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 History of Minsk

There are many legends relating to the foundation of Minsk and the origin of its name. Situated on the watershed of the river-routes linking the Baltic to the Black sea, its trading history going back to prehistoric times some have thought that the city owes its name to the word miena or "barter". Others look at a hill-fort known as Haradysczy by Stroczyce, a "Skansen"-village, a few kilometres away on the west from the city on the banks of the river Menka, which flows to the river Pticz and on to join the Pripiat' and Dniapro. A heroic folk legend that a giant called Menesk or Mincz kept a mill on the banks of a river, and ground rock and stones to make flower for bread in order to feed the war-band he had assembled to protect his settlement, and safeguard its prosperity. This depended, no doubt, on the portage of goods between the headwaters of Pripiat, Dniapro, and Nioman. So Menesk -- later Mensk -- came into being. The reference to "stone-flour" can allude to kneading and baking of potters clay used in brick making and ceramics industry, which from the earliest times flourished in the area. There was no lack of wood to fire the kilns. In prehistoric times the "domain of the bear" predominated over "the domain of the goose"  (as Napoleon soldiers aptly dubbed the forest- and meadow-lands of the area) with vast and impenetrable primeval forests covering most of the country and serving as a Delphic "wooden wall" to its successive inhabitants against attacks from the East. Scattered Lithuanians and Jatvyhs hunted and gathered, until merged with the more advanced Slavonic tribes moving northwards from the Carpathians during the so-called Dark Ages. These settled the area forming the watershed of the rivers flowing to the Baltic and the Black Sea, where the early Belarusians founded prosperous townships of Polacak, Viciebsk, Smalensk, Minsk, and Harodnia. Of these Polacak, first mentioned in the chronicles for 862, was to become the most important.
During the era of Viking expansion along the East European waterways, many towns and principalities were ruled over by Scandinavian warlords; in the 9th century the lands of Polacak were raided by two Viking princes Askold and Dir, and by the 10th century a Prince Ravhalod(Norse: Ragnvald) reigned over the Belarusian principality of which early Minsk formed part. The Belarusian nobility to this day distinguishes between families of old Lithuanian and those of Scandinavian descent (Hedymoviczy and Rurikoviczy).


On April 26, 1986, at 01:21, the fourth reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant, 12km south of the Belarusian border, exploded. Yet, it was not until abnormal radiation levels were registered at one of Sweden’s nuclear facilities that the world learned about the disaster, initially concealed by the Soviet authorities. Belarus was hit the hardest. 70% of all radiation fallout fell on Belarusian land. In the first days after the explosion, the levels of gamma radiation exceeded natural values by 25 times in Minsk and 1,500 times in Bragin. Some 23% of the country was heavily contaminated with radioactive Caesium-137 above 37 kilo-bequerel/km². It is estimated that today more than two million people in Belarus alone still live in contaminated areas and consume local farm produce. Medical experts expect as many as 40% of children exposed to Chernobyl’s radiation to develop thyroid cancer over the next 30 years. In 1988, 83 children were revealed to have pathology of the thyroid gland; in 1989, 807; in 1990, 9,924. Today it is safe to travel through those contaminated areas but avoid eating the mushrooms or drinking the milk. Ukraine has pledged to close the plant by the year 2000 if foreign governments provide sufficient funds to build an alternative power facility

Rahvalod's daughter Rahnieda(Norse: Ragnheid) was baptized; she became the wife of Prince Volodimir(Norse: Valdemar) of Kiev and bore him a son Iziaslau. Missionaries from Constantinople baptized Volodimir a Christian in 988; the population of Polacak accepted Christianity in 989, and by 992 the city had its Bishop. On the death of Volodimir, Iziaslau' became Prince of Polacak, and his half-brother Jaraslav -- Volodimir's son by a previous marriage -- became Prince of Novgorod and later of Kiev. Other sons acquired his domains among the Finno-Ugric tribes of what was to become Muscovy. "Since that time, as the chronicler recorded, "the grandchildren of Rahvalod raised the sword agains the grandchildren of Jaroslav". From the outset there was little unity between the warring princes of "Rus'". Iziaslau'(d. 1001) was succeeded by his son Braczaslau, who it turn was followed by his son Usiaslau the Enchanter (1044 - 1101).
