By Olga Loginova (photos by Olga Loginova, Alena Lis)
A cup of coffee, a bagel, and a newspaper with crisp, freshly printed pages - that’s an ideal for me that, while reading online newspapers in the baking summer heat of my Minsk apartment, seems almost unattainable. Reading the morning press lately, I have been delighted to realise that after years of neglect, Belarus, and Minsk as its capital, has become famous at last. I cannot say that the publicity my City received was the best kind, but as you know something is better than nothing. At least now people know where we are situated, and after all the historic innuendos and literary parallels so lavishly used by journalists, many of us expect an avalanche of tourists wishing to check out the Soviet-like reality of the city situated in the centre of Europe (Which is exactly what our authorities have always strived for).
Still, I wouldn’t say Minsk is ready for this kind of attention: the information you can find about our city is rather formal and lacks emotion, not too many people can speak English, and besides, the entertainment here is scarce, food is expensive and the weather is nasty. This is why, to contribute to the development of the national tourist industry, I am writing this short travelogue that will hopefully catch the attention of prospective tourists, and help them to see the city I have spent so many decent days in from a different prospective. Here I start, with a brief history.
History of Minsk
With no intention of exhausting prospective tourists with loads of boring information, I’ll try to specify the most important dates in Minsk history. We native dwellers take great pride in the fact that our city is almost one thousand years old (944, to be precise). Although, unfortunately, due to the devastating bombings that practically eradicated the city during WWII, it is hard to tell at first sight. Unlike our neighbouring capital Moscow (that is almost one hundred years younger) we cannot boast the elaborate 14th century mansions and churches randomly incorporated in the eclectic urban design; Minsk looks young, concrete and clean.
The first time Minsk’s location was mentioned in history was 3 March 1067, the date when four Slavic dukes clashed on the banks of the Nyamiha River, right under Minsk murals. This fact was well described in the early Slavic literary texts, which all Belarusians are supposed to study at school. By the way, the remains of the Nyamiha River are still running in the tubes deep under the City surface, which is in many ways very typical for this City: if you want to find something really interesting, you need to dig deeper.
The following centuries were rather favourable for the city. By the end of the 15th century Minsk, which was a part of the Great Duchy of Lithuania at that time, was granted the right of Independent Rule (The Magdeburg Right); the Town Hall that was erected at that time to symbolise this important step in the City’s history became the administrative and political centre of the City. Shortly after, Minsk lost its self-rule to the Russian Empire, the Magdeburg Right was abolished, and the Town Hall was destroyed. In 2004 however, a new Town Hall was built on the same spot (at Freedom Square), employing the designs of the original building.
After the Red Revolution the City was briefly occupied by German troops during WWI. The Bolsheviks who in turn also tried to establish their rule on the territory fled for a short time, and in 1918 the first truly independent Belarusian state, the Belarusian People’s Republic, was founded. However, this independent state did not last for a long time, as just a year later in 1919; Minsk was declared the Capital of the BSSR, part of the newly founded Soviet State.
With the acquisition of a high political status, Mink received additional funding for construction: some of the most significant state buildings, such as the Academy of Science, the beautiful Ballet theatre, and the old Lenin’s Library were built in the 30s and became signature landmarks of the capital.
The devastating years of WWII crushed the prosperous city, demolishing it to the ground. But as soon as the war ended, the best Belarusian architects cooperated to rebuild Mink to its modern state: with spacious streets, solid buildings (known as the Stalinist architectural style), and flourishing parks.
After this reconstruction Minsk became tranquil. It grew steadily, welcoming newcomers with its affordable tiny apartments squeezed into the newly built apartment blocks at the city outskirts. Present estimates indicate there are a little bit less than 2 million people living in Minsk.
A new wave of major rebuilding (which one day will undoubtedly bear the name of its spiritual leader) started after the Collapse of the Soviet Union. Among the most prominent buildings of this architectural epoch are the Railway Building, the new National Library (called the Diamond of Knowledge by some officials, and one of the ‘ugliest buildings on Earth’ by some architecture lovers), the Palace of the Republic (distantly reminiscent of Malevitch’s famous Black Square) and numerous sporting facilities and Arenas. They can be easily recognised by the abundance of mirror like glass, pompous forms, and slippery tiling.
Basically with a few omissions, these are major historic events in the life of the City. As you can see, many of them have been reflected in its architecture, which leads us to the next part of this article.
Don’t ask me why, but one of the most popular questions journalists like to ask visiting celebrities is what they like about Minsk. The unanimity of the reaction to this question is hard to ignore: celebrities get confused, blush a little, and mumble that Minsk is a very clean city.
Of course, Minsk is neither Barcelona, nor Paris, or Rome. The historical lifelines of the City have been erased by the wars and changes of political currents. Still, a few traces that have been miraculously preserved can speak wonders to a curious traveller.
Choose a warm sunny day (which is quite rare here) and spend it wandering along spacious Victors’ and Independence Avenues, considered to be the main arteries of the City.
Victors’ Avenue runs parallel to the river Svislach and cuts the city into two distinct parts: the business district to the right, and recreational to the left.
According to some pessimistic calculations made by unknown weather oracles, the Belarusians have only 28 sunny days throughout the year. Knowing their weather all to well, Minsk residents (me included) take advantage of every single sunny moment, be it a weekday, or a national holiday. You can rarely see Minsk overcrowded, but in the summer, the business district seems absolutely empty, while the recreational area tries to accommodate all the people who intuitively squeeze closer to the River and several man-made lakes.
