Why Minsk is not Like Other Capitals

It jumps out at you right after you come back from a foreign land: Minsk is not like Vilnius, Warsaw or Prague. Indeed, it is not like anywhere else.

And obviously, this concerns not only its "deserted streets" or the perception that there are "a lot of police." At least, it's not all that simple. Let's try and deduce the reasons that make our favourite city exceptional.

Almost no graffiti. Few areas with tags in underground walkways (e.g. on Kalvaryjskaja Str. near Itera's never-ending construction project) and in the car parking lot along the railway tracks painted with the consent of the Minsk City Hall — that's all there is of signs of Banksy's followers' presence in Minsk. Here, graffiti lasts but for a few days or sometimes even a few hours. We've got used to it already but it's a miracle! Look at what's happening to Paris!

No street food. If you are hungry in Brussels and don't want to spend 30 Euros on mussels, there will always be a kebab nearby. The Berliners joke that their national dish is now a döner, which completely pushed out currywurst. But the Berliners still had currywurst in the beginning and then döner; the residents of Minsk have neither döner nor currywurst. Unless you buy smazhanka [a Belarusian-style pizza] at the train station…

No good and bad areas. In any U.S. city they will tell you: here we have a "good area" and there we have a "bad area." You go here and you don't go there. Especially at night. In San Francisco, the neighbourhoods where you can get beat up by gangs from various ethnic minority groups share a border with exceptionally expensive districts.

In Minsk, there is no separation between neighbourhoods with the distinction of "good" or "bad" ones. In downtown area, it is as safe and as dangerous as in, say, Malinaūka. Especially as chaps from Malinaūka only sleep in Malinaūka and they hang out in the downtown because "there are more chicks there." Some fifteen years ago, it was common practice to scare children with Šabany and "Šaryki" but this is a thing of the the past: now even in Čyžoūka one can take a girl on a date without being a certified boxer.

Hence another interesting singularity. Prices in cafés in the downtown and "in the hood" are almost identical.  There is a Pizza Planet almost next door to the City Hall and there are two Tempo joints at on Karl Marx street; these chains are in the budget price range. In any other capital city, the city centre is a bastion of idiotic prices for everything.

We do not put on airs any longer when we get a $7 bill for a cup of no-frills coffee in central Rome. You move two kilometres from the Coliseum towards the train station and coffee will cost you an honest one Euro. This is not at all true in Minsk where coffee costs almost the same in the restaurant of Vadzim Prakopjeu and in a run-down café where people booze it up without taking their hats off.

City history is hidden. In Prague, history has been commodified (i.e. transformed in a commodity). You do not even have to have a guidebook; special signs on the streets tell you the particularities of the city's buildings. The history of Minsk is hidden deep inside; you must have a friend among Minsk residents to have all the beauty and antiquity of this city be opened up to you.

You will never find a building where the Belarusian Democratic Republic was proclaimed. You will hover on the corner of Niezaliežnasci avenue and Engels street and never know that the Kruger's school of drawing, where famous Chaïm Soutine studied, stood at right there at the exact same place.

Genuine history has been replaced by ersatz. If you are not a shrewd European antiquity scholar you will end up hovering in the Trajeckaje pradmiescie in the full conviction that this is the oldest thing they have in Minsk. You will see Soviet history, take some pictures of Plošča Pieramohi and marvel at the Stalinist Empire style.

You may even have your picture taken against the background of one of these weird structures that were erected on Niamiha Str. over recent years, on the sites where a clumsy imitations of actual historical buildings were (buildings that were destroyed just to free up space for the new buildings). The copies forced out the originals. The Soviet spirit is indigenous.

And here is yet another singularity: no business hub in Minsk. Any capital city in the world has a district where skyscrapers cluster, harbouring headquarters of banks and national financial, industrial, insurance and other companies. Belarusbank's headquarters is on Dziaržynski Ave, almost in the middle of nowhere. We have skyscrapers in Minsk but they are not gathered in a uniform ensemble; they are scattered on the horizon as pines over a pasture. I am not going to make any mention of the Čyž's building. And forget Herostratus.

