Holiday in Belarus

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After fleeing the aftermath of Chernobyl and the rise of a new dictatorship, an L.A. writer returns to her birthplace of Minsk, Belarus to discover the life her family left behind.
Art by Evan Solano

When I was a toddler, I was plucked like an ingrown hair from the crumbling Soviet Union and brought to Los Angeles. My parents managed an apartment building in a wealthy Westside neighborhood. Mama, a trained electrical engineer, traded in her masters from Minsk’s Polytechnical Institute for a community college accounting degree, while Papa, a skilled physical laborer, managed the apartment building, rent free. I was the manager’s daughter. 

Los Angeles was a surreal place to grow up in. Sun-drenched and smog-filled, like a thin and tightly bound Francesca Lia Block novella. I attended a public high school by the beach, befriended girls with closets as big as my room, and dated boys whose dad’s names appeared at the end of movies. I fantasized about living their lives, going to NYU, majoring in something useless. When Papa was diagnosed with Parkinson’s my senior year of high school, I went to community college and eventually transferred to UCLA. 

After finding a job with a prized pension, I stayed in Los Angeles and traveled when I could. But I wanted more. Mama’s favorite Nikolay Zabolotsky quote sounded in my head like the blast of a shofar. “Don’t allow your soul to get lazy. Like grinding water with a mortar and pestle. Allow your soul to work tirelessly. Day and night. Day and night.” 

Approaching 30, fearful of the uncertainty of a new decade, hunched over in my cubicle slurping a sad lunch of leftover soup, I had a sudden desire to visit the place where I was born. I had been toying with the idea of going back to Minsk for a long time, but the weight of a journey to Belarus had always felt too heavy to bear. I hoped to instantly feel a deep connection to Belarus, to fill this void I had felt all my life.

Growing up, I was always too American — with my untraditional values and artistic pursuits — to fit in with my immigrant peers, and too foreign — with my patronymic middle name and thick-accent helicopter parents — for my American friends. We had fled food rations and the fall of the Soviet Union, the aftermath of Chernobyl, the rise of a new dictatorship, amongst other things. But I was too young to remember what it felt like to be called a kike every day, scan food labels for radioactive sugar, worship a single pair of Levis. I desperately wanted to see for myself why we left. I had this idea that the place my family had fled from somehow owed me an explanation. 

Truth be told, I had romanticized Minsk. I knew these stories well but saw them as embellishments meant to pressure me into taking advantage of the American dream, or at least my parents’ dream for me: go to law school, become a pharmacist, buy a condo in Encino. I had no plans to do any of those things. Instead, I was living in a small Silver Lake apartment with Daniel, my graphic designer boyfriend at the time, marketing public transportation in a car-obsessed city and telling people I was a writer, even though I hadn’t published anything since I was seventeen. Perhaps that’s when I began to wonder what my life would’ve been like if we had stayed in Minsk.

When I first brought up the trip to Belarus to my friends and coworkers, they appeared concerned yet intrigued, the way some people feel approaching a car accident on the freeway. The majority of my extended family was confused. Why would I spend my precious government job vacation time on a trip to Minsk when I could go to Hawaii instead? Even Daniel, who had agreed to join me, smushed his face in concern when I mentioned the plan to visit Mama’s hometown of Bobruisk, about 270 kilometers from Chernobyl, or about the same distance as Los Angeles is from the Salton Sea. One of my uncles was so angry that I was planning to ‘risk my life’ that he stopped talking to me at family gatherings; he feared that I was too American, too sheltered to go back. I knew he couldn’t shake the blatant antisemitism he’d experienced. 

Perhaps that’s when I began to wonder what my life would’ve been like if we had stayed in Minsk.

I didn’t need to spend $100 on 23andMe — I did anyway, just in case there was a small possibility I was something else — to find out that I am 100% Ashkenazi. I wasn’t raised religious. In fact, Mama used to light all of the Chanukah candles on the first night of Chanukah because she thought it looked pretty, a product of her Darwinian Soviet upbringing. Even though I grew up surrounded by Jews, I’m an atheist, and often forget the Jewish part of my identity, but I can’t seem to escape it. Once, an ex-boyfriend of mine visited Brooklyn for a wedding and reported back that he was haunted by my face — peering out of deli windows, surrounded by a swarm of children in Prospect Park. 

