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Mariya Martysevich

Maryia Martysevich (born in 1982 in Minsk, USSR) is a Belarusian poet, non-fiction writer and literary translator from Czech, English, Polish and Ukrainian. She works for Novy chas weekly. She published several translated and two original books: Cmoki latu? na nierast: ese ? vieršach i prozie (Dragons Fly to Spawn: Essays in Poetry & Prose) in 2008 and Ambasada: vieršy svaje i ?užyja (The Embassy: Poetry Own and Borrowed) in 2011.

Marya started writing in 2004 as a contributor for CD magazine (aka Studenckaja Dumka). In 2011 she received the Volnaje slova (Free Word) price of Belarusian Association of Journalists for the best article of fiction. She is also known as a blogger (http://users.livejournal.com/maryjka_)

She lives in Minsk, Belarus.

'Tractor' à la bohème in the shadow of the new order

In February 2011, in Minsk, another building scandal erupted. In the executive planning committee, a plan was announced to partially demolish the residential settlement at the Tractor Works and to build luxury apartment buildings in its place. A conflict between the residents and authorities ensued. Residents of Minsk - who usually act as a human shield against the total demolition of the Old Town by accusing the authorities of taking a Soviet approach toward architectural heritage - were suddenly defending one of the biggest symbols of Soviet architecture – the post-war district built by the order of Joseph Stalin. What are the roots of this paradox?

Just a city

Recent sociological studies by a PR company hired by the Belarusian authorities to promote the capital showed that citizens of Minsk do not have any clear perception of where they live. For most residents, Minsk is “just a city”. Not a village.

This is due, perhaps, to the fact that the percentage of Minsk natives, even in the third generation, is small and they are unable to assimilate migrants – the majority of the city’s indigenous population in the1950-1980s was composed of Holocaust survivors from the Jewish community, which by the end of the 1990s almost repatriated in full to Israel. There were also former villagers after World War II who fled to Minsk from collective farm poverty and serfdom (for a long time, villagers in the Soviet Union did not receive wages in the form of money, or have passports). Settling down in a proto-metropolitan city that had almost completely been destroyed by the Soviet army, few Belarusians thought about the cultural content of the space where they happened to live. A real city in the understanding of the average Belarusian is “a city with history”: Grodno, Nesvizh, and Vilnius. Churches, monasteries, palaces, castles, narrow old streets. Almost nothing of this is left in Minsk.

Residents of Minsk also deny the most obvious thing – the Soviet spirit of Minsk and Belarus as a whole – the first thing that catches a foreigner’s eye. What is also clear is that to be nostalgic about the Soviet past, you really need to make it a thing of the past. What is happening in Belarus now can only be described as the restoration of Soviet aesthetics and ideology. It is easier to retreat from the “red” reality and once again boast of infrastructure achievements: cleanliness in the streets and convenient public transport.

In this, apparently, lies the success of the European artist and writer Artur Klinov: he was the first one not to be afraid to conceptualize Soviet Minsk by comparing it to Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun.

And indeed, for the small group of intellectuals and creators who think outside the box and are not afraid of stereotypes, Minsk is attractive the way it is: monumental - but not to the extent of Moscow, faceless - but this impersonality is the face, imperial - but graffiti looks very original on stucco columns of pseudo-classicism. It is not only the Old Town that is the rare baroque in the former Cathedral Square for such people. They are convinced that the Soviet part is also a legacy.

Parallel to the conceptualization of the City of the Sun, there is a physical development of “Stalin’s empire style” in Minsk.

Fashion for “stalinki”

If what Artur Klinov and architectural historians say is true, post-war Minsk was built on a single quote from Maksim Gorki: “Man – it sounds proud”. In contrast to the “bourgeois world” where palaces are inhabited exclusively by the cream of society, the Stalinist housing program intended to distribute palace houses, especially among ordinary people.

It is interesting that this equality featured not only on paper. Fact: the houses on Partisan Avenue were inhabited by the families of former partisans and the Tractor Works settlement – by workers’ families.