The first analogue of Starbucks has just opened in the city. At the same time, what kind of a city has no inhabitants running about with paper cups of coffee? Now, the Coffee Box chain is growing rapidly; Boxes regularly emerge in new downtown locations. But we still have only one chain of this kind for more than two million residents. Amazing!

And elaborating on the topic: no Burger King or KFC in Minsk (the latter will allegedly open soon but none have opened yet), or even a Sbarro. McDonalds is a monopolist in the lower price range and T.G.I. Friday in the medium price range. That's it. Experts say that it is all related to the difficulties in running any business in Belarus but we are not talking about the investment environment here. These all come impressions from the city. And these impressions become all the more extraordinary because of the utter absence of brands that are commonly found crammed in other capitals.

No affordable housing in Minsk. You should have seen the faces of some Europeans when I told them a while ago that there was only one hostel in the Belarusian megalopolis. All other visitors to the capital stay in either the hotel Europe or Crowne Plaza where you have to pay for a night the same amount that an average bargain traveller can expect to spend in Eastern Europe in a week.

No migrants. Despite the fact that in these latter days you see lovely Chinese faces in the downtown with an ever increasing frequency, these are still isolated incidents. What is happening in Moscow with migrants from the Caucasus or in Western Europe with Muslims from the Middle East is not happening in Minsk and is never expected to happen. It may be that we have too low of an income level or tough immigration laws or too many police.

No squatting — such as the abandoned buildings that are spontaneously colonised by homeless (such as the famous 12 Pushkinskaya Str. in Sankt-Petersburg or Tacheles in Berlin). Vagrants in the CIS have an anecdote: if you ended up in Minsk without a place to crash and some money, you should not look for old abandoned buildings (there are none) but rather for unfinished newly-built buildings (of which there are plenty).

And here is another very strange trifle: in any city of the world there is an "observation point", a place from where you can look over the city centre. Let's recall the "pendulum tower" in Vilnius, the Galata Tower in Istanbul, the television tower in Berlin, and the Eiffel Tower in Paris. 

You won't see the centre from above in Minsk! Before, there was a sub-celestial restaurant in the hotel Belarus, but it was closed down together with the hotel. The sky deck on the National Library, first, is not that high and, second, it is not in the centre, to put it mildly. Though, it would be nice to understand what the "centre of Minsk" actually is, where it begins and where it ends (yet another particularity of our city).

I'd like to point out that all said is not about what’s wrong with Minsk? but about what’s so special about it? In a globalised world, to find a city that is not like the others is a great miracle. Let's be proud of living in it!

Viktar Martsinovich

​Originally published in Belarusian on budzma.by




Belarus Censuses: Population Declines, National Identity Strengthens

Official population censuses in Belarus conducted in 1989, 1999 and 2009 reveal a number of interesting trends.

They show that the population is declining, the proportion of those who identify themselves as Belarusian is increasing and the role of the Belarusian language is weakening. The period of Lukashenka's rule has coincided with the sharpest decline of population since the collapse of the USSR.

The other important development is that the use of the Belarusian language has reduced dramatically, leading to the formation of a Russian-speaking Belarusian nation. It is remarkable that the largest share of Belarusian speakers is among those who identify themselves as Poles.  

General Trend: Depopulation

Belarus, along with many other European countries, faces a problem of depopulation. The government seems to be aware of this, as they included statements on demographic security and policy in such important national documents as the Programmes of Social and Economic Development and Concept of National Security. However, the data from the censuses shows that the policies towards tackling demographic problems have been inconsistent and ineffective.

The total population decreased by 650,000 in 1989-2009. The main reason is natural ageing, observed in most European countries. Another major reason for depopulation is emigration – economic, and to a lesser extent, political. 

While in the first decade (which was a stormy transitional period) the population decreased by 100,000, in the second decade, marked by consolidation of the authoritarian regime, the rate of population decline went up – to more than 500,000 between 1999 and 2009.

Of course, it would be wrong to assume that only changes in the political regime caused this. Rather, complex factors are involved. The obvious thing, however, is that the population of Belarus is still decreasing, indicating the failure of the demographic policy of Belarusian authorities.

