The Moloko Bar sits halfway down a shaded alley a short walk from Minsk's Victory Square. You know you're on the right road when you see the avant-garde mural, a mash-up of Renaissance-era paintings and graffiti, that runs along the pavement, ending at a matte white building with a black "?" by the door, the name of the attached art gallery. Such venues are around every corner in European cities like Berlin and Barcelona. But in the drab Belarusian capital, they are very much an exception.
Maria, a 29-year-old poet and journalist, told me over a milkshake that the bar/gallery complex is one of a handful of places in Minsk where brash, open-minded intellectuals can let off steam. Not too loudly, though: plain-clothes agents of the KGB (as the security agency is still called here) are known to stop by and eavesdrop. In their case, however, less plain would help. “Their clothes,” she says, “tell us who they are as soon as they walk through the door.”
The first time Maria and I met, "Casablanca" was playing silently on a flat-screen television mounted to the wall. In the smoky bowels of Rick’s Café Americain the Nazi Major Strasser was confronting Victor Laszlo, the Czech dissident. Coincidence? I couldn’t be sure. But the film was replayed as soon as it ended. As another activist would later assert, everything in Belarus is political when the context is understood.
That applies even to the names of hipster hangouts. The "?" is a letter unique to the Belarusian alphabet, amounting to a kind of middle finger to state authorities. Since taking power in 1994, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has systematically imposed Russian symbols and language on Belarus to consolidate his stale vision of a neo-Soviet state. The native tongue is essentially banned in schools and public places; violators have been punished with fines, beatings or prison time. This, of course, has turned Belarusian into a de-facto opposition code.