Belarus is not surrounded by any big masses of water, although Minsk has its own sea, which was excavated in 1956 and since then has become a favourite resort for the city residents. Two other favourite places for tanning and swimming are Lake Kamsamolskaye, and Drazdy. Periodically, when the temperature hits its maximum, the man-made lakes get infested with various bacteria and consequently get closed by the sanitary inspectors, which does not, however, prevent people from swimming and getting infected. In fact, ladies in bikinis and middle aged men in boxers, as well as random cows wondering idly among the sunbathing masses are lovely summer symbols of our capital.
Getting closer to the City centre, look to your left, and admire the most beautiful (to my taste) scenery in Minsk: the Trinity Suburb and the Opera and Ballet House rising over the River. Isn’t it lovely? (That’s a rhetorical question, as even the most picky architects say it is very lovely).
The Trinity Suburb - the cute little city corner tiled with stones and built up with almost fairy-tale like one-store houses - is by far the biggest tourist attraction in Minsk. Miraculously, this historic artefact that dates back to as early as the 12th century, has survived the two World Wars and the Perestroika. In fact, in 1985 the Suburb saw major reconstruction, which allowed the district to accommodate craftsmen, several literary and music museums, numerous cafes and restaurants, and even the Marriage Registry Office.
Another elaborate building right across the street is the Opera and Ballet House designed by architect Joseph Langbard, and built between 1934 and 1938. The theatre was bombed during WWII, but the building stayed almost undamaged. However, the Nazis turned the theatre into stables, looting the most precious furniture, scenery and decorations. After the war the theatre opened again and became one of the most popular entertainment attractions in the city. After a major reconstruction that ended just a few years ago, the Opera House got completely renovated, and the famous lime tree park was modernised with beautiful fountains, also used as swimming pools by the overheated city dwellers.
Go a few meters further and you’ll get to Independence Avenue. If you are reminded of visiting the USSR, you have got it absolutely right. The hallmark of this Avenue is the Stalinist Imperial architectural style, demonstrated by magnificent buildings with mouldings of hammer and sickles, inspired looking workmen and heavy women holding concrete sheaves of straw. To cap it all off, the infamous Vladimir Lenin (in concrete) rises above thousands of workmen’s bodies and stares into the future of Communism, represented by the main building of the Belarusian State University.
KGB, two City Central Stores (GUM and ZUM), the Palace of Trade Union, and the House of Officers, the Post Office, The National Bank, and the Circus, Victory Square with its Victory Monument and many other buildings are united by the same motif of the ideal communist society. According to Arthur Klinau, the Belarusian artist and author, Minsk can be declared the embodiment of the Ideal Sun City (the architectural and ideological utopia attempted by all Soviet cities). Indeed, our City is the essence of political solidity and the state’s superiority over ordinary citizens. So, if you are a Soviet history fan, welcome to the USSR of the 21st century.
Finally, for the spiritual travellers, Minsk offers a wide choice of churches and cathedrals. The neo–roman Saint Simeon and Alena’s Catholic Cathedral is probably the most beloved Catholic Church in the City. Ask anybody here about the history of this church, and they will undoubtedly tell you this beautiful and sad legend: at the beginning of the 20th century Minsk was a very prosperous city, and the local nobleman Eduard Vainilovich was perhaps the richest person in town. Not only was Vainilovich greedy, he was faithless, and only through suffering could he gain redemption. He launched the construction of a Cathedral, after both his young children Simeon and Alena died of an unknown disease. According to the legend, before their death, the children saw Mother Mary who showed them the design of a future church. The nobleman’s daughter Alena, who was a gifted artist, drew the Cathedral and gave it to her father before she passed away. Vainilovitch grieved the loss of his children so much, that he repented and built the church based on the divine designs shown to his children by Mother Mary. During WWII the Cathedral was often under fire, and still it miraculously survived. During the Soviet period the beautiful church was turned into a theatre, and then a film studio. In the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the building was returned to the Catholic Church.
The Orthodox Cathedral rises majestically over Niamiha Street. Unlike the majority of orthodox churches, which are famous for their traditional onion-shaped domes, this Baroque Cathedral built in the 17th century as a catholic monastery by the Bernardine monks, and later used as a Union Church, changed its architecture and denomination several times before getting its present façade. The architectural style of the building is very peculiar and thus demonstrates an interesting fusion of different architectural styles. This Cathedral serves not only as a church, but also as a museum, so feel free to visit it and admire the spiritual tranquillity and healing power of prayer.
There is much more to say and see about Minsk, and I am afraid I have not managed to describe even a tenth of the City’s attractions: its quiet suburban yards, its green parks, and the all time favourite Botanical Garden… This City is definitely not the flamboyant kind that likes to boast of its numerous endeavours, so to appreciate it you need to be patient, kind and understanding, willing to listen and see the mysteries Minsk will uncover to the humble and grateful traveller.
And finally (and I really mean it) don’t judge us, the city residents, by our facial expressions - even if you don’t see many smiling or happy looking people – it doesn’t mean we are rude or unfriendly. The city made us shy and watchful of strangers, so smile at us first, and we will definitely smile back at you.
P.S. To artistic souls or people who prefer visual Information to print, I would highly recommend listening to the song by the Belarusian NRM band. (YouTube link provided below) Apart from the music, which is always great with this band, there is a very nice video of Minsk streets. As for the lyrics, the song tells a story of the official Minsk, the boring ideological capital of the quasi-Soviet republic and its ghost twin brother Mensk, which lives in the hearts and souls of its people.
A song about Minsk by the Belarusian band NRM
By the way, Mensk was the name originally given to city when it was built on the banks of the River Menka many centuries ago. Although this name doesn’t have an official status, ‘Mensk’ is still considered by many city dwellers a sacred and authentic name of the Belarusian capital.
Minsk: Gentle Guidance for Prospective Tourists
By Olga Loginova (photos by Olga Loginova, Alena Lis)