Belarus’s Book of Life
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 2nd September, 2007
Perhaps the most potent symbol of the bizarre reality that is Belarus today is the National Library, which was opened for business last year. Located on the road out to the international airport, it is a modernist geometical structure, lit up with coloured lights at night. One guide-book rather rudely but aptly describes it as looking like ‘a galactic knocking-shop’.
Outside there is a giant statue of Francisk Scarina, the Belorussian printer who brought the Bible to the territory even before it got to Russia, and there are a number of biblical quotations inscribed on the building’s facade, in Belorussian, Russian, English, Hebrew and Arabic, amongst others. Inside, there are not just millions of books, but three floors of reading rooms of various kinds and wide circular corridors lined with modern Belarussian art.
There is a VIP suite reserved for the President, Alexander Lukashenko, where he can peruse any volume he cares to in peaceful isolation. Others get to go into different rooms, according to whether they have a secondary school education, a university degree, are studying for a doctorate or are university professors. Foreigners can register to read, on production of their passport.
There are tours of the building; I went on one yesterday. My local companions and I were informed on arrival that one is meant to apply for permission to visit one month in advance, but a bit of sweet-talking by-passed that regulation. One of my companions admitted that it was the first time she had set foot in the building, as it is well known amongst Belorussians that it is built on marshy land and she shares a common fear that the whole thing is just going to sink into the ground one day. Indeed symbolic!