Freedom to Play

My journey to Belarus started with a tank wound and ended with a techno-fueled attack by paint-bombs.

Her name is Olga. The 22-year-old Belarusian tends bar at the only TGI Friday’s in her native country, in the capital city of Minsk. Her outfit lacks the restaurant chain’s usual buttons and “flair,” but it’s definitely Friday in here, and her starched-shirt/black-suspenders combo looks strangely flattering.

I’m not sure why I think it. Could be the mind-bending journey I’ve had thus far, complete with a 28-hour, snafu-ridden series of flights, and a giant gash on my finger caused by a tank mishap (I’ll get there). Or could be because any TGI Friday’s feels like a wormhole into another cultural dimension, and this one is doubly weird. Instead of cheesy kitsch, the décor is, quite simply, American trash. A single Rollerblade is stapled to one wall. On another, a Superman Returns poster hangs next to the broken-off door of a New York City taxi cab.

While I love Rick Steves-esque explorations and foreign surprises when I’m overseas, I have a hunch that nothing in Belarus will feel more foreign than this place. That I’m in the country is weird enough, the result of an overzealous video game company—, maker of the “free to play” hit World of Tanks—flying me to its home country for a 15th anniversary party down the road from its Minsk headquarters.

I’m confused by everything, by why I’m here, by what this trip has to do with the video games in question, by how I’m still awake. Thus, on my first full night of this short trip, I lumber out of my hotel room feeling pretty wiped but knowing that I’d probably never come back to this country, so I split the difference. Let’s keep piling on the weird, I say to myself, with a low-maintenance trick that works when I don’t speak the local language.

I tap on a taxi driver’s door and say, “McDonald’s.”

The main highway into Minsk says a lot about the country you’re entering. Driving from the airport to the capital takes roughly 40 minutes, and most of that drive is made up of large, untouched stretches. Occasional chunks of unfinished cement will appear from time to time, sometimes mounted by a very small construction crew.

Off-ramps that go nowhere. Buildings that are 80% scaffolding. A few dinky hamlet villages in the distant grass that look so frail, you understand why the houses in the World of Tanks games crumble so easily beneath tank wheels.

It looks like the Iron Curtain fell in 1991, and then most of the major infrastructure just… stopped.

The heart of Minsk, at the end of this highway, is another matter. A perfectly walkable, busy city, Minsk is full of beautiful, young people wearing reasonable, often stylish clothing—nothing gaudy, gold-covered or Real Housewives-ian. Malls, shops, pubs, parks and restaurants line the streets, next to a fair share of towering Soviet-era buildings and churches. Bus service on the main roads is fluid, and the underground metro, while limited in range, keeps crowds moving.

Belarus’s most populated McDonald’s sits square in this chunk of town. I arrive at 9:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, and the place is bumpin’. Everyone here is 18-24 years old, fit, tan, with lush blonde hair, pristine faces, and outfits that would rank a point or two above the average Gap catalog entry. One wall features what I assume is a “healthy eating” advertisement, with a lovely woman lying on a bed of carrots. She has one in her hands and appears to be fellating it. Healthy!

I wait in one of the giant food lines for funsies; I don’t need to eat a McDonald’s burger overseas, but an ice cream sounds fine on this warm evening, roughly 72 degrees Fahrenheit. $1.20 (or 10,000 Belarusian rubles) later, I coat my throat in a sundae, sit in the lovely outdoor patio—complete with little manicured trees in a little manicured garden!—and glance across the street.

Minsk’s TGI Friday’s. Note the single ski on the bottom-left wall.

TGI Friday’s. This is the American corner of town, then.

After gobbling the sundae and eavesdropping in on beautiful people’s gibberish, I walk over and am warned, in broken English, that Friday’s will close in 10 minutes. Perfect.

Olga asks what kind of beer I’d like, and I implore her to serve me the most local stuff on tap. Its name, which I’ve forgotten, is in Cyrillic, and it tastes Belgian as hell. I glance at the other junk on the walls and the distant male bartender, who looks like a cross between Vladimir Putin and Greg Kinnear, while Olga makes small talk.

