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About Minsk, the capital of Belarus. History, location, sights

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Belarus. Minsk. The Victory Square  Belarus. Minsk. The Independence Square  Belarus. Minsk. Nemiga Street  Belarus. Minsk. Night Minsk  Belarus. Minsk. Exhibition Center on Masherov Ave.
In the past not many people knew about Belarus, the country of blue lakes and green forests, for a lot of reasons. Historically, Minsk is an ancient Russian town founded in 1067. In the Annals of Past Years Minsk (or ancient Menesk and later Mensk called so up to the beginning of the 20th century) was mentioned in the entry of 1067 as a fortress in the Polotsk Principality situated on the banks of the Svisloch and the Nemiga rivers and surrounded by swamps and woods.
There are several opinions as to the city's name. Some historians refer to an old legend about Menesk (or Minch), a man of an extraordinary physical strength who used to protect the town from enemies. Other believe that the name has something to do with the Menka river (some 16 km to the West of the city's present location). Still others are sure that the town's name was derived from the Slavonic word "mena" (barter, exchange) because in the ancient times there used to be a barter market where the merchants from many countries of Europe and Asia struck deals and exchanged their goods.

These theories may appear sensible to various extents, but the fact is that Minsk has a very advantageous geographic position. This is why its history is full of blood-shedding warfare. The 1st one known to the scholars was registered in The Lay of Igor's Host. The unknown author described the battle on the banks of the Nemiga river in March of 1067 as a vicious and senseless massacre after which Minsk was ruined, its men murdered and women and children enslaved.

By the end of 11th century Minsk branched away from the Polotsk principality to from a separate Minsk Principality, Gleb Vseslavich being its 1st prince. In the beginning of the 14th century the Minsk Principality was incorporated by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a powerful medieval state with the Belarussians taking up about 80% of its population. In 1499 under the Magdeburg Law the city was granted the right of self government and land ownership, as well as certain privileges relating to crafts, commerce, duties, etc. In 1569 the Grand Duchy of Lithuania united with Polish Kingdom to form a joined state of Rzeczpospolita. Not idealizing this union of the two countries we would like to note it as an example of European integration which took place more than 400 years ago to observe the common interests of the parties. Unfortunately, Rzeczpospolita was doomed to distraction and in 1793 the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was unified with the Russian empire, Minsk being transformed into a gubernia (province) centre.

This transformation had a positive effect on the city's industrial and demographic development. Suffice it to say that in 1897 Minsk was inhabited by 90900 people as compared to 5800 people in 1796. Year by year, step by step the city was turned in one of the largest industrial and trade centres in the region. Minsk kept on its old tradition of being a place where the merchants from the four parts of the world meet until 1914, the year of the greatest shock for the whole mankind, the year when the World War I began.
The October revolution of the 1917 in Petrograd, the Civil War, the German and the Polish invasions with the consequent period of economic chaos had the most negative impact on Belarus. Yet, with great hardships the situation started to improve gradually. Minsk acquired the status of capital city, the large-scale construction program was adopted. It was the period of a relatively stable economic growth.

Very little of old Minsk is left to be seen, but you can still find the odd church standing out conspicuously among the four- and six-storied buildings in the center of the city. Any tour of old Minsk has to begin with so-called Troitskoje Suburb, just across Masherov Avenue from the Yubileinaya and Planeta hotels. It looks marvelous, with its small houses nestling on the edge of the water contrasting greatly with the high-rise buildings of the rest of Minsk. The pastel colors with the green trees and blue water really make you feel like this is the real McCoy. It is very pretty, and the narrow streets with small squares that are dotted around are a very pleasant place to walk. Old Town area is very small and it takes you half an hour to contemplate it. There are also good antique shops here.

The Old Town was built around the territory once occupied by the ancient Minsk detinets or kremlin, and the surrounding area was once the center of town, with the Lower Market and trading rows and the Upper Market nearby. In the 17th century the center of activities moved to the upper town , and here we find the old administrative buildings and quite a few churches. Moving toward the town one can see a part of the baroque Bernadine Convent, founded in 1642, now the Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Spirit standing high above the city. Not far from Svoboda Square stands the little Catherine Church, which has sunk into the ground over the centuries. It was completed in 1613 by Orthodox monks from the Saints Peter and Paul Monastery and paid for by wealthy residents of Minsk. To the south of Svoboda Square is the Jesuit Monastery, built in the 17th century. Other monuments of Old Minsk are more scattered around town - Calvary Cemetery Gates built in 1830, Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Church built in honor of the victims of the Russo-Turkish War in 1898, the Church of Saints Helena and Simeon, though not very old, perhaps the best-known church in Minsk built in 1908 of red brick (also known as the Red Church) etc.

The rest of the city is modern. Generally speaking, the postwar buildings are of little interest, but there are a few Art Nouveau apartment blocks, and some excellent examples of 1930s architecture have survived, particularly Government House (used by the Nazis as their headquarters during the occupation) on Nezalezhnost Square. Other than this there are so-called Khrushchev blocks, which were quick and cheap to built, and part of the plan to solve the housing crises in the 1950s and 1960s, and the modern high-rise blocks, which are still going up all around.

The best way to approach modern Minsk is to stroll around the tree-lined avenues, dropping into the shops and having a rest in one of parks. There are a large number of theatres, museums, international restaurants, cafes and nightclubs concentrated around Skaryna Avenue.

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