History of Minsk

In 2017, Minsk will celebrate its 950th anniversary. The city might be much older, however, as this celebration marks only the date that Russia’s Primary Chronicle noted the Battle of Nyamiha, a bloody struggle on the banks of that river, today situated under the street of the same name in the middle of the Belarusian capital. The entry describing the battle provided the world’s first known mention of the city of “Mensk”.

Minsk developed in the northwestern reaches of the lands occupied by the Dregovichi within the ancient Principality of Polotsk, a Norse-organized Slavic state that had been brutally conquered by Vladimir the Great less than a century before the Battle of Nyamiha. As can be seen in the forest land that freshens the air of the Belarusian capital, ancient Minsk resided in mixed coniferous and deciduous woods not far from the base of a series of hills that runs to the north of the modern city limit. Originally, it had been located at the site of the present-day town of Haradzisca on the Menka river, the namesake for the city, but its leaders moved the fledgling town to a more advantageous location some 16 kilometers away, where it could take advantage of the barge traffic on the larger Svisloch River, as well as the merchants coming to the crossroads of the Vilnius-Babruisk and Navahrudak-Borisov trakts.

Although it would take centuries to rise to the prominence it has today, its destiny as Belarus’ main city, with 20 percent of the nation’s population, seems like it was always assured, at least in hindsight.


The prehistory of Central Belarus

More than 100,000 years ago, the land that Minsk occupies marked the farthest south in which glaciers had tilled the earth and left isolated bits of rounded stone behind after they retreated. The more recent Younger Dryas ice age left the Minsk hills as tundra during its height, and humans of the hunter-gatherer Swiderian culture followed the northward advance of the returning forests just after, some 12,000 years ago. About 7,500 years ago, larger animals led even more hunter-gatherers into the region as continual human occupation began in central Belarus.

Archeologists speculate that about 4.5 millennia in the past, Indo-European speakers arrived in the area during Minsk’s Corded Ware period, bringing agriculture to the region. This eventually developed into the Trzciniec Culture, which consisted of the forefathers of the Slavic people. Indeed, scientists believe that the area around Minsk had been occupied by the eastern portion of this ancient stone-age civilization.

As the climate further warmed, the Scythians arrived on horseback. According to Greek historians, they were known, despite their predisposition toward long, flowing robes, as some of the world’s fiercest warriors, and their dominion lasted more than seven centuries, ending only when the ancient Gothic warlord Ermanaric conquered the region during his people’s southward migration toward their promised land of Oium. Less than a century later, the Huns would arrive and subjugate everyone in the region.


Principality of Polotsk: Minsk’s history begins

After the Slavs rose up in the vacuum that followed the collapse of Attila’s empire of terror, the Dregovichi people emerged. Likely the name of this tribe represents one of three political entities that represented the same ethnicity, the one that would eventually evolve into today’s Belarusians. When Ragnvald Olafsson organized the Principality of Polotsk around 945, the Dregovichi submitted to his state. Vladimir the Great ended his reign when he conquered Polotsk following the refusal of Ragnvald’s daughter, Rogneda, to voluntarily marry him.

Vladimir physically forced Rogneda to become his wife after the conquest, and almost immediately, she produced a child. The Grand Prince gave to him the name “Izyaslav,” which meant “the Glorification of Love.” However, Rogneda’s eldest child never really won favor from his father, particularly after he became caught up in an attempt by the still-resentful Rogneda to take Vladimir’s life. Mother and eldest son were exiled to Zaslawye, a new town within the hills northwest of today’s Minsk that was founded specifically for the purpose of that exile. As a result, Izyaslav fathered Bryachislav, his successor as the Prince of Polotsk, there.

Bryachislav was at birth declared an outcast and unfit to succeed his grandfather, Vladimir, and he fought for much of his early adulthood to unseat the chosen successor Yaroslav the Wise. When Bryachislav raided Novgorod in order to seize enough treasure to build an army, his uncle intercepted him on his way back to Polotsk and easily defeated his overladen men. After Yaroslav subordinated his wayward nephew by treaty, Polotsk still maintained its autonomy as a principality within Russian lands, but Bryachislav would not challenge his uncle or his sons ever again. No, that task was left to his son, Vseslav.

Sometimes, Vseslav, whose name means “All Glory”, is known by his epithet of “The Sorcerer” or “The Seer”, because he was born with a birthmark on his head. This was seen as a sign that he would do great things, and for the better part of two decades, he built Polotsk into a respectable principality. But then, after he and his cousins, Izyaslav of Kiev, Svyatoslav of Chenigov, and Vsevolod of Pereyaslavl, all sons of Yaroslav, successfully repelled an invading Torkil horde in 1060, Vseslav turned on Kievan Rus and began to raid its wealthier cities. After seizing the castle of Navahrudak, the rebel leader marched eastward to the small river port of Mensk, where on March 3, 1067, his forces met the combined armies of the other three princes, and in the late winter snow they fought a battle so bloody that the later epic poem “The Tale of Igor’s Campaign” described the banks of the Nyamiha river as “being sown not with blessings, but with bones.”

Vseslav lost the battle, but escaped. Later in the spring, though, Izyaslav of Kiev offered a peace treaty to his rival to end their war. However, when the rebel leader arrived at the Kievan Rus camp near today’s Orsha, he was seized and taken in chains to Kiev. There, the brothers built a prison cell around him that lacked even a door, indicating it was their intent that he never be free again. However, a year later, the brothers were defeated by a Kipchak horde, creating panic in Kiev. The garrison rose up and evicted Izyaslav from the city and broke open Vseslav’s cell, freeing him so he could lead Kiev’s defense. When Svyatoslav of Chernigov defeated the invaders on the Alta River, Vseslav was again removed from Kiev, but he was free to return to Polotsk where he lived out the remainder of his days.


Lithuania: Mindaugas absorbs Minsk

In 1101, Vseslav died on the Wednesday before Good Friday. His six sons mourned his death that Easter, but then each seized a different major city in the principality. Gleb, his second son, took Minsk. Almost immediately, he was at war with the princes of Kievan Rus. Oleg of Chernigov and Yaropolk of Kiev, the latter the son of Prince Vladimir Monomakh (then of Pereyaslav), laid siege to his city a mere three years later. This triggered a series of wars that would last his entire life against both Kiev and the Lithuanians. In 1116, after Vladimir Monomakh became Grand Prince of Kiev, Gleb attacked again, drawing Kiev’s forces on Minsk a second time. During a final attack on Kiev in 1119, Gleb was captured and imprisoned in the city, where he died shortly after.

