The Ice Palace
Stepping back in time at the Belarusian embassy in Washington, D.C.
The Belarusian embassy in downtown Washington is a musty mansion with capacious ceilings that seem to hover and loom as if they are watching, which they probably are. The rugs are frayed, the chandeliers glow tentatively, and the floorboards creak so loud they sound like they’re parodying themselves.
Like the government it represents, the place feels trapped in an earlier Soviet reality. When I visited in mid-June, almost everything about it — from the kitschy paintings of medieval Slavic warlords to the Nescafé and the slightly stale cookies that the Belarusians serve their guests — was identical to my last visit in 2005 (which past visitors told me was identical to the way things were ten years earlier.) Even the small, sad photograph of long-time Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko standing with former U.S. President Bill Clinton, both smiling, the former with a grin nestled under his moustache, was in the same place on the fireplace mantle.
There were a few small differences though. In 2008, Minsk yanked its ambassador from Washington in protest of U.S. economic sanctions; the United States reciprocated soon after. Now the most senior Belarusian official in the United States is Chargé d’Affaires Oleg Kravchenko, who is 42, garrulous and large, and who maintains a staff of just four people in the embassy. And when Kravchenko whipped out a model of the most advanced Belarusian dump truck on the market, just like the ambassador did when I met him eight years before, it was newer and bigger. "It can carry 360 tons," Kravchenko beamed. "We exhibited it at an expo in Vegas in September."
I first traveled to Belarus in 2004. It’s a land of gray-green countryside punctuated by rusting farms and cities notable for what they are missing: noise, for example, and people who are rude, and restaurants where you have to wait to get a table. When I returned in 2010 to research a book on Lee Harvey Oswald, who lived in Minsk from 1960 to 1962, I found being there strangely helpful: Belarus after the Soviet collapse was weirdly similar to how I imagined it had been in Oswald’s day. There had been changes, of course — they finished the metro, and there are now McDonald’s and overpriced sushi restaurants. But everyone smoked heavily, no one jaywalked, and everything moved slowly; it felt Soviet in its demand for order.
And there’s Lukashenko, in power since 1994, who U.S. diplomats in Minsk described as "bizarre" and "disturbed" in a 2009 Wikileaked cable. He appears to savor this role: In 2012, for example, he named his then seven-year-old son Nikolai, his successor — the boy can be seen wandering around military events brandishing a gold pistol. Belarus today is home to 9.6 million people — fewer than a decade ago. It seems sadder and riper for liberalization, even though the regime doesn’t appear to be rethinking its policy on civil liberties, and Belarusians don’t appear ready to fight for them, occasional brutally repressed protest notwithstanding.
Like the Soviet comedy Irony of Fate, in which a drunken Muscovite accidentally winds up in an apartment that is identical to his, but — alas — in a different city, there is something vaguely depressing and poignant about Belarus, and about its embassy in Washington. Irony of Fate was released in 1975, as an era of stagnation was ripening into a prolonged decline that culminated with the Soviet collapse. The film is touching in its smallness: the world it depicts is warm, almost sweet, and very separate from everywhere else. Maybe it’s only nostalgia, but one can sense, in the familiar dankness and creakiness of the Belarusian embassy, that the country may be nearing a period of fermentation.
In good KGB fashion, Kravchenko preferred to discuss bad things about the United States instead of, say, the situation in Minsk or U.S.-Belarusian relations. During our hour-long meeting, Kravchenko brought up Wikileaker Bradley Manning, the Occupy Wall Street protest movement, the National Security Agency (but weirdly not Edward Snowden), "inadequate" U.S. maternity leave, and gun violence. "For us," Kravchenko said, smirking just a little, "this is such a no brainer, getting rid of guns."
Unsurprisingly, Kravchenko says that the United States is to blame for the terrible state of relations between the two countries. But it is the Lukashenko regime that appears to have modeled its foreign policy after that of Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev, aligning itself with the world’s bottom-feeders and seeking to thwart U.S. ambitions. Rumors swirled in June that Minsk was planning to provide rocket launchers to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; Kravchenko denied this, but it’s not that far-fetched of an idea — Russia, Belarus’s closest ally, is also Syria’s most powerful backer. And in September 2012, the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on a state-owned Belarusian firm for selling arms to Syria, an allegation that Minsk denied. Lukashenko himself has called for sending military aid to Venezuela, and he’s fond of publicly congratulating the North Koreans on their independence day.
But maybe it’s just relations with the United States that are stuck in the past. Lukashenko seems to intuit that unlike its embassy, Belarus is not impervious to change. In 2009, he opened the state-funded, multi-billion-dollar Belarus High-Tech Park — or, as Kravchenko called it, "the Silicon Valley of Belarus." The government is allowing the Chinese to build a $5 billion city on the outskirts of Minsk. Arthur Pratapopau, a spokesman for the Minsk company Wargaming.net, the creator of the popular online video game World of Tanks, said that unlike six years ago, would-be entrepreneurs are looking to tap into Belarus’s rich cache of tech geeks. There is even a sleek, government-run media campaign that seeks to rebrand Minsk as a hip, laptop-saturated hub of creative professionals — Portland with a splash of Tallinn.
But of course, Belarusian officials still sound more like Soviet drones than citizens of the world. "We don’t have to do anything because of the pressure from the United States," Kravchenko said.
On my way out, Kravchenko reiterated that Belarus — or, at least, the Belarusian Embassy — would not be cowed by Washington. "We don’t have to do anything because of the pressure from the United States," he said. Then he smiled, and said that he looked forward to hosting me again soon.