Photo: Pasha & Natasha, Iceland, 2015
Natasha and Pasha have just returned from their trip to Iceland, where they celebrated their wedding. They are waiting for me at the entrance of Gorki-Park in Minsk. This famous amusement spot has been attracting young people and charming visitors with its carousels and rides since the Soviet time. We go to one of the newly opened cafés where you can hang out with your iPad and choose from among 20 different types of coffee. While drinking a cup of Latte Macchiato, the newlyweds tell me about their wedding party and recent travels.
They have been infrequent visitors in their flat in Minsk for more than a year. First they spent a whole month in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany only to journey across to the United Kingdom, Ireland, Portugal, Italy, Germany and Czech Republic for three months with only a short break in their home country. Then – a full month under the tropical sun of Indonesia.
Manchester, Bali or Lisbon – if they have Internet access, Pasha and Natasha can basically work from everywhere. The couple profits from international companies’ strategy to outsource jobs to countries with lower wages – a practice that is especially popular and easy in the IT sector.
Natasha creates websites for a company based in San Francisco, California, primarily dealing with U.S. customers even though a large part of her team is from Belarus. Pasha’s company is also located in the U.S. Together with his co-workers from Ukraine and other countries he develops software for therapy session management. The whole communication is virtual via e-mail, Skype and Slack and he has yet to meet his boss offline.
Actually, Natasha made her degree in business administration. When a graduate in Belarus studies at the expense of the state – like Natasha did – he or she is obliged to work for a state-owned company for 2 years. That’s why Natasha – after finishing her education – was sent to work in a factory with a wage of less than 150 US-Dollar per month. Even in Belarus such money barely let you get by. As an adult person with a university degree Natasha declined financial support from her family but the blurred perspective of staying at the factory was slowly making her unhappy.
One day Natasha told her story at a friend’s wedding party. Totally by accident there happened to be a guy who started his own IT company and was looking for assistance. Their cooperation gave her some extra income while she was guided into the secret realm of website programming.
Natasha didn’t stay at her factory the full prescribed term – she could "ransom" herself after only 6 months with the Belarusian Rouble falling rapidly in 2011, making the initial sum of 6000 US-Dollar the affordable amount of 2000 US-Dollar. Thus, she started to work for several IT companies where she could profit from her coding skills industriously acquired late at nights after her regular work.
That is how she met Pasha, who had already had an established career as a programmer started in his university days. At the beginning he worked for a Belarusian intermediary company. When Pasha realised that the foreign contractor was paying more than 30 US-Dollar per hour for work that he in the end of the chain was getting only 8 US-Dollar for, he decided to start working as a freelancer without intermediaries.
He used one of several online exchange platforms where you can trade your skills to a trusted contractor. That way Pasha quickly built a good reputation and finally found a permanent job with his current employer.
His parents were collection bottles in the 90s. He himself is now collecting airline miles
Natasha’s and Pasha’s salaries are far above standard Belarusian level. Compared to Natasha’s mother, a teacher of Belarusian language and literature who has to work for her 350 US-Dollar pay a whole month, her daughter gets the same amount within a couple of days. Pasha remembers how his parents were collecting bottles in the 90s to just get by. He himself is now collecting airline miles and travel photos. Within only two years Natasha und Pasha visited countries which their parents have only read about or seen only on TV.
While travelling, Pasha and Natasha observe, compare and reflect on lives of people they meet abroad. They wondered why European cities were so dirty in comparison to Minsk and were surprised by Lisbon policemen’s custom to greet you while walking the streets. They marveled that people in Berlin can hold a peaceful rally against anything without police vehicles around the corner, just waiting to arrest participants, and without a feeling of doing something illegal. They confronted the images seen in the Belarusian state TV – a picture of Europe as a decaying place full of Muslims and gay people. “It is how people talk that have never been outside of Belarus”, says Natasha.
The only annoying thing concerning their trips is the constantly obligatory visa application process. With their skills and expertise Pasha and Natasha probably could just emigrate to another country. But right now they do not have such plans: as much as they love the distance, they also enjoy returning to their families, friends and familiar places in their homeland Belarus – despite issues the country struggles with.
At the presidential elections Pasha and Natasha did not vote. Under the current circumstances they don’t see the point of it. They generally refrain from politics, although – or perhaps precisely because – they perfectly know what game is played in their country. But the Belarusian state should not bother them all too much, since – unlike the majority of their fellow citizens – Pasha and Natasha are broadly independent from the system: their salaries are paid by foreign companies, they don’t use the state healthcare system preferring to pay privately for any required medical treatment, and they also have their own retirement plan.
With Lukashenko in power for at least another five years, no major shift in politics is to be expected. Yet still, the country seems to be changing – a real change takes place in lives of ordinary citizens. Natasha and Pasha give a just one example here.
The text was published first here.