1. From the ruins
Minsk doesn’t have much in the way of branding or the names of western corporations. You can walk for miles in the centre of the Belarusian capital before you find one of the giant advertisements for a brand of western car draped across a semi-derelict building, that ubiquitous feature of almost every post-communist capital city of similar size — Warsaw, Bucharest, Belgrade, Kiev. What this city conventionally described as the land of eternal Sovietism, with Aleksandr Lukashenko as its impossible-to-dislodge Brezhnev, does have is a Hilton Hampton hotel, just behind the back of its large railway station.
Minsk is a stop on Europe’s main east-west route, so this is very much a through station, with niceties like ticket offices and restaurants located in a very 90s, strongly symmetrical complex of marbled cladding, atria and pink-tinted glass pyramids. The front end leads you to the pre-planned arrival vista of the City Gates, which we will come to presently. The back end, however, is another matter. Tunnels lead through a passageway with a stolovaya (Soviet-style canteen) that sells sausage in no way fit for human consumption, before continuing to the construction works for the third line of the Minsk Metro. Outside are narrow paths for pedestrians through fenced-off works, muddy expanses around station outbuildings and a shabby bus station. There are various little kiosks selling Products, and those Products are something to behold.
Minsk is the greatest neoclassical European city of the 20th century — the direct result Soviet Belarus’s intense resistance to the Third Reich
Mostly (though not exclusively) available from behind the counter rather than from shelves like shops in the west, these silvery tins of kasha and sour milk appear not to have changed their design since 1980; it’s a little museum of faded 1970s photography and cutesy Soviet graphics, but one which seems unaware of its own retrochic. Past the hotel then the bridge over the railway, you come to the market. It’s a typical one in this part of the world, where people spread out canvas, card or an item of clothing spread on the ground to sell various bits and bobs; cheap, Chinese-made consumer goods, or sometimes second-hand, agricultural produce. If I hadn’t been staying in this relatively posh hotel, I wouldn’t have seen any of this, and the sleight of hand that Minsk performs — a showcase of the Last Soviet Republic — would have worked on me entirely. I might have believed they really had built an egalitarian, affluent society genuinely different to that of contemporary Ukraine and Russia.
1. From the ruins
Whether hostile or complimentary, all accounts of Belarus will mention the extreme Sovietness of its capital, the equally extreme cleanliness and lack of commercial pollution and/or vibrancy. This leads to some interesting errors. Historian Andrew Wilson, in his otherwise convincing critique of the Lukashenko regime, The Last European Dictatorship, describes its dominant style erroneously as Brutalist. Nothing could be further from the truth. Minsk is arguably the greatest neoclassical European city of the 20th century, with most buildings in the city centre resplendent with colonnades, baroque archways and romantic skylines of spires, obelisks and heroic sculptures, all on an axial plan integrated with landscaped parklands around the river Svisloch. This is the direct result of one of the least known episodes of the Second World War — the intensity of resistance in Soviet Belarus to the Third Reich. It deserves to be as well known as that of Poland or Yugoslavia, but isn’t, largely because it isn’t useful to anybody much, save perhaps Lukashenko’s unpleasant government.
The Soviet Partisan movement was at its largest in Belarus, beginning almost immediately after the Nazi occupation of the country. Helped by the close proximity of the forest to the capital, Partisans were able to save thousands of Jews from the Holocaust that began here. Moreover, the attempts to create a Judenrat in the newly designated Ghetto failed repeatedly, as the appointed leaders defected to the resistance; by 1943, Partisans already had several “liberated zones” in the forests and marshes. Reprisals, however, were unbelievably brutal — proportionally, more Belarusian citizens were killed than any other nationality in the war. Hundreds of villages were destroyed and all their inhabitants murdered; the capital, Minsk, was annihilated for the same reasons as was Warsaw, as a symbolic gesture to punish Belarusian resistance.
