Mindful Explorations of Minsk’s Architecture

When it comes to enjoying the mix of Soviet and European architecture in Minsk, I was under no pressure of doing any prior research. With no formal training in the field, I felt that all I had to do was just to let my eyes wander and my mind process my surroundings. I have an affiliation with the subject at hand, though. My first job I’m still holding almost ten years on is with a research journal of Architecture and Construction where I’ve been working as a translator. I’ve mainly dealt with papers on construction materials and techniques, heating and ventilation, water and gas supply, and other aspects which are vital for efficient functioning of various building structures. I felt that articles on the history of architecture (every issue would normally include at least one) provided a breath of fresh air for me, a linguist and a traveler. With more travel experiences under my belt, I started realizing how beneficial mindfulness could be. So I read a book on mindful travelling (just as on travel writing). If we take a moment to pause and contemplate wherever we are, architecture will certainly be there begging to be scrutinized. The German architect Mies van der Rohe called it “the will of the epoch translated into space” and British PM Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us”. These two distinguished individuals with varying degrees of affiliation with the field highlighted its importance as a minefield of visual and factual information. It could indeed provoke mindfulness. Personally, I have already learned a bit more about architecture than I had ever imagined and hopefully have done my tiny bit to contribute to the existing global body of knowledge with my translations of papers by Russian scholars. Nevertheless I thought picking up a book on the history of architecture to make more sense of my surroundings wouldn’t hurt. I happened to do it just weeks before this trip – so yes, a vague attempt at prior research had been made.

Given the amount of shared history with Russia, I was certain about the kind of intersections of architectural styles would come my way in the capital of Belarus. But as that was going to be a short exercise on mindful travelling, I had to search for architectural elements that would cause me to pause. As a well-seasoned traveler and my own travel agent, I take full responsibility for my travelling experiences rather than wait for a place to deliver on my expectations. Even though travel information on Minsk is far more scarce than for some popular destinations, a bit of research helped me to come up with a tailor-made itinerary. Despite a few wrong turns I knew would have to be made, it felt reassuring to have one. So I expected most of my walks to center around Independence Avenue, the capital’s beating heart. Walking is a great physical exercise and the best way to mindfully explore the city!

While I was still on the bus to the city centre, the mix of red and green (the colors of the national flag) on multiple – otherwise pretty ordinary – architectural elements caught my eye. It seemed as a reminder of the country’s pursuit of national identity.

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Беларусь sign near the Minsk airport (Belarus)

My first encounter with one of the capital’s latest architectural must-sees, the National Library of Belarus, happened through a bus window. The diamond-shaped glass building was designed to symbolize the nation’s commitment to acquiring invaluable knowledge through reading. As a linguist, I think it is a beautiful architectural nod to the love of written words. The building was mentioned on the list of the world’s best libraries and internationally acclaimed works. In the attempt to seek out a more informal professional opinion, I mentioned my mindful adventures in Minsk to my student who is an architect. According to her, even though Minsk is a thriving but yet somewhat restraining playground for young talents, the quality of the construction materials used in the city’s latest buildings including that of the National Library is disputable. Well, architecture is an artistic and yet economic endeavor. After all, knowledge is certainly of indisputable value in the knowledge-processing stage when we attempt to make sense of somewhat conflicting pieces of information.

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National Library of Belarus as seen from a bus window

When I got off the bus in front of the train station, I was greeted by the sight of the Gates of the City of Minsk – another photo the 31-year-old me took to trigger my Mum’s memories of a few months of her very early 20s here. I think this particular architectural ensemble was powerful enough to take her back to her own adventures in the city. I wish people back in the Soviet era had had more chances to travel around, though. During my first visit to Minsk in my mid-20s the city felt frozen in that era that our parents are still vaguely nostalgic about.

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Gates of the City of Minsk

This time as I was taking a few wrong turns on my way to Independence Avenue, I could see a visual clash of Moscow and smaller Russian cities and towns. Minsk seemed a crossover of both – dynamic and yet quiet influenced by the common Soviet past that is still sweeping across the whole post-Soviet space. I was happy to be finally standing in Independence Avenue and staring at its enormity. I knew I wouldn’t physically walk those 15 km on this trip! After a few steps I snapped a quick photo of the Government House with the national flag hoisted on top. I knew it was forbidden, but bending the rules a bit seems part of the Soviet and Russian heritage – and mindful explorations as well! I didn’t feel like lingering in this familiar-looking but yet admittedly blatant display of power…

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Government House of Belarus

So I approached a spot that seemed so much more appealing and in no way evocative of the Soviet times. The red bricks of the Church of Saints Simon and Helena contrasted beautifully with the clear blue skies – the most spectacular framing for any piece of architecture! The first half of December 2019 was rather dull in my part of Russia, so I hadn’t seen blue for what seemed like eternity. The construction of the church was funded by a Belarusian Polish landowner and named after his two deceased children. The Roman Catholic Church in central Minsk was closed down a few times and used as a cinema and a theatre till it became an important religious site of the Belarus capital. The sad narrative of the building made me contemplate my geographical location – I was right between Russia and Poland, the first foreign country I’d visited (after Belarus).

