In February 2011, in Minsk, another building scandal erupted. In the executive committee a plan for a partial demolition of the residential settlement of Tractor Works and for building comfortable multi-storeyed buildings in its place was announced.
This plan emerged a confrontation of residents and authorities regarding the disposition of forces looks like an amusing incident. Those residents of Minsk which usually become a human shield against the final demolition of the Old town, accusing the authorities of the Soviet approach to architectural heritage, suddenly stood up for a symbol of Soviet architecture itself – the post-war district built by the order of Joseph Stalin. What are the roots of this paradox?
Just a city
Recent sociological studies of the image company, which the Belarusian authorities hired to promote the Belarusian capital, showed: citizens of Minsk do not see it in any way. For most residents, Minsk is “just a city”. Not a village.
This is due, perhaps, to the fact that the number of Minsk natives in at least the third generation is miserable and unable to assimilate migrants – the majority of the indigenous population of the city of the 1950-1980s was composed of the Holocaust survivors of the Jewish community, which by the end of the 1990s almost in full repatriated to Israel. Former villagers that captured Minsk after World War II fled here from the collective farm poverty and serfdom (villagers in the Soviet Union for a long time did not have the wages in the form of money and even passports). Making themselves comfortable in a protometropolitan city almost completely destroyed by the Soviet army, few Belarusians thought about the cultural content of the space where they happened to live. The real city in the understanding of an average Belarusian is “a city with history”: Grodno, Nesvizh, and Vilnius. Churches, monasteries, palaces, castles, narrow old streets. Almost nothing of this left in Minsk.
Residents of Minsk also deny the most obvious thing – the Soviet spirit of Minsk and Belarus as a whole – the first thing that catches the eyes of foreigners. It is also clear that to be nostalgic about the Soviet past you need to make it really the thing of the past. What is happening in Belarus now can only be described as the restoration of the Soviet aesthetics and ideology. It is easier to retreat from the “red” reality and once again boast of infrastructure achievements: cleanliness in the streets and convenient transportation.
In this, apparently, lies the success of the European artist and writer Artur Klinov: he was the first one not to be afraid to conceptualize a Soviet Minsk comparing it to the City of the Sun by Tommaso Campanella.
And indeed, for the small part of intellectuals and creators who think broadly and are not afraid of stereotypes, Minsk is attractive as it is: monumental but not to such extent as Moscow, faceless but this impersonality is the face, imperial but on stucco columns of pseudoclassicism graffiti look very original. The Old town for such people now is not only rare baroque in the former Cathedral Square. Such people are convinced that the Soviet part is also a legacy.
Parallel to the conceptualization of the City of the Sun there is a physical development of “Stalin’s empire style” in Minsk.
Fashion on stalinki
If what Artur Klinov and architectural historians say is true, a post-war Minsk was built on a single quote from Maksim Gorki: “Man – it sounds proudly”. In contrast to the “bourgeois world” where palaces are inhabited exclusively by the cream of society, the Stalinist housing program intended to distribute palace houses especially among ordinary people.
It is interesting that this equality featured not only on paper. Fact: the houses on Partisan Avenue were settled by families of the former partisans and the settlement of Tractor Works – by workers’ families.
Very quickly, however, Soviet planners have estimated the costs of comfortable accommodation and decided that a person, in principle, would manage. In the era of Nikita Khrushchev it was discovered a “golden section” of Khrushchevka – in capacious houses with cubby-holes and co-joint sanitary facilities which are still called home by literally millions of Belarusians.
