Minsk: The Sun City of Dreams
On a first visit to Minsk, a European cannot but be fascinated by the city’s strange yet irresistible charm. What strikes the tourist is the imperial aesthetics, a phenomenon quite rare in Europe. Wide streets and avenues, palaces adorned with rather odd but nevertheless lavish decoration, and numerous vast parks in the city centre are luxuries that can be afforded only by very rich and aristocratic European cities. However Minsk, though monumental, does not look absolutely cold, hostile, or domineering, but is touched by a delicate air of provincial sentimentalism. For European architecture, nothing could be more out of the ordinary than the sentimental imperial style. In Minsk, imperial city space, which by definition is intended to keep the individual at a distance, is suddenly split, to become close to and congruous with humans. Like in Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, mighty architectural structures shrink to the size of doll’s houses and then mushroom to elephantine proportions again. The scenery changes all the time. A gorgeous, splendidly decorated arch leads you into a shabby-looking courtyard with lines of tiny little booths instead of balconies, the only decoration on its unplastered walls. Another two hundred metres – and another monumental arch shows you the way out of this feast of wretchedness into another huge square, where gigantic Corinthian columns march along the pavement, making passers-by look like Lilliputians. Its rhythms, aesthetics, moods constantly changing, the city space develops irrational and illogical zones that remind you of Franz Kafka, Elias Canetti, or Daniil Kharms, even making you feel you are a character from their stories.
There are only a few imperial-style cities in Europe: Paris, Berlin, St.Petersburg, Vienna, Rome and… Minsk. But while Paris, Berlin, or Vienna were either major imperial cities or centres of great political, economic, or cultural trends, Minsk has never been a noticeable site for any of these processes, to say nothing of an empire, even a second-rate one. It took less than a century for a small provincial town, barely visible on the map of Europe, to turn into what by European standards is an enormous, two-million strong megalopolis, wearing lavish, even if slightly odd robes. The miraculous transfiguration was the result of some mystical genius loci. It was the logical result of a mythologeme that can be traced back centuries.
“A city of perished heroes”, “a city of dead poets”, “a city of deceased geniuses”, “a graveyard of a city” – we’ve all heard such definitions of Minsk more than once. One could dismiss them as a poetic metaphor were they not so utterly true. Minsk is indeed a dead city, the city of the dead, or rather the city of dead cities. Throughout its history, the site has seen more than one Minsk come into being, only to vanish from the face of the earth. At various times it has been Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Uniate or Greek Catholic, Judaic, Orthodox again, then Soviet, Sarmatian, baroque, imperial and provincial. What makes Minsk so special is its series of incarnations. Every time it rose from the ashes, Minsk broke with tradition to be revived as a totally different city, with a new aesthetics, lifestyle, mythology, and even ethnic and religious composition. It is as if several waves of nomads settled here, built their towns and then moved on, taking their towns with them, leaving behind the trash of cultural layers whose energies lay concentrated somewhere deep inside, their ancestral remnants strewn across the surface.
This is typical not only of Minsk but of many other Belarusian towns and cities. They differ in the number and aesthetic value of their reincarnations. Some disappeared, never to be revived again. Others were restored, but in such a fashion it would have been better had they not.
In terms of history, death and resurrection make the algorithm for the whole of the territory that in its present incarnation is called “Belarus”. Fortunately or unfortunately (this will only be clear in a few centuries), it is situated on the borderline between two great civilisations rather than within the domain of either. This accounted both for its inevitable death, when the waves from the East and the West beat against each other, and its resurrection when the times of peace required ports and quiet havens. Perhaps this is why reincarnation or revival has become the key to understanding Belarusian history and the magical symbol of Belarusian destiny.