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Church of Saints Simon and Helena against the clear blue sky

Even though I’m not at all religious and even far from spiritual, Catholic churches give me reassurance that architectural prowess is capable of creating a sense of serenity and retreat that is painfully missing in our daily lives. I think that was a proper moment I was craving to experience on my architectural pursuit of Minsk – I now felt significantly closer to Europe (or the European Union, to be more precise). I know as a nation, Russia is marginalized from this economic, social and political space. Now that I have hopefully advanced on my way to well-roundedness, various kind of divides plaguing this part of the world seem more discernible. Nevertheless, it is partly in celebration of my romance with it that I sneak into churches for a moment of solemn solitude. Purple ribbons stretching between the sides of the ceiling, intricate vaults, Latin alphabet, Catholic artwork and images of Pope Francis transported me to the sensual and intellectual overload of my European travels. It is usually my gut telling me when it is proper time to exit a church.

While I took another moment to appreciate the sunshine, there was something begging me to linger to examine the church from more angles.
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If buildings truly shape us, what can one’s mind make of the neo-Romanesque Catholic church against the backdrop of the House of Government with a Christmas/New Year tree in the middle of it..? I took my final photo to capture a pensive moment, crossed to the other side of the street and gave the red church on the opposite side of the busy central road another lingering gaze …

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Through an array of more Stalinist architectural pieces, I made my way to the Old Town. To add some vitality to my architectural pursuit, I also noted a few fashionably dressed strangers crossing an intersection along Nemiga Street. Standing between the Holy Spirit Cathedral and Town Hall with a riverfront view stretching ahead felt magical. A few charming decorations made me reminisce about Christmas markets in Europe. This uphill spot was perfect for pausing and contemplating the Polish and Lithuanian influences in Belarus as the cathedral was built in the 17th century, at times of the Commonwealth of the two states.

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The festive Old Town

After a short walk amidst cozy cafes and quaint buildings, I ended up on the Svislach River embankment where I paused for a bit more. There seemed to be some construction works going on further uphill.

Before rethinking my itinerary, I watched a few swans swimming in the river and enjoyed some unobstructed views of the sky turning grayish. I backtracked to cross a footbridge to get to the Island of Tears. Here one can find a very moving architectural ensemble that commemorates the Belarusian soldiers killed in the 1979-1989 Soviet-Afghan war. Profound somberness of such memorials causes one to lament and resent wars. This is when architectural prowess is capable of striking the most profound chord.

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A very touching monument commemorating the dead

Engrossed in a mix of pensive sadness and contemplation, I was looking at a statue of a crying angel against the sky which was turning spectacularly pink. Suddenly, a thought of my two dear friends from Afghanistan I met back in the U.S. brought a smile to my face as well as profound vitality to the scene. It might sound corny, but I hope that the warmth of human bonding is capable of making us forget countless pieces of contradictory information of war conflicts between our nations and come together to empower each other instead… The sunrise over the Minsk skyline with only one visibly tall building somehow reminded me of my pensive walks around Manhattan and a memorable promenade along a New Jersey bay– a lovely crossover of memories…

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A magnificent sunset with a statue of a crying angel on the right stirring a mix of emotions and memories

As the evening had magically arrived, past a little park I made my way to a shop selling local linen that I had promised to get for Mum. During the preliminary investigative stage I had certain doubts about whether I would be able to get to this place as it seemed a bit too remote. A pensive walk through past countless facades of buildings on both sides distracted me, so I got a bit lost. I decided to backtrack to the city’s beating heart, Independence Avenue. Street lights and festive illumination added more charm to this wide avenue which seemed somewhat busier now as people were crowding at a metro station. I took a moment to pause and rest my feet at a bus stop overlooking another example of Stalinist architecture, the Palace of Republic.

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Palace of Republic in the distance, a venue for the concert I came here six years ago to see

That was a venue for the concert of my favourite British boyband I came here six years ago to see. I was sitting looking at its officially-looking façade and reminiscing about how awkward it was watching a pop concert in its interior adorned with Soviet-era symbols. Enough for the memories – I still had to buy some linen. For that I had to get lost in a maze of an underground passage to cross to the other side to the imposing building of the GUM Department Store, the largest one in Minsk. It caused another crossover of memories – the scale of the building reminded me of Macy’s in New York City and its style brought me back to my post-Soviet childhood and to a much more humble but similarly shaped store in my home town in central Russia. As I entered the first floor, I was astonished by a lavish display of traditional Belarus folk embroidery.

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Belarus is a largely rural country and these towels convey a somewhat romanticized image of a village. It looked like another pursuit of the country’s national identity which radiated a sense of coziness and homeliness. I got a few traditional linen towels (рушник) which have their own distinct pattern depending on a region where they were made. My late grandmother who lived in a village very close to the Ukrainian border used to have a similar one on display in her house as well…

This whole shopping experience offered a sense of nostalgia instead of habitual impersonality of modern shopping centers. On my way back to the bus station a few lovely shopping displays caught my eye. For a moment I wished it were snowing to add extra magic to my walk along the avenue…

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A festive shopping display…

I rested my feet one last time facing the Church of Saints Simon and Helena. Against the dark sky it had a slightly Gothic vibe – it had to be one of the highlights of my mindful exploration of the city. The final brushstroke to my architectural pursuit of Minsk were the Gates of the City – I took another picture for Mum. The timetable at the bus station once again reminded me of how closer I was to the European Union – there were buses coming from or going to different places in Poland and Lithuania. I took one last look at mostly Stalinist architecture on my way to the airport…

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Goodbye, Minsk!