If someone asked me which place in Minsk I consider to be the heart of the capital, it would be easy to answer.
But it wouldn’t be Independence Square where almost three years ago, the political thaw was ended by beating the opposition. Neither is the central Kastrychnitskaya (October) Square under which the metro lines cross. Nor the president’s headquarters by the Marks street where decision concerning the fate of ten-million people are made every day. It wouldn’t be the new building of the national library, the symbol of independent Belarus architecture.
It would be the modest subway Niamiha station situated couple hundred meters north from the core of modern Minsk that spreads from east to west for fifteen kilometres of Independence Avenue. The name of Prospect has been changed fourteen times. In the times of Tsar it was called Zakharyevskaya, Napoleon called it the New City. It commemorated 25th October and 25th March. The German occupier called it Hauptstrasse twice and in 1999 Poles named it after Mickiewicz. The Soviet, at first, called it the Soviet street and then it was named after Stalin and later on after Lenin. The free Belarus named it after Frantsysk Skaryna, the first Belarusian printer. It commemorates independence since 2005.
A surgery conducted fourteen times on the core means that the patient’s condition is not good. At first sight, the whole Minsk looks like one big Warsaw Constitution square to the third degree. After 1994, only few dozen undamaged buildings were left in the capitol of Belarus. But it was decided before the war that the city should be transformed into a model centre for socialistic country and the task became much easier after war. Minsk was to make an impression on everyone who was going to Moscow from the West. For this reason, there are wide streets, monumental buildings in the style of Stalin Baroque, large parks and dozens of underpasses.
When walking from the station in the direction of Niamiha, ones passes the parliament building, the main post office and the KGB building in the vicinity of which the infamous "Amerykanka" - the arest is situated. It was called "Amerykanka" because its interior was associated with American prisoners from movies. From the cells, one enters directly a flights of stairs. Opposite the arrest, there used to be a bar London but the name had to be changed since the Belarusian president wasn’t allowed to enter London for the Olympic games. Some eager person in uniform simply wanted to acquire some additional points for his work card.
From his statue, Feliks Dzierżyński looks at the yellow building with a characteristic turret. "The Statue of the Commander of Revolution" - one can read in the "Minsk. The guidebook through the city of the sun" by Arthur Klinau - was foreseeingly cast without hands. On the marble stand, you could see only his chest and head on which the local pigeons sheet continuously. But around the square, there were many bars and cafés. Later on, night shops were also here, so in summer the life carried on in the alley beside Feliks for the whole day and it stopped only just before dawn. But in the morning, there were strange people sitting on the benches again and they drank beer, bought in the local shop, in the company of slightly wilted orchids.
Beside the statue, the avenue and square were named after Dzerzhinsky in Minsk. Bolesław Bierut has his own street too - it is squeezed between a graveyard and an ugly Soviet bleak apartment houses and it is the last Bierut street in the world. Marks and Lenin are even not worth mentioning. From the KGB headquarters to the street of the latter one, there is only one street across. After getting a turn into Lenin Street, we get to Niamiha in couple minutes. Right in time - only here one can believe that the history of Minsk didn’t start in 1917.
The Great Blood
The Niamiha used to be a couple kilometres long river and it was a tributary of the Swisloch. In 1067 there was a great battle between the Polotvian prince, Vseslav of Polotsk, and a coalition of princes from Kiev. "The Tale of Igor’s Campaign", the 12th century relic of Old Russian literature mentions it as follows: "On the Nemíga the sheaves are laid out with heads;/ men thresh with flails in hedgerows;/ on the barn-floor they spread out life;/ they winnow the soul from the body./On the blood-stained Nemíga the banks were sown with bane,/--sown with the bones of the sons of Russia" (Translation by Leonard Magnus). Since then, Niamiha has always accompanied Minsk which then, in the 12th century, was a well known merchant town.
Vseslav lost the battle which was the bloodiest one at that time. But eventually, couple centuries later, the alliance of Lithuanian Balts with Slavic city-states, including Polotsk, laid the foundation for the Grand Dutchy of Lithuania. Which fully deserved being called grand. "The coordinates of Niamiha were demerited by blood. Grand blood always meant that the place where it was shed is not coincidental. But to create life in the place where blood was spilt, we need more time", says famous Belarusian writer, Valiantsin Akudovich during one of his discussions that constitute Viachaslau Rakitski’s book entitled "Bielaruskaya Atliantyda".
Life was created in this place, the heart of old Minsk used to beat in here. The most famous imitation of the historical city are the Traitskaye suburbs which, when looking from Niamiha’s side, are on the other side of the Svisloch. Imitation because what we can see in here now, is mostly the effect of post war rebuilding and reconstruction of one quarter of the streets that was made in the eighties. The High City looks down on Traitskaye. Not only because it is situated on the hill, but also because of historical events. The High City, contrary to Traitskaye, was build on the Magdeburgs rights. Once, there was a castle right behind the metro station but it was destroyed in the 19th century and its ruins were razed to the ground by the Soviet bulldozers. Currently, there are some remains - nine years ago some buildings were rebuilt - city hall, Catholic cathedral from the 18th century, the Holy Spirit Cathedral that was originally built a century ago and the estate of Wańkowicz family.
The High City is situated south from Niamiha. If we walk north-west from the station, we will reach Rakouskaye Suburbs after couple hundred meters. This is another historical district of Minsk and its history started in the 11th century. The gems of Rakouskaye, including the 19th century synagogue, may be easily overlooked. They are not visible among the Soviet buildings that were raised later.
