Freedom Square (Ploshcha Svabody) in Miensk

By Volha Babkova, belarusian historian and writer, for ODB

Translated by Mark Bence

Like Rome, Miensk is built on seven hills, nowadays partially levelled and flattened, but which still give the city a unique landscape. At the top of the highest hill is Freedom Square which in ancient times used to be called the Upper (Higher) Marketplace or Upper City, and was known as Cathedral Square under the Russian empire. It was named “Upper” in contrast to the Lower Marketplace near the Castle below (currently 8 March Square, the entrance to the Niamiha metro station). By the end of the 16th century, the Castle had ceased to be an administrative centre, and a new city centre was gradually forming around the Higher Marketplace, with the City Hall in the middle.

The Higher Marketplace in 19th century by V.Stashchanuk
The Higher Marketplace in 19th century by V.Stashchanuk

Freedom Square is about 400 years old. It came into being in the aftermath of a huge fire which disfigured the mediaeval city at the end of the 16th century. That was when a general plan was first drawn up to launch a major restructuring, and it resulted in the creation of a typical Renaissance city, with a system of streets radiating out in different directions from the centre. The Higher Marketplace was connected to the rest of the city by six streets. Miensk retained this street plan until the first half of the 19th century.

Today, one can still take in a fascinating panorama from up on the hill: the River Svislach and the place where it is joined by the underground River Niamiha; the former Lower Marketplace and Castle (due to be rebuilt); the Trinity Suburb; Niamiha Street (one of the original thoroughfares); and the oldest remaining Orthodox church—the Church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul (also known as the “Yellow” or “Catherine’s” church).

The square itself is a true historical centre of Miensk, where architectural monuments that were ruined at various times have survived or are being rebuilt, where the original 16th-century street layout remains, and where one can still see old brickwork in the foundations of buildings. One can also hear the bells of all the active churches, as well as the “voice” of the City Hall clock.

Above the square today rise the towers of four churches (two of which are still active) and the City Hall. Almost every building on the square has a historical past, ranging from the Middle Ages to modern times. For example, the old cloth hall, Miensk grammar school, the

The Hotel Europe, Minsk
The Hotel Europe, Minsk

place where Miensk’s first theatre once stood (site of the former Radziwill family’s palace) and the Hotel Europe. Elderly residents still remember how tramlines were laid in the cobblestones of the steep slope that leads down from the square to the river, where the trams used to ring their bells in a special way. Before that, horse-drawn trams also used to run there. As a matter of fact, the square is a historical site in itself, since it was the location of numerous events of not just Belarusian, but also world historical significance. For example, parades and inspections of Napoleonic troops were held on the marketplace in 1812.

The dominant feature of Freedom Square has long been its Bernardine churches, monastery and nunnery, which all survived the war and have a history of their own. Miensk’s stone Bernardine Monastery was built on the site of a wooden church and monastery which burned down in the mid-17th century. It was rebuilt many times following the fire.

The Church of St. Joseph, Minsk
The Church of St. Joseph, Minsk

Next to the baroque-style Church of St. Joseph was the Bernardine graveyard, where members of famous Belarusian noble families were buried. The interior of the church was adorned with frescoes, and had nine stone and wooden altars. In the 18th century, the monastery also had a school of philosophy with approximately ten students. Currently, the church building houses two state archives, but the people of the city are still concerned about the future of the monastery buildings and church, where believers would like to see services held once more. Interestingly, during the reconstruction of the monastery building several years ago, a pile of letters from the early 1860s was discovered in the attic. They had belonged to the Bernardine cleric Filip Shcharbinski and were addressed to his parents. They were an unexpected find for ancient artefact enthusiasts!

Almost opposite the monastery buildings is the Bernardine Nunnery, which was also constructed on top of former wooden buildings. The stone nunnery was begun in 1642 and the church, built in the Vilnius baroque style typical for Belarusian lands, was named after the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Together, the monastery and nunnery occupied the entire block between Small Street and Great Bernardine Street, and were interlinked by branching underground passageways.

The Orthodox Cathedral of the Descent of the Holy Spirit, Minsk
The Orthodox Cathedral of the Descent of the Holy Spirit, Minsk

Under the Russian empire, the church was converted into an Orthodox church. Following the defeat of the January Uprising, led by Kastus Kalinouski, the nunnery was used as a jail for insurgent prisoners. The church was closed down after 1917, and religious services only resumed in 1943, during the Second World War. The miraculous icon of the Miensk Madonna was moved there in 1945. Nowadays, the church has become the Orthodox Cathedral of the Descent of the Holy Spirit.

One of the most significant symbols of the Upper Marketplace was the City Hall, erected in the 16th century and referred to in 1600 as “newly built for the embellishment of the city”. The Miensk magistrates would meet there, it served as a court and a prison, the standard weights and measures (a standard barrel, and a copper receptacle bearing the city’s coat of arms) were kept there, and the city’s first clock was mounted on its tower. In documents, marketplace residents would write the location of their homes in relation to the City Hall, e.g. “opposite the City Hall”, “behind the City Hall” or “near the City Hall”. Criminals were sometimes punished on the City Hall square. Under the Russian empire, the baroque building was rebuilt in classicist style but was soon destroyed, since its very existence reminded the cityfolk of their former freedom and customs, self-government, and Magdeburg Rights. In 1857, Tsar Nicholas І signed an order to demolish the City Hall, and it was knocked down by prisoners from the city jail. Nevertheless, it still continued to serve the city: 1483 signs were made out of sheet metal from the City Hall; stones from its walls were used to cobble the streets; and its timber was made into bridges and gazebos in the city park.

