Heta Belarus, Dzietka: "In Belarus, Chances are Everywhere"

In November, the ODB Brussels co-organised the presentation of the book ‘Heta Belarus, Dzietka!’ (This is Belarus, Babe!), a colourfully illustrated humorous survival guide on Belarus, written in English and Belarusian. In just two months after the book came out of the publishing house, the first three thousand copies were sold out and the publisher decided to print two thousand more. The ODB Brussels approached the authors for an interview. Masha Charakova and Marta Charnova shared their own stories and the story of their first joint project with our readers. Questions are asked by Ales Bondar. Enjoy and get inspired.

Marta Charnova (to the left) and Maria Charakova (to the right). Photo from the authors' archives


ODB: Can you tell a bit about yourself? Where were you born?

Masha: I was born in Minsk, 1986. I have a twin sister. When we turned 8, our family moved to the Netherlands where my mom got a job. This is where we live now. I came back to Belarus three years ago.

Marta: I always say I was born in Minsk. Although, in fact, I was born in 1986 in Langepas which is a town in western Siberia. My parents worked there. They say they “found me in the snow”. We moved back to Minsk when I was only 3 months old. My parents and grandparents were born in Minsk, so I consider myself born in Minsk too. We lived here till I turned 11. Then we moved to the United States, my parents and I. We left in 1997, I finished high school in the U.S., and then, in 2004, I returned to Belarus.

ODB: What made you do it?

Marta: I really-really missed Belarus. I missed my friends, I missed my relatives. And I didn’t really fit in America. I didn’t understand how the United States worked and what you had to do to be liked. Besides, the university was too expensive. The places where I wanted to go to would cost me about a 130,000 for a year of education. I wanted to go to Europe because it was much closer to me mentally than America. So I decided it would be better to go to the European Humanities University which was then based in Minsk. So, I got into EHU in 2004, and they closed it the same year. They transferred us to the Belarusian State University, basically. This is where I studied design for five years.

Marta Charnova (to the left) and Masha Charakova at the presentation of their book in Minsk Photo by: odb-office.eu


 ODB: Why did you find America difficult to fit in?

Marta:  First of all, as any little kid I wanted to be liked and I wanted to fit in. In the States, I tried all the same things which I did here, in Belarus, to be liked. And the things that worked here, didn’t work there. The culture is really different.

ODB: Did you live in a big city?

Marta: Yes, in Seattle. When I just got in to the U.S., I had to go to a special class, for people whose first language is English. There were people from all over the place – China, Japan, Ukraine. Everyone spoke a different language, they formed small groups and they stuck together. And I didn’t have a group to belong to. For some reason, I realized that in the States it’s embarrassing to be of what they see as Russian descent. Belarusian, Ukrainian – anything post-Soviet, you want to cover it up.

ODB: Do you mean that post-Soviet people were embarrassed of themselves, or was it the American society which looks down on them?

Marta: Both. But more of the first thing. You can’t really form groups with anyone. And if you do, you are going to be speaking English, you are not going to be talking Russian, because it’s embarrassing. And then, I was trying to connect to someone on a more personal level. Even with Americans. And it’s like – we connected, and all the signs were there, and then something happened. Long-term, there was no bond which I thought was there. It was like an illusion of friendship. Compared to how friends are, in Belarus – these are friends for life…

Masha: Exactly! But for me it was the opposite. The integration in the Netherlands was easy because being from Belarus. We were open to everyone and everything. We had groups of Moroccans and Turkish – these are the biggest migrant groups – and they all hang together. But we didn’t have a group, there were only two of us, my sister and I. We only had Dutch friends. But we looked like Dutch. That was really our advantage. We integrated superfast. And it went very well. Probably because we were 8 years old and you were 11. It goes easier if you are younger. I never even thought about going back to Belarus – never-ever! My mom always said to us, “If you behave badly you will be sent back to Belarus!” And we were always so afraid – “No mom, you can’t do that!”

Masha Charakova with her twin sister in the Netherlands

ODB: When did you to come to Belarus?