Very quickly, however, Soviet planners estimated the costs of comfortable accommodation and decided that a person would manage anyway. In the era of Nikita Khrushchev, the “golden section” of Khrushchevka – was invented, pokey houses with cubby-holes instead of rooms and co-joint sanitary facilities which are still called home by literally millions of Belarusians.

Sociologists and psychologists have expressed the view that growing up in dorms-malosemeykas[1] and “khrushchy[2] (as they are disparagingly called nowadays) has determined the character traits of a whole generation of Soviet people: low self-esteem, understated social needs, obedience and lack of initiative, lack of a sense of solidarity and mutual aid. Having earned their first money, children of “khrushchy” seek, albeit by a mortgage, to swap their cubby-holes of childhood to spacious 4-5-room flats in the concrete jungles of new residential districts. Their attitude toward standards of living, therefore, changes quantitatively, but not qualitatively. Thus it is possible to put forward a bold hypothesis: if Belarusian cities see the emergence of civil societies in the European sense, then an incubator will be Stalin flats.

Sneakers on a tree

In the second decade of the 21st century, there was a changeover of generations all over the former Soviet Union, including in terms of property rights. On stage appeared the children of baby boomers of the 1980s, for whom the Soviet Union was a happy childhood. Now, when apartments are not “given” and are chosen on the market, apartment blocks built in Stalin-esque style are in fashion. In the youth online magazine 34mag.net, there is a section called “Art-house” where photos are published that show the apartments of various creative people. After going through this section, you get the impression that it’s not cool to hire or buy housing with a ceiling below three metres in Minsk. In the capital’s central quarters, which does not go right up to Independence Avenue but can still boast of having housing from the1940-1950s, communities of young families are gradually building up who, by the standards of the average Minsk resident, have a very strange understanding of the standard of living.

One such conscious migrant – the designer of “Adliga” studio, Anatoliy Lazar, said: “There is such thing as a “brick-and-frame house” – it’s neither a panel house nor is it a clay birdhouse ... In such a house you can safely change the plan – do what you think is needed and functional. And ceilings of 3.5 meters are just amazing. 70-80% of our neighbours are pensioners who have lived here since the Soviet era. The remaining 20-30% are just successful people who paid a lot of money for such apartments. I had a choice: a 4-5-bedroom in Malinovka district or a 2-bedroom in the centre. So I bought in the centre. And I have no regrets.”

We cannot say that the price of these districts has risen sharply: prices here are standard for the capital (according to the site realt.by, an apartment in an old house near the metro in the Partisan District costs 1,100-1,300 USD per sq.m as of December 2012). Nor can we say that moving into stalinki apartments has become a trend. It is rather the first step of gentrification – when bohemians and “advanced” students move to certain districts.

It so happened that such processes are most evident in the change of contingent around the metro station “Tractor Works”. Creative workshops, private recording studios and simply squats – are the new face of the area: “If you want to rent an apartment, only rent at Tractor!” we hear at a neighbouring table in the hipster cafe. “The trees are already covered in sneakers, so many of us are there”.

Art critic and writer, Viktor Martinovich, is one of the “patriots” of the Tractor. He lives in a neighbouring district but often comes here to wander around the parks and backyards. We go together on one such trip: “Stalin’s empire style began under the influence of the Italian palazzo. Initially, these were small buildings of 2-3 floors, with an enclosed courtyard for the compact living of a few people. We see precisely these kinds of buildings on Koshevogo Street. With front gardens, with playgrounds for children. These apartments on the market right now are not even possible to get at”.

And the city authorities are about to take this jam out of the doughnut with another “clean-up” decree.

Houses of Razenfeld

Meeting another patriot of the Tractor was a surprise for me. Bard and poet, Roman Abramchuk, whose work is clearly inspired by the ideals of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, happened to be our guide in the Tractor settlement during one of the festivals for guides held every year in Belarus by the Society for Protection of Monuments. One of the goals of the excursion was to spread information about the threat to the cozy quarters in 2011.

