Dear fellow travellers
"It is okay to shoot the president when he is on the stage," said the man sitting behind us at the concert. It was an unusual conversational gambit. Do we really look like potential assassins? Our informant explained that President Lukashenko is a bit touchy about being photographed, but would not mind at all if we clicked away while he was up front on the stage. Dozens of photographers shot the President of Belarus as he duly opened the Vitebsk festival last Friday evening.
Every year since 1992, the city of Vitebsk has hosted an extravagant festival of music, art and culture known as the Slavianski Bazaar. If Marc Chagall could be conjured up from the grave, he would not recognise much of suburban Vitebsk with its ranks of apartment blocks. Chagall lived in the town's Jewish quarter for over twenty years. The old centre of Vitebsk has been handsomely restored, and the city on the banks of the Western Dvina always charms the crowds who attend Vitebsk's week-long festival in July each year.
Presidential words, fraternal greetings from Slavic brothers in Kiev and Moscow, drum rolls and genuine applause for the president presaged a spectacular evening of heavy base, diamanté thongs, clever acrobatics and folksy dance ensembles. Pop and rock aplenty with some jazz and classics thrown in. President Lukashenko evidently enjoyed the spectacle from the presidential box, and we enjoyed watching Lukashenko. Plenty of security chaps, whispering regularly into their lapels, kept a watchful eye on the crowd.
Down on stage, singers and dancers from all over the Slavic world performed to polite applause. Guests from other countries too: among them Germany, Belgium, Latvia and Kazakhstan. It took a kid from Norway to really get things going. Alexander Rybak, winner for Norway of this year's Eurovision Song Contest, happens to be Belarusian by birth, so Vitebsk was a kind of homecoming for the local boy made good. No-one worried that Rybak hailed from Minsk, not Vitebsk, and left Belarus when he was just nine years old.
All this week Vitebsk is consumed by culture high and low. Offering everything from poetry to pop, artists from more than two dozen nations present themselves to attentive crowds. Of course, the locals love anyone with a Belarusian connection. "Literature is the conscience of the nation," proclaimed Yevgeny Yevtushenko at a reading on Saturday evening, a thought that was politely noted by the poet's devoted admirers. What really won their hearts though was the revelation that the Siberian-born poet (remember Zima Station?) has a local connection. His grandfather was born in Belarus.
The city so intimately associated with Marc Chagall is an instantly appealing place at festival time. The sun shone, and with barbecues and beer tents aplenty, plus a diligent army of orange-clad litter collectors, Vitebsk was all festive fun. We learnt a little about fandom too, as a group of star struck girls pressed around the doors of a smart hotel, anxious to catch a glimpse of their favourite pop-idols. Men muttering into their lapels kept the minimally skirted crowd at bay.
Meanwhile, there was a symphony of police sirens on the main road, loudspeakers proclaimed that the road must be cleared, and then a cavalcade of limousines slid by, heading out of town. Were we at home, we might have been tempted to take a quick pic or two. But then we remembered Belarusian etiquette. The president may only be shot when he is on stage.
Nicky Gardner & Susanne Kries
(hidden europe magazine, editors)