Masha: It was three years ago. I was older, more mature. I started to think about my motherland. And I also pursued Russian studies for my master’s degree. So I learned a lot about the Soviet Union, Russia, Belarus. I wrote a thesis on Belarus as well. It was a curiosity, a big one. So I told myself – I need to go there. It was this big need. I needed to leave Holland and go to Belarus. To work.

ODB: But why did you come here?

Masha: I am a person who makes very fast decisions. I don’t think too much about things. I remember that I had this sudden urge of discovering Belarus and after 2 weeks I found myself sitting on the plane, on my way to Belarus, and it felt so good! It was like the best thing I ever did in my life. And then I arrived, and I remember very well that feeling of freedom - finally, I did what I had to do.

ODB: Freedom?

Masha: Yes, freedom inside me. Not talking about the country’s freedom.

Marta: I visited Belarus a bunch of times before coming back for good. I came to my grandmas, for the summer. I chilled out, it was a holiday. But as I got back here in 2004, my first memory was getting into EHU and passing all these exams. I was right out of the high school, and I went to all these tutors to get my Russian to the level which I needed to pass the entry exams. It was so much work and stress. And when I passed, I was so happy. And I walk out and I see these groups of people looking worried - this expression on their face. I ask them “what’s going on?” I came up to someone, and they say “the university is closing”. That was my first impression.

ОDB: How did it feel when you came to Belarus?

I was delusional. I was a child. And I was looking for specific things. I was looking for connections with people. I wasn’t looking for success, or for building my career, or for the university - I didn’t care. I need the people. The air is so different. My lungs open up and I can breathe. Even at the airport, even in a bus, it’s still better. It’s sweet. And in America I always felt as if I didn’t have enough air. It was awful.

Masha: I also came to Belarus once or twice, but always with my mom. And when I was in the airplane, alone, I thought - wow, I’m doing it by myself. The first month it was so weird to be without my mom. Now I could do all the things I wanted, be independent in Belarus.

ODB: When did you have your first “Heta Belarus, Dzetka!” moment?

Masha: You know, you have all these GAI traffic police controls everywhere, with signs. And I thought it was “gay control”. I got so angry every time I passed one! How could they do this? I used to think. They are checking on gays, and taking those photos! I didn’t know what GAI was. I was really angry. I worked at UNESCO clubs. I came to a colleague and asked “how can you do this? Is this normal?” And the colleague said “Masha, this is just police control.” Aahhh….

ODB: How did the country change since you came here?

Masha: I noticed - maybe it was because of the ice hockey championship - partying on the streets and stuff. I never thought it would be possible in Belarus. The championship had changed people. I was always telling my friends - this is what you always do in Holland, there are parties in the streets, there are festivals. And they were like “really?” After the ice hockey championship, they found it more normal.

Marta: I noticed all these things coming out - Citydog, Ў-Gallery, many other places which didn’t exist before. When I came here, I was looking for culture, I was looking for what’s happening, who’s doing what. And I was always amazed when people would organize parties, and open clubs, and they weren’t that much older than I was.

ODB: Why do you think this change came about?

Marta: We started to go to Europe a lot. It was very easy to go to Lithuania. We paid 5 euros and we just went. And I know that people around me also went and saw things, brought them back to Belarus and changed the country. I want to say that Belarus changed a lot, Minsk changed a lot, and I feel I changed with them.

ODB: What do you like in Belarus the most, and what do you hate?

Masha: I always compare Holland with Belarus. What I really like is people in Belarus. The city is ok, but these are the people who make Belarus this extraordinary country. It’s tougher to get friends here from the start, but once you have them, they are for ever. And humour. It’s not bad humor, not mean humor - because in Holland it’s just a lot of sarcasm. People here make fun of themselves more than saying mean things about others.
Also, I’m an entrepreneurial mind. I always think in terms of problems and solutions, and how can I make business out of them. There is so much potential here, there is so much you can set up and start. When I arrived here, I saw chances everywhere. So many things were missing. My head almost exploded, almost. This is what I love about Belarus.

Marta:  Yes, there’s so much stuff to do but it’s so hard because of all the bureaucracy which comes up. I consider myself to be more of a creative mind. It kills my creativity having to deal with all the rules. It’s not as hard as people say, but still - getting the information, knowing the laws, knowing who to ask, and knowing who to go to - it’s so hard. In America, you just pay the taxes at the end of March and you got it. Here, if you don’t do something correctly, you are done.
Also, what I like about Belarus is this very special feeling of safety in the streets. I know somehow for a fact that nothing is going to happen to me, that I will come home safe.

