The Pizkuny Wall An Iron Curtain in the East

The collapse of the Soviet Union divided a community on the border between Lithuania and Belarus. Now the village straddles a more significant border, between the eastern EU and Europe's last dictatorship. But where are people happier?

For Stanislav Alenzynovich, it takes a special effort to tell his favorite aunt, Janina, the latest village gossip. He raises his voice when he calls out her name, until Janina, hunched over after years of working in the fields, shuffles over to the border fence. The "wall," as Alenzynovich calls the two-meter (6.5-foot) iron barrier, slices through an idyllic scene of flowering meadows and fragrant forests.

The wooden houses of Alenzynovich and his aunt are only 120 meters apart, but the iron fence separates the two. It divides the village where Stanislav and Janina grew up, a place where they once picked potatoes and carrots together and, when the Druzhba (Friendship) collective farm held its festivals, took to the dance floor together.

Stanislav is now 57 and Janina is 63. They were born in the Soviet Union. Today Stanislav lives in Lithuania and Janina in Belarus, although neither one has ever moved. Their village is a casualty of the great upheaval that occurred 20 years ago. Today the southern half is called Pizkuny and belongs to the realm of Alexander Lukashenko, who some see as Europe's last dictator. The northern half, Norviliškes, is part of the Western world.

Detours and German Shepherds

During the Cold War, no one was troubled by the fact that the small town straddled Belarusian and Lithuanian territory. But when the Soviet Union splintered into 15 independent nations, wooden posts were quickly rammed into the soil to mark the border. At first patrols were rare, and guards tended to look the other way when local residents smuggled cigarettes or wandered across while picking blueberries. But when Lithuania joined the European Union in 2004, the new fence was built. Then everything changed.

"Sometimes I'm awakened by the barking of the German Shepherd dogs, when our border guards are out on patrol early in the morning," says Alenzynovich.

He keeps his bed in the living room of his house, surrounded by sacks of wheat. There are icons on the wall, and the dusty TV set has been broken for five years. The new border has also deprived Alenzynovich of some of his income, now that a portion of his land is in Belarus. He cannot cultivate those fields, and even the deed of ownership isn't helpful, since it was written in 1915, when the region still belonged to the Russian Empire. Alenzynovich can only go to the other side when the border is opened, which happens three times a year: at Easter, Pentecost and Christmas.

Otherwise, traveling from Norviliškes to Pizkuny can be cumbersome and expensive. It requires applying for a visa at the district capital 30 kilometers (19 miles) away, which costs €25 ($36) for a single border crossing. An annual visa costs six times as much, a price almost no one in town can afford.

Visiting relatives is also challenging. When Alexander Trost, the boy who lives next door, has a toothache and wants to talk to his grandmother, because his father is drunk and can't help him, his only choice is to make an expensive call to a foreign country. His grandmother lives on the other side of the border.

And when someone dies in Pizkuny, the coffin must pass through an official checkpoint 200 kilometers away to reach the village cemetery in Norviliškes. Twenty years ago, none of the local residents could have predicted that the fate of their village would take such a drastic turn.

'We Don't Know What Will Happen'

Many of the lofty hopes that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union have not been fulfilled. Only three of the 15 successor states of the Soviet Union are stable democracies: Lithuania and its Baltic neighbors, Estonia and Latvia. Autocrats and their clans control the five Central Asian countries, from Turkmenistan to Kazakhstan. A similar situation applies in the Caucasus nations of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. And Ukraine can't seem to decide whether it wants to lean toward Russia or the West.

Two worlds stand in sharp contrast to one another on the border between Lithuania and Belarus: a particularly authoritarian successor state of the Soviet Union and one of the young Eastern European democracies. And, again, an Iron Curtain divides them.

So it seems even more surprising that many on both sides of the border yearn for the old Soviet Union. "At least we had work back then, but today we don't know what will happen tomorrow," says Alenzynovich. Across the border in Belarus, Gennady, the husband of his Aunt Janina, hopes that "Putin will reunite us one day," referring to the Russian prime minister. Wasn't it Putin who once characterized the Soviet collapse as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century"?

Alenzynovich, the Lithuanian, pays his neighbor Leokadija a visit in the late afternoon. Like everyone in the village, the 53-year-old lives on what her small farm produces: a dozen chickens, two pigs and a cow that she affectionately calls Malinka, or Little Raspberry. She has been interested in the rest of the world since her youth, and later even named her dogs after famous politicians. One of the dogs was named Gorbachev, "after the destroyer of the Soviet Union," as she says.

The old empire comes to life again in Leokadija's living room every evening at seven, when she watches the news. Instead of a Lithuanian station, she watches a Belarusian station and listens raptly to her idol, Lukashenko. She likes to watch him shaking hands with the factory workers and talking about solidarity with Cuba and Venezuela, and when the anchorman talks about "how Belarusian experiences are contributing to reconstruction in Iraq." The language reminds of her childhood in the Soviet Union.

In fact, a visit to Belarus offers an approximation of what the Soviet Union would have looked like if the communists had remained in power. Lukashenko, the former head of a collective farm, suppresses the opposition and orders critical newspapers shut down. But the streets in his country are in better shape than those in Poland or Russia. The collective farms have modern grain silos, while the farms in the Lithuanian border region are nothing but ruins, after having failed to cope with the competition from Western Europe, which can produce milk and wheat at a lower cost.

What is left of the Druzhba collective farm stands next to the Norviliškes town sign. The farm had 800 cows in its best days, but today there are only three. The decline helps explain why Leokadija, like most of the remaining 20 residents on the Lithuanian side, would rather live in Belarus, the supposed welfare state, today. In fact, she says, the return of the old Soviet Union would be even better.


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