The dynastic rivalry between the houses of Kiev and Polacak explains the turbulent history of Minsk in its early years, situated as it was on the southern borders of the latter principality. The centre of the town had shifted to a new cite giving access to the headwaters of the Vilija and Biarazima and the confluence of the Niamiha and Svisloch rivers. Here also the steep banks of the Niamiha, the high mound south of the stream and Trinity Golden hill offered a good defensive position. Public buildings, dwelling houses, and fortifications were raised of timber. The first recorded mention of Minsk in 1066 relates however to dynastic wars with Kiev. After Usiaslau of Polacak had raided Novgorod and brought to his capital the bells of the Cathedral of St. Sophia, to hang them in his own Cathedral of that name, the three sons of Jaraslav in retribution attacked the city of Minsk: "The people of Menesk(Minsk) barricaded themselves in the town, but the three brothers took Menesk and killed the men, carried off the women and children into captivity, and went towards the Niamiha".
Treacherously seized whilst attending a parley in Smalensk with Isiaslau and the princes of Kiev in 1067, Usiaslau and his two sons were kept captive in Kiev, until an uprising of the inhabitants set them free. Prince Usiaslau fled to Poland, and the Prince of Polacak was offered the throne of Kiev in his stead. The story goes that Usiaslau' longed to return home, and declined the honour for the love of his native land. He was, as the chronicler records, called back to Polacak "by the pealing bells of St. Sophia". The first uncensored Belarusian historical opera performed in Minsk: Usiaslau the Enchanter, Prince of Polacak (1944) by the composer Kulikovicz dealt with this romantic theme. The bells of St. Sophia were to become for Belarusian exiles the symbol of the call of the homeland.
Usiaslau principality of Polacak was, on his death, divided between his sons: the fiefdom of Minsk fell to Hleb, who thus became the first sovereign prince of the city. Internecine quarrels weakened the northern principalities and encouraged the Kievans to reopen hostilities. In 1104 they ravaged the principality of Minsk and shortly thereafter the warlike Lithuanians moved in from the west. Vladimir Monomach again besieged and took Minsk in 1116. Three years later in a further campaign against Polacak, after a battle on the banks of Biarazina, the Kievans "attacked the town, and left neither man nor beast in it".Prince Hleb Usiaslavavicz, together with his two sons, Rascilau and Valadar, was taken into captivity, where he died in exile later that year. His son Rascislau succeeded him, but yet again the Kievans attacked in 1129, and placed their nominee Isiaslau Mscislavicz on the throne dispatching Gleb children to serve the Byzantine Emperor in Constantinople.
However, the principality reverted to the princes of Polacak in 1146, with the return of the two sons of Hleb, Rascilau and after him Valadar(1151 - 1158), though Syrakomla gives different dates and the chronicles for this period are incomplete. On the death of the latter prince, Minsk is though to have been governed by Valadar's son Prince Vasylka, at least until 1195. During the reign of the Grand Duke Mindauh(c. 1200 - 1263) of Lithuania, Polacak entered into an alliance with him to expel the Baltic Germans, who had invaded the principality. Thereafter, it appears to have become a Lithuanian appanage, for by 1220 the overlord of Minsk was Prince Edzivil, a nephew of Mindauh. Minsk continued as a semi-independent principality allied with Lithuania, for as late as 1326 the records mention a Prince Todar Svjataslavavicz of Minsk as a witness to a treaty between the Grand Duke Hedymin(d. 1341) and the city-state of Novgorod.
