GUY RAZ, host:

Almost two decades after the breakup of the Soviet Union, some say it's still possible to visit the Soviet Union. Just stop by the former Soviet republic of Belarus.

NPR's David Greene is there for the country's presidential elections tomorrow, and he sent us this postcard.

(Soundbite of water flowing)

DAVID GREENE: This gently-flowing river that snakes through snowy forest this time of year is called the Western Bug. Through history, it's always felt like an important borderline: to the east, the Orthodox religion; to the west, Catholicism. In World War II, this is the spot where Hitler's forces crossed the line from Poland into the Soviet sphere.

(Soundbite of music)

GREENE: The Soviet republic of Belarus held its ground against the Nazis in a bloody struggle. The fortress, where Soviet soldiers fought and died in 1941, is still here. War music blares across the icy landscape.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. TATYANA ZANKOVETZ: This is the main monument. You can see the head of a soldier.

GREENE: Tatyana Zankovetz, a 25-year-old tour guide, explains the face of a man carved into a massive gray rock. It's the Red Army's Mount Rushmore.

Ms. ZANKOVETZ: You can see the background. It is the banner, yes, with the hammer and the sickle.

GREENE: Soviet memorabilia fits perfectly in Belarus. Almost 70 years after those soldiers defended the Soviet Union, no one, it seems, has told Belarus the Soviet Union today is gone. The economy remains so centralized, Russia looks like a beacon of capitalism. Belarus kicked out the U.S. ambassador two years ago and relations with the West are sour.

Ms. ZANKOVETZ: The Polish city, the nearest city is called Tiraspol. So, I have a lot of relatives in Poland.

GREENE: Poland is a half-mile away. It may as well be the other side of the world. Visas to the EU are expensive, so Belarusians can't go that often to see friends and family.

(Soundbite of marching)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: During our tour, five young students march by, three boys, two girls. They were top in their class at their high school. The reward: to dress up in Red Army uniforms and pay respects at this battlefield.

Just up the road from the fortress is the city of Brest, which certainly has a Soviet legacy. Western journalists are followed around by men in black, and there are rules for everything. I ordered butter at a restaurant the other day, and my server said that was forbidden. She said the butter they have is only for cooking. There was no way for her to document my purchase since it's not officially on the menu.

Of course, there's also this Sunday's presidential election, which most Western observers expect will be more of a coronation for President Alexander Lukashenko. He's already been in power 16 years. He controls the media. The other nine candidates have been given no airtime in these final two weeks.

The only campaign ads you see are like the one I'm looking at at the train station. It simply says the word vuiburi, which is election in Russian. It's printed on this green and red poster, and it looks like one of the Christmas decorations.

Mr. OLEG SUPRUNCHYUK: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: I met up with Oleg Suprunchyuk. He's a newspaper reporter in Brest. He's traveled around Europe, and marveled at the freedom reporters enjoy. His weekly newspaper is one of few not under state control, and the paper's gotten its share of government threats.

His hopes were high after the Soviet collapse in 1991. President Lukashenko was just getting started.

Mr. SUPRUNCHYUK: (Through translator) Looking back in 1994, when Lukashenko was only a candidate, he spoke highly about mass media. And he promised when he's president, all press will be free. But 16 years of his power and nothing happened. We are not free.

GREENE: Tomorrow, Suprunchyuk says he'll cover the election like a real reporter, writing about candidates, telling every side of the story. He's clearly fighting in his country's latest war for freedom.

David Greene, NPR News, Minsk, Belarus.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.