In her history of the resistance in the Ghetto, Barbara Epstein argues that the relative lack of a strongly defined nationalism in the country — something for which it is usually considered “backward” and “incomplete” — and a less horrific experience of Soviet power than nearby Ukraine (the famine of 1932-33 did not reach Belarus) meant that Soviet internationalism was taken seriously by Belarusians, and many acted heroically when their Jewish neighbours began to be deported and ghettoised. It is puzzling, then, that it is precisely this absence of a national consciousness which is usually considered the cause of Belarus’s eternal dictatorship. Equally, it could be the result — as Wilson somewhat reluctantly acknowledges — of the sheer unpopularity of nationalism, as represented by the Belarusian People’s Front that emerged under perestroika.
Belarus briefly, from 1991 to 1995, used the flag of St George, initially employed by the relatively benign German puppet regime of the Belarus People’s Republic in 1918, before being used again by the Nazi puppet regime of the Belarus Central Rada in 1944. Among the measures that made Lukashenko popular was replacing this with a faintly redesigned Soviet coat of arms; you see it everywhere in the capital. The opposition use the St George flag, something which, given the experiences Belarusians had under it, seems to an outsider like an act of pure self-sabotage. But the Partisan experience was initially repressed in Soviet Belarus, too, as Epstein points out. When the Party leaders who fled into the Russian interior in 1941 came back, they demoted or jailed many Partisans whose experiences were embarrassing; it wasn’t until 1956 that their narrative became the dominant one, and Lukashenko has made it a central plank of history as his government conceives it. Again, this should not be surprising — nobody is puzzled by the ubiquitous nature of plaques, murals and monuments to the Warsaw Uprising on seemingly every street corner in the Polish capital, and nor should they be in Minsk. In both places, the Jewish experience, however different it was in the two cities, is similarly minimised.
The rebuilt city, the most complete example of Socialist Realist architecture in Europe, works as one gigantic victory monument
One important difference, though, is that while the Polish narrative focuses on victimhood, martyrdom and betrayal (as it has every right to), the Belarusian one, like the Russian, focuses on victory and triumph. The rebuilt city, the most complete example of Socialist Realist architecture in Europe, works as one gigantic victory monument, and accordingly, it requires a strong stomach for vainglory, pomposity and heroic grandeur. Within those confines, it isn’t at all unattractive. Imagine an entire, complete city centre built like Berlin’s Karl-Marx-Allee, Warsaw’s MDM, Kiev’s Kreschatyk or Sofia’s Largo, and that’s what you have here.
Because of this, the entire city centre has been put up for consideration on the UNESCO World Heritage list by the Belarusian government, St Petersburg-style. The application is currently on hold, largely because the government have belatedly realised that UNESCO status means a moratorium on any property development within the area (a revised application for a more tightly drawn area is apparently set to follow). The best place to begin a perambulation of it is the other side of the Central Railway Station, the opposite end to the muddy building sites between the bus station and the Hilton.
2. UNESCO Stalinism
The City Gates are two blocks of symmetrical flats, culminating in stepped, 11-storey towers — a model used elsewhere, like at Constitution Square in Warsaw, Strausberger Platz in Berlin, Gagarin Square in Moscow, or in reconstructed towns like Zaporizhia in Ukraine. None of them, however, have quite this level of opulence. The usual paraphernalia of spheres and spikes surmount the tops, with an ornamental clock on one and the Soviet coat of arms on the other. Symbolic statues of workers and peasants rise at the peaks of the towers, which were of course luxury flats, always intended for the elite. There is a McDonalds in one of the towers, but more unusual is the plaque, recording that this “Soviet architectural monument” was built from 1947 to 1953, and restored between 2000 and 2005.