In 1125, Mstislav, the son of Vladimir Monomakh, became Grand Prince of Kiev, and one of the first campaigns of his reign focused on subjugating the Principality of Polotsk. After four years of fighting, Minsk was stripped from ancient Polotsk. It would remain a city under Kievan Rus, even after Mstislav, said to be the last Grand Prince of a united Rus, died in 1132.

All of Gleb’s sons were ordered after the fall of Polotsk into exile in the Byzantine Empire in 1130. However, Gleb’s son, Volodar, soon returned. In the midst of a civil war in Kiev, he became Prince of Hrodna in 1146, and expanded his holdings to include Minsk in 1151, subordinating his brother Rostislav in the process. By 1167, though, Volodar fell after briefly taking back the whole of the former Principality of Polotsk. Under the reign of St. Andrey the God-Loving, the independent principality disappeared for the last time, becoming individual subordinated states within Kievan Rus.

Despite the continued instability, though, Kievan Rus remained for some time a viable state with the potential to unite all of the early Slavs into a single union. However, an evil wind began to blow from the east with the arrival of the Mongols. In 1223, Mongol generals Subutai and Jebe led an advanced force on a combined Cuman and Kievan army on the Kalka River near present Mariupol, Ukraine. This led to the unexpected first great defeat of the Rus against the Mongol invaders. These warriors would later return to destroy the ancient Russian capital at the end of 1240.

This left the rest of the Rus lands in disarray. Minsk, in particular, stood exposed to any potential march by the Mongols northward into the former Polotsk principality. However, the Mongols were too busy with an abortive invasion of Poland and the near-obliteration of Hungary to take an interest in any of the cities north of the ruins of Kiev. Instead, Minsk faced a host led by Mindaugas, then a prominent Lithuanian duke who saw the opportunity to expand his control in the vacuum left by the destruction of Kievan Rus. If there was any resistance, it was not recorded in any surviving chronicle. All that is known is that Minsk became subordinate to Mindaugas after 1242 and served as part of his short-lived Kingdom of Lithuania when it came into being on July 6, 1253.


Black Ruthenia: Minsk’s last pagan days

King Mindaugas ruled over the lands that were formerly the Principality of Polotsk with the collaboration of Danilo, who was coronated by Papal representatives as the first King of Ruthenia around the same time that the King of Lithuania was coronated. In 1254, King Danilo’s son, Roman, subordinated himself to King Mindaugas in return for being titled Prince of Black Ruthenia, the new name for these former Polotsk lands, including Minsk.

In the meantime, the pagan relatives of King Mindaugas became disenchanted with his decision to become the first Christian ruler of the country, which holds the distinction of being the last pagan European state. Despite Papal decrees legitimizing Lithuania as a sovereign country, the Christian Livonian Order, which had come into existence specifically to destroy pagan Lithuania, continued to attack. Mindaugas further compounded his troubles when after the death of his wife Morta, he seized the wife of his subordinate Daumantas and made her his own. As a result, Daumantas returned from war and collaborated with Mindaugas’ staunchly pagan nephew to assassinate the Lithuanian king at Aglona in present-day Latvia.

This threw all of Black Ruthenia into disorder. Traidenis, a pagan duke, restored Lithuanian control briefly in the mid 1270s after defeating a combined army of Mongols and Volhynians in a three-year war, but this victory provided only a brief respite. Order wasn’t really restored until Gediminas rose to power in the 1290s and defeated at the Battle of the Irpin River the briefly reborn Kievan Principality, then ruled by Prince Stanislaw, the last descendant of Rurik to rule the present-day Ukrainian capital. The subsequent conquest of Kiev in 1321 placed a larger buffer between Minsk and such enemies as the Mongols. Peace would become a valuable commodity for everyone in the increasingly violent years that followed the Great European Famine of 1315.


Poland and Lithuania unite, and Minsk grows

Through the halcyon pagan years of Algirdas, Vytautas the Great, and finally Wladyslaw II Jagiello, the first leader to rule both Lithuania and Poland, Minsk continued to grow in both status and size, and by 1413, just after the history-setting Battle of Grunwald, it was given its own Voivodeship. Its boundaries were not well-defined until 1500, but in general, Minsk controlled the Svislach River down to its confluence with the Berezina River, and finally down to the Dnieper itself, where it included both banks between Homiel and the present border between Belarus and Ukraine.

Wladyslaw II began a dynasty, the Jagiellonian (Jogailaiciai) royal house, who ruled over both Lithuania and Poland at the start of the Golden Age for both countries. His successor in Lithuania, Casimir IV Jagiellon, gave Minsk its own city charter in 1441, creating greater autonomy for the growing city. His son, Alexander, upon succession to the Lithuanian Grand Duchy, further improved Minsk’s status by granting it in 1499 civic rights equal to those famously granted in the Magdeburg charter, which essentially allowed the city to self-govern under Lithuanian sovereignty. This attracted German craftsmen to the city of 4,000, and increased its economic power.

However, following Alexander’s rise to the throne in Lithuania, both the Muscovites and the Tatars attacked, and soon Lithuanian territory was reduced by more than a third. By 1505, the Tatars arrived at Minsk and sacked, looted, and burned the town to the ground while the town’s garrison and elite held out in the city’s castle. The Mongols pressed on afterward into Lithuania leaving Grand Duke Alexander to appoint his friend, the magnate Michael Glinski, as his marshal. A year later, at the Battle of Kletsk in present-day southwestern Minsk Oblast, Glinski defeated Fetih and Bernas Girnay, the leaders of the Tatar invading force and sons of Menli Girnay, the Tatar Khan back in Crimea.

Unfortunately for Glinski, at the time of his victory, Grand Duke Alexander died and was succeeded by his younger brother, Sigismund, who was not as enamored with the victorious marshal as his predecessor. Glinski’s enemies, most notably Jan Jurewicz Zabrzinski, Voivod of Trakai, took advantage of Sigismund’s mistrust by immediately accusing the magnate of having Alexander poisoned in a bid to replace him. In response to these trumped up charges, Glinski had Zabrzinski seized and murdered, and then as further revenge he pledged his loyalty to Moscow and turned his army against Sigismund. Throughout 1508, before the new king could get loyal Polish troops to march against him, the former marshal, now turned “Defender of the Orthodox Faith”, laid siege to a number of cities, including Minsk. Glinski’s men were eventually evicted by the new Grand Hetman of Lithuania Konstanty Ostrogski, but the Russians returned a decade later and again attacked Minsk. They would do so repeatedly throughout the 16th century.

