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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

An Unsettling Trip to Minsk

I love trains. You leave Moscow in the evening, and the next morning you arrive in another city where you don't even have to worry about finding a hotel room. You've got an overnight ticket home in your pocket. In the compartments people drink tea, munch on cookies and talk about life. There's no need for double-dealing here. After all, in the morning your fellow passengers all head off in their different directions, never to meet again. In the course of one evening all will be revealed -- life, problems at work and family feuds.

That's why I love riding the rails. Where else in this day and age can you talk openly with total strangers?

On a recent journey I rolled out of Moscow on the overnight train to Minsk, where I was to give a lecture at the university the next day. Trips to Belarus always leave me with a very strange sensation, as if I were traveling not through space but through time. It's not that you're returning into the Soviet past, but heading into some parallel world where you glimpse a strange, alien version of your own existence. Or a nightmare in which everything seems totally normal, but in fact operates according to an entirely different set of rules. The Moscow-Minsk train doesn't take you to another country. It takes you to another world beyond the looking glass.

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This time around I shared a compartment with two Belarussian "Gastarbeiters" and a quiet woman with a small child. The workmen were bringing home the money they had earned on job sites in Russia. They were drinking beer and spoke exclusively about money. Soon they set off for the restaurant car in search of vodka.

The woman put her child to bed and then started -- in accordance with all the rules of the genre -- to complain about her life. She lives in the north, in the Komi republic.

Why do you Muscovites think they pay good money to workers in the north? Her husband is a policeman and earns chicken feed. Not like Moscow, where the cops get fat extorting "tributes" from unregistered "guests of the capital" and from grannies who peddle their wares on street corners without a license. Her mother-in-law is, of course, a "mean old shrew" who has never come to terms with her son's decision to marry. Though there is an aunt in Belarus whom she gets along with fairly well.

This quiet woman worked as an assistant to a municipal prosecutor. Prosecutor's offices in Russia have long been run almost exclusively by women. Not because emancipated women took one of the instruments of power into their own hands, but because men prefer to earn the big money as defense lawyers. Putting people behind bars is a woman's work. Getting criminals off the hook is a man's work. Call it division of labor.

The prosecutor's assistant carried on complaining about her life. Her husband had been sent to serve in Chechnya shortly after the birth of their child. This was illegal, but nothing could be done about it. They were lucky -- her husband came home alive. On another occasion, almost the entire detachment sent from their town had been executed by Chechens.

She concluded her monologue with an unexpected solution to the Chechen problem. "They should all be killed, children included," she said. "But what about the law?" I asked. "You're a prosecutor. You're saying that people should commit war crimes!" "There's no law in war," she replied. "Everything is allowed in war. Our boys don't understand that yet, and that's why they're losing."

There was no point in arguing. I wished the woman good night, turned over and tried to get to sleep.

I've always loved falling asleep to the clickety-clack of the wheels. But on this occasion I couldn't sleep at all. When I arrived in Minsk I was shattered. Some friends fed me blini with jam and complained about Lukashenko and, in the same breath, about the Americans, who are cutting back funding for the opposition. ("The State Department closed more independent newspapers in Minsk than Lukashenko has during his entire time as president.") In the evening, students thronged the university auditorium to hear a lecture on anti-globalism.

On the trip home I took a special train called the Belarus. The tickets are more expensive, and the passengers are different. The car was filled with Belarussian business managers -- the hired guns of Russian capital. They took their places in silence and sat reading the financial papers. During the entire trip not a single word was uttered.

I arrived in Moscow well rested and in excellent spirits.

Boris Kagarlitsky is a Moscow-based sociologist.