Monuments and Mendacities

Minsk is the real life Motown. Only they weren’t manufacturing cars in 1950s Belarus, they were building roads. This is a city built for the car: huge boulevards, six lanes across whilst pedestrians make do with endless, labyrinthine underground walkways. Yet Minsk was built at a time when people did not have ready access to car travel, when the use of private cars was restricted, seen as a bourgeois frivolity. This wasn’t so for the party elite of course.
The concern wasn’t to make wide roads for heavy traffic or for any practical reason, this was more of a loaded gesture. Big roads meant big success in the USSR. Even a car free road can be a victory call, however big the waiting list was for next install of Ladas from Russia. This was, of course, a purely Stalinist statement and a heavy veil over the realities of life in the USSR. Like North Korea in the present day; the Western world doesn’t see the famine, the poverty and the repression, we only get images of glassy skyscrapers, eight lane highways, grand classicist buildings and the legendary marching military. All ego, all machismo; fascist in its need for a very public display of strength and power. This is the ultimate in outsized pseudo-classical architecture: columns galore, motifs and messages plastered like graffiti onto marble reliefs. In an example of pure spite, the Romanian dictator, Ceausescu and his cronies, stole and pilfered the gravestones of the dead to build his People’s Palace: “the world’s biggest mausoleum” [1], built just time for Soviet Communism to crawl into it and die. The ghost of a city built upon the grave of a city. A mega-necropolis built for a megalomaniac. He blew up the monasteries and churches and built cultural palaces upon the ruins: vindictive displays of narcissism, steamrollering over hundreds of years of culture and history.

Stone relief, Nemiga Metro Station, Minsk

Minsk, in a sense, is the epitome of the ideal Stalinist city. Built from the ground up after the city had been devastated in the Second World War, it is a city that was designed in the image of Communism; born already tattooed with Soviet logos. This is 1950s Communism: all Cold War paranoia and patriotism. There is no ‘light relief’ from the Soviet statements forced upon you in Minsk. It is the ultimate Soviet metropolis: propaganda and politics chiselled into every corner, every crevice of the city. Proclaimed as the USSR’s ‘Hero City’ after the war, the city was built in a monumental fashion, Social Realist style. It exemplifies all the bleakness and dourness of the post-revolutionary years, when Communism’s aim was mere survival, no longer world revolution.
Minsk, along with so many other ex-Soviet cities, is bleak in its crude imitation of classicism. It is akin to Prince Charles’ attempt at history in the ‘quaint’, ‘heritage town’ of Poundbury. Yet unlike Poundbury, this is no novelty, no silly, trivial representation of the past, Soviet architecture was built upon the reality of Communist life. The pomp, the ego, the misplaced strength and power was reflected within the architecture and then mirrored back upon society at large. There is sadness within the statements, within the motifs that reflect the message of the machine. They don’t reflect revolutionary Belarus; the hope of a new world order or a fair, free and equal society, these are statements that were built upon repression and fear. Imagine it: every time you leave the house, hammers and sickles, stars and sheaves thrown upon your eyes. Endless rhetoric, meaningless propaganda; an attempt at making the people believe that this was the good life. In every hammer and sickle, in every red star displayed in Minsk there was a dream that mutated into a lie.

Even now, as Belarus is turned back on itself and formed into a one party state once again, Minsk is also heading back in time architecturally. Lukashenko is a man who likes his grand statement buildings: big grey boxes flanked by square columns. No style, no fluidity of form, yet a proclamation of power and intent these buildings surely are. Take the building below, The Palace of the Republic, built in 2002; a centre for conferences and concerts. It is the central building in Oktyabrskaya Square, itself an unwelcoming hulk of concrete, right in the heart of the metropolis. Oversized and clumsy the building “mimics the pseudo-palaces of Stalinism”[2], its monumentalism is a symbol of the authoritarian and absolute power of the state. Yet to me the building looks like a gigantic tomb, a huge mausoleum. As with Romania’s People’s Palace it’s like Belarus crept in there and died the day the building was erected. Oktyabrskaya Square is the historical centre of the city and should be the communal and social converging point of the city, yet it fails to engender much affection within the population of Minsk. Gathering in groups is now outlawed after the most recent protest in 2011, and thus a space that should be well placed to unite and congregate is an empty chunk of ground, devoid of life. No fountains decorate the square, no benches litter its outskirts. As the ‘un-use’ of this square makes clear, people are not able to actively interact with their streets; they are not able to occupy them or make them their own.
Once called Tsentralnaya, the name of the square was changed, as with other streets names in Minsk since Lukashenko came to power, as political allies and policies come and go. It’s like the show trials for the streets.

