Language lesson #1: First baby steps in Belarus

I’m at a border crossing from my home country Lithuania to our long lost brother country Belarus. Centuries ago Lithuania and Belarus was one country sharing part of history together. Decades ago both countries were part of Soviet Union allowing easy movement between countries. However recent few decades of history wasn’t at its greatest. After famous Perestroika when the Soviet Union broke, my country Lithuania decided to make more friends in Western Europe while Belarus leaned towards old good friend Russia. These two forces of Eastern and Western blocs had subdivided continent during Cold War. Both blocs pour gas on existing fire even up to this day. Pain-body is still high for both parties. So nowadays border between Western and Eastern bloc runs also thought Lithuanian-Belarussian border which limit travelling opportunities. As a Lithuanian citizen to visit neighbouring long lost brother country of Belarus I had to apply for a visa. For me crossing into Belarus meant stepping from European Union safety into unknowns of eastern bloc countries loyal to Kremlin.

Only a handful of cars and several people at the border crossing at this time.

Observing people at border crossing I see that most of from neighbouring villages who pay for their daily bread by sneaking into Belarus to fill their fuel tanks for much cheaper diesel and sell it back home for a profit. Some people take back just legal allowed amount while others attach extra tanks which eventually leads to suspension from entering the country or paying bribes.

Looking more around the border crossing, many printouts stuck to street lights, traffic signs, official announcement board and border officials booth indicate that bribery is illegal, it is fined, that everything is monitored by CCTV. Suddenly officials started to look tense, serious and stressed.

I never liked border crossings. As a kid, I remember my father’s stories about great negotiation skills of officials in the Soviet Union who tries to get a bigger lump sum of cash out of you. Officials might put you on hold at the border for next 5 hours asking you to wait until something happens but if you give them a bribe you can leave immediately. In my own travels, I had to pay an unofficial fee at the border crossing just to enter or leave a country in few African countries. Basically, the story is always the same, something is wrong with your documents and you cannot proceed so you’ve to pay a fee.

It was my turn in the queue. I started walking towards the Belarussian official and gave him my passport pointing to the page where the visa is. He looked at it, and said “strakhovka gde?”. My heart dropped down to my heels and heart rate increased. I had no idea what “strakhovka” means. This time official demanded in much stronger voice once again for the same thing “strakhovka”. I raised up my index finger, looked at him whatever this international sign was understood, he noded. I walked away and approached first compatriot asking whatever “strakhovka” meant so he explained that it’s insurance during your time in the country. Aaahh, I signed and searched my backpack for the document. Went back to the official and said “moya strakhovka zdes”.

He looked at it with no expression and asked again “Kuda poydesh?”. I leaned a bit more toward the official, turned my ear to him, so he repeated “kuda poydesh?”. I went back to the same compatriote and asked what “poydesh” mean. He said what he is asking where are you going. Back at officials both, I said “poydesh Minsk”. He rolled his eyes up, slight confusion could be seen in his face. Direct translation of my sentence would be “You go Minsk” but I had no clue of my mistake. The official asked me again “Ty poydesh v Minsk”. I nodded. So he added someting like this. “Ya “, pointing at himself, – “poydUUUU, nu ty “, – pointing at me, “poydeSSSHHH”. I repeated “Ya poydu v Minsk”, he nodded, smiled, stamped my passport, gave it back. I continued walking down the road where I saw signs “Welcome to Belarus”.

This was my lesson. Russians like many other languages conjugate their verbs. In English you have “I go, you go, he/she/it goes, we go, you go, they go” which is simple to remember, but russians conjugate verbs to use different ending depending on the subject. For example for same go “I poydu, you poydesh, he/she poydiot, we poydiom, you plurar poydiote, they poydut”. So whenever the official used “poydesh” for “you” form, I had to transfer it to “I” form saying “poydu”. That’s why he was confused, he asked me “Where you go?”, and I answered, “You go Minsk”. But anyways, he understood me! He understood two things, that I’ve no clue about Russian grammar and that I go to Minsk!