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Focus on Safety




"I'm tired of visiting museums," Vladimir tells me when we meet over breakfast the day after my arrival in Belarus. We've gathered to discuss the meetings ahead of us, as well as any outings we may have time left over for.
"You always want to do something cultural," Vladimir pouts. "We've gone to the Museum of Fine Arts, we've visited villages, and we've looked at churches. I think it's time we do something fun," he suggests.
"I thought you liked going to the art museum," I ask, quite surprised. Vladimir had never been to a museum before and had seemed to have had a good time.
"No, I didn't." Vladimir replies curtly. "Art is stupid."
"I did like the cultural museum in Dudutki though," Vladimir continues. "Remember that place? That's where the ugly woman forced us to drink that terrible vodka and toast her stupid windmill. And, she told us about the village nearby where women are able to make themselves pregnant without men being involved. That was interesting."
I remembered the moment well. Vladimir had been left to stand in confusion in the road as he considered the thought: Women making babies without men. Could it be?
He had turned to me then. "I do believe it's possible," he whispered in my year. "But I don't think it's a very good idea."
"This year I want to do something fun," Vladimir says, bringing us back to the present.
"Such as?" I ask.
"It'll be a surprise," Vladimir says, beaming. "Something you will never forget. Something very impressive. You can tell all your American friends about it, and president Obama too."
(For some reason, people in Belarus seem to think I have a direct pipeline to Barack Obama. They're always telling me things to tell him for them.)
Two days later we pull off the main road north of Minsk into a barbed-wire-ringed facility which I, at first ,mistake for a junk yard.
"Welcome to the Stalin Line," Vladimir says with pride. "This is where the forces of National Socialism defeated the armies of Nazi Germany during the Great Patriotic War."
Vladimir jumps out of his car eagerly and begins striding off across the parking lot without waiting for me. I follow as best as I can, but jet lag is making my legs heavy and unresponsive.
Vladimir bustles his way to a nearby raised earthen mound at the top of which a bust of Stalin stands, garlands of flowers festooning its base.
"The line of fortifications which stood here was called the Stalin line, Vladimir announces like a tour guide and points to the bust before us. "And this is Stalin, our leader," he announces. "A great, great man."
(Fact check 1: An incompetent paranoid, Stalin is considered by historians to be as great a mass-murderer as Adolf Hitler was.)
"When the Germans invaded," Vladimir continues, "Stalin sprang to action and led the forces of resistance."
(Fact check 2: In reality, Stalin went into a catatonic state after the attack and holed up in his office for four days before venturing out. A master of duplicity, Stalin found it difficult to believe anyone would dare to betray him.)
"Very interesting," I say noncommittally. "By the way, what does this say?" I ask, pointing to writing at the center of one of the wreaths.
Vladimir bends low to read it. "The great patriotic leader. How we love him!" he reads with pride.
I remember finding myself in Belarus one spring and attending Minsk's May Day parade: a rollicking celebration of
These people sure love a good Cold war. Never in my life have I seen so many red flags furiously flying, so many banners held aloft with images of Stalin and Lenin (and only Stalin and Lenin) on them. There was singing. There was marching. Flowers were strewn (I'm not kidding). It was great fun--except for the moment when I was almost thrown into a gulag by a security team because I dared snap a photo of president Lukashenko.
Russians and Belarussians have every right to be proud of what they accomplished during that era, however. It was on the eastern front that the bulk of the fighting took place during World War II; not in France, not in England.
Vladimir leads me to a series of displays given over to the history of the conflict. Black arrows (for the Nazis) and red ones (for the Russians) move this way and that across eastern Europe. In photos, politicians give speeches, factory workers build tanks, resistance groups are formed, and more flags fly.
At the back of one display I see a blurry black and white photo of two children of the time; a boy and a girl. Their house burns behind them, thick smoke curling from the doorway. The boy, perhaps four years old, cries in panic and fear. His sister, shown in the foreground, betrays no emotion whatsoever. Her face is blank with stupefaction. She is numb. At a far too tender age.
