How come Minsk became the central city of Belarus and when did it happen? That happened long before the 20th century. Starting from the middle of the 17th century, the city was a miniature version of Rome. Its seven hills were home to more than 30 Catholic stone churches and monasteries with plenty of sacred items, icons and relicts. The most significant were the relics of Saint Felician – Pope Pius VI had presented them to Minsk. By the end of the 18th century, Minsk was one of the biggest centers of Catholic faith in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Catholicism at that time was going hand in hand with the Polish language, and therefore the city’s name was changed from “Miensk” to Polish-sounding “Mińsk” or “Minsk”.
The Latin Minsk of the 18th century has not survived till our days. The city was radically rebuilt during the reign of Russian Emperor Paul I. Before that, in 1793, Minsk had become the capital of a huge province stretching from what is known today as Lithuania to Ukraine. At that time, more than 7,000 people lived in Minsk. There were 39 stone residential houses, 993 wooden residential houses, several Catholic churches, an Orthodox church, a Protestant Lutheran church, three synagogues, more than 1000 shops, 10 workshops and many other important buildings in the city.
Many significant Minsk sights were constructed in the late 18th – early 19th century. The first Russian governor of Minsk province was Zakhar Korneyev, a liberal and a Mason well known for his political tolerance. In 1798, he founded in Minsk a huge park with flower gardens, alleys and flumes. One of the park’s columns had an inscription Post laborem requies (that can loosely be translated as ‘Relax after work’). This first public park in Belarus’ history has preserved till today under the name of the Soviet writer Maxim Gorky. Korneyev’s name was also on the main street of Minsk that was constructed in his era. It was called Zakharjeŭskaja. Depending on the historical periods, the street was changed to bear the name of Stalin, Hauptstrasse, Lenin, Skaryna and, finally, Niezaliežnasci (independence).
…Time ruthlessly erases Minsk, changing it quicker than the natural change of generations happens. Young Minskers won’t recognize the city they see on the paintings and drawings made in 1970-1980s. Famous Polish writer Władysław Syrokomla once said: Minsk erases memories all the time. The history of Minsk has been re-written many times. Many things have changed in Minsk throughout the centuries. Everything was changing in Minsk even when it seemed that nothing was left to be changed.
This image of endless changes is captured on the classical ‘social realism’ painting Liberation of Minsk by Valentin Volkov. The title of the painting is truly telling: Minsk was liberated from Poles, then from Germans… In fact, Germans planned to change the city totally, too. Check the "Gesamtsiedlungs plan der stadt Minsk” by the architеct Rudolf Wesche: the German authorities planned to destroy the whole historical center of the city and build instead 20 residential quarters. Several buildings were to be constructed on the sides and in the center of those quarters: a prison, the head office of gendarmerie, a crematorium with a specially designated square for executions by firing squad, and so on. That architectural nightmare didn’t come true but the basis for it – the destruction of the historical city center – had been prepared. The only part of old Minsk that had survived was the historical core of Minsk built in the 16th – 18th centuries. In a way, Soviet architects followed the Nazis’ construction plan and destroyed more buildings in Minsk. From this a myth was born: the myth about ‘eternally young’ Minsk, the city that is reborn from the flames as Phoenix; The City of the Sun. That was an important myth for the Belarusian post-war society, just as much as the myth about “guerilla republic” fighting Nazis during the war. So, what does the city mean for those who inhabit it nowadays?
All Great Lithuanian and Russian dukes visited Minsk. Every king of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and virtually every Russian Emperor paid visits to what is now the capital of Belarus. Minsk saw Piłsudski, Hitler and Stalin. Its streets welcomed Adam Mickiewicz, Tomasz San, Alexander Griboedov, Nikolai Gogol, Leo Tolstoy, Stendhal, Hans Christian Andersen, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jan Rainis and Romain Rolland. Bertolt Brecht, Henry Miller and J.K. Rowling described Minsk in their works. Diverse and colorful, this kaleidoscope of guests has not formed into a single picture, though. Is it because Minsk is constantly growing? A phantom city, a ghost city full of old legends – so old no one will even know the language in which they were told originally. Minsk is a dream city endlessly redesigned by dreamers and revised by architects.
Minsk exists in the endless chain of our personal experiences. We can imagine Minsk the way we want, since there is nothing much of Minsk left in the reality. On the other hand, what could possibly survive in the city, the first mention of which describes its destruction? When Minsk became part of the Russian Empire, it had 39 stone residential houses. When USSR was pronounced in 1921, 117 thousand people lived in Minsk. Now, there are two million people more. Probably, no other city in Europe grew as fast as Minsk. Even if the whole old city stayed untouched, the old-fashioned Minsk would occupy only 3% of modern Minsk’s territory. You are free to make assumptions and make up the history of Minsk – just the way I have done.