The Ice Palace

Stepping back in time at the Belarusian embassy in Washington, D.C.

The Belarusian embassy in downtown Washington is a musty mansion with capacious ceilings that seem to hover and loom as if they are watching, which they probably are. The rugs are frayed, the chandeliers glow tentatively, and the floorboards creak so loud they sound like they're parodying themselves.

Like the government it represents, the place feels trapped in an earlier Soviet reality. When I visited in mid-June, almost everything about it -- from the kitschy paintings of medieval Slavic warlords to the Nescafé and the slightly stale cookies that the Belarusians serve their guests -- was identical to my last visit in 2005 (which past visitors told me was identical to the way things were ten years earlier.) Even the small, sad photograph of long-time Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko standing with former U.S. President Bill Clinton, both smiling, the former with a grin nestled under his moustache, was in the same place on the fireplace mantle.

There were a few small differences though. In 2008, Minsk yanked its ambassador from Washington in protest of U.S. economic sanctions; the United States reciprocated soon after.  Now the most senior Belarusian official in the United States is Chargé d'Affaires Oleg Kravchenko, who is 42, garrulous and large, and who maintains a staff of just four people in the embassy. And when Kravchenko whipped out a model of the most advanced Belarusian dump truck on the market, just like the ambassador did when I met him eight years before, it was newer and bigger. "It can carry 360 tons," Kravchenko beamed. "We exhibited it at an expo in Vegas in September."

I first traveled to Belarus in 2004. It's a land of gray-green countryside punctuated by rusting farms and cities notable for what they are missing: noise, for example, and people who are rude, and restaurants where you have to wait to get a table. When I returned in 2010 to research a book on Lee Harvey Oswald, who lived in Minsk from 1960 to 1962, I found being there strangely helpful: Belarus after the Soviet collapse was weirdly similar to how I imagined it had been in Oswald's day. There had been changes, of course -- they finished the metro, and there are now McDonald's and overpriced sushi restaurants. But everyone smoked heavily, no one jaywalked, and everything moved slowly; it felt Soviet in its demand for order.

And there's Lukashenko, in power since 1994, who U.S. diplomats in Minsk described as "bizarre" and "disturbed" in a 2009 Wikileaked cable. He appears to savor this role: In 2012, for example, he named his then seven-year-old son Nikolai, his successor -- the boy can be seen wandering around military events brandishing a gold pistol. Belarus today is home to 9.6 million people -- fewer than a decade ago. It seems sadder and riper for liberalization, even though the regime doesn't appear to be rethinking its policy on civil liberties, and Belarusians don't appear ready to fight for them, occasional brutally repressed protest notwithstanding.

Like the Soviet comedy Irony of Fate, in which a drunken Muscovite accidentally winds up in an apartment that is identical to his, but -- alas -- in a different city, there is something vaguely depressing and poignant about Belarus, and about its embassy in Washington. Irony of Fate was released in 1975, as an era of stagnation was ripening into a prolonged decline that culminated with the Soviet collapse. The film is touching in its smallness: the world it depicts is warm, almost sweet, and very separate from everywhere else. Maybe it's only nostalgia, but one can sense, in the familiar dankness and creakiness of the Belarusian embassy, that the country may be nearing a period of fermentation.

In good KGB fashion, Kravchenko preferred to discuss bad things about the United States instead of, say, the situation in Minsk or U.S.-Belarusian relations. During our hour-long meeting, Kravchenko brought up Wikileaker Bradley Manning, the Occupy Wall Street protest movement, the National Security Agency (but weirdly not Edward Snowden), "inadequate" U.S. maternity leave, and gun violence. "For us," Kravchenko said, smirking just a little, "this is such a no brainer, getting rid of guns."

