Simon Öhman, 28, is from Gällivare, Sweden. A small town just north of the Arctic Circle, in a place where people would point on a map and ask, who the hell lives there?
He has been living in Grodno for around a year together with his girlfriend and studying Master of Laws at Yanka Kupala State University. A frequent guest in Belarus has a lot to share on striking differences and similarities his faraway hometown and Grodno have.
Sweden has one of the most controlled housing markets in the world. In Stockholm for example, the average waiting time for a first-hand rental contract is almost 9 years. A number that has been considered for the Guinness World of Records.
In my hometown most people have first-hand rental contracts, in contrast, the rental market in Grodno relies heavily on second-hand agreements. The housing market in Gällivare is better than in the major cities, but for very special reasons.
Parts of my hometown is located above massive iron-ore mine and for the last 100 years, the mine has been eating up the ground beneath.
Because of the imminent threat of the ground collapsing, the mining company and the local government have begun an unprecedented move of relocating large parts of my hometown.
This has led to building-boom. In Gällivare, as in the rest of Sweden, we put a lot of emphasis on creating a cozy environment in our homes, especially through a minimalistic design.
In Grodno, many homes put more effort into functionality, for instance, in the way balconies are used for storage or as an extra room, rather than a place for wine drinking in the evening sun.
If you are living in Gällivare and do not own a car, you will have a hard time, buses run rarely, and distances are enormous. For example, while living in Gällivare I traveled 120 km one way, just to go to the cinema.
The transport in Grodno is rather good, with many new buses and marshrutkas that run frequently. However, as in many countries, the development goes faster in the capitals, and Belarus is no exception.
Digital ticket systems, new air conditioned and electric buses such as Belkommunmash is nowhere near Grodno.
Groceries and food
At first glance, the supermarket is the same as anywhere else, but when looking closer you will notice the peculiarities.
In many supermarkets, products don’t have an even price or a price that makes any sense. A product can cost 2,01 BYN, which is likely the result of a complex bureaucratical process of calculating prices.
In Gällivare the price would either be rounded down to 2,00 BYN for simplification, or the classical marketing trick would be used of lowering the price to 1,99 which makes the product seem much cheaper.
Some supermarkets have special staff working in fruit and vegetable departments to weigh in and put barcodes on your plastic bags instead of doing that at the register.
I see people buying milk in bags rather than milk cartons, and half the time I visit the supermarket one of these bags break, leaving the conveyor belt soaked in milk.
Some supermarkets apply a very unusual system of securing card payments. This is done by a person in the register checking the name of the card you pay with, but without checking your ID.
As such, the only thing the person can control is the gender of the card owner. Meaning that any thief who wants to beat the system only needs to make sure he uses a card with a name of his own gender.
Safety and crime
The ones who pose the biggest risk for people in Gällivare are reindeer and other wild animals who often run out on the road while you are driving.
Wild animals are the most likely perpetrators in my hometown. However, comparing the major cities of Sweden, I would consider Grodno significantly safer than them.
Even though Sweden has one of the highest taxes in the world, healthcare is in a critical condition. Primarily the high influx of immigrants and lack of funds for healthcare has created the situation.
In Gällivare I can enjoy the highest quality of healthcare, but in major cities, things are not so straightforward. Long lines for surgery, misdiagnoses, doctors who don’t speak Swedish and the increased stress of doctors and nurses are worrying.
Just like in Sweden, healthcare in Belarus is part of a wide welfare system. The difference is fundamentally in a financial situation, particularly, government spending on healthcare which affects the quality of care and research.
I’ve visited a few hospitals in Grodno, and many had their lights turned off in the corridors, presumably to save electricity.
The public hospitals and clinics are often dark and eerie, with people crammed in rooms too small for them, sagging mattresses, no toilet paper, and old medical equipment.
I saw medical equipment which I had never seen in my life before. It should be noted though, there are good private clinics and a few good public hospitals that provide high-quality healthcare.
Leisure and fun
Growing up in a small town north of the Arctic Circle has great advantages as we learn to coexist with the ruthless nature that surrounds us.
In winter, when the sun never really rises and it’s dark 20 hours per day, we enter a state of mind comparable to bears in hibernation.
It strongly affects you, you get so pale you look sick, you are tired all the time and do nothing but wait for the sun. That results in a very high tolerance for doing nothing, I seldom get bored, and it has its advantages on rainy days in Grodno.
When we go out we enjoy snowmobiling, ice skating, skiing, fishing, hunting and staying in dachas. Summertime is different as the sun never sets and it never gets dark.
Jobs and career
For a long time, Sweden’s job market has been tightly controlled by unions and the government. We have restricted the job market in order to keep salaries high and to maintain a high level of professionalism be it waitering jobs, plumbers or taxi drivers.
My hometown is entirely dependent on the mining industry. It has contributed to high salaries and living standards, arguably higher than the average in Sweden. The job market in Grodno is very different, for obvious reasons, it has an entirely different economic situation.
However, there has been an increasing growth of a new middle class who works in the IT industry in Grodno and earns well above the average.
Soul of a small-town, appearance of a big city
The nature in Gällivare and Lapland has shaped us, it has knitted us together. Every time I see a person from Lapland, I can see in them a place which nature has nurtured and milled.
Maybe it is the way we talk, more slowly, more contemplatively. Maybe it’s the way we seem withdrawn and introverted, or in the way we think. Whatever it is, you are affected by the nature you live in.
A city person is limited by the concrete and the stress, shaped by individualism and competitiveness. In Gällivare, I could climb up on a small hill on a clear day, and I could see for miles nothing but trees, rivers, and lakes.
The sheer space of the wilderness does something to you, it calms you and it creates perspective, perhaps a more grounded one. Probably this is what I have found in Grodno too, a grounded perspective in people.
You could say that Grodno has a soul of a small-town but an appearance of a big city. In times of great changes, people of Grodno, just like in Gällivare, have a grounded perspective that the big city dwellers often lack.
Seeing how Grodno slowly takes it steps into modernity, how it grows and nurtures its unique character in a country that is in constant development of its own national identity is a very giving experience.
We have a lot in common
Talking to my grandmother about Belarus, I can understand how much Belarus has in common with Sweden. If you draw a timeline of social and cultural development in Belarus, it would run linear with my grandmother’s youth.
In the 1950s and the 1960s, Swedish people would write in cursive, address strangers and older people with you in the plural, buy fish in special fish shops and chocolate in special chocolate shops.
Most Swedish babushkas in the villages would cover their heads with scarfs, and most Swedish people would not speak English. Belarus is experiencing an interesting period by having one foot firmly in the past and the other taking curious, light steps into the future.
Development is unavoidable, things will change, and some will improve, just like anywhere. The main comparison between Grodno and Gällivare is therefore not in the salaries, food, architecture or in language.
It is in the fact that Grodno is much like Gällivare in the 1950s and 60s, I can with bittersweetness see old traits of Sweden in Grodno, perhaps for the last generation.
After a year in Grodno, I have come to appreciate that some things were left untouched by globalism, commercialism, and consumerism. These have partly removed the unique character of many countries in Western Europe and made societies less honest.
So, next time I’ll have my tomatoes and potatoes weighed by ‘the vegetable ladies’ at the supermarket, I will cherish it rather than complain. It may be a very inefficient system, but it stands as a salute to times when things were sincerer.
Text by Simon Öhman, photos by Daria Haetskaya.