Growing up in dorms-malosemeykas and “khrushchy” (as they disparagingly called nowadays) has determined the character traits of a whole generation of Soviet people: low self-esteem, understated social needs, obedience and lack of initiative, lack of a sense of solidarity and mutual aid
Sociologists and psychologists have expressed the view: growing up in dorms-malosemeykas and “khrushchy” (as they disparagingly called nowadays) has determined the character traits of a whole generation of Soviet people: low self-esteem, understated social needs, obedience and lack of initiative, lack of a sense of solidarity and mutual aid. Having earned the first money, children of “khrushchy” seek, albeit by a mortgage, to change the cubby-holes of childhood to spacious 4-5-room flats in the concrete jungles of new residential districts. Their attitude toward the standards of living, therefore, changes quantitatively but not qualitatively. Thus it is possible to put forward a bold hypothesis: if Belarusian cities see the emergence of civil societies in the European sense then an incubator will be Stalin flats.
Shoes on a tree
In the 2010s in the former Soviet Union there was a change of generations, including in terms of property rights. On stage appeared the children of baby boomers of the 1980s, for whom the Soviet Union was a happy childhood. Now, when apartments are not “given” and are chosen on the market, the housing accommodations built after Stalin are in the trend. In the youth online magazine 34mag.net there is a section “Art-house” where photos of apartments of different creative people are published. After going through this section one gets the impression: hire or buy housing with the ceiling below three meters in Minsk is already a bad manner. In central quarters of the capital, which does not go right up to Independence Avenue but still can boast having housing of 1940-1950s, gradually form communities of young families with a very strange, as for an average Minsk resident, understanding of the standard of living.
One of such conscious migrates – a designer of the studio “Adliga” Anatoliy Lazar: “There is such a thing as a “brick-and-frame house” – it’s neither a panel house nor it is a clay birdhouse ... In such a house you can safely change the plan – do what you think is relevant and functional. And ceilings of 3.5 meters are just a fairy tale. 70-80% of our neighbours are pensioners who live here from the Soviet era. The remaining 20-30% is just successful people who paid a lot of money for such apartments. I had a choice: 4-5-bedroom in Malinovka district or 2-bedroom in the centre. So I bought in the centre. And have no regrets.”
We cannot say that the price of these districts has risen sharply: tariffs here are standard for the capital (according to the site realt.by, an apartment in an old house near the metro in the Partisan District costs 1,100-1,300 USD per sq.m as of December 2012). Nor can we say that moving to stalinki has acquired a total character. It is rather the first step of gentrification – when bohemians and “advanced” students move to certain districts.
It so happened that most clearly such processes are evident in the change of contingent around the metro station “Tractor Works”. Creative workshops, private recording studios and just squats – a new backup of land estate of tractor constructors: “If rent an apartment, it is only on the Tractor!” sounds at the next table in the hipster cafe. “There already all trees are covered with sneakers, so many of ours are there”.
An art critic and writer, Viktor Martinovich, is one of the “patriots” of the Tractor. He lives in a neighbouring district but often comes here to wander into backyards and parks. On one of such trips we go out together: “Stalin’s empire style began under the influence of the Italian palazzo. Initially these were small buildings of 2-3 floors, with enclosed courtyard for compact living of small number of people. On Koshevogo Street we see exactly such buildings. With a garden before the entrance, with playgrounds for children. These apartments on the market right now are not even possible to get at”.
And this jam out of doughnut the city authorities are about to take by another “cleanup” decree.
Houses of Razenfeld
Meeting with another patriot of the Tractor was a surprise for me. A bard and poet, Roman Abramchuk, whose work is clearly inspired by the ideals of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, happened to be our guide in the Tractor settlement during one of the festivals of the guides which are held annually in Belarus by Society for Protection of Monuments. One of the goals of the excursion was to spread the information about the threat to the cozy quarters in 2011.
As it turned out, Roman grew up in another district of Minsk but deliberately moved here because of love to quiet streets and romantic atmosphere. His own ideological convictions during the excursion were not showed except perhaps by a historical background: The Tractor is a former Antonievski Tract, premises of Archbishop of Minsk and Turov. Therefore it is right that in the midst of one of the pioneer parks a church is currently being built.
