Around the Larp Conference in Minsk

I found some time on the train to report my recent trip to Minsk, Belarus. I haven’t been there since the International Larp Conference 2013. And it was the next edition of this conference that brought me there this time – last days of October 2017.

The City
Magnificent. Back in 2013, I hadn’t had much time for sight-seeing. Now I did. All the historical main streets emanate an eerie feel I get from the Stalin Empire architecture. Can you imagine a combination of totalitarian monumentalism with the eternal beauty of classical Corinthian columns? That's a must-see. Plus, the 4-meter high bronze statues next to the busy streets. What’s more, the Minskians are totally crazy about illumination at night, with no concerns for saving energy. Not environmentally-friendly, that’s for sure. But the view of it – boy, the nightly view of it!

The Conference
They did it again! Each time I meet larpers from the Russian-speaking world, I feel humbled by the breadth and depth of their achievements. This equally applies to larp design, educational applications and academic research on role-playing, simulations and edu-games. There is an immense body of work which the Western world has little knowledge of. The language barrier is the new iron curtain. Yaraslau Kot, my kind host who invited me to the conference, has a grand master plan for international larp studies collaboration. We talked about the potential future development, and I think what we need the most is Russian-to-English and English-to-Russian translations of the existing works. Besides, Belarus can be a unique meeting ground between the East and the West: both Russians and EU citizens can now fly in without visas. Whether you want conferences and workshops or blockbuster larps, Belarus is the best place for post-Soviet and Western people to come together. 

I speak Russian
I did - some 20 years ago. I took three or four years of Russian in primary school. I could read and write fluently, and speak well enough to be understood. Now I could still understand about 50% of what the conference speakers said. Over the five days I spent in Minsk, I managed to brush up my language enough to be able to participate in conversations. But not well enough to be confident about it. I have the irritating feeling to be very, very close, just on the verge of the „working knowledge” level, but not exactly there yet. The same goes for reading. I recognise all Russian letters when I read sloooowly. Grammar is so similar to Polish that it’s not a problem at all – but vocabulary is. Courtesy of Prof. Kavtaradze, Dr. Likhacheva and Dr. Kot, I brought several Russian books on role-playing and game-based learning. I just hope I’ll be disciplined enough to make time to study them. I know all it takes is just a little regular practice and I’ll be a fluent reader again.
Will I?

History and Memory
It was awkward to see that one of the most impressive buildings hosts the KGB headquarters. Many of the statues represent Bolshevik heroes. The memory of the great struggle against the Nazis is even more alive than here in Poland ("you guys are marching like Gestapo”, said a passer-by to me, J.Tuomas and Alexey when we were walking side by side in dark coats along the sidewalk). And this memory necessarily includes a celebration and commemoration of the Soviet past. We even walked past the communist museum: the actual house where the Social Democratic Workers party – later to become the Bolsheviks – was founded. Sadly, there was no time to visit it during its opening hours. Even from behind the fence, though, I (imagined that I) could feel the cold touch of the meatgrinder of history. There once was a well-meaning ideology that promised to bring justice, which instead brought death and torment to millions around the world – some of its roots springing from this cosy blue-painted cottage house.

Ah, history! Morbidly fascinating, in all its complexity. Belarussian police supporting the Hitler’s occupation of their land. Polish communists introducing Stalinism in theirs. Finnish Jews fighting on the side of the Nazis. When you don’t paint history only in black-and-white, you have tons of captivating material to talk about. So, a Finn, a Pole and a Belarusian went into a bar, and…

The Long Shadow of Leningrad
There is one specific historical tragedy which seems to haunt me this year: the siege of Leningrad, where people were literally starving to death or cannibalising the dead. In the summer, my wife, daughter and I visited the newly opened WW2 museum in Gdańsk, Poland. (The museum begs for its own story to tell.) One of the most chilling artifacts was a set of small pages torn from a child’s notebook. Each page bore a brief note scribbled by an unsteady child’s hand. Each note said which family member died on that day. Uncle, grandfather, mother. The last note said „Everyone died. Only Tanya remained, alone”. The infotext next to the exhibit says little Tanya died soon after. In my view, no horror, gore or splatter fiction can come close to the macabre of an academic book I’ve read: Children and Play in the Holocaust. This small exhibit was something of the kind: first-person perspective on the trauma of a child caught in an unforgiving war of adults. Strong stuff. Like a hammer smashing you in the head.

The memory of this exhibit came back to me when we were discussing details of history with J.Tuomas and Yaraslau. I was talking about cannibalism in the Polish garrison occupying Moscow in the 1610s, with the famous story of the legal argument about „who has more right to the meat of the fallen soldier” between his relatives on one side and mates from the unit on the other. „And I thought the siege of Leningrad was bad!”, said one of the listeners. Well... I could tell the story of the Moscow garrison as black humour, but not when I thought about Leningrad and the pages from Tanya’s notebook. The humour was gone.

One book I brough back with me from Minsk is the Polish edition of Elkonin’s Psychology of Play, a gift from Yaraslau I started to read it on my return trip on the train. On the very first page I saw he had dedicated the book to the memory of his wife and daughters who had died tragically in the WW2. And he starts the book by recalling his observations of the children’s play of his daughters. He recalls it from memory, because – as I learn – the notes had been lost in the siege of Leningread. So it was there: the tragic death of Elkonin’s kids. Leningrad, again.

The Bell of Nagasaki
Another chilling touch from the past was the Bell of Nagasaki. As we've been told, it was given to Belarus by Japan to commemorate the shared trauma of a nuclear disaster and the resulting radioactive pollution diseases. Japan had the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Belarus was heavily hit by radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear plant. Both countries have been struggling with high rates of radiation-related health damage in the civilian population, especially among children. It was a spooky feeling to stand there in the ominous red light that illuminated the belltower - right next to a girl from Japan who attended our conference - and pull the rope to make the bell toll.