These sort of developments are often part of the Potemkin City style so common to the Stalinist era — thin facades, leading to courtyards where you can easily find traces of an earlier, shabbier city — but that’s harder to find in Minsk, though the courtyards are less glamorous. A certain emptiness is noticeable, but the buskers are good; one young hipster out of 1960s Soviet central casting plays modal jazz on a clarinet. The City Gates lead past a similarly grand circus-style block, to Kirov Street, where another pompous Stalinist block has become a Crowne Plaza hotel, opposite the Dynamo stadium; walk along here a little bit and you come to the green esplanade of Komsomol Street, its tree-lined path culminating in a bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the man who founded the Soviet secret police. In front of it, a neoclassical block topped by a baroque lantern, with tall windows so the inhabitants can, symbolically, see all the goings on.
The House of Government combines high-rise scale, dominant symmetry and minimal, laconic Constructivism
This is the headquarters of the KGB, which, as every article on Belarus since the 1990s will tell you, is still called the KGB. Its placement here supports the contention by the Belarusian artist Artur Klinau that Minsk is (as much, if not more, than St Petersburg) the fulfilment of the Enlightenment dreams of the “City of the Sun”, as the Italian utopian Campanella called his ideal Renaissance city. It’s a perfectly organised metropolis defined by an architecture parlante based on Roman and Greek precedent, a close integration of buildings and nature, and the constant presence of power. Having this almost Parisian little prospect end at the outlook tower of the secret service is an extreme panoptic gesture. “The communist project”, writes Klinau, “was not only a project of the Soviet Union. It’s a European project…implemented here in this way. Therefore, ‘The City of the Sun’ is a European monument, and only we in Minsk have it. There are only a few imperial style cities in Europe: Paris, Berlin, St Petersburg, Vienna, Rome and then… Minsk!’
The KGB headquarters is on Independence Avenue, the most recent name (previously: Lenin, Stalin, and Skaryna, after an early printer in the Belarusian language) for the centrepiece of the city’s post-war reconstruction. This street actually begins a quarter of a mile away, around some salvaged fragments of the pre-war city — a curiously stark red brick Catholic church, a couple of art nouveau tenements, and two Constructivist buildings. There’s the earlier block of Minsk University, hauled up on pilotis and shoved between thick and domineering classical extensions, and the House of Government, designed in the early 1930s by the architect Iosif Langbard for the governance of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic.
The House of Government has some similarities with the famous Gosprom, the earlier governmental buildings for the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, in its combination of high-rise scale, dominant symmetry and minimal, laconic Constructivism. It appears like a very 30s classical design from a distance, with its glazed stair towers like grand pillars, but closer up the cubistic geometry of the flanking wings roots the building back in the 20s. It is a stylish design that deserves to be better known, but the gigantic square it commands is harder to admire. The House of Government, the flanking buildings of the University and the Brezhnev-era tower of the Metro headquarters look out at what was, as far as I could ascertain on the autumn week I visited, a largely empty, albeit incredibly clean square, surrounded by freshly painted buildings. What makes it amusing is that glass domes protrude out of the pavement, just as they do in Kiev’s Maidan Nezahelzhnosti (another Independence Square), and for the same reason — there is an underground shopping mall beneath.
Unlike in Kiev, the revolution attempted here in the 2000s — not fortuitously called the “Jeans Revolution” — quickly fizzled out due to repression and indifference. Now, gatherings around the Lenin statue that still stands here are discouraged. As I took photos of it, a lone security guard slowly made his way to me and told me to stop, but I’d already taken half a dozen of them. The statue was sculpted by Matvei Manizer in 1933, and shows the great man speaking from a frame-like platform which looks distinctly like a guillotine about to slam down on someone’s head. The smaller high relief figures teeming around the leader hold aloft pitchforks. It is unmistakeably an image of revolutionary violence. The square itself, though, is a useful reminder that Soviet urbanism, when it is genuinely Soviet — clean, upkept, largely uncommercialised — is much less enjoyable than when the axes and formal ensembles have been allowed by dilapidation and decline to be roughed up a bit and used.