Forget the flag waving, I think. This is where the real story lies.
"Every year they hold a re-enactment of the battle," Vladimir continues eagerly. "Tens of thousands of people from all over the Soviet Union attend. People dress up as Germans soldiers and others as Soviets and then a mock battle takes place. We even have tanks and cannons taking part."
I'm already going to hell as it is, so one more black mark on my already dismal record won't make any difference. I can't resist the tease.
"Who wins the battle?" I ask.
"Huh?" Vladimir answers absent mindedly
"Who wins?" I ask, pointing to a photo of the faux battle.
"We wins!" Vladimir shouts out loud as if his team has just scored a goal, patriotic enthusiasm compromising his already unsteady English grammar.
(Fact check 3: Russian military strategists of the period built two fortified lines, but couldn't agree on how to equip each. Heavy weaponry was moved back and forth between the two lines as a result, most of it being found in storage when the Germans actually attacked.
The battle was one-sided. And no, in spite of what Vladimir asserts, "we" didn't "wins.")
"Enough history, let's look at some weapons," Vladimir says enthusiastically and strides off again. "Here we can see the most advanced weapons in the world," Vladimir says, and then stops and turns to face me.
"Many of these weapons are far superior to anything the Americans have," he stresses.
That strikes me as odd. Suddenly, America is the enemy?
Vladimir walks on and stops before what appears to be an overly-large Dixie cup holder. "This is the best anti-missile weapons system in the world. Much better than the USA's Patriot missile."
Vladimir steps back and waits for my reaction. He doesn't get one.
"And this..." he says, as he steps toward a missile and begins reading its label. "Oh," he says with surprise and steps back in wonder. "This is actually an atom bomb. Imagine that."
We continue working our way down the rows of military equipment, Vladimir's enthusiasm only growing. We stop before a squat vehicle with a pointed nose. "With this, we can catch the Americans by surprise, because this machine can plow a path through thick forests at fifty miles an hour," Vladimir declares.
Which should make it child's play for the operators of Predator drones in Las Vegas to spot--and destroy-- the Belorussian army, I think. But I say nothing.
"And this is the Stryker missile system," Vladimir says, buttons about to pop from his shirt. "If the Americans ever invade Belarus this will make short work of their planes."
"Good to hear," I reply. But what I want to ask is: "What if the circuitry in your missiles is comparable to what's in your telephones."
I remembered, years ago, seeing the director of a state factory angrily pressing the two inch square buttons on his "new" phone system when it began to buzz annoyingly, ultimately ending up pounding it furiously into submission with the receiver in order to make it quiet down.
We have little to fear.
Just then, a heavy burst of gunfire shatters the quiet. We turn and see a group of six dignitaries clustered along a dugout. They're being allowed to fire off rifles even though there are visitors nearby.
A stout matron wearing a fur coat steps forward and is given a machine gun to try. She brings the heavy weapon to her shoulder, points it toward some hay bales pinned with targets, and squeezes off a clip, BRAAAAP!
The business end of the weapon wanders dangerously. The woman cackles with delight, her gold tooth glinting in the sun. I wonder if she's drunk.
"That must be the latest weaponry over there" Vladimir says, pointing out what I hope will be our last stop. I follow Vladimir to a plot of land closed off behind heavy chain-link fencing, barbed wire running along the top, within which rusted, heavy and clumsy looking equipment stands.
"Sorry, my mistake," Vladimir says. "This must be really old stuff. I mean, look at it. It's junk."
He bends forward to read the sign attached to the chain link fence. I step alongside him. I can't make out the Cyrillic words but can easily read the date of the weaponry : 2010.
Vladimir, ever the Belarussian patriot, is stunned. He glances at the weapons, back to the sign, then at the weapons again. His mouth moves but nothing comes out.
"I can't believe it," Vladimir says. "It makes no sense."
Watch your step, America!