An Architect: "Minsk is a city for marching crowds"
Protests are not only about people, ideas, and a thirst for changes, but also about the urban space where all these events unfold. This space can take the strokes and traumas from the occurring actions, contribute to the solidarity of people, and influence the protest in general in various and very unexpected ways. We've talked to the architect Dmitry Zadorin on how Minsk became a venue for Belarusian protests – and how the city has to play the role of the most important subject of all current events. We had a conversation about huge avenues that turned out to be so convenient for protest actions, unprecedented activity in courtyards, and the new Minsk phenomenon that is being formed right now.
an architect, architectural historian, the author of the book "Minsk. The Architectural Guide"
"Minsk is by definition a Soviet city – we have very little of the old core. And from the moment the city began to grow quickly, everything had already been invented in Soviet urban planning. What are all these large squares and avenues for? For marching crowds. But what is happening now actually reverses the whole idea of the masses, because they were supposed to march in support of the state, but it turned out to be the opposite. Minsk city, while maintaining its Soviet structure, has served the opposite situation: instead of helping the state, this structure puts sand in the machine. Obviously, all these large spaces perfectly fit for such a mass protest.
On the other hand, the core of the city is so small that it was quite easy for the military-men to push people out of it in the first days. And the protests immediately moved to the periphery of the city, where the main events took place. I think this is the main change in the spatial dimension of the protests in Minsk."
"If we talk about the entire structure of Minsk, here is what's important: as soon as the protest had been denied access to the center of the city, several places came into the view – those, where the main confrontations happened. Few are aware that in the Soviet urban planning system Minsk was divided into three (now there are four of them) planning zones: South-Eastern, North-Eastern (around the "Riga" shopping-mall) and Western (centered on Puškinskaja square). These are parts of the city that can operate as independent cities. And each of these units has its center. The protests had happened to be concentrated in these central parts of the periphery. And then the protest ran down the steps of the city hierarchy. Residential complexes, that we've mentioned before – are the smallest unit of urban planning. And these spatial units appeared to be perfect for self-organization.
Here, by the way, you can see that the South-Eastern zone, mostly inhabited by "proletarians", turned out to be the least active in the protest, compared to the turbulence in other zones. The North-Eastern part, where many old Soviet-time intellectuals live, has become slightly more active. And Puškinskaja was the very "hot" place – and not by accident. This is where the youngest part of the population is based. The Western part is the "new" Minsk. Of course, we can't say that the entire young population lives there, but still, there is a certain connection with age. In this new part of the city more territory is assigned to "non-social" housing development.
Thus, the map of protests is shifted, on the one hand, towards new districts, and on the other – towards residential complexes with commercial housing."
"This is how civil society grows up everywhere in the world"
"I think that the tradition of good neighborliness will not cease in the future when there will no longer be such a need for everyone to consolidate around a common problem, although it may become not so noticeable. But this is how civil society grows up everywhere in the world. This growth is assisted by certain outbursts of general dissatisfaction with something.
I think things will get even better when the policy about courtyards changes in the future. Because now in Minsk, at most, there are no courtyards at all – they exist only in those blocks, where the architects specifically thought about these structures and a separate sum of money was spent on the matter. In Europe, architects now work on the legacy of the 60s and 70s, and they are trying to redesign it. We also need to put everything in order, but we are not offered any mechanism for this, except for eternal coloring up. And, perhaps, this very lack of order prevents people from creating communities in courtyards. If the quality of the urban environment improves, it will be easier for all of us to get to know each other. When you come to Novaja Baravaja and walk around these yards, you realize that it is easier for the neighbors to gather and spend time there.
But I think that the formation of local communities, which is happening in the districts, will lead to the improvement of the urban environment afterward."
"Minsk has not changed its physical appearance those months, but inside it has changed a lot. And we will observe these changes for several more years.
I believe that if new communities are organized, they will be embodied in spatial changes as well. People living in ordinary high-rise blocks in Sierabranka will begin to gather and discuss how they want to improve their yard, and what they should do together for this common space. And in the future, this may even get institutionalized, because this is how civil society is formed. Whether this will affect the political structure of society and whether we will have a stronger local government is still difficult to judge, it takes time to see.
"Minsk hasn't changed its physical appearance those months, but inside it has changed a lot"
Perhaps the most important thing is that Minsk now has got a new spatial dimension – the peripheral one. And this is probably a new phenomenon in the city. Previously, there were two Minsk phenomena: the first, disclosed in the mid-1970s, had been associated with extremely rapid urbanization; the second one – was more about urban planning and emerged because Minsk architects had been able to create interesting architectural ensembles from typical details. And now suddenly the city periphery made a hit – something that we did not expect at all. This is indeed a very noteworthy phenomenon. And all the events taking place in Minsk now later will be included in the history textbooks."
Interview by Yulia Mironova, translated by Bazhena Gurlenia. Photos by palasatka, murmurash