The similarities and differences with Kiev are especially instructive if you’ve been to both cities. Minsk looks richer and better managed, much less lively, a lot less desperate, and a great deal more controlled. You can walk for miles before finding overbearing oligarchs’ residences, giant ads, dereliction and dilapidation — though they’re all there to be found – and the relentless cleanliness of the streets and buildings is a genuine shock for anyone used to Kiev or even Warsaw. A few particularly impressive things stand out; the Post Office — florid, Piranesian and Roman — the domed Circus, the local GUM — with its preserved atrium of stained glass windows and frosted glass uplighters — and the House of Books, with its 70s ceramic abstract reliefs and its shrine to Lukashenko (this is the only thing I found of its kind — there is clearly a personality cult, though it is nowhere near on the scale of Putin, let alone Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev or Aliyev in Azerbaijan). If, as Klinau is to be taken seriously, we compare this planned city with St Petersburg or Vienna or Paris, the most obvious change has been the increased heaviness of the architecture. Not only in comparison with St Petersburg’s delicate classicism, but also with the already lumbering and graceless bulk of 19th century imperial bombast. There are chubby columns and great sheaves of plaster wheat everywhere, the architectural equivalent of over-eating good stodgy, sugary food — fun for a while, but eventually leaving you somewhat bloated.
Large squares punctuate the street, such as the rond-point of Victory Square, around the Victory Obelisk, and the cooler, more chilling October Square. The latter is particularly interesting, balancing the splendour of the Trade Union Palace of Culture, its pediment stuffed with proletarian giants, with the much later Palace of the Republic, a late Soviet design not completed until the 2000s. Its stripped classicism looks harsh and stern in the context of the plushness of the rest of the street. Still, at least in my brief acquaintance, it didn’t feel like the parallel examples of the “real” city street in the capitals of Ukraine, Poland, Russia, but like a showpiece still, meant to be admired more than used. I could be wrong in this; in a recent paper on the current usage of the city’s Stalinist centre, Exeter-based Belarusian scholar Nelly Bekus argues that much of the local “civil society’s activities have involved trying to stop unsympathetic renovations to these buildings, such as a petition that successfully stopped the owners of a confectionery store from remodelling their 1950s interior and an unsuccessful campaign against a hotel built next to the Circus. In both cases, Soviet planning regulations were held up as a model that the city government hadn’t measured up against.”
3. The prehistory of Minsk
The other aspect of Minsk as enlightenment metropolis is the “Green Diameter” of designated public space that runs through the city along the heavily engineered river Svisloch. Independence Avenue crosses this at one point, and steps will take you down to Jakub Kolas Park, with its axial paths through the trees and a lovely, if strange, landscaped river path. The buildings around have their towers and turrets arranged so as to exploit this sylvan scene, and stone spheres and urns punctuate the embankment. It does feel peculiarly French, owing much to utopian 18th-century architects like Boulee and Ledoux. Here, you can find one of the very rare salvaged buildings of the original city — a small wooden house which just happens to have been the building where the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party was founded.
This is a particularly extreme example of utopian town planning as the shaping of a historical narrative, though it is not, as we will see, the only major historic building to be preserved in the city. It is the only one in the direct centre to have been kept in this manner, as if to say “nothing much happened here, except the founding of the Party that eventually became the Bolsheviks” (and the Mensheviks, of course). It is a totally ordinary but pretty clapboard house of the sort you can find absolutely anywhere between Łódź and Vladivostok, set in a little fenced garden, its gates decorated with stylised hammers and sickles. It is still officially the House Museum of the Founding Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Party, but it doesn’t seem to take that role particularly seriously.
At the entrance are drawings of typical Victorian folk with their top hats, corsets and canes. Inside, I’m told that the main exhibition is undergoing remont (renovations), so all there is to see is an exhibition on prehistoric man. This consists of waxworks of various Neanderthals and other Hominids, pulling dramatic facial expressions in plastic and paper undergrowth, accessorised anachronistically by a couple of dinosaurs, and a squirrel, like those that scurry around in the park outside. It is not entirely clear what this is doing here; presumably a reference to the fact that capitalism, as Marx once claimed, is humanity’s prehistory.
