By Nelly Bekus
Cityscape of Minsk embodies the imaginary environment of the Belarusian power as a legitimate successor of the socialist state.
“If Soviet cities had looked like Minsk today, Soviet Union would have survived,” is probably one of the most indicative opinions I’ve ever heard from the visitors of the Belarusian capital. It is rather problematic to say to which extent it captures the hypothetical fortune of the Soviet state, but what it certainly does is reveal aspirations that inform the capital formative politics of the Belarusian leadership.
Any state can be viewed as a performative collective actor, which both reproduces and has been reproduced through banal processes, which enforce the symbolic presence of state across all kinds of social practices and relations and which help to sustain connection between the state and the people via the concept of belonging. Any capital city is assigned a particular role in displaying and channeling the nation’s image and idea. Yet, in country like Belarus the pressure on capital’s symbolic importance not even doubles, but triples. The country’s newborn national statehood, its centralized political system, and its vastly meaningful socialist legacy, material and non-material alike, facilitate maintaining the hegemony of power in various spheres of peoples’ life. Belarus turned to be particularly apt to preserve and develop the Soviet pattern of the symbolic-ideological design of state, reproducing the matrix of the “spectacular state” in the nationstate framework. A wide range of various civil rituals and social practices has been developed on the micro- and macro-levels of everyday life of the Belarusians, which aim at symbolic reification of the Belarusian idea, as understood by ideologists. Minsk, no doubt, has been assigned a particular role in the performative strategy of the Belarusian state.
Favourable National Framework for the Socialist Legacy
After the failure of state socialism the capital cities of the new independent states had to formulate new principles of their urban development. For many countries, the model to follow became the “Western city,” as an attribute of European civilization, the winner of the Cold War. The consequences of cities’ development in that direction (socio-spatial stratification, suburbanization, gentrification, automobilization, etc.) were perceived as natural and even desirable products of the changing pattern of urbanism. The socialist legacy of cities associated with the outdated system came to be perceived as unwanted inheritance. Micro-districts that once embodied the idea of egalitarian society have now become the most decaying areas in cities.
Against this background, Minsk appears to be a rare exception. The status granted to its socialist legacy in the new national cityscape and the logic of its cooperation with the nation-state ideology puts Belarus outside of Eastern European liberal affinity. The primary metaphor of the Belarusian official discourse defining post-communism has become the idea of a seamless continuation of the Soviet tradition. From the beginning of his presidency, the Belarusian President A. Lukashenko has chosen strategy of exploiting the nostalgic feelings of one part of Belarusian society, and he did so for a good reason. The last decade of the state socialism often depicted as “Soviet decay” seemed contrary to the lived experience of most Belarusians. It was not stagnation, but the years of rapid economic development and improvement of the lifestyle of the majority.
Minsk as a Soviet Artefact
The major structural changes in Belarus took place after the Second World War. Minsk as the capital of the Republic of Belarus was also the product of Soviet vintage. Minsk experienced massive destruction during the Second World War, it was the third most demolished city after Berlin and Warsaw. 80% of city infrastructure and 70% of pre-war housing stock of the city were destroyed.
According to the conception of master plan of Minsk (1946), new city was designed to combine the image of a “true capital of the Soviet Socialist republics” with the function of a large industrial center. The combination of striking parade monumentalism, patriotic art decoration and traditional motifs has become the most characteristic feature of the central avenues of Minsk. In late 1950s, when quasi-pragmatic period of socialist architecture had begun with its shift to the wide use of standardized construction, the center of Minsk had been surrounded by a belt of simplistic buildings made of pre-fabricated concrete, gradually passing into the clone-like “sleeping areas” of late socialism. The image of city soon became dominated by buildings that provided modest accessible housing for everybody due to a rapid construction of classless neighborhoods.
In the 1960s, when the construction of the monumental image of the city center was almost complete, Soviet authorities undertook an action for the ideological design of Minsk. A mythology of the partisan movement as the specific “Belarusian” contribution to a common victory in the Great Patriotic War became a key element of the Soviet Belarusian historical narrative, immediately reflected in a corresponding symbolization of public spaces in Minsk. The status of “Hero City” was given to Minsk in 1974. In addition, several important monuments were dedicated to World War II: Victory square with the eternal flame in front of the obelisk in the city center; Yama Memorial (the Ditch), dedicated to the commemoration of 800 000 Belarusian Jews—victims of the Holocaust; and a memorial on the site of the Nazi concentration camp Trastsianets. The Belarusian Great Patriotic War Museum in Minsk became the first museum in Belarus, opened in 1944, even before the war was over. In 1966 it was relocated to Oktiabrskaya Square, next to the building of the Central Committee of Communist Party of BSSR (the Presidential Palace since 1994).