The fall of Kiev to the Mongols in 1240 during the great invasion of Batu Khan, the submission of Jaroslav, the Grand Duke of Moscow, to the Tatars in 1243 and the Lithuanian victory over the Asian invaders first at Kojdanava(1241) under Prince Skirmunt and then at Kruta Hora (1249) a few miles from Minsk, served to consolidate the union between the Belarusian principalities and the Grand Duchy. In 1252 Mindauh and his his leading nobles were baptised, and the Grand Duke was crowned with the approval of Pope Innocent IV in 1253. He fixed his capital in the Belarusian city of Navahrudak, some 100 km west from Minsk.
In 1633 a Dutch foundered Witte established a cannon-factory at Tula, the first in the domains of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovicz, thus finally breaking the arms embargo with the Empire, the Hansa and the Grand Duchy had sought to impose on their unruly Eastern neighbour. This sounded the death knell of the peaceful interregnum enjoyed by Minsk since 1580. By 1648 the Muscovites rearmed the Cossacks and in 1652 they were ready to resume hostilities against the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Belarus. A host of 700,000(as large as Napoleon's Grande Armee), embarked on a campaign equipped and financed -- according the Syrian eye-witness Paul of Aleppo -- by the merchants of Moscow, grown enormously wealthy since the fall of Kazan and Astrachan(1554, 1556) on "merchandise from Persia and India"), and anxious further to enrich themselves by elimination their Grand Ducal trading competitors between the Baltic and the Black Sea. The Moscow's Patriarch Nikon added his widow's mite of 20,000-armed men, recruited among his monastic servants to join the expedition. Smalensk fell after a short seige in 1654; Nikolas Radzivil and his captains were held prisoners in Kazan. The Belarusian fortress cities of Viciebsk, Mahiliou, Polacak, and Orsza were also taken in swift succession.
The account of the fall of Minsk among other cities, and the manner of the legendary "reunion of Belarus with the Russian State" by Tsar Alexei, is best left to the contemporary Orthodox Deacon Paul of Aleppo, then in Moscow (1653 - 1655): "His various officers subdued upwards of ninety four towns and castles, by storm and voluntary surrender; killing God knows how many Jews, Armenians, and Poles, and throwing their children packed in barrels into the great river Dniepr without mercy; for nothing can exceed the hatred that the Muscovites bear to all classes of heretics and infidels. All the men without exception they cut to pieces without sparing one; the women and children they carried off into slavery, after destroying their habitations so as to leave their town entirely desolate. Thus the country if the Poles, which formerly was proverbially rich, and bore comparison with the finest provinces of Greece, now became a vast scene of ruin, where not a village or inhabitant was to be found in fifteen days journey in length and breadth. We were informed that more than one hundred thousand of the enemy were reduced to captivity, so that seven or eight boys and girls were sold for a dinar or less; and many of them we ourselves saw. In the towns, which they took by capitulation, they spared all those inhabitants and allowed them to remain, who embraced the faith and were baptized; the rest were all expelled. But the towns which they captured at the point of the sword they totally cleared of their inhabitants, and levelled their houses and the fortifications to the ground." Other sources set the toll of ruined cities and towns in Belarus between 1654 and 1656 at over two hundred.
Minsk on the 30th of June 1655 "readily surrendered to the Orthodox Tsar", and two Muscovite Princes, Arseniev and Chvorostin, were appointed as governors. The inhabitants were given choice of "accepting Russian Orhtodoxy (pravoslavije) or of being removed from the city by order of the Tsar". The manner of their "removal", whether by chain gang or by river, as described by Paul of Aleppo, needs no further elaboration. Subsequent exactions and ill treatment of the population, however, moved the remaining Orthodox citizens to rebellion after two years, which was swiftly dealt with by the Muscovites. By the 1660, however, the tide of war had changed. The Russian forces were overstretched and in 1661 Jan Casimir regained Harodnia and Vilnia after long sieges. The Cossack Ataman Zalatarenko was killed before Stary Bychau and Minsk was retaken. The citizenry of Mahiliou rose up to massacre the Muscovites, dispatching their leaders in chains to Warsaw. Recovery from the holocaust was slow and only got under way in the latter part of the 18th century. "The glorious city of Polacak" which, according to Vakar, "once had 100,000 inhabitants and was larger and wealthier than London", had "only 360 frame houses inhabited by 437 Christians and 478 Jews in 1780". In the latter stages of the war the fortunes of the Commonwealth improved, and Minsk again became an advanced camp for the liberation of Belarus by the Grand Duke Jan Kasimir(1648 - 1668) who, together with the future sovereign Jan Sobieski, visited the ruined and plague-ridden city of Minsk on no fewer than three occasions in 1664.