You can keep going from here up Independence Avenue for more classical boulevarding, if you so wish. But if you turn onto Kuibyshev Street, you’ll go past some of what Belarus has instead of adverts — happy families, with the legend “I Heart Belarus”, and posters warning you against cybercrime, where masked baddies are ready to steal your password. At a disused factory nearby, you’ll eventually find your first giant advert for a western company (a big Renault car, draped across a concrete walkway). Around here are a different class of Socialist Realist housing — two-storeys, almost like single-family houses, except they’re flats; their evident classiness is reflected in their current uses, as boutiques, offices and most often, embassies, such as the very large premises of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
Under Hugo Chavez, the country struck a cheap oil deal with fellow anti-American populist (although not fellow democrat) Lukashenko; Chavez visited Minsk, and spoke very highly of it, as you might expect — it is most of all from somewhere like Caracas that the order and (apparent) equality of Minsk would seem genuinely utopian. After this villa district, you come to another pre-war remnant; the Opera House, designed in the late 1930s, again by Iosif Langbard. It sits at the centre of a park, and is on a Cyclopean scale. A series of concrete cylinders rise one above the other like a truncated Palace of the Soviets, and with yet more allegorical figures, this time of various arts as well as the usual workers and peasants. Steps lead down from this giant object in space to what purports to be the only preserved piece of old Minsk.
When you reach the Green Diameter along the river, you can pick two directions; one leads to repeated towers, the other leads to some further fragments of Old Minsk
This is the Trinity Suburb, an area which partly escaped the destruction of the city in 1944, and which was partly reconstructed. It is puzzling why it was this place which was decided worthy of being pieced back together, and the effort is hilariously unconvincing; what you have here is no old Buda, no Warsaw Old Town. First, the most genuinely picturesque part of the suburb, a row of classical houses, all painted in different colours, with delicate window details, is on a dual carriageway, and fenced off by metal bars, so that there’s no way of appreciating it visually. Inside, cobbled courtyards enclose nondescript little houses, overpainted and buffed to such a sheen that those of them that are genuinely old are indistinguishable from the reconstructions. They market this place to tourists, hilariously, but even the most credulous would find the place’s lack of atmosphere or history uncomfortably obvious.
From here, when you reach the Green Diameter along the river, you can pick two directions. One leads to repeated towers, like a miniature, riverside version of Moscow’s New Arbat. It’s supplemented by Minsk’s stabs at western business skyscrapers, which loom above the little houses of the Trinity Suburb towards the Brutalist Palace of Sport and a horrible block of new flats heavily criticised locally for doing damage to the Soviet ensemble of the Green Diameter.
The other route leads to some further fragments of Old Minsk, a little less tawdry this time — Freedom Square, reached from steps up from a modernist street of flyovers and expressionistic revolutionary reliefs. This showcases two baroque Counter-Reformation churches of the 18th century, in a recognisably Polish-Lithuanian style (these churches are one of Belarus’s claims to be genuinely “European”, whatever that might mean in this context). Their florid twin towers are monuments on the Minsk skyline, given that so little else (until very recently) has been able to obstruct them. Souvenir stalls do a quiet trade, and the Nemiga Metro station can lead you out into the suburbs.
The stations are cleaned, judging by the number of times I saw people sweeping and mopping, almost constantly — that “artificial” system of full employment
The Minsk Metro is quite a typical Soviet Metro, insofar as this extraordinary typology is ever typical. It was built in the 1980s, without the ultra-deep escalators that mark Kiev, St Petersburg or Moscow, but with a later spin on their use of underground systems as continuous artworks. Nizhny Novgorod has the most similar systems, although unlike it, Minsk Metro has constantly been expanded since it was built, given that the command economy that made it possible has never quite been dismantled here. Signs are in Belarusian and English (with older, Russian signs visible in some places), and announcements are in Russian. There seems to be no unified system of priority between Belarusian and Russian in the city, though the former predominates on signage, if not on adverts.
