Once upon a time, Kiev Rus was ruled by a great prince named Yaroslav the Wise, and he had three sons: Iziaslav, Vsevolod, and Sviatoslav. The three sons were directed by the great prince to share power and administer all of Russia as one. However, a lesser cousin, Vsevolod, who ruled the most powerful province under Yaroslav saw the death of his powerful uncle as his chance to take back the throne that his grandmother Rogneda, the haughty princess of Polotsk, told should be his. After taking the great city of Novgorod, he set his sights on the great city of Kiev.
In response, the three brothers, called the “Yaroslavichi” (each being a Yaroslavich, or son of Grand Prince Yaroslav), marched northward and set out a bloody winter campaign that resulted in a number of cities being destroyed, including the regional capital of Menesk, and Vsevolod accepting his place as a subordinate. This was the year 1067, and the burning of Menesk marked the first time that the city of Minsk was ever mentioned in any chronicle. As such, this is the year that the city was considered as having been “founded,” even though it is in fact probably a much older city.
For nearly a thousand years, well before the Soviets recognized it as such, Minsk has been a heroic city, standing up and making war a costly prospect for any invader. Its formal recognition as such by Moscow came from when the city was called to defend the Soviet motherland in World War II, and monuments to the heroism of the city during its three years of occupation still dominate the cityscape, particularly the obelisk at Victory Square, along with a number of tanks and guns from the era at parks and squares. One of the most recent commemorations of Soviet-era heroism was the Liniya Stalina open-air museum in Loshany, about 20 kilometers northwest of the city center. Put together as a simulation of the defensive lines set up by Josef Stalin in 1939 against possible invasion by the Germans, the military displays come alive on important celebrations like Victory Day (May 9).
Perhaps a more poignant display of heroism can be seen in the efforts of the Jewish community of Minsk. Before World War II, around half the city population was of this ethnicity. By the end of the war, as a result of the Nazi attempt at extermination of this ethnic group, only 10 percent were left in 1945. After nationalism picked up pace, most of the rest of the population left for the safety of places like Israel, leaving only 1 percent of the city, or some 20,000 citizens, of Jewish ancestry. This small community, roughly 40 percent of the country’s entire Jewish population, has been hard at work at restoring the synagogues and centers of Jewish life that still remain in the city, including the main synagogue on ulitsa Daumana. They ensure that the past is never forgotten.
Of course, the present plays a significant role for Minsk as well. As capital of the republic, the city comes alive every day with the buzz of commerce. It dines in cafes along city streets, where lunch specials compete with the cavalcade of faces that pass on the sidewalk outside. And in the evening, concert halls attract thousands of music fans, in genres that range from classical to Western and Russian rock. After the last encore, the clubs keep die-hard partiers going through past the dawn.
To feel the heartbeat of Belarus, you’ve got to be there.
9 MUST-DO THINGS IN MINSK
1. To keep a small pink plastic token or “zheton” (as they call it) from Minsk Underground.
2. To admire superb views of night Minsk from an observation point of the extraordinary rhombicuboctahedron
construction of the Belarusian National Library.
3. To enjoy the diversity of the celestial sphere from the telescope of Minsk Planetarium.
4. To take a tram through the forest.
5. To drop over the former residence of the alleged assassin of the former US president John F Kennedy – Lee
6. To see the best architectural examples of Soviet monumentalism, walking along the city main thoroughfare –
Nezalezhnasty Avenue (literally “Prospect Nezavisimosty”), which extends over 15 km from Minsk train station to
the outer city.
7. To see the largest depository of historical documents and relics of 1941-1945 in the Belarusian State Museum
of the Great Patriotic War, which covers 3 floors and more than 30 halls of exhibits.
8. To get a great lot of positive emotions attending the legendary “Carmen Suite” ballet in the renovated National
Opera and Ballet Theatre of Belarus.
9. To attend KHL match at the newly built multi-functional Minsk-Arena Complex, the main venue for the 2014 IHF