As it turned out, Roman grew up in another district of Minsk, but deliberately moved here because of his love of quiet streets and romantic atmospheres. His own ideological convictions during the excursion did not show, except perhaps through historical background: The Tractor is a former Antonievski Tract, premises of Archbishop of Minsk and Turov. Therefore, it is right that a church is now being built in the midst of one of the pioneer parks.

“The Tractor Works settlement was conceived not just as accommodation for the Minsk Tractor Works – in the late 1940s it became a symbol of the restoration of the USSR after the war,” tells and shows Roman Abramchuk. – “Hurrah-reports were broadcast from here to the whole Soviet empire, and building itself was positioned by the Soviet ideologists as a gift of the Soviet Union to the Belarusian people that took the burden of the German occupation. The important fact is hushed, though: the “Tractor”, along with half of Stalinist Minsk, was built by captured German soldiers and interned civilians of Germany which thus “paid their debt” to the Soviet people. There was a labour camp for 5,000 workers right where the Tractor Works are today.

It is not known what now makes the two-and-three-floor buildings of the Tractor attractive to fans of old architecture: the arm of the architect Zenoviy Razenfeld that generously scattered stucco moldings and sculpture on “workers huts”, or the famous German orderliness on which the houses are kept for 70 years without major repairs.

In a stalinka in the Tractor district, everyone can feel like a king: this effect is primarily achieved by high ceilings. But the sweetest phrase to the ears of “tractorphiles” is how the district is structured. It’s about the “rules of gardening and insolation” inherent in the project by Razenfeld’s guys. A number of avenues and squares as well as the amount of sunlight per capita in the district not only meet modern standards but substantially exceed them.

Every courtyard in the Tractor district had a fountain and a plaster pioneer with a pipe – now photographers from around the world who manage to obtain Belarusian visas are gazing upon these exotic things. That, unfortunately, is not obvious to the Minsk authorities:

“Pragmatism, mediocrity and bad taste today, as always, are trying to take control of beauty in their clumsy destructive hands”, sums up our inspired guide. “But who will protect the silent old house, if not the inhabitants themselves, or those who are able to see its value? Only the residents themselves can decide what in their city is worth dismantling and what should be included in the list of monuments …”

Belarusian-style gentrification

The Rozochka, Grushevka, Tractor – a modern trend obsessed by the mania called “Minsk – a clean city”, slowly but surely deflates the “atmosphere” from the most romantic districts of Minsk. The aim is to achieve such a vacuum in which the sterile cloning of a law-abiding population is possible: loyalty in exchange for benefits. In the first two districts once fashionable among students and creators – in the neighbourhood of Rosa Luxemburg street and a former village within the boundaries of Minsk – metro stations have recently been built. The wooden buildings of Grushevka already went to pieces and Rozochka’s khrushchevkas are covered up with expensive plastic. The fact that the Tractor settlement - which has had a metro station for a long time already - was not touched until 2011 seems to be a miracle in this context.

The officials, as well as the “kids of khrushchevkas”, say that it is impractical to restore two-floor buildings when you can build a 10-floor house. So, instead of housing for 4,200 people, the chief architect of the neo-Tractor Mark Shumyachar promises the residents of Minsk 25,000 beds. “And this means thousands of machines!” – say the old residents of the district in terror. Lovers of solitude will no longer have a place to hide.

And it is true: rescuing a house with eight apartments with hardwood floors does not have material bonuses. But Belarusian officials are not trained to take into account cultural capital or see far-off future opportunities. According to the state plan, new life at the Tractor is to begin by 2015.

Another scenario of gentrification, in which a private investor would understand how important it is to save at least some pieces of old urbanism for tourism and the urban microclimate, is not possible in Minsk. “The government believes that it has a monopoly on patronage, extraneous sponsorship offends people at the top”, observes Martinovich. Potential sponsors of culture tell us how they tried to do charity in the early 2000s but after public gratitude from those whom they patronized, their business was usually attacked by government checks. If businessmen support culture at all, they remain completely anonymous and do it one at a time. In such conditions, local hipsters can only dream of how to transform an abandoned kindergarten in Chebotarev into, for example, a private children’s creativity centre.