“The settlement of the Tractor Works was conceived not just as a housing of Minsk Tractor Works – in the late 1940s it became a symbol of the restoration of the USSR after the war,” tells and shows Roman Abramchuk. – “Hurrah-reports were broadcast from here to the whole Soviet empire, and building itself was positioned by the Soviet ideologists as a gift of the Soviet Union to the Belarusian people that took the burden of the German occupation. Though the important fact is hushed: the “Tractor”, as well as half of Stalinist Minsk, was built by captured German soldiers and interned civilians of Germany which thus “paid the debt” to the Soviet people. A labour camp for 5,000 workers was placed just on the present territory of the Tractor Works”.
It is not known what now makes two-and-three-floor buildings of the Tractor attractive to fans of the old architecture: the arm of the architect Zenoviy Razenfeld that generously scattered on “workers huts” stucco moldings and sculpture, or the famous German orderliness on which the houses are kept for 70 years without major repairs.
In a stalinka on the Tractor everyone can feel like a king: this effect primarily is achieved by high ceilings. But the most magical formulas for the ears of “tractorphiles” describe the structure of the quarter itself. It’s about the “rules of gardening and insolation” inherent in the project by Razenfeld’s guys. A number of avenues and squares as well as the amount of sunlight per capita in the district not only meet modern standards but exceed them substantially.
Each courtyard of the Tractor had a fountain and a plaster pioneer with a pipe – now upon these exotic things are gazing photographers from around the world who manage to obtain Belarusian visas. That, unfortunately, is not obvious to the authorities of Minsk: “Pragmatism, mediocrity and bad taste today, as always, are trying to take control of the beauty in its clumsy destructive hands”, sums up our inspired guide. “But who will protect the silent old house, if not the inhabitants themselves, or those who are able to see its value? Only the residents themselves are to decide what in their city is worth dismantling and what should be included in the list of monuments …”
The Rozochka, Grushevka, Tractor – a modern mode obsessed by the mania called “Minsk – a clean city”, slowly but surely deflates the “atmosphere” from the most romantic districts of Minsk. The aim is to achieve such a vacuum, in which sterile cloning of the law-abiding population is possible: loyalty in exchange for benefits. In the first two districts once fashionable among students and creators – neighbourhood of streets Rosa Luxemburg and the former settlement within the boundaries of Minsk – metro stations have been built recently. The wooden buildings of Grushevka already went to pieces and Rozochka’s khrushchevkas are covered up with expensive plastic. The fact that until 2011 the Tractor settlement which has had metro for a long time already was not touched looks like a miracle in this context.
The officials, “kids of khrushchevkas” as well, say that to restore two-floor buildings where you can put a 10-floor house is impractical. So, instead of housing for 4,200 people the chief architect of the neo-Tractor Mark Shumyachar promises the residents of Minsk 25,000 beds. “And this is thousands of machines!” – terrifyingly say old residents of the district. Lovers of hermitage will no longer have a place to hide.
And it is true: the rescue of the house with 8 apartments with hardwood floors does not have material bonuses. And take into account cultural capital and see distant future opportunities Belarusian officials are not trained to. New life according to the state plan the Tractor is to begin until 2015.
Another scenario of gentrification in which a private investor would understand how it is important for tourism and urban microclimate to save at least some pieces of old urbanism is not possible in Minsk. “The government believes that it has a monopoly on patronage, extraneous sponsorship offends people at the top”, shares his observations Martinovich. Potential sponsors of culture tell us how they tried to do charity in the early 2000s but after the public gratitude from those whom they patronized their business was usually attacked by government checks. If the support of culture occurs, businessmen are completely anonymous and do it one at a time. In such conditions local hipsters can only dream of how to transform an abandoned kindergarten in Chebotarev in, for example, a private children’s creativity centre.