When Sigismund, who would be dubbed “The Old” by the end of his long life, died at long last in 1548, and after his much maligned wife Bona Sforza returned to Italy, Minsk’s loyalty was at long last noted when Sigismund II Augustus, still mourning over the loss of his Lithuanian-born first wife, the beautiful and posthumously popular Barbara Radziwill, visited the rebuilding city and extended privileges to it that included more markets in which to improve its trade. Its political power would continue to grow throughout Sigismund’s life, which ended childless in 1572.


The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth forms

Faced with the end of his own dynasty, and with little hope of creating an heir before his death, on July 1, 1569, Sigismund II Augustus oversaw the signing of the Union Treaty of Lublin, which created an elected monarchy that covered both Poland and Lithuania. Minsk provided some of the signatories to this treaty, which created a union of states often described as a predecessor to today’s European Union, one that would last until it was finally partitioned by neighboring Prussia, Austria, and Russia some two centuries later.

Minsk became the center of its own province under the treaty, governing over some 60 towns and villages. Under Stefan Bathory, the second elected King of the Commonwealth, the Lithuanian Tribunal, a sort of supreme appeals court for the Grand Duchy, was moved from Cathedral Square in Vilnius to Minsk in 1581, which alternated with Navahrudak as the site for sessions that took place every half-year. Unfortunately, though, this court lacked enforcement ability, and it was frequently ignored by the time of Bathory’s death in 1586.

Bathory’s successor, Sigismund III Vasa, granted Minsk its own coat-of-arms in 1591, the year before his abortive attempt to create a personal union between his native Sweden and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The city continued to grow culturally and commercially, and as a religious seat-of-power for the next half century (the Holy Spirit Cathedral, now the seat of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, began as a Bernardine Monastery in 1642), during which time Minsk was spared war. However, this state of peace was hardly eternal.

After Sigismund’s son, Wladyslaw IV Vasa, died, the throne went to his younger brother, the Cardinal John Casimir. During his reign, Sweden invaded the Commonwealth from the west and Russia invaded from the east as an extension of their response to Poland’s intervention on behalf of Bogdan Khmelnitsky’s Cossacks in Ukraine. John Casimir concentrated most of his response to this “Deluge” on the task of removing the Swedes from his territory, which meant that the Russians were free to advance as they liked in Lithuania.

On July 3, 1655, Russian soldiers under Tsar Alexey destroyed Minsk, reducing its population by half (ironically, this would be the first of two times in which Russian troops took Minsk from the east on this date – the second would be in 1944, when the city was liberated from Nazi occupation). The 2,000 survivors would live under Russian rule for more than a decade.

In 1667, after significant reversals that threatened Russian territory far beyond the conquered Lithuanian lands, the Commonwealth forced Russia to sign the Treaty of Andrusovo, which gave Russia Smolensk and the left bank of the Dnieper River. After John Casimir abdicated and fled to France, Minsk was finally restored to the Commonwealth.


Great Northern War: Minsk survives the Swedes

Faced with a badly damaged Minsk, John Casimir’s successor, King Michal Korybut Wisniowiecki agreed to invite Jewish traders to come to the city and help rebuild it to its former glory. The creation of a Jewish Yeshiva, or college for talmudic study, in the nearby town of Volozhin (situated at the edge of the Nalibokskaya Forest, the future operating theater for Jewish partisans in World War II), further attracted Jewish families to the city after 1685. For the four decades following its return to Lithuania, Minsk would be reconstructed to something approaching its pre-Deluge greatness.

Then in 1700, King Charles XII of Sweden invaded the Commonwealth in his attempt to destroy the two challengers to his Baltic imperial ambitions: Poland-Lithuania, and Tsar Peter the Great’s Russia. By autumn 1706, King Augustus II the Strong was defeated in Silesia and forced from power in Poland. The collapse of Poland drew Tsar Peter the Great to advance westward across Lithuania, and Russian forces took Minsk in 1707, as Swedish forces made themselves ready for an all-out attack on Russia.

On Jan. 1, 1708, Swedish forces advanced across the Vistula River and marched on Russian-held Hrodna. Less than a month later, the Russians would retreat beyond the Berezina. After the spring thawed, Swedish forces in June prepared to take on the Russians in a straight-line invasion from Hrodna that seemed to defy logic. Fearing he wasn’t taking into account something he hadn’t seen, Tsar Peter the Great withdrew to the Dnieper River, abandoning everything westward of this line of defense to the Swedes, including Minsk.

During the occupation, fires and epidemics were common, particularly during the Great Frost that took place the following winter, but the city worked hard to quickly recover from its setbacks. Still by the time that King Charles of Sweden was utterly defeated in the Battle of Poltava, and Swedish forces were forced from the city in late 1709, Minsk was reduced to a provincial city.

Following Sweden’s surrender of Estonia and Livonia to Russia in late 1710, Poland was restored under its former King Augustus II the Strong, albeit as more or less a Russian protectorate. Minsk was returned to Lithuania, which celebrated this restoration with the construction of the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Mary, the present seat of the Catholic Archbishopric of Minsk and Mahiliou. It served as a Jesuit church for its first years, until Russia banished the order from its territory after the partition.


The Partitions: Minsk falls to the Russians

Minsk, late in its Commonwealth period, steadily grew, but still remained something of a backwater, reaching only 7,000 population by the time of the First Partition in 1772. If tax rolls are any indication, Jewish commerce had come to dominate the city, with well over 50 percent being paid by the Jewish community.

In a sense, though, being a backwater may have been something of an advantage, as events began to build toward an unsettling climax across both Poland and Lithuania. From without the country, the Russian government under Tsarevna Anna collaborated with Frederick William, the Soldier King of Prussia, and Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. These three signed in 1732 a treaty later called the “Treaty of the Three Black Eagles”, which sought to suppress reforms and keep the Commonwealth a weakened dependency of its neighbors. A year later, this treaty, named for the black eagles depicted on each of the three participant countries’ seals, as opposed to the white eagle used in the seal of Poland, was superseded by the Lowenwolde’s Treaty, which further formalized the commitment to keep Poland weak under the Austrian candidate for Augustus the Strong’s successor, who took on the name Augustus III. As a result of the conditions placed on this new king, Augustus took little interest in Polish affairs, and let the system rot itself from within. By the time of his death in 1763, Poland was already on the eve of its destruction.

