The diamond of Minsk

Tuesday 12 November 2013, by Franck Garot

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

I have travelled on business to Russia (Moscow), Moldavia (Chișinău), and Belarus (Minsk). On each trip, I take the opportunity to get out at least once to a jazz club, e.g. Fasching in Stockholm, the 55 Bar in New York, Saxophone in Bangkok, the 44 Jazz Café in Chișinău. And the Coyote bar in Minsk seemed the ideal venue for talking about rock as a subversive weapon.

When you head east from downtown Minsk, down Independence Avenue, you pass a strange diamond-shaped building — the national library of Belarus. When it is dark out, it becomes the backdrop for a kitsch coloured light show. Fit for Las Vegas. And just next door is the Coyote Bar, where the narrator catches a concert.

I wanted to set a chapter of the book in a city from the former USSR, to demonstrate what the Velvet Underground represented for Václav Havel and Czech protesters like The Plastic People of the Universe.

In 1968, becoming president of Czechoslovakia couldn’t be further from Václav Havel’s mind. He spends a few weeks in the United States to see the production of one of his plays, censured in his own country. He returns with White Light/White Heat, Velvet Underground’s second album. Furthermore, he welcomes bands influenced by Velvet and Zappa to his country house on a regular basis so they can rig secret concerts. Playing rock, especially of the American kind, is a political act for these bands, often sentenced and imprisoned. In the 70’s, the Czech state waged war against ‘dissident’ artists, notably rock groups, considered too subversive for its taste. Hence the 1976 excuse for a trial of the most influential band among them, The Plastic People of the Universe. Band members were sentenced to up to 18 months in prison. Vâclav Havel and two other intellectuals reacted by writing Charter 77. In 2010, The Plastic People still sounded very Velvet:

The Plastic People of the Universe, V konečcích prstů.

But Minsk was also a deliberate choice for another reason: ongoing censorship. Don’t believe for a second that it is over in the former USSR. Punk bands like Lyapis Trubetskoy are not allowed to perform in their own country, Belarus. The following clip was filmed in the Ukraine. As you can see, Iggy Pop and Andy Warhol figure among their idols.

Lyapis Trubetskoy, Lyapis Crew.

And finally, don’t forget that 7 of the 9 ‘other’ presidential candidates in Belarus were arrested in 2010. And hundreds of protesters have disappeared without a trace.

Having said that, I didn’t mean to reduce Belarus to its dictator, censorship. I met fantastic, complex people there. Of course, xenophobia and homophobia remain deap-seated here, as in most Eastern Bloc countries. Of course, people avoid expressing political opinions, talking about corruption, criticizing the State. But the people do live, laugh, and love. And they hold on tenaciously to the hope of one day having more freedom. They say that it is unstoppable. That it is making its way, slowly but surely. The diamond of Minsk is its people.

Translation: Rita Smith-Lemaire

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