The mythology so attentively composed by Soviet ideologists for Belarusians outlived the Soviet state itself. It became a key element of the national narrative about heroic collective deeds. In contrast to the Soviet narrative, the new discourse nationalizes the Belarusians’ heroic fight against the Nazi occupiers during World War II. The emphasis has been put not on the fraternal struggle of Soviet people against invaders, but on the Belarusians’ effort in liberation of their land. In a similar fashion, the general perception of Sovietness has been “Belarussified.”The Soviet period is now described as a period of formation of the contemporary Belarusian nation.
The Soviet legacy, solidified and materialized in the center of Minsk, appears to be a fairly relevant reflection of the official view on the formation of the Belarusian nation. The Sovietness of Minsk’s city center has the same functional meaning of “historical heritage” that all European countries invest in their capitals. In old European cities the preservation of the historical center has meant the creation of a kind of reservoir of national cultural tradition, molded into architectural form. The history encoded in the architectural monumentality of the Stalinesque center of Minsk refers to the Soviet era, but it has been attributed the same symbolic meaning. In 2004, Belarusian authorities nominated Minsk’s central avenue for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List (avenue’s name in Soviet times— Stalin Avenue, from 1961—Lenin Avenue, from 1991—Frantishak Skaryna Avenue, and, finally, since 2004 till present time—Independence Avenue). The cultural legacy, represented by the remarkably solid and stylistically homogeneous urban architectural ensemble of central Minsk, has been presented as evidence of the Soviet contribution to the formation of the Belarusian nation. In the spirit of this memory politics, not only have all Soviet monuments kept their place and symbolic meaning in Minsk’s public space (including the Lenin statue on Independence Square) but new monuments commemorating events and characters related to the Soviet past have also been built during the years since independence. A Feliks Dzierzhinski statue was installed in Minsk in 2006—a memorial to the founder of the Soviet NKVD, though there was a Dzierzhinsky monument in Minsk, built in the Soviet era near Independence Avenue. Several new monuments were built on the wave of the nationalization of the memory of World War II, such as the “Belarus Partizanskaya” (Partisan Belarus) monument that was built in 2004, and the memorial “Broken Hearth” dedicated to the memory of the victims of Nazism. New museum of the Great Patriotic War was opened in Minsk in 2014, which proposed a new version of the official war narrative, centered on Belarusians and their combined image of great victimhood and heroism.
The Ideological Concept and a Slight Shift
The symbolic domination of the Soviet legacy in the Minsk cityscape proves to be very consistent with the ideological concept of Belarus promoted by ruling elites. In those post-Soviet countries that developed liberal political regimes, any changes in the symbolic landscape of the capital cities reflect the struggle among the political elites for the “symbolic capital” embodied in and represented by places of memory (P. Bourdieu 1990). In Belarus, however, such a period of open contestation over the symbolic landscape of Minsk lasted only for four years from 1991 to 1994, and the changes made then did not affect the city’s existing monuments, though some changes did take place in the toponyms of Minsk. Although these changes were rather limited in scale (only 14 streets were renamed), they did affect key streets in the city center, effectively making visible the nationalization of the capital: the central Lenin Avenue was renamed after the leading Belarusian Renaissance scholar and humanist Francisk Skaryna, Lenin Square became Independence Square and Gorki (Russian writer) Street became Bagdanovich (Belarusian poet) Street. The Belarusian president corrected some of these changes in 2004, when he personally made a decision to rename two main thoroughfares, Skaryna Avenue and Praspekt Masherava as Independence Avenue and Avenue of the Victors. These changes were meant to indicate the authorities’ attention to the 60th anniversary of Victory Day in World War II and state independence, once again reasserting the role of war memory for national narrative of Belarus.