My mama and papa were elated that I wanted to go back to Minsk, and their friends were eager to meet me all grown up. They almost considered joining me, but Papa’s Parkinson’s had progressed, and Mama couldn’t leave him and the building. Approaching their mid-sixties, my parents were nostalgic and bored. The American Dream had proven too risky, so they settled on an alternative reality, one that was safe and steady and did not include financial risk. They ended up immigrant cogs in the capitalist machine, living vicariously through me.

Daniel was also the son of immigrants. They’d fled from Rio, Brazil, during the “lost” debt-ridden decade of the 1980s. His last name was the only Jewish thing about him, belonging to his grandfather who died young and long ago. He grew up in a rocky beige middle-class suburb just outside Los Angeles County, and although he wasn’t innocent — more like the opposite, growing up a skate-punk kid in a band — he had a sweetness about him that most of the boys I grew up with did not have. His paintings hurt my brain in a good way, so true to the thoughts inside his head. He felt things deeply. I knew he would be the perfect travel companion on my journey into the past. 

Cafe in Gorky Park (Photo by Daniel Bromberg)

Last September, a year after the sudden desire to go back first surprised me, like Gogol’s nose in a morning loaf of bread, Daniel and I found ourselves in a basement terminal of the Vienna airport. A giant photo of a tarmac hung on the wall to make up for the lack of windows. I scanned the faces all around me searching for my features — heavy chestnut eyes, olive skin, fine frizzy hair, a large porous nose. A few men could’ve been my papa, with their deadpan stares and thick greying mustaches yellowed from years of smoking cigarettes, but they boarded a connecting flight to Sofia.

The flight to Minsk was filled with Slavic businessmen in grey suits and an entire high school Austrian soccer team. Boarding the flight, I disappeared behind the shadows of the towering teenage girls in head-to-toe Adidas — feeling both excitement and dread. A wave of deafening fear — the fear of disappointment — took over. The cloudy airport bathroom faucet water I had consumed earlier didn’t help. It swooshed in my stomach like a current. 

Lena picked us up at the airport in Minsk. She was the daughter of Papa’s best friend, Sasha. I remembered a tall and lanky teenage version of her from the photographs gently pressed in our family albums. She remembered how small I once was. Lena, now a photographer and mother of two, was a retired supermodel. A stoic, Slavic beauty. She complimented me on my Russian, expecting it would be worse. I had been practicing for months. I felt us both staring into each other’s eyes searching for some sort of embedded connection, residual love passed on from our fathers. 

Minsk felt old and new, like a menopausal woman with a fresh injection of Botox. The streets were so clean you could lick them. Our hotel was in Old Town Minsk — a repurposed monastery adjacent to the central Russian Orthodox church and the river lined with hookah bars. Old women with shawls surrounded the church during daily prayer that echoed from megaphones. Brutalist Soviet-era grey buildings were interspersed with beige post-war-revival structures. The World War II memorial stood in the traffic circle nearby, covered in scaffolding. While the Belarusian death toll is likely underreported, some historians estimate that the country lost up to one-third of its population — and nearly the entirety of its Jewish population — during a three-year Nazi occupation. 

A new mall called The Galleria sat a few blocks away, a product of the 2019 European Games hosted at Minsk’s Dinamo Stadium, which was rebuilt and later renovated after it was destroyed, along with the structures in most towns and villages, in WWII. The mall was filled with familiar brands like H&M. Beautiful teens clad in shirts with slogans like “Live Laugh Love” roamed. Everyone looked like Mila Kunis. I couldn’t help but call them “the Milas” in my head. The irony wasn’t lost on me: As I desperately tried to connect with my Eastern European self, “the Milas” were being rapidly westernized.  

The day after we arrived, Lena drove us to Mama’s hometown. We passed flat rows of golden wheat and corn, sprawling dirt fields of harvested potatoes, endless birch forest, storybook cottages with roofs the color of candy. I had expected Bobruisk to be more remote, but it reminded me of those small towns you pass on your way from Los Angeles to San Francisco.  I knew that it was a small commuter town, famous for a Lenin statue which was still standing, and for the Berezina River, one of the largest undrained peat bogs in Eastern Europe, designated in 1978 as an UNESCO nature preserve. Lena had never been to Bobruisk before and assured us that this was her first and last time, likely because of its proximity to the nuclear disaster. Her mother was from a nearby city she rarely visited, even closer to Chernobyl.

