As you read this, I’m in Minsk. It’s the capital of Belarus, a former Soviet republic. Don’t know where Belarus is? I can explain. If you find yourself trapped between Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, you’re in Belarus.
With my wife Kristina, I lead a Christian humanitarian charity here called New Thing. (A few weeks ago, Business Insider designated Belarus as the fourth-poorest nation on earth, behind three African countries.)
The Western press often gripes that the KGB still operates in Belarus. They call Belarus’ president the “last dictator in Europe.” How do they know? Maybe he’s only second-to-last.
We never get into politics here. I also try to avoid politics when I’m back home in Ipswich. But avoidance is way easier in Minsk than in Ipswich. Here, they don’t have the “freedom of assembly” that Americans take for granted. You need a government permit to assemble just about any group. In Ipswich, it’s the other way around. We have Town Meeting, and you better be there, or have a darn good excuse for why you’re not.
There is no explaining Town Meeting to a Belarusian.
“The whole town comes together in one place, on a weekday evening.”
“It is revolution?”
“No, it’s government.”
“It is KGB?”
“No. It’s everybody.”
“Everybody with proper papers?”
“No, we don’t do that ‘Show me your papers’ thing.”
“How does you know who can be and who cannot?”
“Everybody is welcome. For the most part. Last year we kicked out a lawyer.”
“You come to listen to president speak?”
“Ipswich doesn’t have a president. We have David Wallace, who calls himself the mayor. But he’s not elected. He just is.”
“Da. We know this feeling.”
“Actually, in America, we have free speech. At Town Meeting, everyone is allowed to speak.”
“How does you hear anything?”
“We speak one at a time. We have a Town Moderator. He calls on each person who wants to comment, according to topic.”
“He wears uniform with medals?”
“Actually, no. Usually a blazer, with a Rotary pin. But he’s quite tall. People generally obey him.”
“What is this word, ‘topic’?”
“Ah, forgive me. I keep forgetting that English is confusingly simple. You would say предмет обсуждения. Predmet obsuzhdeniya.”
“What topics are your? Nuclear bombs, I think. Terrorists. Syria.”
“Those are good, yeah. But no. At Town Meeting we’re more about, uh, chickens. Clams, maybe.”
“Da. World hunger.”
“Uh, no, actually, we’re more focused on the rules. The rules about chickens. The rules about clams. We need to have permits for stuff.”
“Da. We know this feeling.”
“And money. Lots of discussion about money.”
“How is topics deciding? Town Moderator and KGB announce new rule?”
“No, actually we all express ourselves by holding up colored cards over our heads.”
“It is game? It is American ‘fun,’ as you say?”
“No, the colored cards are ballots. We’re voting. And whichever opinion snags the most votes, this decides the new rule.”
The Belarusian falls silent. He grinds out the butt of his cigarette. He shakes his head grimly.
“It is exhausting.”