From Belarus with vodka

By: Terry Mackenzie-hoy

Actually, the real stuff in Minsk, in Belarus, is called Zammagon, a pure sort of Vodka that is made in the country by men and women who have names like Zut and Kristatinka. I can tell you that it has the wonder effect of making you blissfully happy just before you fall into a 12-hour sleep, during which you dream that you are wrapped up in fur with the woman from the Корнер магазин. If you can remember that a P in Russian is R in English and H is N, 3 is zed, r is geh and the backwards N is ee, then you are well on your way to saying "koerrnerr mahgehazedeen", which is 'corner shop' in Russian (and corner magazine . . . see?).

It so happens that the women at the koerrnerr mahgehazedeen in Minsk, where I stayed for ten days over Christmas, are an order of magnitude more beautiful than the girl from the fiction department in George Orwell's 1984, but then I was in Minsk, and not in Airstrip One, formally known as Great Britain (as in the book 1984 - read the book).

So, this last Christmas, I spent ten days in Minsk. How is the engineering in Minsk? We can see the Russian attitude to engineering by the museum of tanks which I visited. One of the tanks is an original T34. The turret welling seams are very good but they have not bothered to grind the welds flat and so, 60 years on, there is still welding platter around the welds. Odd. But I couldn't get a thin card between the turret rings - it was machined accurately to less than a tenth of a millimetre. Good thinking. Why waste time grinding welds on a turret which is going to be hammered by rifle and shell fire? Rather make the turret top quality.

The Belarus (and Russian) railway gauge is 1 520 mm, whereas the South African one is about 1 000 mm. As a result, the Russian underground in Minsk and, indeed, all the Russian trains, go like smoke. They have to. They have a long way to go.

The streetlights in Minsk all have the same type of fitting and luminaire. If the road category is a dual-lane freeway, they have two fittings for each pole and the poles are spaced fairly close together. For lower categories, they go to single luminaire, with the poles further apart. But they have only one, repeat one, luminaire type. Imagine what the municipality saves on inventory stock.

In Britain (and Europe), they put salt on the road to reduce icing. The salt is washed and semirefined. In Belarus, they just shovel up salty mud from the local pan or seashore and cover the road with it. It looks horrible and the top speed is about 60 km/h. But they never run out of this stuff, while shortages (especially in the UK) are common.

Russian earthmoving equipment looks the business. If I had been told that the average Belarus dump truck could drive over a container, crushing it in the process I would believe it. One of the manufacturers, BelAZ, is selling some trucks to a South African company. And it is not because there is money changing hands - it is because the trucks just really look the business.

Most of the traffic lights in Minsk are light-emitting diode types. The 'lamp' part is about 300 mm is diameter and can be seen in heavy snow. The system at many intersections in powered by batteries and the lights communicate with one another and other lighting sets by wireless signals.

Most suburban Belarus power reticulation is by means of 10-kV overhead wires on concrete poles that feed transformers which sit on top of the minisub. The transformer bushings are open and, thus, about 14 ft above ground level. Sometimes the snowdrifts are up to 10 ft deep so the transformer gets partially buried but still operates. The transformer dropout links can still operate in -25 ?C. All the low-voltage power (three-phase, 400 V; single-phase, 220 V) is by cables.

Belarus is impressive. Give it a try. The zammergone too, if you can . . .


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