Read the snow

Another obstacle in the settlement’s development is that most of Minsk’s factories within the city bounds are still working at full force. The same goes for the Tractor: the population (partially) left, but the works remained. As evidenced by Martinovich, “the future of the Tractor is overshadowed by large hangouts of tractor-workers. A man in a bohemian scarf and glasses can simply get it in the face here. It’s difficult to imagine a trendy club or gallery here, because entire departments of workers are still concentrated here. Do you see the awning across the street? That’s a pub where they go after their shifts. Walking past it for an intellectual is a serious examination of masculinity ...”

The poor environment is another factor which puts an end to the district’s bright future. Today the master plan for removing enterprises outside the city seems as unreal as chartered flights to Mars. But Viktor Martinovich is convinced that living in stalinkas is not as harmful as it may seem at a glance:

“The quarters of stalinkas were erected according to how the wind blew. Always look at the snow. It will tell you where you can play and where you shouldn’t. If you get closer to the entrance of the Tractor Works, you can smell burnt iron. The snow is black there. The most polluted street of Minsk is Uralskaya: there the wind blows from the Zavodskoy district. But the settlement of Minsk Tractor Works was designed on Stalin’s order and therefore no expenses were spared to undertake studies. Most often, you will find stalinkas in areas where there was no pollution. Look at the snow. It is white. According to the wind, the factory does not reach it here”.

Galina’s cubic dreams

Architect Galina Zaleskaya would hardly put her name to Martinovich’s theory of snow. She grew up in a cube on Sotsialisticheskaya Street which borders with the territory of the Automobile Factory. Nearby there is also the smelly “Minskdrev”. In 2009, her family and their neighbours were relocated to another part of the city – to Malinovka district. For many years, the street’s residents were seeking new homes because it was impossible to breathe in their yard.

“There was a wonderful space between houses – cour d’honneurs with playgrounds. When we were kids we made fantastic theatrical performances there,” she recalls. “Cour what?” – “Cour d’honneurs – it was a architects’ slang for front yards. Only ours weren’t formal, but cute and cozy. You had the impression of being protected.”

Galina lives in Malinovka, but she often dreams about her home room at the Factory: “You know, I grew up in a cube. Three by three by three. And now I’m, like, stuck in a box”. Galina is nostalgic about her native district, sometimes she visits the dilapidated houses but realizes that it was necessary to leave. She has not forgotten how it smells there.

But such a case of forced migration is rather an exception. “The Belarusian middle class does not seek to live in stalinkas. They are tempted by new buildings”, believes Martinovich, “When I say that I live in a stalinka at the Factory, my colleagues are horrified: you could have sold it, could have moved to a decent neighbourhood. For Minsk residents, the anthill of Malinovka is more of a pull. Stalinkas are for psychos who are nuts about architecture. And the problem is not that it’s prestigious for people to live in a new block of flats – for them it is also beautiful. In addition, people who moved from the countryside in the first generation see not having an elevator and having a rubbish chute in the house as a problem. Their value lies in the standard of living, and not a molded ceiling. Thus, the middle class set foot on the Tractor. Its “clients” are bohemia who are not afraid to stand in one queue with the proletariat”.

And, finally: good news about the Belarusian currency crisis of 2011. Restructuring the Tractor Works settlement and many of the other really Faustian plans for destroying streets and whole districts of Minsk were put on hold due to a lack of funds. But residents of Minsk who are concerned about the state of architectural heritage are not very optimistic about the future: new loans which the President will cadge from Russia or the West, and a new criminal sale of land to Venezuela and Arab countries, and the plan will get off the ground, to the delight of all fans buying luxury fittings for a new five-room apartment in the glass greenhouse of a shopping mall. And this is all done so that the next residents of Minsk could, with worthy indifference (raised by image makers to the status of a local feature) respond to a sociologist’s question: “Minsk? I don’t know. It’s just a city.”

 


[1] Malosemeyka is a house built by a dorm type in the late Soviet era by industrial establishments for their personnel. There is a common corridor on each floor which looks out onto several apartments most of which have one room.

[2] Khrushchy means “khrushchevkas”.