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Focus on Safety

It has been a year since I last toured the factory, so I was curious to see if anything has changed. Youri and I leave the main building and walk across the muddy ground to the factory's main entrance. A truck loaded with rough-cut timber drives by aggressively and splashes mud on both our shoes. Nothing has changed.

That becomes double evident when we enter the factory. The bottom two floors of the building are devoted exclusively to the manufacture of pianos (the factory's primary product) while the upper floor is devoted to Music Maker production.

To get there, we walk two flights up a concrete stairwell. Each stairwell is protected by two huge metal doors which slam noisily as they are shut. The noise is deafening. The metal is intended to keep out the biting cold, but giving the freezing temperatures inside the building, I think the Belorusians should seriously consider an alternative form of insulation.

Ears ringing from Youri's enthusiastic slam of the door, I enter the third floor. Industrial Revolution era machinery, steaming and hissing, packs the entire floor. Heads poke up from behind the machinery to see who has entered.

They stare at us intently, and continue to stare (primarily at me) as we walk along the production line. It makes me nervous. Youri represents top management; someone to be feared. I represent something infinitely more interesting. From my clothing it is evident that I am from the outside: an alien, a Westerner, a man from the land of milk and honey.

Old women peer furtively at us as we pass by each work station, Youri explaining what each monstrous machine does. I am more interested in the people. I note that all the women have their hair covered by scarves. As I walk by, their heads bob down behind the machinery, but they quickly find cracks through the hoses and metal arms to peek through. When I pass on they appear from behind the machinery, then whisper to their workmate. There is a tentativeness to their faces. They look like frightened deer.

After only a few minutes of this I become ultra self-conscious. I realize now what it must be like to be a movie star or horribly disfigured, with everyone constantly...staring. I feel very uncomfortable and am glad when we leave the main production hall and enter a small walled-in area: more a hole in the wall than anything else.

Stacks of Music Makers eight feet tall dwarf the old woman who tensions the wires of each Music Maker so they will be properly stretched for tuning when the container arrives. She is kind, shy, and deferential. An easy woman to like. We speak about the stretching of the wire for a few moments before Youri suggests it is time to move on. I'd rather stay a bit longer with this kind woman. I'm amazed at the speed and dexterity of her movements as she curls the wire from giant spools and threads it onto the tuning pins. It's an impressive show of skill. How many years must she have been doing this?

We walk back through the production line to the same stares, the same furtive whispers. I become more uncomfortable by the minute. I come from Belgium where class distinctions generally do not exist. True, we have some rich people, but they are considered vastly different. Belgians think the rich are enslaved to money, are too aggressive, and must have done something shady to amass such wealth.
The social pressure in Belgium to be one of the great middle class is enormous. I remember reading an article in a magazine where a sports star was taken to task because of his pretentiousness. His crime? He had power windows in his car, and obviously couldn't roll up his windows manually like the rest of us...

Silly as it is, it's just too ingrained to ignore. Here in Belarus I am as rich as Donald Trump. And that's why the people stare. I have this great desire to gather them 'round and explain that, back home I usually wear holy sweat pants and a torn T-shirt. But even that would impress them. I am enormously relieved when Youri suggests we end our tour.

We exit the factory with a last deafening closing of the metal doors. It was bitterly cold inside the factory, but the difference between the interior and exterior temperature is palpable. I shiver. Perhaps the metal doors do a good job after all. It's all a question of relativity.

We walk past the closed-up building which houses the factory's museum. Seeing it makes me smile. On my first visit, Youri took me there and showed me the various styles of upright pianos that the company had made since the Russian revolution.

My mind quickly became numbed after hearing the virtues of Model 51-B over Model 51-A being extolled, but instantly became clear when I noticed a pretty matrioshka chess set in the corner. "Oh, you make these too?" I innocently said. "We've been selling these for years. They're a really nice item."

I instantly realized I'd said something wrong. Youri's face, which can be pretty inscrutable, changed just a bit. He seemed not to know what to do and hesitated, then picked up the chess set and mumbled something about it having been an experiment. He then led me to the next piano, but I noticed that he kept the chess set under his arm. He seemed tense and reflective.

A short time later we found ourselves back in Ivan's office. Youri asked me to take a seat and then placed the chess set on Ivan's desk. He said something softly to the director in Russian. Ivan's face clouded over.

Nothing was said as the director got up from his desk, picked up the chess set, and paced slowly to the end of his expansive office. He stood there a long time, his back to me, looking at the interior of the chess set.

Ivan then turned to face me. Not a word had been spoken for a very long minute. He walked slowly up to the desk where I was sitting and with a snarled Russian curse slammed the chess set down on my desk! Chess pieces flew around the room and rolled onto the wooden floor as Ivan ranted and cursed loudly. His face was red with anger and the vein in his neck bulged prominently.

Time seemed to slow again. It does that a lot in Belarus. Ivan put his face close to mine. "Peter Charles," he snarled, saliva spraying at me, "Is a son of a beetch bastard!"
This much English he knew. Again Ivan put his face near mine, and with index finger raised to demonstrate his resolve, snarled something at me in Russian, and then looked to Youri for the translation.

Youri, face pale with fright, said "The director says if ever he comes to Belarus I will have him killed!" Youri clearly had trouble keeping up with the flood of angry words. "He will come to the airport and we will pick him up and be nice to him," Youri translated rapidly. "We will talk to him. We will give him a beer. And then he will disappear. He will never go back to Holland!"

I did not doubt Ivan's resolve to carry out the threat. Peter Charles was the man who we had first contacted many years ago to distribute the Music Maker. Over the years he had proven himself to be a dishonest person. Finally, when he became too much to deal with, we had terminated our relationship and contacted the factory directly. They had been only too pleased to work directly with us.

It turned out that Peter had asked Ivan to make a sample chess set for him, which Ivan did at great cost and the expenditure of a huge amount of time. Peter then took the sample he had been given to a rival company in Russia to have it manufactured.

A few minutes later I was told that Peter had also stolen over $40,000 from the factory. Many people had been put out of work (a tragedy in Belarus) because of his dishonesty. There had been a great deal of suffering.

Ivan sat back in his chair and gazed at the ceiling for long moments, then turned back to me. Finger outstretched, he repeated in English, "I will kill him."