 

The Palace of the Republic, Minsk

Even the new National Library building fails to achieve much public support. A huge rhombicuboctahedron structure, (this isn’t a Lukashenko-coined word, it actually means that the building has eight triangular and eighteen square faces), it is built in green glass and steel; it’s like Star Trek has landed on the outskirts of Minsk. It even seems a more out-dated version of the Star Trek Enterprise with its bulky form and squat features. Rather than forwarding culture and literature, this building ends up looking like some kind of military intervention. Perhaps inside lies a secret nuclear launcher under the name of the ‘National Library’.
Every night the whole building puts on a kitsch light show. LED lights which cover the entire glass face of the building dance and cavort to form images and symbols such as the ‘new’ national flag of Belarus or patriotic slogans. There are 4646 colour changing LEDs in total on all 24 sides of the building. Yet it is not necessarily the lavish light show that impresses me, what impresses me more is the way that this building is a symbol for an egoist and self-serving government: a government who builds to impress, to boast and brag, regardless of the actual real ‘costs’ incurred.
There’s a rumour that the library is sinking. Only built in 2006 by architects M.K. Vinogrdov and V.V. Kramarenko, this was the year that Belarus became an ‘official dictatorship’, therefore this building could be seen as a symbol which represents the method and the madness of Belarus’ political policies. Apparently the library was built on marshy ground, and although the architects and Lukashenko were conscious of this problem, the leader ordered that it must be built upon this specific patch of land regardless. So, in an attempt to stop the building from sinking into the depths of the Minsk bog, freezers have been installed in the foundations of the building to keep the ground underneath frozen all year round. This is one expensive statement, yet with Belarus’ reliance on Russia for its energy and Lukashenko’s and Putin’s ‘special relationship’ this shouldn’t be too much of an issue.

National Library, Minsk

It is not just the buildings that yell propaganda to the passer by. Over the last year and a half Belarus has seen an influx of billboard propaganda, advertising the wonders of Belarus to its own citizens. Huge pictures of people enjoying skiing, or images of Belarus’ (very flat) landscape with slogans such as: ‘Together We Are Belarus’ or ‘I Love Belarus!’ This is, in its essence, an attempt by the government to engender some form of patriotism or nationalism into the citizens of Belarus. As our own government is also aware, when things are going badly, give the people a healthy dose of patriotism to help them forget their woes. Turn on the pageantry and the flag waving and fix a smile on your face ‘for the nation’.

‘Together We Are Belarus’ and ‘I love Belarus’ billboards, Minsk

Relief for me was to found in one building. As an excellent example of avant-garde socialist design at its unyielding best, the Polytechnic University of Minsk utterly fails to live up to the ‘Hero City’ tag, completely declining to endorse Socialist Realism. This is a building that refuses to stare into the past, into a notion of nationhood and strength which has no relationship to the present. It stands as an image of the true new world as it could have existed, representing freethinking, stimulating culture, and pushing real boundaries in architecture. Although this building is ruthless in its functionality, it also manages to inspire. Its overhanging lecture theatres are a wonder in their practicality, but also in their fantastic form. This is no sci-fi spaceship come library, no ‘attempt’ at recreating the glitz and pomp of the western world. Based on necessity, not scarcity, its form is truly dynamic, stretching across the campus, reaching an apex at one end and achieving a staggered effect at the other. Currently undergoing renovation I managed to have a quick look inside the building. It looks like it’s in the process of being gutted inside, whilst at the back of the building the builders have already made a start on fitting the new panelling. I spoke to an architecture student who was once taught in this building before the construction work started, who said that it has been three years since the building closed and the deadline for the building’s completion keeps getting moved further and further back. Now, they have said that the building won’t be available until 2019 (presuming that they have enough funds to even complete it by then).

Polytechnic University of Minsk

If only Belarus’ architects in the present day would be given the opportunity to experiment and to push boundaries creatively. Instead, as Sasha the architecture student decries, Lukashenko only has eyes for monumentalism; maintaining the illusion of power and order. This is the “regime of concealment”[3] where protests are suppressed, where the homeless are hidden, where the government physically eliminates all signs of failure, building grand statement architecture in its place. Yet this is all a lie, a huge fraud. The cleanliness of Minsk’s streets, the absence of true social spaces, of street culture, of forward-thinking architecture, only speaks of suppression, of a place where all is not well.

[1] Patrick McGuiness, The Last Hundred Days, Seren: Bridgend (2011), p. 303
[2] Natalia Barykina, ‘Architecture and Spatial Practices in Post-Communist Minsk: 
Urban Space under Authoritarian Control’, Spaces of Identity, [https://pi.library.yorku.ca/ojs/index.php/soi/article/view/18121/16893] Accessed 27/10/12
[3] Ibid.

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