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Lessons on dictatorship and democracy

06/02/04 12:00AM By Jay Parini
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(Host) Commentator Jay Parini reflects on a recent visit to Belarus and the aftershocks there of the prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq.


(Parini) Last week I spent traveling with my son Oliver, a senior at Middlebury Union High School, in the former Soviet Republic of Belarus, an independent state under the authoritarian control of President Alexander Lukashenko, who rules the country with the support of a vast network of secret police - a descendent of the old KGB. The president supports what he calls "market socialism," but he's really just an old-fashioned dictator, who manipulates the economy for the benefit of a few. The many, as usual, suffer in silence.

Belarus has few natural resources, and basic medical supplies, such as anesthesia and antibiotics, are in short supply. The people there are quite often ill, unfortunately: a result of the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl in the nearby Republic of Ukraine, where a nuclear meltdown at a power plant sprayed radioactive matter all over Belarus, making their food products more luminous than nutritious. This is not a country where visitors can relish the vegetables or, for that matter, even drink the milk.

Belarus has never had an easy time of it. Wedged uncomfortably between Poland and Russia, its geographical setting has worked to its disadvantage. Conquerors have often swept through, en route to Moscow and St. Petersburg. In 1942, the brutal military forces of Adolph Hitler marched through on their way to Leningrad, killing one in four Belarussians, and destroying 85 percent of their capital city, Minsk. As one elderly faculty member at the Pedagogical University in Minsk said to me, "We have had an intimate knowledge of war, and so we all hate war, any war, anywhere."

I spoke at four different universities, with various lectures prepared on aspects of American literature and culture, but everywhere I was interrupted with urgent questions about the American invasion of Iraq, and with further questions about our treatment of prisoners.

Doing my best to respond positively to these questions, I explained that most Americans were horrified by the photographs from Abu Ghraib, which were running on the front pages of every single newspaper in Belarus. I also noted that not all Americans believed the invasion of Iraq had been a good idea. Rather proudly, I explained that America is a democracy, and that Mr. Bush might well be voted out of office in November because of general dissatisfaction with his performance in office, and the sense that the abuse seen in the torture chambers in Iraq was increasingly being regarded as symptomatic of the Administration's tendency to vilify the "enemy."

After one of my talks, a lovely man who has taught American literature for decades in Minsk, said to me, "We are all suffering from oppression here, you see. We have all looked to America as a place - perhaps the only place - where torture and oppression could never be imagined. That hope, I must tell you, is now totally destroyed."

I suspect that whoever wins the presidency in November will have his work cut out for him.

This is Jay Parini, delighted to be back in Weybridge.

Jay Parini, a poet, novelist and biographer, teaches at Middlebury. He spoke from studios at Middlebury College.
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