Every normal European town or city develops by adding what is new to what has long existed. This is the way it evolves, with various cultural layers overlapping constantly. Even if new nations took over old ones, they adapted the legacies of previous dwellers to add something of their own. Minsk, which significantly enough commenced its recorded history with a bloodbath on the banks of the river Niamiha, has turned into “a city of dead cities”, “failed civilisations”, “perished heroes” and their nations. This was precisely what made it an optimal place for an ideal city of the communist utopia. It was determined by fate that the happy Sun City of Soviet Dreams was to arise here and only here. The undertaking would have failed in Moscow, which was the heart of the empire, or Leningrad, or any other town or city. Take Moscow. For generations, Soviet architects endeavoured to turn it into the Sun City of Dreams, yet it remained an enormous eclectic conglomerate. It is in Minsk that the Sun City of Dreams could become a reality, for it needed a vast graveyard of dead cities where the mournful sun lights the dreams of the dead.
Just as every state has its coat of arms, anthem, and flag, so every social utopia has its ideal city. An Utopia is an attempt to make everyone happy. Its ideal city should represent the aesthetic of happiness according to the founders of the utopia. In the workers’ and peasants’ state, the aesthetics of happiness was associated with what the oppressed classes had been deprived of. Their idea of wellbeing presupposed that, instead of slums, men and women of the communist future were to reside in magnificent palaces with parks, fountains, and statues. These were to represent the beauty of the harmonious men and women of the communist future. The palaces were to be linked with one another by wide avenues lined with green trees and exotic flowers. The ideal city was to have grand squares at its key places, where happy citizens would come together for celebrations and parades. It is this very concept of the Sun City of Dreams that was carried out in Minsk’s postwar reincarnation.
Stalin-Lenin (now Skaryna) Avenue has become the city’s main thoroughfare. It is one of the longest in Europe, ranging from 12 to 18 kilometres in length at different times. There are a number of gigantic squares running along the city’s axis in a cascade: Lenin (now Independence) Square, Stalin (now Kastrycnickaja) Square, Victory Square, Jakub Kolas Square, Kalinin Square… The main thoroughfare is lined with endless rows of the famous Minsk palaces, designed by the best Soviet architects of the time.
These unique edifices, which could be defined as “people’s palaces”, are not in fact palaces proper. Borrowing from the classical palace its lavish façade, inside they remain ordinary blocks of flats. Each use to have a little park in the backyard, with statues, sometimes fountains, and even open-air stages. The style of the Minsk palaces can be described as “Stalinist empire”, which is actually decadent, unlike the laconic classical empire style’s indiscriminate use of historical architectural signs. The builders of the utopia had no doubt that their aesthetics of happiness should comprise the highest achievements of pre-communist culture. No wonder, then, that Stalin’s empire style covers the whole scope of classical architecture, applying ancient Greek, Roman, and even Egyptian models alongside Baroque and Renaissance motifs.
The “people’s palaces” are simply signs that symbolise palaces. This is what makes them unique. The edifices make an illusion of palaces, where the sumptuous façades are artificially fastened to constructivist walls. As if drawn on one side of a sheet, the decadent splendour disappears once you turn the page. The infinite rows of flat palaces, which are actually nothing other than scenery for some grand performance, make for a fascinatingly surreal sight. But as soon as you step sideways, you find yourself in a completely different reality. The Corinthian and Ionic orders, imposing cornices and monumental arches, evaporate in a blink of an eye. What remains is grey, unplastered walls, piteous balconies with laundry hanging on the washing lines, and monotonous barracks-like black windows. This is what the naked truth is all about. People resembling more Brueghel’s characters than happy residents of the Sun City of Dreams trudge through, burdened with their little dramas. Among these backyard parks, the dramas sound louder than on the other side of the wall, where they are muffled by the march of Roman columns, Egyptian obelisks, Greek urns, vases, and the stone divinities of the communist mythology, which proclaimed general happiness.
There are only a few palaces that do not fit the definition of “flat palaces”, such as the Palace of Post, the Palace of the Government, the Palace of the KGB, the National Bank Palace, the Trade Unions Palace, the Palace of the Party’s Central Committee, the Palace of the Republic, the Circus Palace, the Academy of Sciences Palace, and maybe one or two others.
