Smallest British embassy fits small, low-key country

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

February 08, 1994|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Sun Staff Correspondent

MINSK, Belarus -- The smallest British embassy in the world is illuminated by candles, because the electric light fixture on the ceiling is too loud.

Add it to the list of woes in the former Soviet Union: overly loud light.

Actually, this is a little bit of an exaggeration. The smallest British embassy in the world is not illuminated by candles, but by one candle. There isn't room for another.

Just how small is this embassy? They can't issue visas here, it's so small. A Minskite (Minsker? Minskean?) wanting to visit the United Kingdom needs to go to Moscow or Warsaw to get a visa.

Actually, this is also an exaggeration. It's not that they can't issue visas -- he can't issue visas.

He is the ambassador and entire staff of the embassy -- John Everard, who at 37 not only runs the smallest British embassy but also claims to be the youngest British ambassador in the world.

Thus is Minsk doubly honored.

It's a worthy city for it. Minsk is the capital of a nation that's really not that small by European standards (10 million people, compared, for instance, with Sweden's 8 million) but that can't always seem to get the hang of the big leagues after two years of independence.

It's small, and new at it, and awfully low key, but it's trying. But it's tough going sometimes in a country that has just chosen as the new head of state a man named Mecheslav Grib. (His last name means mushroom.)

At the embassy, the door is guarded by a ferocious looking man who speaks extremely fractured English. Just to throw visitors off, he turns out also not to be able to speak a word of Belarussian or Russian.

The reason is, he's German. In the interests of European harmony -- and maybe to save money -- the Germans and British share an embassy building here. The Germans have two rooms and a kitchen, where what may be the world's worst coffee is prepared. (This comment is not made lightly.) The British -- that is, Mr. Everard and his wife, who often drops by for want of anything else to do -- have one rather dim but quiet room.

Outside, the British flag flies about six inches lower than the German flag. Mr. Everard explains there's nothing symbolic about it. When he came to Minsk, this was the only flagpole he could find.

He points out that his German colleagues took on the task of hanging each nation's seal on either side of the front door and meticulously evened them up, to the millimeter, in the interest of precision.

But Mr. Everard hasn't gotten around to putting up the British embassy sign, and probably won't. It's cast in a metal that looks faintly suggestive of bronze, and has large raised letters that he finds to be in appallingly bad taste. Anyway, in his opinion, it would likely fall off right away. He has stashed it behind a filing cabinet.

Mr. Everard represents a nation that, like English-speaking nations everywhere, is conscientiously solicitous about local preferences for place names. Thus Minsk today is the capital of Belarus, rather than Byelorussia, as we used to know it, or White Russia, as we knew it before that.

The Germans are not so particular in these matters. They still call the place Weissrussland. (But, after all, the Belarussians still call the Germans "nyemtsi," which means mute ones, from the old Slavic idea that if you spoke German you might as well be speaking nothing at all.)

But however you call it, Belarus is the kind of place that's hard to pin down. It's very flat. It lies between flat Poland and flat Russia. Where Poland leaves off and Belarus sets in, and where Belarus trails off and Russia picks up, has had less to do with natural geography than with the military successes and failures of various Moscow potentates.

It's a little-known fact, the people of Minsk will tell you, but back in the days when Lithuania was a powerful duchy, most of its court officials were actually Belarussians. (We're talking about the 14th century here.)

But ask about more recent matters, and they begin to get uneasy. Beyond the issue of loud lighting, what is it proper for a foreigner to know about? The Sun, in an innocent attempt at small talk, asked several people where the Svisloch River flows after it leaves Minsk -- to the Baltic or the Black Sea? -- and found no one willing to answer.

Flat out stonewalled.

A state secret.

(It flows to the Black Sea. You read it here first.)

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