At the “open-air museum of socialist realism” -
Byelorussia was an agrarian region before the war, with 80 percent of the population living on the land. In 1944, when the Red Army liberated the capital Minsk from German occupation, the city was largely destroyed and left almost devoid of people. Urban planners therefore had a wide-open field for trying out new ideas. “Nothing,” according to the historian, “was left of the ‘old’ Minsk, of the administrative capital, the city of Jewish traders and Russian officials. Instead there arose what had already been envisaged in the inter-war period: a ‘new’ Minsk, the capital of a Soviet republic, a city of proletarianised Byelorussian farmers.” This led to two distinctive features: “On the one hand, the principles of socialist urban planning could be realised in Minsk unhindered and unadulterated”, writes Bohn. On the other, industrialisation in Byelorussia only got going after the war, and thus later than the rest of the Soviet Union. All resources were concentrated in the capital, so that within a very short period Minsk underwent dramatic expansion. Between 1950 and 1990 the population grew from 274,000 to 1.6 million.
Bohn visited Minsk for the first time in 1997. Describing his impressions of the city’s monumental neoclassical buildings, he writes: “I felt as if I had been transported to an open-air museum of socialist realism.” In his urban development research he quickly discovered, however, that the urban totality of Minsk’s model metropolis in no way matched the standardised consistency planned by the Soviet rulers. Instead he found urban developments generally to be heterogeneous in nature, and not always in accord with ideological constructs of a “socialist city”.
In speaking of a “socialist city”, Bohn is not referring solely to aspects of urban planning. In his view the concept can also be used to analyse a Soviet-type society, and thus to record social history. Middle-class life played no part in Minsk, and civil society activities were non-existent. Bohn investigates the interaction between guiding principles – that is, the ideal of the city as social and spatial organisation system - and realities of city growth and urbanisation; and also examines distinctions between public and private areas in the city. At the same time he reveals the contradictions between an ideological ideal and Soviet reality: “More than anywhere else in Minsk,” he writes, “the central square symbolises the collapse of the idea of the ‘socialist city’. Of all the designs submitted for this heart of the city in numerous architectural competitions, not one was ever realised.”
Soviet ideologists regarded the “socialist city” as a counter-concept to the old form of the “capitalist city”, and thus there was no question of simply reconstructing the almost entirely ruined city of Minsk after the war. Instead, city planners took their lead from the so-called Moscow blueprint of 1935, which envisaged an axial ring road structure linked with erection of a monumental centre, location of industrial sites at the city perimeter, and development of green spaces in the inner city.
At the same time, though, the construction of residential buildings was neglected. “To provide the masses of people streaming into the city with habitation, the building of private wooden huts was advocated on available areas in the inner precincts and at the edges of the city.” Not until the sixties did mass residential construction allow the majority of the population to withdraw into more private accommodation. Prior to this, the building of homes was not governed by human needs but by the production requirements of industries and organisations. “Initially,” states Bohn, “plans were focused only on allocating labourers to dwellings rather than in any way creating an enclosed living space for families. Under these conditions, the ‘communal dwelling’ developed into an urban way of life.”
In his research the historian examines the consequences of increasing population pressure on city society and urban development. He underscores his subject with a range of different questions: What is the nature of the urbanisation process when governed by socialist concepts? How did the distinctive type of “socialist city” develop? Why were there contradictions between the theory and practice of urban planning and construction? Bohn concludes that the “socialist city” modernisation concept did not add up for Minsk: flight from the land proceeded in an almost uncontrolled way, and led to a situation in which, until the 60s, whole districts of farmer’s huts were thrown up at the city’s periphery alongside officially planned and constructed buildings. “Ultimately the government and party leaders were unable to limit city growth.”
Thomas M. Bohn: “Minsk – Musterstadt des Sozialismus. Stadtplanung und Urbanisierung in der Sowjetunion nach 1945”, Böhlau Verlag, Cologne 2008 (Industrielle Welt 74), ISBN 978-3-412-20071-8, price 59.90 euros
Prof. Dr. Thomas Bohn
Professor of eastern European history at the Honours Master's Programme East European Studies run by LMU Munich
Tel.: ++49 (0) 89 / 2180-5442