Belarus: Did Kolya Bite the Stewardess?

Posted July 6th, 2011 at 5:43 pm (UTC+0)
15 comments

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, with his youngest son, Kolya, reacts during a military parade marking Independence Day in Minsk, Belarus, Sunday, July 3, 2011. (AP Photo/Nikolai Petrov, BelTA)

On a Sunday afternoon, Natalia and I were resting on a tree-shaded path in Minsk’s Victory Park, when she started to ask a delicate question. But she did not want to discuss it while we were sitting on a park bench.

“There could be microphones in the bench,” the 20-year-old said. “Our professors at the university say that every classroom has a hidden microphone.”

So we walked down on a shaded path, away from the baby strollers and the roller-bladers, where she touched on the topic.

“I was reading on the Internet – now, you never can be sure about what’s on the Internet – well, there is this blogger, Alexander, and he wrote,” she paused, eying me to see if I was following her whispered Russian. “Well apparently, the boss got on a plane with Kolya.”

(President Alexander Lukashenko has taken his third son, Nikolai, or Kolya, aged 6, to such events as army maneuvers, military parades, and the Minsk subway bombing.)

“Well apparently, Kolya wanted to close the airplane door by himself,” she continued. “The stewardess told him he could not close the door. So he bit her. Is that true?”

Well, I may be the Voice of America, but that does not necessarily make me the Eyes, Ears or Brain of America.

So I had to confess – ne znaiu – I dunno.

To compensate for my knowledge gap, I joked, “Don’t worry, this is not North Korea. You are not going to end up with the son running the place in 20 years. Har, har.”

She winced. As a third year law student, Natalia knew full well that my guarantees were not worth much. Talk followed into scholarship programs for study abroad.

The following Sunday, the same park was the setting for a new low for this Orwellian society where people believe there are microphones hidden in park benches and rocks.

Igor Eseev, Minsk’s police chief for public security, had dictated to Belarusians when they should — and should not – applaud during July 3 Independence Day celebrations.

In a nation where all form of public protest is banned, citizens started last month to unexpectedly clap in public places. Times and places circulate through social networks. In advance of Independence Day, the Belarus government temporarily shut down access to social networking sites like Facebook, Vkontakte, and the Belarussian language site of Radio Free Europe.

The protests are not just fueled by unhappiness over living in Europe’s last dictatorship. Belarus also is in an economic free fall, suffering a 50 percent devaluation of the local ruble earlier this year. Facing collapsing living standards, Belarusians this summer are tearing out the lawns in their dachas to plant potatoes.

Following through on their threats, police arrested almost 400 people in four Belarusian cities on Independence Day. Caught clapping their hands at times and places deemed subversive, many were charged Monday with petty hooliganism. Some hand clappers paid fines; some won sentences of 15 days in jail..

On Minsk’s Victory Avenue, on the edge Victory Park, where Natalia and I had strolled one week earlier, plainclothes policemen dragged several people away from the crowd of parade viewers. They were deemed to have clapped inappropriately when President Lukashenko appeared on the parade reviewing stand, accompanied by his son, Kolya.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

15 responses to “Belarus: Did Kolya Bite the Stewardess?”

  1. Pyotr says:

    “Belarusians this summer are tearing out the lawns in their dachas to plant potatoes.”
    If you take a bird’s eye look on any major city of Russia you will see a belt of dachas around. Dacha is a small parcel of land which were given to people by soviet authorities to avoid hunger. Most people who live in the city still grow potatoes and vegetables outside the city. They are expecting the worst despite the propaganda from the putinvisor. And they are well aware nobody will help them, they must count only on themselves (and their dachas). Besides, most people’s salary does not allow them to buy enough food. And I don’t talk about people from the society bottom like bums or beggars. I talk about school teachers, doctors and nurses, factory workers and so on – people whose labour would be paid enough to support a family without additional job on dachas in any other civilized country.

    • Alexander Albov says:

      Dear Pyotr! I don’t know whether you’re learning history or not. But I could assure you that you are wrong there. I was born in the USSR and live there enough time. The deal is that you’re wrongly mixed two different periods in the Soviet live. Yes, you’re right, in the Soviet Union one time was absent of meal product. More over, a peoples even starving and death through that. But it was within three concrete periods: I- civil war (directly after revolution), II- collectivisation (in the end of twentieths and beginning of thirties) III- within and after World War Two. And, believe me, after thats times salary allowed peoples to buy enough food (may be not for pleasure but for eating exactly). Now, concerning dachas the purpose for what they were given to people from government was another an quite simple: to allow them rest on nature, fresh air and so on. And it was already after the severe times…

      • Pyotr says:

        Dear Alexander! I dont know whether you lived in USSR during Brejhnev period and after that, perestrojka and so on but I asure you I lived. I was a boy and I saw the king was naked. And I perfectly remember that it was impossible to buy anything better than margarine and a loaf of bread in shops, no meat, no fresh vegetables. The party bosses convulsivly tried to solve the imminent food distribution collapse. My father was a rocket engines plant worker and a small allotment was given to our family as well as to all the ather workers, four and a half hundred square meters for five persons. I dont remember we’ve used it once for a picnic, all the land was under vegetable beds and berry bushes. We worked there every weekend, sometimes during evening time after work or school. Yes, that was a really clever decision of KPSS, the real hunger never came. And of course KPSS said that these dachas’ main purpose was only recreational. But as anything proclaimed by this organisation it was a lie. Do you really think people in Moscow overthrew communist regime because they wanted freedom really? I am sure they wanted decent food and clothes first. When you are hungry you understand the value of freedom very fast. I am sure if oil price dropped today to 10 dollars per barrel there would be no Putin and his team tomorrow. Russians can understand politics only through their stomachs, and that is why the future of the nation is vague imho.

        • Alexander Albov says:

          Hello, Pyotr!
          I naturally agree with you in all main items of your post. Yes, the USSR (as some another states of socialism kind) fully proofed it inability and bankruptcy of the theory. And the most strongest evidences were shooting own peoples, unreasonable huge number sacrifices, starvation and etc.
          Sorry me, but in my past post I only did try to express my opinion concerning absence direct unbound dachas – hunger.
          Now: “I am sure if oil price dropped today to 10 dollars per barrel there would be…”
          Indeed, more over I think even 40$ and lower will be enough for full bankruptcy of Russia.

  2. free bird says:

    ““I was reading on the Internet – now, you never can be sure about what’s on the Internet – well, there is this blogger, Alexander, and he wrote,” she paused, eying me to see if I was following her whispered Russian. “Well apparently, the boss got on a plane with Kolya.”” could this be called a ‘reliable’ source for an ‘attention grabber’? Guys, go back to school and ask to be taught about character, honesty, fairness, quality, and all other good manners. You are using pure speculations to ridicule a person. I hope soon you begin farming in your backyard too…one day, when modern colonialism ends , you will have to dig very hard to survive and you will deserve it…

    • Jim Brooke says:

      Free Bird —
      You miss the point — I take a walk with a law student — she takes it as normal that: 1) there are micrphones in classrooms 2) she believes that park benches are bugged 3) she is repeating a rumor about the president, a rumor that is impossible to verify in a nation where there is no free press. In fact, at the last demonstration, plainsclothes police singled out and attacked 14 journalists, damaging much of their recording eqiupment.
      Clearly you are hostile to the kind of open societies that prevail in all the nations of the European Union. No worries — there were outsiders who supported Salazar in Portugal, Franco in Spain, the Greek Colonels, Pinochet in Chile, the Army Generals in Argentina, the USSR. Some people feel more comfortable with authoritarian/dictatorial regimes. It is nothing new. And fortunately, they are in a small minority.

    • froggy57 says:

      ((You are using pure speculations to ridicule a person.))

      Don’t be stupid. In totalitarian society, that is often the only way people have to communicate things like that. And what part of the gov do you work for. It is obvious you are a gov shill.

      ((I hope soon you begin farming in your backyard too…one day, when modern colonialism ends , you will have to dig very hard to survive and you will deserve it…))

      Here you show your true colors. What a thing to wish on someone. Be careful. What goes
      around, comes around.

  3. holly-jolly says:

    This way of writing is all blackmailing! Or, let’s call it bullying, or gossiping for good pay. Does anyone realize we are talking about the child and writing like this is some sort of ‘child abuse’? I understand when the writer is governed by the rule ‘the aim justifies the means’, then reporting like this is inevitable. yeah, the scenario is the same – first line in the battle in modern aggressions are journalists whose job is to demonize an opponent so there is no resistance once they begin throwing the missiles down when military intervention begins… seen so many times – in ex Yugoslavia, Irak, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, –

  4. saucymugwump says:

    Anyone who wants another look at Batka and Kolya should view the video at
    http://www.euronews.net/nocomment/2011/05/10/66th-anniversary-of-victory-day-in-belarus/

    I think the comparison with North Korea is somewhat apt, as Kolya is already a spoiled brat who will expect to rule Belarus after Batka dies, just like Kim Jong-un. Kolya will be even more ruthless than Batka because he will never have had to work a day in his life.

    Both countries are on the brink of economic collapse, but their militaries and police prevent revolution. North Korea does kill many more people than Belarus, to be sure. People aren’t starving in Belarus as they are in North Korea, at least, not yet. People in Belarus are allowed to visit certain countries, e.g. Lithuania, while North Koreans are sent to prison camps or killed if they try to escape. China uses North Korea as a buffer zone to keep the West, especially the USA, at arm’s reach, while Belarus will be forced to give up its family jewels (oil pipeline) for a little more oil and gas from St. Vladimir.

