Minsk Toponymics: Communist Street Names in a Medieval City
In today’s Minsk most of street names refer to the Communist period. The streets named after Lenin, Komsomol, Marx, Communism dominate the historical centre of the city founded in 1067.
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union Minsk cultural landscape was one of the most “Sovietized” in the USSR. Unlike in Warsaw, Vilnius, Kiev and even Moscow where city officials in 1990s supported communist toponymics elimination Minsk toponymics changes were limited.
Moreover, in 2000s the main capital avenues were renamed once again and now refer to the victory in Great Patriotic War – Soviet historical myth which became the main nation building myth in Lukashenka Belarus. For this reason the issue of Minsk naming often becomes a hotly debated political subject.
A city without a past?
Today’s Minsk is a city which was designed and built after the World War II. Despite the fact that Minsk has a long, nine-century history, most historical monuments did not survive. The majority of buildings in the historic parts of the Upper City and Lower City were destroyed during and after World War II by Soviet authorities. In particular, the Soviet authorities destroyed the Lower City in 1960s and replaced them with blocks of flats.
Minsk is different from Central European cities because of the absence of an old town and architecture from periods before social realism. At first glance, it seems that the city has no past and was built fifty years ago.
The story of the name of the city is illustrative. The original name of the city was Mensk. First, it was changed to Minsk by Polish authorities in the sixteenth century, and that name was used by Russian authorities in modern times.
In the 1920s, the city returned to its original name, and again Mensk was renamed Minsk by communist authorities in 1939. After the USSR collapsed in 1991, the Minsk Council of Deputies addressed the Supreme Council of Belarus to return to Minsk its origin name, but the Supreme Council refused to accept the idea.
As a result, Minsk has neither its origin architecture, nor its origin name.
Limited decommunization of Minsk street names
In the beginning of 1990s when in capitals of ex-Soviet countries took place the process of street names decommunisation and lot of sculptures which glorified communist leaders were removed, in Minsk the process of city landscape decommunisation was very limited.
Only fourteen streets and one square were renamed and none of communist sculptures were removed. These developments took place only during a short period between 1990 and 1993.
Why has the renaming been so limited? The initiative “Return Minsk Historical Street Names” from beginning of 1990s included renaming around thirty street names. Most of them were to receive their pre-1917 names. Former representatives of the Soviet nomenclature who became Minsk officials at the beginning of the 1990s opposed the initiative.
The limited changes in Minsk toponymics have been made possible only after pressure by City Council deputies from the Belarusian Peoples Front – the main opposition nationalist party in 1990s.
Back to the Soviet past
In 1993 this process stopped. After Alexander Lukashenka won the elections in 1994 the political climate in the country changed, the new president called the collapse of the USSR a geopolitical catastrophe and promised to restore the Soviet Union.
That is why the continuation of streets names decommunisation was not possible.
In 2005, at the year of 60th anniversary of victory in the Great Patriotic War to perpetuate the heroism of Belarusians, high state authorities initiated the renaming of two central Minsk streets.
Francysk Skaryna Avenue was renamed Independence Avenue (Praspekt Nezalezhnasci) and Masherov Avenue was renamed Victors Avenue (Praspekt Peramozhcau). The old street names were transferred to less significant streets.
This renaming was done to increase in the city landscape the memory of the Great Patriotic War, which had become the main historical myth in Belarus.
Nevertheless plenty of Minsk inhabitants are not satisfied with communist naming in the city. The a case of Lenin Square metro station renaming is very telling.
The Lenin Square saga
In 1992, when Lenin Square was renamed Independence Square, the metro station Lenin Square which was located near the square also got the name Independence Square. But the renaming was not a reason to change the decoration of the station. The monument of Lenin and the Lenin Square signs on the track walls still retain their original form.
In 2003 city authorities returned the Nezalezhnasci Square station its old communist name Lenin Square. A large number of passengers and opposition activists did not like the decision which resulted in the permanent practice of deleting Lenin Square stickers from metro line maps in train cars.
Several detentions and penalties imposed upon “metro activists” followed as well as petitions and rallies to return the station name Independence Square. In 2010 the commission for street renaming in the city Executive Committee decided to rename the metro station Independence Square, again.
However, at the beginning of 2011 it cancelled the decision, explaining it by a large number of protests by city residents against renaming.
Minsk toponymics as a political issue
The issue of toponymics also used in political campaigns. Illustrative example is the campaign to rename Ulyanauskaja street (Ulyanov is the real surname of Lenin) to Bykau street (Bykau is a Belarusian writer and dissident).
The campaign began just before the 2010 presidential election and its main aim was to promote the opposition candidate Uladzimer Niakliayeu’s movement “Havary praudu”. During the campaign, approximately one hundred thousand signatures in favour of the name change were collected.
Many Minsk inhabitants are unhappy about Soviet names of Minsk streets. (See the map of Minsk city centre on google maps.) This topic is regularly discussed in independent mass-media and many Minsk intellectuals have already expressed their opinion to reform Minsk toponymics.
Clearly, the issue of Minsk toponymics will continue to be used as an instrument of political struggle. The Belarusian authorities clearly want to preserve myths and references to the Soviet past.
