Tucked away behind the charmless apartment blocks and broad thoroughfares so beloved of Soviet town planners, the
"Of course, it was my time, so I remember it fondly," says Maya Borisovna, a septuagenarian guide, as she explains the artefacts on display. "But now we live better. There are things in the shops. It's completely different," she says.
Or is it? Some would argue you don't have to enter the exhibition to be Back in the BSSR. Streets in the capital are still named after Marx and Engels. A statue of Lenin dominates a city centre square. There's even a bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the original Soviet secret policeman. A metro ride costs 20p. People smoke indoors. Almost no one has tattoos. This feels like a place that is at least one revolution behind the rest of us.
And then there is the leader. This summer,
In the west, they call Lukashenko Europe's last dictator, but he doesn't care. Better a confident dictator than a chaotic democrat, is his argument, and he points to the turmoil in neighbouring
In the pantheon of dictators and autocrats, Lukashenko is a middleweight, vain and verbose but not bloodthirsty. He hasn't renamed a month after his mother, as his Turkmen counterpart did, nor built statues or other follies in his own name. And though he has found plum jobs for two of his sons, he insists he is not grooming anyone to succeed him in the way of the Aliyevs of
And yet the man who likes to be called "batka" ("father") is omnipresent. Night after night, his every move leads the country's absurd TV news, whether he is inspecting a tractor, ticking off the cabinet, arriving in
Before last month's world championships of his beloved ice hockey - the biggest sporting event
"It's really hard to say everything I want to because in this country you pay for what you say," says Pinchuk. Her husband, the internationally renowned human rights activist Ales Bialiatski, did just that, jailed in
"It's like a conveyor belt," she says. "People are put in jail, then freed, they criticise the authorities and they are put back in jail again."
Pinchuk says her husband has been ostracised by fellow prisoners out of fear of political contamination. She is concerned about his psychological and physical health in the labour camp at Babruysk penal colony. "People come out of Babruysk with no teeth. It's the lack of vitamins. The food is a joke."
She says she is pinning everything on
One thing that has been certain since Lukashenko came to power is the result of elections. Lukashenko likes to win, and his favourite figure is 80% - not quite Soviet or central Asian levels of approval but enough to draw condemnation from observers inside and outside the country.
"There hasn't been a fair election since the first one [Lukashenko] won in 1994," says
Lukashenko's fourth presidential election should, in theory, have been as straightforward as the others. He is not unpopular - some estimates suggest that perhaps half of all Belarusians broadly approve of him. That figure would have been enough to win, but not enough for Lukashenko.
Sannikov joined tens of thousands of demonstrators who filed up Independence street in
"I don't remember how I was first kicked, but I was on the ground and then I lost consciousness." On the way to hospital, he says, KGB officers pulled him and his wife from a car and beat him again before taking him to a detention centre. "They separated me and Iryna [Khalip, his journalist wife] and said they would take me to hospital - and they took me to KGB prison instead."
Sannikov got five years for "organising mass disorder". With Khalip in detention too, the authorities tried to take the couple's only child from kindergarten and put him in an orphanage. Sannikov was eventually freed, soon after new EU sanctions were announced against Belarusian officials in
Lukashenko argues that under his leadership his people have education, health care and security. He claims that after centuries of subjugation, annihilation and reconstitution, the country has, on his watch, avoided the evils of terrorism, separatism, and that all-encompassing Russian word "banditism".
"Do you think I stay in power just because I revel in it?" he said in a recent interview. "Permit me to be immodest, but I did something for this country. I don't want all of it to come crashing down in an hour."
The crisis in
Yet he has also come to
Lukashenko maintains Russians are Belarusians' best friends, but warned: "No matter who comes to Belarusian land, I will fight. Even if it is Putin."
Taking sides is problematic: too pro-
Roman Yakovlevsky, a Belarusian political analyst with opposition sympathies, says Lukashenko's administration has been scared by recent events in
The economy, meanwhile, slowly flatlines. "
European and American administrations have imposed sanctions on Belarusian companies and individuals, though critics say they have had little impact.
Thousands of young people leave to study abroad every year. More Belarusians apply for Schengen visas (allowing free movement between most EU countries) than any other country per capita.
According to Yauheni Preiherman, eager to make his future as an independent thinktank analyst in
How much longer will "
Elections are due in 2015, but no one expects anything other than the same old ruses. At best, Sannikov hopes they may provide a focus for renewed discontent. "Despite the harassment, people still protest. Since there are no other channels [Lukashenko] leaves for the opposition, there will be mass protests and demonstrations."
It is likely that Lukashenko's fate will be decided by the two big heavyweights he constantly dances between:
In the meantime,
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Lukashenko greets Putin in
Second world war veteran Nikolay Sapanovich and his social worker at his Zhitkovichi home. The war, in which a third of the population of
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