Unsurprisingly, Kravchenko says that the United States is to blame for the terrible state of relations between the two countries. But it is the Lukashenko regime that appears to have modeled its foreign policy after that of Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev, aligning itself with the world's bottom-feeders and seeking to thwart U.S. ambitions. Rumors swirled in June that Minsk was planning to provide rocket launchers to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; Kravchenko denied this, but it's not that far-fetched of an idea -- Russia, Belarus's closest ally, is also Syria's most powerful backer. And in September 2012, the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on a state-owned Belarusian firm for selling arms to Syria, an allegation that Minsk denied. Lukashenko himself has called for sending military aid to Venezuela, and he's fond of publicly congratulating the North Koreans on their independence day.

But maybe it's just relations with the United States that are stuck in the past. Lukashenko seems to intuit that unlike its embassy, Belarus is not impervious to change. In 2009, he opened the state-funded, multi-billion-dollar Belarus High-Tech Park -- or, as Kravchenko called it, "the Silicon Valley of Belarus." The government is allowing the Chinese to build a $5 billion city on the outskirts of Minsk. Arthur Pratapopau, a spokesman for the Minsk company Wargaming.net, the creator of the popular online video game World of Tanks, said that unlike six years ago, would-be entrepreneurs are looking to tap into Belarus's rich cache of tech geeks. There is even a sleek, government-run media campaign that seeks to rebrand Minsk as a hip, laptop-saturated hub of creative professionals -- Portland with a splash of Tallinn.

But of course, Belarusian officials still sound more like Soviet drones than citizens of the world. "We don't have to do anything because of the pressure from the United States," Kravchenko said.

On my way out, Kravchenko reiterated that Belarus -- or, at least, the Belarusian Embassy -- would not be cowed by Washington. "We don't have to do anything because of the pressure from the United States," he said. Then he smiled, and said that he looked forward to hosting me again soon.



It's a … Boy, Is This Insufferable

Why there's absolutely no reason you should care about the royal baby, unless you're British. And even then, probably not.

LONDON — The Duchess of Cambridge was due to give birth on July 13. Like many a first-time mother, she is late. This is inconvenient. Boring for her, perhaps, but much worse for the rest of us.

There are very few occasions on which it is permissible to feel pity for the press. But spare a thought, just for a moment, for the hapless journalists currently bivouacked outside London's St. Mary's Hospital. These intrepid truth-seekers have drawn the shortest of straws, for they are the poor souls charged with maintaining the vigil awaiting the birth of a new Royal Baby.

Not just any Royal Baby either, but the future heir to the throne of the United Kingdom. The media have been squatting outside for what seems like weeks now as Kate Mountbatten-Windsor (nee Middleton), consort to the future king, prepares to give birth. Nerves in "Camp Kate," as it has been dubbed, are fraying as the days drag on with still no sign of an imminent arrival. An unusual London heat wave only makes matters worse in the media shantytown that has sprung up outside the hospital.

As time passes without a royal spawning, newspapers are running out of material with which to fill their quota of Royal Baby pages. Entire forests have been felled to print the coverage thus far, and there is more -- much more -- to come once the infant finally makes his or her debut.

Mercifully, the press pack is being paid to mount its watch; royally obsessed Britons have pitched tents outside St. Mary's, desperate not to miss the "action." Because the action amounts to watching Kate enter the hospital, it's not an obviously compelling spectacle. As if to prove this, the Daily Telegraph offers its readers the use of a webcam trained on the entrance to St. Mary's. Nothing is happening.

At least the British have the excuse that this new arrival will one day, health permitting, become monarch and head of state. The international media have no such excuse, and as one might expect, the Americans are among the worst offenders.

U.S. gossip magazines like US Weekly have gone gaga for Kate and the infant. "All About THE ROYAL BABY!" screams the cover of this week's issue, pledging features on "a last-minute name choice," Kate's alleged "delivery room jitters," and her (improbable) "fear of being alone." Inside there are pictures, too, of "the adorable palace nursery."