Read on snow
Another brake on the development of the settlement in a new direction is a mishap that the majority of works in Minsk are still working at full force in the city. The same is for the Tractor: the population (partially) left but the works remained. As evidenced by Martinovich, “the future of the Tractor is overshadowed by large hangouts of tractor-workers. A man in a bohemian scarf and glasses can simply get in the face here. It is difficult to imagine a trendy club or gallery here, as the whole departments of workers still concentrate there. Do you see the awning across the street? This is a pub where they are going after their shift. A walk past it for an intellectual is a serious examination of masculinity ...”
Poor environment is another factor which puts an end to the bright future of the district. Today the master plan for removing enterprises outside the city seems as unreal as charters to Mars. But Viktor Martinovich is convinced that to live in stalinkas is not as harmful as it may seem at a glance:
“The quarters of stalinkas were erected according to the wind rose. Always look at the snow. It will tell you where you can play and where it is not worth it. If you get closer to the entrance of Tractor Works, you can smell burnt iron. Snow is black there. The most polluted street of Minsk is Uralskaya: there the wind blows from the Zavodskoy district. But the settlement of Minsk Tractor Works was designed by the order of Stalin and therefore spared no expense to undertake studies. Most often you see stalinkas in areas where there was no pollution. Look at the snow. It is white. According to the wind rose, the works does not reach it here”.
Cubic dreams of Galina
An architect Galina Zaleskaya would hardly put her name to the theory of snow by Martinovich. She grew up in the cube on Sotsialisticheskaya Street which borders with the territory of Automobile Factory. Nearby there is also a smelly “Minskdrev”. In 2009, her family and their neighbours were relocated to another end of the city – Malinovka district. The residents of the street for many years were seeking for new home because it was impossible to breathe in their yard.
“There was a chic space between houses – cour d’honneurs with playgrounds. When we were kids we made fantastic theatrical performances there,” she recalls. “Cour what?” – “Cour d’honneurs – it was a slang word of architects for front yards. Only we did not have them parade but cute and cozy. Impression that you are protected.”
Galina lives in Malinovka but she often dreams about her home room at the Factory: “You know, I grew up in a cube. Three by three by three. And now I’m like stuck in a box”. Galina is nostalgic about her native district, sometimes drops in dilapidated houses but realizes that it was necessary to leave. She did not forget how it smells there.
But such a case of forced migration is rather an exception. “A Belarusian middle class does not seek to live in stalinkas. They are tempted by new buildings”, believes Martinovich, “I’m telling you that I live in a stalinka at the Factory, the colleagues are horrified: you could have sold it, could have moved to a decent neighbourhood. The anthill of Malinovka for residents of Minsk is more awesome. Stalinkas are for psychos who are nuts about architecture. And the problem is not that to live in a new block of flats is prestigious for people – for them it is also beautiful. In addition, people who have moved from the countryside in the first generation, see the lack of an elevator and rubbish chute in the house as a problem. Their value is a standard of living, and not a molded ceiling. Thus, the middle class set a foot on the Tractor. Its “clients” are bohemia which is not afraid to stand in one queue with the proletariat”.
And, finally: good news about the Belarusian currency crisis of 2011. Restructuring of the Tractor Works settlement and most of other really Faustian plans on injury of streets and the whole districts of Minsk was frozen through the financing defect. But residents of Minsk concerned about the state of architectural heritage are not very optimistic about the future: new loans which the President will cadge from Russia or the West, and new criminal sale of land to Venezuela and Arab countries, and the plan will get off the ground, to the delight of all fans buying in a glass greenhouse of a shopping mall luxury fittings for a new five-room apartment. And this all is done so that the following residents of Minsk could also with a decent indifference raised by image makers to the status of a local feature respond to a sociologist: “Minsk? I do not know. Just a city.”
-  Malosemeyka is a house built by a dorm type in the late Soviet era by industrial establishments for their personnel. On each floor there is a common corridor onto which look out several apartments most of which have one room.
-  Khrushchy have the meaning of “khrushchevkas”.