The Town That Time Forgot

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Mark Rykoff

Vacation homes in Ranina

Igor Petrovich has a good idea. He would like to import a small population of carp to eat the grass that has overgrown the pond. The pond is the pride and joy of Ranina, a resort community in the vast forested flatlands of eastern Belarus, and the grass has grown so thick that swimming and fishing have become difficult. The grass is a source of constant aggravation and conversation among residents who own properties along the water's edge. The homeowners agree that carp would be a simple, low-cost, environmentally friendly solution to the problem.

So, why not go ahead and buy some carp for the pond? Well, that would require a consensus on how much carp is needed, on how to pay for them, and on who should be entrusted to bring them to the village. And such consensus is hard to achieve in Ranina. In part, this is because communication is difficult — there is no Internet, and land lines are non-existent. But the problem goes much deeper.

Physically and psychologically, the town is stuck in a strange twilight between the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union and the modern European Union. In Minsk, the capital 250 miles away, the government retains the sheen of its totalitarian past. In 2006, Aleksandr Lukashenko, a Soviet-era official who claims to have been the only member of the Belarus legislature to vote against the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, was elected to his third term as president. With his command of 84% of the vote and a tight leash on opposition parties, he has good reason to expect that he will remain president for life.

Ranina itself is a relic of the Soviet system that permitted private individuals to buy and sell small parcels of arable land at market prices. It consists of approximately 500 tiny homes, or dachas, densely packed onto a three-mile square grid, although there are no stores, churches, schools or communal structures of any kind. For decades, Russians have retreated to places like this on weekends and vacations to escape the oppression of tiny city apartments.

Although taxes are levied on the properties, none of the revenue is spent locally; all of the money goes to Minsk. Nor would there be any local structure such as a town council or community board to spend tax revenues. In the old days, a rural soviet (committee) would have met regularly. But attendance was enforced, and everyone understood that the proceedings were largely meangingless. Nowadays, no one bothers.

This leaves the community with no local authority other than its chairman, an extremely rotund fifty-something man who resides in a modest cinder block home along the village's primary road. He was appointed over a decade ago, at a meeting of residents advertised with a note pinned to the bus stop, and conducted on the street: It's purpose was to get rid of the previous chairman, denounced as a drunk, although when it came time to pick a replacement, there were no candidates. Eventually, the present chairman — whom most locals know only by his title, not his name — was nominated by a friend of his. When he failed to decline the nomination, the relieved locals hastily concluded their exercise in democracy.

The chairman receives a small salary from Minsk, but he provides very little in the way of governance, preferring instead to tend to his own affairs such as constructing a new barn on his property, while leaving residents to resolve disputes amongst themselves.

The civic-mindedness required to, say, pool money to buy some carp to take care of the pond's grass, has not exactly taken root in this environment. The owners spend every spare minute of the summer working on their dachas, but have no enthusiasm for doing anything for the greater good. "It's not that people can't afford it," says a homeowner who gives her name only as Tanya, "it is that people do not believe that if they hand over some money, no matter how small, and no matter how positive the cause, that something will actually come of it." After seven decades of Soviet life and 13 years of Lukashenko, mistrust runs deep.

There are small exceptions, of course. Recently the provincial transportation authority advised the community that the lone asphalt road into town was dangerously rutted. If it was not fixed soon, the bus which brought many dachniki to their summer retreats would not be able to complete its route.

The chairman called a rare meeting, inviting all interested parties — via the trusted local method, a placard posted on the bus stop — to gather on a Saturday morning at the home of the chairman. Five people showed up. But their proposed solution to the potholed road — taking up a collection to fund repairs — will probably meet the same fate as Igor Petrovich's plans for the pond.

Technically, the chairman has the power to fine community members, and could, in theory, force them to pay (by, for example, cutting off their electricity) but he chooses not to do so. They are his neighbors, after all, and he does not relish provoking their anger. By all accounts he prefers a go-along, get-along style of management. One of the attendees at the road improvement meeting said she wished that sometimes the Chairman would show a stonger hand, but she knows that that, too, is unlikely. Like Lukashenko, he is a holdover from the Soviet era, and no plans are in place to explore his replacement. He will, in all likelihood, remain chairman for life. And the grass in the pond will remain free of the attention of hungry carp.