Masha: Yes, I share that.

Marta: And also how if you plan your budget correctly, how little you can spend each month. Especially if you live with your gradma who provides potatoes, homemade jam, and the rest -- you just have to pay the apartment costs.

Masha: What I really didn’t like, in the beginning especially, is the service. In the Netherlands everyone is so friendly and smiling. And then you come to the metro in Minsk and ask for ten of those tokens. And the lady in the window doesn’t even say hello or goodbye. She just throws them. And I’m like - ok, did I do something wrong?
Also, a lot of people lack this progressiveness. Not all, but I had so many discussions - especially in the first year, after which I gave up - about gays, about all these topics which for me are so standard. I couldn’t bear how narrow-minded some people were there. For me it was really hard, and after the first year I gave up, I don’t go into discussions anymore.

ODB: What is your favorite place in Minsk, in Belarus?

Masha: For me this is Kamarouka market. I love that place. I have my ritual - I go up there and I just stare at people. First of all, they are nice because they really want to sell their stuff. Watching old grannies coming and buying, it’s for me as if I’m going back in time. As if someone put me into a time machine and sent to the past. It’s great.

Masha (to the left) and Marta (to the right) near one of Marta's favourite sights in Minsk, the Belarusian National Library. Photo from the authors' archives


Marta: I have a lot of favorite places. I really like the center of Minsk. I like Marx Streeet, that’s actually where I lived when I was young. But I also like the new stuff. Surprisingly, I like the new national library, despite the way it looks. I like all the open space around it. I like the park, I am fond of jogging there. There are so many places I like in Minsk, I could go forever.

ODB: If you were a president of Belarus, what would you do in the first place?

Masha: The first thing, I would really try to make somehow easier for people to travel. I would just love to give it as a present to a lot of people. A nice little visit to Europe or wherever, just to see how things are abroad. But also just to relax. Also encouraging entrepreneurship would be high on my priority list.

Marta: I would probably do an educational reform. I will make it so that kids are taught more about what is going on in other countries. About how one could change things. I would also take the whole of agricultural sector and find a way how to make a lot of money from it. I would combine technology and agriculture. I would take all of our IT minds, and I would take money from them - not from outsourcing. I would make money from all these sweet brains.

ODB: And how did you meet?

Masha: Marta created a special city map of Minsk. We have a mutual friend who told her I really liked this map because it was in English and I thought it was really awesome. So he connected us.

ODB: Masha, and can you say a bit more about what you did when you came to Belarus?

Masha: I volunteered. I worked at UNESCO clubs but I thought I could be of more use by creating my own project than simply doing standard volunteer work. So I got a grant to start a social entrepreneurship training programme. So, basically, in the past 2 years I’ve spent here, we have trained 60 social entrepreneurs. I also organized exchanges between Netherlands and Belarus.

Masha Charakova (the first one on the left) with Belarusian collegue during her work as UNESCO clubs volunteerMasha Charakova and Dzianis Kandratovich, co-founders of SocStarter, a social entrepreneurship training programme

ODB: Could you explain what social entrepreneurship is?

Masha: You try to make a world a better place by starting a business. The business model is that you are an entrepreneur and need to make money, but the mission is a social or an environmental problem. Just as with those TOMS shoes “one for one” concept. Basically, you can buy their shoes and another pair goes to children in Africa or in Asia or in South America who really need a pair of shoes. When I came to Belarus I saw many people having solutions for social problems. For example, there are many disabled people here but there is no infrastructure for them. And these people had really good solutions, but they didn’t know how to actually do it. So I decided there was a need for a training program that will train them in all kinds of aspects from how to write a concept to where you need to go to start a business - legal, financial aspects, everything.

ODB: You’ve trained 60 people - and what are the results?

Masha: Four of them actually started their own companies and are making money. Four social businesses came out. For example, the program called 'Mivia' (http://mivia.by/). They organize tours for blind people. And they offer services to offices to make their facilities disability-proof.
And now I got a small grant to research on a program called Socstarter. I will interview them, and in a couple of months I will come back to see how they developed.