The Russian Governors' first steps were to restrict the Belarusian Greek-Catholic Church; the Basilian Convents in the Upper Town and in Trinity suburb were closed in 1795, and the Holy Ghost Church handed over to the Russian Orthodox hierarchy, who in 1796 renamed it after the apostles SS. Peter and Paul. The former Belarusian Orthodox Church with this name was recons crated to St. Catherine, thus commemorating the partners of the two sovereigns who had established Russian rule over the city. Plans were drawn up for improving the city amenities; public gardens were laid out by the river Svislacz, which were named the Governor's Gardens, and the architect Todar Kramer was commissioned to remodel the City Guildhall, the Vice-governor's residence (1800), the Basilian monastery, now a school for children of the gentry (1799), the Merchants' Exchange (1800), the Jesuit college and the Holy Trinity convent in the Trinity suburb (1799) and other buildings. These reconstructions were done to neutral neo-classical designs of West European municipal architecture, which left little room for national particularism.
In 1812 the French Emperor Napoleon crossed the Nioman River, making the purpose of his campaign against the Tsar plain to his generals. Irritated, after a meeting with Alexander's envoy, General Balachov, by the pretensions of successive Russian Tsars to make themselves the arbiters of the European politics, he explained to his General Berthier, Caulaincourt and Duroc: "Alexander takes me for a fool, Does he think that I have come to Vilnia to negotiate trade agreements? I have to finish off, once and for all, this colossus of the barbarians of the North. The sword is drawn. They must be driven back to their ice fields so that for twenty-five years they do not come meddling in the affairs of civilized Europe... He [Alexander] is afraid and wants a settlement, but I only sign a peace treaty in Moscow... If he wants victories, let him beat the Persians, but let him note meddle with Europe. Civilization repudiates these Norsemen. Europe should put its house in order without them." The composition of his confederate army -- French, Poles, Italians, Germans, Dutchmen, Portuguese and Austrians -- gave some weight to his claim to be acting for Europe. Napoleon leaving Marshal Oudinot to hold Polacak, and Marshal Davout to occupy Minsk drove on to Viciebsk. Only 180,000 men set off from Smalensk for Moscow: the rest were protecting the Grande Armee's flanks or were on garrison duty. Most of whatever material destruction took place during the campaign was caused by the brutal but very effective Russian tactics of "scorched earth" -- burning cities (among them Mahiliou and Smalensk), villages and crops to prevent them from being taken by the enemies of the Orthodox Tsar.
In Minsk Devout received strong local support and attended a Te Deum celebrated by the Bishop Dederko to mark the liberation of the city from Russian rule. A popular move was a decree confiscating the harvests of the fleeing Russian nobility, and dividing them equally between the Army, the civil administration, and the peasants. Implementing Napoleon's plan to restore the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Belarus as two separate states, with their capitals in Vilnia and Mahiliou, Minsk was made the Prefecture of a revolutionary department, and numerous Belarusian volunteers formed units in the Grande Armee. During Napoleon's retreat from Moscow these volunteers fought with great valour, defending the bridges and covering the French crossings of the Biarazina. Allowing for heavy losses sustained at Borodino and other engagements at Krasnaje, together with subsequent desertions of disaffected Germans and other allies, the arrival at the bridges of 70,000 men in combat order was hardly that of a defeated army. In the words of an old French soldier of the Imperial Guards who made it back to Vilnia: "We gave them a good trenching at every turn, just the same. Those "Russkis" are only a bunch of schoolboys." On the return of Kutuzov to Minsk in late November there were few reprisals, with the exception of the Bishop Dederka who was suspended, and a general amnesty was subsequently proclaimed.
