The wave of demolition sweeps over the country...
In about a week Minsk will celebrate its 940’s birthday. Although probably the word “birthday” is totally inappropriate in this case. It was, in fact, the doomsday of the Belarusian capital, which happened in 1067. The first mentioning of Minsk in the ancient chronicle describes the city’s demolition during the battle between the warring Slavic dukes. Since then, it seems, destroying Minsk has become some kind of a perverted tradition. Eastern and Western powers often solved their disputes on the Belarusian soil. However, the recent history shows that Belarusian authorities can be just as barbarian as the uninvited foreign guests.
For Minsk, the WWII became a turning point. The city heavily suffered from bombings. As a result, the Soviet government decided not to reconstruct the old Minsk, but to build a new city from scratch. Vast areas of the old city centre were demolished, giving the way to the gargantuan Soviet buildings and broad avenues. The pitiful remains of the old city were turned into some kind of architectural ghetto.
The Soviet propaganda promoted the image of the Belarusian capital as “the young city”. The village youth poured into Minsk, hoping to find place in its faceless boxes of flats and get jobs at its new industrial plants. This exodus (which also continues today) brought a certain change in psychology of the capital’s population. Usually a person who is rooted in the city finds special pleasure in walking down the twisted paved streets, watching the old buildings, so beautiful in their imperfectness. On the contrary, a person from the village usually sees things from a rather practical angle. A new barn is better than the old one, so they say. For instance, why keep some rotten synagogue which no one attends (Nazis took care of that), if you can build a brand-new concrete office tower instead? Combined with the Soviet arrogance towards the pre-communist history, this psychology resulted into another massive wave of demolition in the 60’s and the 70s. In Minsk the whole ancient Niamiha neighborhood was sacrificed to the enormous ugly apartment block.
The same happened in other Belarusian cities and towns, with churches and other historic landmarks blown into the air. In the southern town of Mazyr, for example, the whole market square with its many stores, craftsmen shops, resident houses, old trees and gymnasium was torn down.
The short period of democratization in the early 90s brought hope that the old centers of Belarusian towns would be restored some day. However, the last couple of years brought the new wave of demolition. It sweeps over Belarus, swallowing the last remnants of the nation’s architectural memory. Like the soviets, the regime of Lukashenka tries to get rid of any reminders of the pre-soviet times. New is the fact that the Belarusian officials and businessmen seem to have created an alliance, which threatens to bring down everything, which stands on the way of turning Belarus into the land of parking lots and hypermarkets. They see Belarus as the land of happy consumption, bringing a lot of profit and little trouble.
The demolition fashion has plagued most of Belarusian urban areas. Minsk and Hrodna (Grodno) suffer from this “beautification” policy the most. In Hrodna (Grodno) more than 30 historic buildings are scheduled for being torn down. In Minsk, the new multi-storied parking complex built in Niamiha district completely buried the last remains of the old buildings in the heart of the Belarusian capital. The buildings with protective plaques in the old Upper Market district are lying in ruins. By sad coincidence, one of them hosted the archive of the Minsk historic museum. As a result, more than 300 000 archeological items were simply sent to the garbage dump.
Today there remain only about a dozen of authentic buildings in Minsk, which are more than 100 years old.
The plans to turn the former St. Joseph’s monastery in Minsk into a casino and a hotel became the last drop, which caused regular protests – not only from Catholics. More than 20 000 people signed the petition demanding to return the monastery to the Catholic church.
Belarusian counterculture singers have launched the campaign “Musicians against the Demolition of Hrodna”. They give regular underground concerts in the Western Belarusian city, calling for people to resist the demolition of Hrodna (Grodno). The town has seen many pickets and flash-mobs aimed at raising awareness of what is happening. Usually, such actions result in arrests.
“Neither after the war, nor now does the Belarusian nation clearly see its future. That is why it is so negligent about its history”, writes Siarhej Hareuski, culture scientist, who is one of the most active persons opposing the destruction of the old city centers.
The architectural tastes may vary, but one thing remains clear: the authorities are so arrogant toward their people that they don’t even attempt to explain or justify their actions. As a rule, the “reconstruction” of historic buildings is done without any discussion with the wider public.
In Belarus with its authoritarian rule no one is taken by surprise when the state interferes with political and cultural life of people. However, the destruction of the urban habitat is a rude intrusion into the intimate sphere of Belarusians, that many feel very offended. Not all of them treat architectural landmarks as old barns. In some way, by ruining the old city centres, the regime destroys Belarus which we know since we were small kids. Bulldozers kill our childhood memories. Those who fight against them form a new circle of active and responsible – a good foundation for the future civil society.
Meanwhile, the architectural policy of the Belarusian authorities has already interested foreign media. ORT, the Russain TV channel recently broadcast a report about the “reconstruction” of Hrodna (Grodno). The city Mayor Aliaksandr Antonenka told the correspondent, “If you show me a single building which was demolished and not rebuilt, or won’t be rebuilt, I will eat your neck-tie!” We can only advise the Russian journalist to hold on to his apparel. The appetites of the Belarusian authorities are growing.
Parking complex in Niamiha (Minsk) has not only deviated from the original project, but also spoiled the unique skyline. (Siarhey Hareuski)
St. Joseph’s church and monastery in Minsk
Police arrests picketers in Hrodna (Photo Ales Zaleuski)
“Musicians against the Demolition of Hrodna”
Hrodna – some of the buildings to be demolished (Photo by Julia Darashkevich)
Ales Kudrytski for the Office for a Democratic Belarus