25 March 2023, Saturday, 20:49
Sim Sim, Charter 97!

The Last Streetcar

The Last Streetcar
Iryna Khalip

The life we were denied.

Once upon a time, back in the old days, when trips to Europe for Belarusians were just business trips or for fun, or vacations, my husband and I walked around the old town, which he had visited many times. My husband showed me, "Look, this bakery has been here for two hundred years and will work forever. This store has been here for a hundred years and will stay here forever, too." I have recently remembered that walk and realized what else the regime has denied us.

Yes, the lack of elections and freedom of speech, the inviolability of power, brutal repression - these are the things that are striking, that almost every Belarusian has experienced. The world talks about it, and international organizations and human rights defenders "express their deep concern". But there is another unpleasant thing that is not so striking: this government has denied us the opportunity to set up traditions, to take roots, and become part of the local landscape. That landscape is made up of simple fragments like you and me and forms the very environment to live in.

Any average European knows that one hears no question of "what would you like to drink?" in the coffee shop on the corner, where one has been going for years, one will get exactly the coffee one likes and have a dessert that looks like his grandmother's. The salesman on the ground floor will wonder why one hasn't been in for a whole week, if one's been sick, if the kids are fine. In a coffee shop, where one drops in on Fridays, the owner will wave hello like an old friend, and a waiter will immediately bring one a glass of the wine one needs. And the owner of a flower store will remember that one probably buys a bouquet for a wedding anniversary because one's wife's birthday is in August. Given all the courier deliveries and the possibilities of Internet stores that have conquered the modern world, this typical European will drop in to the shop and the café. These are the markers of a normal, stable, successful life, like salary and insurance. These are the symbols of confidence in the future, like a roof over one's head and a bank account. The sources of warmth, like meetings with friends and Sunday dinners with the whole family. This is the life we have been denied.

One can get used to the fact that a nice pastry shop opened round the corner, drop in there often, rejoice that they finally started to recognize you and remember your tastes, but one morning it would be empty, with only a "for rent" sign in the window and a realtor's phone number. Then you meet the girl from the pastry shop on the street and find out that the taxes pressed them a lot and they had to close. You can enjoy Fridays in the same bar, taking off the tie at last, but then find it closed, as if it had never been, and see the owner on video special services with the story that "was subscribed to extremist channels". You can meet a brave flower-girl (the adjective is not just to be witty: bringing flowers to Belarus is a business for brave people, like any other), and then find out that she fled across the border in pajamas, while law enforcers smashed down her door. Then the theater you used to go to leaves; the band whose concerts you attended goes to jail; all the places around you, from the pub to the bookstore, close down.

Even McDonald's had its niche. After all, it is a global network, and in principle, one can imagine that one is in Lyon, New Orleans or Osaka. The bun and patty are still the same, so is the Coca-Cola. Teenagers used to go there after school to eat french fries and drink Coca-Cola: adult life, but alcohol-free, and parents are relaxed: the child is at McDonald's. Everything is fine, let one have fun with friends. We were ready to take is as the very cafe round the corner because it had been here for decades, even if it's not close to home. But now even it is gone.

The city is rapidly desolating. Not only the people leaving it, but also the anchors these people clung to. The city no longer binds, it erases all of the past life. Nadezhda Mandelstam recounted in her memoirs how, shortly before the arrest, Osip told her: "It seems that everything is as usual and life goes on, but that's only because the streetcars are running". It seems that only streetcars are left here, which still give the appearance of life in the city. Streetcars go to the train station. Buses depart to Vilnius, Warsaw, Riga - somewhere as if geographically near, but with blood, severing the remaining ties, uprooting them. The nation turned into a bundle of balloons taking to the sky.

The last streetcar drives through the night city. It's not driving to the railway station, but to the depot. Until morning. It will be back on the route again tomorrow. Mandelstam was right.

Iryna Khalip, especially for Charter97.org