"Belarusian Culture, History & Children" by Nancy Neal-Oldenettel, Director of the Seattle Children of Chernobyl Project
I have visited the Soviet Union and former Soviet Union five times between 1990-1994 and, in so doing I have realized that there are some profound differences between the cultural values way of life and perception of this immense part of the world and those who live in North America. My grandparents were immigrants from the Ukraine/Slovak region during the 1920's. I grew up hearing the language and experiencing the culture and religion of this region through them and my mother. This is why I would like to convey to those who are interested in or who are hosting a child from Belarus for the Chernobyl children's health recuperation, some of my understanding from the inside.
Though the children who are visiting look much like our North American children it is important to realize that they come from a very, very different world than ours. The land and people of Belarus (AKA - White Russia) as well as the other Slavic Nationalities have a very long history which is deeply connected to their love of the earth on which they walk. This earth in many ways has a soul which they are nurtured by and which they call, with all sincerity, the Motherland. The earth holds the remains of their parents, grandparents, great grandparents and on and on for generation after generation.
The Belarus people were among the first to accept Christianity through the missionary work of the monks Cyril and his brother almost one thousand years ago. They were ahead of others in the development of the printing press and the Bible was printed by the philosopher and astronomer, Francisk Skarina at the same time that Martin Luther was active In Germany. The patron saint of Belarus, Euphrasinya of Polotsk, belonged to the ruling class during the Polish domination of Belarus. At sixteen years old she refused to marry and joined the convent with the vision that she would serve the real needs of the poor and needy of Belarus. She was a philosopher, geographer, an expert on world religions as well as a princess.
The people of Belarus have been divided and fought over throughout their history, being at times a part of Poland, at other times a part of the Baltic empires and a large part of the time a part of the Russian Empire. It is an unanswered question why this part of the world, which lies exactly in the center of Europe and Asia has endured so much warfare and hardship. The people of Belarus are by nature very tolerant and non-aggressive. They have been profoundly religious. Yet history has time and again brought unbearable suffering to her soil. The climate is a northerly one and is not easy to grow enough food in the short summers. It can never be said that life in Belarus has been an easy one even before the Communist revolution.
There have been three great tragedies in this republic since the turn of the century. During World War II (called the Great Patriotic War) Hitler turned all of his-vengeance on the Belarusian nation. There is a monument now standing outside Minsk, which stands where the former village of Khatin once stood. All of the people in this village were gathered in a barn, which was set on fire, and the homes were burned to the ground. There was one survivor to tell the tale and a statue stands in the place where he found his son who had been shot by the German army. At this site there are lights and earth from hundreds of villages, which were destroyed in this way during a two-week blood bath by the Nazis. There are a least 25 sites created to remember the concentration camps which contained between 30,000 and 200,000 people each. In the final toll, Belarus lost one third of its population to Hitler during a reign of terror to match no other in the history of Europe. It has been a popular belief of political leaders that the country that owns the "heartland" or corridor between Europe and Asia can own the world. This is Belarus.
During the worst years of the Stalin regime, Belarus was again to experience the barbarism of uncontrolled power and fear. In an insidious war against those who might oppose him, Stalin had the most independent or religious sent to their execution and placed in mass graves of sometimes 30,000 which were hidden in the dense forests.
On April 26, 1986 an even greater tragedy silently befell this nation which lay under the constraining power of the old Soviet regime. The Chernobyl nuclear reactor, which was, positioned just a few miles south of Belarus on Ukrainian soil exploded. The prevailing winds carried the intense radiation of over 40 Hiroshima bombs north and the officials made a quick decision to create rain over Belarus before the cloud turned toward Moscow. This time the tragedy would not be over in a day or a year but would last for unknown generations in the future.
