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Tulips by Andrew Miksys
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Belarus is a country almost perfectly divided between east and west. To the east Russia seems to completely dominate everything. Eighty percent of the people in Belarus speak Russian instead of the native Belarusian. And when you decipher the name Belarus as White Rus or White Russia, there is often even more confusion leading many to mistakenly think Belarus is actually part of Russia.
To the west is the border with the European Union and Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. Ties with these neighbors are not insignificant. A form of Old Belarusian was the official state language used by the Grand Dukes of Lithuania in medieval times. But with war to the south in Ukraine, Belarus’ border with its European neighbors is looking more like a new Berlin Wall as Russia continues to move toward the kind of isolation not seen since the Cold War. In recent months, the mustachioed president of Belarus has overseen peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine in Minsk. It’s unclear exactly what the future holds, but perhaps his enthusiasm for authoritarian Soviet-style policies might be wavering a bit after witnessing the fates of Crimea and Ukraine. I began my trips to Belarus about five years ago to photograph Victory Day, a holiday celebrating the Soviet victory over fascism and Nazi Germany. During the celebrations tractors, military equipment, and factory workers parade through the streets. A vintage USSR flag flies on a radio tower over the city. And red tulips, a symbol of spring and rejuvenation in the USSR, line the streets and are given to war veterans as a way of thanking them for their service. It can be disorienting and feel like you are traveling back in time to the USSR or a perfectly preserved Stalinist museum. I soon discovered that many other Soviet-style holidays like October Revolution Day and May Day are also still observed in Belarus. I returned year after year to photograph them. In a way, though, the holidays were more of a backdrop to my project, a way of following the path of official culture while looking for something more personal. I would often wander off the trail in an effort to seek more intimacy and understanding of a world that should be part of the dead USSR past, but is stubbornly resilient in the present.