Space and Identity in Modern Belarus: Assessing the “Minsk Phenomenon”
“Minsk Phenomenon” was the title of a 2013 Russian-language translation of University of Giessen historian Thomas Boehn’s book, which addressed the dominance of the city of Minsk in the development of contemporary Belarus.
In many ways the Belarusian capital is a symbol of modern identity in a country that is often labelled “Soviet,” but is perhaps more accurately described as “postwar Soviet” because it bears little resemblance to Minsk of the interwar years.
Arguably, the physical appearance of Minsk and its culture not only have maintained some Soviet traditions, but also they manifest and symbolise the post-Soviet identity of the state, which has been structured with minimal changes at a time when the capital has asserted its massive influence over the rest of Belarus. This development has been heightened under Aliaksandr Lukashenka who associates himself with past traditions that continue to glorify Soviet achievements.
Building a Socialist Utopia
The prominence of Minsk for Belarus is unique to post-Soviet states, particularly vis-à-vis its neighbours, where there are cities that often compete with the capital: St. Petersburg against Moscow, for example; or Lviv and Donetsk against Kyiv. Minsk’s domination is also consolidated by a stark fact: while the population of Belarus is declining, that of the city of Minsk is increasing. Soon it will comprise a quarter of the population.
Boehn focuses on the obliteration during the Second World War of both the buildings and the population of Minsk. Existing traditions, much of which centred on the former Jewish population, were simply liquidated.
Thus for the Soviet authorities there was an opportunity to construct a model Soviet city, with typical Stalinist era spacious streets, vast central squares, and formidable looking high storey structures combining neo-classicalism with gigantism.
Scholars Larissa Titarenko and Anna Shirokanova note that in 1991, when Belarus became independent, it was necessary to “build a nation out of the city’s socialist space.” As such the country emerged as a post-Soviet republic on the Soviet model, but with no space for the indigenous nation. This was a consequence of related factors.
First, there was the city’s appearance in its postwar version. Old buildings were discarded rather than being resurrected. The area of Castle Hill was removed, as well as the site of the historical river Niamiha, which is now underground. The Jewish quarter of the same name has disappeared and been replaced by the now familiar Sports Palace.
Monuments appeared all over the city, mostly dedicated to the war or else to Soviet-era figures, such as the former nominal head of the Soviet government Mikhail Kalinin (who was actually from Tver, Russia). And of course the dour Lenin appeared in Independence Square, while its most impressive building is the ornate KGB headquarters on Independence Avenue and the most notable the modern National Library in the eastern reaches of the city, which looks like a giant space capsule but still contains a certain socialist realist ambience.
Urbanisation means Sovietization
Second, together with rebuilding came urbanisation, and today Belarus is the most urbanised of the former Soviet states, with over 75% of its 9.3 million people living in cities and towns, 1.9 million of them in Minsk. Migration from the villages and the transfer of the rural population to the city has helped attain this status.
Yet rather than bringing Belarusian traditions, culture, and language to the capital, the opposite occurred. The rural migrants became Sovietized and lived in an almost exclusively Russian-speaking environment. The policy ensured that Stalin’s attacks on Belarusian culture and the national elite during the purges continued in the later Soviet era.
Boehn notes, however, that the Soviet authorities were unable to control the flow of migrants into Minsk so that in the 1950s and 1960s it became fluid—he uses the term “quicksand” society, a term coined by the noted scholar Moshe Lewin. In a discussion on the topic, Siarhei Khareusky, comments that the inflow was limited for some time because until 1960, Belarusian peasants were not permitted to hold passports, so were confined to their collective farms. Thus modern urbanisation started in the 1960s.
Modern Belarus Builds on the Old
The current post-1994 regime followed another Soviet tradition, namely maintaining state control over factories in what was termed the “Belarusian economic model,” which hoped to build on the success of republican industry in the later Soviet era without privatisation or shock therapy.
In fact most of the successful Belarusian companies in the modern era derive from the Soviet period: the Naftan oil refinery in Navapolatsk, which started in 1958; the Mazyr oil refinery (1975); Belaruskali (Belarus Potash), which is based on the Salihorsk potassium enterprise founded in 1963, and reorganised together with two other factories in 1970; and the Belshina tire plant, built between 1963 and 1972.
The combination of living space with industry, and the presence in Minsk of first the leadership of the republican Communist Party organisation and today Lukashenka’s presidential administration has transferred the postwar development neatly to the present. Its progress is linked tightly to a cordial relationship with Russia and with the prosperity of the larger neighbor. Today it has begun to unravel largely because of problems related to the Russian economy and Belarus’ failure to modify its industrial and economic paths.
Minsk Phenomenon: Stability without Stagnation
The “Minsk phenomenon” brought stability and allowed for a form of nation building around the rebuilt capital, which became noted for its spotless central streets as it expanded into neighbouring suburbs and settlements.
It is a magnet for Belarusian youth, which, escaping the ghost villages, has tried to create its separate creative space within a city that still exudes authoritarianism and seems to stifle individual space because of its deep and innate connections to the Communist past. None of this is to suggest any form of stagnancy. Minsk is vibrant and thriving, but largely in spite of its late Stalinist façade rather than because of it.
David Marples, special to Belarus Digest
David is a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Alberta in Canada and the President of the North American Association for Belarusian Studies.
Minsk Dialogue, Lohvinau, Dragon Country – Belarus Civil Society Digest
Minsk Dialogue Conference, organised by Belarusian think tanks, attracts a number of high profile Euroean experts and over 20 journalists.