The Rise of Belarusian Handball
However unfortunate could be the political and economic situation within Belarus, thanks to some Belarusians the national pride can still be high.
In 2012 Belarusian handball players were among the ones to thank for that. After a longest decline of Belarusian handball, the hope for its revival is now glimmering. While the beliefs that Belarusian handball has died with the Soviet Union step back.
Both Europe and the world know not only that Belarusian handball exists, but also its face – Sergey Rutenko.
Sergey Rutenko: But Perhaps A Wizard?
Sergey Rutenko comes from Minsk region, township Pryvolny. Fond of sambo wrestling and basketball as a child, he finally chose handball. The choice has proved to be right.
The number of prizes and titles granted to the prominent 31-year old Belarusian has become countless. Sergey has been a 5-times champion of the EHF Champions League, the most expensive transfer in the history of handball (€ 1,2 m), the best goal-scorer of the EHF Champions League in 2004 and 2005, as well as of 2006 European Men’s Handball Championship.
The sharp rise of Sergey Rutenko’s carrier started in 2000 with silver medal at the European Handball Junior Nations Championship. Shortly, he left Belarusian “Arkatron” and moved to Slovenia. There he played first for “Gorenje” (afterwards substituted for the leader of Slovenian handball – “Pivovarna Laško”), as well as Slovenian national team. In 2005 he moved to Spanish “Ciudad Real”, in 2009 – to “FC Barcelona”.
In order to save the right to play in Spanish League in 2008 Rutenko had to accept citizenship of Spain. Like earlier in Slovenia, the Spanish invited him to play in their national team. Acceptance of such proposal could allow Sergey to make a new huge step in his carrier.
But this time he seemed to care about the carrier’s development less: in 2008 Rutenko expressed the wish to return to the Belarusian national team. In September 2010 Sergey finally got the right to play for his motherland and soon captained the national team.
Still, Rutenko has not turned Belarus into an unconquerable handball empire instantly. Soon after his arrival, defeats to Denmark and Russia followed. Rutenko’s 11 goals in the two games could not save Belarus. In this regard, Sergey had only one response: “I’m not a magician”.
But perhaps he is close to one. For the first time he is playing for the Belarusian national team and for the first time since 1995 Belarus is participating in the World Men’s Handball Championship. Rutenko participated in all the 2012’s games with Slovakia, Lichtenstein and Romania – the games that have paved Belarus’ route to the Championship. And within its first circle is bringing to the Belarusian national team almost a half of its goals.
“Dinamo”: The First Among Equals
Belarusian handball clubs are currently gaining strength as well.
In 2012 after the victory over Turkish “Beşiktaş”, “Dinamo Minsk” burst into play-off of the EHF Champions League. This sole fact proves the team’s recent progress. In 2010-2011 “Dinamo” fell out of the Championship even before 1/16.
Not only did the team have the chance to conquer for the place among top 16 teams of Europe. It seems to succeed in implementation of this chance. As of now, “Dinamo-Minsk” is taking the third place (out of 6 teams) in its Group D: after “FC Barcelona” and “Füchse Berlin”. However, “Füchse Berlin” is only one point ahead of “Dinamo” and the latter still have 3 circles of games to change the ranking.
As a pleasant contrast to hockey “Dinamo Minsk” and football “BATE Borisov” handball “Dinamo Minsk” has real competitors within Belarus. “Handball Club Meshkov Brest”, as well as “SKA Minsk” does not allow “Dinamo” to relax. In these circumstances fans’ hopes, that the team’s results will only grow, can reasonably strengthen.
Less fortunately, “Dinamo Minsk” is far from being a purely Belarusian team. More than half of its players are foreigners. Last year it even got an unpleasant name of branch of the national team of Ukraine. 5 Ukrainians are playing for the club!
Still, Belarusian fans are looking forward to February games of “Dinamo Minsk” against “Zagreb”, “Pick Szeged” and “FC Barcelona”.
Especially, the game with “FC Barcelona”, which will bring an additional chance to watch Sergey Rutenko at work.
Call For State’s Attention
The today’s achievements, however, represent just a vague shadow of Belarusian handball’s success of Soviet times. “SKA Minsk” still ranks as one of the most titled clubs in Europe. For three times it won EHF Champions League (1987, 1989 and 1990). Twice – in 1983 and 1988 – it wrested EHF Men’s Cup Winner's Cup.
Up to 1992, Belarus supplied most professional players to the USSR team. To put it into figures, at 1988 Olympics the victorious USSR team included 5 players from Belarus!
But almost for 20 years up to now Belarus has been wasting the talent of its youth. Salaries of children’s coaches are insufficient to make ends meet. Low popularisation of handball decreases children’s and parents’ motivation to take up handball.
The Belarusian national team and "Dinamo" have proved Belarusians' talent for handball is still strong.
Will now the state prove the ability to display these talents? It really seems to be an urgent task. Otherwise, Belarusian clubs will have to rely on foreign mercenaries, while Belarus – to hope that its all children will, like Rutenko, sacrifice their personal profit for the motherland's sake.