Russian rule thereafter remained relatively mild, save for the suppression of Greek-Catholic church, until uprisings of 1831 and 1863. Then russification began in earnest with Russian style churches being built in prominent positions, or existing churches being revamped into sometimes grotesque pseudo-Russian style (SS. Peter and Paul prior to 1979). The National Uniate church was suppressed in 1839, occasionally at sword point, with many recalcitrant priests being imprisoned or deported for up to thirty years. Many of the Latin clergy were expelled; the Bernhadine convent and Church were given over to Russian Orthodox monks. The Dominican Church became an army warehouse and the Bernhadine Church of St. Joseph a city archive. Streets were given different names in Russian to efface the memory of the old order: Franciskankaja became Gubernatorskaja, Dominikanskaja was renamed Petrapaulauskaja, Bernadzinski zavulak -- Monastyrski, Felicijanskaja -- Bogodelnaja, Mastovskaja -- Paliciejskaja and so on. An ukaz of the Tsar Nikolas I abolished the very use of names Belarus and Belarusian. The consequences of Kastus Kalinouski' uprising were important and far-reaching for the city of Minsk and the surrounding areas. Many thousands of their inhabitants were deported to Siberia, or imprisoned -- among them the poet Vincent Dunin-Marcinkievicz, -- in the Pilszczalauski Fortress, erected in 1825, almost in anticipation of future trouble.
Yet apart from these upheavals, a long period of peace brought with it material prosperity. Industry and the arts flourished though occasional fires and epidemics continued to plague the city. There were two particularly virulent outbreaks of typhus in 1848 and 1853. The Tsars showed little interest in Minsk and seldom visited it, except on tours of inspection of the Imperial Army headquarters in Mahiliou. Alexander I came in 1819 to address the nobility, and Alexander II visited the city in 1859. Permission to built Catholic churches was generally limited to cemetery chapels, though exuberant Russian churches and shrines such as the new Cathedral, the Church of the Protection and the Holy Cross, St. Mary Magdalene, St. Alexander Nevski, the Church of the Trasfiguration, Our Lady of Kazan and others mushroomed across the city. The old coat-of-arms granted by Zhyhimunt IV charged with the image of the Teotokos, which in 1796 had been augmented with the Russian double-headed eagle, was ultimately replaced in 1878 by a field or, "three wavy bars azure". Perhaps most relevant to the quality of life and the inhabitants was the installation of the municipal water system (1874), a telephone service (1890), two-horse drawn tram-lines (1892) and current electricity (1895).
However, all these to suppress the language, the national symbolica, and to adulterate the visible signs of Belarusian individuality, finally brought a growing number of Belarusians to the realization that they were indeed a different nation. Ethnographical traditions engendered national pride, even as the nationalist poets Maxim Bahdanovicz and Zmitrok Biadulia were born, one of an eminent Minsk ethnographer, the other of a traditionally minded Hassidic Jew from the Lahojsk hills. The unique flavour of Belarusian life was captured in works of one of Minsk's greatest residents, who now lies buried here, -- Jakub Kolas. During this period Minsk acquired its National Theater(1890), its first School of Art founded by Ja. Kruher(1906), the beginnings of its "Academy of Sciences" at the Belarusian Chata(1913) and proposals were also made in 1913 for the etablishment of the National University in Minsk. Renewed stirrings of national protest came with anti-tsarist riots in 1905. There were strikes and demonstrations in Minsk, and the students of the Orthodox seminary set fire to their college; as a result societies and clubs were dissolved, students expelled, and the poets Jakub Kolas, Kastus Kalaniec, and Ales Harun, among many others, were imprisoned for their clandestine activities.