Urbanisation: Soviet Legacy and Over-Centralization

The process of urbanisation continued throughout the period. The urban population reached 74 per cent in 2009. 

Interestingly, the population of regional (voblasc) centres of Eastern Belarus increased only slightly or even decreased (as in Homel), while western cities, Hrodna and Brest, grew considerably (+ 50,000 each).

This is probably due to the fact that Eastern Belarus was incorporated into USSR twenty years earlier than its Western part. Hence, here Soviet industrialization, accompanied by urbanisation, was implemented earlier, while Western Belarus retained a considerable rural population. 

Minsk, the capital, remains the most populated and fastest growing city of Belarus. As the main economic and educational centre, it attracts young people from all over the country. In terms of numbers, Minsk has grown by 230,000 in the last two decades. A fifth of the whole population lives there now.  Such over-concentration of resources in the capital along with regional decline poses serious problems, which any government regardless its political regime will have to face in future.

Migration: Low Immigration and Hidden Trends in Emigration

Unlike in western countries, in Belarus the decreasing native population is not replaced by an inflow of immigrants.

According to official statistics, only 39,000 immigrants came to Belarus in 2005-2009, which is not sufficient to balance the native population decline. Most of the immigrants to Belarus originate from former soviet CIS countries (32,000) – predominantly from Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. The share of non-CIS citizens is insignificant and the biggest groups include Chinese, Lithuanians and Latvians.

According to official data, in 2005-2009 around 30,000 Belarusians left their homeland, but independent experts often dispute this figure. The official methodology does not include some important categories of migrants, such as labour migrants to Russia. Today this is perhaps the biggest Belarusian migration group, data on which is not officially published.

Identity: Belarusianisation without Belarusian Language

Belarus remains a relatively monoethnic nation state.

Notably, the number of people who consider themselves Belarusians increased from 80 per cent to 84 per cent over the last twenty years. Among the national minorities the largest are Russians, Poles, and Ukrainians.

Traditionally, the Russian minority resides in the central and northern parts of Belarus and big cities, while the Polish minority makes up a considerable part of the western oblast of Hrodna, and Ukrainians settle more densely in the southern Brest and Homel regions near the Ukrainian border.  

As the diagram shows, the size of each of minority group (especially Russians) has been decreasing since 1989. This trend apparently shows that minorities assimilate and change their identities along with the development of the Belarusian independent state. On the other hand, this may be a result of growing national consciousness among Belarusians, who identified with the other nation previously.

However, this growing national consciousness is not based on language and culture of the dominating ethnic group, as is usually the case with modern nation states.

Here, a rather different picture is observed: over the period, the significance of Belarusian language has declined. While in the 1990s, before the Lukashenka regime had set in, national Renaissance policy improved the position of  the Belarusian language, stabilisation of the regime brought the decay of the Belarusian language.

Speaking this language was associated with opposition to Lukashenka's pro-Russian regime. As a result, its speakers were implicitly or explicitly excluded from politics and public space in general. This is clear from the diagram below.

The same concerns such indicators as use of Belarusian language at home, which shows the actual viability of the language. Here, the decline is even more dramatic:

Belarusian Poles are an interesting phenomenon when it comes to the Belarusian language. They are the biggest national group in relation to the total number of a group who speak Belarusian at home. Out of 295,000 Poles, 120,000, or 40 per cent, speak Belarusian at home, while the share of Belarusians speaking Belarusian at home reaches only 26 per cent.

The term “Pole” in Belarus has a rather confusing and ambiguous meaning, as many consider Belarusian Poles as Belarusians of Roman Catholic tradition, who historically were under a strong influence of Poland. This group, though referring to the Polish tradition, evidently is a community that strongly preserves the features of Belarusian culture.

In Minsk, the number of people who indicated Belarusian as their native language has decreased almost two-fold within the last decade (1999-2000). In general, only a little more than 10 per cent of  the urban population of Belarus speaks Belarusian at home, and for the largest cities this number is much smaller. 

Thus, Belarusian remains a language of the disappearing rural population, and its future in urban centres does not look optimistic. The language policy of Lukashenka led to the formation of a particular type of modern Belarusian identity, with urban Russian-speaking population considering itself an independent community.

Vadzim Smok