Where in America are you from? she asks. I say Seattle, and she responds with a blank stare. Nirvana? I offer. Blanker stare. I search my brain for a moment, then try, Macklemore?

Her face lights up. “Last night, here, was world bartender championship,” she says. (A nearby poster confirms this.) “At end of night, I jump on bar and dance to ‘Thrift Shop.’” Minutes later, when I compliment her English, Olga straightens up and starts rattling off English phrases, as if I’d challenged her. “Lohn-don is the capital of Ehng-land. [long pause] My mah-ther is a teacher, and my fah-ther is a taxi driver.”

I can only hope she’s since added a new sentence to her awkward repertoire: “Macklemore is from Se-ay-ttle.”

When I first landed in Minsk, I enjoyed a stone-faced staredown by a customs agent, a Spanish lesson from a Madrid native dressed in a giant Stewie Griffin T-shirt, a 40-minute shuttle ride with a dozen Poles who smelled like feet, and a small bottle of vodka tucked into a nesting doll that had been laid on my hotel room pillow. I’d missed two—yes, two—of my flights on the way to Minsk, so the Wargaming staffers look at me like a ghost when I finally meet them in a hotel buffet room full of local delights like “Cold Appetizer of Chicken.”

I soon learn that my freedom to wander and explore Minsk is pretty limited, as Wargaming has plotted quite the two-day itinerary for its 15th anniversary festivities. Day one: a six-hour stay at a defunct military base known as Stalin’s Line. We know we’re near it once we see a giant ICBM in the skyline, visible half a mile away.

It soon hosts a 100-plus crowd of games writers flown in from around the world, where a series of camera crews have begun setting up in a giant field’s various corners. We will become “stars” in a “movie” about the videogames Wargaming has made for the past 15 years; all of them, by the way, pale in worldwide popularity compared to World of Tanks. But the camera crews aren’t ready, so the PR handlers shrug their shoulders, then gesture at the tanks, planes, and helicopters all over the place.

We take to climbing all over them, particularly the tanks, and pose for absurd photos. Ten seconds after one of my tank photos is shot, I slip and fall, landing somewhat gracefully but cutting my middle finger wide open. “You had a tetanus shot lately?” one of the PR reps helpfully asks, before confirming that 1) the first-aid rep isn’t here yet and 2) the base’s running water has been turned off. A kind Eastern European gent offers to pour vodka on my wound, and I thank him for his dose of Belarusian medicine.

Yours truly in Soviet-military garb. Not pictured: a pair of stolen socks.

We spend the rest of the day sitting, waiting, and filming about five incredibly brief scenes while dressed in garb from old Wargaming games, ones I’d certainly never played. A local director screams instructions in his native tongue, while a bewildered staffer translates with terror in his eyes—throw the grenade! swing a sword at that shield!—and we oblige. I steal the socks from my Soviet soldier outfit.

We’re told a personalized DVD of this madness will reach our hometown mailboxes within a few weeks; as of press time, my DVD has yet to materialize. I can only assume my medieval and military footage instead found its way into some Belarusian propaganda film. “The incredibly pale resistance lives on!” I imagine a narrator shouting as I’m shown running directly at a camera, huge bayonet in hand.

The next day, we enjoy a bus tour of downtown Minsk, stopping at a few parks, memorial squares, and other lovely landmarks. One square’s eternal flame is hard to make out, thanks to the sunny day; in related news, every landmark comes complete with a few bridal parties and photographers, usually waiting two- or three-deep for their turn on the bronzed horse-and-carriage or the riverside vista.

Every time we’re about to board the bus again, a skit plays out to tell tales of Belarusian history. Period garb, actual hammers and sickles, etc. In the most notable of these, a few actors in rags shout in Belarusian to explain—and celebrate—the rise of Communism, as if we’ve discovered a local knock-off, direct-to-video sequel to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. While rattling off local history, they occasionally reach for our group’s hands and ask us to shout in agreement about joining the resistance, embracing Communism.