The trains are fast and frequent, and some of the stations are genuinely special — marble uplighters like torches at October and Victory squares, Sovietised folk art figures at Jakub Kolas, grand hangars at Vostok and Cheliuskintsev Park, and a hammer and sickle set into a globe shaped like a football at Lenin Square. The latter has a bust of Lenin set into a niche in its underpass, very like the one recently removed from Teatralna Metro station in Kiev. Much like people rub the nose of the bronze dog in Revolution Square station in Moscow for luck, here, passers by rub the nose of Lenin himself. It has been worn yellow by rubbing, and I watch a couple of people do it on their way out. It’s the sort of superstition that would have utterly horrified the revolutionary leader, but it strikes me that this domestication of Soviet symbols might be a little healthier than the government-sanctioned Leninoclasm in Belarus’s southern neighbour.
There seems to be a dozen members of staff at any station at any one time. The stations are cleaned, judging by the number of times I saw people sweeping and mopping, almost constantly — that “artificial” system of full employment. Less encouraging is the evidence of the country’s militarism; I see hundreds of soldiers in my few days in the city, thin young men and women on military service, crammed into uniforms too big for them; more soldiers, in fact, are visible than in Kiev or Dnipropetrovsk, two cities in a country which was recently invaded.
4. Accidentally fashionable
Minsk’s Gallery of Art is part of the post-1945 Stalinist ensemble being hawked to UNESCO, just round the corner from Dynamo stadium and the KGB. On the outside, it is staid classicism, with statues in niches so similar to those in Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science that I wouldn’t be surprised if they were by the same sculptor. Inside is, first, an incredibly tedious exhibition of Russian art exactly like that you’d find in any medium-sized Russian provincial city, a dusty reminder of just how much the Soviets — at least in the Stalin era — resembled the Victorians, with their jingoism, kitsch and liking for awful narrative painting. But, at one point, when you’re annoyed at wasting your Belarusian rubles (the cost of living here is surprisingly high), these drab galleries give way to a postmodernist extension, which has one of the best Soviet picture collections I’ve ever seen, along with a great selection of glassware and ceramics, all in a free style more often associated with Poland or the Baltics.
The paintings tell a much more interesting story of the city than the one-dimensional Victory roar of the “City of the Sun”. A Jewish-Belarusian-Lithuanian-Polish city with cobbled streets and tumbledown cottages appears in many of them, as does reminders of 1917 — a still life with jugs, a chess set and a copy of the Futurist journal Art of the Commune. The Stalinist epic painting is of mainly historical interest, but the work of the Thaw was truly fascinating here, much of it, as in Yugoslavia, concerned with the Partisan war. The standout is Leonid Shchamialiou’s My Birth, where a newborn child is cradled by the swaddled figures in an abstracted snowscape. This is the kind of work which, in MOMAs from Berlin to Warsaw to Vilnius to Riga, is being rediscovered by hot young curators dabbling with the forbidden fruit of Socialist Realism; here, it is on the walls because it always has been.
The walk from the Academy of Sciences Metro station to the Centre for Contemporary Art provides an interesting insight into how Minsk is managed. These are humble, working-class streets, either in an attenuated Stalinist style with pitched roofs or simple brick Khrushchevki, many of which are being renovated — the surfaces are stripped off and then reapplied, mostly leaving residents’ balcony extensions in place. But what is really peculiar here is the way that graffiti is treated. Graffiti is an ever-present thing in Kiev or Warsaw, and in the latter city in particular, it’s not a pleasant thing — football ultras at best, anti-Semitic slogans at the frequent worst. It’s hard to know what the graffiti would be saying here, because it is all scrubbed off or blanked out; there is a law about insulting the president, after all.