Augustus’ successor, Stanislaw Augustus Poniatowski, was the first prominent Polish candidate in a long while. He quickly rose to the top of the list over other candidates as a result of having been at one time the lover of Catherine II the Great of Russia, who was essentially holding the role of Kingmaker in 1763. She saw in him the potential to be a good puppet, one who would be useful in her ongoing efforts to advance the Russian frontier to the shores of the Black Sea.

However, it turned out that he wasn’t as useful as she had hoped. Stanislaw Augustus sought to push through the very governmental reforms that Russia, Prussia, and Austria sought to prevent, and this eventually led to Russia sending its ambassador, Nicholas Repnin, to sabotage the king’s legislation in the Sejm, the Commonwealth’s parliament. Repnin’s high-handed demands that legislation be passed to politically protect religious minorities, in particular the Orthodox and the Protestants, sparked, as hoped, the uprising of the Bar Confederation, a group of nobles who sought to create a popular revolt against the king and his perceived Russian supporters.

The four years of fighting in Poland that ran concurrent with the successful conquest of the original “Novorossiya” (the territory along the Black Sea that Catherine the Great seized from the Turks) made palatable to Russian negotiators the plan of Pole-hating Frederick II the Great of Prussia to shave off portions of the Commonwealth for the benefit of Austria and Prussia, and to a lesser extent Russia, in order to “restore the balance of power.” As a result, in 1772, Austria obtained Halychnia (with capital at Lviv, renamed Lemburg), and Prussia obtained almost the entire Polish coast between Szczecin and Royal Prussia. Russia seized swaths of land beyond the Daugava River in present Latvia and northern Belarus, as well as Vitebsk and territory along the upper Dnieper River. This became known as the First Partition.

Shortly after, the British American colonies rebelled in favor of a democracy, which inspired the overthrow of the French monarchy a little more than a decade later. The news of these anti-monarchical developments caused a sea change in Catherine the Great, who before had found at the very least amusement with, if not downright sympathy for, liberal political thought prior to these events. Her disdain for Poland’s electoral monarchy, therefore, only grew, particularly after the Sejm passed a stronger constitution in 1791. In response, she formed in the following spring the Targowica Confederation, a group of like-minded Polish and Lithuanian magnates, who gained the immediate backing of an invading Russian army. As a result, Stanislaw Augustus felt compelled to side with the Confederation against his own country.

The end result of the resulting war was a repeal of the constitution, and the seizure of more territory by the Prussians and the Russians. Among the territories that went to Russia after the Grodno Sejm of 1793 was forced at gunpoint to accept the partition, was that of Minsk Voivodeship and city.

This high-handed act naturally provoked an immediate response. In March 1794, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, the most famous “Litvin” veteran of the American Revolutionary War, organized an uprising that sought to reverse the near obliteration of the Commonwealth. Over seven months of fighting, Kosciuszko, as Naczelnik (or Chief), fought against impossible odds in the form of a superior army under the notoriously effective leadership of Alexander Suvorov, who captured the rebel leader at the Battle of Maciejowice. The rebel leader would be freed only after the death of Catherine the Great in 1796, after which he escaped his country into exile.


Napoleonic Era: Hopes stunted

On Jan. 26, 1797, the treaty that divided Poland was signed and went into effect, and for the next 123 years, Minsk would serve as the head of its own Governate within the Russian Empire. This was an era of great changes for the former backwater, with improved structures and a new main street “Zakharyevskaya” running along the same route that Nyezalyezhnatsi Prospekt runs today. Of course, as with Polish and Lithuanian, the old Belarusian language, sometimes called “Litvin”, was discouraged. However, Catholicism was tolerated. In 1798, the Diocese of Minsk was formed by Pope Pius VI, just before his imprisonment by French General Napoleon Bonaparte.

Emperor Bonaparte would soon march his way across Europe with his Grande Armee to the detriment of Minsk, but in 1805, the year of Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz, Russian authorities opened the Governor’s Gardens along the Svislach, a beautiful greenspace that is today the children’s park named for Maxim Gorky. A new gymnasium was opened for some 552 students, 142 of which were Jewish. By 1811, the population of the city reached 11,200 people, and was set to grow further.

Then came the invasion. On June 24, 1812, some 422,000 French soldiers crossed the Niemen River, taking Kaunas and then Vilnius within four days. In the first week of July, Louis-Nicolas Davout, the so-called “Iron Marshal”, reached Minsk, but refused to attack the city without the support of Jerome Bonaparte, King of Westphalia, who himself refused to give up the trappings of his court, even on campaign. When he finally reached Mir Castle, Napoleon, in disgust, ordered his brother just to leave. His troops were then given to Davout so he could finally take Minsk, which then became a munitions and weapons depot for the invading army.

By the first week of December, French troops were ordered to retreat from Minsk in the bitter cold of that early winter. The city was burnt to the ground, leaving only 3,500 of the original inhabitants to rebuild. By 1821, though, a sizable portion, nearly half, simply went elsewhere.


Decembrist era: the view of rebellions from Minsk

After Napoleon was finally defeated and exiled to the South Atlantic Ocean, the Congress of Vienna reorganized the continent in the largest effort of its type to create a lasting peace. Among the initiatives it produced was the creation of the so-called “Congress Kingdom of Poland”, which took the several Voivodeships that had formed the Napoleonic client state of the Duchy of Warsaw, and created an autonomous union state for those Poles who sought a more independent country. However, in accordance with Tsar Alexander I’s demands, it was to remain forever attached to Russia.

Minsk in this period was far to the east of this new Congress Kingdom, though, and despite its lengthy history of being something different from Russia, it seemed peacefully resigned to integrating under Tsar Alexander. As with many Russian cities in this period, it even developed its own participating lodge in “Astrea”, an Alexandrian-era Freemasonic Grand Lodge that sought to quietly transform its members into better citizens. Evidence of this remains today in the form of a lodge building built in 1817 still sitting in the Upper Town area of Minsk that today serves as the History of Theatrical and Musical Culture of the Republic of Belarus. However, back when it was built, it housed the Red Torch Lodge.

Russian Masonry in this period, meanwhile, despite its intentions to remain non-political, tended to draw together men of a liberal political mind, much as it had in the days before the American and French Revolutions, and this made the increasingly conservative Alexander nervous. By 1822, a year after a successful revolution overtook Greece, all so-called “secret societies”, including all Masonic lodges in Grand Lodge Astrea, were ordered closed. They would remain so throughout the last couple years of Alexander’s life.