Today the Niamiha river is hidden, as well as the traces of old Minsk grandiosity. In pipes, it runs deep under the ground and enters the Svisloch like a sewage. This is an allegory of what was done to Minsk during eight decades of the Soviet rule and three years of German occupation. Niamiha, the name of which originates from the Lithuanian word "nemiga" meaning "insomnia", fell asleep for good. It is not a peaceful sleep and the inhabitants of Minsk believe that it is burdened with the curse of the slaughter that took place in there more than nine hundred years ago. The curse that reminded itself again after nine years when a metro station was built in the place of the battle described in "The Tale of Igor’s Campaign". And it was built, despite the protest of the local intelligence, at the cost of other parts of the High City that had to be destroyed for this purpose.
On 30 May 1999, on the shore of the Svisloch, one of the breweries organised beer festival. At one point, the sky was covered with black clouds and lightened with thunders. Then, it started hailing. People ran to the nearest place that was covered with a roof. It was the underground passage leading to the Niamiha metro station. On the slippery stairs, many of them fell and trampled one another. Fifty three people died, mainly young girls. "The curse of bloody shore returned. The river returned, fell from the sky, washed away children from the town and killed them on its shores, but this time under the ground because the Niamiha now runs under the ground. Bloody shores of the underground river, bloody shores »of the one that never sleeps«” – writes Artur Klinau.
The tragedy on Niamiha is for Minsk the same thing as 1979 gas explosion for Warsaw. For both of the events, people created various conspiracy theories. The victims of mass panic attack are commemorated by fifty three metal roses placed in front of one the exists of the unlucky underground passage. It’s the island of tears for the youngest generation of Belarusians. The previous generation has its own Island of Tears, close to Niamiha, and its written with capital letters because it’s a proper name. At the foot of Traitskaye Suburbs, on a small islet stands one of the most heartbreaking statues that I have ever seen. A chapel, statue of a crying guardian angel, stones with names of Afghan cities in which Belarusian boys died in the eighties. Ghazni, Kandahar, Jalalabad.
Sometimes, when I visited Minsk, I stayed in a hotel that was being redecorated at that time and now it is known as Belarus hotel. I liked the summer walks from Niamiha metro through the bridge on the Svisloch and then along the shore - along Traitskaye Suburbs with its noisy cafés and contrasting Island of Tears that was situated near it. This route led beside newly raised apartment building. It’s a business card of the top property developer in modern Belarus, Yury Chyzh, trusted proto-oligarch of the regime. The building and the area are as different as chalk and cheese, but the business of trusted people has its own rights, not only in Belarus.
The Belarus hotel itself was to be finished by the Olympic games in Moscow. In the Belarusian capitol, on the Dynama stadium, seven football matches were played, including the quarter-final match between Yugoslavia and Algeria (information for football fans: the result was 3:0). Unfortunately, the investment had seven-year delay. But there is a chance that the history will repeat itself. The hotel has been undergoing redecoration for three years. This Soviet square and concrete building is covered with glass on the outside, and with the Western luxury inside. The redecoration is to be finished next year, before the beginning of the World Championship in Hockey. It is not known whether the building will be finished in time.
The building, at least before the redecoration, resembled other Soviet hotels - another grey building. The restaurant on the second floor was the best in this building when it comes to the views from the panoramic windows in it. With one glance, one could see the whole old Minsk, couple of turns of the Svisloch and the area of Niamiha. Although the restaurant is not impressive when it comes to decorations or food, a group focussed around Viktar Lukashenka took a liking for it. The heir of the president gradually strengthens his position in the country and from the twenty second floor of the Belarus hotel, one can see the most important parts of the right and target Belarus.
The intersection of dual personality
When looking down at the city, one can believe that "samoye chistoye mesto na globuse" (the cleanest place of the globe, as was ironically sung by the RockerJocker band) is a structured, modern place. Indeed, Minsk slowly undergoes modernisation. Along the Svisloch river, a charming bicycle path has been recently built, one can also be impressed with the national library building, redecorated building façades in the city centre don’t scare anymore, parks are green, pavements clean and in the evening, one can see an exhibition in a modernistic and by principle Belarusian speaking gallery “U Nieskladovaye”. And despite the fact that media mention the crisis all the time, in the bright evening there are queues in front of cafés as people are waiting for a free table. The second metro line is being developed and in the suburbs, new housing developments are built that are available for common people due to loans.
But this modernity is strongly schizophrenic like expensive boutiques and fashionable cafés by the Marx Street or expensive officers’ villas by the Communist Street. If ones goes south from the Niamiha station, he will encounter an intersection of Lenin and Ulyanov Street that commemorates a leader of revolution as well. The inhabitants of Minsk call this place "the intersection of dual personality". And there are even bigger paradoxes. The Jerzy Giedroyc Street adjoins Dzierżyński Avenue and to the Moscow metro line leads wide and long street of Kastus Kalinouski, the leader of the 1863 uprising in Lithuania and Belarus.
Kalinouski fought with Russia and today, he has his own street in one of the most Russified cities in Belarus. According to the recent register, only almost 6 percent of inhabitants of Minsk speak Belarusian on daily basis. Even the official name of the capitol in Belarusian, Minsk, is Russified. Until 1939 it was called Miensk. The same fact applies to other cities in Belarus. Old Harodnia is nowadays called Hrodna (Russian Grodno). Traditional Bierastsie is called Brest (Russian Brest).
About two cities, Minsk and Miensk, Liavon Volski sung a song with the N.R.M band. "Everything is mixed in Minsk: bread and matza, the Great October, and Radunitsa (orthodox holiday - ed.), and a tear of a drunkard and drunk popsa (Russian disco - ed.). But you can do nothing about Mieńsk, you can’t ruin it or conquer. It will never be destroyed or burned. It will speak its own language with you". It speaks to me in the language of Niamiha, experienced by dramatic and painful history and seldom by the reckless present. But it still lasts.