Most of the writers are sticks in the mud and furrow at playing along. Edward Snowden’s NSA story may have been fresh at the time, but come on, people. (Worse, many of the English speakers begin lamenting things like their food options within two days of the trip, saying things like, “When I get home, the first thing I’m going to do is get a giant Chipotle burrito.” Sir, you have years ahead of you to eat the most boring food America has to offer. Four days won’t kill you.)

The shuttles then whisk us to the National Library, a gorgeous monolith sitting on an otherwise barren stretch of the previously mentioned highway. I’d researched this place in advance, curious about the high-tech book delivery mechanisms it housed, but those explorations would have to wait. Instead, we are ushered to the rear of the library and taken to an hour-long Wargaming press conference. A new office in Austin would soon open! A new patch for World of Tanks would soon be downloadable! A new country’s planes would soon appear in World of Warplanes!

After cataloging the company’s 15 year history in a prepared statement, the company’s Belarusian CEO, Victor Kislyi, proclaims its slogan—”we deliver legendary online games, globally, with passion”—and then takes 10 minutes to explain why he chose each word of the motto. “We: As in, we work as one team!”

At this point, I close my laptop and wish that I had a giant, Chipotle burrito to lob at his head.

After this, and a 1.5 hour buffet lunch, I plead with Wargaming’s staff for a chance to explore the National Library, which we’ve yet to actually enter. I’m given 12 minutes, and I spend half of that time convincing the local staff to let me in; you normally need a local ID card to enter—because, uh, Belarus—but I am given a guest pass and the ceaseless stare of a security guard.

The interior is jaw-dropping, stunning, complete with giant, overtly Christian murals lining every wall and a sure-why-not collection of striking modern art in a quiet, third-floor gallery. The library’s three dozen staffers exceed the number of patrons. Wonder why, considering the expanse of barren road and incomplete construction that make up the nearby two-mile radius.

I rush through the library, lacking the time to make sense of the book-sorting apparatus I’d heard about long ago, and return to the tour group to endure another barrage of jokes about my wounded middle finger. God, I’m never going to get on a tank again, I say to myself.

Three hours later, I find myself sitting on top of a tank.

And holding onto it for dear life, at that. We’re back at Stalin’s Line, which has been turned into a military carnival for Wargaming’s official 15th anniversary party. The company’s worldwide staff of thousands, and their families/friends, have been flown out specifically for this party, and the military base is now dotted with games and attractions.

Fire a giant machine gun that’s been loaded with blanks! Hop in an plastic tube and “run” across a creek! Watch a mock battle in which a tank awkwardly crushes a Volvo! Ride a Segway down a sidewalk! War never changes.

Discarding all common sense, I also elect to try a “tank ride.” I had imagined this as a solo affair, where I get in the hatch and pose Patton-style as I crush a few insolent swine. Instead, I sit on the top of a flat tank, along with 20 of my closest friends, and we grab onto any edge or iron bar as the thing croaks along a circular dirt path. My butt remains firmly planted through the ride, thankfully, but I inhale enough cancerous exhaust to politely excuse myself from the event’s hookah booths.

My phone was lost in Belarus (long, boring story), so I lost all of my great tank photos. You’ll have to settle on my koala doll riding a remote-control tank and attacking an American games writer.

The party’s mainstage has been built for hours of rock bands; my favorite is the only local one on the lineup, a kooky folk-punk group whose red-and-white-striped outfits might have been swiped from the TGI Friday’s down the road. The rest are industrial and gothy rock bands from all over Europe, with the exception of the headliner: The Offspring.

Hours before they take the stage, Kislyi grabs the mic to repeat company lines about quality, vision, mission, and tanks. He’s shouting excitedly about the company’s continual worldwide growth, and in any other context, he might come off like former Microsoft CEO, and famed over-celebrator, Steve Ballmer—slightly out of touch, but forgivably excited.

Here, however, Kislyi follows a real-life scene of tanks crushing cars and an insane, 20-minute military jet show, complete with loops and near-crashes. I jot the word “megalomaniacal” in my notes, and this many weeks later, I can still see the crazed look in his eyes as he talks up Wargaming within earshot of a terrifyingly tall ICBM.

I stay long enough to say “I saw the Offspring in Belarus,” happy to finally cross that specific wish off my bucket list.