We found the house Mama grew up in on a dirt road next to the train tracks. An old woman on a bicycle rode by, kicking up a cloud of dust. The house was rebuilt, but I could imagine Mama picking wildflowers and yellow apples in the garden or tiptoeing her way to the outhouse on a bone-chilling evening as the sun set over the Berezina. Mama had shared a single room with her three siblings, my Babushka Etul, a telecommunications engineer, and my grandfather, Pinkhus, who served in WWII and was a poet, school teacher, and newspaper editor. He published two volumes of poetry in West Hollywood in the ‘90s. Despite it all, he remained a proud communist until the end. 

Next we drove to the local synagogue, an old brick building near the bazaar, where I’d decided to leave my grandfather’s volumes of poetry — books filled with heart wrenching poems about war and loss. Books, I imagined he never thought would make it back to the country he fought for all his life.  It was illegal to practice Judaism and write in Yiddish in the Soviet Union, so he would practice and write in secret. The woman inside the synagogue — she must’ve worked there — was the only person in the country, at least that I encountered, who looked like me. Her brows were thick and heavy like sleeping caterpillars and her skin was the color of oil. She handed Daniel a kippah for his head. She went on to tell us what we already knew, but in graphic detail: More than 20,000 Jews were murdered in a mass execution in Bobruisk during WWII. Some were stripped and driven around town in a flat-bed truck in the peak of winter until they dropped dead. After the war, the ones who survived were treated like second-class citizens.

After Lena, Daniel and I left the synagogue, we hopped a chain link fence leading to a former Yeshiva. The grass was long and overgrown and the bricks of the Yeshiva were crumbly like feta cheese. There were a few worn out vinyl banners affixed to a wall with general information about WWII, but no official plaques. No future plans to rebuild. It felt like a Band-Aid, an intentional time capsule. A reminder that the government still didn’t care. There was no one left to care. 

On the drive back to Minsk, Lena told us about the “Russian soul” and about how the people of the former Soviet satellite countries are survivors. They overcome the deepest hardships and do not complain, they endure. They believe that life should be hard. This endurance led them to win the war and live through communism, but it also made them complacent and susceptible to totalitarianism, made them love Vladmir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko.

This past summer, a year after we returned to Los Angeles, protests erupted in the streets of Minsk following a disputed election in which Lukashenko, dubbed Europe’s last remaining dictator, was again declared the winner. (He has held office since 1994 — almost the entirety of my life in Los Angeles.) His challenger, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who maintains that she won the election, encouraged a national strike and fled to Lithuania following threat’s from Lukashenko’s administration. Countries like the U.K. took a stand, recalling ambassadors to Belarus, while thousands of peaceful protesters were beaten and detained in Minsk. Students continue to protest in the streets in the hopes of a fair and just election. 

I sometimes wonder if the country we fled from nearly 30 years ago is really that different from the country we live in today.

Last Sunday, 1,000 people were detained for protesting across Belarus; more than 25,000 people have been detained in total since the August election, according to the Belarusian human rights organization Viasna. I wonder what will come of it all once the cruel winter hits, forcing people indoors and coating the country with a soft sheet of snow in the midst of a raging pandemic, the severity of which Lukashenko has refused to acknowledge. (He at one point encouraged Belarusians to drink vodka to protect themselves against the virus — which is at least slightly more palatable, if no less effective, than the bleach Trump suggested Americans ingest to fight the virus back in April.) I hope the protestors won’t be silenced. I hope they keep marching in the streets, the Belarusian synth-pop band Molchat Doma’s moody revolutionary tunes blaring throughout the city. 

Thinking about President Donald Trump’s refusal to concede the U.S. election and his attempts to disenfranchise voters and persuade them of a voter fraud conspiracy that does not exist, I sometimes wonder if the country we fled from nearly 30 years ago is really that different from the country we live in today. When we moved to the U.S. from Belarus, we were promised golden toilets (perhaps not unlike the one the Guggenheim museum attempted to gift to Trump in 2018), exotic fruits, and the ability to ride the waves of capitalism (maybe Melania Trump was promised these things too, and more — and in many ways, I suppose she found them). But for now, I’m proud to live in a country where your vote matters and where you can celebrate the victory of your preferred candidate in the streets without the fear of being arrested, beaten, or possibly worse. 