Annual CSR Award Ceremony gathers over 70 business reps to recognise best Belarusian CSR practices. Fifth Social Weekend sums up results – social projects receive over $20,000 from local business and private philanthropists.
Freedom Day gathers over 1,000 participants – few detained, but released without sanctions. Lohvinau bookstore raises full enough to pay fine and receives state license to sell books.
On March 26-28, Minsk hosts the Minsk Dialogue conference aimed at establishing a unique platform to bring together think tanks from East and West for regular expert meetings and joint publications. Two Belarusian think tanks – the Liberal Club and the Ostrogorski Centre – have been working together to make this ambitious project happen. First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus Alexander Mikhnevich participated in the conference's opening.
Civil society campaigns
Annual CSR award ceremony takes place on March 27, in Minsk. Founded by the Fund of Ideas, the award is given for the second consecutive year and aims to encourage successful corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects of Belarusian business companies. This year the winners are identified in nine basic and two additional nominations like charity, culture, sports, education, healthy lifestyles, the interaction with local community, the environment, etc.
Social Weekend 5 sums up results. The contest of social projects Social Weekend is held in Belarus for the fifth time and aims to support the social significant ideas at the expense of local business companies and individuals. This year winners received for a total of 300 million rubles (about $20.7 thsd) on the implementation of their projects. The contest gathered more than 240 applications. Grand Prix went to a project to create tactile books for visually impaired children.
Budzma! campaign presents a Dragon Country map. The map Kraina Cmokau/Dragon Country emerged as a result of a travel expedition that covered more than 80 cities and villages. The map shows places with various images and possible locations of the Belarusian dragon. Thus, the organisers are willing to show that the Belarusian culture is an inexhaustible source for tourism development and city branding. The maps are available for free at all gas stations A-100 in Minsk.
Publisher Lohvinau collects almost whole amount of fine. About 1,000 people donated money to collect $67,000 necessary to pay the fine. The money was raised within two months. Donations came from 27 countries on 3 different continents. Remind that on 9 January 2015, the Economic Court of Minsk ordered that for trading without a licence, Lohvinau Bookstore must pay a fine and pay back ‘the illegal income". In total, it is 967 million rubles.
Belarus to join WWF’s Earth Hour on March 28. Belarus will join the largest environmental campaign Earth Hour and will switch the lights off for one hour from 8.30 pm to 9.30 pm local time. Social actions and events will be held throughout Belarus. Building lighting will be off in Minsk along Nezavisimosti and Pobeditelei Avenues, on the National Library, etc. The Earth Hour in Belarus is initiated by the Green Network Environmental Association with the support of governmental bodies.
A new Internet service launched for event organisers in regions. Organisers of parties, competitions, social events, concerts in the Belarus regions are invited to use a special free service "Events" on the web site of their city in the REGIONY.BY to advertise the event. The opportunity is available for both organisations and individuals. REGIONY.BY site covers 198 cities and towns of Belarus. According to the belngo.info newsletter.
Sustainable Development Week 2015. From April 24 to May 25, the Sustainable Development Week was held in Belarus to contribute to the further consolidation of the participants and strengthen the movement for sustainable development in Belarus. The organisers announced a competition for organisations to hold an event under the Week. The final conference will be held on 20-21 May. The Week organisers are IBB and Belarus Support Program, the UN, the EU, and the Research Institute of the Ministry of Economy.
Regional Fairs of Cultural Projects. On 10 March Mogilev hosted the fourth Fair of Projects, organised by Budzma campaign. All the presented creative ideas were united by one theme – how to improve the urban space of Mogilev, make the city attractive to tourists and residents, and what place history and culture take in the process. Presentations of Mogilev projects are available online.
Interaction between state and civil society
"It Belarus, baby!" What to do when police detains you for taking photos. TUT.BY collects recent incidents with detentions for taking photos in Belarus and provides tips how to deal with law enforcement officers in such a situation.
Opposition leaders in ‘Sovetskaya Belorussiya’. On March 5, Pavel Seviarynets, BCD co-chairman, and Lev Margolin, UCP deputy chairman, took part in a round table in ‘Sovetskaya Belorussiya’ newspaper, where they presented the anti-corruption platform of the opposition. For the first time in many years these opposition leaders were invited to the main state-run newspaper in Belarus.
House of Representatives refuses to call referendum. The campaign People's Referendum got a written response from the relevant parliamentary committee reported that there is no reason for the appointment of a referendum. Remind that last year People's Referendum, initiated by For Freedom movement, Tell the Truth campaign, the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada) and BPF, passed for the House of Representatives 50 thousand signatures in support of the national referendum.
Lohvinau bookstore gets permission to sell books. On March 16, the Ministry of Information issued a license to the Lohvinau bookstore to sell printed materials. In 2014, the bookstore tried to obtain the license six times to no avail. On January 9, the Minsk economic court fined Lohvinau Company 5 million rubles for illegal business activities. It also ordered to pay the state more than 960 million rubles that were ruled to be illegal income. The Lohvinau bookstore declared a public campaign in its support and within two months collected the necessary amount to pay fine.
Freedom Day 2015. The 97th anniversary of the proclamation of independence of the Belarusian People's Republic was marked on March 25 by a street rally in Minsk. The journalists calculated that about 1,000-1,200 people gathered at the march.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.