When Alexander passed away in late 1825, it at first appeared that his successor would be Alexander’s younger brother Grand Duke Constantine, who served Russia as the governor of the Congress Kingdom of Poland. However, being fully dedicated to his duty to govern the rebellious Poles as a Russian overlord, he relinquished the throne to his younger brother, Nicholas. However, the so-called Northern Alliance, a secret society that included many former Masons, openly defied this act, and in St. Petersburg’s Senate Square, a large group of Russian military officers openly refused to declare their loyalty to Nicholas. This rebellion, which took place in December, was quickly put down, and a hunt went out across the Empire for participants and supporters of the Northern Alliance. Those that were captured and exiled to Siberia were later known as the Decembrists.

In the same year that this was going on, construction had begun in Minsk, now approaching 3,000 inhabitants, on a new stronghold that became known as the Pishchalauski Castle. Named after its architect, it originally served as a military facility, complete with church, hospital, school, pharmacy, and mechanical shops. It later took on the nickname of “the Belarusian Bastille” when it became a prison.

Likely, this was the castle’s role, at least in part, some five years later when, following a failed attempt to assassinate Grand Duke Constantine, the November Rebellion broke out in 1830. Despite the attempt on his life, Constantine refused to use his troops to quell the uprising, seeking instead a diplomatic solution. Nicholas, however, wasn’t that interested in hearing what the Poles were demanding, and he ordered his troops to retake the Congress Kingdom. At Ashmyany, a small town between Minsk and Vilnius, Russian troops massacred a large gathering of rebels and townsfolk, embittering a large number of people in the area. However, by October 1831, the uprising was quelled, and Nicholas declared the Congress Kingdom abolished. Its territory was divided into governates, and the rebels were sent en masse to Siberia.


Minsk finds its place in the “Land of No Dreams”

Minsk, meanwhile, began to grow fast, and in the space of less than two decades, its population went from 3,000 to 20,000, as of 1845. It had developed its own fire brigade, regional broadsheet newspaper, theater, and even a public library. A new road extended through Minsk connecting Moscow with Warsaw. The city had begun to recover from its Napoleonic-era devastation, reaching a population of 27,000 by the year 1863.

However, 1863 would gain renown for a much different reason than Minsk’s population growth. Five years earlier, Tsar Nicholas died in the midst of carrying out a failing defense of Crimea in the Crimean War against an alliance that included both England and France, as well as the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Sardinia. These unlikely allies joined forces in a punitive war that resulted from Nicholas’ complete misunderstanding of Western desire to maintain the status quo in the eastern Mediterranean. Nicholas’ son, Alexander II, negotiated an end to the war that preserved the Ottoman Empire against Russian pressure for another two decades.

Meanwhile, after the war, the new tsar made the mistake of giving a speech for the leaders of the inhabitants of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in which he began, “Gentlemen, let us have no dreams!” This didn’t go over very well, and five years later, Poles began to protest both military service and the confiscation of land imposed for newly-freed serfs following the 1861 decree that emancipated them. After Alexander responded with a declaration of martial law in October, both Poles and Lithuanians organized new rebellions.

For Minsk, the January Uprising of 1863 began a month later, when rebels declared Lithuania independent and raised up to 30,000 men in a provisional army. These, however, were met by 180,000 regular Russian soldiers, along with 6,000 Cossacks. In just about every major engagement, the Russians had a numeric superiority of 10:1, making the fact that the rebellion lasted as long as it had a miracle in and of itself.

After the uprising was quelled, residents of Minsk faced a new 10 percent income tax imposed as a war indemnity (this would be reduced in 1869 to 5 percent). Lithuanian nobility saw lands and titles confiscated, with those who were found guilty of taking part in the fighting being sent off to Siberia. Russian became the official language, removing Litvin from official dialogue. Over the course of several decades, this old form of Belarusian would evolve into the modern language, in part because of this edict.


Railroad era: Minsk becomes a more central city

In 1871, in part as an effort to more closely tie Poland with Russia, the Moscow-Warsaw train line was built through Minsk. Train lines had long ago connected St. Petersburg and Warsaw through Vilnius, but the new rail line ensured that military movement could take place more efficiently, and with some redundancy should one line become non-operational for a lengthy period of time. For the city, this meant an almost instant doubling of the population, which grew to 60,000 people a little more than a decade after the first trains came through.

In response to this sudden growth, Minsk authorities determined that a dire need existed to improve the water supply system. To this point, most of the city’s water came from the river, which often harbored bacteria that triggered periodic epidemics. By 1875, the water treatment system was fully operational, and Minsk became a healthier place to live as a result.

Meanwhile, more than half the population in Minsk in the 1880s was Jewish. Some 45 factories bringing in 265,000 rubles a year annually operated in the city, the vast majority of which were owned by Jews. Commerce was effectively in the hands of the Jewish community throughout the late 1800s as wooden structures slowly were replaced with stone houses. Places of worship and education, as well as entertainment venues, decorated the city’s streets. A horse-drawn tram system began operating in 1892.

Meanwhile, Russia was undergoing profound changes. In 1881, Russia’s first terrorists, the Narodnaya Volya, succeeded in killing Alexander II through the use of several bombs in St. Petersburg. Alexander III, his son, changed Russia overnight from a nation on the road to constitutional monarchy to a reactionary autocracy determined at all costs to punish would-be revolutionaries. His actions led to the execution of Alexander Ulyanov, a hanging that would ultimately inspire his younger brother Vladimir to pursue revolution himself under a name that came from stories of Siberian exiles sent to remote villages on the Lena River.

By 1894, Alexander III’s kidneys had failed and he passed away. Because no war was fought under his reign, he was called posthumously “The Peacemaker”. However, his reactionary policies were slowly drawing Russia, ruled by his successor, Nicholas II, into social conflict. In Minsk, already at more than 91,000 population, the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party formed in 1898 at a wooden house owned by a railway worker that still stands not far from present-day Victory Square. Nine delegates, including a young Vladimir Lenin, attended and created several resolutions and the Party manifesto over the course of six sessions, all while the wife of the host kept the stove burning in case the Party’s documents needed to be destroyed in short order.


Minsk before the Revolution

In the seven years that followed the formation of the Social Democrat Party in Minsk, Tsar Nicholas II faced a perfect storm of problems that combined agrarian, ethnic, labor, and student components into Russia’s next great attempt at Revolution. Following a failed war against Japan in the Far East, the Putilon arms factory went on strike at the end of 1904, triggering sympathy strikes across the capital city of St. Petersburg. On Jan. 22, 1905, in the midst of these strikes, which had shut down the city, Orthodox priest Georgy Gapon led a procession to the Winter Palace to peacefully deliver a petition. The result, however, was far from peaceful, as troops opened fire on the crowd, killing between 200-1,000 participants.

