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World Heritage Site

for World Heritage Travellers

Blog: 1940's - 1950's Architecture of Minsk

I am not going to make a habit out of reviewing former TWHS, but I sincerely thought that the 20th century Minsk architecture still was on the Tentative List of Belarus. However, it was removed from it in 2015. And that while Soviet (or Stalinist) Architecture is not yet represented on the List. Worthwhile other additions in this category could be The Soviet Architecture of Moscow and The Motherland Calls Statue (Volgograd), both featuring in our Top 50 Missing. Anyway, it would not surprise me if Belarus would renominate Minsk in the future. More on that later.

Trade Unions Palace of Culture on Lenin Square

The Architectural ensemble of Francysk Scaryna avenue in Minsk (1940's -1950's) - the full name of the former TWHS - includes the buildings along the city’s 2.9 km long main avenue. It was a harmoniously planned cityscape, constructed in 15 years time after the end of World War II. Minsk had been severely damaged during the war, turning 80% of the houses into rubble. Its architectural design was made by M. Parusnikov, who was selected after a competition.

Today the street has been renamed into ‘Independence Avenue’, dropping the name of Francysk Scaryna (a 16th century Belarussian humanist and language reformer). Ian has reviewed this site a few years ago, and I do agree with him that Minsk is a surprisingly enjoyable city. It has a combination of an almost Parisian elegance with a youthful vibe. I first walked this avenue on my way from the train station to my hotel in the city center. The road is very wide (42-48m), suited for militairy parades. Most of the time as a pedestrian you go to the other side via an underpass. One monumental building after the other pleases the eye.

Building of the KGB

The next day I did a self-guided tour of the city on foot and by metro. I was already tired before I reached this street again, so I managed only to walk half way this time. I did so from the Lenin statue to Lenin square, passing for example the Post Office, GUM department store, McDonalds (yep, in a Soviet-style monumental building), KGB headquarters and the Trade Unions Palace. Guidebooks and trip reports warn against taking photos of the statue and the surrounding government buildings, but I was never bothered by police. What struck me was how classicist this architecture was – hence the title ‘Socialist Classicism’. According to Wikipedia, Stalin liked “new, expensive "ensemble" projects which valued facades and grandeur”. This undoubtedly has worked well on this avenue.

So what’s up with future plans of making this a WHS? Ian in 2010 found a source that said “the roofs on the pedestrian subways [..] supposedly led to it being rejected by UNESCO as a WHS”. To my knowledge however, the site has never been officially put forward (so it cannot have been rejected).

In fact, Belarus in 2013 was still actively discussing Minsk’s WH potential. It took part in an ICOMOS sponsored meeting called Socialist Realism and Socialist Modernism. World Heritage Proposals from Central and Eastern Europe. Countries of the former communist block discussed a possible transnational serial nomination of Socialist Realist monuments. ICOMOS seemed to welcome this: “an important contribution to .... closing gaps on the UNESCO list. Buildings from the socialist period characterise the architectural heritage of the 20th century in Eastern Europe and Eurasia dominated by the Soviet Union. They also represent an important facet of Modernism and of contemporary cultural identity on a global scale...”.

Fragment of the facade of GUM department store

There’s a third option however: have the Belarussian authorities become a bit embarassed about Minsk's Stalinist roots? Since organizing the World Ice Hockey Championships in 2014, its approach to western visitors clearly has thawed. Stratfor’s blog states for example: “Whether or not Minsk's facelift was for these anticipated tourists, the city has definitely changed. It will never fully be able to conceal its Stalinist look, …. Recently, however, I found a pleasant city full of cafes and nice restaurants, most of which had a new clean and modern design, more Baltic than Russian.”

And then, when I just got back and was finalizing this review, there's the confirmation: Minsk Independence Avenue to be nominated for World Heritage Site status.

Published 7 September 2016

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