House in the author’s mother’s hometown of Bobruisk (Photo by Daniel Bromberg)

Mama’s friend Anya lived in the same government-issued apartment she received back in the ‘70s, part of the same bloc Mama used to live in. Anya held my arm tight as she showed me the rug in her bedroom that I peed on as a baby. Daniel took photos of her Jesus altar as she thumbed through an album that ended with photos of me approaching puberty. I slipped her a white envelope my parents told me not to open, while she asked me to pass on several books on Russian Orthodox Catholicism, a gift for Mama.

Anya made us a spread of stuffed cabbage in tomato sauce and the celebratory Oliviye salad filled with bologna, diced pickles, boiled potatoes, and canned peas dressed in mayonnaise. An assortment of ‘zakusky’ covered the table, appetizers like pickled mackerel, thick salami, brown bread, lightly salted fresh cucumbers, and tomatoes. All food I grew up eating. We sipped tea with buckwheat honey as Anya told us about Mama. 

They met in their early 20s working as civic electrical engineers in Minsk. Mama had left Bobruisk when she was 17 and had no interest in ever going back. They traveled together, using their government issued vacation funds to lounge on the beach in Crimea drinking bottles of champagne, meeting young men who played the trumpet — or was it the balalaika? This was not the version of Mama that I knew. Her attempt at painting her past self as an innocent prude was dissolving like the honey in my tea. 

Anya called Mama “Ira” even though her name was Fira. Her real name was Esfir, a name that wreaked so much of “other” that she had to rebrand herself in Minsk. Anya told me that she was once approached by one of their coworkers. “Why are you friends with that Jew?” the coworker demanded.

On our way out, I followed Daniel’s gaze up to the ceiling of the old elevator. A glossy swastika the size of my palm peered down at us. Later, Daniel tried to snap a photo of a shirtless man smoking a cigarette out of a window as we walked back to the subway. He didn’t get the shot, dodging a thick wad of spit and snot instead. 

No matter how many times we anticipated it, not a single person — not even sales clerks or waiters, workers traditionally tasked with caring — asked us where we were from or why we were there. They must have been curious; We were the only people speaking English. I was later told it’s not customary to pry. But people would stare. They would stare long and hard at me as if they were reliving the war. Every now and then, someone would catch wind that we were speaking English and would ask us for money. I couldn’t get used to it. Right there on the street, well-dressed people with purses and wallets and cell phones would stop in their tracks and beg. 

That night, Daniel and I walked down to the Arts District, a single street near a vodka distillery, the only place in the city with graffiti. We smoked cigarettes by the river and drank lemon-flavored vodka shots at a packed bar playing mostly American pop music and Russian techno. The music was so loud that the people around us could barely tell we were speaking English, as we danced in our seats.  

We woke up early the next day to grab breakfast and walk around Gorky Park before meeting up with Sasha. Gorky Park is a large, contained forest in the heart of the city, named after the famed socialist realist author and one of my grandfather’s heroes, Maxim Gorky. The city was just waking up, but already buzzing in preparation for its 952nd birthday celebration the next day. (Minsk is old. In the 14th century, it was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth before it was occupied by the Czar in the 1700s.) A Slavic hipster girl with blue hair and a nose piercing handed us coffees from behind a little glass kiosk by the subway. We passed soldiers entering bureaucratic government fortresses. Daniel snapped photos of them, fearless with anonymity, hiding behind his camera lens and U.S. passport. 

There were workers in orange jumpsuits all along the main road, men installing ornate decorative skirts on streetlamps, meant to impress the rally of thousands of motorcyclists from all over Europe who would parade down the main road the next day. Lukashenko was famously enthusiastic about motorcycles. Gorky Park was empty, except for workers inflating a moon-bounce slide. It looked so old that Papa might’ve slid down its ridges in the ‘50s. A group of women, all of them in black leggings, stretched by the river. A babushka and her chubby-cheeked grandchild fed brown breadcrumbs to fat ducks.