Later came the First World War and one of the most dramatic episodes in the city's history -- the power-struggle between the Belarusian National Rada and the Bolsheviks from 1917-1919. On the national side stood such distinguished patriots as Professor E. Karski, General K. Aliexejeuski, Anton Luckievicz, Edvard Vajnilovicz, the poet Ales Harun, Col. Kastus Jezavitau, Janka Kupala, Jazep Varonka, Count Skirmunt, Zmitrok Biadulia, Princess Mahdaliena Radzivil(the Countess Markievicz of Belarus) and others, in particular the railway workers. Russian internationalist and professional revolutionaries --Lander, Knorin, and Miasnikou, -- backed by mutinous but well armed Tsarist soldiers, led the Bolshevik side that ultimately prevailed. Over the next twenty years, however, the bold ideas of the socialist revolution became stained with the blood of hundreds of thousands of victims summarily shot by Bolshevik special units in the "killing-fields" of Golden Hill and Kurapaty. Many more starved to death as a result of collectivisation of agricultural land, hastily introduced by the 9th All-Belarusian Soviet Congress held in Minsk(1929
The arrival of the Germans in 1941, after the encirclement near Minsk by General von Bock of 300,000 Red Army soldiers with more than 300 tanks, brought more bloodshed with the Nazi mass murders. However, many Jews escaping death at the hands of the Nazis were sheltered and helped by the local populace. There followed more executions and mass-deportations by the Bolsheviks of the so-called "collaborators". Yet some good came from all these ills: Eastern and Western Belarus (formerly under Poland) was reunited in 1939. The Belarusian Republic was admitted as a founding member of the United Nations in 1946. The ruined city of Minsk was rebuilt as the show-place capital of the modern Republic, larger and more populous than Bulgaria, Denmark, Portugal or Hungary.
The awakening to nationhood in 1863 and 1904, the role played by the citizens of Minsk of every class in the creation of an independent Republic in 1918, and the subsequent destiny of the city as the cultural capital of Belarus, rather than of some administrative area in a Marxist dream world, -- all these cemented by years of strife, suffering and persecution during the Revolution and the Nazi-Soviet conflict (1941 - 1945), has helped to make Minsk a united city with a character very much of its own. Despite the destruction and thoughtlessness of planners, a great deal of the old Minsk has survived, and is being painstakingly restored. Neither were the visions of the totalitarian idealists entirely fruitless, as the fine avenues, squares, parks and impressive new buildings of the new Minsk demonstrate. These were result of plans drawn as long ago as 1926, which included constructivist art deco of Government House (1934), the National Opera and Ballet (1939) and the Academy of Sciences(c. 1935) by Ja. Langbard, and later in 1944 with the impressive neo-classicism of the Congress Palace (1954), the Polytechnical Institute (1946), Victory Square (1954) and Skaryna Avenue. Industry, technology and the arts have made great strides, and city now boats two airports and a fine modern underground railway system. It has become an international city on the circuits of world statesmen.
A public demonstration in Minsk in 1989
But perhaps the greatest moments of Minsk have been in the recent past, when mass rallies in Independence Square, at the Kupala monument, in the City Sports Stadium, and at Kurapaty, showed to the world that the "forgotten people" has at last become a nation, with the crowds taking up the historic cry of the old peasants at the All-Belarusian congress in 1917, as the elderly General Alexiejeuski, -- a boy at the time of Kalinouskki' uprising (1863), -- kissed the white-red-white flag: "Long live free Belarus! Long live the national flag!”
Both old and new Minsk has their history and their achievements, which are there for citizen and visitor to enjoy. What has, like Dublin, become known as the Kachany Horad ("The dear old Town") on a Golden Hill, a city of icons resplendent with gold, in which filigree gates of gold are created out of something as commonplace, yet as rich as plaited straw, where all the children seem to have golden hair, is surely a fitting capital for the land which poets have called "Belarus, golden Belarus".


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