    The best thing for Belarus and Eastern Europe would be a bullet that exploded Batka’s head with Kolya close-by to witness what often happens to tyrants.

  5. bu,bu says:

    To shoot the father and make a kid watch the murder? You need to take a therapy if you have so much bad feelings for no reason toward the person you only know from the news. Thanks God you don’t have any power – you would have turned the world into the bad movie scenario…I still wonder, why do you hate somebody who never wanted anything that belongs to you : your country, your death, your children…how come you are so sure you know what is going on in Belarus, and who gave you the right to stick your nose into somebody else’s house? Do you know, by the way, who is sleeping with your wife?

  6. free bird says:

    Mr. Brooke,

    I appreciate you effort to clarify things to me assuming I am not well informed…I have been in journalism and left it b/c I like truth more than anything as that’s what we have been commanded by our Lord – to stick to the truth no matter what and prove it by our deeds. I can’t justify anybody’s involvement into somebody else affairs while at the same time, they have total mess at home. “Take a log out of your eye, and then move the speck out of your brother’s eye’ has not been written for some poetic, vague reason – its message is down-the-earth one as every single man is called upon following it and there is no excuse for not doing it. Unfortunately, everyone judges today, and some comments on this site prove how many judge out of the mere hatred. It’s easy to demonize others, individuals and nations when we talk in abstract categories…The real man uses his brain and goes against the mainstream.

  7. Gennady says:

    Dear Alexander Albov.
    With your weird ideas of transhumanism (as you preach)
    you certainly don’t know Russian history.
    Because if you do, you should have mentioned what version of “Russian history” you are referring to.
    Maybe just kids don’t know that since 1917 Russia has had many versions of its history as they were rewritten to embellish crimes of rulers.
    Until now Russian citizens don’t know the real history of WWII, the human cost of Stalin’s “genius”.
    Nobody will ever know very strange coincidence of basic ideas expressed by defeated putchists and sympathies publicly articulated by a certain prominent person.
    I bet you refer to the J.Stalin’s version, strongly supported by honorable PM Putin.
    You certainly don’t know life in Russian provinces nowadays as almost everybody exerts himself in order to grow a bucket of potato.
    With monthly salary just 200-400$ and 2 $ cost per every kilo of potato and kids to feed and bills to pay.

  8. Not Russian says:

    I found this blog very interesting. I know nothing of Russian history and I hear very little of news reports of current Russian events where I live. I admit I followed a link to this blog purely because of the link tag: Did Kolya Bite the Stewardess? It was an attention getter that peaked my interest, and I am glad I read all of your comments.

    My take on Mr. Brooke’s reference to a rumor that Kolya may have bitten a stewardess was in no way meant to be an attack upon Kolya, rather I believe it is merely a humorous rumor drawing attention to what he views as an ongoing concern for Russians – the lack of free press. He does not accuse Kolya, he simply repeats a rumor. Even if the rumor is true, while Kolya is a bit old for such toddler-like tactics, any parent can sympathize with the President of Russia if his kin did attempt to bite someone to get his way. While embarassing to the President, poor Kolya is likely misunderstood, and has difficulty expressing himself properly. It must be hard to raise a child when the child is not in a stable, “normal” atmosphere conducive to learning acceptable social behaviors. Particularly when freedom of expression is so stifled.

  9. John says:

    You fools! Why are you wasting your breath on such niceties….The topic is about the brutal repression in Belarus—-& totalitarian rule.
    We’ve had the ARAB SPRING—so–now let’s have a BELARUS SPRING & regime change? How can this vile dictator be ousted, exposed & removed? How about EVERY BELARUS PRODUCT being boycotted–& further embargos put on any travel or dealings with the guy’s disgusting croney’s. There has to be a collective effort & push to get this family’s trotters out of the trough and restore democracy.
    Every photo & every wrong-doing needs to be minuted—-until all the pro-regimers are shamed…They will be held to account for their crimes against innocent people. Have no doubt !—

  10. sinelga says:

    I’ve read a few Mr Brooks articles – excellent coverage. His reporting is like pointillism, he dips his “quill” in the impressions of the day/time and “point” them out, with no personal judgements, statistical facts or wikileaks -type of revelations.
    free bird, do not take anything personally, if you are a true “free bird” try to get a “bird point if view” on the reality, raising yourself above this nitty-gritty mass demands for truth they don’t even want to hear. Gain your own wisdom from it.
    I know how you feel though. I left Russia in 2001, at the time I felt like many other after years being a “Voice of Russia”, one of the voices, a journalist, who traveled in every part of Russia and promoted its culture and people… until AP time. To me, known me life in Russia is separated into BP (Before Perestroyka) and AP, eras.
    I have entered AP era like most of us, “intelligentsia” with the tremendous hope and overwhelming desire to contribute every knowledge and every talent to a reshaping great Russia into some perfect society… just to find soon unrequested, unneeded, powerless to do anything… it was sick feeling… it’s like your beloved country was being raped in front of you and your arms are striped behind and you feel … humiliated and defenseless… food coupons… long lines of distraught citizens both laborers and PhD …university professors selling “pirozhki” on streets to survive…
    To be fair, I can’t share most of Russian AP era which I haven’t experienced due to 2001 departure. I visited Russia later… but this would be a different story based on “cultural shock” experience…

