, shortly followed by Brian Bennett, the British Ambassador. Alexandr and Tatsiana then arrived, and Victor presented the flowers to Tatsiana. Alexandr is currently the deputy foreign minister and will take up his new post as Belarusian ambassador to the UK in November. The roses were put in a vase on the table and promptly toppled over, taking a glass or two with them. Vodka was the first order of the evening - we had a bottle of silver birch vodka, where silver birch wood is infused in the initial stages of production with the grain, sugar and water. It was very pleasant and smooth.
The menu was one of the largest I've ever seen - I didn't know where to start! Fortunately I was sitting next to Alexey who recommended a few dishes, and I ordered a fish salad with Sturgeon to follow. I ordered broccoli with it and was presented with a dish of Brussels sprouts (second time in a day!) - I don't know if it was a mistake or a difference in nomenclature.
Conversation was lively and interesting. Brian Bennett is a Russian graduate from Sheffield University, and this is his first posting to a country where he could use the language. He flipped very easily between Russian and English, sitting next to Victor and Tatsiana.
Brian's view on the benefits to the children was:
- Children come for a break from the contamination
- Dental and health care
- Typical Belarusian approach to health is "DIY" - there are few doctors available in the country and while hospitals are good, they are sparse. People tend not to go to doctors or dentists as they are too far away and expensive
- Children benefit from seeing another culture and widening their perspective
Brian spoke about Lukashenka's speech in November 2004 when he said he would ban the adoption of Belarusian children outside Belarus, and that children were being badly influenced by visiting Western countries. The suggestion was that he would stop children travelling. What happened after this was that the adoption by foreigners stopped overnight, but people did not like the idea that children wouldn't be able to travel, and this was quietly dropped.
I was sitting next to Marina, who told me that the parents of children who have been to the UK call the office and are full of gratitude, often in tears. A common report is that the children don't get ill as often when they return - a real indicator that the break in the UK does improve their immune systems.
Minsk is being extensively developed. Brian observed that a lot of the money for this is coming from Russian crude oil which is bought cheaply by Belarus, refined, and then sold on at market rates to Western countries which is a good source of funds but not sustainable in the long term. Outside Minsk the story is very different, and as we were to see in the coming days, the villages and towns outside the capital seem to be from a different era.
Alexandr will move to London in November. His English is very good, and he is interested in gardening and gardens. Victor promised to provide a cat for Tatsiana, who is not able to bring her own cat from Belarus. Victor intends to present her with a cat when she arrives in November.
Brian Bennett lives in Carshalton Beeches. His wife stayed in England rather than move to Minsk, and they have two sons - one is a teacher and the other is at Sutton Grammar school. Brian will return to the UK permanently in June 2007. He is a singer, and seems well known for it in Belarus, singing a wide variety including works in both Russian and Belarusian languages.
Brian observed that Belarusian children are excellent ambassadors for the country. He commented that the ministers are quite liberal and not sycophantic to the president. Lukashenka is a strong leader, and had some form of breakdown around the time of the presidential election earlier this year (later the Minister for Chernobyl said that it had been a heart attack). All ministers are involved in sport as well as doing their day job - most chair local sports associations. Lukashenka plays ice hockey and enjoys "street skiing" - skis with wheels on.
Overall it was a fascinating dinner. It was a rare opportunity to meet with ambassadors from both countries, and interesting to hear their points of view. I expect to maintain contact with both.
There is some interesting architecture in Minsk - a National Library which looks like a giant football, and at night is lit up with thousands of lights which change colour and make different patterns. There was a special tax to pay for the library - on a specific day everyone had to pay that day's total wages into the library fund. One other building we passed was the circus - a permanent building. The circus uses a lot of animals, and there are pictures of seals prominently displayed outside.
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