Things are harder for the American television networks, which are finding their legendary ability to fill hours of programming with no substantial news whatsoever tested by all this waiting and waiting. The news is still that there is no news.

But nothing can stop the breathless hype. "The whole world is waiting for the birth," gushed CNN's Christiane Amanpour, confirming the network's descent from once-serious news station to just another peddler of tabloid pap. Truly, the slums of Manila and the favelas of Rio de Janeiro are agog with excitement, scarcely able to contain their sense of wonder as the House of Windsor prepares to perpetuate itself again.

Amid all this insanity, just about the only people retaining any sense of balance are members of the royal family. "Well, you know, everybody has babies. And it's lovely, but I don't get wildly excited about it," Margaret Rhodes, Queen Elizabeth II's 88-year-old cousin, told CNN. There's something to be said for aristocratic sang-froid.

Her Majesty seems little more concerned. Asked about the prospect of becoming a great-grandmother, the queen replied, "I would very much like it to arrive because I'm going on holiday soon." In a time of change, it is reassuring to be reminded that the British upper class still believes emotions are wasted on children and should, instead, be confined to dogs and other animals.

Will it be a boy? Will it be a girl? For reasons that are largely mystical, the presumption -- backed by the bookmakers -- appears to be that Kate will deliver a girl, though given the history of the House of Windsor, animal, vegetable, or mineral seems about as probable as either a male or female Homo sapiens. For those concerned about these matters, Alexandra and Charlotte are among the favorite names if the child proves female. (For real punters, Psy is a long-shot bet at 5000/1.)

Nevertheless, a girl would be more politically significant than a boy. In a reminder that even the most ancient institutions must nod to prevailing fashions, Britain's laws of succession were recently changed to permit a first-born princess to inherit the throne. Until recently, any princess in such a position risked being supplanted by the arrival -- unwelcome, doubtless -- of any younger brother. Primogeniture has now been extended to girls. This is considered radical. Much more of this, and soon a British monarch might even be permitted to marry a Catholic.

But, of course, in its way it is modestly radical, not least because changing the succession laws in Britain also means changing them in the 14 other countries -- including Canada and Australia -- where Queen Elizabeth remains head of state. When dealing with an institution as ancient as the British monarchy, all change is complicated.

At least Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge appear to be a happy and contented couple. To the extent that normality is possible in such impossible lives, they appear to be about as "normal" as could possibly be expected. Their marriage appears built upon rather sounder foundation than that endured by Prince William's parents.

If, constitutionally speaking, the duchess's responsibilities are confined to producing "an heir and a spare," it should be remembered that doing so is no small thing for the very good reason that it would make the prospect -- however distant -- of Prince Harry one day assuming the throne that much more improbable. Putting more bodies between Harry and the crown cannot be thought a bad idea, however entertaining the thought of the playboy prince one day becoming monarch might be.

William and Kate's popularity is likely to sustain the House of Windsor for another half-century at least. The modern monarchy's legitimacy rests less on the divine rights of kings than on the public's willingness to tolerate it. Queen Elizabeth has been a model monarch not least because, with the possible exception of her horse-racing interests, no one can say confidently what her views are on any given subject at all. By not expressing opinions, she avoids controversy. By suppressing ego she offers the impression of selfless service. Her son, the present Prince of Wales, could learn and profit from her example. The suspicion that he will not do so justifies the occasional suggestion -- fanciful in the extreme -- that the crown should pass from Queen Elizabeth to Prince William, skipping Prince Charles.

Prince William may not inherit the throne for another 40 years, but he appears to have absorbed the lessons imparted by his grandmother while enjoying, it seems, a touch of the so-called star quality his mother possessed. In that respect, he may be thought a surprisingly modern prince.

But in the meantime, like extras in an endless performance of Waiting for Godot, we sit and wait and wait and wonder when the news will come. When it does, the joy some will feel at the arrival of the newborn prince or princess will be nothing compared with the relief felt by most that at last this long, international nightmare is over.

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