Friday, September 30, 2016

Minsk, Belarus

Minsk was founded in 1067 and received town privileges in 1499.  In 2017 it will celebrate its 950th year.  From 1919 to 1991 it was the capital of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic.  Today it is the capital of Belarus and its largest city with just over 2 million residents.

Мінск is also the administrative centre for the Commonwealth of Independent States.

About 80% of Minsk was destroyed during WWII.  By 1944 the population was only 50,000.  After the war the city was rebuilt and the historical centre was replaced with Stalinist architecture.

October Square is home to the Palace of the Republic which is used for conferences and concerts and the Trade Unions Palace.  

In the square is Kilometre Zero, a small granite pyramid that marks the centre of Minsk.

Independence Square is more than 7 hectares (17,25 acres) so it is one of the biggest squares in Europe.  It is home to the university, the Red Church, and many government offices.  Underneath the square is a huge shopping mall.

Independence Square used to be Lenin Square but Lenin is still here.  The government house behind him was build in 1934 and is one of the few buildings that survived the war.

The Church of Saints Simon and Helena was completed in 1910.  It is known as the Red Church.  The church was closed in 1932 and transferred to the Belarusian State Polish Theatre.  After WWII, the Soviets used it as a cinema.

The National Academic Grand Opera and Ballet Theatre opened in 1939.

The Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Spirit was built in 1642.  It was originally the church of the Bernardine convent but due to invasions is wasn't consecrated for another 40 years.  In 1852 it was given to the Russian Orthodox Church to be used as a monastery before being closed by the Bolsheviks following the October Revolution.

St. Mary Magdalene was the largest church built during the Russian Imperial period.  It was completed in 1847.  During Soviet times it was used as a film, photography, and sound archive.  In 1990, it was the first religious building in Minsk to be given back to the religious community.

Gorky Park is the oldest park in the city, as well as, one of the largest.  It was founded as the City Gardens in 1800 and renamed in 1936 after the Soviet-era writer.  The park has a huge Ferris wheel, an indoor skating rink and a small observatory.

During WWII, Minsk was home to one of the largest European Jewish ghettos.  By October 1943, more than 100,000 people were murdered here.  The Pit is a memorial to the atrocity of 2 March 1942 when more than 5,000 Jews, including 200 orphans, were brought to this spot, shot and buried.  The memorial features 27 bronze figures descending a slope to their deaths.

The Great Patriotic War Museum opened in 1944, not long after the city was liberated but before the war actually ended.  It moved to the current location in 1966.  It is massive with 24 exhibition halls and over 142,000 items in its collection.  It's really interesting to see the Soviet perspective of the war as there is very little mention of the Allied efforts.

The National Library of Belarus is a diamond-shaped glass building that symbolises the value of knowledge found in books.  It opened in 2006.  At 72 meters (+236 feet) tall, it has 22 floors and an observation deck with panoramic views of the city.  The library is home to the largest collection of Belarusian printed materials, as well as, the world's third-largest collection of Russian books.  At night, a light show plays across the facade.

Aleksander Nevsky Church was completed in 1898 and was built on the grounds of the city's Military Cemetery.  It commemorates the victory of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878.   This is the only religious building in Minsk to retain its original appearance.

Not really a tourist site but here's where Lee Harvey Oswald had lived in while in Minsk, from January 1960 to June 1962, before returning to the USA and assassinating President John F. Kennedy.  

I'm just not sure if it was the bottom flat or the one above with the balcony.

Chelyuskinitev Park is another urban city park.  It's 78 hectares (193 acres) and contains an amusement park and a few monuments.

The Belarusian State Circus is the only circus in the world located on the main street in the centre of a nation's capital.  

Minsk Town Hall is located at Liberty Square.  It was last renovated in 2004.

Independence Avenue, at 15 km (+9 miles), is one of Europe's longest city thoroughfares.  It runs north east from the centre of the city.  

Walking along the street allows you to check out the 1950s Stalinist architecture.  

You also see, ГУМ, the former main Soviet department store and the Museum of Olympic Glory.  

You'll also come across the KGB Headquarters.  
Although probably not a good idea to linger there for too long.

The Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Name of Mary was built in 1710.  It was closed in 1934.  During Soviet times it was used by a sports society.  The government gave the building back to the Roman Catholic Church in 1993 and it was renovated in 1997.

The Isle of Tears is a memorial to the soldiers who died in the Soviet war in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989.  The chapel contains figures of grieving mothers, sisters and widows.  There are over 775 names of Belarusians who died inscribed on the chapel walls.

The Cathedral of Sts. Peter & Paul, also known as the Yellow Church, was built in 1613.  It is the oldest surviving religious building in Minsk.  It was closed by the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution, reopened by the Nazis during the occupation, then closed again by the Soviets in 1944.  It reopened again in 1992.