Strikes swiftly spread across the Empire, reaching as far away as the remnants of the Russian fleet in Vladivostok, and Polish factories in the far west of the country. It would take the Tsar promising to convene a Duma (Russia’s parliament), and the development of a new Constitution before order could be restored.

When the dust settled, Minsk began another burst of construction. In 1910, the Church of Sts. Simon and Helena, known today as “The Red Church” on Minsk’s Independence Square, was consecrated after seven years of construction. It was the last of Minsk’s churches built under the Russian Empire. A year later, the Tolstoy Public Library, situated not far from the Passenger Train Station, was opened. And finally, just before World War I, the Minsk Teacher’s Institute, which later became the Maxim Tank Pedagogical Institute, was opened in 1914. This small city had become a minor academic center in its own right by the time Germany declared war on Russia on Aug. 1.


World War I: the fight against the Kaiser

Prussia had long since morphed into the German Empire, first by defeating Denmark in the Schleswig-Holstein War, then by defeating Austria for control of the northern German states, and finally be crushing France in the Franco-Prussian war of 1872. Otto von Bismarck led the new Germany into its new role as a world power, and before too many years, it was playing a central role in keeping the peace on the continent.

However, there were too many flashpoints, too many aggressive powers, and after Germany joined with Austria, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire in what they called a “Vierbund” (Quadruple Alliance), and Russia joined with Britain and France in a “Triple Entente”, the stage was set for the start of World War I.

Russia quickly lost most of its western territory, in particular the former lands of the Congress Kingdom of Poland. For most of the war, Germany’s eastern front ran along a line that went through Pinsk, Stowbtsy, Maladzyechna, and onward to Riga. The forward headquarters of the Russian Army was based in Minsk, which was often visited by Tsar Nicholas (who maintained his personal headquarters in Mahilyow). Indeed, in 1917, after Tsar Nicholas I was forced to return to St. Petersburg and abdicate during the February Revolution, and after the Bolsheviks took over Russia in the October Revolution, the Germans offered the new Soviet government to discuss an armistice.

In December 1917, representatives of the Bolsheviks met with the Germans at Brest-Litovsk and received German demands for Poland, Lithuania, and western Latvia. The Germans had expected that, having sponsored the Marxists during their exile, they would now receive everything without resistance. Instead, the Soviets said no and walked out. However, they continued to discharge their weary soldiers, sending the bulk of the state’s defenses away from the front under the delusion that they could simply demand that talks be left in a state that was “neither peace nor war”.

In February 1918, the foolishness of this policy was accentuated when the Germans, with two days forewarning, began a new offensive, a three-pronged land grab that sent one army northward to Narva within a short distance of Petrograd (forcing the Soviet government to relocate to Moscow), one army eastward to Smolensk on the Muscovite road, and the third southward to Kyiv. On Feb. 21, German troops advanced by train into Minsk and seized the forward headquarters of the Western Army Group.

When the Soviets sued for peace, accepting German terms unconditionally, most of the territory comprising the present-day Baltic States, Belarus, and Ukraine were under German occupation. After the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed, German authorities granted local leaders the chance to form the White Ruthenian Democratic Republic. The area that the new republic occupied was essentially the Litvin areas of former Lithuania, and Minsk served as its capital. The German army guaranteed its defense.

This guarantee, though, was not long-lasting. On Nov. 11, 1918, Germany was forced to surrender by the western powers of the Triple Entente, and soon after, German troops left the Russian front to return home.


Polish-Soviet War: Minsk again suffers through the fighting

After the German surrender, White Ruthenia, along with Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic States, were left alone to scramble together a defense. For Minsk, however, there wasn’t enough time to raise anything. On Jan. 5, 1919, Soviet troops arrived by rail from the east and seized the Byelorussian capital almost unopposed. However, it was quite clear to everyone living in Minsk that war had returned, yet again, to their eternally war-torn city. The Soviet Socialist Republic of Byelorussia was declared in the city two days after the arrival of Soviet troops, while further west, Polish and Belarusian self-defense forces rose up overnight to resist the Soviet advance, now codenamed Target Vistula. In the next month, optimistic Soviet planners declared the creation of a combined Lithuanian-Byelorussian Litbel Soviet Socialist Republic.

At about the same time, however, Soviet troops met the Polish counter-offensive in battle at Bereza Kartuska, and by April, the Poles captured the Litbel capital of Vilnius in their military advance, called Operation Minsk. Their goal, cripple the Soviet Western Division, was achieved after a summer-long advance and final pincer attack on the Soviet Socialist Republican capital, which fell on Aug. 8.

Over the coming winter, Soviet soldiery would become considerably more formidable, and after an initial Polish advance in April 1920, the Russians began to gain ground on their enemies. When Lithuania declared neutrality in return for Soviet recognition of their independence, the central authorities declared Litbel disbanded and concentrated their forces on Byelorussia. Through that concentrated effort, on July 11, Soviet troops retook Minsk and declared the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic.

By September, the Soviet advance was broken on the Niemen River by the Poles, stopping the front in today’s western Belarus. Peace talks began in Minsk almost immediately, and on March 18, 1921, the Treaty of Riga was signed, ending the war between the Soviets and Poland.


Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic: Minsk as the capital

Shortly after Soviet troops retook Minsk, the Byelorussian State Polytechnical Institute opened its doors. Eventually, it would become the country’s leading engineering school, the Belarusian National Technical University (BNTU). A year later, on Oct. 30, 1921, the Belarusian State University was also established. Academia quickly organized in order to build up the new republic, in accordance with the goals of Soviet central planning. By 1930, the Minsk State Medical Institute admitted its first students (this would later become the Belarusian State Medical University), followed by the Byelorussian State Conservatory (today’s Belarusian State Academy of Music) and Kamarouski botanical gardens (today the Chelyuskinites Park) in 1932, and the Byelorussian Institute for National Economy in 1933 (today’s Belarusian State Economics University).

Alongside academia, industry grew swiftly in the early years of Soviet-era Minsk. Electric trams began to operate in the city in 1929, replacing the horse-drawn trams that dominated Imperial-era Minsk streets. Minsk-1 Airport landed its first plane in 1933.

Culture also picked up in the interwar period. In 1933, the Opera and Ballet Theater opened its doors for the first time, moving to a brand new building by the end of the decade. Dynama Stadium brought sports to the Byelorussian capital in 1934. Belarusfilm began shooting productions in 1939, the same year that the Byelorussian State Art Gallery (today, the Belarusian National Art Museum) showcased its first exhibit. The population, still about half Jewish, numbered around 300,000.