In the centre, the scrubbing is seamless, but not out here; you notice that almost every tenement has one, two, three or four white or green rectangles painted onto its render or brickwork. The result is as if those bars that censor words or body parts in old newspapers were applied all over the city to its naughty bits and nether regions; an abstract image of a population silenced. You can see that the local sprayers are aware of this, so they do what they can — tags and stickers are on many of the street signs, which of course can’t be painted over, and the eyes of the parents and children on a SCHOOL sign are blacked out. The gallery itself is in a red brick 1980s building, and its exhibitions are excellent; October, when I was there, was Minsk Photography Month, so these were photo series, one of them on the street markets of the region, another on the evergreen topic of “concrete”, with some great work by young photographers — but it is all very low budget indeed, mostly consisting of colour printouts sellotaped to the wall.
That’s about as much unofficial culture as I managed to find in the capital of Belarus. Official culture is best represented by the National Library of Belarus, a nation-building monument for a country pejoratively without nationalism. A friend had taxed me with the task of finding a Lukashenko magnet for him during my stay, but I couldn’t find any, just dozens of magnets and other trinkets featuring this extraordinary building, the only genuinely post-Soviet construction in the city of any significance. It is a giant, opaque blue glass cube with tapered top and bottom, a 2001 monument dropped on an immense square in the Vostok district, opposite a microrayon whose blocks are each decorated with Soviet frescoes. Designed in the 1990s by architects Vinogradov and Kramorenko, and finished in the 2000s, the library is undeniably impressive. Flirting with kitsch, which doesn’t make it particularly unusual among Minsk’s earlier monumental architecture, it will doubtless become as much of a slightly ironic cult object as its Soviet predecessors.
The drab galleries at Minsk’s Gallery of Art give way to a postmodernist extension, which has one of the best Soviet picture collections I’ve ever seen
Next to it is a building site, with a large shopping mall nearly completed, the site covered in the usual “Happy People of Belarus” advertisements, including several for the new Museum of the Great Patriotic War, its design a direct crib from the Moscow version with an obelisk stolen from Riga, a Soviet remix in mirror glass. At the bus stop next to the Vostok Metro station entrance is a long, straight queue of people in single file, waiting for transport to the further suburbs. Looming behind the library and the half-finished mall are dozens of new prefabricated tower blocks, a new microrayon emerging.
The Lukashenko regime’s censorship, its lack of any meaningful democracy or autonomous institutions, its conscription, and its alleged suppression of the “true” national identity of the country, all these only partly explain its longevity. According to Bekus, Belarus has long been unusual in the region for maintaining a public housing system, with waiting list, subsidies, public ownership and suchlike; but these are private. The social settlement that has kept Lukashenko in power for all this time is coming apart, as Russia demands its pound of flesh for its years of subsidy; in some government circles, dismantlement of the Belarusian welfare state is being proposed for the first time. From only having provincial “minigarchs”, its system may begin to resemble Russia and Ukraine socially as much as visually; the monstrous tower barging into the Green Diameter is a little preview of what might be to come.
What will happen then? Could Belarusians manage to combine the things that, however much they’re criticised, actually seem rather attractive when compared with a Ukraine, a Moldova, a Russia, even a Poland? A more detached relation to the recent past, a relative lack of the xenophobia, obsessive victimhood and cultural aggro that mar so many post-communist countries, some retention of certain aspects of a Soviet culture of social planning; none of these are things to be embarrassed by. Could they ever be combined with genuine democracy, a free public sphere, freedom to protest, and an end to the petty bureaucracy, thuggery, militarism and arse-kissing that Lukashenko has continued from the Soviets? It seems unlikely, but then stranger things have happened here.
Text: Owen Hatherley
Images in order: Andrii Zymohliad; Isabel Sommerfeld; Ermakov; Nigel’s Europe and Beyond; Dennis Jarvis under CC licenses