Following the final sessions on Sunday, we were given a tour of the city on foot. Today Minsk is a city of some two million people, the suburbs spreading far and wide. The normal landmarks, social, historical, political are not ones we are particularly familiar with, and so we learn.
We begin at Victory Square on Independence Avenue, which used to be called Kruglaya – Round – and older people still call it that. Independence Avenue itself is 15 kilometres long. Once called Lenin Avenue, one line of the metro runs beneath it. As a construct the broad avenue represents the gate to the East, the route from Berlin to Moscow. Near here, on the bank of the river Svislach we find the wooden building in which the First Congress of the Social Democratic Workers’ (Russia’s original Marxist party) was secretly held in 1898. It is a museum – rebuilt after being destroyed in World War Two. Fidel Castro came to pay homage here in 1972 and Lee Harvey Oswald lived in the block of flats which overlook it. He worked as a lathe operator in Gorizont Electronics Factory.
We walk up through the park to the Opera and Ballet Theatre, along the river, past the Isle of Tears, a memorial to soldiers who died in the war in Afghanistan 1979-89. The fabric of Minsk was almost entirely destroyed during an earlier war – the Great Patriotic War as it is known here – so it feels like a new town in many respects. The old looking classical buildings are not so old. There is virtually nothing left of the historical centre. The city was rebuilt rather than reconstructed, with monumental Stalinist architecture, which is now being matched with large modern glittery well-lit facades that could be in any city.
Still keeping the river to our left, near to Dinamo Hockey Club and some ancient wooden structures in a yard full of old buses in various spaces of disrepair and reconstruction, we find a synagogue, on vulica Daŭmana. Before the Holocaust, half of the people in Minsk were Jewish, and afterwards less than 10 per cent. Now, our guides tell us, the Jewish population is less than half a per cent, as many Jews emigrated to Israel in the latter part of the 20th century.
We pass by a huge artificial lake – Kamsamoĺskaje voziera – which was once enthusiastically dug out by Young Communists. The date of its official opening was set for June 22nd 1941. You can imagine the great festivities planned, how bunting was ordered, banners unfurled, massed choirs and musicians practiced patriotic songs, many cakes were baked. Unfortunately this date coincided with the launch of Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union by over 3 million German troops and another half a million from their allies. Just four days later Minsk fell to the Wehrmacht.
We walk back past the newly constructed Belarusian State Museum of the History of the Great Patriotic War along Praspyekt Pyeramozhtsaw, head towards the civic heart of the city, as night falls, past huge streetboards advertising the Ice Hockey World Championships coming here in 2014. We visit the Orthodox Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul on Rakovskaya. The oldest surviving religious building, dating from 1613, is known as the Yellow Church. In its history we can see the wars, the crises, the redrawing of borders, the clash of idealogies. It was looted by Cossacks, closed by the Bolsheviks, reopened by the Nazis, closed again by the Soviets and opened again in 1992. There’s more, much more to this city, but that’s enough for a four hour excursion.