However, as these halcyon years were going on within Minsk, the rest of Europe witnessed the rise of a new evil, one that would swiftly envelope the Soviet Byelorussian capital in a curtain of its own rubble.


The Great Patriotic War: A more destructive Germany returns to Minsk

By 1933, the rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party created a more aggressive Germany than the one that had previously occupied Minsk. Most of its neighbors were not ready for this new Nazi Germany, including the Soviet Union, which became a neighbor after Poland was absorbed under the Molotov-Ribbentrop partition of that country in September 1939. Indeed, the purges orchestrated by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in the late 1930s resulted in the execution of such a large amount of Russian military talent that when German wehrmacht built up on the western borders of Byelorussia and Ukraine, the Soviet military command was hardly ready to put up any significant defense.

At 3:15 a.m. on June 22, 1941, the German luftwaffe began bombing recently annexed cities along their Soviet frontier, and shortly after the cities further in, such as Minsk. When the morning sun shone on Berlin, Joseph Goebbels announced the German invasion of Russia, with Hitler predicting the Soviet Union would collapse in three months. By noon in Moscow, Vyacheslav Molotov announced that the Soviet Union had been invaded, declaring that a “Patriotic War” had been started and that the Soviets would prevail.

The column of German troops advancing toward Minsk did so under General Fedor von Bock, a German monarchist who hated Nazism, but nonetheless was committed to his oath to support Hitler’s war, no matter where it took him. Initially, his orders were to march directly to Moscow along the same route that Napoleon took in his 1812 campaign, but this would later be changed by Hitler himself, who wanted to see Leningrad seized at all costs.

Indeed, Hitler would prove to be a horrible micro-manager in the invasion of Russia. When General Bock saw on June 24 the opportunity to accelerate his advance to Moscow by bypassing Minsk, which he regarded as a lesser target, and taking Vitebsk instead to ensure that his tanks reached Moscow before winter, Hitler insisted on the necessity of forcing the surrender of all Red Army personnel and demanded he stick to the attack on Minsk. In anger, Bock ordered his men to halt their advance toward Vitebsk, and instead go back to encircling the Byelorussian capital.

By June 27, German tanks had linked up east of Minsk and a day later, the city surrendered. At this point, General Bock, on the sixth day of Operation Barbarossa, was 321 kilometers into Soviet territory and more than a third of the way to Moscow.


The Great Patriotic War: Minsk under German occupation

On July 17, 1941, Adolf Hitler ordered the creation of the Reichskommissariat Ostland in order to govern the German-occupied areas captured in Operation Barbarossa within the Baltic States and Byelorussia. In general, the German command regarded the Belarusians as a “little and weak peasant people” who lived in “folkish indifference”. This assessment, which likely would change after partisan warfare picked up in the Naliboki forest west of Minsk, rendered those declared to be Belarusian to be ideal for exploitation in building new German colonies in the Generalbezirk Weissruthenien (Belarus District).

The first district commissioner was a “German Christian” movement leader named Wilhelm Kube. He oversaw the establishment of the Minsk ghetto on July 20, and the general extermination of his district’s Jewish population, which was a considerably large portion of the original population (half of Minsk was Jewish before the war). Under his watch, the Maly Trostenets death camp went into operation in May 1942, which under 18 months had managed to kill off just about the entire pre-war Jewish population of Minsk.

Although he preferred an orderly execution of the order to carry out Hitler’s final solution of the Jewish “problem”, he was also known for his atrocities. On March 2, 1942, when German and Belarusian policemen had thrown Jewish children into a deep sand pit as a particularly cruel method of execution, he merely smiled and threw candies at them.

Such cold-hearted actions earned him a leading position in the target list of the local partisans, and on Sept. 22, 1943, Yelena Mazanik, who had obtained employment within Kube’s household as a maid, placed a time bomb in his mattress. Though the bomb actually went off 40 minutes early, Kube was blown to pieces, and Mazanik managed to escape and live to tell the tale.

Following Kube’s death, Curt von Gottberg, head of the SS and police in Minsk, was promoted as his successor. Between September 1943 and June 1944, he carried out a war of annihilation against the partisans in his jurisdiction. Essentially, his strategy was to surround an area, and then have every person in that area shot as a bandit. Despite being a high profile target, he managed to survive the advance of the Red Army only to be eventually arrested by the British – he would commit suicide in their captivity.

The horror of German occupation would come to an end at the start of July 1944, when despite Hitler declaring Minsk a “Fester Platz”, or a stronghold to be defended at all cost, the Fifth Panzer Division withdrew toward Maladzyechna and the SS units under von Gottberg withdrew to Lida. Early in the morning of July 3, the 2nd Guard Tanks Corp of the Red Army advanced into the center of the city and began the process of liberating Minsk. By July 4, the Germans were finally cleared of the city. Only 50,000 of its prewar 300,000 citizens remained.


Post-War: Minsk’s development up to the time of Lee Harvey Oswald

Even as the fighting continued westward toward Berlin, Minsk immediately began to reconstruct itself. Less than two weeks after liberation, on July 16, 1944, the Minsk Automobile Plant was set up and after awhile began producing vehicles using a General Motors-designed 2-stroke engine (it would later produce vehicles using their own engine designs). Plant, apartments, shops, medical clinics, and entertainment facilities were built using both Belarusian-born construction crews and German prisoners-of-war. Most of the structures can still be seen when touring through the Zavodsky District of Minsk today.

After the war ended, the Automobile Plant was joined by the Minsk Tractor Works in 1946, the Minsk Wheeled Tractor Plant in 1954, and the Minsk Refrigerator plant in 1959. These facilities provided useful employment as well as important machinery useful for the recovery of Byelorussian agriculture. Just after the war, the Byelorussia Theatrical Institute (today’s Belarusian State Academy of Arts) and the Minsk Institute of Foreign Languages (today’s Minsk State Linguistics University) were founded (in 1945 and 1948, respectively). In 1950, Yanka Kupala Park and Tarpeda Stadium were opened, providing entertainment options for the citizens of the city. In short, the city had begun the same trajectory of growth it had enjoyed before the war.

In time for the tenth year anniversary of the liberation of Minsk from the Nazis, the Victory Square obelisk and eternal flame memorial was erected in essentially the same place it can be seen today. A year later, the Children’s Railroad, a scale model train line that runs through Chelyuskinites Park with the help of actual children conductors and station personnel, began operation.