Daniel took photos of an old abandoned cafe as I stood facing the forest. I rested my hand on the bark of a pine tree to ground myself, my toes curled in my sandals as I crunched dead leaves, attempting to plant my feet back into the soil that I came from. It was like trying to replant a fully-grown carrot already ripped out of the ground. We had been in Minsk for three days and I had yet to feel at home. But just like the city, I was still buzzing to celebrate my birthplace, to find out why I wanted so badly to come here in the first place. 

Anya’s Jesus altar (Photo by Daniel Bromberg)

I knew what Sasha looked like from the photos Papa had showed me. He was a retired mechanic, tall and bow-legged, with wispy white hair and a mischievous smile that resembled Papa’s. I had heard from Lena that he was really anxious to meet me. The last time he saw me, we were in Moscow. I was two years old and leaving on a train to America. We met in a parking lot next to the hotel. He hugged me like you would hug a loved one who was lost at sea and had just been found. There were little droplets of tears at the edges of his eyes, and for the first time all week, I felt like I was on the verge of breaking down. I handed him a white envelope from my parents as we piled into his turquoise Mazda.

He was tasked with showing us where he and Papa had grown up, where I was born, where my grandparents were buried. He listed off the day’s activities in lightning speed. “And your babushka’s kiosk might still be there…” he announced in Russian. At once everything got really quiet in my head. We had been experiencing a heavy dose of reality all week, but for the first time it felt like my reality. 

I quickly realized that one of the reasons I had come all the way here was to try to experience my grandparents — my papa’s parents who were long dead and gone. I’d heard about them all my life, but never knew them. There was little trace of their existence in Los Angeles. A single photo of my grandfather Misha before he died young in his 40s, a former WWII general and a genius who built a television with no instruction manual. A wedding ring that once belonged to my Babushka Dora, the babushka I was named after, who raised two children with the help of her mother, who once sold cigarettes and candy and magazines and fruit and soccer tickets to strangers behind a tiny wooden outdoor kiosk, even in the icy winter. The kiosk that might still be there waiting for me. The words of Maxim Gorky rang in my ears: “In the monotony of everyday existence grief comes as a holiday.” 

Not knowing if I would ever return, I bought fake flowers to put on my grandparents’ graves. The bright reds, blues, and yellows stood out against the grey of the afternoon. All of the other graves in the Jewish cemetery were overgrown, Jurassic Park-like, a reminder that everyone had left. Sasha, who had grown up with my grandparents, had been tending to their graves for over 20 years. I couldn’t help but wonder who would watch over them after Sasha was gone. 

As Sasha drove us around town, he pointed out how much the birch trees had grown in the front lawn of their old elementary school, how hilly the street was where he and Papa had ridden stolen potato carts (my own translation of what was likely a wheelbarrow), how Papa stayed at his house for a few days after my grandfather died when Papa was only eight. As we stood on the street under the enclosed burgundy balcony of the apartment building I took my first steps in, he told us how much my mama and papa wanted me to be born. It felt as if Sasha frequented the places that meant the most to my family, even if just in his memory. 

When we got to the brick building where Papa and Sasha grew up, he started asking folks on the street where Lonya was. Lonya was a mutual friend of theirs. He was a teenager in a black-and-white photo I had brought of Lonya and Papa standing near a bomb shelter in front of the brick building. We were hoping to recreate the photo. A woman overheard the noise and stuck her head out of one of the large windows. She was Lonya’s wife. Lonya was dead. Sasha had missed him by a few months. Like Lonya, Babushka Dora’s kiosk was also gone, replaced by a couple of abandoned off-brand scooters. 

Sasha dropped us off at the hotel. We all looked drenched. Like someone had poured a bucket of water over our heads. I had never had a place trigger such a rush of  untapped emotions. I knew I would be moved by his stories, but did not expect to be brought to my knees. That night, I broke down.

