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I have a friend in Minsk...

If at some time in the future it is proved there is indeed a God, my betting is it will be Tom Lehrer; the mathematician whose University parodies at the piano in the 1950s spoke for an entire generation living under the threat of nuclear catastrophe. When that peril receded, and Tom was asked why he ceased writing he simply said, ‘All the things I used to think funny, now just make me want to cry’. 

Cover of an LP from 1959, Photograph taken by Anthony Lipmann

My own journey to Tom started as a child, when my parents hid one of the only two records in our house on a high shelf and my sister and I learned how to play it on the gramophone when they were out. It included such child-friendly titles as The Old Dope Peddler and Masochism Tango (which I later taught to my children). In that album lay all God’s bounty and at 10 years old you did not need to understand the full irony of verses to enjoy them. Don’t say that he’s hypocritical  Say rather he’s apolitical  Once the rockets are up  Who cares where they come down?  That’s not my department,   Says Werner Von Braun  Sung in a German accent reminiscent of my father’s, it was all part of a confusing world that only got more so as I got older.   Later, when I became a metal merchant, hunting for stockpiled metals in Russia and the CIS in the 1990s once intended for materiel to fight the Third World War, Lehrer’s Lobachevsky became a kind of theme tune to me. This was a song about a real-life mathematician whose theorems were plagiarised and passed from hand to hand to arrive at his desk and gave rise to Lehrer’s ear for the musicality of place names.   I have a friend in Minsk  Who has a friend in Pinsk  Whose Friend in Omsk   Has friend in Tomsk  With friend in Akmolinsk  I’d like to quote the rest but don’t want to waste the pixels. 

It sounded a bit like my flight itinerary, as I took off in Yaks, Ilyushins or Antonovs where you slung your bags at the back and air hostesses poured sweet Armenian wine into beer glasses, and the in-flight meal was a nice green apple. In those days when the tanks had just rolled back from the streets of Estonia (although not from its Belorussian neighbour) I would take along a photocopy of the words of Lobachevsky just to try and learn them. 

There was no trouble about bringing metal samples home in those days either. This once included a slice of MiG aircraft wing which interested me because of the use of scandium within the magnesium to create lightness and strength. Something which in the West was only being used in baseball bats.

In those days, facing the back of the plane on take-off the empty seats snapped forward like people being shot in the back of the head. Ascents and landings, as explained to me, were always particularly steep without regard to passenger comfort because most of the pilots were Soviet ex Air Force and more used to flying Sukhoi’s.  

These things come to mind as the needle on some of the power-plays unleashed in the 1990s grinds into the vinyl at the end of the record – namely Lukashenko. The only difference between him and Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan (who built an entire new capital (Astana) just to be near his home), or Karimov of Uzbekistan, famed for boiling some of his political opponents in oil, and a dozen other petty dictators, was that poor old Belarus had so few natural assets the country could be forgotten. At least the ancient Hanseatic Baltic ports of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had the sea, and so became a conduit for the disposal of any Soviet assets not chained to the ground (some of them, even with chains and granny attached).  

I never travelled to Belarus, but wish I had. The one time I met a group of Belarussian business people, it was at a meeting arranged by the Kingston Chamber of Commerce held at Dorich House, ironically the one-time home of the émigré Estonian sculptor Dora Gordine (1895-1991). I remember telling the Belarussians that my company was founded in 1953 which, being the year of Stalin’s death, was to my mind quite an auspicious year. That went down like a uranium balloon.  

But it’s a times like these that I think of such things, as we witness the Armenian enclave of Nagorno Karabakh, surrounded by enemies and the Turkish Government of Erdogan champing at the bit to finish off the job they started in 1916. When travelling to Armenia in the 1990s, on a trip in search of titanium scrap I arrived at the rose red city of Yerevan and then travelled for five hours to see the metal I had come to buy. From there we travelled along roads with storks nesting on lamp posts, and by pasture so fertile that half Europe’s tomato paste was supplied from here - finally arriving at Mount Ararat. I had not realised from my reading of Genesis that this place was no less mythical than the story of Adam and Eve. Faced with this mountain, with a top as flat as Boris Johnson’s Covid curve, I realised for the first time something both about the historical veracity of the Bible as well as the proximity of Turkey. It was a natural border, the highest bit of land anywhere, and exactly where any self-respecting Noah would land an ark. Seeing no sign of any scrap metal in the vicinity, I asked when I was going to see my titanium. ‘No problem’, my hosts told me, as they led me reluctantly into a farmyard past the tomatoes and cucumbers being readied for export, to an upturned titanium vessel, removed from a vodka distillery, now serving perfectly well as a deluxe Premier Inn for the piggies. Having come so far, it seemed churlish not to appreciate the light blue sheen on the metal that suggested its elemental identity, so I tapped it and said ‘Very good titanium’, which of course meant that I had bought it.  

A while later the pigsty, handily chopped into pieces, was shoved into a container and sent on its way to Europe via Sochi, Cyprus, Marseille and Rotterdam, taking about three months. But what my own journey taught me was a fundamental fact about today’s petty wars.  Post-Soviet Russia left a vacuum in more senses than one. As far as I could work out, Armenia, which under the Soviet Union was the centre of the Soviet electronics industry, had obtained more peace and protection than it had ever enjoyed when surrounded by the fierce neighbours of Turkey and Azerbaijan. The Russian hegemony had succeeded as nothing else in keeping peace in this region. The Armenians were keener than any state within the Soviet sphere of influence for things to remain that way. 

It would appear now that not just Nagorno Karabakh, but Armenia itself, is threatened now, as Azeris, who only recently staged the Eurovision Song Contest, seem intent on creating a new holocaust. As for Belarus, the brave English teacher, Svetlana Tikanovskaya, like so many interviewed by the BBC whilst demonstrating in Minsk, appears to have a better grasp of English than many vox pops interviewed in UK. This all symbolises the playing out of the disastrous geopolitics unleashed when the Soviet Union collapsed and nothing came to fill the vacuum.

I should just like to add that seeing the bravery of BBC foreign correspondent, Jonah Fisher, up close with the Lukashenko masked thugs last Sunday and then a week later being shelled in Nagorno Karabakh was more than worth the licence fee.  

By Anthony Lipmann Oct 2020


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