In 1959, a couple years later, Minsk received its most famous, or some would say infamous, American resident, Lee Harvey Oswald. Having left the US Marine Corps on Sept. 11, on a hardship discharge (he claimed his mother needed care), he went straight from his California duty station to New Orleans and boarded a ship for La Havre in France, and then crossed the Channel to England. Entering at Southampton on Oct. 9, he made up a story about preparing to go to school in Switzerland, and then flew the same day from London to Helsinki, Finland. By Oct. 14, he had obtained a 1-week visa to the Soviet Union, and took a train the next evening to Moscow, where he proceeded to defect.

Originally, Oswald envisioned going to school at Moscow State University, but he was instead sent to Minsk just after New Years in 1960 to work as a lathe operator at the Horizont plant. After a few days at the Hotel Minsk, an Intourist operation set up for Soviet citizens (as opposed to the more commodious accommodations afforded foreigners), he was brought to his rather plush sleeping quarters on the Svislach River, walking distance from his work and the girls of the Institute of Foreign Languages, with plenty of entertainment options nearby. Effectively, this was a surveillance cocoon set up to monitor his every move for analysis of the real reason he came to the Soviet Union.

He developed a small group of friends, all of whom the KGB kept close tabs on as part of the surveillance directed on the idealist. His young Russian instructor during that time was none other than Stanislaw Shushkevich, who became independent Belarus’ first head of state when it split apart from Russia at the end of 1991.

He spent a year working at the Horizont plant, during which time he met at the Experimental Shop there a young Jewish woman named Ella German. Having spent the War as a displaced person in Mordovia, near Moscow, she returned to Belarus after its liberation. She dated him over his first year in Minsk, but eventually decided he wasn’t a trustworthy companion. When he asked for her hand in marriage just after New Years 1961, she rejected him on the grounds that she didn’t love him and couldn’t marry an American. After that, he lost a lot of his interest in living in the USSR.

About three months later, Oswald met Marina Prusakova at a dance near his home. She had come to Minsk to study pharmacy, but soon after they met, the two married at a nearby ZAGS (civil registrar’s office). German came to believe that he married as a way to somehow get back at her, though for obvious reasons this had little effect on her life. The couple remained in Minsk for another year before Oswald decided to return to the States, and take his wife with her. A year later, his role in the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy put him in an unenviable place in the history books.


Soviet-era Minsk: Development of the modern city

A year after Lee Harvey Oswald left Minsk, Soviet authorities constructed the MKAD ring road around the Byelorussian capital, allowing through traffic to bypass the city center. A year later than that, in 1964, the Radioengineering Institute (today’s Belarusian State University of Informatics and Radioelectronics) opened its doors on Petrusya Brouki Street near Yakub Kolos Square. And finally in 1971, the Belarus Optical and Mechanical Enterprise began work at the start of the Brezhnev era.

As the Cold War advanced, Minsk remained a quiet place through Brezhnev’s rule. When he died in 1982, the Minsk National Airport opened, moving part of the air traffic away from the city center. Two years later in 1984, the Minsk Metro began operating between Institut Kultury Station and Maskouskaya Station along the city’s main street, then named Sovietskaya. It would open a second line by the time of independence. In the same year, autoplant workers organized the creation of the Minsk Zoo.

Then in late April 1986, disaster struck. Just across the border in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, Reactor 4 of the Chernobyl Atomic Power Station exploded in a meltdown event. Large swaths of both Ukraine and Belarus were covered with radioactive particles, and the loss of confidence resulting from this unprecedented disaster contributed to the break-up of the Soviet Union five years later. Indeed, on Sept. 30, 1989, up to 15,000 protesters marched through Minsk demanding more cleanup of the Chernobyl site. This seemed to encourage popular disaffection with Moscow in the years running up to the dissolution.


The Dissolution of the USSR: Minsk becomes a new national capital

On Aug. 19, 1991, while Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was vacationing at his dacha in the Crimean town of Foros, a “General Committee on the State Emergency” took over the Kremlin and attempted to establish control over the Soviet Union. This “committee” timed their coup d’etat for the day before the Russian Federated Soviet Socialist Republic was to vote on a new Union Treaty that would have made each republic independent, but under a Communist Party president. This was seen as tantamount to a dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The coup organizers on the committee had anticipated that their seizure of the government would draw popular support, but the exact opposite happened. Three days after President Gorbachev was seized at Foros, the coup leaders were forced to release him. Each were detained afterward, and on Aug. 24, Gorbachev dissolved the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, setting in motion the final dissolution of the USSR.

By Dec. 8, all the republics of the Soviet Union agreed to a break up, and the three Slavic republics, Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, signed the Belavezha Accords, which replaced the Soviet Union with the Commonwealth of Independent States. On Dec. 21, less than two weeks later, the Alma-Ata Protocol was signed, confirming the dissolution of the Soviet Union among all 15 republics. Four days later, Dec. 25, Gorbachev announced his resignation as the head of the Soviet Union, and on Dec. 31, the United Nations effectively recognized the dissolution by accepting the Russian Federation as replacement for the Soviet Union in the general assembly and security council. As a result, Minsk became the capital of a new country, Belarus.


Minsk Today

Modern Minsk continues to grow as a result of the continued influx of new investors that only now is discovering the city’s potential. In the halcyon days just after independence, new institutions moved in to the republic and new ideas, such as the Listapad (November) Film Festival, were tried with a certain degree of success.

Even after the election of Alexander Lukashenko on a platform that effectively promised a return to the Soviet Union, Minsk still found its future as the capital of an independent republic. This hadn’t been without its setbacks. For instance, the Metro System suffered two great disasters: first, a sudden rainstorm triggered a stampede that left 53 people dead at Nyamiha Station in 1999, and a bomb went off in 2011 shortly after an election that most of the opposition claimed was rigged in the president’s favor.

However, almost every year a new improvement graces the Belarusian capital. In 2002, the MKAD ring road was built into a modern dual-carriageway road, and Minsk Passazhirsky railway station was modernized. In 2006, the National Library of Belarus opened at the far end of Praspekt Nyezhalezhnastsi. In 2010, the Minsk-Arena opened in preparation for the 2014 World Hockey Championship.

The smooth hosting of peace talks in Minsk over the past year has resulted in the city being given serious consideration for other important gatherings. New commercial projects, such as shopping malls and state-sponsored housing developments continue to extend the edge of town further toward the MKAD and beyond, toward the ancient forestlands that once characterized the countryside around Minsk.

In 2012, some 1.9 million people called Minsk home. And even today in 2015, the demand for new housing has yet to slow down.

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