The dacha (Photo by Daniel Bromberg)

Our final day happened to be Minsk’s birthday. Old Town was swarming with people. White tents were propped up all around. While Daniel and I scrambled to pick up last-minute souvenirs we had neglected to purchase all week, we somehow ended up on television. A news camera had captured us rushing through the crowd with plastic bags filled with refrigerator magnets, Belarusian linen, and Russian dolls. When Sasha picked us up at a Goroshuv Station to drive us to his dacha (a Russian country house or cottage often used for weekend getaways), he couldn’t believe we had only been here a week and ended up on the national news. He had been checking the traffic report, and there we were. He wished they had interviewed us, two Americans all the way from California, in town to celebrate Minsk’s birthday — a propaganda feast. 

The dacha was a blue log cabin in an isolated suburb surrounded by plains of wheat. Lena and her mother had been preparing food all morning while her oldest son played on his phone and her younger son, Pasha, rolled around with the family dog. Lena’s husband charred meat on the grill. Before I could even put my purse down, we were eating raspberries right off the bush. We ripped carrots out of the ground and dangled them over the dog’s head like chew toys. The garden was thick with cabbage and leeks. There was a greenhouse with tomatoes you could eat by the handful. The cellar was loaded with onions, garlic, potatoes, and jars of homemade pickles and sauerkraut. Everyone watched as Sasha demonstrated his new favorite toy, a flower you might find on the chest of a clown, attached to the raised sprinkler flaying in all directions, watering the garden wildly. Was this the life I could’ve had?

He wished they had interviewed us, two Americans all the way from California, in town to celebrate Minsk’s birthday — a propaganda feast. 

We ate outside. Sasha got Daniel drunk from a ceramic bottle of mulberry vodka. I had four conversations at once, filling everyone in on my life, while tonguing a raspberry seed lodged in my gum. Tipsy and unable to communicate with words, Daniel tried to befriend the apprehensive dog, while Sasha tried to convince me to take a walk and meet Papa’s ex-wife’s sister who lived down the road. 

Before I knew it, we were touring the neighborhood on foot. Big grey clouds were moving in and I could feel a dampness settling. Papa’s ex-sister-in-law was bent over, pulling up potatoes in her front lawn as Sasha drunkenly introduced me to my almost-aunt. Papa had been married for ten years before he met Mama in his late 30s and had me. His ex-wife couldn’t have any children and drowned her misery in vodka until her heart caved in. I had heard a lot about her, how she hated me, how she would threaten Mama. My almost-aunt recognized me right away, Grisha’s daughter. She told me I was beautiful and invited us into her house — a tiny cottage with no front door, a broken refrigerator and three twin beds stacked like Tetris in a small room. We left before she could offer us some moonshine. 

As soon as we got back, Sasha begged me to Skype Papa. He was worried about him. Sasha was worried that he never made it out to America to visit. Growing up, I had no idea how close they were. Papa had given Sasha the tattoo on his hand, mailed him the gold chain around his neck (Sasha added the cross), shipped him the turquoise Mazda, on an actual ship that took months to arrive. 

As Sasha faced the phone camera out the window so that Papa could see the garden, I watched Daniel drop the blocks he was stacking with Pasha. I had never seen him cry before. When I later asked him why he cried at the dacha he told me it wasn’t just the mulberry vodka, or Sasha and Papa and how they would never see each other again, it wasn’t just the Soviet experiment, the poverty, the antisemitism, the diaspora It was the first time all week that he did not need to hide behind his camera, he did not need to know Russian to know what was really going on. The reality was universal, like music.

I had come all the way to Minsk to dig into the past and compare it to my present, to collect emotional reparations, perhaps to appreciate all the sacrifices my parents had made, to see where I belonged. I had expected to be disappointed, even scared. What I didn’t expect was to fall in love with the parallel universe, with all its imperfections, embrace it like an old friend I may never see again. 

The rain came all at once. Back in Minsk, I sat on our bed in the hotel room, surrounded by our luggage. Daniel lay curled up, snoring beside me. Fireworks the size of jet planes erupted in the night sky, perfectly framed by the window. There were hordes of people outside celebrating. I imagined joining them — warm with several shots of vodka, letting my hair curl under the relentless rain, singing with my comrades, so deep in the crowd that no one could see the arch of my nose, the darkness of my eyes. 

Diana Ruzova is a Los Angeles based writer and public transportation nerd. Her work centers around her family’s immigration from the former Soviet Union to Los Angeles in the early ’90s. Diana is a Creative Nonfiction MFA candidate at Bennington College.