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Hair-Raising: Minsk Barbershop Elicits Buzz, Rancor With Name Evoking Soviet-Era Secret Police

Aleh Kot (left) and Illya Myatlitski opened their Chekist Barbershop on January 3.
Aleh Kot (left) and Illya Myatlitski opened their Chekist Barbershop on January 3.

In the former Soviet Union, mention of the word "chekist" could make the hair on some people's necks stand up.

Now, a pair of barbers in the Belarusian capital are hoping that same term -- for secret policemen with a reputation for brutal oppression -- might actually attract a new generation to get their hair cut.

Aleh Kot and his partner Illya Myatlitski knew the risk when they opened their Chekist Barbershop on January 3. But they're hoping the name will conjure up images of secret agents such as James Bond instead of the group created under Vladimir Lenin that struck terror in the hearts and minds of the Soviet public.

"If we look at films involving secret services, we have an image of a man who always looks good, for example, always has a neat hairstyle. Such people are always successful, so that's why we chose this name," Kot says from inside the shop in central Minsk.

The term "chekist" comes from the Russian abbreviation ChK, for Extraordinary Commission, set up by the notorious Feliks Dzerzhinsky, and echoed during the August 1991 KGB-led coup attempt against then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, which called itself the State Committee for the Emergency Situation (GKChP).

In a 1967 speech, Andropov praised Dzerzhinsky as "a man infinitely devoted to the revolution and ruthless toward its enemies." Dzerzhinsky himself wrote in 1919 that "I know that for many there is no name more terrifying than mine."

Critics of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka have described him as "Europe's last dictator" and accuse his administration as preserving some of the most oppressive features of its Soviet heritage.

'Chekists = Gestapo'

Myatlitski says that given the word's history, the decision to name the business wasn't taken lightly.

"We know that many people died behind this negative word. But we decided to try, especially in this sector in Minsk, where you need something to entice the customer," he says. "In the 21st century, today's young people probably don't pay much attention to history."

In fact, the shop already enticed a small group of activists to protest its name on January 9.

Activist Zmitser Dashkevich puts up a list of dozens of people killed by chekists in one day.
Activist Zmitser Dashkevich puts up a list of dozens of people killed by chekists in one day.

Zmitser Dashkevich, leader of Malady Front opposition movement, argues that the problem is that the generation of Belarusians who grew up in the Lukashenka era doesn't realize that there's "no difference" between chekists and members of the Gestapo.

"Hitler's Nazi Germany killed 18.5 million people all over the world, while chekists killed 18 million people in one country," he says.

"Their own grandfathers and grandmother might have been killed by chekists, and now they are choosing this name for the business. That's possible only in a country that does not respect its own history," he adds.

After several attempts to hang a poster inside the barbershop listing dozens of names of people who were killed by chekists in one day, Dashkevich hung the poster on a door near the entrance to Chekist.

Eduard Palchys, a Belarusian blogger and former political prisoner, says he has offered "constructive" ways out of the situation, such as helping to organize a public campaign to rename the barbershop.

"Unfortunately, many businesspeople in Belarus don't care about the history, or tragic pages of our history, to be precise, when choosing a name for their business, and their goals are about getting profits rather than cherishing Belarusian history," he told RFE/RL's Belarus Service.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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