The political design of the Belarusian state that was established and has been successfully maintained by the incumbent president since 1994 does not allow for any alternative sources of power that could visibly affect the symbolic landscape of the Belarusian capital. Oppositional elites, deprived of any possibilities for influencing the cityscape, have very few instruments of symbolic resistance at their disposal. One avenue that is open to them is the use of educational historical initiatives, proposed by oppositional educational centers or individual historians. The weekly newspaper Nasha Niva regularly puts out information about“alternative” historical tours of Minsk, that have been created by oppositional historians as an alternative way to see Minsk and the history of Belarus (Addresses of Belarusian People’s Republic). Certainly, these kinds of educational and cultural initiatives cannot compete with the state machine’s work on the official ideological landscape of the city through the visual design of public spaces, monuments, and posters, as well as official mass events, etc.
In the 2000s, a slight shift in the ideological reading of the Soviet legacy could be noticed in the development of the capital cityscape. From presenting Sovietness as a period of significant Belarusian achievement it has moved to the idea of Soviet past as the foundation of an independent Belarusian state and one of the origins of its successes. New symbols of Belarusian independence have been constructed with the specific goal of demonstrating the successes of the current regime. Among them was the new modern railroad station (2004), the new National Library which quickly became an icon of the new Belarus (2006), and a three-level underground shopping mall, “The Capital”, situated under Independence Square (2007), which significantly transformed the function of the former Soviet city center by adding to it a consumerist attraction. Representative monumentality of Soviet Minsk was supplemented with a new icon of post-Soviet hegemonic power—the Palace of Independence (2013), adjacent to State Flag Square, with clear intention to emphasize the firmness of the Belarusian statehood.
At the same time, authorities became more attentive to the pre-Soviet history of Minsk: some destroyed fragments of pre-revolutionary Minsk were reconstructed, such as the 19th century town hall building, the Hotel Europe, and some others. This new development of the capital was backed by the ambitions of the president to make Belarus and its capital city a touristic attraction. “European” legacy in the Belarusian context, however, is not restored in order to return the country symbolically to Europe, but, on the contrary, to authorize Belarusian geopolitical choices by showing that “Europe” exists “inside” Belarus, therefore, there is not much need for Europe existing behind the western border.
New sport arenas and new hotels (Hotel Europe, Crowne Plaza) were constructed in order to prepare for the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. This event was unconditionally perceived by the authorities as a chance to demonstrate to the international community the achievements and successes of the country’s “third way” of development.
One of the elements of this third way is related to the ongoing tradition of constructing new residential areas—microdistricts—on the outskirts of Minsk. In most of the former socialist countries, system change meant a radical break with the image-making panel houses constructed in the city. In Belarus, on contrary, the housing policy preserved orientation towards the construction of state-subsidized affordable housing for people. As a result, new residential areas on the outskirts of Minsk have been constructed in the same manner of microdistricts, i.e. more or less compact settlements, comprised of uniform blocks of flats along with associated services (educational, health, retail and cultural services), clearly reproducing the pattern of socialist urbanism.
This architectural continuation of the socialist tradition reflects one of the basic elements of Belarusian ideology—the further promotion of socialist achievements, among which are: egalitarian society, strong centralized state, and generous social welfare policy. Housing policy is among the most essential of those benefits, and the new microdistricts of the capital city are there to prove the state’s adherence to its ideology.
The new microdistricts constructed in Minsk in the post-Soviet period are probably less important in terms of their symbolic value for the cityscape. But they are extremely meaningful in terms of constructing the capital’s image as a successor of the Soviet city. Being post-socialist in time but socialist in essence, microdistricts manifest the living tradition of the “parentstate,” to use the concept of Katherine Verdery, in present day Belarus.
Indeed, cityscape of Minsk represented by monumental Stalinesque center and fresh microdistricts on the peripheries embodies the imaginary environment of the Belarusian power as a legitimate successor of socialist state. To understand this, one has to remember that fundamental raison d’etre of the Belarusian independence was not in overcoming the crisis caused by fundamentally inefficient and erroneous system of state socialism, as was the case in many former socialist countries. Current Belarusian authority was brought to power in 1994 and has been driven ever since by the need to solve the problems caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union and state socialism. Minsk is called to play its role in displaying paradoxical accomplishments of the Belarusian path—the path of resisting the very idea of failed socialism. And in this capacity it also became an instrument of sustaining the ideological hegemony and symbolic legitimization of current power.
Original published in Aspen Review, Central Europe 2014, 4: