Russia Belarus

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko take a pause during a Dec. 29, 2021, Night Hockey League match following their talks in Strelna, outside St. Petersburg, Russia.

One year ago, a leader of the country, in an appalling but unsurprising dereliction of duty, sat back and scarfed down cheeseburgers as an unruly mob of paranoiac self-professed patriots stormed the Capitol and wreaked mayhem. One lost her life in her zeal to enter.

The leader’s party aped the Flying Wallendas after, dancing a tightrope in order to continue to play follow-the-leader to their base, then spent the last year gerrymandering districts and lining up kindred statriots for whom real democracy is toilet paper, ready to wipe it all away in 2024.

If it feels like a chapter from “Animal Farm” or “Lord of the Flies,” get used to it. This year, the midterms will doubtless turn the out party in, presaging wintry winds in the halls of governance. While this Putinesque psychodrama plays out, the new czar himself leans into Ukraine with might and metal, cowing a nervous NATO. Long ago, I dreamed of visiting Russia, to walk in the footsteps of Raskolnikov — more relevant now than ever — and to visit the city from which my maternal grandparents hailed before arriving on the shores of the 20th century. That plan went sour faster than sucking on a lemon. The Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in 1986 poisoned the lands of my ancestors. The reactor was near the Ukrainian city of Pripyat, which went from nearly 50,000 inhabitants to a ghost town of none. Belarus lay less than 10 miles away, and the main hospital 130 miles away in Gomel, where my grandparents were born, was flooded with radiation-poisoned people. Fully 70 percent of the nuclear fallout was in Belarus. Nobody would have predicted the one-two punch of eight years later, when a political poison would prove even more pervasive than Reactor 4’s radiation. Its name: Lukashenko.

Belarus’ authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko, who came to power in 1994, has termed himself “Europe’s Last Dictator.” Elections there are a joke, and his presidency is not recognized as legitimate by the U.S., the U.K. or the EU. On the other hand, he is welcomed by a rogues’ gallery of bad actors including Russia, China, Iran, Armenia, Syria, Venezuela and Cuba. Last month, a court in Gomel sentenced the husband of exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya to an 18-year prison term. So much for my youthful notions of touring Gomel.

This tale of two cities, D.C. and Gomel, and two countries, the U.S. and Belarus, may seem as tortured as Lukashenko’s interrogation practices. Until, perhaps, we remember Abu Ghraib.

And the courthouse in Gomel is a far cry from our sacred Supreme Court. Tell that to the reluctantly expectant mothers of Texas.

And we could never have a wannabe dictator strutting the halls of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. like a rogue soldier from “The Nutcracker.” I mean, right? Is your collar feeling a little tight near this sick anniversary of Jan. 6?

In 1935, Sinclair Lewis penned “It Can’t Happen Here,” the tale of a Hitleresque rise to power in the U.S. Before 1994, it would have seemed extreme fiction in Belarus. Not anymore. The rigging of election boards in red states is proceeding apace, as those who would rerun the last election aim their tractor beams on 2024. Next time around, they don’t want the dystopian dance of an insurrection in D.C.’s January streets. Rather, they would follow Mark Meadows’ playbook and refuse to certify any results with which they don’t agree. Yet they grill their hot dogs on July 4th and stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner” at ballgames. They think they are patriots, only they are playing for another team in a league of nations, such as Belarus.

They tell me we are all fellow Americans and we should be respectful of differences of opinion. But what happens when those opinions include winning at all costs and the Constitution be damned? What happens when state officials do real damage by rigging the game? Will there be cheeseburgers in the paradise they are envisaging when he rides back in on his red elephant? If the Supremes of 2024 are even less so than those of 2000, we hang our chads or hang alone. One way or another, a court stocked with six justices of a decided bent gives no reassurance.

If the fool returns to the hill in 2024, borne upon a tide of tactics unbefitting a nation based on free and fair elections, I just might have to reconsider my vacation plans. Gomel may not be lovely in winter, but at least there the trumping of elections is par for the course. Once upon a time, my mother’s family saw America as a shining beacon calling to them. It has become a strobe light, with an epileptic fit in the offing. When that light dims, all fall down.

Dalton Delan can be followed @UnspinRoom on Twitter. He has won Emmy, Peabody and duPont-Columbia awards for his work as a television producer.