In their eclecticism, Minsk’s palaces sometimes take on such surreal and hyper-ironic forms as to be envied by the fathers of postmodernism. Take, for instance, the Television Palace in Kamunistycnaja (Communist) Street. The imposing colonnade, in ancient Egyptian style, is attached to an ordinary constructivist façade, out of which a Renaissance pediment grows rather hesitantly, as if it were ashamed of something. Or look at the Belbusinessbank building in Marx Street, barely noticeable at first sight. Its constructivist façade is decorated with several tiers of thin and delicate Corinthian columns. Really, it is the last thing one would have expected here. To crown it all, this example of absolutely illogical architecture is adorned with stone flowers enwreathing the front door in a kind of baroque rhythm.
The further one departs from the main thoroughfare, the more frequent are the examples of irrational and illogical architecture. The painter who created this masterpiece seems to have worked diligently at the central part of the composition, leaving the rest in the form of a sketch with just a few random expressionist strokes, prompted by his subconscious. In place of the flat but still integral scenery come separate fragments. The “wall-like” palaces give way to what can be called “window-like” palaces. No longer producing an illusion of a palace, the buildings are now merely labelled with some symbolic sign to represent a palace. The label can take the shape of a few ornate windows, a pediment, or some columns, often stuck to unplastered walls. The same kind of labels can be seen on the back of the “wall-like” palaces too.
All in all the impression is of grand-style scenery for some strange production. The set becomes a substitute for reality. The Sun City of Dreams turns out to be a flat imitation, where the sun is just a plywood circle painted yellow. Abundant in spaces between the palaces are the statues of perfect people: athletes, replicas of Greek sculptures, girls carrying oars, pioneers alongside bears, deer, and other wildlife. But these symbols of union with nature in the communist paradise are mere plaster models. This is a good excuse for real imperfect people to profaning them, to breaking off their arms and noses, to cover them in paint and writing foul words on them.
No Utopia can become reality. So the project to build an ideal city of communist happiness in fact turned into the Sun City of Dreams, flat scenery for a pastoral drama in absurdist style. But this may have been exactly what the playwrights intended. After all, the true Sun City of Dreams was to be constructed further east, in the imperial centre of Moscow. Minsk was merely its front gate. The audience for whom the splendid scenery was designed could not have noticed it was all imitation. For the real audience were tourists entering the empire through its monumental triumphal arch, and not people living in the beautiful “wall-like” or “window-like” palaces. Passing the imperial triumphal arch, the one-street city stretching for kilometres, the tourist was supposed to kneel before the Empire’s grandeur. It may seem a paradox, but the triumphal arch of Minsk became the more impressive symbol of empire than the centre itself. Moscow failed to overcome the resistance of its mentality to represent the highest altar of the Soviet Empire.
Minsk, the Sun City of Dreams that has emerged from the Belarusian bogs and forests, is the outcome of the project to create an ideal city of the communist utopia. The fact that the project has been carried out within absurdist aesthetics and poetics, turning Minsk into an imitation of the Sun City of Dreams, by no means detracts from its uniqueness. Minsk’s present reincarnation has completed a certain mythological and poetic discourse. The ghost of the city is now dwelling in a body that, despite seeming materially real, turns out to be a ghost, a Shadow of the Empire, a city of an artificial sun and splendid theatrical sets. The marvellous squares and wide streets lined up with the flat palaces are just a big stage prepared for some weird play. Neither Belarusian nor Russian, Polish nor German, the universal play centres on human dreams and the impossibility of realising them, on the impossibility of reaching the city of happiness. It is the myth of Sisyphus and the myth of Icarus, it is the Sun, which brings life to all creatures and symbolises death. Minsk, with its ten century-long history, questions certain values. Which is better, uniqueness or warmth of cultural layers? Which alternative is preferable: having been born once, to live the normal life of a typical European town, to become cosy and dweller-friendly, but ordinary? Or to have reborn and ruined again and again, to turn into a bizarre architectural conglomerate, beyond comparison? Which is more valuable: to be normal or to bear the mark of genius, however pathological? Mediocre philistine calm or the aspiration to create a great romantic Utopia, whose ultimate shape is the absurdist shadow of the empire, named the Sun City of Dreams?