Opposite the City Hall, across the road which bisects Freedom Square, stands the majestic Parish Church of Jesus, Mary and St. Barbara, which used to be surrounded by the buildings of the Jesuit College: the church, a college with a clock-tower, a school and various outbuildings. The Jesuits appeared in Miensk in the mid-17th century, and gradually took over a whole block on the Upper Marketplace. The baroque church was commissioned and designed in Rome, its foundations were laid in 1700, and it was already adorning Miensk’s main square 20 years later. Its towers held four bells, all named individually—Casimir, Thaddaeus, Felician and Jacob—and the latter weighed 350 poods (5733 kilograms)! A chapel inside the church was also named after St. Felician, the patron saint of Miensk. The church’s interior was decorated with frescoes, and its main altar contained 12 wooden sculptures of the apostles. Over the years, Peter the Great, Ivan? Mazepa, Charles XII and Marshal Davout all stayed in the college buildings and, under the Russian empire, the Jesuit school building served as the residence of the vice-governor of Miensk. The head of the Northern Society of Decembrists, Nikita Muravyov, worked in the Jesuit school library to draft a constitution in 1821–1822. All of his letters to Russia were specifically signed “Miensk. Lithuania”. During the Second World War, the building housed the city council, and it is now a college of music. In Soviet times, the church was handed over to the Spartak sports association. People still recall how the choir conductor Ryhor Shyrma placed a tuning-fork to the wall of the church and remarked excitedly, but with a heavy heart, on the acoustics of the desecrated building. Nowadays, the church has regained its former appearance, and is the main Catholic church in the city. It is one of the best examples of a restored religious edifice in Miensk, thanks to work involving both Belarusian and Polish specialists.

Last year, the most beautiful church on the Upper Marketplace—the Uniate (Greek Catholic) Church of the Holy Spirit, which graced the city from the 1630s until 1936—was rebuilt in its former location, while the buildings of the Basilian monastery and nunnery have survived until now. The church itself, which combined Gothic and Renaissance elements, boasted a unique façade of a kind unknown elsewhere in Europe, and was clear proof of the existence of a Belarusian school of architecture. The façade used to be painted with frescoes depicting saints in special niches. Unfortunately, this detail is missing from the reconstructed church. Another remarkable feature of the Church of the Holy Spirit was that its services were held both for the monks of the monastery and the nuns of the nunnery alike—one of the only such cases in church history. At the time, people were impressed by the church’s sturdy walls and vaults, which were also suitable for defensive purposes. Inside the church was a famed miraculous icon of the Madonna which, as legend would have it, floated up the River Svislach (against the current) in 1500. Under the Russian empire, it was renamed to the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, and its Renaissance appearance was altered, yet it was still a singular landmark on Cathedral Square. The eminent Belarusian poet Maksim Bahdanovich was probably christened in this very church.

In 1930, church bell-ringing was banned by the authorities. In the same year, the Church of the Holy Spirit was converted into a granary, only to be blown up six years later. Elderly residents recall that, just before that act of vandalism, state employees went from house to house, ordering people to seal up their windows to protect them from the force of the blast. In Soviet times, the church was replaced with a zoo, then a pub called Yasen (“The Ash Tree”). At the end of the 1980s, Belarusian youth groups organised archaeological digs on the site of the church, involving the Belarusian Popular Front’s former leader, Zianon Pazniak.

The authorities did not give the renovated church back to the Greek Catholics, and instead turned it into the Upper City Children’s Philharmonic.

On the site where the huge, grim, mausoleum-like Palace of the Republic now stands, Miensk’s first Dominican Catholic Monastery was founded at the start of the 17th century, and included the beautiful baroque Church of St. Thomas Aquinas. Travellers remarked on its impressive walls and resonant organ. There was an interesting legend about the founding of the church, according to which some Miensk nobles, returning from a Moscow campaign, organised a charity collection for the church.

The Church of St. Thomas Aquinas, XIXth century, Minsk
The Church of St. Thomas Aquinas,
XIXth century, Minsk

It was nicknamed the “hoof” collection, for a tax was levied on every horse that entered the city. The coats of arms of the eight noble families who organised the collection were hung inside the church. As a result, work to build the Dominican church and monastery was begun in 1605, but they were severely damaged by the fire which later swept the city. The monastery was rebuilt by the mid-17th century, when it also served as a defensive outpost for the city, but it was ravaged during the Russo–Polish War of 1654–1667. Excavations on the site of the Dominican monastery revealed an immense mass grave dating back to that terrible war which transformed the fate of the city and the entire country. The monastery was closed down by the Russian authorities in 1832, but the walls of the mighty building lasted until after the Second World War, even though they suffered a direct hit from a bomb. There is also evidence that, during the German occupation, its walls were inspected by Kube, the General Commissar of Belarus. The building was completely destroyed in the 1950s, however. Since its foundations were still in good condition, there were plans to build an open-air archaeological museum on the site of Miensk’s first monastery, but in fact it was replaced by a modern building—the Palace of the Republic.

Nevertheless, the city now has new hope of seeing a reconstruction of the Church of St. Thomas Aquinas. Minsk City Executive Committee has approved a proposal from the Belarusian Volunteer Society for the Conservation of Historical and Cultural Monuments to rebuild and restore the splendid baroque church on Kastrychnickaya Square. In time, perhaps what is currently known as Engels Street will also revert to its original name of Dominican Street?

Volha Babkova