    Yet, looking back from the perspective of someone who lived and studied in three different countries thus absorbing many cultural and political trends,
    I can say I missed my life in Russia in BP era
    BP wasn’t that bad as it’s being depicted, my generation was born in 60s, grew up in 70s, I guarantee we didn’t have any unnatural apprehension of authorities, hidden microphones as it is now (on both side of border, by the way),
    I will not take much of your time but will share with you a few points
    1. SAFETY. As a child I could travel distances wondering everywhere I wanted to. I was only 8 when I had to take piano lessons in the opposite part of town with two bus transfers. It would never occur to my parents that the child could be snatched on a way or from school, as it is my every-day fear here living in the “safest” country in the world a s great neighborhood. Now my daughter is 8, our school bus stops just around the corner but there a little piece of the corner I can’t see from my window, and as such someone has always to pick her up be there at the stop.
    I missed this time I was FREE TO WONDER, and decide where I can spend 10 kopeks in my pocket (think as 10 cents): in a movie theater watching one of those sentimental tear jerking Indian movies or for ice cream, which by the way has no additive and was made of real cream – yamm!
    2. INDEPENDENCE OF MIND. First can I remind you that although not without competitive admittance, study at the UNIVERSITY was FREE of charge. Many exams were oral so you really have to know your stuff ! Thirdly, many professors would encourage independent thinking by raising your mark. I laugh at dominating here multiple choice scoring test with a little room for an individual expression. Gullibility is the worse quality of an average American. But… – people ask me all the time – where you are not brainwashed by soviet propaganda, were you not prohibited to read certain books etc? No, not very much at my time, to find a good book could be a problem at the time, to find a forbidden author work was easier – SAMIZDAT !!! Forbidden fruit sweeter. Rebelliousness of youth + samizdat + university professors planting in your mind all that utoipian ideas of a perfect society … well, you figure out the rest
    3. ORGANIC eating. Well, somebody in the above post was absolutely right about low salaries. Well, my family have had enough to go in a grocery and get meet, fish, eggs, “razlivnoye moloko” not pasteurized milk, bread, fruit veggies, not a much of the variety but EVERYTHING ORGANIC from local producers. And yes, we had “dacha” too, and I must admit, I hated the whole potato thing which was damn too laborious for a preteen girl’s freshly made manicure lol, but the same dacha yet have brought the best memories of sports we played, forever friends we made, swimming, fishing, hiking…
    4. HEALTH. Perhaps our medicine equipment was not to par, I don’t know, I was never sick, never had or heard of swine or whatever flu. No one I knew had cancer, it was sooooo rare disease.
    5. MORALITY. It was impeccable, as it was instilled in us through many children books, and later in school. I can go on and on on thos subject alone but we all don’t have time, right? I will only try to may be put a smile on your face by revelation that about embarassing moment when registering film festival entries, I read aloud “this is a story about insest… and then Hey guys what insest means? Everybody looked at me, you are kidding? No. What is it?…. It was my second year overseas and I had a newborn son…
    I can go on and on and on. But I wont. I will stop right here.
    In Russia, I was not a member of any party, except “komsomol” which was by default, but to us it was not any different than a boyscout club here.
    I was thirsty fr life young journalist … and I saw many good and bad things but I didn’t know what insest meant, and I never hear any stories of any perversion,
    About drunks, yes, About killings, yes, About Thieves, yes
    I did not live isolated I was young ambitions reporter traveling throughout Russia,
    so don’t waste your time telling me I’m making this up.

    This almost idyllic existence came to end AP (After Perestroika).
    To conclude my little improvised essay I only say that my brother still lives in Moscow, he has everything he ever dreamed of from the best ever car to an upper class condo to an out of town CASTLE ( forget about dacha!) , kids private schools, wife travels the world, etc …. and still, he is repulsed with all the corruption, stand up comedy in the country by every political performer and has a strong overpowering nostalgic feeling about BP era in Russia where we had a sense of community and great goals in life (Remember what we had to obligatory quote from Ostrovski in high school : the life has to be lived so that when you are on a death bed, you have no regret about what has been done wrong … something like that)

    Would my brother trade his todays’ life to the BP era, don’t know. Shall he? Perhaps not.

    Regards, you all have a good day.

About

About

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.

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