State Flag Square opened in 2013 next to the Palace of Independence.  The huge flag flies on a 70 metre (230 feet) tall flagstaff.

The Palace of Independence also opened in 2013.  It is around 50,000 square metres (+538,000 sq.ft.) and contains a few hundred rooms.  In 2014, it hosted representatives from the EU, Ukraine, and Russia to draw up a cease fire agreement in Eastern Ukraine.

Victory Square is home to a 38 metre (124 feet) tall monument that's dedicated to the people who died fighting fascism in WWII.  It was built in 1985 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the war's end.  On top is the Order of Victory which marks Minsk as Hero City of the Soviet Union for the bravery demonstrated during the 1,100 day Nazi occupation.  There's also an eternal flame at the base of the monument and there's a memorial hall in the underground passage.  

The Church of the All Saints was consecrated in 2008 and is the only memorial church in the country.  The plan is to memorialise Belarusian soldiers killed in wars since the 19th century.  In 2010, the remains of three unknown soldiers, from the War of 1812, WWI and WWII, were buried in the church's crypt. 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Stalin Line Tour, Belarus

After Zaslavi, we drove 6 km (3,5 miles) near the village of Loshany to visit the Stalin Line.

This is an open-air museum that opened in 2005 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, or what here is known as the Great Patriotic War.

The Stalin Line was line of fortifications built in the 1920s along the Soviet Union's western border.  The concrete bunkers and pillboxes were meant to defend against an attack from the west.

When Hitler and Stalin carved up Poland, the USSR's western border expanded westward so the decision was made to abandon this line and create another along the new border.

Most of the guns were removed and placed in storage while the construction on the new line commenced.  Big mistake... because when Germany invaded in 1941, the new line wasn't completed and with the Stalin Line in disrepair it provided little defense.

There are several tanks, helicopters, and other military vehicles on display.  There's even an ICBM.  The museum is popular with the kids.

It's also popular with the big kids because adults have the opportunity to fire weapons.

Here's one thing that I didn't expect.  While we were waiting for the tour to start, I noticed a few chaps who gave off a certain "KGB wannabe".  They just had "that look".

Go figure that later on we find out that the Belarus KGB was having a function here.  Who would have thought that I would get to witness part of a Belarusian KGB graduation ceremony?

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Zaslavi, Belarus

On the way to the Stalin Line, our tour group made a stop at the small town of Zaslavi.  It is about 20 km (13 miles) northwest of Minsk.

At more than 1,000 years, Заслaўе is one of the oldest towns in Belarus.  It was founded in 985 and has a population just over 15,000.

Dima talking about the town's history
The town was founded by Vladimir the Great when he banished his wife, Rogneda, and son, Izyaslav, to live here.  The town's name comes from the son.

During the Reformation, this was a hub for Calvinists.  The town's main site is the Saviour Transfiguration Church.  It was built in 1577 and was the primary Calvinist church.
Ruins of the old castle gate

Like most towns in Belarus, all of the old Soviet-era statues and monuments are still visible.  Here, Lenin still stands in front of the town hall.

St. Mary's Church

Our guide today was Dima.  He studied in Prague for a couple of years so I actually got to speak Czech today.  I think it really confused some of the Russian tourists today why the Belarusian guide and the American were speaking Czech.  I have to say, it did feel good to be able to speak it.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Mir Castle & Nesvizh Palace Tour, Belarus

Today was a ten tour day trip, around 270 km (168 miles), to Mir Castle and the Nesvizh Palace.

Mir Castle is in the town of Mir, southwest of Minsk.  Some duke began construction in the 16th century.  The castle changed owners several times over the years.  It had been abandoned for more than 100 years until 1895 when renovations began.

A chapel behind the castle

In 1921, and until 1939, the castle actually sat in Poland.  The Svyatopolk-Mirsky family owned Mir Castle until 1939 which is when the Soviet Union invaded and occupied eastern Poland.  When Germany invaded in 1941 the Nazis used the castle as a Jewish ghetto.  After the war, the USSR used it as a housing family from 1944 to 1956.  I don't know when modern reconstruction began.  However, in 2000, the complex was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Nesvizh Castle is 29 km (18 miles) south east of Mir.  This castle was completed sometime around 1604 by the Radziwiłł family which was one of the most powerful families of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Like Mir Castle, from 1921 to 1939 it was in Poland.  The Red Army expelled the family when they invaded in 1939.  I don't know what happened to the place during WWII but I believe the Soviets later used it as a sanitarium.  In 1994, Belarus designated the it a national historic and cultural reserve.  It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005.

I did manage to get English audio guides at each castle but the vast majority of the day was entirely in Russian.  A few of the Russian tourists were also on the previous day trips and they are starting to warm up a bit.  I think it seems very odd to them that an American is travelling to these places alone.