One reason I’m so eager to leave the party is that the next day is my “free day.” No scheduled events, no Wargaming hand-holding, no weird restrictions on libraries. I check out two giant art galleries, sit in a few parks, comb a few shopping centers and flea markets, gobble flaky, meat-filled foods at a few pastry shops, walk into a couple of churches. I see at least two bridal parties at each stop.

Worn out by dusk, I head toward my hotel, at which point I hear thumping music in the park across the street and giant crowds walking toward the bridge. A festival? I walk along the river until I reach said bridge, covered with a tent and lined with gun-toting security guards, who stand between me and a sign that reads “Freaky Summer Party.”

I’m low on rubles at this point, having assumed I was done for the day (my shuttle the next morning is scheduled for a 3:30 a.m. departure), so I reach the tent and shovel a little bullshit. I tell the couple of English-speaking staffers that I’m in Belarus on behalf of Rolling Stone—not on the FSP guest list, I’m sure—and wanted to check out as many cultural events as possible before filing my pop-culture story. I ask the price, check my wallet, apologize, and wave goodbye, at which point a college-aged woman grabs my wrist, says, “Rolling Stone,” and slaps a wristband on.

(The next issue of Rolling Stone, coincidentally, features Macklemore’s huge, freckled face on his cover. What a blown opportunity, I think, upon my return.)

Maybe it’s the mind-bending journey. The giant wound on my finger, the TGI Friday’s, the withered members of The Offspring, the old ladies at the bakery in matching pink outfits. Or maybe I fall in love with the Freaky Summer Party because it’s one of the coolest public events I’ve ever attended.

A few dance-music tents are surrounded by young, happy dancers who throw paint-bombs at each other and then hug to the beat, spreading each other’s paint all over. On a blanket-covered stretch of field, a man places golden bowls around patrons as they lie, then bonks each bowl to sound euphoric tones all around them. A super-sized slip-and-slide platform is covered with people paddle-boarding around in a weird version of water polo.

One man erects a giant tower made of milk crates as he climbs it, hanging on its precarious edge each time he adds a new crate to the top; he gets up to 15 without anything teetering. Near that is a giant board game pavilion with a crowd of over 100 players, mostly college-aged and split evenly between ladies and gents; this is next to a super-sized Jenga game. A college radio booth has English speakers who try to turn me onto local bands; “This DJ stuff is shit,” one hipster blurts to me. “Belarus is indie rock.”

There is a lot more, and I love how well the organizers use the giant riverside park to fill the space with organic play, with different ways for people of all ages to interact and hang out at whatever pace they please. It stands in sharp relief to the prior night’s Wargaming 15th anniversary party, which had a few interactive elements but mostly seemed to serve another purpose.

By the end of the Wargaming party, the crowd had moved to a few VIP tents, full of lobster, suckling pig, top-shelf liquor, and rich, Belarusian fuddy-duddies chomping cigars. Look at our tanks and our planes and our Offspring!

I should probably note that I have logged only an hour of time playing Wargaming’s video games by trip’s end.

Before flying out, I’d assumed that there’d be a lot of game-specific stuff going on. Demos. Interviews. Behind-the-scenes access to studios and facilities. Instead, I’ve come to realize the trip is a show of force.

I enjoy my time in Minsk, especially when I break away and explore beautiful galleries and meet wonderful people, but my memories of the Freaky Summer Party stay with me. Not just because I saw Peaches headline the main stage at night’s end, the techno-singer cussing up a storm while a mom danced with her 8-year-old daughter next to me. (No joke: I think “seeing Peaches in Belarus” WAS on my bucket list all along.)

Rather, the experience reminds me that play is comparatively precarious in America. We struggle to organize events in which grown-ups interact with friends and strangers alike, letting down our guards and delighting in the sheer act of make-believe, of dance, of merriment, of paint-bombs that will wash out of your clothes, so quit furrowing at ‘em.

Even in a country like Belarus, with its draconian customs process, its terrible sprawl, and its megalomaniacal CEOs, the ideal of “play” comes across as clear, delightful, and—more so than the “free-to-play” game World of Tanks—truly free.

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