ODB: How do you define yourself - a Belarusian?

I definitely do.

Masha: I don’t.

ODB: Can you explain?

Masha: It’s weird. I do sometimes, but usually I feel more Dutch. But in Holland I feel myself sometimes also Belarusian. It’s a mix. But generally I feel more Dutch.

ODB: What future do you see for Belarus?

Masha: I think for now it will develop the way it is developing. Slowly, but it is moving forward.

Marta: I think it will be going the way it has been going for the past ten years.

ODB: So, you don’t see any revolution potential?

Marta: No. Maybe just a quiet revolution. The young people will be doing what they are doing and looking more and more toward Europe. They will be slowly and quietly bringing all these European policies and values over here. And at some point when all the old-schoolers stop functioning, this new generation will say “Now, we are going to do our European thing”. By European I mean something more entrepreneurial, exciting.

ODB: Would you like at some point to live in Belarus?

Masha: No, I love to come here and to be here. And I love that I can go away. I love to have something new in life. It’s like having two lives. One is here and another one is in Holland. And I love that. Holland is to live and Belarus is to love. Because I don’t love Holland the way I love Belarus.

ODB: How do your families see your Belarus’ fascination?

Marta: Well, my mom usually feels the way I do. She always says “You are my doer” in the sense that she is the thinker and I am doing things. And she always says: Oh my God, Marta! I am completely with you, we are on the same page. And my dad, he is more of the philosophical mind. It’s not really black and white for him. Generally, he supports me.

Masha: Well, I have only a mom and she is super proud of me. She is very proud of everything I am doing here. She always goes to all the presentations. But she is definitely not the kind of person I am. She would never come up with such things. So I always kind of surprise her with everything that I am doing. And my sister is the same as I am. She lives in Holland and she is a big entrepreneur now. Yes, we keep surprising our mother.
ODB: Is there something that you always bring with you to Belarus or something you always take from Belarus?

Masha: Yes, for me it’s peanut butter and cheese and stroopwafels, those caramelised biscuits that are really Dutch. And what I always take back is “semechki”, the sunflower seeds for munching. I love them and we don’t have that in Holland. 

Marta: For me it is “tvorozhnyi syrok” (sweet cottage cheese) and apples from my grandma's garden. And from America, I bring peanut butter (which is not as good as Dutch) and Granola bars.

Marta and Masha after signing a contract to to get their book published. Photo from the authors' archives

ODB: We spoke about everything but not about the book itself. Is there something which you want to say about it?

Masha: We had a lot of interviews about the book and nobody asked “How did you finance it?”

ODB: And how?

Masha: We did it all by ourselves.

ODB: You mean you spent your own money? May I ask how much?

Marta: Well, we don’t know exactly. 

Masha: It was probably close to one thousand euro - complete for everything. But we also invested a lot of time.

Marta: It was a full-time job for me for sure for the period we were making the book, from March till August.

ODB: And you came to the publishing house and they agreed to invest their own money to print it? It’s not always that easy here.

Today, Heta Belarus, Dzietka! can be found at any book-store in Minsk. At Ў-Gallery book-shop next to the Nobel prize winner Svetlana Alexievich's 'Time Second-Hand'


Masha: Actually, I was very surprised how fast it all went and it was also positive. The director of the publishing house was very nice. He offered to sign the contract right away.

ODB: The last question is about the language, which is a controversial one here. We always have this dispute of Belarusian language versus Russian language. What do you think about it?

Masha: I really have a very strong stand on that. I’d really love to see that Belarusian people start talking Belarusian, start realising how important it is. Because it shapes Belarus, it forms the Belarusian identity. I think if everyone starts to speak Belarusian they will start feeling more Belarusian too. And for me it is really important, this is why I also wanted the book to be in Belarusian language. In Holland, people do not even realise how important it is to have the Dutch language. But every time I come here we are doing everything in Russian, and many Belarusian people often call themselves Russian as well. I always think this has to change. But it comes with time. So, I hope this book can contribute something to that.

A drawing by Marta Charnova humorously depicting language situation in Belarus. Source: EtoBelarusDetka.com


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