In many ways the tragedy is compounded because the effects of it are not easy to see. Unlike the photo of the dying child in Africa, the children who suffer from Chernobyl radiation develop illnesses and diseases slowly and many times without diagnosis. Most of the highly contaminated areas are in remote regions where the villages are similar, in effect, to those at the turn of the century. It is not uncommon to find a family living on the food produced on a plot of land behind the cottage, for a family of seven or more to be living in a two or three room house without a toilet and to use a horse drawn cart for transportation and assistance.
There is a high level of ignorance and superstition still prevalent in these areas and though they might be able to watch a television, there is no real understanding of the rest of the world. In many ways, it is as though time has stood still. It is not unusual to find that one or both of the parents are alcoholic. Vodka was used by the former regime to pay the collective farm and factory workers and to saddle them with an addiction which would keep them pacified.
The children who come from these areas and other parts of Belarus may feel easily overwhelmed by the extreme differences they are at first exposed to. The technology and material life in North America is almost like being in a Star Trek movie. I have met many children who may have only 2 or 3 small toys. There is very little to do which is why many children study music or read a lot. It is very comparable to the stories I have heard from my parents about the depression era in the United States. In many places there may not be hot running water.
It is not a part of the culture to use ice cubes in soda, in fact, it is a very expensive luxury for them to see or taste Coke. Many families are surviving on the equivalent of $15.00 US or less. I spoke to a nun who assists the children who are dying of cancers related to Chernobyl and she told me one of her greatest problems is to help the families collect enough money to give the child a decent funeral.
The food in general is very bland by any culture's point of view. There is little seasoning and sour cream is the universal dressing of choice. Sour cream is a basic food, which is used to calculate inflation by the local people. The children may not like any kinds of special sauces or spices or even peanut butter right away as these things are very foreign. They seem to adjust to granola very quickly though. An average family meal has a heavy brown bread, which is cut in thick slices, cucumbers, tomatoes, sour cream, potatoes (boiled or fried), sausage, possibly solid fat, a soup such as borsht with sour cream, grated beets, and tea. They usually love fish, which is of very poor quality in Belarus and very expensive. Tea is a universal drink and an inherent part of the diet. Chocolate, fruit and ice cream are great luxuries for most of the population especially now in a time of extreme shortages and inflation which makes it impossible to purchase new shoes or a new coat or fancy foods.
Children are taught from the time that they are very young to have control and restraint. Their lives are far more controlled by the constant watch of a grandmother, mother or teacher. If they are asked if they would like something, it may be hard for them to decide for themselves if they do and they are trained to say no to things even if they might want it. It is important, therefore, to ask them over and over and insist that they take things that they might obviously like. Make it clear that they can have fruit set in a bowl at any time. Our children are used to just taking what they like but these children will not be aggressive as a general rule.
The medical care and medicines available to the general public of Belarus bear almost no comparison to the West. The hospitals are usually completely unequipped and the care is so poor that it is a necessity for a family member to stay with the sick person, bringing them food and help. It is absolutely scary by our standards to see how the sick are cared for. The hospitals in the village areas receive almost no attention and the humanitarian aid they receive is sparse since most of it stays in Minsk. If medical supplies are donated by doctors or companies it is important that the expiration dates are not expired, or if they are, that a pharmacist include a note saying how long it is safe to use the samples. I have seen cases of medical supplies unused because they were a few months over the expiration date. The average person doesn't have Aspirin, Tylenol, antacids, antibiotics, antibiotic cream, decongestants, or vitamins. Vitamins are an absolute necessity. Good gifts to send home with the children should include vitamins and Tylenol or Aspirin for the elderly family members.
It is wise not to overwhelm your child with gifts. The desire is to give everything but when the children are reunited with the others it is inevitable that they will compare and those children who received few gifts feel very badly. If you send money home with them sew it inside of a seam or the bottom of a pocket. In this culture where material things are so scarce, the people compare smallest differences.Given sensitivity to the first week or so of adjustment it should not be difficult to overcome the vast differences between our standard of living and theirs. It is a good idea to try to prepare cards, which have some basic Russian and English words, which will be used most often to have a beginning of dialogue.